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Does Feminism Treat Women Like The Medieval Catholic Church Did?


It’s an intriguing proposition: that feminist dogma and Roman Catholic theology treat women’s pursuit of vocation in substantially similar ways. It’s especially so coming not from a U.S. nuns’ network or Jesuit institution, but from a Reformed housewife, whose take is decidedly different from a feminist whitewash of Catholic theology.

In “Popes and Feminists: How the Reformation Frees Women from Feminism,” Elise Crapuchettes argues that medieval Catholic theology and modern feminist ideology both validate women largely in terms of their production. While the Catholic church located women’s value in their spiritually flavored works, particularly taking orders as nuns, feminism locates women’s value in their marketplace flavored works, notably a masculine-style career path.

The book is a lively read full of juicy quotes and historical anecdotes. I’d wager most moderns are not very familiar with medieval mental frameworks, and this book necessarily delves into that atmosphere to make its argument. It describes a time in world history when the Catholic church was, at least in the West, all-encompassing and extremely powerful. As Crapuchettes describes, religious festivals, ceremonies, and requirements dominated everyday life, both private and public.

“Most importantly, the Church told people where they stood with God. Most people lived in fear of the afterlife, and the Church told them that the only way to avoid the agonies of Hell, spend less time suffering in Purgatory, and get to the glories of Heaven was by following her rules,” she writes. In an era when life was far more unpredictable, “nasty, brutish, and short,” natural and social pressure to focus on the afterlife enhanced church power. So did the church’s deep entanglement with politics.

Oddly Parallel Anti-Marriage, Tortured-Sex Positions

That allowed the Catholic church to define social rules to its own advantage, power it amassed and abused. Crapuchettes details the church overlooking essentially in-house brothels and telling both men and women that their access to eternal bliss was more secure if they became monks and nuns than if they married. To reinforce these points, churchmen wrote polemics against marriage.

It can be jarring to read Catholic theologians describe women, sex, and marriage in terms that today emanate more typically from feminist types, especially since in modern times the Catholic Church remains one of the few predominant defenders of marriage and family. But according to Crapuchettes, many were essentially the Jezebel bloggers of their day, at least on the topic of marriage.

The pope himself wrote that marriage was “impure” and that “one cannot serve God and be married.” Church fathers such as Augustine, Ambrose, and Jerome told Christians that virginity was far preferable to marriage, and marriage more a second-class resort for those who were not good enough to stave off sexual desire.

These apparently quaint ideas almost seem in resurgence today, however, yet from feminists’ #MeToo movement problematizing sex and reporting its enactment as essentially icky. Both the sexual harassment hysteria and the ideas emanating from medieval theologians Crapuchettes quotes seem to divide sex into a dirty, lust-filled, and forbidden side, which is kept from public view and discussion, all while publicly airing the consequences of these views in a general distaste for the opposite sex and the natural results of their relations (family and civilization).

The War Between the Sexes: As Old as Adam, Eve, and Sin

Crapuchettes says the result in medieval times was particularly poor treatment of women (although of course men are also not ennobled when their sexual encounters are essentially limited to nuns and prostitutes). Women were characterized as both disgusting temptresses and pedestal-topping replications of the Virgin Mary, relegated to either sex objects or untouchable religious icons. Their value was seen in their external production capability, either of pleasurable sexual experiences for men or in often-coerced prayers and other so-called spiritual works. The theological and cultural state of the time was to divide men and women from each other and, thus, from the happiness and virtue they can and do naturally produce together in a family and home.

Sound familiar? In fact, one of the most encouraging observations Crapuchettes makes, nearly as an aside, is that the messed-up sexual ethics of the time mirror those of ours.

It is fair to say marriage in early modern Europe was a tangled mess, and that should remind us of marriage in modern America. We see people getting married later; so did they. We have rampant pornography; they had a robust prostitution industry. For our high rates of cohabitation, they had pervasive fornication. In both the Roman Church then and the American church now, the practice of marriage is not as distinguishable from the world’s practice as it should be. This is because Christians fail to see the connection between marriage and family and advancing the kingdom, fulfilling the cultural mandate, and building a Christian civilization. As we’ll see, the [church] Reformers responded to this disparagement of marriage with a vigorous theology and purpose for families. They reinstated biblical joy in marriage, which their surrounding culture needed as much as ours does.

This is a hopeful passage even though it treats of many distasteful facts, because if civilization could address this kind of situation once, it could perhaps do so again. From there Crapuchettes goes on to discuss how the Protestant Reformation helped wipe away these distortions of women’s creative capacities and relations between the sexes more broadly. A theological renewal led to cultural renewal, here stemming from rethinking two primary human functions: sex and work.

How Sola Fide Affects Women’s Everyday Lives

The central theological question of the Reformation was justification: How we are saved from sin into eternal life. Martin Luther’s central dispute with the Catholic Church — although obviously, of course, there were many — was related to its use of indulgences. That would be essentially endorsing people earning their way into heaven by good works, manifested most openly in exchanging what they said were pardons or reductions in the spiritual consequences of people’s sins in exchange for certain actions, such as charitable donations, paying for Masses, performing penance, and so forth.

Luther’s own conversion story is tied into the theology underpinning these practices, which together are exhibitions of the idea that people can help save themselves through their own works. A central insight the Reformation recovered was that the Christian faith is the only religion that teaches people they can do nothing to save themselves. Not penance, not becoming nuns or monks, not paying for Masses, or anything else, but “sola fide,” “sola gratia,” and “sola Christus“: solely through faith, by grace, which are free and full gifts from Jesus Christ.

It is Christ who does the entire work of redeeming sinners from the just consequences of their sins, the Reformers taught. Salvation is a free gift: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.”

So what does this have to do with feminism? It directly undercuts the idea that women have to be or do anything to justify themselves. Christ has done it all, and he is faithful and sufficient to complete that saving work in his kids. Remember, women were told as a pressure tactic to get them to become nuns that it would help them achieve salvation. They were doing it to validate themselves through their works.

Not incidentally, feminism has a similar effect on women by implying or outright stating that the measure of a woman’s worth, her validation, comes from following the feminist life script. “Lean In,” you might call it. If it is false — and the Reformation insists that it is — women are freed from the warping effects of requirements God has not placed upon them. Their value is in God creating them and himself redeeming them, not in anything they do. It’s eternal, enduring, and entirely unrelated to their efforts.

This manifested itself during and after the Reformation, Crapuchettes says, in women’s flourishing, which fostered family and cultural flourishing more broadly. Crapuchettes illustrates the variety and character of this freedom in a series of mini-biographies of Reformation women. They abandoned their nunneries, married (or a few times not), and engaged themselves in a great variety of service to their neighbors — not in a manipulated effort to get themselves into heaven, but in a celebration of their freedom from that very demand.

A Postlude

A few minor criticisms before I conclude. As a fellow Protestant, obviously I disagree with Catholic theology. Even so, in reading the book I winced several times at a tone that seemed unnecessarily alienating to potential Catholic readers. Now, perhaps it is their theology that is alienating rather than the tone, but perhaps more attention could have been made to appeal to our Catholic sisters in charity, possibly through recognizing the Catholic Church’s much improved ethos regarding women and families today.

Another potentially profitable line of inquiry could have been in Crapuchettes taking a more critical eye towards her own flavor of Christianity. In my experience, for example, today’s evangelicals frequently slip into the very theological error her entire book critiques, what is sometimes called “works righteousness”: efforts to contribute to salvation, or “make God happy,” through good works.

Evangelicals don’t do this exactly the same way Catholics and feminists do, but, for example, they often do when urging Christians to tell others about Christ as if the world’s salvation depends on their evangelistic acts rather than on Christ himself. Many young evangelicals are also taught that they are somehow holier if they dedicate their lives to “ministry,” whether through becoming pastors, missionaries, worship leaders, or whatever other flavor of church worker.

These spiritual burdens placed on today’s women stem from the same theological errors Crapuchettes targets. Our Christian sisters deserve to see those truths applied to the contemporary errors enslaving them that share theological roots with feminism and monasticism, which as historical errors are easier for them to disconnect from themselves.