A Pew Forum poll released last week reveals that Americans are switching religious affiliations at a dizzying rate, and the religious category flush with the most converts is “unaffiliated.” The ranks of religious dropouts are overwhelmingly male: Nearly one in five men claims no formal religious affiliation, compared with only 13 percent of women.
For feminists of a militantly secular bent, that gender gap is dispiriting news. They see the lopsided representation of women in every major Christian denomination as proof that too many women have failed to liberate themselves from the oppressive patriarchal structure of organized religion in general and Christianity in particular. After four decades of feminist rebellion against traditional notions of religion, femininity, and family, why do so many women still cling to the faith of their fathers?
Answers to that question often are in short supply in the secular academy and the nation’s newsrooms. But I found them plentiful in a more exotic place: the Apostolic Palace in Rome, where I joined a group of some 250 women from 49 countries last month for a special audience with Pope Benedict XVI.
The audience was the culmination of a three-day Vatican Congress focused on the role of women in the Catholic Church and society. Sponsored by the Pontifical Council for the Laity and convened to mark the 20th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s 1988 Apostolic Letter “On the Dignity and Vocation of Woman,” the conference gathered delegates from every continent to discuss the themes in John Paul’s letter and the challenge of promoting the dignity of women in a contemporary context.
Delegates heard from nearly two dozen speakers on topics ranging from the biblical roots of the Catholic teaching that men and women are equal but different to the unique spiritual gifts that women saints offer the Church by virtue of their “feminine genius” for receiving and sharing God’s love. Though several cardinals addressed the group, the vast majority of lectures were delivered by women who were leaders in their fields of theology, philosophy, law, and politics.
In addressing the history of women in the Church, their contributions to the family and the wider culture, and the dangers that confront women today, the speakers emphasized the singular role that a woman can play in humanizing society and defending the vulnerable, including the child within her womb. They issued pointed critiques of the androgynous ideal espoused by many secular feminists and the hostility to men, marriage, and motherhood so pervasive in radical feminism.
Radical feminists often reserve their fiercest hostility for Christianity. So it was particularly refreshing to hear erudite German philosopher Hanna-Barbara Gerl-Falkovitz challenge the modern conventional wisdom that Christianity is to blame for women’s oppression. As Gerl-Falkovitz noted, the ancient belief systems for which today’s feminist neo-pagans pine did little to elevate women’s status. In those systems, as in much of the Islamic world today, women were regarded as the objects, not subjects, of rights. Women in the ancient world were identified with beauty and breeding, but their common humanity largely was overlooked.
Judaism’s view of women departed sharply from that ancient model. The practice of “holy prostitution” so common in the ancient world was renounced, as was the image of the pagan goddess as sexual ideal. The Hebrew Scriptures revealed a personal God who had created men and women in his image. Women now were connected to the realm of the spirit, not just the flesh, and motherhood was seen as a personal event in the life of the mother and a blessing from God, not merely a woman’s duty-bound contribution to the increase of the tribe.