Growing up and living in the 20th and 21st Centuries, you may live under the impression that the Catholic Church and Christianity have inhibited women’s rights, dignity, and freedom for the past 2000 years. However, did you realize that history says otherwise? Did you realize that within the barbarism and rampant cruelty of the Pagan Roman Empire, women had few or no rights and that only with the dawn of Christianity, and its spread, did women gain the respect, dignity, and rights proper to all human persons? A huge number of women comprised converts to the Church in those times, and Christianity, thus ultimately transformed a culture that had disrespected and long objectified women as property.
The Catholic Church has been constant in its defense of women and promotion of their dignity. Even on the surface, this is apparent to many in and outside of the Church. Our Faith teaches us that the Church is herself a Mother, and our Lord Jesus’s Mother, Mary, is recognized and taught as being the Mother of All Christians, and what’s more, is recognized as a Queen, in line with the Queen Mothers of the Old Testament, the Davidic King (of whom Christ Jesus is the eternal successor) having as queen, not his wife, but his Mother. This intense devotion to Christ’s Mother, and recognition that God let salvation rest on the yes or no answer of the Virgin of Nazareth, had wonderful consequences, immediately and forever after instilling in increasing numbers of converts to the Faith the fact that women as much as men, had God given rights and just as much a role to play in the world as men. The beauty of womanhood was unveiled. In the still very pagan World of the early Church, Christianity was extremely appealing to pagan women for within Christianity, women enjoyed a much higher respect than outside of the Church, and was the one place you would really see women of higher status. How did this manifest, in particular? And what precisely was so terrible about the laws of the Roman Empire in regards to women?
In Greco-Roman society, divorce was common, and unfairly hurt women. The Church opposed divorce. A man could divorce a woman and literally shut her out of their home on a whim, leaving her penniless since property belonged 100% to the man. Living one's life with the same husband also brought no real safety for women either. Even if they had been married for long years, when a husband passed away, the wife would often be stripped of all property unless she remarried quickly. A decrease in divorce rates with the rising influence of the Church thus obviously helped women. Added to this, with the rising influence of the Church, women could suddenly hold property and were not encouraged to remarry unless they sincerely desired to do so. Women were no longer forced to, as a widow, give property away.
Such dramatic changes amounted to the major liberation of and raising of the respect for women.
With the coming of the Church, the marriage age increased. Shockingly, in the Roman Empire, it was not uncommon for women to be married at age 12 (or even at 10-11 years old with permission). Christian marriages took place typically around age 18 or 19, both ensuring the physical protection and emotional maturity of women in marriages.
The Church also opposed abortion and contraception as it consistently has for 20 centuries. In the Ancient Roman World, contraception actually placed a physical burden on women and led to their further degradation as mere objects of pleasure, a reality that is again playing out in today’s society. A war on women has been waged over the past Century in the name of women’s rights, birth control being billed as liberating women, when in reality, contraception has been fostering a return to the barbarism of ancient times. Attendant with the rampant usage of birth control has come an increase in abortion which it claims to reduce, along with divorce, pornographic addiction, and objectification of both men and women as mere objects.
As for abortion, the Church also opposed it, widespread as it also was in the Roman Empire. Of significant note is the fact that abortion, apart from the fact that it took the life of an unborn child, and hurt the mother's body, mind, and soul, was commonly the mechanism used to hide affairs husbands had with other women. Men could command their wives to have an abortion, and in those times many women died of abortions alongside their unborn children. Eventually, the declining population of the Roman Empire had the consequence of mandates being issued that babies be born. In such a society, polygamy and incest were also common, which again, the Church vigorously opposed, aberrant acts that especially hurt women.
The Church’s staunch opposition to divorce, contraception, abortion, polygamy, and incest resonated with women in a powerful way. Women were strongly attracted to Christianity due to the rights and respect they were granted within the safety and beauty of its walls. A large number of women thus comprised the first Christian communities, not a few of whom then married Pagan men and converted them as well. As the number of Christians in the Roman Empire continued to increase, eventually the culture was transformed. While this did not mean that always and everywhere did each man treat women with respect, the overarching movement was towards a dramatic shift in the way the Western World viewed women thanks to the Church.
So why do so few know this today? And what is it, fundamentally, about Christianity that motivated such a transformation in views about women?
Modern, 21st Century technology replete man all too often operates under the presumption that religion, namely Christianity, has for long centuries been the instrument of intolerance and oppression in the world, supposing that contemporary concepts of human rights are a recent development of enlightened minds, progressing forward thanks to science, this “progress” slowed only by religious absolutists. There is a lack of knowledge of history and the reality that only in the growth of Christianity and the Truths that our Faith taught the world two Millennia ago did authentic tolerance and respect of human life really take root and branch out across Western Civilization. While some in today’s world want to proclaim that the Church oppresses women, and that religious absolutism, the belief that God exists and that there are absolute truths to which all mankind is bound has bred intolerance and hatred, quite the opposite is true. While there is no doubt that some religious absolutists as individuals throughout history have waged violent campaigns in the name of religion, it is Godlessness, the Atheism and Relativism of the 20th Century that led to and directed the Horrors and Genocide that defined the last Century as the bloodiest in all human history. From beastly Nazism to the Iron Curtain of Communism that plagued Europe for decades in the mid and latter 20th Century, the bad fruits of these irreligious systems, bankrupt of Truth, caused more harm and death than religion ever has, and all in the course of a single, dark century!
Thus, the very erroneous myth that Christianity has oppressed women throughout history is also easily debunked. The Pagan World was barbaric and violent. War and murder were commonplace alongside gladiatorial exhibitions and very public displays of capital punishment to a degree that would shock modern man. This was the Pagan world, absent of Christianity.
It is the coming of Christ, culminating in his death on the Cross and ultimate Resurrection and Ascension back to the Father in Heaven that demonstrates and illumines the true worth and dignity of every human person. In his Incarnation, our Lord raises human dignity to the heights of God himself, as the Word of God himself becomes Flesh. By the pouring out of His blood on Calvary, Christ Jesus proves the priceless worth of every human soul, for our Lord died for each of us as if we were the only human person to have ever lived. And had there been only one of us in need of a Savior, our Lord would have still died for you, for me. He died for all of us from greatest to least, man, woman, and child equally.
Thus, Christianity in teaching and thence practicing in daily life the reality of the priceless dignity of every human person, brought into the world the concept of tolerance and the human rights of all persons, including women. While recognition of the dignity of all has not always manifested in the lives of individual Christians, some of whom sadly embraced violence and brutality, the overall trend and development of the Christian West has been one of wonderful and manifold charitable works along with preaching and teaching of the Gospel message, not conversion en Masse by the sword. Today, the Catholic Church remains the greatest charitable organization on Earth.
The Catholic Church built the Western Civilization that we today know from the ashes of the collapsed Roman Empire and out of the ruins of the barbarian raids of the Dark Ages in which Catholic Monks preserved the gems of Western Civilization in the safety of the multitude of monasteries that became centers of learning and culture. Later the Church would go on to develop, foster, and otherwise directly and positively impact the flourishing of everything, from the hospital systems, to education systems with the Cathedral schools, to the beauty and grandeur of the arts and architecture.
And these stunning and glorious developments in human civilization all found a sturdy foundation in the recognition of the dignity of each Human Person. Doctrinally, men and women are all children of the same loving God who created us all, male and female, out of nothing, destining us each to share in his blessed, Trinitarian Life, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in Heaven for the rest of forever. This has major implications. We are all equally called to this destiny. This fact does not smother the God given differences in the sexes, dismissing the unique strengths of masculinity and femininity, but it does serve as the implacable foundational Truth that men and women thus have equal worth in God’s eyes and thus, that women, as much as men, are not objects to be used, but subjects, knowing, loving creatures of the same loving God all with a priceless value, each and every one.
The Church changed and transformed women’s rights. And in transforming women’s rights, the Truth, Beauty, and Goodness of all Human Life flowered into the marvelous reality that would become Christendom, the great Christian Civilization of Europe of the Middle Ages. Christians have never been perfect, nor have their societies, but they have been a vast improvement on the darkness of the Pagan past, and as today’s societies sits in the darkness of pre-Pagan times, the rediscovery of our true dignity from womb to tomb, man, woman and child is of primary importance as the dawn of a new Springtime in the Church begins.