Feminism | Posted by Vittoria F on 05/9/2011

The Catholic Church and Education

I live in a catholic country (Italy), in a small town and I go to a catholic and very conservative school.

I am not very religious and, most importantly, I am a feminist. This means I don’t agree with my religion teacher (who is a priest) most of the time, but at least he’s prepared to listen. Religion doesn’t interfere with our academic education, but we do get educated in a Catholic environment: Latin choir, masses, prayers in the morning, that sort of thing. I usually look forward to compulsory religion lessons on Tuesdays, not because I’m particularly passionate about the subject, but for the chance of interesting discussions, where I can express my own feminist views on certain subjects we talk about: abortion, birth control, homosexuality, divorce etc.

So yesterday I was sitting in religion class, learning about John Paul II’s life, when one of my peers suddenly asked: “Why can’t women be popes or priests?” The usual explanation followed – “Jesus’ example”, “The twelve apostles were male” (to which I object anyway seeing as it was 2,000 years ago…) when the teacher added something unexpected: “…also, men are more suited to be priests than women. Even though we would like to think the opposite, men and women are different, not only physically but also in character. Women, for example, are more delicate, sensitive and…” “…weaker.”, one of my peers added. Further on in the conversation came a clearly anti-feminist statement: “The feminist movement in the ‘60s was wrong: a woman is not more free because she can do whatever a man can. We do have different functions in life.”

The conclusions a listener reaches are the following:

1) If you’re saying a woman is weaker in character, the obvious assumption is that you think men are stronger and more suited for leadership (this consequence wasn’t too clear to some people in the discussion, who just kept repeating they weren’t being sexist).

2) Also, women shouldn’t try doing things men do, but just stick to their functions (read: childbirth) – note how women “try” to do things men do, they don’t do them naturally or because they really want to, but just to prove something.

3) The feminist movement was in the ‘60s, and then it ended there.

When he said these things, my first reaction was an urge to leave the room on the spot, thus ruining my reputation for having the highest respect for all my teachers. Somehow, I managed to get to reaction number two: feeling shocked and appalled the conversation was actually taking place in this day and age.

And to counter the third point, my only answer is: read the FBomb. Feminism still exists.

What’s more, my teacher denied he was taking an anti-feminist position. He told us the Church highly values women and that they have an important role in the Bible. He even gave us an example to prove his point: the woman who spent a year’s salary on scented oil, washed Jesus’ feet with it and dried them with her hair. According to him this wasn’t an example of subservience. Hm.

The worst part, though, was when one of my peers said: “Imagine if Jesus had been a woman: nobody would have listened to him. Women can’t be priests: they’re not convincing or commanding enough.” (Funny how most of the teachers in my school are women…).

What really depressed me was that these archaic beliefs were stated by a 15-year-old boy and a young adult. They’re just being passed on from one generation to the next.

Is the Catholic Church contributing to this? Yes. Even if my teacher doesn’t represent the whole Church, it still is. Why? Patriarchy. If beliefs such as these exist after 2,000 years, when Jesus didn’t choose female apostles because nobody would have listened to them, they will keep on existing, as long as patriarchy does. And it will end only when we stop holding on to wrong traditions.

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  • Ferrette @ at 2:37 pm, May 9th, 2011

    WAIT! But what did you say in response? Please tell me you didn’t let this go unanswered???

  • Liz @ at 3:19 pm, May 9th, 2011

    Well that’s an interesting point (and would probably make for an interesting sci-fi novel), what if Jesus had been a woman?( Jesusa?) After all, it’s hypothetically the same God supporting his son or daughter. The state of religion might be drastically different.

    And if your peers will recall… not everyone respected or listened to Jesus the man anyway. I mean… he was crucified.

    By the way, if you haven’t seen the movie “Dogma,” you might really enjoy it.

  • Tiff @ at 3:42 pm, May 9th, 2011

    Yea- What a shame. I see this all the time with every religion. I wish there was a way to really hold people accountable for the sexist beliefs they keep perpetuating. It blows my mind that this day and age we have fellow women AND men devaluing femaleness. Furthermore back to the church. I absolutely love (NOT) how the do gooder self righteous Christians I know think they are so high and mighty but in all reality they walk around upholding dangerous traditions rooted in sexism, racism and heterosexism…. Ironically they are making the world a horrible place not a safe peaceful one.
    Read the Gender Knot by Allen Johnson if you haven’t already!

  • Vittoria @ at 4:06 pm, May 9th, 2011

    Thanks for the tip Liz, but I do want to make it absolutely clear that even if I don’t agree with the Church, I respect it. I don’t mean to offend in any way, just to point out how outdated some catholic beliefs are.

  • Lillian @ at 4:30 pm, May 9th, 2011

    I go to a Catholic college, but it’s usually fairly liberal. However have had debates in compulsory Religious Studies as to whether homosexuality is wrong. My main reaction was ‘really? We’re actualy doing this in the 21st century?’ It (along with the rest of my Catholic education) has made me question whether faith schools have a role anymore in a pluralist society.

  • Annie @ at 6:58 pm, May 9th, 2011

    This is a great post, Vittoria!
    I am also not religious, and I am a feminist, but I go to a Catholic school in the U.S. I don’t enjoy the required religion classes, but I do pay close attention whenever the topic of conversation rolls around to social issues like gay marriage, abortion, women priests, etc. One thing that has always especially bothered is how Catholics will use the ‘the apostles were men’ excuse for why there are no women priests, but then with a lot of other things in the Bible they say, oh yeah that’s not applicable anymore because it happened 2,000 years ago (such as rules about slavery in the Old Testament, or beliefs about young children in the New Testament.) But then tell me, what is the explanation for such strong resistance to the ordination of women besides blatant sexism??

  • Katherine C. @ at 7:58 pm, May 9th, 2011

    Wow, you have about ten million times more self-control than me. When confronted with almost the exact same situation in a classroom* (where I was the only girl) it ended with me screaming, “I’M RIGHT HERE!” (pointing at self) “LISTEN TO ME! PLEASE LISTEN TO ME!” and then storming out. I realize that this was incredibly immature and solved nothing. I hope I can learn from you next time. Anyway, great job on this article.

    *I really should write a book about this class of mine, during which I have been confronted with everything from incredibly crude remarks about my armpit hair to being told that rape is not a real problem, and that if I personally were raped I “wouldn’t be able to do anything about it”. In front of the young, black, obstensibly liberal teacher. Fun times.

  • Robert King @ at 9:59 pm, May 9th, 2011

    I hope an outsider’s comment is okay here.

    As far as I know, there is no single “reason” for the Catholic Church ordaining only men. All the “reasons” your teacher put forth have been used to explain it, but the third reason – that women are “weaker” in some way – is clearly based on ignorance.

    That said, the Catholic teaching does imply that there is some basic difference between men and women. The mistake people like your teacher make is in thinking that difference means one is “better” or “stronger” or “more privileged” than the other. Just like in every other part of life, diversity is an opportunity for learning and helping one another.

    The Catholic teaching, as far as I understand it, is that only men can be priests in the same way that only women can be mothers. Not every woman has to be a mother, and not every man has to be a priest; but it’s simply impossible for a man to be a mother – the biological facts are clear. The Church says it’s impossible for a woman to be a priest – though why that’s impossible is not so clear.

    Whether you – or your teacher – agrees or disagrees, it’s important in a class to get the teaching right and not to put forth ignorant speculations about it.

  • Annie D @ at 1:34 am, May 10th, 2011

    I was raised Catholic too, although in a very secular society (Australia), and personally, I have always put down the absence of women in the Bible to the bias of the people writing it. It was John, Mary Jesus’s mother, Mary Magdalene and another Mary who stood at the cross after all. They can’t just have made the tea.

    Also, a lot of the particularly offensive ideas about women in the Church originated with Thomas Acquinas, who got them from Aristotle, who in turn extrapolated them from women’s supposedly passive role in sexual intercourse. Following the discovery of ova, that whole chain of reasoning should have been but was not rendered invalid.

    I’m not trying to defend the Catholic Church here, they lost my support when they fired a Bishop for starting dialogue about women priests last week, but just to point out that there is room in even a Catholic-ish interpretation of Christianity for feminism. I enjoy knowing that the Church which has become a part of my identity, however I may disagree with it, harbours outstanding female role models, as many mediocre women as mediocre men and no more Eves than Judases.

  • JJ @ at 2:16 am, May 10th, 2011

    Personally, I think what Mary Magdalene did was a great sacrifice and not necessarily done in powerless subservience, but in great love. She was not without choice, and I really admire her love and compassion for Jesus in that situation. However, your experience is slightly relatable because I go to a Christian private school as well, where my religion classes teach in their textbooks that women and men are different physically and mentally, and really just focus on the “differences” in gender. As if men and women are completely different species or something. Ridiculous. That’s the type of thinking that gets us into trouble, like the priesthood thing.

  • Margherita @ at 8:44 am, May 15th, 2011

    I can totally relate to the anectode you shared. I attended catholic schools from the age of 3 to the age of 18 and I’m Italian too. I remember the same exact discussions emerging during the religion classes I attended, as if there was some sort of script we had to follow.

    Maybe this isn’t the right place to ask you this, but I don’t have other way to contact you directly.
    I was wondering if you would like to write for Soft Revolution Zine (http://softrevolutionzine.blogspot.com). It’s an Italian feminist webzine for teenagers inspired by fbomb, Bitch Media, etc. I believe it’s the only one in Italy at the moment. Please contact me at muoridelay[at]gmail.com. I really enjoyed your post and I’m desperately looking for young talented writers.

  • Bonnie @ at 4:23 pm, May 17th, 2011

    @ Robert King:
    But priests can’t be mothers for a biological fact, while women could be priests; they can’t because MEN (not the nature or God himself) say no. Why? Can you explain me that thing?

  • Renee @ at 7:07 pm, May 26th, 2011

    if they do that again counter by asking them if they theink the virgin mary is weak I’m not a feminist but I am a christian..look at the virgin mary’s story and then tell me women are weak there are strong women in the bible…my question to some readers why go to a religious school if you don’t believe in that religion…

  • Athena @ at 10:47 am, May 27th, 2011

    You will be interested in this video by a show called “The Catholic View For Women” in which they talk about “New Feminism”. The link is http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4npszpGL43I.

    So the reason (they skimmed it rather quickly) why women can’t be priests are because (i) priests are spiritual fathers and are representatives of the male Christ i.e. fatherhood, and (ii) the catholic church is feminine i.e. motherhood (or something to that effect … I was trying hard to pay attention ….). So ordaining women will upset the equation.

    Now I am not Catholic but am exploring the faith, but the programme was pretty unconvincing on a personal level, because it seems that pretty much anything can be explained away. Which really means if women were ordained, that could be explained too.

    I guess I was expecting a more honest discussion on the topic of feminism from the programme (goodness knows even secular women don’t agree on what feminism means …..)

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