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.
The Gospels continued on this trajectory. They depicted God taking flesh in the womb of a woman, a woman who was free to accept or reject her role as the mother of Jesus. Gospel accounts find Jesus entrusting women with profound theological insights, performing miracles at their request, and finding solace in their support during his Passion, after most of his male followers had fled. Although Christians themselves often have failed to live up to Jesus’ example regarding women, Gerl-Falkovitz said, feminism is an outgrowth of Christian ideas about women’s equal dignity: “Only in Judeo-Christian culture sprang up this humanization of women.”
Most feminist leaders today show little interest in the religious roots of the struggle for women’s equality or in understanding why far more American women identify as Christians than as feminists. Aside from occasional stunts designed to demonstrate religious support for their agenda — such as the recent “blessing” of an abortion clinic in Schenectady, N.Y., by a handful of pro-choice clergy — feminist leaders mostly regard Christianity, and especially Catholicism, as an obstacle to women’s liberation.
The Church clearly opposes the radical-feminist agenda. But that agenda has little to do with authentic liberation, as American women increasingly recognize. While secular-feminist leaders spend their energies defending partial-birth abortion and working to redefine traditional marriage out of existence, the Church uses its influence to denounce the objectification of women by pornographers and sexual traffickers, the exploitation of women by scientists who covet women’s eggs for cloning experiments, and the manipulation of women by a popular culture that tells women they are worth little more than the sum of their sexual parts.
On the world stage, the Church defends the dignity of women in cultures where religious persecution, honor killings, genital mutilation, and forced marriages are daily realities. Such realities are ignored by many Western feminists whose fixation on abortion rights and reluctance to criticize any culture but their own have relegated them to the sidelines of these battles.
Pope Benedict touched on some of the threats to women’s dignity in his address to the conference participants in Rome, and he urged women to draw on their faith as they defend their dignity. “In the face of such grave and persistent phenomena the commitment of Christians appears all the more urgent,” Benedict said, “so that they become everywhere the promoters of a culture that recognizes the dignity that belongs to women in law and in reality.”
The pope’s words were met with a standing ovation from the women gathered in the Apostolic Palace that day — a diverse international group that included women with firsthand experience of the Church as an ally in their struggles to send their daughters to school, speak freely in the public square, and defend their children from a culture that would destroy their innocence.
For these women and so many others they represent, Christianity is not the enemy. Faith and freedom go together, and faith leads the way.
— Colleen Carroll Campbell, an NRO contributor, is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a former speechwriter to President George W. Bush, and author of The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy. Her television and radio show, Faith & Culture, airs weekly on EWTN and her oped columns appear weekly in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.