Woman Church Is Not Mother Church

“The more one becomes a feminist,” Rosemary Reuther has been quoted as saying, “the more difficult it is to remain a Catholic.” To which some will reply: “But of course!”

Many of the claims of contemporary feminism are as radically opposed to orthodoxy as were similar Gnostic claims in the second century, in the first few generations after the death of Christ.

By the end of the second century, the tradition of a male priesthood — parallel to the selection Jesus made of his apostles — was decisively made canonical. An all-male priesthood was seen to be the institutional expression of orthodoxy, as a female priesthood was seen to be the appropriate institutional principle of Gnosticism.

Hans Kung has recently argued in the New York Times (November 16) that the resistance of Pope John Paul II to feminism cannot be sustained, because numbers and organized powers are against him. As to who will prevail, it is not wise to bet against Peter.

What is at stake in feminism? Like any heresy, it carries within it some truth. But it advances by associating itself with a “popular front,” trying to add to its hard core every possible sympathizer for any remotely connectible constituency. Part of the reason for this is to inflate its numbers, part to disguise what really is at stake.

Since a “popular front” advances by a false principle of inclusiveness, the only sensible response is to demand that it clarify its positions by negative exclusion. One must ask, in short, what are feminists who wish to remain orthodox prepared to repudiate?

Consider the invitation issued to the recent convention of 1200 women in Chicago called “Woman Church.” The invitation was explicitly directed to women “of every sexual orientation.” (Every?) It appealed to the collapse of “sexual taboos.” (Which taboos, one wonders: rules against homosexual activity, extramarital activity, abortion?) The invitation expressed remarkable hatred for our own society, for its alleged sexism, racism, militarism and systemic injustice. It did not fail to mention the cherished cause of the domestic left, “the feminization of poverty” (which the facts suggest ought to be called “the poverty consequent on feminization”). Its description of the role of story, myth, ritual, ecstasy and play was also pagan. The liturgy of the day, as described in the Washington Post, seemed to be closer to the “mystery cults” of the early Mediterranean basin than to the orthodox Christian sacraments, of which the distinctive mark is clerical order.

The call to Woman Church, moreover, is couched in hostility to “patriarchy.” Is its alternative “matriarchy?” Probably not, since the feminists who “called” the gathering called their conference “Woman Church,” not “Mother Church.” Is the alternative, then, “anarchy”? The liturgy created by the Chicago women was a ritual derived from “our own power,” as one leader defiantly declared afterwards. This suggests that the proper sacramental order in Woman Church would be neither patriarchy nor feminarchy but equal rule by one and all.

Most of us of middle-age and older, when we studied the heresies of the first two centuries of the church, had little expectation that those bizarre cults and beliefs which then bedeviled the young and vulnerable church had much chance of being resuscitated during our lifetime. We were wrong.

In particular, the debate of the early church concerning the proper ordering of sex (and the sexes) has been renewed with quiet force today. There is no doubt how the early church answered it. Female goddesses and female priestesses were powerfully attractive to the ancient world. The Gnostic spirit, asserting in part that sexual differentiation entailed no essential difference in the ordering of natural or supernatural life (and, consequently, none in ecclesiastical life), also asserted that, in a sense, the ultimate force in nature is the mothering force of spiritual inclusiveness. Matriarchal religions blur differences; patriarchal ones insist upon distinctions. The female principle is oceanic; the male principle insists upon discriminations. Anima expresses openness, abandonment, contemplation, receptivity; Animus expresses drive, distinctions, active differentiation, forward thrust. There are in all sexual concepts biological materials, psychological materials, cultural materials, and materials of social organization.

Let us try to imagine Woman Church. If the ideals of some of its proponents could be realized, Woman Church would make no moral distinction between active heterosexuality and active homosexuality; it would favor approval for abortion; it would insist upon female priests, bishops, and popes; it would open up the liturgy to spontaneous song, ritual, dance, ecstasy, and feelings, issuing forth from “inside;” it would render the concept of heresy useless, except for those who manifested the spirit of exclusivity and clear differentiation. It would dissolve hierarchy in equality, objective criteria for membership into qualitative criteria.

There is some truth, of course, hidden within feminism. That truth, known to Jesus, is that in God’s eyes women are equally dear to Him; moreover, that women are always likely to be at least as faithful to Him as men, and on many occasions visibly more so. Jesus did not come to abrogate nature but to fulfill it. Furthermore, the specifically new virtues that He taught — in the agape of his own life; in the Sermon on the Mount; and in the Beatitudes — are a clear rebuke to the masculine, warrior cultures of his (and every) time. Meekness, humility, seeking to be last rather than to be first, service, and submission to the will of God are not the virtues which feminists today proclaim.

Where Jesus teaches meekness, feminists teach self-assertion; where humility, pride; where seeking to be last, seeking equality up front; where service, command; where submission, their own will. It is possible to show how this feminist “transvaluation of values” is necessary in certain cases. It is not possible, alas, to call it orthodox.

Indeed, feminists clearly say that orthodoxy as it exists is a source of the repression they claim to feel. In their eyes, orthodoxy is a bastion of patriarchy; feminism is true orthodoxy, recently discovered.

These absurdities go unchallenged, in fact, for reasons precisely the reverse of those feminists allege. If men and non-feminist women were to respond as feminists allege that they do — with decisiveness, competitiveness, and repression — these absurdities would long since have been laughed out of currency. But in the presence of feminists, most men are meek, humble, and submissive. They scrutinize feminism seriously, seeking some possible way, absurd as it seems, in which the will of God might actually be expressed in it. It is males who typically smile wanly while pinning “I’m a male Feminist” buttons on their lapels. In Chicago, it was bishops who exhibited meekness, humility, and submission.

The latter are, perhaps, not to be blamed for walking the last mile — so long, at least, as they do not use the good name of evangelical virtues as a cover for abandoning the orthodoxy it is their manly duty to defend. The real power in this world is not that of the male.

The rage of feminists is partly to be explained by the weakness of the males they encounter. Men find it more difficult to stand up to the fury of a woman than to any other thing on earth; nothing so tests their manhood. In our age, as much as Adam before Eve, men fail this test.

In this lies an important clue. The Catholic Church will not quiet the fury of feminists through appeasement. Appeasement will induce yet more scathing contempt. For what feminist are seeking are not womanly models like Margaret Thatcher, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir — or even Teresa of Avila, St. Therese of Lisieux, Catherine of Siena, and Mary the Mother of God. The agenda of feminism is not woman but politics. Hard-core feminists call themselves “persons,” not “women,” as if hating their own sex, as if hating women’s traditional cultures, traditional roles, and traditional virtues and spiritual witness. They demand a world made over. That is why the hatred they manifest is so unbelievably intense. It is not so much radical as total.

I do not think, as Hans Kung does, that feminists are orthodox and the pope heretical. Nor do I think that appeasement will work. What is needed, instead, is not a decisive use of teaching authority but decisive teaching. Why is it that the creed says “Father Almighty” in relation to “Only begotten Son”? Why is it that Jesus prayed, “Our Father” — not in some abstract Greek way, but in the familiar way of the intimate family, Abba? Is it important that God be conceived of in masculine rather than in feminine symbolic contexts? Is it important that when God sent the Messiah, the Messiah came not as a daughter but as a son? Is it important that the sacraments of Catholicism should not be imagined as inclusive and oceanic, but fenced in by male images? Is it important that only males are called by God to be “other Christs,” and to say “This is my body” in a sexed and incarnate way? Why such things are so needs to be taught; merely asserting them to be so is plainly insufficient.

Further, it is crucial that the Church be known, as it has for centuries been known, as “holy Mother Church.” This is not the same as “Woman Church.” Woman Church is a church for feminists, who feel estranged from orthodoxy. It is quite honest of them to feel estranged. It would not be honest to alter orthodoxy to suit their agenda.

The Church is called mother because it includes all of us sinners, non-judgmentally as regards our sins, but quite jealously as regards our orthodoxy. Without orthodoxy, the church is not of God. For it would then be subject to any pressure group and any powerful Gnostic movement. Since all groups and every movement contain some element of truth, discernment is called for. Also prayer: And, finally, due reflection on prior historical precedents.

The Christian movement in its earliest years showed a remarkable openness towards women, Elaine Pagels notes in The Gnostic Gospels. “But from the year 200, we have no evidence for women taking prophetic, priestly, and episcopal roles among orthodox churches.” Her evidence makes clear that the battle over sexual images and sexual order in the early church formed one of the most important foundational battles of the first 150 years of the church’s existence. In this sense, the issue of feminism is not new; it is paradigmatic and permanent.

Gnostic Christians, Professor Pagels tells us, “assert that that which distinguishes the false from the true church is not its relationship to the clergy, but the level of understanding of its members, and the quality of their relationship to one another.” The Gnostics and the orthodox both claimed to speak for God about sexual doctrine, ritual, and clerical hierarchy, in the years leading up to 200 A.D. Professor Pagels again:

“From the bishop’s viewpoint, of course, the Gnostic position was outrageous. These heretics challenged his right to define what he considered to be his own church; they had the audacity to debate whether or not catholic Christians participated; and they claimed that their own group formed the essential nucleus, the “spiritual church.” Rejecting such religious elitism, orthodox leaders attempted instead to construct a universal church. Desiring to open that church to everyone, they welcomed members from every social class, every racial or cultural origin, whether educated or illiterate — everyone, that is, who would submit to their system of organization. The bishops drew the line against those who challenged any of the three elements of this system: doctrine, ritual, and clerical hierarchy — and the Gnostics challenged them all. Only by suppressing Gnosticism did orthodox leaders establish that system of organization which united all believers into a single institutional structure. They allowed no other distinction between first-and second-class members than that between the clergy and the laity, nor did they tolerate any who claimed exemption from doctrinal conformity, from ritual participation, and from obedience to the discipline that priests and bishops administered. Gnostic churches, which rejected that system for more subjective forms of religious affiliation, survived, as churches, for a only a few hundred years.”

Gnosticism, like all powerful heresies rooted in human nature, does not really die; periodically, sparks leap from its ashes and its ancient glow suffuses dark corners. Like Gnosticism, modern feminism is difficult to define; its elusive content is part of its purpose, part of its appeal, and part of its duplicity. It speaks of “the person,” “equality,” “maturity,” “raised consciousness.” Seeing through its claims is not easy. Doctrine, ritual, and clerical hierarchy are at stake. On all three, at the end of the twentieth as at the end of the second century, feminism and orthodoxy are in fundamental disagreement.

It is, indeed, difficult to go deeper into feminism without rejecting Catholicism; and the reverse. The issue, now that it has been raised, should not be treated as political. It goes to the substance of the symbols of faith.


Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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