Catholicism, like Orthodoxy, Judaism, Islam, and many traditional expressions of the reformed faith, shares the patriarchal character of the great universal religions, though it has also traditionally - and indeed patronisingly - been regarded as a cult well suited to females. Was it not Lord Salisbury who described Roman Catholicism as 'good enough for peasants and women'?
The recognition that Catholicism was a womanish kind of faith was, indeed, another reason for ninth-century rationalists to condemn it, or at least sneer at it. Lecky, the great chronicler of the history of European morals, who expended much energy demonstrating how disordered and hopeless Popery was, explained in some detail how Catholicism was tailored to women, and indeed to female temperaments in general:
It can hardly, I think, be questioned that in the great religious convulsions of the 16th century the feminine type followed Catholicism, while Protestantism inclined more to the masculine type . . .
The skill with which (Catholicism) acts upon the emotions by music, and painting, and solemn architecture, and imposing pageantry, its tendency to appeal to the imagination rather than to reason, and to foster modes of feeling rather than modes of thought, its assertion of absolute and infallible certainty, above all, the banner in which it teaches its votary to throw himself perpetually on authority, all tended to the same directions.
History is in the habit of producing strange reversals: many of the traditional criticisms of Catholicism have been turned on their heads: formerly, the accusation was that Popery was too lax, too easy-
going about human failings, prone to hypocrisy and, of course, if you add in the Irish profile, inclined to encourage fecklessness and intemperance to boot. Today, the criticism of Catholicism is that it is too strict, too rigid, too unbending about the complexities of human nature, and, above all, too masculine.
No longer dismissed as a faith merely fit for women, it is now characterised as a faith which all but excludes women, a faith run by men - celibate men - who lay down the rules (particularly about matters such as birth control and divorce) controlling women's lives. Many of these patriarchs, it is claimed, are totally out of touch with women's lives, and the moral theology they discourse upon is about as relevant as the number of angels who can dance on the tip of a pin.
There is some truth in this accusation. Vatican thinking on issues such as birth control is indeed characteristically masculine, if we accept Lecky's definition of the masculine as logical, theoretical, rational, and derived from thought rather than feeling.
The canon of work on bio-ethics can sometimes strike the reader as chillingly logical - it is all so densely intellectual. The thinking on artificial birth control is highly theoretical, being based on the premiss of Natural Law whereby the sex act (or the 'marriage act', as they call it, optimistically) is fundamentally about 'the transmission of life'. This is the principle of primary purpose and if we put aside this consideration we distort our relationships. This not only puts artificial contraception outside the agenda, but also homosexuality, which, by Vatican rules, cannot qualify as being instrumental in 'the transmission of life'.
So that is the theory; at an intellectual level, most people can, if they think about it, follow the logic (contraception did take a long time to win acceptance, after all, within other faiths). The trouble comes at the practical level, as Katy Brown (Faith and Reason, 16 July) pointed out. Small wonder that so many younger women today see the Catholic church, not as Lord Salisbury or Professor Lecky did - so patronisingly - as being suited to the female temperament, but actually as a male construct - particularly unsuited to women.
Actually I think it is no bad thing when younger women, in particular, are rebellious and question authority and tradition. Human reason - and the Church is a human institution - develops through the dialectic of argument and response. The Church has to maintain its authority - it is not called Mater et Magistra (Mother and Teacher, significantly) for nothing - but its authority must also be put to the test of reason and new thinking.
And if many young women do feel fiercely critical of the Church, many others remain drawn to it, and come eventually to see the historical reasoning behind Mother- and-Teacher's values. When we begin to consider the menu of possibilities now opening with experimental fertilisation work - donor ovaries, embryological storage, designer genes - we begin to wonder what Pandora's box we open when we start playing around with 'the transmission of life'.
I think it is hard to be a Catholic, for young women, and indeed for anyone and I think it is difficult to accept Vatican rules in many private spheres. Many Catholics today do exercise their own consciences rather more actively, and if they do not reject, outright, Vatican orthodoxy, they take it with a pinch of salt. But at the bottom of it all, there is still a shared mentality I think perhaps rooted essentially in the notion that, while we do have free will, we also have to accept certain limitations in our lives.
This goes against the modern notion that 'I am in total control of my choices': it embraces what some could perhaps call the more passive or fatalistic notion that there are some things that are ordained for you, and you must accept. Curiously, sometimes the waxing and waning cycles of fertility itself impart to women a metaphor about limitations on our choices: it is all very well affirming that you have rights over your own body until, some day, your body goes wrong, or will no longer bend to your will, or refuses your choices. It is then that you begin to accept what you cannot change, and see that our autonomy is subjected to something much greater.
A religion is not about fitting up a system which suits us nicely: Christianity is above all about taking up your cross and following Him. Rome does change and adapt in very gradual, subtle ways: I believe the Catholic church will become more feminised in future times - there is a history of holy women and doctors of the church actually guiding popes in earlier centuries. However, the way change occurs is often paradoxical and could turn out to be surprising indeed. If some of the Reverend Mothers I have known are anything to go by, a feminised Roman Catholic church could turn out to be one very exacting Mother and Teacher indeed.Reuse content