Many people do not realize that the Catholic Church is probably the most “feminist” institution in the world and the oldest. Unfortunately, the concept of feminism has been politicized. If we take an honest look at history, the Catholic Church has promoted and supported the role of women in many areas and many times.
It all begins with Sacred Scripture. Mary of Nazareth proclaims the Incarnation to the world. How else would anyone know, if Mary had not told her story? Mary of Magdala was the first to announce the Resurrection. How would Peter have known, since he was not at the cemetery?
Fast forward to Benedict and his sister, Scholatica. Scholastic organizes monastic women in the Latin Church. She is the first known abbess. In those days, the abbess had a lot more authority than today. They were landlords with great estates and tenant farmers. That’s how the nuns supported their abbeys. They often had jurisdiction over the diocesan priests in the area, if there was no bishop.
Moving right along, there come St. Francis and St. Clare of Assisi. Francis hands Clare his rule and tells her to rewrite it to fit her vision. She does exactly that. Francis prohibits the involvement of males in the governance of Clare and her sisters and states to the friars that women should never be subordinate to men; therefore, they must stay away from the affairs of the nuns. To this day, the Poor Clares run themselves.
Move ahead to Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac. Louise does not want to enter a cloister. She wants to serve the poor. Vincent agrees, but how to do this without incurring the wrath of the Holy See. Vincent and Louise come up with the idea of a community of sisters, rather than nuns. But these sisters would be secular, not religious. They founded the Daughters of Charity. They get around the Holy See by not having a canonical novitiate, not having religious superiors and by not having perpetual vows. The Daughters of Charity, make vows annually on March 25. They can leave at any time when the year expires. They self-govern. They have no superior. They have always run their own hospitals and schools. They have managed the money and had total control over their activities without interference from the bishops. Bishops are not allowed to interfere with them.
Move right along to Teresa of Avila who reforms both the female and the male Carmelites in Spain. Let’s move back to Catherine of Siena, who was a lay woman that had personal dealings with bishops and popes and was often their confidant and adviser.
Queen Isabella of Spain governed over the bishops of Spain. No bishop could be appointed without her recognitio. The pope appointed the bishop, but the queen had to accept him in her realm.
Catholic women have done things that no other women have done. They have governed themselves, managed property and assets, started institutions and managed them, reformed religious orders, run Catholic realms, are teachers of the Church (women Doctors), serve as theologians, chancellors, educators, administrators, and worked in diverse areas from highly academic to manual labor.
The oppression of women was always a cultural issue. However, we have to admit that today’s feminist movement over extends itself. It is intrusive and tries to impose its vision for women on institutions and cultures. For example, it has interfered in the Church with it’s claim on a “right” to ordination. It has interfered with Muslim culture claiming that Muslim women are oppressed, when most Muslim women feel quite comfortable with their place in Muslim society. Abuse in Muslim culture is like any other culture. If there is an abusive husband, his wife will be abused. If the husband has moral values, his wife will be treated with respect. It has tried to reform Asian culture. Again, most Asian women do not complain about their customs. They feel protected by those customs and again, an abusive husband is abusive and a respectful one is respectful.
As to women’s place in the workforce, the Church has never objected to that. The Church has always advocated for women’s place in the family. That’s not the same thing as keeping them out of the workforce. The mother’s role in the Catholic family is grounded in Judaism, where the mother is the keeper of the faith. We have always seen that in Catholicism. Just look at Monica and many other married women saints. In most Catholic homes, it has been the mother who was the keeper of the faith. Therefore, the Catholic Church has always advocated for a strong maternal presence in the home. That is not to say that the Church has ever denied a woman’s right to work outside the home and to do other things that men do.
As history show us, Catholic women were liberated long before the word feminism existed. Ask Scholastica, Clare, Teresa, Catherine, Isabella, Mother Teresa and Mother Angelica.
Br. JR, OSF