By Maggie Maslak
For Erika Bachiochi, the Catholic Church has been able to offer a genuine pro-woman theology which not only safeguards and protects her stance as a feminist, but also enhances her ability to be strong in all aspects of her life.
Dr. Mary Anne Case would like to differ. She believes that while Catholic feminism exists, the institutional Catholic Church – namely the Vatican and Magisterium – is overtly anti-woman.
These two legal scholars from varied backgrounds met on the common stage of feminism at the Aquinas Institute for Catholic Thought’s 10th annual Great Debate in Boulder, Colo. on Feb. 23. The two women presented dissenting arguments for both sides of the spectrum on Catholic feminism and tackled the question: is the Church anti-woman?
Dr. Case, a law professor at the University of Chicago, answered in the affirmative, while Erika Bachiochi, a visiting fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, answered in the negative.
“In my lifetime, the Church that had made me a feminist betrayed me,” Dr. Case said in her opening statements.
“I think the Church has let us down, and I think the Church has let us down relatively recently. The early church was very much not anti-woman. The gospels are not anti-woman,” she continued, saying the Catholic Church of the past was not anti-feminist.
However, Dr. Case argued that when the Church definitively said “no” to priestly ordination for women in the 1970s, they closed the door to half of the population of the Church.
“The problem with the Catholic Church is that all authority flows from ordination. The Magisterium – as it need not be – is composed of men and cardinals,” Dr. Case said, suggesting that women should at least be allowed in the decision-making that flows from the hierarchy of the Magisterium.
The law professor spoke at the debate wearing a button from the 1970s on her shirt that said “If you aren’t going to ordain women, stop baptizing them.”
This, she said, is a representation of the economy of salvation: if women cannot be priests because they do not image Christ, how can women become saved in the eyes of the Church, since salvation can only arrive through the extent that Christ images us?
Dr. Case also pointed to some of the Catholic Church’s greatest thinkers, such as St. Thomas Aquinas, who believed that “women are necessarily in a state of subjection,” and that females are “misbegotten males.” She also highlighted that the Sistine Chapel’s Creation of Man, is indeed that of a man – and does not include Eve.
Within the last 50 years, Dr. Case believes that the Church shifted away from the idea that men and women are equal when it introduced the idea of complementarity, particularly seen in Pope St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, saying that placing characteristics or roles on each gender negates their equality.
“There should be no fixed notions concerning the role of males and females,” Dr. Case suggested, and pointed to St. Augustine’s notion that the soul does not have a sex.
In response, Bachiochi said that “papal teaching has rejected the essentialist view that woman and men possess mutually exclusive fixed character traits.” Sexuality does not take away from the equality of men and women, she said, but simply makes them “distinctive.”
While Bachiochi was once a pro-choice, socialist feminist, she has since shifted her believes towards the teachings and beliefs of Catholicism. She agreed with Dr. Case on a number of different levels, saying that “there should be more women’s voices in the Church.”
However, the most notable differences between the two scholars was on the point of clerics and sexual teachings. While Dr. Case argued that women can and should be ordained Catholic priests, Bachiochi said the notion reeked of clericalism.
“I have no less authority than a priest as a baptized Christian,” Bachiochi said.
“A priest has authority to represent Christ in a sacramental way, and I have the authority to represent Christ in every other area of my life,” she said, adding that the focus on female priests can also take away from the good work that professional and religious women are already doing within the Church.
However, Dr. Case pointed out that men in the Catholic Church “have all of the opportunities, and then some. How can the church not be anti-women…if women are not part of the decision making?”
To this, Bachiochi agreed that more female voices are needed within the Church, but did point to the Pontifical Council of the Laity, which seeks female voices, and other prominent church leaders such as Mary Glendon, who serves on various Vatican boards, and Sr. Prudence Allen, R.S.M., who is a philosopher appointed to the Vatican’s International Theological Commission.
Bachiochi went on to find fundamental differences with the modern idea of feminism, which claims that abortion and contraception rights are the capstone to the whole movement. She has found in her own experience that these same notions can also be the downfall to women.
Instead, Bachiochi suggested that Catholic feminism indeed exists, and is protected by the Church, precisely because of its teachings about sexual and reproductive rights, particularly Natural Family Planning.
“I believe that Catholic Christianity, and in particular the controversial sexual teachings of the Catholic Church, are deeply pro-woman. It was precisely these teachings on monogamy, divorce, birth control, abortion and infanticide that attracted women in the first century into the Christian fold,” Bachiochi stated.
“As a feminist, NFP does something that contraception neglects… it gets men to think about the reality,” she noted, saying that through NFP, less pressure is put on the woman to take the pill or get an IUD, and more emphasis is placed on men and their responsibility in the sexual act.
She also mentioned that the Catholic Church in particular has always been pro-woman, as seen through its recognition of female saints, political leaders, and scholars, and its production of educational systems and healthcare centered around the good of women.
Bachiochi additionally noted that “Mary, the Mother of God, is heralded by the Catholic Church as the single greatest human that has ever lived.”
“The greatest among us are not the clerics, but the saints.”