Being True to God's Call (Not Man's)
Does religion empower women? It certainly can. Countless women throughout history have found strength and sustenance in dealing with great suffering, including great injustice, by nurturing a strong spiritual life, and a sense of their own worth that transcends the difficulties, even horrors, of their circumstances.
My own religion, Christianity, affirms the fundamental equality of men and women in its scriptures. Jesus treated women with dignity and respect; as his encounters with Martha and Mary show ((Luke 10:38-42), John (11:1--12:11) , he treated women as his friends as well as his disciples). Many women have found their basic equality before God affirmed in St. Paul's Letter to the Galatians: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus."
At the same time, it is undeniable that religion can be used, and has been used, to thwart and harm women. In Christianity, this does not tend to take the form of denying the fundamental equality of women before God, but of attempting to constrict their roles in human society, including the church, in accordance with what is believed to be a divine plan of creation. For example, St. Paul's first letter to Timothy prohibits women from teaching and having authority over men. Women "must be quiet." (1 Tim. 2:12).
Today, many Christians, including many Catholics, see Paul's advice in Timothy as reflecting cultural assumptions of a particular time and place, not setting forth a universal, divinely ordained rule about the relationship of men and women.
We interpret scripture by scripture, and all by the person and work of Jesus Christ. More generally, Christian women throughout the ages have attempted to use the basic insights of equality expressed in Jesus's treatment of women, and Paul's Letter to the Galatians, as a way of challenging fellow believers who attempt to equate unjust patterns of society and church with a timeless divine will. It's not always an easy task. Nonetheless, I think the increased prominence of women in public life and in church life in Western Christianity is due, in part, to women who rose to that task in the conviction that they were being true to God's call to them.
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Professor of Law and Theology, University of Notre Dame.Professor M. Cathleen Kaveny, a scholar who focuses on the relationship of law, religion, and and morality, is the John P. Murphy Foundation Professor of Law ind Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. She earned her A.B. from Princeton University in 1984, and holds her JD. and her Ph.D. from Yale University . A member of the Massachusetts Bar since 1993, Professor Kaveny clerked for the Honorable John T. Noonan Jr. of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and worked as an associate in the health law group of a large Boston law firm before beginning her teaching career. Professor Kaveny has published over fifty articles and essays, in journals and books specializing in law, ethics, and medical ethics. She has served on a number of editorial boards including The American Journal of Jurisprudence, The Journal of Religious Ethics, the Journal of Law and Religion, and The Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics. Professor Kaveny is a member of the Steering Committee of the Catholic Common Ground Initiative, which was founded by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin to help overcome polarization within the Catholic Church). Since 2004, she has been a columnist for the liberal Catholic magazine Commonweal.