The Big Lie About Women and the Church

Claims of oppression ignore Christ and the history of His Church

A big lie is that Catholics oppress women by, for example, not allowing them to be ordained priests or deacons, by not giving them (enough) positions of power in the Vatican, by keeping them “barefoot and pregnant” by opposing contraception and abortion, and by holding marriage up as a realizable ideal and honoring virginity. It’s all hogwash. Such critics ignore Christ and the history of His Church, with its profound respect for the dignity of women. See, for example, John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem (On the Dignity and Vocation of Women; 1988; here), and Benedict XVI’s general audiences of Feb. 7, 2007, on Priscilla [here], Feb. 14, 2007, on women of the Gospels and the early church [here], and twelve audiences on women, Sept. through Dec. 2010 [here]. The liars ignore how the Christian view of women has yielded abundant fruit in the laws, institutions, and culture of the Western world and shared with the rest of the world.

One piece of evidence of this, just one piece but often neglected, is the Christian custom of naming places after women. In California, the Spanish Franciscans established 21 missions among the indigenous population from 1769 to 1823. Three of them were named after Jesus’ mother, Mary, and three were named after other women: Santa Barbara, Santa Clara, Santa Inés (Agnes).

Let’s go back further, to the first centuries after Christ. There are some 900 churches in present-day Rome, most of them Catholic. Twenty-three were initially constructed in the 4th Century, that is, just after the legalization of Christianity. Those named after women other than Mary are four: Santa Susanna, Santa Anastasia, Santa Pudenziana, and Basilica di Santi Vitale e Compagni Martiri in Fovea (that is, Saint Valeria, her husband Saint Vitalis, and their sons, Saints Gervasius and Protasius). If we turn to the 5th Century, sixteen churches were initially constructed. Four of them were named after women other than Mary: Santa Bibiana (or Viviana or Vibiana), Sant’Agata dei Goti (St. Agatha), Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, and Santa Prisca.

The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., is the largest church in the United States. It has, as one would expect from its title, a large number of chapels devoted to Our Lady according to her various titles. There are also chapels, statues, and mosaics of a great many other women. In the Upper Church are Ss. Louise de Marillac and Thérèse de Lisieux. In the Hall of America Saints on the lower level are Ss. Elizabeth Ann Seton, Frances Cabrini (see the movie Cabrini, just released), Katharine Drexel, Rose Philippine Duchesne, and Kateri Tekakwitha. Opposite this Hall is a statue of St. Teresa of Kolkatta.

In the Crypt Church are Ss. Elizabeth (Mary’s cousin), Anne (Mary’s mother), Susanna, Catherine of Alexandria, Margaret of Antioch, and Brigid. In addition, there are mosaics in the Crypt Church of seven women whose names appear in the Roman Canon (“Eucharistic Prayer I”) of the Latin Church’s liturgy, the Mass, from at least the time of St. Pope Gregory the Great (r. 590-604 A.D.). Thus, these seven women have been venerated at every Mass throughout the world for over 1,400 years. They are all martyrs from the earliest centuries: Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, and Anastasia. This Agnes is the same woman for whom a California mission was named. And Anastasia, Agatha, and Cecilia are the same women for whom the earliest churches in Rome were named.

Saints Felicity and Perpetua were martyred in Carthage, in north Africa, in the 3rd century A.D. Felicity was eight months pregnant. She feared that she wouldn’t be allowed to be martyred because the law forbade executing pregnant women. Two days before the date of execution, she gave birth to a daughter, who was adopted by a Christian woman. Felicity was a slave. Her mistress was Perpetua, age 22, a married woman whose child had not yet been weaned. Perpetua’s account of events leading to their deaths is apparently historical and is written in the first person. It is likely the earliest surviving text written by a Christian woman. (Here is an English version published on PBS’s website.)

St. Agatha was a virgin martyred in Sicily in the 3rd century. While we are certain of her martyrdom, by legend we are told she spurned the professions of love by her suitor Quintianus, who then had her cruelly tortured, even ordering her breasts cut off. These wounds were miraculously healed, but she died of other cruelties.

St. Lucy was a virgin martyred about 304 A.D. in Sicily. She had converted to Christianity after the miraculous healing of her mother at the shrine of St. Agatha. According to the basilica’s website, “Her fiancè, enraged by her conversion and renunciation of all her wealth, identified her as a Christian to the Roman authorities. Lucy survived numerous indignities and tortures only to be stabbed to death. According to legend her eyes were plucked out. Lucy’s conversion experience and the metaphor of sight are central to her story, for in Latin her name means ‘light.’”

St. Agnes was a 13-year-old virgin when she was martyred in Rome. Having consecrated her virginity to Christ, she refused marriage to the governor’s son. The prospective father-in-law ordered Agnes dragged through the streets, naked, to a brothel. But she prayed and her hair grew and covered her nakedness. She was then decapitated. Saint Agnes is the patron of young girls.

St. Cecilia was martyred in Sicily between 176 and 180 A.D. following the martyrdom of her husband and his brother.

St. Anastasia suffered martyrdom at the beginning of the 4th Century during the persecution of Roman emperor Diocletian (r. 284-305).

These seven women have been venerated from the earliest Christian times.

There are so many more, such as: Ss. Frances of Rome (married 40 years), Jane Frances de Chantal, Gianna Molla, Monica, Margaret of Scotland, Bridget of Sweden, Elizabeth of Hungary, Elizabeth of Portugal, Paula of Rome. One source for more names is Holbrook’s Married Saints and Blesseds: Through the Centuries (2002). There simply has never been a “glass ceiling” through which girls or women needed to break to become holy, or to prevent men from recognizing and honoring their holiness.


James M. Thunder has left the practice of law but continues to write. He has published widely, including a Narthex series on lay holiness. He and his wife Ann are currently writing on the relationship between Father Karol Wojtyla (the future Pope) and lay people.

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