CWS member Rebecca Bratten Weiss writes about Jesus’ relationship with women and problems with misogyny in the Catholic church today.

This Blog by Rebecca Bratten Weiss first appeared on Patheos website on 20th June 2017.

One of the most compelling elements, for me, in the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus, is the way he interacted with women. At a time when women were relegated to the margins of society, easily discarded, punished for the wrongdoings of men, Jesus did the radical thing, and treated women like human persons. I’d like to point out here that the etymology of “radical” is “radix” or “root” – and Jesus’ radicality in treating women like persons has to do with roots and origins, going back to the original unity of men and women, the original equality, immortal souls hungering for their creator. When he meets the Samaritan woman at the well, his emphasis is less on the number of men she has been with, and more on the thirst she has for the living water that will never run dry. Perhaps when we thirst, we try to slake our desires with those earthly goods and pleasures that never quite suffice? Men and women both, we do this.

Women were drawn to Jesus, healed by him, traveled with him. Women stayed by his side when Judas had betrayed him, Peter denied him, and all the other of the Twelve but John run away. Women prepared him for burial, and it was to a woman that the resurrected Christ first was made manifest.

And this is why it is so contrary to the persona of Christ, when priests exhibit misogyny. Oh, no doubt they can find select precedents among church fathers, saints, and theologians, but none of these groups are guaranteed to be infallible, and when their words run counter to the example of Christ, they carry no authority beyond that which can be evaluated in relation to reason and evidence.

Exhibit A in this regard: the blog of the self-styled “Fr. Z”, who here deplores the devotion to Divine Mercy because it is, apparently, feminine.

I would not actually recommend that you peruse this piece, if you wish to avoid a near occasion of sin. There is unfortunate prose. There are misspellings. There is a hint that being virtuous probably entails avoiding women (just as Jesus did, right?). And as finale, there is a long, painful attempt to turn the rosary into a military march: offensive from the perspective of the Beatitudes, blasphemous with respect to Mary, whose son was tortured and killed by soldiers, and ridiculous from the standpoint of anyone who has ever spent much time with the much-vaunted “manly man.” I’m not saying there’s any requirement for men to perform masculinity; it is simply an aesthetic choice, not a moral one – but, grown men who are comfortably masculine tend not to parade around pretending to rouse other grown men for some kind of imaginary battle. Unless they are re-enactors, maybe? In which case, they’re just odd. And possibly drunk.

The idea, I suppose, is to arrest the church’s dizzying plummet towards some form of hideous femininity exemplified in the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. Because the rosary is more…macho?

The real heart of the problem with this anti-woman approach is not just tacky style, however. It’s bad theology. Much and more could be said on this, but I will stick with two central points:

First of all, complaints that the church is being “feminized” miss the theological truth that the church was already feminine, the Bride of Christ. Every single member of the Bride is feminine, in this respect. Men and women alike.

Secondly, insofar as “feminine” is taken as synonymous with mawkish, weak, sentimental, and kitschy, men should stop associating it with and blaming it on women. Look at Mary and the women who stayed by the cross. Is that weak? Consider the lives of the saints. Would you call St. Teresa of Avila sentimental? Yes, there is a sense in which the word “feminine” designates something not especially virtuous. And yet the same men who deplore femininity are repeatedly telling us we should “be feminine, like Mary.” Either they’re not thinking consistently, or they really do view the Mother of God as something of a simpering girl: pretty, pure, all that sort of thing, sure, but still not on the level of the mighty menfolk. This is why when these men say “the church has Mary, what other reverence could women want?” – it is hard to believe them.

Especially when priests like Fr. Z appropriate the rosary and turn it into a grotesque pageant of infantile militarism. The rosary may not be “feminine” in the sense of “weak and stupid and sappy,” but it is definitely feminine in the sense of being woman-oriented. Consider how many Hail Marys are said, for every Our Father or Glory Be. That’s a lot of female holiness on display. And lest you think that female holiness means insipidity or weakness, nattering on about pink things and embroidery, I refer you to the Magnificat:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
who has looked with favor on me, a lowly servant.
From this day all generations shall call me blessed:
the Almighty has done great things for me and
holy is the name of the Lord.
whose mercy is on those who fear God
from generation to generation.
The arm of the Lord is strong,
and has scattered the proud in their conceit.
God has cast down the mighty from their thrones
and lifted up the lowly.
God has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich empty away.
God has come to the aid of Israel, the chosen servant,
remembering the promise of mercy,
the promise made to our forbears,
to Abraham and his children forever. 

No simpering here. But the strength of the Magnificat is the strength not of chest-beating, but of trust in divine mercy, and divine justice. Nothing “ra ra” here. But maybe a little something to give the shouters and marchers and re-enactors a moment’s pause. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones…