How is it that even today, in this era of rights for women, of Wonder Woman and Hilary Clinton running for president and women astronauts and women CEOs, little girls are still taught beliefs specifically designed to limit their thinking and teach them that they aren’t built to be superheroes and presidents and astronauts and CEOs?
Even though today’s church is trying very hard to convince us that the Catholic belief system has great respect for women and considers women equal to men, the fundamental belief system has not changed, including the belief that women are separate from men, that we are different, and less. The roots of this belief go back to the very beginning - everything the church believes (and teaches) about women, everything we learned about ourselves, comes from the story of Adam and Eve.
On the surface, it’s a quaint, harmless children’s story, a simple myth created out of older myths to explain where we came from and who we are. But the story of Adam and Eve is anything but harmless. It is the basis for belief in the inherently sinful nature of human beings, for identification of the female with sin, and for identification of sex with sin.
It is also the basis for the church’s separation of humanity into two different groups that do not intersect. According to the church, all men are different from all women, and all men have one set of attributes while all women have a different set.
This division, this dualistic thinking, is the foundation for 2,000 years of persecution and subjugation of women, from historical killings and torture to the controlling, self-crushing beliefs still taught to girls in today’s world. All of it goes back to that one single root: the church’s acceptance of a division of humanity into two sets: men and women.
What’s wrong with dualism?
Dualism divides options and choices into two and only two, like yes or no, right or wrong, black or white. Dualism is hardwired into our primitive brains because it helped keep us alive. Those who saw people as either friends (they won’t kill me) or foes (they want to kill me) were able to react immediately, and avoid getting killed.
Dualistic thinking seems to make sense because it simplifies complex situations. And there are times where dualism is a good way to think – especially when survival is at stake, and instantaneous decisions are needed.
But in today’s complex world, dualism is also the root cause of injustice and oppression. Dividing people into two groups, like black and white, inevitably leads to the primacy of one group over the other. Explains Nathan Palmer in Sociology in Focus:
[E]very system of oppression is built on a foundation of dualism. White supremacy holds white people and everything associated with them above people of color and everything associated with people of color…. Patriarchy and misogyny emerge from the belief that males and masculinity are superior to females and femininity. Antagonistic dualisms are at the heart of homophobia, xenophobia, religious bigotry, and prejudice and discrimination of every kind.
Dualism also stifles creativity, because it trains the mind to think in terms of two and only two choices. Creativity and innovation depend on the ability to think of possibilities beyond just two options. Creative thinkers have developed habits of thinking that let them see a much wider set of possibilities. Binary thinkers whose minds are trained to expect just two choices become locked into narrow, limited ways of thinking.
And, disturbingly, training people to be binary thinkers makes them much easier to control. Teaching people to think dualistically, to see the world in terms of only two choices, leads to the acceptance of the apparent logic that one choice is right, so the other choice must be wrong. One group of people is us so the other must be them.
At its extreme, us / them thinking is used by totalitarian leaders to convince their followers to carry out genocides and ethnic cleansing, such as the Holocaust, the genocide of Ukrainians by the USSR, the Cambodian genocide, the Armenian genocide, and today the ongoing genocide in Myanmar against the Rohingya Muslims.
The dualistic Catholic system we were taught
We learned what little children are still taught when they’re taught the story of Adam and Eve: God created man and then woman, and so they are different, and they belong to separate groups. Adam was created because God wanted him; Eve was created because Adam felt incomplete. Man was created in God’s image; Eve was created from Adam’s rib.
Historically, church teachings about women were explicit, and explicitly based on Adam and Eve. Here are a few from the men who created the Catholic belief system.
- “Every woman should be filled with shame by the thought that she is a woman” (Clement of Alexandria)
- Women were the reason Jesus had to die on the cross; they were the “gate to hell,” and a “temple built over a sewer” (Tertullian)
- Men by themselves are the image of God, while women are not, they are merely men’s helpmates (St Augustine)
- Women have faulty and defective natures; their feelings drive them to evil while reason drives men to good. They are by nature lying, deceptive creatures; one must “be on guard against every woman as if she were a poisonous snake and the horned devil” (St Albert the Great)
- Women are defective and misbegotten (St Thomas Aquinas).
- "Amongst all the savage beasts, none is found so harmful as woman" (John Chrysostom)
Throughout church history, the vitriol against women went on and on and on. From one perspective, the Catholic belief system caused an unknowable amount of violence by men against women, from domestic violence and domestic murder to church-conducted torture and murder. From a different perspective, imagine the effects of being taught the above about ourselves. Can you think of a more effective way to disempower and subjugate half the human race?
And all of it is based on the dualism of Adam and Eve.
In the mid-20th century, the church’s rhetoric started to change – not because of any internal examination of its attitudes and teachings about women, but because of external events. The women’s suffrage movement, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the Convention on the Rights of Women in Politics in 1952, the dedication of the UN to advancing women’s rights worldwide, the feminist movement – the times were changing, and women were being empowered to examine what they’d been taught about themselves and their rights. The church saw the need to mollify women members who were starting to question the church’s rhetoric. And so it figured out how to change its language without changing anything else.
Today, the church reassures women that they’re just as equal as men. They just belong to a different set, with different roles and responsibilities. They have feminine genius; they complement men by supplying traits men lack.
In other words, women are still not us. Us is men – all like Adam, all like God, all like Jesus and the prophets and apostles. And women are not - cannot - be us. As Mary Daly writes in Beyond God the Father, “All women are deviants from the male norm of humanity.”
It is still a hierarchical division of humanity into two separate sets. The rhetoric has been dialed back but the core story, the dualism, is the same. And the effect of being women raised with this belief system is still disempowerment. We are still taught to think dualistically, and we are still taught to believe what Catholic male leadership teaches us about who we are and what we are capable of.