‘Despite the media’s fairly common portrayal of Catholic women as a disaffected lot,” Mary Rice Hasson writes in her introduction to the new book Promise and Challenge: Catholic Women Reflect on Feminism, Complementarity, and the Church, “the Church has a wide reservoir of intellectually and spiritually well-formed women with hearts on fire for the Lord and the Church and her authoritative teachings.”
Hasson, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, talks about the book, the discussions with other Catholic women from which it grew, and the need for and practice of complementarity and collaboration between men and women in the Chruch and society today. — KJL
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Frank Bruni wrote an article in the New York Times last week entitled, “Catholicism Undervalues Women.” Agree? Disagree?
Mary Rice Hasson: I strongly disagree! Bruni needs to take off his 70s-style feminist goggles, because they’re distorting his view of women and the Church. His blinkered view makes him think that women achieve equality with men only when they erase, minimize, or reject their femininity and motherhood. The Church, of course, thinks differently: She celebrates femininity and motherhood, and insists that women have dignity and value, regardless of their looks, power, status, or wealth. Bruni, who wants an “extreme makeover” of the Church’s teachings on women, sexuality, and the priesthood, seems oblivious to the connection between women’s flourishing and the Church’s teachings.
Lopez: It is a problem for the Church, though, isn’t it, that that headline can even pass muster?
Hasson: Yes, you’re right. A headline like that “passes muster” for two reasons: First, the message behind it — “the Catholic Church oppresses women” — is a top-40 hit for the Left. The tune is so familiar that the listener unthinkingly nods along when it’s played. So the Left will keep playing the same song until the message no longer resonates. And that leads me to the second reason why a headline like that gets through: We, as a Church, have done a poor job explaining ourselves to ourselves, much less to the outside world.
For decades, the Church went silent when liberals ridiculed “outmoded” teachings on the male priesthood or the immorality of contraception, for example. As Cardinal Dolan said a few years back, the Church became “gun-shy” in the face of cultural disapproval and silenced itself, suffering a self-inflicted catechetical and moral “laryngitis.” Because the Church “forfeited the chance to be a coherent moral voice” on issues that matter to women, the Left has controlled the narrative. They define ‘women’s issues’ and ‘what’s good for women’ on their terms. So the average Catholic woman thinks about these issues much like a secular feminist, demanding “equal access” for women to all “jobs” in the Church, including the priesthood. And it doesn’t help when some women, schooled more in secular feminism than they are in Catholic theology, encounter priests who tip over into clericalism — an attitude strongly criticized by Pope Francis.
Lopez: What’s the first invitation you might make to Frank Bruni and anyone who might agree with him?
Hasson: I’d say, “Frank, let’s have lunch. Come meet the smart, accomplished Catholic women in my world — they love the Church, embrace her teachings, and know that their gifts are deeply important to the Church. Their sense of significance doesn’t depend on whether they ‘wear the cassock of a cardinal,’ ‘get to’ preside at Mass, or hold 50 percent of Vatican jobs. Those ‘equality’ measures are fixations for the liberal Left, not for Catholic women deeply immersed in the sacramental life of the Church. They feel welcomed and nourished by the Church. And they reject the idea that ‘progress’ requires a woman to shut off her fertility or snuff out the life of her unborn child. So, Frank and friends, let’s talk.”
Lopez: What is it that the Catholic Church says to women, about women, for women?
Hasson: The Church’s message to women is first the good news of salvation, of being called into a relationship with God Himself. The Church says to women: “God loves you. Unconditionally, completely, and forever.” Second, the Church affirms that women and men are equal in dignity — made for “communion and collaboration,” as Pope Francis says — but complementary in our difference. Modern gender theory goes awry because it sees sexual difference as “the problem” instead of “the solution,” and tries to “erase” the difference. The Church, on the other hand, values women as we are, treasuring our ability to “see things with different eyes.” Third, the Church wants women to know that God’s mercy is boundless. It flows from his love, and overflows. Women have suffered much from modern “autonomy,” which leaves them alone and unsupported to face the unequal consequences of the sexual revolution. So the Church offers women a message of God’s mercy and healing. Finally, the Church urgently calls on women to collaborate in the work of evangelism, to build “a more human and welcoming world.” The closing words of Vatican II are more relevant now than ever: “Women . . . you to whom life is entrusted at this grave moment in history, it is for you to save the peace of the world.” Does that sound like a Church that “undervalues” women?
Lopez: What might be the greatest news to folks about women and the Church from your book?
Hasson: That we’re only beginning to understand the richness of complementarity and what it means for our self-understanding, our relationships, and the Church’s evangelizing mission. As Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon writes in her introduction, Pope Francis invites us to explore with the Church the deep insights that complementarity offers — and not to shy away from the challenging theological and practical questions that result. The book’s contributors engage many of those questions.
Lopez: What is the greatest challenge the book outlines?
Hasson: As a Church, we’re still figuring out how to put complementarity into practice. The Church has long acknowledged the “distinctive contributions” of women and called for greater collaboration between men and women. But this hasn’t been fully realized. The wrong-headed campaign for women’s ordination monopolized — and derailed — the conversation about women’s participation in the Church for far too long. Now, Pope Francis has refocused attention on appropriate ways to expand the presence and influence of women in the Church. He challenges the institutional Church to do more — not only to put complementarity into practice but also, as professor Helen Alvaré writes in her chapter of the book, to “offer a revolutionary model” of complementarity to a world beset by gender confusion.
Our book also points out the challenge of language. Sister Sara Butler, Missionary Servants of the Most Blessed Trinity, notes the confusion between “equality” and “vocation,” and the need to define the “full participation” of women in light of the baptismal call to holiness, not holy orders. And Erika Bachiochi’s chapter shows the benefit of “translating” the Church’s teachings on sexuality and complementarity to women steeped in secular feminism.
The book also deals frankly with the challenges resulting from sin. As professor Elizabeth Schiltz writes, barriers of fear and distrust between men and women — created by the sexual abuse crisis, on the one hand, and women’s advocacy for abortion, on the other — must be broken down for mutual collaboration to give rise to creative dynamism.
Lopez: Do women really have a special, even prophetic vocation in the world today?
Hasson: Now more than ever, I believe. The “isms” (secular feminism, materialism, and individualism) have embedded themselves in the hearts of women — and men. But when women lose their way, their families and communities get lost too. So many of the damaging lies — about sex, children, the meaning of life — that permeate our culture are aimed at women. But Catholic women, who see people with the “eyes of the heart,” are uniquely poised to counter the lies, to bring truth and healing to our culture. In the same vein, women’s sensitivity to the person — particularly the most vulnerable — goes to the core of the New Evangelization.
Lopez: Why was it important to include a chapter on men?
Hasson: Because complementarity is not all about women. Complementarity, and the sexual difference underlying it, is about the relationship between men and women. Because men and women discover themselves in relationship to each other, it’s inadequate to try and unpack the deeper significance of complementarity by looking at women, and women’s gifts, alone. We’ve got to explore the theology of women and men and consider the anthropological foundation for femininity and masculinity. Besides, men have asked us pointedly, “why all the talk about the ‘feminine genius’? What about men?”
Lopez: What is this “genius” stuff? First it was “feminine genius.” Now you’ve got male genius mentioned in the book. We’re not all geniuses!
Hasson: Actually, some people do find the “genius” language off-putting, seeing it as patronizing (if applied to women only) or an exaggeration. It can help to think of “genius” as Pope John Paul II’s poetic way to describe the particular aptitude of women (or men). In our book, professor Margaret McCarthy of the John Paul II Institute provides new insights on the feminine genius, while professor Deb Savage masterfully explores the ‘male genius’ revealed in Genesis. Professor Theresa Farnan emphasizes the importance of relationships for complementarity, arguing that women and motherhood can only be fully understood by illuminating the masculine virtues and fatherhood. So there’s a lot of new thinking in this area.
Lopez: Have you been listening lately to Pope Francis on men and women and family? What do you think?
Hasson: He’s been incredibly strong and clear. His message that “family” is an anthropological reality, not a malleable, ideological concept, is particularly timely. And of course he always challenges us. He urges us to “love unconditionally and without limit,” and, as a Church, to support every marriage because “it takes courage to love one another as Christ loves the Church.” The Synod will be challenged to find concrete ways to make this happen.
Lopez: You had a second gathering this year. How much has been learned during these sessions? What might a fly on the wall observe?
Hasson: Yes, this year was our second Catholic Women’s Symposium. In anticipation of the 20th anniversary of the “Letter to Women” from John Paul II, as well as the upcoming Synod on the Family, our scholars focused on issues related to women, the Church, gender theory, marriage, and the family. In general, the Symposium presentations aim to fill gaps in existing scholarship by addressing new angles related to women and the Church, or providing a woman’s perspective on other critical theological and pastoral issues. Last year’s Symposium generated ten original research papers, now published in Promise and Challenge. This year’s papers — 16 in all — advanced the conversation about critical issues facing women, the family, and the Church, including the contrast between Christian anthropology and secular gender theory, the threat of ideological colonization, strengthening marriage in a culture of the temporary, and the Church’s response to the sexual slavery of women. A fly on the wall would have seen a group of women — experts from a variety of disciplines, united in love for the Lord and his Church — deeply engaged in two days of fruitful discussions. The Symposium initiative is bearing excellent fruit already, generating significant scholarship and building a collaborative network of key female Catholic scholars to serve the Church.
Lopez: What’s the Catholic message to women who are not mothers?
Hasson: Embrace your femininity and the gift of womanhood. Bring your sensitivity toward the person into all your relationships and every situation — and be a gift to others. You have a mother’s heart . . . and there’s someone who needs what only you can give.
Lopez: What’s your favorite thing about being a Catholic woman?
Hasson: Being loved by God, sure in the knowledge of who I am, my vocation in this life, and the path to eternal life — thanks to the guidance of the Catholic Church.