According to her own teaching, the Church upholds the equal dignity of each human person and encourages their response to God's love in their lives. Why, then, is it often asserted that the Church is chauvinistic?
Far from believing that men are superior to women, the Catholic Church respects each individual's God-given dignity. Every person – male and female alike – is called to love God and their neighbor throughout their lives and in their vocations. Men and women are called to fulfill these vocations in different but complementary ways. Women, from the Blessed Virgin Mary to modern saints such as St. Gianna Molla, have been honored by the Church as true examples of how to respond generously to the gift of God's love and grace in one’s life.
The Church teaches that men and women are equally loved by the Lord, but given different gifts.
Those who claim that the Catholic Church is chauvinistic are most likely concerned with the fact that women do not fulfill the same functions as men in the institutional Church. They might ask how the Church could possibly consider women to be equal in dignity if they cannot be ordained, etc.
Herein lies a misunderstanding of what truly constitutes the dignity of men and women. In the Catholic faith, both men and women are honored because of the way in which God created them, and the differences manifested in the anthropological design of men and women indicates differences in function. Jesus Christ called men alone to serve as priests, and the Church does the same in obedience to Christ's teaching. God gave women alone the physiological capacity to bear and give birth to children, and the Church affirms this reality as well.
When asked whether all the “good jobs” go to men in the Catholic Church, Sr. M. Timothy Prokes, F.S.E., an author and expert on the Theology of the Body, challenged the premise of the question. “The term ‘good jobs’ is jarring in the light of faith,” Sr. Prokes explains. “As St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, there are many different gifts or ministries in the one Body: ‘For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. …If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing?’” Sr. Prokes also reminds us that that St. Paul himself said that not all are apostles, prophets, teachers, workers of miracles, etc. Rather, all are called to love; without it, all other gifts are useless.
Man and woman were created with equal dignity, but in unique ways that are complementary to one another. Indeed, both are called to love and to love in return, according to their particular charisms.
Blessed Pope John Paul II is well known for his teaching on human sexuality and the dignity of women. Within these teachings he talked about the way in which God created human beings and how he called them to love. Sr. Timothy comments that Bl. John Paul “recognized the dignity of each person within a culture that distorted and misunderstood relationships of equal worth between man and woman.” She makes the distinction that many cultures throughout history have degraded women, but the Church has always upheld the dignity of women and their vocations.
In his encyclical Mulieris Dignitatem ("On the Dignity of Women"), Bl. John Paul tackled difficult questions, such as why Eve was considered a “helper” to Adam. Far from this womanly role being considered inferior, he teaches, “The calling of woman into existence at man's side as ‘a helper fit for him’ (Gen 2:18) in the ‘unity of the two’ provides the visible world of creatures with particular conditions so that ‘the love of God may be poured into the hearts’ of the beings created in his image. When the author of the Letter to the Ephesians calls Christ ‘the Bridegroom’ and the Church ‘the Bride’, he indirectly confirms through this analogy the truth about woman as bride. The Bridegroom is the one who loves. The Bride is loved: it is she who receives love, in order to love in return.”
Sr. Prokes explains this passage further, saying, “So much depends on how one understands ‘equal dignity.’ If ‘equal’ is understood as sameness – as being identical – then the meaning of Bride and Bridegroom in the Letter to the Ephesians is lost regarding both the Christ-Church and man-woman relationships. If, however, “equal dignity” is understood as a complementary difference, the relationship between woman and man expressed in Ephesians and in Mulieris Dignitatem is seen as a goal greatly to be desired, and possibly lived well with the help of grace. In developing his vibrant Theology of the Body, Pope John Paul II stressed that the very meaning of the human person is to be ‘gift’.
Catholic theology is so much richer than a question of what jobs people possess or do not possess. Rather, our faith tells us that true dignity is seen through our call to respond to God's love by becoming a gift to God and to all of those whom we are called to love.
The Blessed Virgin Mary was the perfect woman, and indeed, the perfect human person. Her life as a mother, a virgin, and a wife – but most importantly, as a person who responded to God's love – is a witness for every woman and man on earth.
Those who wonder whether the Church honors women need look no further than the great respect and veneration given to the Mother of God. And though her role is itself significant, our primary reason for honoring her has to do with the way in which she responded to God's love and call in her life. By speaking the fiat (“Lord, let it be done unto me according to thy will”), she becomes the ultimate example of what it means to say “yes” to God by giving of oneself.
Throughout her life as a wife and mother, Mary continues to say “yes” to God: she gives birth to Christ in a manger and humbly raises the Son of God; she offers her only child in a temple and continues to live sinlessly even when she is told that her heart will be “pierced by a sword” (referring to Christ's crucifixion); she watches her innocent son die on a cross and yet keeps her faith in God. Her motherhood is a testament to the way in which all mothers are called to constantly be a gift to their families.
But the Blessed Virgin Mary also shows us another way: that of a life and body consecrated to God. Bl. John Paul II writes, “Women, called from the very beginning to be loved and to love, in a vocation to virginity find Christ first of all as the Redeemer who ‘loved until the end’ through his total gift of self; and they respond to this gift with a ‘sincere gift’ of their whole lives.”
When asked whether she ever thinks of religious life as being “second best” to being a priest, Sr. Prokes responds, “We need one another in loving communion of authentic faith: laity, priests, religious. Religious women in our time may well be called upon, like the first Apostles, to “drink the cup” that Christ drank – to give witness to the Beloved and the truths of faith to the point of death. There is no “second-best” among the truly faithful; the only thing that matters is doing the will of God, and keeping in union with the indwelling presence of Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the Father. Even while one is involved in the most mundane or noise-filled works, it is that spousal love that is at the heart of religious life.”
Throughout Church history, there have been incredible women of faith venerated as saints and Doctors of the Church.
One only need to walk into the nearest Catholic Church to see statues or stained glass windows honoring great women. It is not just a certain type of women either: as a Church, we look to humble St. Faustina who spent her short life passionately loving God. However, we also venerate St. Gianna Molla, who was an Italian wife, mother and medical doctor who sacrificed her own life so her unborn child could live. Likewise, we honor St. Joan of Arc, who led forces into battle. We count a number of women among the greatest contributors to the Church – St. Thérèse of Lisieux, St. Teresa of Ávila, St. Catherine of Siena, and St. Hildegard of Bingen are all known as Doctors of the Church.
Sr. Prokes adds, “Women now serve in various dicasteries of the Roman Curia. Some are theologians who teach in seminaries and universities; others assist bishops and head diocesan offices. Social programs for the poor, victims of violence, and human trafficking are often led by women. The need for what Pope John Paul II called ‘the genius of women’ in providing leadership in the Church is endless. Women do not have to duplicate the leadership and ministries of men, but complement them.”
St. Thérèse, a well-beloved woman in the Catholic Church, explains best what truly matters in the life of a woman (or for that matter, a man): “I understand so very well that it is only through love that we can render ourselves pleasing to the good Lord, that love is the one thing I long for.”