Reverend R. A. Shackles
Among radical feminists there is a strong misunderstanding of the relationship between the Church’s regard for women and the objection that the Church disrespects the contribution of women. The reality is that women have, from the beginning—Eve in the Garden of Eden—throughout every aspect of Church life to the present have exercised great influence and have been magnificently respected and revered for their invaluable contributions to the spiritual power of the Church. It is in rejection of this radical feminist “judgment” against the Church that we offer this essay.
The Old Testament evidences numerous examples of women’s effectiveness in Jewish history. There is the impact of Eve on Adam with his negative impact on the Church. Perhaps a problem for some women today lies in our allowing our evaluation of women to be smothered in the loss known in the Fall. Today’s feminist anger at the Church, in this sense, stands as based in the fault of failing to know and understand real history. Some of the most powerful effects of the quality of the true Church have been the effect women like Deborah as Judge (Ruler) in Israel’s life; Sarah and her faithful effect on Abraham. Always made clear un God’s affection for women in His honoring the Blessed Virgin Mary in making her Mother of His Son. Women continue to impact the Church in such as Mary Magdalene as the first witness to the Risen Christ; for Paul, there were women like Priscilla who with her husband, was a close adviser to that Saint, as many other named women in the New Testament.
Later, especially in medieval times, the power of the Church was marvelously sustained by great women – now revered as Saints — whose witness much of the time saved the Church from the errors of the men charged with leadership in the Apostolic call to Christ’s truth. Here is a list—not complete by any means – of holy women of whom it may be suggested saved the Church from failure in faith and doctrine, especially their spiritual integrity.
Angela of Foligno (1248-1309); Birgitta of Sweden (b. 1302); Madeileinne de Saint-Joseph (17th century); Catherine of Siena (b. 1847, d. 1380); Teresa of Avila (b. 1515, d. 1582); Mechthild of Magdeburg c. 1208, c. 1282/94); Hadewijch (13th century); Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179); Julian of Norwich (14th-15th century); and Catherine of Genoa (1447-1510).
These great ladies of the Lord often took bishops to task, including major rebukes even to Popes! It was a great leader, Hilda, Abbess of Whitby, in England, who forced a divided church (Celtic and Roman) to resolve their conflicts and come to unity. In great part, it was Teresa of Avila who was responsible for leading to faith incredibly pious St. John of the Cross. All of the above-named women – and so many more — brought a witness to the Faith that on occasion literally saved the Church (as institution) from herself. Even today, these women are listened to, long after their earthly witness. Some like Julian of Norwich and Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila,Angela of Fotigna – and others – still influencing Christians by their wonderful contributions to the Faith.
It continues still (though admittedly not with the same “public” acclamation). In a popular book catalog, the listings for powerful women spiritual leaders takes up a number of pages, women impressive in the list of spiritual leaders. And who even for a moment can fail to recall a saintly woman—who, again, chided even Popes! — Mother Theresa of Calcutta? The point to radical feminists protesting against a supposed anti-feminine Church is, as an old comedy tape of an evangelist, “open up the Book and take a look.” Put simply it is not that women have been disrespected by the Church. Rather, it is that many, not having “read the record,” literally just don’t know what they are talking about – the truth that women have been powerful in the witness of the Church – and are increasingly so in contemporary times.