Theorizing Modernities article

Is Christianity Bad for Women?

The short answer, according to Rachel Held Evans, Protestant author and columnist, Mary Rice Hasson, Catholic fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, and Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK and spokesperson for the Nuns on the Bus movement, is no. But as all things, it’s complicated, and perspective is key.

At an occasionally heated and raucous event on September 22nd at the University of Notre Dame, the three Christian public intellectuals spoke from their personal experiences on the question of sex complementarity versus equality in a discussion incontrovertibly bound to the interpretation of tradition as embedded in or immutable to historical and material contexts.

The crux of the conversation was the ordination of women, which is forbidden by the Catholic Church as well as by some Protestant denominations. Should Christian men and women have access to the same leadership positions? Mary Hasson was alone in arguing that women should not be priests as the priest represents Jesus sacramentally and pastorally. “Why do women have to be clerics?” she asked. “Being a cleric is not the pinnacle—what we are called to is holiness.” That is not to say women’s leadership should not be cultivated; in fact, she argued that “many opportunities were missed before Pope Francis brought women into his leadership in the Synod”. “Our problem as a society is that we have not valued caring” and by extension, have not valued women’s roles.

These postures arose from opposing understandings of the source of the prohibition. Is the barring of women from the priesthood or pastorship a cultural artifact, held over from, as Sr. Campbell described, “a [Church] institution organized as a monarchy” but now existing in a “culture of democracy”? Hewing to the cultural argument, Held Evans warned that the “people who have power in the church are the people who have power in our societies,” lamenting institutional co-optation from an initial state where the “church was full of women and poor people”. Hasson recognized that the Church is flawed in the sense that it is run by humans, but argued that the institution is a God-given gift and thereby its structure (and attendant restrictions on women’s roles) remains unquestionable.

If men and women have divinely ordained roles, as Hasson argues, these roles are fixed and the argument regarding equality becomes about how symmetrically those roles are valued. Additionally, this also presupposes a biologically reductive approach to sexual identities, an approach long challenged by social scientific scholarship. In practice, traditional male and female roles have not been valued equally, and real danger lies, as Susan Okin warns, in women being barred from “participat[ing] in and influenc[ing] the more public parts of the cultural life, where rules and regulations about both public and private life are made” (Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women, 13). If only men are permitted to hold certain divinely ordained roles that hold greater power over determining cultural practices, then women are, effectively, less equal. My question for Hasson, then, is whether the roles available to women in the Church provide them equal cultural influence to men.

This debate is not unique to Christianity: as Margot Badran highlights in “Defining feminisms, upholding equality” on Contending Modernities’ blog, similar debates over whether complementarity effectively means subordination for women occur in Islam. While mainstream Islam focuses, for example, on the belief that Adam and Eve were created simultaneously from the same soul, Azizah Y. Al-Hibridi contends that “[Islamic] jurists have succeeded in developing a patriarchal interpretation of various Qur’anic passages” (Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women,  44). These two scholars argue subsequent, cultural, interpretations are at the root of an inequitable approach to the sexes. Meanwhile, Saba Mahmood questions the dominant feminist narrative that all individuals express their agency through liberation from traditional practices and ways of knowing. She notes in her article on the Egyptian Islamic Revival “that the desire for freedom and liberation is a historically situated desire… that needs to be reconsidered in light of other desires, aspirations, and capacities that inhere in a culturally and historically located subject” (223).

Campbell, Held, and Hasson have all sought and found leadership opportunities within their respective Catholic and Protestant churches. The fact that an event on whether “Christianity is bad for women” became an event about “why doesn’t the church offer women and men equal leadership roles” speaks to their personal grappling with the spaces they were and were not allowed to enter due to their sex. All found alternate ways to carry out their leadership, Held in a new church which permitted her to take the pulpit, Hasson in directing the Catholic Women’s Forum promoting women’s leadership as per Pope Francis’ call, and Campbell as “a minister of another sort” practicing law to serve “those who didn’t have anyone else”. In spite of “trouble with middle management”, as Campbell put it, all three argued that overall their experience with their Christian faith has been liberating, healing, and has imparted a deep sense of purpose.

In finding their strengths and vocations through their respective traditions, the three speakers present a clear challenge to an unreconstructed secularist presumption that views religion as an obstacle for female agency and flourishing. On the other hand, feminist engagements with (occasionally irreconcilable) sexism that undergirds certain religious texts and praxis also suggests that an embedded contestation draws upon ethical resources internal and external to the tradition, including the normativity underpinning human rights conventions. Campbell, for example, noted that her engagement with feminism, which is largely extratraditional, was critical in formulating a new perspective on gender roles in the Church.

For those not seeking leadership within their religious institutions, much was left out of the conversation. The control many church practices exert over female sexuality, emphasizing women’s physical vulnerability and often holding women liable for men’s attention through exhortations of modesty far above that required of men or by limiting the spaces women can traverse, was surprisingly unaddressed. The frequent exclusion of non-binary or alternate sexualities received only curtailed mention over whether accepting non-heterosexual sexual behavior effectively meant inappropriately “carving out” a new interpretation of tradition, harkening to the tradition as culturally embedded versus divinely mandated argument. The question of the inclusion of women and people who do not define their sexuality along heterosexual lines in Christian roles of power, equal to the roles occupied by cis men, if fraught, opens up the potential for these groups to promote practices that value the gifts, leadership, and dignity of all parishioners equally.

Dania Straughan
Dania is a graduate of the Kroc Institute’s Masters in Peace Studies, with a focus on public policy, monitoring and evaluation, and organizational management. As part of her program she conducted an ethnographic evaluation of a local South Bend organization applying dialogue to intergroup conflict, and benchmarked the use of restorative justice on North American college campuses for Notre Dame. She previously served as outreach coordinator at the Millennium Nucleus for the Study of Stateness and Democracy in Latin America, at the Catholic University of Chile.