Does the Catholic Church promote the dignity of women?

by Sr Tamsin Mary Geach o.p.


In 2014 a man struck a woman about the head and upper body with the result that she sustained injury to the bone structure of her face requiring multiple staples in reconstructive surgery to her eye socket.  What is remarkable about this story is not that a woman was overpowered and injured by a man – that happens a lot,  unhappily – but that it was a transgender man in a boxing ring, and when his action was called in question he claimed victim status, and was supported in this by the 'liberal' press. 


The victim herself could not bring herself to say the truth in the matter either:  she ‘[couldn’t ] answer whether it’s because [he] was born a man or not, because I’m not a doctor,” she stated. “I can only say, I’ve never felt so overpowered ever in my life, and I am an abnormally strong female in my own right. ”

In 2016  the International Olympic Committee decided that it would allow transgender athletes to compete in whatever category they wish to participate in during the 2018 Winter Olympics.  IOC officials noted that they will not require athletes to compete in categories that match their birth gender nor will there be any gender or sex testing of competitors ahead of the games.  In 2015 Jenner, a man, was awarded the ‘woman of the Year award by Glamour magazine.

My problem here is not about transgenderism as such (that would require a whole new talk);  it is more the idea that ‘being feminine’ is a completely arbitrary thing that one can decide or decide not to have, a kind of lifestyle choice or fashion accessory.

What women are set before the young for their admiration?  Women who succeed in the field of politics are mocked for coughing in public and for the colour of their hair.  We are instead expected to admire people like Miley Cyrus and Ariana Grande, for being beautiful and singing lewd lyrics.

Reflecting on this, one of the things that has struck me as a woman is that I feel that femininity, femaleness as such is denigrated.  As for what happens to women in society at large, the ‘me too’ campaign shows the contempt with which they have long been treated.  This is the regard that our society has for womanhood as such.

It is in this context that I want to look at what the Church says about the role of women and how that differs from the society at large?  Is the difference one that affirms or denigrates the role of women, and in what ways?

In Mulieris Dignitatem,St. Pope John Paul’s encyclical on the dignity of women, JPII says ‘Within Christianity, more than in any other religion, and since its very beginning, women have had a special dignity.’(MD1) … ‘The personal resources of femininity are certainly no less than the resources of masculinity: they are merely different. Hence a woman, as well as a man, must understand her "fulfilment" as a person, her dignity and vocation, on the basis of these resources, according to the richness of the femininity which she received on the day of creation and which she inherits as an expression of the "image and likeness of God" that is specifically hers.’(MD 10).  Later he adds: ‘a woman represents a particular value by the fact that she is a human person, and, at the same time, this particular person, by the fact of her femininity. This concerns each and every woman, independently of the cultural context in which she lives.’(MD29)

 He adds that ‘The eternal mystery of generation, which is in God himself, the one and Triune God (cf. Eph 3:14-15),’ is reflected both in the woman's motherhood and in the man's fatherhood.’  However: ‘Although both of them together are parents of their child, the woman's motherhood constitutes a special "part" in this shared parenthood, and the most demanding part. Parenthood - even though it belongs to both - is realized much more fully in the woman, especially in the prenatal period. It is the woman who "pays" directly for this shared generation, which literally absorbs the energies of her body and soul…. No programme of "equal rights" between women and men is valid unless it takes this fact fully into account.’ (MD 18)  

About consecrated Virginity (Which JPII recognises as a vocation potentially for either men or women) he has this to say: ‘virginity has to be considered also as a path for women, a path on which they realize their womanhood in a way different from marriage. … By freely choosing virginity, women confirm themselves as persons, as beings whom the Creator from the beginning has willed for their own sake. At the same time they realize the personal value of their own femininity by becoming "a sincere gift" for God who has revealed himself in Christ.’… ‘This cannot be compared to remaining simply unmarried or single, because virginity is not restricted to a mere "no", but contains a profound "yes" in the spousal order: the gift of self for love in a total and undivided manner.’(MD 20)

How does this play itself out with regard to real women, the women set before us for admiration and emulation by the Church?

One cannot talk about women’s position  in the Church without talking about Mary, the Mother of Our Lord and God, who welcomed the Incarnate Word into her heart and into her body.  The teachings which the Catholic Church proposes about Mary for our belief,   that Mary was sinless for every stage of her existence from conception until the end of her life (The Immaculate Conception); that she remained physically and emotionally and spiritually a virgin before during and after the conception and birth of Jesus (The Virgin birth); and that at the end of her life Mary did not see corruption, but that her body was taken up into heaven and she is with Christ reigning in glory (the Assumption); these things are the blueprint for understanding what the Catholic Church teaches about women.

Now I have read a piece of feminist propaganda which attacked this picture of Mary as setting up before us as women an impossible ideal, which we cannot follow, being both Virgin and mother.  I want to suggest that in fact in these doctrines about Mary a model is set before all mankind, but particularly before women, that they can and should follow, that rather devotion to Mary in the Catholic Church gives honour both to celibates and to wives and mothers. ‘Here we find ourselves, in a sense, at the culminating point, the archetype, of the personal dignity of women.’(MD 5)

The Immaculate Conception, the teaching that at no point in her life was Mary touched by the stain of sin shows us the value that God puts on his creatures, on humankind, including women.  It gives the lie to any notion that there is a second class citizenship in the Kingdom.  Women should here celebrate and know their dignity precisely as women.

The perpetual Virginity of Our Lady, or to put it in other words, the Virginal conception and birth of our Lord, is the teaching that Jesus passed through Mary’s Body without destroying her virginity.  Does this denigrate the pains of giving birth? Not at all, if we take seriously the patristic understanding of that teaching, that the pain of labour is equivalent to Mary’s sharing in the Passion of Christ.  What then?  All women, and indeed all men, are supposed to be ‘mother’ to Christ – and frankly, I think this is something easier for real mothers to comprehend that for anyone else, since they alone understand the profundity of love which that implies. 

Finally, there is the doctrine of the Assumption.  This is the doctrine according to which Our Lady ‘was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things, so that she might be the more fully conformed to her Son, the Lord of lords and conqueror of sin and death.”508( (LG 59)  In this mystery we have as it were a guarantee of the truth of Christ’s promises, since what Mary has already received is a foretaste of what is promised to all of those who follow Christ faithfuly.

What does it say about women specifically? That there is an inherent dignity and beauty of womankind which is of body and mind, which endures into old age and in the case of Our Lady, and we hope eventually for ourselves, in the glory of heaven.  This dignity and glory, which cannot be reproduced or made up –is there in the frailest and least attractive specimens of humanity.  This truth is shown forth in a particular way in Our Lady, which is not shown in Our Lord, since His being in heaven, body mind and spirit is hardly surprising, as He is God.  It is she who has been lifted high above all other in a way that we could neither imagine nor expect, and in her every woman can lift up her head and say ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my Spirit exults in God my Saviour, Since He has looked on His Maidservant in her lowliness.’


Through history the Church has again and again set before us women who in various ways splendidly served Our Lord.  When I was thinking about this talk, it struck me that we should look at such women and ask ourselves what the world had offered them, and what the Church.

Take Margaret Clitherow, a C16th martyr who died for refusing to plead in a trial over whether she had harboured priests illegally in her house.  Initially what the world gave Margaret was good and ordinary respectability, a comfortable well-to do life.  Yet when she fell foul of the state for harbouring priests, the fact of her being a woman did not deter the state from torturing her to death.  She was pregnant with her fourth child, but no plea got mercy for the innocent unborn.  Her stepfather, Henry May, the Lord Mayor of York, accused her of committing suicide, and others decried her as being mad.  This was the respect meted out to her femininity, and it was precisely and cruelly as a woman that she was made to suffer.  However the verdict of the Church was otherwise, and she is honoured with St Ann Line and Margaret Ward with a special feast day, 30th August, as well as being celebrated with the other 39 martyrs canonised by Pope Paul VI in 1970.

Margaret was offered compromises, but she chose martyrdom, as many women are still doing today in the more endarkened parts of our world

What has Margaret about the role of women in our age?  First, we should not exclude the possibility of martyrdom. A second lesson is about the delicate balance that all wives and mothers have to keep between the love they have for their husband and children and the love they owe to God.  In the end for Margaret it was the same thing – the manner of her death strikingly proclaimed the depth of her love.  For all of us in whatever walk of life this balance has somewhere to be maintained, and Margaret’s answer is that in the end we have to make our love – for children, spouse, friends, colleagues, and even enemies, for our work and our apostolate, and even for our sufferings –become part and parcel of our love for God.

Or take  St. Gianna Beretta Molla.  As her name suggests, Gianna was Italian.  She was born in Magenta in Italy on October 4th 1922, the tenth of thirteen children. Shetraind as a doctor, taking a double specialty – Ob/Gyn and Paediatrics.   It is significant that her medical training took place partly during and partly after the Second World war, and her early professional life must have been overshadowed by the horrific revelations of what the medical profession had stooped to in the death camps. The young physician, who had consecrated herself to God as a student, was known in her community as a fine doctor.  She had a continuing outreach to the poor, and offered her services for free to those who could not afford to pay.

In December 1954, Gianna met and swiftly married Pietro Molla, having four children by him.  It was while she was pregnant with number four that suddenly an act of witness was called for.  Two months into the pregnancy Gianna was found to have a cancerous tumour in her womb Three options were set before her:  an abortion, which would save her life; a complete hysterectomy, which would be the ‘safest’ option, but would take the life of the unborn child as an indirect side effect; and the most conservative action – to remove the fibroma alone, which would probably preserve the life of the child, but might have further complications, and would put her life most at risk.

Gianna, as we have said, was not a medical ignoramus.  She was well aware of the consequences, the risks, and the likely outcomes of whatever she decided.  In some ways this made things easier, and in some ways not.  She did not hesitate.  ‘If you must choose between me and the baby, no hesitation; choose – and I demand it – the baby. Save the baby!’  This was her constant demand both to her husband and to her doctor. 

During Passiontide in1962, Gianna went to the hospital and delivered her last child by Caesarean section.  They named her Gianna Emanuela after her mother. Baby Gianna was healthy but her mother continued to have severe pain, and a week later Dr Gianna Beretta Molla died. She had been in intense pain from septic peritonitis.  As a doctor, and a specialist in Ob/Gyn Gianna knew full well that her decision to save her little girl was likely to result in the ending of her own life.

Today that child is a physician herself, and involved in the pro-life movement.

Gianna was beatified by Pope John Paul II on April 24, 1994, and canonized on May 16, 2004, in the presence of her husband Pietro, and their child Laura, the first time in the history of the Church that a husband witnessed his wife's canonization.

What does this powerful story say about women?  Firstly, Gianna is a thoroughly modern saint, and a thoroughly modern woman.  As a religious and the child of a career woman myself, I hesitate to say this, but I think it is very important to stress that this balance of work and home life is not for all.  Nonetheless, for those who can do this, Gianna provides a shining example.  The crucial aspect of her life was her focus on God.  Everything else flowed from this.

Next, Gianna must have trusted her husband absolutely, so as to be able to make such a choice.  This trust between husband and wife is a gift, but one to be worked and prayed for – and we notice from her story that it is as much to him as to the doctors that she says – ‘save my baby’.

Next Gianna set so much value on the life of her child.  The fact that by doing what she did she knew she was risking her own life, that she knew she would leave her other children orphaned and her husband a widower shows that she was recognising the child as having real rights even before she was born, an innocent person for whom one should be ready to sacrifice all.

There are many other women saints set before us by the Church:  St Agnes who at an age (early adolescence) when other Roman girls were being made the playthings of older men who decreed to them whether they should wear make-up, refused such a marriage and died as an early Christian martyr.  Bernadette, to whom the world gave abject and grinding poverty, who was by the Church revered and protected in life and honoured in death; Therese who was permitted by the Church to make choice of religious life at fifteen; Edith Stein, who was regarded as subhuman by the state, honoured as Virgin and Martyr and Doctor by the Church. 

This brings us to the knotty question, why, if the Church reveres women to the extent that all of this suggests, does the Church reserve the priesthood for men?

Firstly, straightforwardly the Church does not. By reason of your baptism, if you are baptised, you are part of a ‘royal priesthood, a consecrated nation, a people set apart.’  This priesthood of all the baptised is exercised whenever you do what is specifically divine – pray for the needs of the Church and the world, forgive your enemies, “present [your] body as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (cf. Rom 12:1), give witness to Christ in every place, and give an explanation to anyone who asks the reason for the hope in eternal life that is in you (cf. 1 Pt 3:15)".

 Secondly, it is very important to get the Church ‘the right way up.’  People outside the structures of the Church, and sadly some people within it see it in terms of a man-made structure, with the Pope at the top.  This view is at odds with the traditional view of the Church in which the ‘top’ place in the Church is Christ’s, and after Him the Saints in order of holiness, with Our Blessed Lady at the top.  According to this schema, technically, someone who is vying for the top place in the Church on earth should be looking for a place of decent obscurity where they may lead the contemplative life.  The priesthood is not an end in itself, but a conduit through which God admnisters grace to His people, but it is holiness that is the vocation of Catholics, not advancement in any structure, even the Church.  As JPII puts it ‘Although the Church possesses a "hierarchical" structure, nevertheless this structure is totally ordered to the holiness of Christ's members.’(MD 27)

Nonetheless the question remains ‘why can women not belong to the ministerial priesthood?’

Is this a symptom of the evil patriarchy, to be relegated along with the corset and the bustle as a relic of antiquity?

The Church offers one major reason for the exclusion, which is followed up by various explanations.  The reason given on which the explanations depend, is simply that Our Lord decided to choose males as the recipients of the mandate to perform three specific tasks:  The leadership of the first group of disciples, the forgiveness of sins, and the confection of the Holy Eucharist.  People have argued that Jesus was bound by His culture, but He was God.  He made the culture over a thousand years as the one into which He would be born, the only culture of the surrounding region which did not have a female as well as a male priesthood.  As Saint Pope John Paul says in Mulieris Dignitatem, ‘In calling only men as his Apostles, Christ acted in a completely free and sovereign manner. In doing so, he exercised the same freedom with which, in all his behaviour, he emphasized the dignity and the vocation of women, without conforming to the prevailing customs and to the traditions sanctioned by the legislation of the time.  …the assumption that he called men to be apostles in order to conform with the widespread mentality of his times, does not at all correspond to Christ's way of acting.’(MD26)


The explanations are as follows:  Firstly, the priest saying Mass or conferring other Sacraments is acting in persona Christi specifically with regard to His humanity, and He is a male. The sacramental symbolism of the action is manifested in part by the sex of the priest.


Secondly, the priest is acting in persona Christi specifically with regard to His spousal role:  ‘It is the Eucharist above all that expresses the redemptive act of Christ the Bridegroom towards the Church the Bride. This is clear and unambiguous when the sacramental ministry of the Eucharist, in which the priest acts "in persona Christi", is performed by a man.’(MD26)   ‘The symbol of the Bridegroom is masculine. This masculine symbol represents the human aspect of the divine love which God has for Israel, for the Church, and for all people.’( MD25)

A third explanation is couched in terms of the inherent suitability of males for leadership roles.  This is based on St Paul’s theology, arguing from texts like this from Corinthians ‘34 Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 35 If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.’  I think the context of this and such texts should always be explored before forming a general rule – this particular one relates to a situation in which general chaos seems to have broken out  - earlier in the same text he says not more than three people should speak at a time.  I can very well imagine saying something similar about religious sisters, who always in my experience seem to think they have a licence to gossip in Church.  This does not mean I hate religious sisters or think they have no public role to perform in the Church.  

None the less leadership in the Church is on the whole exercised by clerics, albeit usually under the dominion of their housekeepers or parish secretaries.  But Christian leadership should be seen primarily in terms of service.  The term ‘ministerial priesthood points to this – a ‘minister’ in Latin is a servant.  Perhaps then a way of looking at this more in keeping with what has here been argued is the idea that was expressed well by a friend of mine who said that personally she was glad that there was one underpaid, overworked exploited employment that was not open to women – and certainly if the notion of service inherent in priesthood is well understood there is much in what she says. 

A final idea is that the symbols of the Sacraments are, among other things ‘universalisable’.  That is they can be explained in some terms to all people in every race and culture. ‘“Sacramental signs,” says Saint Thomas, “represent what they signify by natural resemblance.” (In IV Sent., dist. 25 q. 2, quaestiuncula 1a ad 4um).Now ‘the priest is a sign, the supernatural effectiveness of which comes from the ordination received, but a sign that must be perceptible  and which the faithful must be able to recognise with ease.’ (Inter insigniores 5 ) Now despite the attempts that I alluded to at the beginning of this article, the symbolic value of the concepts of ‘a man’ and ‘a woman’ are universal, and not interchangeable.  It is not about superiority: As JPII in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis put it ‘the fact that the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God and Mother of the Church, received neither the mission proper to the Apostles nor the ministerial priesthood clearly shows that the non-admission of women to priestly ordination cannot mean that women are of lesser dignity, nor can it be construed as discrimination against them.’ (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis 3)

A final reason, rather than explanation, is this:  The Lord has given us the Sacraments for our salvation.  They are the means of grace.  A Japanese or Chinese person might wish that Our Lord had made the universal symbols to be rice and Sake, but He did not.  And the problem with changing the ingredients of any recipe is that unless you are a master of that particular recipe, it is hard to know what is essential, and what is peripheral.  Pope John Paul  along with Paul VI and Pope Francis, declared that it was beyond his power to change this, and I can see no reason to suppose he got that wrong.



Copyright ©2020 Stone Dominican Sisters