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Once again, courtesy of the pedophilia crisis in the male-dominated Roman Catholic Church and the financial meltdown caused by Wall Street’s masters (not mistresses) of the universe, popular culture is being inundated by stereotypes of women as the morally superior, pragmatically savvier sex. If only women had been running the church and hedge funds, none of this nastiness would have happened. Women would never have allowed children to be abused. Women would never have taken so many risks with other people’s money. Why, women would even make better ambassadors for atheism, because we are so much more considerate of other people’s feelings than mean male atheists, who seem to enjoy offending believers. Oh, poppycock! Balderdash! Codswallop! Only archaic language can capture the intellectual barrenness of this argument, because the notion of intrinsic female goodness (or evil) is rooted in archaic ideas about sex differences and sexuality.
This is not to say that the Catholic Church, international financial institutions, or any other enterprise run by men would not derive immense benefits from the inclusion of more women in positions of power. However, they would benefit not because women are nicer, more inclined to work and play well with others, and more devoted to the common good but because, by excluding half of humanity from the halls of power, you are depriving yourself of the services of half of the capable, smart people in the world.
Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, at a Women in Finance symposium in Washington, alluded to a recent New York magazine headline, “What If Women Ran Wall Street?” He commented, “It’s an excellent question. But kind of a low bar.” The same thing might be said about the Catholic Church, except that there could be no symposium for powerful Catholic women because there are no women in positions of genuine managerial power in the church. It is indeed hard to imagine women doing a worse job than men who, as part of their religious vocation, have sworn to renounce sexual intimacy with other human beings–and who actually believe that the abdication of adult sexuality makes them better fitted to preach the word of God.
The status of women in Catholicism cannot be compared in any way to the status of women in secular businesses and professions, because the idea of woman as handmaiden is integral to traditional Catholic thought. Lisa Miller, in a cover story in Newsweek, correctly notes that the admission of women to the ministry in mainline Protestant denominations was settled decades ago, as it has also been in Reform Judaism. And Miller is surely right that the presence of more parents–both women and men–would likely have made an enormous difference in the church hierarchy’s handling of child abuse cases. But the question posed on the Newsweek cover, “What Would Mary Do?” misses the point entirely. Miller writes, “Even with a mother, Mary, at the center of the Christian story, the women of today’s church have found themselves marginalized and preached to amid the interminable revelations of the sexual abuse scandals. Their prayers to the Virgin, protector of humanity, have gone unanswered.”
But the orthodox Catholic vision of Mary–especially her status as virgin-mother–explains a good deal about why Catholic women, unlike Protestant women, have been ignored by the hierarchy of their church. Maryolatry is, of course, one important difference between Catholicism and Protestantism. The special position of Mary as an intercessor between Jesus and humans is rejected by most Protestant denominations.
Mary is not, in fact, central to the Christian story in any active way: In Catholicism, she is the passive vehicle without which the Catholic story could not unfold. “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done unto me according to they word (Luke: 1:38)” is what Mary tells the angel who announces that she is about to become pregnant with the Messiah. Some theologians argue that Mary had a choice–she could have said no to the angel–but somehow, I don’t see a young, uneducated girl doing that. An angel comes to you and says that you’re blessed among women, and you tell him no thanks? I don’t think so. Mary is always acted upon, never the actor. Her only affirmative act in the gospels is to point out that the wine is running out at a wedding feast, and that request turns into Jesus’s first miracle at Cana. Moreover, the Catholic insistence on Mary’s eternal virginity is close to an insult to real woman–a statement that there is something less holy, if not dowright dirty, about a woman who has sex and children in the ordinary human way. Again, theologians say, “But this was no ordinary birth. This was the birth of the Son of God.” The church’s insistence on Mary’s virginity boils down to the belief that a vagina entered by a man was not pure enough to serve as the birth passage for the Messiah. And then the church continues its virginity worship by insisting that Mary remained a virgin throughout her life–that it would be a blasphemous insult to the holy family to think that Jesus had brothers and sisters.
Think about it. Mary enters the Gospel story as a girl who becomes pregnant, through no act of her own, in submission to the power of God. She knows, almost from the start, that the child she is bringing into the world is destined to die a horrible death. Her role is to stand at the foot of the cross and watch it all, as a necessary part of the divine plan for the greater good–the redemption of mankind from the sin of the “old Eve.” Is it any wonder that male cardinals, brought up to view this submission as the highest incarnation of womanhood, have little use for Catholic women who insist on the right to be actors rather than the acted upon? These modern Catholic women are the antithesis of Mary: They are saying to the pope and his bishops, “We won’t sacrifice our children for what you represent.” They are doing precisely what Mary did not do.
In the same issue of Newsweek, the conservative Catholic scholar George Weigel upholds the traditionalist view of the role of women in the church. He says that all should recognize “that laywomen, single and married, are usually the teachers who make today’s Catholic schools safe and successful. Moreover, women are the great majority of the volunteers and paid staff who make Catholic parishes both safe and vital. The notion that women don’t have anything to do with how the Catholic Church operates confuses the Catholic Church with the higher altitudes of `the Vatican,’ and ignores how Catholic life is actually lived in America and Europe.” Actually, the women (including nuns) who want the right to be priests and to exercise real power within the church are not confused at all. For men like Wiegel and the pope, the proper role of women in the church is indeed laundering the altar cloths, planning bake sales and other fundraisers, and teaching for the very low salaries paid by Catholic schools. (Oh, for the good old days, when there were so many nuns–whose services were free–and parochial schools didn’t have to hire lay teachers at all.) The real question, if the hierarchy continues to stonewall into the next generation, is how many of those women will be around a few decades from now to play the handmaiden’s role.
This brings us to the interesting, confounding question of why women–not only Catholic women–are more religious than men. Public opinion polls have shown that in every culture, women are more religious–and more religiously observant–than men. The gap is not as great among men and women who are highly educated, but it is still there. For those who are religious, this disparity is cited as one more proof of women’s finer moral sensibilities. The Pew Forum on Religious Life, for example, highlights its findings on the “religion gap” between women and men with the headline, “The Stronger Sex–Spiritually Speaking.”
Seventy-seven percent of American women, but only 64 percent of men, “have absolutely certain belief in God or a universal spirit.” Approximately 44 percent of women, but only 34 percent of men, attend church services once a week. Among Catholics, however, women make up 60 percent of weekly churchgoers. That is a real paradox, given that the Catholic Church absolutely denies women the right to be priests–and both American Catholic men and women favor the admission of married men as well as women to the priesthood.
I do not know why women remain more religious than men and, as an atheist, I can hardly consider this evidence of moral superiority. One explanation may be that even when women are better educated than men, as is now the case with the young in the United States, they are less likely to have a thorough grounding in science–a major challenge to religious belief. It is also true that religious education in the home has traditionally been the responsibility of mothers, and some women may feel a duty in this area even though they are not themselves conventional believers. Finally, one of the most important functions of religious institutions is to provide a sense of community, and women are the keepers of community. Atheism is not a religion and does not offer a concrete community, and that may be one reason why a freethinking woman would choose a liberal church rather than call herself an atheist or an agnostic. But this is all speculation. One thing is certain: religious faith, in women or men, is not necessarily linked with moral or altruistic behavior. If it were, the sexual abuse scandals would never have been covered up by a church hierarchy that presumably regards such acts as mortal sins.
Wherever women are vastly underrepresented–whether in churches, high finance, or the highest levels of science–the argument for opening male preserves to women should not be based in dubious notions of female ethical superiority. The empowerment of women is, above all, a matter both of common sense and justice. It is wrong to deny people power and opportunity because of their sex. And it is simply stupid to underutilize women’s capacities. As to whether more women in power would reform Wall Street or the Catholic Church, we would have to wait and see. I think there will be many more women heads of Fortune 500 companies before we see the Catholic Church agree to a female priesthood. Because for the men who run the church, allowing women to serve as God’s main spokespersons on earth–which is how Catholics regard priests–would be far more upsetting than it was to finally admit that the earth moves around the sun.
The pertinent question is not what Mary would do; it is what women can do when they are not boxed in to the role of either Mary or Eve.