Part 7: The New Catholic Feminism

The following is part 7 of a 20-part series. Follow the series at

In the previous installment of this web series, we began to look at the role of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, in Holy Scripture and Catholic Tradition, and what this says to us about the dignity and vocation of women.

Radical Feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether, however, has argued that the exaltation of what she calls "metaempirical" feminine figures - in other words, females who are mere symbols or archetypes - has not done much to help or empower women in concrete, everyday life.

Saint Paul certainly thought otherwise, which is why he enjoined husbands to love their wives as Christ loved His "bride," the Church (Eph 5:25-28). The Church as "the Bride of Christ" is certainly a "metaempirical" symbol.

In any case, Mary of Nazareth is not merely a symbol or archetype: She is a real, flesh and blood human being who lived on this earth, and lives now body and soul in Heaven. Some eras of sacred art have taken great pains to emphasize her real, historical humanity (including the High Middle Ages and the Baroque era).

Moreover, in her appearances at Guadalupe, Lourdes, and Fatima, Mary has invited everyone to have a personal relationship with her as our spiritual Mother, one who nurtures us in faith and love by her prayers and by her example, lighting the way for us into a deeper relationship with her Son. In short, in Catholicism Mary is hardly just a "meataempirical" figure, but a living person from the historical past, powerfully and lovingly present and active today in the lives of the faithful.

Most importantly, the facts of history generally do not support Ruether's cynicism here. The eras of greatest exaltation of the Blessed Virgin Mary were also eras of improvement in cultural respect for the dignity of women.

The situation of women in the ancient world was oddly paradoxical. On the one hand, before Christians came on the scene, women in some areas of the Roman Empire already enjoyed a high degree of emancipation - at least compared with the status to which they were relegated in ancient Greek and Hellenistic civilization. The remarks of one Athenian male from around the year 342 BC show us the prevailing attitude in many parts of the Hellenistic world: "We have courtesans for pleasure ... concubines for the daily care of our bodies ... wives so that we can beget suitable children and have faithful custodians of our houses."

But throughout much of the Roman world, a lot of this had changed. For example, there were numerous female teachers of philosophy among the Pythagoreans and Epicureans, as well as many female poets. Women's position regarding property rights was equal to that of men in some respects, and many occupations were open to women as well. Manfred Hauke writes:

There were, for instance, female goldsmiths, medical doctors (particularly in Asia Minor) and land-estate owners. We hear that in Imperial Rome female "bosses" were known in some manual trades and even in shipyards.

In matters of marriage and divorce, both sexes were practically independent. By contrast with Jewish law, women could dismiss their husbands, hence on Greek gravestones the title ["wife of one man"] was regarded as a special distinction, and in Rome the women "reckoned the years not by consuls but by husbands."...

In the area of sport, women took part in hunting, chariot racing, fencing, and wrestling. At times, even female gladiators were common, and in some regions there were amazons "who in part themselves armed, accompanied men into battle" ....

Even in early times, the vestals [the vestal virgins] exerted great influence in Rome, and in Greece there were priestesses of Artemis and Demeter, to whose holiest places only women were admitted. Among the twenty-six priests of the most diverse Italian cults known to us by name we find six women. Particularly in the Greek region, they stood in the service not only of female but also of male deities. Priests of both sexes occasionally served in the same sanctuary. ... [In the] cult of Dionysius ... all distinctions between men and women, adults and children, freemen and slaves were broken down.

In the case of the Isis cult, which originated in Egypt and was one of the most popular mystery religions, men and women [both] received the highest type of initiation. Women were by no means in the majority, but numerous priestesses were included among the highest ranks. In some proclamations, Isis, the "originator of marriage contracts," is even "praised as the harbinger of equal rights for women." In one famous hymn it is said of her: "You have given women the same power as men." (Hauke, p. 340-345)

Given how relatively emancipated women were in large portions of the Roman Empire, therefore - in some respects interchangeable with men in social roles - it is strange that all of this social "equality" did not seem to spring from any high view of the inherent dignity and value of women. Or of men, either, for that matter. It seems to have been largely a practical consideration.

"If women can do something as well as men, then just let them do it," may well sum up the prevailing Roman view. The Romans always excelled in practicality. But this kind of gender equality was purchased at a very high price, namely, the widespread ancient attitude, so it seems, that women were as worthless as men, if not more so. Neither men nor women were generally considered creatures of inherent dignity, so it was not much of an achievement to be considered in many areas of life equal with men, when "equal" really meant: "equally the playthings of the gods, equally the victims of fate, equally trapped together in the guilt and power of moral failure, and equally condemned to die, with little hope of attaining any real eternal blessedness."

Something new comes onto the scene when Christianity begins to permeate this culture. For the first time, men and women are held to be equal in the sense of equally valuable: made in the image and likeness of God, and bought at the price of the blood of the Son of God, shed on the Cross for all. Courageous female martyrs for the faith were venerated and honored by the whole Church (e.g. SS. Felicity, Perpetua, and Agnes). Moreover, in this new religion, Mary, the Mother of the Son of God, was proclaimed by all as "the New Eve" in God's plan of salvation for the human race, given the title "the Mother of God" by an ecumenical council of the Church, and exalted by the ancient Byzantine liturgy for her exceptional holiness as "higher than the cherubim, more glorious than the seraphim."

As a result of this new equality-of-value, progress was also made in cultural respect for women. Timothy Keller sums this up for us in his book The Reason for God (p. 216):

This ... may surprise many readers who have heard that older religions and paganism were more positive toward women than Christianity was. It was extremely common in the ancient Greco-Roman world to throw out new female infants to die from exposure .... The church forbade its members to do so. Greco-Roman society saw no value in an unmarried woman, and therefore it was illegal for a widow to go more than two years without remarrying. But Christianity was the first religion to not force widows to marry. They were supported financially and honored within the community, so that they were not under great pressure to remarry if they didn't want to. Pagan widows lost all control of their husband's estate when they remarried, but the church allowed widows to maintain their husband's estate. Finally, Christians did not believe in cohabitation. If a Christian man wanted to live with a woman he had to marry her, and this gave women far greater security. Also, the pagan double standard of allowing married men to have extramarital sex and mistresses was forbidden. In all these ways, Christian women enjoyed far greater security and equality than did women in the surrounding culture.

Next Time: Women in Catholic History - the Medieval World

Follow the series at

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception.

You might also like...

Freedom must always be bounded by charity, and it is simply not charitable to men to have to have their chastity assaulted whenever they walk down the street in the summertime.
Women are called today to turn the world upside down. What does that mean?
We need to remember that God's plan of humanizing the world through sanctified femininity is not confined to those with a vocation to marriage - and those who stay at home to raise the children.