Why The Catholic Church Will Never Change

A billboard erected in greensboro north carolina in early 2017

A billboard erected in greensboro north carolina in early 2017

The Catholic church is trying very hard these days to position itself as pro-women. It knows its membership is declining in the developed world, and it knows the steepest decline is to be found among millennial women – a concerning trend. And so the church has taken to issuing statements that reassure women they are just as valued as men, and just as equal. It is also issuing statements of unprecedented support for women's dignity and rights. In 2004, for example, Pope John Paul II called on Catholic bishops to develop “a deeper understanding of the dignity of women and their role in human society and in the Church.” In 2016, Pope Francis even expressed his admiration for the women’s movement, in which, he wrote, can be found “the working of the Spirit for a clearer recognition of the dignity and rights of women.”

As a result of these and so many similar efforts, there is much excitement among Catholic women, who desperately hope this new rhetoric signals an end to Catholic misogyny and the dawn of a new age of equality for women within the church.

This hope is a delusion.

Perhaps if we lived during the Middle Ages, we could believe this new direction. During the Middle Ages women were illiterate and powerless, and had no choice but to believe everything the church taught, including their own inferiority.

But it’s not the Middle Ages, and we are no longer illiterate and powerless. We have learned to read, and to think, and not to accept what we are told but to look for truth. And despite copious assurances from church leadership that we are valued, and equal, the truth is that the church has not morphed into something different. No matter how many statements the pope issues, no matter how church leadership tries to reassure women that the church now believes they are equal, the foundational misogynist beliefs have not been disavowed. The fundamentals have not changed.

Where did these fundamentals come from?

They didn’t come from Jesus. In the New Testament there is no record of him teaching that women are less than men, or are unacceptable as disciples. Despite the extreme patriarchal culture in which he lived, he brought his teachings to human beings – both men and women equally. We don’t see the dualism of the Old Testament, the separation of humanity into two unequal groups based on sex. Instead we see Jesus treating women as equals, as worthy of just as much respect and compassion as men. We find him accepting women as disciples alongside men. Given the times, his attitudes and actions were revolutionary.  

The New Testament is not the only place to search out the teachings of Jesus. We have additional gospels that were also written by early followers of Christ, but which were rejected as heresies by the dominant branch of Christianity. These ‘secret’ gospels reveal additional stories about Jesus. One of which, the Gospel of Mary, tells the story of his relationship with Mary Magdalene, who was one of his favorite original apostles.

Besides revealing the presence of a woman apostle – which calls into question the church’s proscription against women priests, bishops and popes – early Christian writings also reveal communities of faithful Christians led by women, and women serving as bishops, priests, and prophets. Some writings present God as female; others present the holy trinity as God the Father, God the Mother, and Jesus the Son. The secret Gospel to the Hebrews relates Jesus speaking of “my Mother, the Spirit.”

If sprinkled throughout the New Testament are references to Jesus’s explicit belief that women and men are equal, if other historical writings present one of his favorite apostles as a woman, if some early religious communities valued women as their spiritual leaders and believed God was female, why did the early church purge these beliefs? Why did early church leaders make a deliberate turn back to patriarchy, to the repression of what Jesus taught about women’s equality and women’s rights?

Diarmaid MacCulloch, professor of the history of the church at the University of Oxford, notes that female leadership in the early Christian church was “a survival strategy” because the times were turbulent, theology was undergoing rapid innovation, and there were not enough male leaders to go around. And then, “(t)he time for men to take over again is when life has returned to more tranquil patterns, the church conforms once more to the expectations of society around it and the historical record is adjusted to match those expectations.”

The adjustment of the historical record meant that the New Testament was compiled to exclude writings that presented facets of early Christianity that didn’t mesh well with a patriarchal society. The Gospel of Mary was branded a heresy and suppressed, as were all the other historical writings that celebrated God as female, that were written by women, and that revealed women’s leadership roles in the early church.

Writes MacCulloch, “The great distorting factor in Christian history which transcends denominational and many other ecclesiastical divisions, is that most history has been written by men.”

Why haven’t these fundamentals changed?

Here we are in the 21st century, and women's rights have been advancing throughout much of the world for more than a century. The United Nations founded UN Women more than 60 years ago, to support gender equality and the empowerment of women. Every day we hear and read about the fruition of these efforts, in stories of strong women bucking the system and demanding equal rights as human beings.

Yet the church has never taken any kind of leadership position on women's rights. On the contrary - all the efforts the church has made toward recognition of women's rights have come late, reluctantly, and only in response to declining membership among young men and women in the developed world, along with the clamoring of its members for more equality for women within the church. All of its efforts have been empty statements about how the church values women, and considers them equal to men. And none has put any kind of dent in the all-male power structure or the deeply patriarchal canon. Catholic girls are still taught negative stereotypes about themselves (otherwise known as feminine genius). The church has not acknowledged in any way that its canon is incomplete, and was structured specifically to exclude women when Jesus himself included women. The church has not acknowledged in any way that its belief system is based on the patriarchal beliefs of a repressive society that existed 2,000 years ago. It certainly has not acknowledged its major role in perpetuating those repressive beliefs into the current day.

In the words of Mary McAleese, former president of Ireland, “The Catholic Church is one of the last great bastions of misogyny. It's an empire of misogyny.”

The church isn’t interested in change.

All the excitement among Catholics regarding the popes’ recent pronouncements about women is based on the belief that the church will change, if only its women members keep trying. That one day, hopefully soon, Pope Francis will hold a press conference and announce that the church has been wrong about women, starting from the toxic story of Adam and Eve and continuing through its proscription against birth control and its exclusion of women from the priesthood.

Such is the power of hope. It gives people the ability to focus so longingly on a reality they want that they can ignore the reality that is right here in front of them. And what is current reality? The church has spent the last 2,000 years solidifying and strengthening its power and its patriarchal structure. It has amassed so much wealth, including investments, gold reserves, real estate and artwork, that it is among the world's wealthiest organizations. It wields vast political power across the globe. And even though membership is declining in some developed countries, globally its membership is growing.

Given this reality, the church has no motivation to institute changes to its belief system or its hierarchy. The most Catholic women can expect is a continuing series of statements that, with great sympathy, declare how valued they are, how equal.

And nothing else.


For a deep exploration of the historical Christian texts that were excluded from the New Testament, see The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels