Good Girls Don’t
In the absence of any scriptural justification to exclude women from positions of authority, the Catholic hierarchy scripted the theology of complementarity to ensure that women cannot have equal roles to men in the Catholic church. Accordingly, male priests must, by divine design, be leaders and authority figures and women of the church must serve and obey their rules. Because complementarity is asserted as “God’s plan for humanity,” campaigners for women’s equality are told that they have a disordered and destructive view of human nature, and that the church’s leaders are simply trying to defend a woman’s intrinsic purpose and sanctity against the forces of modernity.
Church leaders make a concerted effort to shame and ostracize women who challenge the status quo, while they simultaneously exalt traditionally feminine gender roles. The strategy of discrediting advocates for women’s participation pits women against women so that campaigners for women’s equality are made to seem unreasonable and ungrateful. Such campaigners are accused of devaluing and insulting motherhood and “nurturing work” by objecting to the seemingly innocent exaltation of these traditional roles. This ostracism has an impact on Catholic women who fear being labeled as unladylike and displeasing to men and those who buy into the narrative that the campaign for women’s inclusion in church structures is an aggressive attack on priests and tradition. Some may not openly dissent because they do not want their own standing in the church or friendship with priests to be jeopardized. But make no mistake: The f lattery of women as revered and the demonizing of any discussion about women’s rights create a smokescreen that masks the fact that not a single woman in the entire Catholic world of 1.2 billion people has the authority to influence any church teaching. Nor does any woman have the power to change a single policy on education and healthcare in the quarter of the world’s schools and hospitals that are run under the Vatican’s authority.
Ensuring that it is women who are seen to support complementarity is a key strategy to weaken the case for challenging this injustice. Several examples of this dynamic were on display at recent public events. Participants at an annual women’s forum on inclusion inside the Vatican consistently avoided speaking about women’s ordination, leading some to speculate that they had promised in advance not to broach the topic. At a Catholic feminist event at the UN Commission on the Status of Women that I co-organized in March, Catholic high school girls turned out in force furnished with a list of talking points given to them by the Holy See and attempted to commandeer the question and answer session. They wanted to reassure the assembled audience that they have never felt oppressed by the church and questioned why attendees were “demanding male jobs” instead of modeling ourselves on the Virgin Mary or other saintly, silent, suffering or sanitized women from the tradition.
A frequent accusation I hear is that the campaign for women’s inclusion is an exclusively Western, “aggressive feminist” preoccupation. Advocates are informed, often by white males, that “African women don’t want greater inf luence in the church and instead embrace their natural role as mothers.” This combination of racism, sexism and ignorance is designed to dismiss activists as having distorted values and play into secular stereotypes about feminism having taken women’s liberation too far.
Among all justice issues in the church, the one that receives the most resistance is women’s ordination because the ban on women priests is the most egregious expression of the church’s enforcement of complementarity. The truth behind the teaching is that women are believed to be inferior and must subsequently always be subservient to men and prevented from usurping what is considered to be an exclusively male and therefore superior role. It is worth questioning why women are believed and celebrated when they declare a vocation to be a nun but denounced if they feel called to work as a priest, despite neither role being obviously mothering or male in nature. The difference, of course, is that women’s religious orders will always be under the authority of men. Nuns never have to be considered as peers, and remain excluded from governing the church and administering sacraments. We are assured they fulfill a “mothering role,” yet will always remain as “sisters” to the priests who outrank them.
A priest friend recently confided in me that he was comfortable with women being considered for the role of deacon because diakonos means service and women are called to serve—and because women like to serve. Catholics are led to believe that women cannot possibly be ordained because the priest must represent Christ the bridegroom who, during the Mass, marries the church, and, as Pope Francis likes to say, “The church is a woman.” This baffling theology has been brought back into favor in recent decades and twisted to suit a complementarian narrative that justifies upholding the ban on women priests. Once when I was studying theology, a seminarian classmate became irate during a discussion of women’s ordination as a justice issue. “But men can’t have babies, so why should women be priests?” he argued, as if women’s only vocation is to motherhood, apparently ignoring the inconvenient fact that thousands of women without children are nuns in the Catholic Church.
The complementarity script is used to praise women who serve priests behind the scenes and to treat with contempt “pushy women” who ask for more. The language of marriage, wifehood and motherhood are used to keep women in check. I hear constantly how women already have lots of valued and supportive roles. That asking for full participation makes advocates power hungry and “clerical”—contemptuous language that would never be said to a young man with a vocation to priesthood. I hear that God calls women to mothering and love, not leadership. It is hard to understand how, in a church that is based on a Gospel message of love, the hierarchy can justify excluding those it considers most capable of modeling love. We are told that women can serve in “nonclerical” ways, so why seek status and titles? The question of women’s participation has been twisted so that advocates are presumed to only want the top jobs in Rome, disregarding all the small parishes throughout the world that still need priests, where plenty of local women are qualified and wish to become priests and where those roles come with very little status or prestige.
The complementarity script is used to praise women who serve priests behind the scenes and to treat with contempt “pushy women” who ask for more.
The negative impact of complementarity on women can be seen at both a global and local level. The well-financed campaign to spread the message of complementarity aids the Vatican in claiming it as a fundamental teaching of the faith rather than a relatively recent ideological backlash against the advances of feminism. The Holy See uses complementarity as a spiritual veneer when it seeks to block access to reproductive healthcare, imposing mandatory motherhood on the poorest women in the world by interfering in secular law and obstructing the UN’s development efforts.
The Catholic church is the largest nongovernment healthcare provider in the world and exerts global influence over how women are seen, spoken about and treated. Ordained priesthood is a prerequisite to decision-making power in the church, a structure not likely to change any time soon. Until the prejudiced view of women that keeps them separate and subservient is dismantled, men schooled in sexist stereotypes continue to make the doctrine, policies and moral arguments that directly impact women’s lives and bodies.
Any efforts the Vatican makes to tackle justice issues like sex trafficking and prostitution cannot be effective while the official church maintains that women must always come under the authority of men and that this is divine order.
The world’s largest organized religion, with the most influential spiritual leader, is positioning the rejection of women’s equality as the institutional church’s most visible and legally enforced message in the world. The artificial construct of complementarity is upheld using fear and threats, not moral authority. Teachers are forced to sign morality clauses promising that they will not use contraception, cohabitate or marry a same-sex partner at the risk of being fired. Theologians are banned from speaking about women’s ordination.
For ordinary Catholics around the world, their experience of what women can and cannot do is a constant reminder and reinforcement of Vatican-approved sexism. The campaign against this will continue until advocates can dismantle the toxic teaching that God cannot work through a female body, and that therefore women cannot say Mass, preach the Gospel, give last rites to the sick or administer any other sacraments. This belief has no basis in the foundations of Catholic faith, but it is what is upheld by accepting the Catholic ban on women priests. With an obsessive focus on separate and limited roles for women, the official church is intentionally obscuring the true history of women’s leadership in the early church, hiding the fact that Jesus asked women to go out and preach his message and be an integral part of his mission.
Unfortunately, complementarity acts as a siren call to conservative young Catholics who experience the world as being in moral chaos. They find a spiritual home and a refuge in the Catholic church which, at the surface level, teaches respect for the body and dignity for women. But at its core lies the message that the only way to live a good and moral life is to adhere to the Vatican agenda of the strict policing of gender roles. There is disturbingly little focus on any genuine ethical concerns in the wider world. Many Catholic women who remain involved in the church feel a responsibility to prevent sexism from being adopted as a fundamental Catholic moral code and marker of orthodoxy for young Catholics and future leaders.
The theology of complementarity pits “good faithful women” against “bad rebellious women.” But ultimately, all women are just one disagreeable opinion away from a fall from grace. Women in the church are treated with suspicion and kept at bay from participating. Yes, the rules are made and maintained by a minority of sexist men, but they are sustained by silence and the tacit support of laypeople who continue to make donations and attend Mass without questioning the sexist teachings on display and the consequences for women in the wider world. Women being sidelined and put in their supposed place will continue to be normalized, justified and given a spiritual stamp of approval. Until women achieve genuine equality in the institutional church, with equal decision-making power and sacramental authority, discrimination against women will continue to be sanctioned and reinforced around the world.