Notre Dame, Ind. — "The church has wounded women in so many ways, but the church has also been one of the most healing places for me as a woman," observed Rachel Held Evans, a best-selling Christian author and columnist whose blog and Facebook followers number in the tens of thousands.
Evans was the opening speaker at a Sept. 22 University of Notre Dame panel titled, "Women and the Church: An Inter-Tradition Dialogue." The event's provocative subtitle, "Is Christianity Bad for Women?" helped to fill the auditorium with college students, faculty and curious Christians from a variety of local denominations.
The evening's promise of passionate dialogue about the present role and status of women in Christian churches did not disappoint. Three articulate, deeply committed Christian women from three distinctive wings of the larger Christian family came to share their visions and experience of church. In addition to the Protestant spokeswoman, a millennial with a baby at home, the sponsoring Center for Philosophy of Religion also invited two well-known Catholic women speakers to present different perspectives. Completing the panel were Social Service Sr. Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK and popular national spokesman for the Nuns on the Bus movement and Mary Rice Hasson, a self-proclaimed Catholic conservative writer, speaker and author and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center*, an independent think tank in Washington, D.C.
At times during the two-hour exchange, some in the audience may have wondered if they'd accidentally found their way into a college auditorium hosting one of this year's innumerable political debates. Exchanges remained polite. A common commitment to Christianity and to the Gospel was shared by all. But deep differences were also clear. Each speaker had a different story to tell about the place of women in the church.
Evans launched the evening, telling about her discovery as a high school student that her church wouldn't let her use many of her gifts as a leader and speaker because she was female. That rude awakening followed a faith testimony she gave as a teenager to her evangelical youth group. She's studied Scripture and prepared for weeks.
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"After giving my testimony," she said, "I sat down next to a guy I went to high school with. He said, 'Wow, Rachel, you're a really good speaker and preacher. Too bad you're a girl.' I knew exactly what he meant. I was part of a church that forbade women from teaching and leading."
"I never quite fit the mold of what my evangelical church wanted me to be," she continued. "I was always a lot more comfortable talking about theology and politics with the guys."
Nonetheless, she said, she deeply loved her church. "These were people who loved me through hard times. They showed up at the front door with a casserole when everybody was sick, who told me that I was a beloved child of God." However, she chose to leave the evangelical church several years ago because it would not welcome LGBT people. That was an exclusion Rachel found inconsistent with the Gospel.
Hasson, a graduate of the University of Notre Dame, said she understood the challenges women have faced in male domains. In law school in the 1980s, she said, women law students dressed in suits with "floppy ties" when they were seniors. They wanted to make sure potential employers took them seriously -- like the men.
However, when it comes to the Catholic church, she said, Christians should take a longer and more global view in assessing treatment of women. The answer to the question "Is Christianity bad for women?" is clearly "No," she said. "I'll unpack that, but very clearly 'no.'"
Around the world and down through the centuries, according to Hasson, the church has defended the rights and God-given dignity of women. She recalled a recent conversation with a Kenyan Catholic graduate student at Catholic University. The young woman told her that Christian missionaries and priests had persuaded Kenyan parents in the bush to stop mistreating their daughters. "Often, girls weren't fed as much or sent to school. The culture didn't value them as much as boys. Missionaries taught the people that God loves us all and makes us equal in dignity."
Hasson's second point was a philosophical one.
"It's impossible to know if something -- like Christianity -- is good unless you know the purpose of it," she explained. "So, what's the purpose of Christianity? It is not Oprah with a liturgy. It's not all about self-actualization or living your best life. And, it's not even a social justice movement. We're going to care about social justice as Christians, but that's not the purpose of Christianity."
The purpose, she said, has to do with God the creator who made each person in his image and wants us to have eternal life with him. "And so the goal of the church is to help us move toward God and eternal life."
Though she admitted that the Catholic church has had bad or flawed leaders, she told her audience that she believes the Catholic church is a supernatural gift. "I look at the structure, the authority, and the truths that the church hands on. I believe that those come from God." An all-male priesthood, she maintained, is part of that God-given structure. "That's not mine to question."
As Campbell began her own remarks, she responded first to Hasson's.
"I come with much less certitude than you have, Mary," she said, admitting that the certitude was "disturbing." Then, Campbell also shared personal experiences of her life in the church -- as a woman. She had, as she called it, "an intensely rabid feminist phase."
"When I was in law school, I became intensely aware of the exploitation of women within the church," she began. "And I went ballistic … for months! I couldn't live with myself, and my poor sisters whom I lived with were very patient and loving. They welcomed me every evening and listened to my latest discovery of discrimination."
It was only after she became a lawyer and opened the Community Law Center in Oakland, Calif., to practice family law and serve the working poor that an important insight came to her.
"Part of the reason that I became a lawyer was that I couldn't become a priest," she said. Nonetheless, she found herself "mediating mysteries" and "ministering to clients" as though she was a priest. "I realized that the limitation in one place pushed me to be a minister of a different sort in another place."
Campbell also began to believe that the church had become culturally constrained, locked in medieval patterns of leadership and patriarchy. "That's the rub. If you look at the Gospel as I read it," she said, "Jesus was often engaging women as peers, and first appeared to Mary Magdalene. Mary was the first one to know about the Resurrection. Jesus nourished women's leadership." In our own times, she pointed out, "I think that we're wrestling with how we should live the Gospel as culture changes."
Evans agreed that Jesus is the best model for treating women.
"As a Protestant," she said, "I've always felt that the teachings of the church must be held in check by the teachings of Scripture. I don't see in Scripture the many limitations on women that I see in the many expressions of church." She added that even the apostle Paul spoke highly of women as co-workers and talked about Lydia who ran a house church and Phoebe, a deacon.
"When I look at Jesus, what I see is a man who centered his ministry around the outliers -- people who didn't fit the mold. So, we see the Ethiopian eunuch as one of the first people converted to Christ. The way I look at it is that if the Gospel is not good news to the outliers, it's not good news. If it's not good news to the poor, women or to the LGBT community, it's not good news."
Hasson responded that some Catholic women have spent so much energy clamoring for women's ordination that they've ignored other opportunities for leadership. Pope Francis, she said, is now opening the door and inviting conversations about new roles for women in the Catholic church.
"We're different but we're equal in dignity. But, why are we trying to make it look the same for men and women?" Hasson asked. "In my mind, that's not what gender equality is all about."
"Let me spout my 'heresy'," Campbell said a bit facetiously, trying perhaps to find some common ground in the area of contentious questions, such as women's ordination. New ways of looking at such issues, she insisted, could be faithful to the Gospel and to church teaching.
"We say that ordination is an extension of baptism because when we're baptized, we are all ordained as priest, prophet, and king," she said. "Our Catholic teaching says that there's all kinds of baptism: baptism of desire, baptism of blood, baptism of water. If you have different kinds of baptism and ordination is an extension of baptism, why aren't there different kinds of ordination?"
"Is Christianity bad for women?" University of Notre Dame's inter-tradition dialogue addressing that question may have ended with more questions than answers. But seeking answers, panelists seemed to say, is part of the Christian journey of faith -- for women and men.
[Catherine M. Odell is a freelance writer and editor and the author of 13 books. Her latest book is Praying the Rosary for Intercession (Our Sunday Visitor, 2012).]
*An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Ethics and Public Policy Center is affiliated with Catholic University of America. It is not. The Ethics and Public Policy Center is independent.