Catholicism: Empowering Women for 2000 Years (Part I: The Blessed Virgin Mary)

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This is a series that I’ve been thinking about for months, but have been hesitant to dive into. Women and Catholicism is a hot button issue in so many circles. Story after story comes up on my news feed about how the Church oppresses women, discourages women’s rights, and promotes inequality between the sexes. According to media portrayals, the Church is stuck in the dark ages. “If only this hierarchy of men could get with the times!” is the common outcry. And yet, to me, it all sounds so very strange because since embracing Catholic teaching, I have learned to celebrate my womanhood for the first time in my life, instead of treating it as a somewhat embarrassing obstacle to be overcome.  I think this has a lot to do with Catholic teaching on the Blessed Virgin Mary, vocations, the communion of saints, and fertility. So here’s Part I of this little series, starting with Our Lady.

Part I: The Blessed Virgin Mary (Because the Best Christian Ever is a Woman)

It is startling to me that Catholics are perceived as having a negative view of women when Our Lady is so highly honored. In the Catholic faith, The Blessed Virgin Mary is the most exalted of all Christians, she is the first Christian. Worship is reserved for the Holy Trinity alone. But Catholics honor and venerate Our Lady above all other saints.

Oftentimes, it seems that our culture celebrates women who “rise above” their female state. “Look what she accomplished even though she was a woman!” we’ll say, as if being a woman is a handicap or disability to be overcome. We don’t often praise women for being uniquely feminine, perhaps because we don’t hold femininity in high regard.

We don’t honor Our Lady because she overcame her unfortunate plight to be born a woman, but because she did what no man could ever do. Her humility, grace, maternal love, faithfulness, tenderness, strength, steadfastness, and sacrifice contribute to her glory. I’m reminded of Eowyn in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. She doesn’t save the day in spite of being a woman, she conquers because she is a woman: “But no living man am I! You look upon a woman.” It is the second Eve that has the power to crush the serpent under her heel, not in spite of her womanhood, but because of it.

Catholics don’t hold up Mary as the model for Christian women, we hold her up as the model for Christians. Women and men are asked to look at Mary and follow in her footsteps. Not only are men called to honor all women out of respect for Our Lady, but they are called to imitate her example themselves.

There is simply nothing comparable in Protestant life. I truly think that the Protestant avoidance of Mary as well as suppression of Marian doctrine significantly contribute to the experience I, and many women, encounter in the Protestant church. We feel like second-class citizens. When you grow up hearing of Eve’s fall and never understand that Mary is the New Eve who rights the wrongs, opens the gate, and carries our Hope, it’s easy to feel that being a woman is cursed and not blessed.

Doctrines such as the teaching that Mary is the Theotokos, or God-bearer, contribute to a celebration and exaltation of womanhood. Growing up Protestant, I was often told that Mary was the mother of Jesus, not the mother of God. This is a form of adoptionism (the heresy teaching that there was a merely human Jesus that was later adopted as God’s son) and not Orthodox Christian teaching which is that at his conception, Christ was fully God and fully man. By emphasizing that Our Lady is the Mother of God, the Church not only maintains a high Christology (highlighting that Christ was always divine), but also makes the shocking assertion that God himself chose to dwell in a woman’s body as his abode for nine months. Perhaps even more scandalous, is the emphasis the Church Fathers place on Christ being born of Mary, not merely from Mary. By this they meant that God allowed his very body to be created from Mary’s womb. God chose a plan of redemption in his Incarnation that honors all women.

Furthermore, this plan of redemption was not forced on Our Lady by God. The Incarnation hinges on Mary’s willingness to allow God to enter her womb: Let it be unto me according to your word, she says to Gabriel. In a sense, the redemption of the world spins on her answer, the answer of a woman. Because her answer is a faithful yes to God’s will, the Blessed Virgin is the example for all Christians. We must all say “yes” to God’s desire to dwell in us. In this metaphor, the Christian is taking on a feminine role. In Mary’s case, it was due in part to her literal femininity that it was possible for her to be the God-bearer.

My growing understanding of Marian doctrine makes me joyful that I was born a woman and causes me to celebrate the God-given gift of my womanhood. Part II coming soon : )

Please keep in mind: I’m not a theologian. If anything I say is ever in conflict with the teachings of the Church, I’m the one in the wrong. Feel free to let me know if this is the case since I like to avoid heresy as much as the next gal. K, thanks.

(image source: guardian.co.uk)

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Comments

    • Haley says

      My life and marriage are so very different after our conversion and so much of it I attribute to Mary’s intercession and protection. I’m so sad I missed out on knowing her for so many years! Definitely life-changing :)

  1. says

    One of the things I fell in love with about the Church was that there was a male AND female side central to it’s belief.

    B. and I just had a discussion the other night about my experiences with Mary in Protestantism – he was shocked that most of the teachings I had experienced basically taught that Mary (and even Joseph) were basically a surrogate, just a womb need to carry out a duty and that she had little to do with Jesus after that.

    While every religion has it’s extremists and Catholicism is no different – it’s only here that I’ve felt accepted in whatever role I feel called to fulfill. In conservation Prot. circles (in my personal experience, and not everywhere) women are basically baby makers (see the above to no surprise) and I was thrilled to discover New Feminism in the Church and read JP II encyclicals proclaiming that everyone, no matter her job, marital status, number of children is a good woman and necessary! It was a beautiful discovery.

    Just looking at the Saints supports this – there are young virgins, nuns, married women, career women, every kind of women has been worthy of sainthood.

    • Haley says

      I love that about the Church, too! And girl, you’re a step ahead. Part III is gonna be about the saints–so many different kinds in all sorts of situations!–and female doctors of the Church. There is honor and celebration given to every kind of woman, as you said. Such a gift!

  2. Maggie says

    I just wanted to say that this is a great article! I am a senior in college and right now I am taking a European Women’s History course. We have been reading a lot of texts that discuss Eve and how her portrayal has affected the treatment of women for hundreds of years. So it was great to read this article and truly appreciate how Mary truly is a celebration of femininity. It’s also nice to hear someone who doesn’t just assume that the Church oppresses women and denies them their rights.

    • Haley says

      I don’t think it was until college that I heard Mary described as the New Eve and it really does change everything. Thanks, Maggie.

  3. Cathy says

    Fantastic post, Haley. It reminded me of an interview I saw on EWTN with Joanna Bogle. I only caught part of it (such is my life) but she was giving a history of women in the church. She put forth the theory that prior to Victorian times and particularly during the middle ages, women had a far greater sense of their worth in the Church and society. I have never been able to get a hold of her book, “Does the Church oppress women?” but would like to.

  4. says

    Thank you for saying this!! You have a wonderful way of pointing out the importance of Mary in a very down-to-earth tone. I love how you pointed out the fact that “she did what no man could do” and that she is the New Eve. We so often see women portrayed as temptress, especially with Adam and Eve, but the Catholic Church has been teaching how essential women are to the world with Mary as the epitome. Mary’s willingness to becoming the Mother of God shows us how much faith God has in women and that he entrusted woman to bring salvation to the world.
    I am taking Women of Grace at my church. It is a wonderful class that gives an in-depth view of woman’s special qualities with Mary as our model. This is my second time to take it, but we’ve decided to take it slower so we can concentrate more on the message and not just breeze by.
    I look forward to reading more from you :)

    • Haley says

      I hopped over to your blog and say your reading list for 2013. I’m reading A Biblical Walk Through the Mass right now and loving it! Thanks for these great insights, Savannah.

  5. says

    As a Protestant, I thoroughly enjoyed this! I was always (and still am sometimes) confused about Mary’s role in the Catholic Church, but this explanation is by far the best I’ve ever heard. Your blog is definitely prompting me to learn more.

    • Haley says

      I am so glad to hear that, Makenzie! I think my confusion about Mary led me to avoid her altogether for many years.

  6. says

    {Kathy} Thank you for this. It is beautiful and well thought through. She is Our Mother. I think this can be especially difficult for some women to grasp who had a tense relationship with their own earthly mothers–just as the relationship we have with our fathers influences our view of Our Father. By providing an example of the perfect mother, the perfect Christian, she elevates our role as mother as well.
    Very well done. I ‘m sure I am going to love this series.

  7. says

    Oh Haley! Thank you for this early Monday morning wisdom and encouragement! It will help me celebrate being a woman today and makes me feel calmer and lighter! Looking forward to more in this series!

  8. says

    This was the best post to read after my morning prayers! I couldn’t agree with you more. Without the church – I would still be treating my femininity as a curse. I am looking forward to more in this series :)

  9. says

    I kept smiling and saying, “YES!” as I read this post. Thank you for reminding us that true empowerment comes from discovering and embracing the “feminine genius” as a gift rather than a curse. Keep writing, girl! I look forward to reading your posts with my coffee in the morning.

  10. Clarisse says

    Hello! I’m a mormon subscriber to your blog, and enjoy it very much. Reading your blog reminds me that Judeo-Christians have more in common than we do differences, and each sect can help edify each other, if the focus is on building on each other’s faith rather than tearing it down. Thank you for defending women of faith and particularly Catholic women. The general media is often anti-christian and particularly on this issue.

    Mormon women also are portrayed as throw backs who are brain washed into a life of subservience to their husbands and their male church leaders, but nothing could be further from the truth. For instance, one bit of mormon doctrine that shows how much God treasures women is that mormons honor Eve as a noble and virtuous example of womanhood. So, at least for mormons, there is no negativity towards women to be overcome for Eve’s sake. If you would like to learn about the mormon perspective of Eve, you can read about it here: http://mormonscholarstestify.org/1718/valerie-hudson-cassler (Even I learned a thing or two from this article.)

  11. says

    Lovely reflection. I’m glad you started with this particular topic for your series!

    Along similar lines, when I hear criticism that ‘Catholic men want to keep women down,’ I think of all the male saints and sinners throughout the ages who have exalted Mary and been devoted to her. I vaguely recall one story of a medieval monk who challenged another traveler to a duel when he dishonored the name of Mary. No man tolerates disrespect to his lady!
    If you have three minutes, you should check out this recording of John Paul II singing the Ave Maria: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ou3o7oE2vyc&feature=share This is the sound of a man singing a serenade to the woman he loves and holds closest to his heart! So moving.

  12. Lauren says

    I really enjoyed this article, because it tackles a topic that doesn’t get enough attention, and does so in an easy to understand manner. For me, it was the acceptance of God into her womb that made Mary admirable- she willingly accepted a lifetime of backlash due to social and cultural standards in order to fulfill the will of God. That takes a lot of courage and strength.

    That being said, as someone who was raised in a Catholic Church, I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say that Catholicism innately empowers women. While I’ve seen individual Catholics go so far as to admire Mary as an individual, I have yet to see any Catholic LEADER extol the virtues of Mary outside of the fruit of her womb, and the characteristics which made God select her womb. Catholic leadership focuses on Mary’s reproductive capabilities.

    Beyond that, the Catholic Church continues to exclude women as Priests. It continues to preach against birth control. Nearly every Catholic wedding I’ve attended (and there have been many) have framed the woman’s role as one of subservience, and the man’s role as one of providing. In the aggregate, I would argue that the Catholic Church DOES need to reconsider the way it treats women. They probably won’t, but they should.

    To be fair, the Bible is full of very strong, admirable, Christian women. Study of the Bible, and of Mary’s story, can be incredibly empowering for women. That being said, I don’t think it’s fair or accurate to say that Catholicism itself empowers women because of their beliefs regarding Mary- beliefs that are rarely articulated as well as we see in this blog post. Still, very interesting reflections.

    • says

      God did not select Mary’s womb. He selected Mary…ALL of her.
      As for the issue of women not being correct matter for the priesthood we must understand that this is not a point of exclusion. Our nature is not that of priests. Not all men may become priests, either and no men may become mothers.

    • LJ says

      Lauren- my real name is Lauren, too! Funny world!

      I share the below simply because I’m really excited about having read Mulieris Dignitatem recently, which is an official church document that articulates many of the same points Haley makes. If you’re interested, read on! If it will just stress you out, please don’t bother! My goal is to share joy, not cause strife. :)
      ~~~
      I’m so sorry to hear that you haven’t seen official Church leaders honoring Mary formally. I invite you to look past your present experience to see that this is not the norm – the norm is effusive love for Our Mother, at all levels of doctrine and devotion!

      First off, the Church ends her Official Night Prayer every night with a hymn to Our Lady… it’s the last thing we do before going to bed, and it’s in the official books as part of the prayer! Every single priest and religious in the *whole world* is supposed to do this *every night!* I’ve always found that tradition very beautiful. Not to mention Mary has more statues and artwork and cathedrals than anyone else in the world, besides Christ! On a more official level, she has more solemnities and feast days and special liturgies than anyone other saint… the “official” Church definitely holds Mary in very high regard! She’s in the Gospels, she was at Pentecost, she has a whole section in the Catechism just for her(CCC 963 – 972)!!! Not to mention that of the few dogmas of the Church explicitly professed infallibly by the pope, several surround Mary our Mother! So if you’re looking for ways the whole Church honors Mary… those are all great places to start!

      Beyond official texts, the saints and Church leaders write and attest in their own lives of their devotion to Mary. Much of it is poetic, beautiful writing – the sort of devotional love you’d record for your own mother. So much love.

      As far as Mary being valued for her reproductive capabilities alone, while individual persons may think this way, it’s definitely not mainstream. The Church’s reflection mirrors how we think of our own (biological) mothers – clearly our ties to them are irrevocably linked to the fact that they carried us in their wombs, but it’s so much more than that! Pregnancy is just the beginning. JPII is clear to say that Mary’s *whole person* was involved in saying “Yes” to the Angel Gabriel… not just her body. Her whole self, in all of her beauty and femininity and mystery! (“Therefore [Mary] is truly the Mother of God, because motherhood concerns the *whole person*, not just the body” – JPII, MD #4)

      Are you excited yet? I just think all of this is so cool!!!!

      Finally, the Church’s honor for Mary extends far beyond her pregnancy. For example, the Gospel of John intentionally places Mary at the beginning (Cana) and the end (Calvary) of Jesus’ public ministry. This literary device is called an “inclusio” and serves to highlight for the Gospel writer that Mary surrounds *all* of Jesus’s ministry. Add this to devotions like the Rosary, the reverence for Marian apparitions like Lourdes and Fatima, and whole countries dedicated to her patronage… the Church, the whole Church, is SUPER in love with Mary, and not just because she was pregnant with God! More than that, in the totality of her life she is the perfect disciple – the only person who ever followed Jesus perfectly without sin, even sharing in his suffering at Calvary. (A sword pierced her soul!)

      As JPII writes, “The Second Vatican Council, confirming the teaching of the whole of tradition, recalled that in the hierarchy of holiness it is precisely the “woman”, Mary of Nazareth, who is the “figure” of the Church. She “precedes” everyone on the path to holiness; in her person “the Church has already reached that perfection whereby she exists without spot or wrinkle (cf. Eph 5:27)”.54 In this sense, one can say that the Church is both “Marian” and “Apostolic-Petrine”.” (MD 27)

      ~~~
      That’s all I’ll say for now, but I hope that helps! If you’ve never seen Church leaders extol Mary as a person and not just as a womb, then you’re missing out on some of the most beautiful, pro-woman elements in the Tradition!

      (And everyone should read Mulieris Dignitatem! It’s free online!)

    • says

      Lauren, I wonder if you’ve ever had the chance to attend a Catholic wedding in the Traditional Rite? In its original form translated from Latin, the nuptial blessing is almost entirely focused on the bride. While the Scripture readings may emphasize the two different roles of the spouses, the blessing reveals how their roles in no way create inequality. In fact, the bride is very exalted. Here’s an example from more recent form of the blessing:

      ‘May her husband entrust his heart to her,
      so that, acknowledging her as his equal
      and his joint heir to the life of grace,
      he may show her due honor
      and cherish her always
      with the love that Christ has for his Church.’

      And, mind you, the love that Christ has for his Church means *dying* for his bride! Grooms are held to a very high bar when it comes to cherishing their brides. :)

    • says

      Attributing different roles to men and women isn’t saying that one is above or better than the other. Biblically, men hold a position of authority over women in certain instances, but that doesn’t make them less equal. I read this post as saying that the Church empowers women to fulfill their roles as women in a way which society doesn’t favor or always support. You mention keeping women from being priests and preaching against BC, allowing that is society’s view of empowering women. The Church’s view should be different.

  13. says

    Hey, this is a great reflection! The thing with Mary is that we can learn something new about her everyday and still feel totally blown away by the depth of truth. She really does bring about a beautiful wholeness to both biblical history and the truth of femininity.

  14. says

    THANK YOU!!!! This is absolutely beautiful and I was nodding all the way through, because I’ve thought this myself. I’m also a Catholic convert (six years this Easter) and one thing I’ve noticed about the Church is how much it does honour women and encourage us to be the women God created us to be.

  15. says

    So, so lovely. I am learning more and more about Mary and the Catholic Church’s views on her, and this post was just so absolutely wonderful. Thank you! Cannot wait for Part II!

  16. Adrienne says

    Great article! so well written…I’m curious what your thoughts on Catholic modesty in dress are? Maybe a topic for the future?

    • Haley says

      Funny you should bring up modesty, Adrienne, because that’s something I’ve been pondering a lot lately. Especially since reading “A Return to Modesty” by Jewish writer, Wendy Shalit. All my thoughts are still brewing but I would like to write a post on Catholic modesty sometime when my ideas come together :)

  17. says

    I really enjoyed reading this. As a protestant, the Catholic beliefs concerning Mary has always been a bit of a mystery to me, so this was interesting. I always think it so very strange that to many people ‘empowering women’ means promoting women who choose to take on roles that have traditionally been the positions of men, and honoring a woman’s right to make her own life choices means encouraging women to leave behind traditional women’s roles. What about those of us who willingly chose to take on the traditionally feminine roles of wife and mother? Don’t we have just as much right to choose that and be supported and empowered in that decision? Yet you read things saying that not only are such women hurting themselves by confining their prospects, they’re also endangering and setting back the rights of all women. How that conclusion is drawn is just beyond me.

    • says

      I could not agree with you more! I find so much joy being home with my children far more than I think I could ever find in a workplace….maybe just because that is not where my heart is.

  18. adriel s. says

    My journey to the Church from a protestant childhood went through a number of years trying to find a women centered spiritual practice, so much so that I spent some time identifying as a wiccan. Since finding the Church (mine Orthodox, but we have the same beliefs and traditions about Mary) I have recognized that what I truly was searching for was something Christ centered that HONORED women and their roles as women. I fell in love with the traditions we hold about the Theotokos and am so glad you were able to express these things so clearly. I have found that in a Tradition that truly honors women and values the roles Holy women have in the Church, the less concerned I am with an all male clergy. In order for our worship to mirror our relationship to Christ, it is important that we look at how integral the genders were of Christ and His mother, it was no accident that Christ was a man, there was no other way to have His death be as meaningful as a sacrifice.

  19. LPatter says

    coming here from Kaitlin’s blog – LOVE your post, excellent theology (from my humble perspective as a just-barely-made-it-through-my-MTS-program-thanks-to-St. Joseph Cupertino “theologian”), can’t wait to check out more of your blog, it looks awesome! Catholic moms unite! (Oh wait, we are….mystical Body what?!) God bless!

  20. ann says

    Hello Haley. I am not Catholic, so I respectfully disagree with you on a few details, but I love your explanation about Mary. She is truly worth honoring for her role in the divine plan. And I love that you are passionately and faithfully sharing your faith. I belong to a church whose teachings about women are grossly misunderstand, so I love efforts to bring the world at large to some level of enlightenment. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of your posts on this topic. I love understanding the faiths of others.

  21. J says

    I understand that this is coming from a place of love, and I appreciate that a lot, but as a cradle Catholic, I’m frustrated that the fact that I’m female is such a determinant factor in the way that I can live my life.

    Mary is a venerable figure in the Church, to be sure, and what you say about God residing in a woman’s body creates a beautiful understanding of the miracle of the Incarnation, but I think the most significant aspect is that God came into a human being’s body. I don’t feel particularly empowered by that concept, just like I wouldn’t feel particularly empowered if I were Middle Eastern and shared a race with Mary. I look up to her as a Christian because she’s a good person, not because she’s a good woman.

    Quite frankly, this emphasis on the different ways women are empowered in the church just feels I’m being told that I’m “separate but equal” to men in the church.

    • says

      J, women have different ways of being empowered than men because women are different than men. It’s a physical reality, one that the Church recognizes. Catholics believe that gender, unlike race , is an inherent part of one’s nature. So a pig cannot be a sheep and oughtn’t be treated like one. An apple cannot be an orange–and trying to make an apple pie out of mandarins is nonsensical. c:

  22. Christy says

    Heley, I just wanted you to know that I loved this so much,I am using it in my 6th grade CCE class! We are discussing sexism and howboth sexes are equal in the eyes of God..

  23. Dorothea Rose says

    Haley,
    I loved reading your thoughts on Our Lady. Like you I tended to avoid her for many years, and it wasn’t until I went to Medugorje that I experienced a great love for her and a desire to pray for her intercession and to talk to her, both as woman to woman and mother to mother.
    I am giving a talk soon at a women’s retreat called ‘Beloved’ on Mary the model of womanhood and your thoughts have been really helpful and inspirational.

  24. Erin says

    Well done! I was raised Catholic and love my Catholic faith. It is great to hear a convert’s perspective of how Mary (and women) are treated/perceived by other Christian groups. Your post helps me to appreciate the gift of my Catholic faith even more. Keep up the good work!

  25. Wen dy says

    Lovely! I know I am late to the game here, but I am a “Craddle” Catholic that has, in the past 4 years, come to know and love my faith so much more. Since drawing closer to God and The Church, I have felt more empowered, respected and cherished than ever before. Society repressed me, the Church has embraced me fully as a woman! Than k You for putting into words what has been in my heart!

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