“The wife obeys Christ when she obeys her husband” says Elise Crapuchettes in her book titled “Popes and Feminists: How the Reformation Frees Women from Feminism” (emphasis added). Such a claim of the divine legitimacy of patriarchy may not be so surprising to many readers today in light of evangelicals’ #MeToo moment, where Southern Baptist Seminary President Paige Patterson is being asked to resign for counseling submission to abuse.
The common and normative “submit to your husband no matter what” mentality is prevalent across a wide spectrum of Protestant denominations. I remember one conversation with another couple when I was part of a micro-Reformed Protestant subculture: A wife submits no matter what, even to the level of her husband telling her how to clean the toilet. “Yes, even if he says ‘with a toothbrush.’” When I disagreed with that kind of thinking, I was accused of having imbibed “the feminist philosophy.”
That is one of the most fundamental problems within these circles: they see “the evil of feminism” lurking behind assertions of even basic agency for women. Although this subculture has variegated branches, they all have in common a hierarchical complementarian theology developed by John Piper and Wayne Grudem as a response to egalitarian Protestants.
The kernel of hierarchical complementarity is the claim that the biblically mandated position of man-woman relations in marriage requires the subordination or submission of the woman to the man. Viewed from the Catholic perspective, both hierarchical complementarity and egalitarian theories of the relationship of husband and wife are distortions of their mutual submission to Christ and to one another, their distinctions as man and woman, and their ontological complementarity found in Catholic integral complementarity.
Swinging Between Extremes Is Not an Answer
No one can doubt that Crapuchettes and her fellow travelers dissent from feminism, which is antithetical to the doctrine of hierarchical complementarianism. Although the framing of the argument is nominally that of marriage, the application of the theory often spills over to broader male-female relations. Recently there has been a debate within this subculture about whether men can learn theology from women either by reading books written by women or by allowing women to become theology professors that teach men who are being trained as pastors. This context is very important in order to understand the author and her broader milieu. From her hierarchical complementarian perspective, the Catholic Church can seem more “egalitarian” and, depending on one’s degree of myopia, even “liberal” or “feminist.”
The working thesis of “Popes and Feminists”—which, despite its numerous footnotes, is a poorly sourced, poorly argued book deserving of anonymity if not for a favorable review in this space—is that modern feminism is like sixteenth-century Catholicism, telling women that they “have to leave the home to make a difference in the world,” and that it was the Reformers and the doctrines of the Reformation that set medieval women free from nunneries and the corruption of the Catholic Church, by setting them on the path to a high view of marriage and motherhood.
She does not prove her thesis. As a Catholic convert from the same Reformed persuasion as Crapuchettes, I’ve given her a hearing and attempted to read with charity. But in the final analysis, the only possible way for her claims to be true is if one collapses the entirety of Catholic teaching to a handful of half-truths, and to narrow the theologically rich Catholic Christianity down to some wicked popes and foul priests.
You don’t get points for linking wicked popes to today’s feminism. There are more logical and consequential historical lines to our modern problems. I don’t want to get into the blame game for who really is to blame for the culture out of which modern radical feminism arose. Amy Welborn has a hefty piece on that at The Catholic World Report.
Read Catholics Making Catholic Arguments
If you are going to accuse the Catholic Church of Manichaeism (by name or by implication), you should research and read what the church and her theologians wrote against this heresy, and how they clarified and distinguished Christian dogma from such heresies. In other words, if you’re going to claim that the Catholic Church taught that sex in marriage was a sin—which is what Crapuchettes claims—or that the church “redefined” grace, faith, and justification, you ought to be reading primary church documents, not the church’s theological enemies.
The book reeks of anti-Catholicism, of the unscholarly type, and that makes it difficult to take seriously. It’s intellectually sloppy for a Protestant to engage with the faith claims of Catholics while quoting Catholics in abbreviated form, through Protestant mouthpieces.
The rare case of a Catholic primary source does not fare much better. While researching Crapuchettes’s sources, I noticed a partial sentence from Sister Prudence Allen—a contemporary Catholic philosopher, and a brilliant expositor of the Catholic Church’s teaching on women and human dignity.
I happen to be familiar with some of her work, and I traced that partial sentence back to its source. Crapuchettes uses it in a way to make it look like Allen said the Catholic Church embraced Aristotle’s views (in particular on women) in their totality, yet it was taken from a discussion in which Allen was specifically discussing the scope and limitations of Aristotelian ideas the scholastics brought into the church. To be sure, some of Aristotle’s ideas about the inferiority of women did find their way into Catholic academia of the time. But they were also resisted.
Before addressing the core of her argument, I want to dispense with an accusation which many anti-Catholic Protestants often make. Crapuchettes—predictably—asserts that: “In Catholic theology (historically and presently), the authority of the pope supersedes the authority of the Word of God.” Anyone giving a reading to Catholic, or even fair non-Catholic sources will know this is pure falsehood, yet this historical slander finds a place in this book, one riddled with such false, didactic sentences.
The “bogeyman” claim of unwarranted doctrinal papal authority is also rich coming from an author who lives within a Benedict Option-type community, under the leadership of a man wielding immense authority over his congregation’s lives and having a history of questionable decision-making on their behalf. Suffice it to say that the publisher of Crapuchette’s book is the in-house company started by this pastoral leader of her community to disseminate the doctrines he holds.
Does the Catholic Church Second-Rate Marriage?
Crapuchettes accuses the Catholic Church of the sixteenth century of being like modern feminists because the church encouraged women to choose a single life devoted to God in a convent. She writes that there is a parallel between modern feminists telling women that their only worth lies outside the home in a career, and the Catholic Church telling women that the only way to true holiness is to forsake marriage, home, and family and to become a nun.
In both cases, she claims, modern feminists and the Catholic Church downplay the role of wife and mother for the sake of something better outside the home. Ergo, the Catholic Church is like modern feminists. Her words: “American culture might be, in some ways, just repackaged popery.”
The church’s teaching on this subject is quite simple, and biblical, as in it takes the Bible seriously and obeys the words of its founder, Jesus Christ. The Roman Catholic Church advances two fundamental vocations for the human person: marriage, and celibate religious life and the priesthood. Both rest on biblical principles of the good of marriage and family, and the good of a life devoted to God.
In Matthew 19, when Jesus responds to the Pharisees on the question of marriage and divorce, his crestfallen disciples say: “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is not expedient to marry.” Here’s his response to them:
Not all men can receive this precept, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it (emphasis added).
In 1 Corinthians 7:8-9,17, 27-28, and 32-34, Saint Paul writes:
I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own special gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain single as I do. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion…. Only, let every one lead the life which the Lord has assigned to him, and in which God has called him…. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek marriage. But if you marry you do not sin, and if a girl marries she does not sin. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that…. I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman or virgin is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please her husband.
Contra Crapuchettes—who ironically does not engage with the biblical text—this does not mean that married people can’t love God or are “unholy.” St. Augustine, in “Of the Good of Marriage,” writes, concerning the “either/or” dichotomy some people like to infer:
What there he [St. Paul] says, ‘She, that is unmarried, thinks of the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and spirit;’ we are not to take in such sense as to think that a chaste Christian wife is not holy in body.
The Catholic Church has never said that married women were not, or could not be, holy; she has only always maintained exactly what Scripture says, that the married man and woman’s first priority becomes their spouse and home, while the unmarried are free to devote themselves completely to God. Those who are called to marriage give the gift of themselves to their spouse, and those who are called to celibate priesthood or religious life (e.g., priests, monks, nuns, religious sisters and brothers) give the gift of themselves wholly to the kingdom of heaven. It is not my intention to give a full defense of the priesthood; Bishop Robert Barron makes a case here for those interested.
During the history of the Roman Catholic Church, both vocations existed from the time of Saint Paul, and the church has attempted to support both/and. There were seasons in the church when the surrounding culture may have placed emphasis on one rather than the other.
St. Jerome, for instance, is said to have erred on the side of virginity—to wit, holding up the celibate religious life as more excellent than marriage. Yes, there have been people in the history of the Roman Catholic Church who give the sense that somehow sex even within marriage carries with it a tinge of sin. But this is not the official teaching of the church.
The Catholic Church Highly Esteems Marriage
It is hard to argue that the Catholic Church holds marriage in low esteem when it is the Catholic Church, not Protestantism, that maintains marriage is a sacrament, and which continues to maintain after 2,000 years, contra all the Protestant world, that Jesus meant what he said about divorce (Matthew 19: 3-12).
The Protestant view? Well, in a chapter titled “Protestant Marriage Instead of Catholic Celibacy,” Crapuchettes quotes a Heinrich von Kettenbach, a Franciscan monk who joined the Protestant Reformation: “I believe that God has so established marriage, that a pious married person, even one who has been married three times, is more esteemed by God than a monk or a nun who has been chaste for thirty years. Therefore, I reckon the fruit of marriage to be a hundredfold, and that of monks and nuns [the equivalent of] three ripe pears.”
Apparently, in Crapuchette’s book, an ex-monk putting words in God’s mouth without justification suffices as an argument for serial marriage and against chastity.
My argument is not that there are no unfaithful Catholics. There have always been unfaithful followers of Christ throughout the church’s history, whether they were ordinary men and women, priests, bishops, or popes. Even today some dioceses have a relaxed annulment process that makes a mockery of what the Catholic Church officially teaches. There are also bishops, priests, and parishioners who do not faithfully practice the church’s teaching on contraception, marriage, divorce, remarriage, and other social and familial teaching.
So yes, there is definitely a disconnect in some places between the official teaching of the church and its implementation on the local level. This is why faithful Catholics are constantly calling on their brethren to repent and believe the gospel, and to walk faithfully in the truth of Christ.
In some Catholic circles today, there is a lot of talking and writing about the good of marriage and the family. No one means that as a disparagement of the vocation to the priesthood or religious life, but to some it can seem like that, just like in times past, due to the state of the surrounding culture, there may have been emphasis on the vocations to the priesthood and religious life, in a way that may have seemed demeaning to married life. The world needs both, and the Roman Catholic Church is at her best when both vocations are functioning properly and strengthening each other.
The Catholic Church at Its Best Celebrates Women
Crapuchettes makes many unfounded claims to boost her thesis that the Catholic Church was a dark, evil brothel, and the Protestant Reformation set all women free from this whorehouse. The Protestant motto from that time—post tenebras lux—which means, “after darkness, light,” echoes throughout her book.
Yet Crapuchettes is oddly silent on 2,000 years’ worth of Catholic women who worked side-by-side with men, within the Catholic Church and in their families for the sake of the gospel: the women of the New Testament, Monica the mother of Augustine, Hildegard of Bingen, Catherine of Siena, Christine de Pizan, Teresa of Ávila, modern women like Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa; and women without number up and down the centuries, married and unmarried, who lived by faith in Jesus and gave their all for the kingdom of heaven; women of whom the world is not worthy.
The Roman Catholic Church is not afraid to call some of these women doctors of the church, because they are seen as top-tier theologians, from whom all—women and men—can learn of the glory of God and man’s place in the cosmos.
The Roman Catholic Church today has the most complete, beautiful, and robust doctrine on love, marriage, and sexuality. This didn’t come about ex nihilo. It was a struggle, a product of 2,000 years of faithfulness by brilliant men and women working out their calling in the church, and yes, by sometimes correcting her from within. In “Popes and Feminists,” Crapuchettes attempts to teach women that being a wife and a mother is a good and high calling—a noble desire to be sure, and one I favor—but what a grievous and destructive approach.