The 57th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women convened March 4 -15 to discuss, debate, and adopt conclusions concerning the worldwide scourge of violence against women and girls. The Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission participated, urging member states to recognize religion’s great potential in transforming culture and helping men to embrace women as their respected equals.
Many at the Commission seemed unaware that Christianity can be a powerful force for women, leading men both to acknowledge the dignity and equality of the women in their lives, and to dedicate themselves more generously to the good of their wives and children. Many seemed to assume that religion, notably Christianity, legitimates subjugation and violence against women because of its ecclesial structure or particular biblical verses. News agencies were all too willing to cooperate, reporting falsehoods about the Holy See’s participation, thus helping to undermine the important and positive role religion plays in the lives of millions across the globe.
This rolling out of the old guard feminist view of religion is tiring, especially because the data today tell a very different story.
Recent sociological studies in the United States show that men who regularly attend religious services are far more likely to be active and emotionally engaged husbands and fathers, and are less likely to perpetrate domestic violence than those who attend religious services rarely or not at all. Even when controlling for the indirect effects of religious involvement (e.g., increased social support and decreased likelihood of substance abuse and psychological problems), religion is still shown to have what the authors of one study call a “protective effect” against domestic violence. Indeed, evidence shows that the most active Christian husbands engage in the lowest rates of domestic abuse.
Of course, Christianity promotes marriage and family life as singularly important, and sociological studies continue to show that marriage itself can serve as a bulwark against domestic violence. Perhaps this correlation explains some of religion’s success. After all, single and divorced women are four to five times more likely to be the victims of violence than are married women.
Cohabitation is especially associated with an increased risk of domestic abuse. And children living with single mothers, mother’s boyfriends, or stepfathers are more likely targets of abuse than those living with their own two married parents. Marriage reduces male criminality in general, and boys raised by their own married mother and father are less likely to engage in violence and crime.
But even beyond Christianity’s promotion of marriage—the safest family structure for both women and children—and beyond other indirect effects of religious involvement, something else may be at work in Christianity that is perhaps of even greater interest to those at the Commission on the Status of Women. Christianity, when lived according to its teachings, especially those most explored within Catholic documents issued over the last fifty years, promotes equality between the sexes in a profound and transformative way.
Christianity and Sexual Equality
The Christian conception of equality, deeply rooted in the dignity of every human person as divinely loved and irreplaceably unique, promotes a profound respect for the intrinsic value of women and their myriad capacities and talents, remarkably affecting every facet of social life. Male domination of women, Pope John Paul II was always wont to point out, profoundly distorts the Creator’s original intention that the sexes live harmoniously together, each offering oneself to the other in generous love; indeed, it is not by accident that Catholics speak of male domination of women as the result of the first breach of trust between Creator and creature, the original sin.
Christians, by way of remedy, are called to live lives of self-giving love, a virtue that women, cross-culturally, display generously, often at great sacrifice to themselves, and often in ways that serve cultural norms of male domination. But rather than teach women to answer domination and power with the same, Christianity instead calls men to be imitators of this ennobling love, trading dominance for self-gift, and calling men to a deep respect for the intrinsic worth and dignity of every person in their lives.
For Christians, after all, human dignity is constitutive of the human person, not determined or pronounced by the will of the state. Thus, while we must never cease to create and enforce laws that recognize the intrinsic dignity of the human person—such as the profound and beautiful Article I of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—we must also draw support from religious and cultural values that positively transform attitudes and behaviors in favor of recognizing women’s intrinsic dignity and worth.
Despite mounting sociological evidence of religion’s role in combatting violence, and despite increasing papal attention to the cause of women’s equal dignity, those who seek to promote the equality of women at the UN are often quite reluctant to partner or seek out alliances with a robustly pro-life religion. Still, it is our hope that those who have been skeptical of Christians’ authentic desire for women’s progress will realize that they have found friends, if only they can better understand that the pro-life position is pro-woman too.
It must first be acknowledged, in any effort to end violence against women and girls, that abortion itself ends the innocent life of a dependent unborn child. Without discounting the motivations behind the act, which often involve fear, despair, even feelings of self-preservation, abortion is objectively an act of violence, and is often also experienced by the mother as such. For those of us especially concerned with the plight of girl children, the rise of sex-selective abortion around the world is particularly devastating. Would that all of us who work tirelessly for women’s equality could join together both to acknowledge and to repudiate this explicit act of violence on account of sex.
But abortion not only eviscerates the bonds of solidarity between mother and child; it also profoundly damages authentic equality between women and men. Abortion would seem to provide women with a practical response to the seemingly disproportionate responsibility sexual intercourse can lay at our feet. Yet abortion does nothing to change women’s social situation; abortion expects nothing more or different of men; indeed, abortion leaves every social, economic, and familial injustice just as it is.
So abortion as a “solution” is an attempt to cure the biological asymmetry between men and women—the fact that women get pregnant and men don’t—by putting the onus squarely on women and women’s bodies. By so doing, abortion promotes a devaluation and even rejection of a crucial capacity that women enjoy but men do not, attempting to win equality for women by making us more like men.
What Justice Demands
Justice and authentic equality require that men and society at large respect, protect, and support women’s unique child-bearing capacity, alongside our many other talents and abilities. Justice and authentic equality require that men “man up” to the paternal responsibilities of begetting children, something social science data have long shown produces rapid maturation in men. A culture of abortion offers men instead a quick escape hatch from relationships and responsibilities—which is why we ought not be surprised that male coercion and intimidation, according to women’s accounts, is often a catalyst for their abortions.
Moreover, in the last decade and a half, a number of American economists and a few European studies have demonstrated that liberal abortion laws and widespread contraception, especially when acting together, have actually weakened women’s ability to find men willing to commit to more than limited sexual encounters. These studies have shown that among more disadvantaged populations in particular, contraceptive sex, with abortion as a backup, has led to a sharp decline of marriage, a precipitous rise in single motherhood, and an increased rate of cohabitation—all associated with the feminization of poverty, as well as a greater likelihood of domestic violence.
Authentic reproductive justice would go a long way toward promoting authentic equality between men and women, in turn bringing about more harmonious relationships between them. Elements of this justice could include, for example, that men assume greater responsibility for the social and parenting roles traditionally exercised by women; that we achieve policies and laws that properly value the care work disproportionately undertaken by women; and, finally, that we find more effective and equitable ways for women with children to participate in the public sphere, often because our families’ livelihood depends upon it, but even when it doesn’t.
It is of utmost importance that the fight to promote women’s dignity in both the private and public spheres engage men in the solution—both in their scrupulous care to avoid objectification, oppression, and violence against women, and in their positive contribution to the work of the family.
Throughout his pontificate, Pope John Paul II strongly condemned subjugation, violence, and discrimination against women, and called for the achievement of real equality for women in every sphere of life: “equal pay for equal work, protection for working mothers, fairness in career advancements, equality of spouses with regard to family rights,” and greater value for the care work of wives and mothers.
But John Paul II also focused his attention in these matters directly on men. In his 1988 encyclical on the dignity and vocation of women, he writes, “each man must look within himself to see whether she who was entrusted to him as a sister in humanity . . . has not become for him an ‘object’ . . . of pleasure, of exploitation . . .” And in an encyclical on the family, he writes: “efforts must be made to restore socially the conviction that the place and task of the father in and for the family is of unique and irreplaceable importance.” Deeply problematic, he continues, is not only the absent father but also “the oppressive presence of a father, especially where there still prevails the phenomenon of ‘machismo,’ or a wrong superiority of male prerogatives which humiliates women and inhibits the development of healthy family relationships.”
Pope Benedict XVI likewise called men to give of themselves unreservedly in the family as a corrective to oppressive practices, as in this admonition to men in his 2011 apostolic letter to Africa: “Do not be afraid to demonstrate tangibly that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for those one loves (cf. Jn 15:13), that is to say, first and foremost, for one’s wife and children . . .” He continues, “Your witness to the inviolable dignity of every human person will serve as an effective antidote to traditional practices which are contrary to the Gospel and oppressive to women in particular.”
Sociological evidence reveals that faithful Christian men are heeding the Gospel injunction to give themselves generously to their wives and children, providing an effective “antidote” or “protective effect” against violence that is often engendered by ideologies of male domination.
Christianity’s conception of the human person as endowed by God with inherent dignity regardless of sex, race, or social circumstance, promotes respect and harmony between the sexes. This effect Christianity has upon men is a powerful asset in the worldwide fight against domestic violence. Rather than see religious belief and practice as an impediment to authentic sexual equality, it behooves us to see it for what it can be: a powerful and transformative means to bring peace to peoples, families, and especially to men.