Francis, women, and Candida Moss’ truth problem

A professor of New Testament at Notre Dame apparently values self-promotion and sensationalism over facts and orthodoxy

No one should be surprised that the L.A. Times would run a piece critical of the Church’s supposedly unenlightened and backward teachings about women. It’s par for the progressive, secular course.

But a recent op-ed, “Pope Francis’ woman problem” (Dec. 7) is a bit more interesting, as it is co-authored by two theologians, one of whom, Candida Moss, is professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame. Dr. Moss, from what I can tell, is something of a Catholic Bart Ehrman, intent on two apparent goals: undermining and attacking the tradition she claims to adhere to (Ehrman, it should be noted, is a former Evangelical who now identifies as an “agnostic”), while garnering as much publicity and fame (and income) as can be snapped up.

Actually, she may be more akin to Dan Brown than Ehrman. Suffice to say that Moss likes to take umbrage with the Church when the Church fails to obediently agree with her, and therefore she has plenty of material to mine, undermine, and misrepresent. For instance, take the opening lines of the L.A. Times piece:

At first, it was easy to overlook. With all of his statements about caring for the poor, the disabled and immigrants, and all the fanfare surrounding his famous “Who am I to judge?” proclamation, Pope Francis seemed like a breath of fresh air for a
church stuck resolutely in the past. The fact that he never commented on the long­standing marginalization of women in the Catholic Church, and asserted quite plainly that there would be no ordination of women, did nothing to dampen progressive enthusiasm for the new pope. There has been a hopeful sense that he would get around to it eventually.

You know what they say about assumptions, right? Well, they are on full display here:

1). The Church is “stuck in the past,” which means, obviously, that the Church’s teaching about women is wrong. Period. No need to argue it. No need to even describe what the Church actually teaches. Which is convenient, since Moss and her co-author, Joel Baden, professor of Hebrew Bible at Yale University, don’t seem to know what the Church or Pope Francis actually have said about women.

2). Francis has indeed said quite a bit about women, as Michael Bradley of Ethika Politika readily demonstrates. Anyone who has followed the many public utterances of the Holy Father knows he has remarked several times about the role and place of women in the Church, society, etc. But, of course, the authors are fixated on “the long­standing marginalization of women in the Catholic Church,” which, again, simply assumes that such is an established fact.

3). And that is apparently founded on the fact—this one an actual fact, not a “fact” fact—that the Pope has not yet signed off on the Moss-Baden Plan for Progressive Faith Communities and begun ordaining women. The line—”There has been a hopeful sense that he would get around to it eventually”—tells me everything I need to know: that Moss and Co. not only think they are right (of course), but that the Pope will (of course) inevitably follow suit. Because no one wants to be stuck in the past and be found wandering about aimlessly on the wrong side of history! I’m not sure which is more revealing: the lack of theological knowledge when it comes to this particular matter or the surplus of progressive hubris about the same.

Remarkably, the piece goes downhill after that opening paragraph, probably because once the authors courageously threw themselves over the cliff of their progressive assumptions, there was only one direction to go. For instance: “Instead of a more
compassionate and understanding take on the standing of women in the church, Francis has repeatedly embraced the traditional Catholic view that a woman’s role is in the home.” As Bradley responds:

Francis has often praised the necessity of the mother’s presence in the family. He has also called for more female theologians; called for a more profound theology of woman; speaks fondly of the female religious (a mother of a different sort) who first catechized him; called for the “feminine genius” to animate the life of the Church in every way; cited favorably, in Evangelii Gaudium, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church’s section 295 (titled “Women and the right to work”), which begins: “The feminine genius is needed in all expressions in the life of society, therefore the presence of women in the workplace must also be guaranteed” (original emphasis); and delivered many other remarks to the contrary.

There is much more (and Bradley’s piece is worth reading for a blow-by-blow account), but this sentence is especially sad: “Francis has made it clear that he sees childbearing and child rearing as crucial womanly roles.”

No! How could he? Doesn’t he know that men should be bearing children just as much as women? (And if you don’t a know a pregnant man, well, shame on you! You need to get out and about more often.) I expect this sort of nonsense from the usual feminist suspects, but coming from a professor at the University of Notre Dame, it is, well, not that surprising. Sadly.

It brings to mind Chesterton’s comment, “The tragedy of the modern woman is not that she is not allowed to follow man, but that she follows him far too slavishly.” That is, in seeking to be like men in every way, women forfeit and lose what Saint John Paul II, nearly 20 years ago, called the “feminine genius”:

In this vast domain of service, the Church’s two-thousand-year history, for all its historical conditioning, has truly experienced the “genius of woman”; from the heart of the Church there have emerged women of the highest calibre who have left an impressive and beneficial mark in history. I think of the great line of woman martyrs, saints and famous mystics. In a particular way I think of Saint Catherine of Siena and of Saint Teresa of Avila, whom Pope Paul VI of happy memory granted the title of Doctors of the Church. And how can we overlook the many women, inspired by faith, who were responsible for initiatives of extraordinary social importance, especially in serving the poorest of the poor? The life of the Church in the Third Millennium will certainly not be lacking in new and surprising manifestations of “the feminine genius”. 

In the end, it appears to me that the Moss-Baden op-ed is ultimately a cynical promotional stunt for their recently released book. Moss has clearly mastered the art of using controversy for promotion; unfortunately, she does so in ways that are sloppy, disingenuous, and self-serving, hardly traits worthy of admiration, in either women or men. 

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About Carl E. Olson 1217 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.