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A refreshing look at the proper role—and enormous power—of women in the Church

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Nov 17, 2015 | In Reviews

For well over a generation, questions about the role of women in the Catholic Church have generated angry debates without producing satisfactory resolutions. In the 1980s the US bishops’ conference, having tackled such controversial topics as nuclear weaponry and economic policy, set out to write another pastoral letter on the role of women. After years of inconclusive consultations and discussions, they retired from the field; the pastoral was never finished.

Is there a distinctive role that women should play in the Church? Or is it merely a question of giving women an equal share in the work, without restricting them to any particular roles? The doctrinal reality that women cannot be ordained to the priesthood looms over the discussion. Since most Catholics are loath to launch a direct frontal assault on the Church’s teaching, feminists and their clerical supporters usually restrict themselves to arguing that women should be given more positions of authority within the Church.

But since bishops governs the Church, and women can never be bishops, how can they gain meaningful authority? Monica Migliorino Miller has discovered the answer to that question—or rather, shown us that the answer has been staring us in the face all along.

The Authority of Women in the Catholic Church is a refreshing book: a determined effort to help readers see the issues in a new (or perhaps very old) light. The title itself, with its invocation of “authority,” is an unmistakable signal that Miller is not willing to play the game by the rules that have governed the debates of the last 40 years. She is not going to accept the unspoken premise that women do not currently have authority within the Church.

Quite the contrary. “Women, and not men, exemplify the Church,” Miller writes. Women possess “an authority without which the sacramental life of the Church, and redemption itself, would not exist.”

St. John Paul II, in his “theology of the body” series and especially in Mulieris Dignitatem, explains that the distinctive role of woman is to nurture life. The gift of self, for a woman, is intimately linked to the gift of life. In a chapter on the greatest of women, entitled “The Authority of Mary,” Miller remarks: “The essence of woman is to have authority over the divine gift of life.”

We do not ordinarily speak about the “authority” of the Virgin Mary. But in the economy of salvation, love is the greatest source of power, and the Blessed Mother is the most perfect conduit of love. Mary is not an apostle, nor even a priest. Yet popes and prelates bow before her.

While bishops govern the Church, mothers govern the everyday lives of their households. It is women, ordinarily, who teach us how to live, how to love, how to pray. Women are the primary custodians of the culture in which faith takes root. “Authority,” Miller argues, “is first liturgical, before it is judicial.” Canon law becomes relevant only long after the laws of the household have formed our characters.

Traditionally the Church has both honored and protected the woman’s role. But in our era Church leaders have often been caught in the cultural currents, unsure how to navigate safely. Some bishops want to challenge the ideas that have come to dominate our social life; others want to adapt to them. Unable to reach agreement, the bishops either issue conflicting messages or remain silent.

The time-honored role of women as the bearers of life and preservers of culture has been challenged in our era, perversely, by those who style themselves feminists. The results have been devastating, for both our society and our faith. “When the meaning of sexual symbols is undone, the Christian faith is undone,” Miller writes. Gender ideology, with its explicit rejection of the world as God created it, is (as Cardinal Sarah said during the October Synod meeting) as hostile to Christianity as the brutal totalitarian ideologies of the 20th century.

The deconstruction of traditional sexual roles and symbols has also had a devastating impact on women themselves. Miller opens her book with an anecdote about an encounter with female prisoners in jail, and a realization that many of them were trapped in a world truly dominated by men: a world ruled by physical force, in which men will always rule. Miller concludes that “the feminist extremists fail to free women because their campaign against the ‘war on women’ is based on a false view of power, a false view of what it means to be human, a false vice of what it means to be female.”

Without the civilizing influence of women, men are prone not only to violence but also to a mechanistic outlook on life: a tendency to everything—even fellow humans—in terms of what they can do rather than what they are. Citing Karl Stern’s brilliant book The Flight from Woman, she writes: “The woman is the force in the world who stands as the bulwark against everything in this utilitarian era that threatens to reduce the person to a thing.”

In our materialistic era, far too many women—misled by feminists—have consented to becoming cogs in the machinery of production and consumption. It is no coincidence that the ratrace is popularly described as “working for The Man.” It’s a man’s world. In that world the most radical thing a young woman can do is choose to stay home with her children, and thereby realize her own authority.

A quibble: Having enjoyed so much of this book, I was delighted to learn that Monica Migliorino Miller is also a fan of John Ford’s wonderful film, The Quiet Man. But I was startled to find that she completely misunderstands the movie’s final scene—which is actually much more supportive of her thesis than she realizes. But I don’t want to give too many things away. Read the book. Watch the movie. Then we’ll talk.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Nov. 18, 2015 9:02 PM ET USA

    I've told the story here before, but now seems a suitable time to recount it. In the early 1990s I decided to attend a meeting of archdiocesan DREs. In searching for the meeting room, I poked my head into a room filled with women. I asked if this was the meeting of DREs. A woman said yes. I said, "then I am in the right place." The woman turned to the other women and exclaimed with a bit of surprise: "Imagine that, a gentleman DRE!" As a man, I seemed to be a novel oddity in the room.