It’s Time for a Pro-Woman Defense of Controversial Catholic Teaching


Despite boasting one-fifth of the world’s population, the Catholic Church is by no means a “popular” institution. Classical teachings on abortion, premarital sex, divorce, and especially contraception are thought by many — both outside the Church and within — to reek of old-fashioned ideas of sex at best and, at worst, patriarchal views of women. The reservation of the priesthood to men, for its part, is often simply regarded as male chauvinism. These Church teachings lead many to wonder how any self-respecting woman (or woman-loving man) can stay and pray within the Catholic Church.

One could assume that many ordinary Catholics dispensed with the teachings on sex and marriage during the turbulent 1960s for the simple reason that these teachings are difficult to live — that they require, for some of us, a degree of self-control and selflessness that is beyond ordinary means.

But history reveals another force at work as well. For just as the world was coming to believe that there was more intrinsic value to sex than procreation, and that there is more to being a woman than birthing and nurturing children, the Church, too, was articulating a more nuanced understanding of human sexuality and the nature of women. A substantial number of vocal theologians believed that such development of doctrine was a sure sign that, at long last, the Church would “modernize” its teachings on abortion, sex, and marriage — and on the priesthood as well.

This hoped-for view prevailed among progressive-minded academics and activists to such an extent that the Church was ill-prepared to handle their immediate protest of Humanae Vitae, the 1968 encyclical reaffirming the Church’s prohibition of contraception. Almost overnight, Catholics, whether in the pews or in the seminaries, received the strong impression from dissident theologians (through the mouthpiece of the media and the lecterns of the Catholic colleges at which they taught) that the Church was wrong about its teaching on contraception — and perhaps about much else when it came to human sexuality. The only responsible thing for a thoughtful Catholic to do, according to these academics, was to ignore Church teachings and “follow one’s conscience.”

To be fair, the Church did give these theologians a foothold for their views in the Vatican’s modern reconsideration of sex and women. While the Church had always prioritized the procreative, or “baby-making,” aspect of conjugal sex, buttressed by theological treatises that derided sexual pleasure even within marriage, she began to draw much more attention to the unitive, or lovemaking, aspect of marriage in the modern period.

Similarly, the Church’s views on the nature of women
also shifted. Increased papal attention just prior to the Second Vatican Council to the dignity and equality of women was ratified in the Council’s denunciation of sexual discrimination and support for greater recognition of the rights of women. In the wake of these changes, many waited with bated breath for the Church to dismantle restrictions on abortion, contraception, divorce, and sex outside of marriage, and to clear the way for a married priesthood open to women.

But no change came — or has come in the decades since. Indeed, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have taken every opportunity to reaffirm the Church’s constant teaching on abortion, sex outside of marriage, divorce, contraception, and the priesthood. They have done this even as they continue to articulate, and rearticulate in new ways, the Church’s modern recognition of the dual purposes of sexuality and of women’s fundamental equality with men.

John Paul II has been called John Paul the Great in part because he began the difficult task of reexamining and rearticulating biblical truths and Church teaching in light of modern philosophical insights into the human person and human experience, foremost among them freedom and equality. John Paul’s theology of the body, and the “new feminism” he championed, have afforded many intellectually curious Catholics a strong theoretical explanation for many truths of the faith that have been challenged in recent decades, especially those concerning sexuality and the role of women in the Church and in the world.

And yet, despite the rich theological explanation of these controversial topics in recent years, as well as a vibrant orthodox faith practiced by many John Paul II-inspired young Catholics, the Church continues to be perceived as anti-woman and anti-sex, sometimes virulently so. It’s as though some inside (and outside) the Church cannot fathom how the Catholic Church can so appreciate the dignity of women and the beauty of sex, and yet still stand firm in her views on abortion, sex, marriage, and the priesthood. For many, a deep disconnect remains between the Church’s new, modern emphasis on equality and freedom and her continued adherence to traditional teachings.

A practical, pro-woman defense of these controversial teachings is required to bridge the gap. As the late and beloved Elizabeth Fox-Genovese wrote: “A viable new feminism must directly confront the realm of practice . . . the real terrain of struggle . . . for most women understand their lives within [that] context” (Women in Christ). Ordinary Catholics (and non-Catholics alike) need to understand, in non-theological terms, why self-respecting women and women-loving men can faithfully live these controversial Church teachings in the modern world.

Abundant empirical evidence now exists that corroborates Church teaching on sex and marriage: straying from such teaching harms women, while embracing it helps women to flourish. John Paul II supplied the theology. Secular researchers substantiated it in practice. It’s now up to us to boldly proclaim it.

This essay is an excerpt from
Women, Sex & the Church: A Case for Catholic Teaching, now available from Pauline Books & Media.

Erika Bachiochi


Erika Bachiochi holds a J.D. from Boston University School of Law (2002) and a M.A. in Theology from Boston College (1999) where she was a Bradley Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Religion and Politics. She obtained her undergraduate degree magna cum laude at Middlebury College (1997) where she majored in Political Science, minored in Sociology (and took enough credits to fulfill a minor in Women

  • Bruce

    Very, very well said! smilies/smiley.gif

  • Paul

    I especially like: “For many, a deep disconnect remains between the Church’s new, modern emphasis on equality and freedom and her continued adherence to traditional teachings.” People want a church that allows them to commit sin and still be able to call themselves a “good Catholic.” A Church without a moral compass is desired because who wants to hear about sin these days. Does sin even exist in this moral relativistic society? Etc.

  • Melinda T

    To Nice: I agree with you to a point – from my own experience I can affirm your point of view but – that is not the whole story – some of the protest against Catholic tradition comes from a deep misunderstanding of its teachings and not simply a desire to avoid personal responsibility..We need to recognize this in order to “bridge the gap” the article speaks of. Without this recognition its hard to have a real discussion with folks who hold that the the church is old fashioned and out of step..And I want to be able to bridge that gap with some of my friends whom I love dearly and yet find myself at logger heads on these issues – since I was recently received into the church there is already a lively curiosity from my friends on how someone as “progressive” as I am could accept the teachings and traditions of the Catholic church – so I need to be prepared to explain the church’s position in a way that really engages the reason while at the same time does not compromise on the issues of moral right and wrong…that’s why I am truly looking forward to reading this book:}

  • Mary

    won’t endear Catholic “tradition” to any self-respecting woman with two brain cells. Why would such women obey the marriage- and maternal health-ruining nonsense of PEDOPHILE clergy when the Gospels show Jesus never condemning the respected mid wife/ABORTIONISTS and their RU486-like Queen Annes Lace weed of his day? What smart women would risk bankrupting and deadly multiple organ failures, autoimmune diseases, strokes, stinky childbirth fistulas, and face and breast cancers every time they have sex just because “celibate” Father Pedophile and Pope Nazinger apply their cosmetic “unitive” spin on these frequent medical tragedies and resulting funerals, divorces, annulments, and sexual abuse of their neglected children? Does the author know or care that God gave women 450 known abortifacients like coffee, tea, consecrated wine and a zillion other kitchen staples to free women of humiliating bladder- and bowel-busting childbirth? Just because the early church got hijacked by pedophiles and closet gays who detested their same-age or wrong-gendered wives doesn’t make centuries of pious misogyny Divinely endorsed. I pray that governments everywhere will muster the courage to criminally prosecute the Vatican and its minions for pushing its unholy Munchausen by Proxy medical abuse of women and NFP-caused intersex gays. Denying disease-preventing devices like condoms and birth control pills is medical MALPRACTICE and MURDER. NFP ruined my mother’s mental and physical health and marriage, and it also ruined all the Catholic families we knew. Meanwhile, the parish pedophile and playboy priests all made out like bandits.

  • Micha Elyi

    “A viable new feminism” is as untruthful as a viable new Protestantism would be. Every form of female-firsterism is based on pagan gynolatry and is incompatible with Christianity.

  • Andrew

    To Melinda: I think while it’s good to be able to explain the Church’s teachings, Catholics should accept what Mother Church says – believing it because the mother said it – not only after time spent trying to understand it.

    If people misunderstand the Faith, and that’s why they reject it, perhaps it’s because they have it all backwards. Maybe if they accept it with faith, then they’ll be able to understand it with humility.

  • Bob

    I think that it is important to note that Matters of Dogma require our acceptance, not necessarily our full understanding and “signing off on them” so to speak.

    There are a couple of ways to look at problematic issues.

    One is that one cannot accept something unless they fully understand it. By this measure none of us could even be Christian for we cannot fully understand the mysteries of Christ’s salvic mission, how grace works, the Trinity or a whole host of other issues.

    The other is to recognize that, even though we may not fully understand an issue we can accept it on the authority of the Church to “bind and loose”. By this we can recognize that no dogmatic declaration is ever made lightly or without considerable study and prayer. We also know that Christ established a Church specifically to deal with such issues and to settle such disagreements.

    The first method requires that a person render judgment on a matter of faith. This requires that said person fully investigate all of the relevant documents, declarations, history etc. In essence it requires the individual to fully re-investigate the matter and then, they must feel confident enough in their own infallibility to render a judgment contrary to that which the Church has set forth.

    The Second method only requires that an individual assent to the possibility that the Church, with all of her history and resourses, might know a bit more about a given issue than the individual does. So while the individual might be able to say, “I’m not sure about this dogma”, they can also say, “I accept the teaching on faith in Christ, His promises and His Church”.

    In reality I doubt that their are many catholics out there who fully understand and accept EVERY teaching of the Church. There ARE many who accept the teachings on faith.
    I certainly fall into the second category.

  • Jarvey

    We don’t need a new “pro-woman” anything – since its this idea that we need to be pro-woman that got us into this predicament. Every time I look at a Catholic site, there’s someone talking about a new way to reaffirm womanhood.

    From the moment that Eve was created, womanhood, motherhood, sisterhood and all those “hoods” have been affirmed, confirmed and discerned. Women need to live their role more than simply talking about – and that is the genius of woman.

    Who are we trying to convince? Men? Well, they’ll do just about anything to snag one of us and convince us to marry them and bear their children, so they don’t need much convincing.

    Priests? I’ve never met a good priest who still doesn’t get googly eyed when talking about his own mother or one without a rosary between his fingers or at least in his pocket.

    Other women? Other women who are constantly looking for affirmation have bought into the lies that women are oppressed and need to be liberated from men and babies.

    And I’m tired of the lines that are repeated again and again that there is more to being a women “than birthing and nurturing children”. Perhaps there is more, just as there is more to a man than “bringing home the bacon”. But in phrasing these things thusly, we belie the fundamental importance of both of these roles and we demean: women, motherhood, children, manliness, marriage and a host of other things that we should be affirming.

  • Marthe L

    It seems to me, and that is based on long experience, that a good part of the problem has been that women find it difficult, often for good reason, to accept men’s interpretation of church teaching. In the past, that kind of interpretation has been very self-serving. Back in 1970, I almost left the Catholic church, after suffering so much rejection that I came to think that, if God gave me my talents, and may I add in very generous amount, He must have known what He was doing and it could not be wrong for me to try to use such talents. On the other hand, having grown up in Catholic French speaking Quebec, I heard too many comments that made me feel that I was unwelcome in my community. For example, while I only obtained a Bachelor in Commerce degree because my mother had her heart set on my becoming an accountant, but there were almost no openings for women in that field at that time, I was told by a young man who was very active in my parish that “I would be happier if I contented myself with being a secretary like everyone else.” Another time I felt rejected just because I had a higher paying job than some other women, since I was accused of “stealing the job of a breadwinner”. And these are only two examples among many that are a bit more difficult to explain because they were not always worded… All this brought me to wonder if I belonged in that particular church, considering it was not my fault that I had been gifted, and that, frankly speaking, even now more than 40 year later, I think that if I had been asked whether or not I wanted such gifts, I would have answered with a resoundint NO! However, luckily, or as a further gift from Providence, I had already registered for a 6 day retreat away in France when these doubts came to me, and I resolved to wait until after the retreat before making a final decision. And, of course, I was able to figure out during that retreat, with some help, that there was a difference between “the Church” and “the people in the Church”, and I remained a Catholic.
    Another point I would like to make is that, although I fully agree that women are not destined to become priests, too much of the teaching and the interpretations of scripture has been done for too long from the point of view of men. And, I must add, that sometimes were even in a “conflict of interest” position because they saw women essentially as “helpers” for them. Of course it was not really out of selfishness or ill intent, it was mostly a reflection of their culture.
    Therefore, instead of saying like a lot of feminists that the Church should adapt to contemporary culture, I would say that there should be more women involved in teaching from a woman’s perspective. I remember years ago reading a very good book by a woman (if I manage to locate it among my piles of books, I could come back with the title) explaining that much of StPaul’s teaching was actually favourable to women of his time. One example I recall is that in Paul’s time Roman laws made it a punishable offence for a woman not to marry, therefore Paul’s suggestions relative to the possibility for some women to choose to remain virgins and to not marry were actually a big step forward for women. There are several other examples in that book. We need more of that kind of scripture study from a woman’s perspective and based on some knowledge of the historical context of the writings. And this does not mean a strictly “women-centered” explanation. After all, is does seem that much of what we have heard or read in the past about similar subjects has been “men-centered” and nobody seemed to mind…
    Another point: How many of you have noticed how little is said in the Gospel about St Joseph? The way I see it, whenever he is mentioned, it is to be told to do something for Mary and Jesus, such as accepting Mary in spite of her pregnancy, fleeing with Mary and Jesus to Egypt and when to come back, working to earn a living for his family, etc. And he seems to have always obeyed without argument or complaint. Is it not interesting that very few Gospel interpretations concluded from this that it is the husband and father in a family that is supposed to serve his wife and child(ren)? It is much more satisfying, and maybe easier, for a man to insist on Paul’s admonition to a wife to submit to her husband as the Church submits to Christ…
    Contrary to many “orthodox” Catholics, it is my opinion that “feminism” is not necessarily a dirty word. After all, without early feminists, women might still not be allowed to vote, it might still be considered, if not normal, at least not necessarily an indictable offence, for a man to beat his wife, and in case of rape the onus would still be on the victim to prove that she had such a pure and chaste lifestyle that she could not possibly have had even a shred of responsibility in provoking the assault, etc…

  • Barefoot Momma

    I think the comments truly affirm the point of the article. There does need to be a bridge, because all too often very real issues are swept under the rug and ignored. I love the teachings of Momma Church and embrace them, knowing that true freedom is found there. However, what about girls who are given in marriage at the onset of puberty and often end up with fistulas or even die in childbirth? They are subjugated by men who refuse to accept the equal dignity of women.

    The Church admits to mistakes – she is in this world and her shepherds are not perfect. Many of them have bought into the idea that women are less than men. The feminist movement, originally pro-life, was very necessary. Women have had to made their voices heard to have the right to own property, the right to vote, the right to work in an environment free of sexual abuse. We need to be the women today who make our voices heard for Momma Church!

  • S

    It’s time that you stop treating man as God and let your own conscious decide. If your conscious is telling you that the Church’s teachings are wrong, stop making excuses for them. You are capable of interpreting the Bible yourself. Jesus is your direct intermediary to God. As for me, I will NOT throw away my health by allowing myself to become pregnant. Despite what miracles may occur, I find it hard to believe the Jesus in the Bible would condemn me for using contraceptives with my husband in order to keep me as healthy as possible. Not everyone can carry a pregnancy to term without severely risking her life. I rather not become pregnant in the first place instead of becoming pregnant and having my baby die because my body cannot support it properly. For these reasons, I push past my role as a mother which I am supposed to assume when I become wife.