Doubts about Alice von Hildebrand on the sacredness of women

As many of my friends on CP&S will know, Dr. Alice von Hildebrand has always been (and always will be) some sort of heroine for me. I have long admired her wisdom, insights and traditional Catholic views, especially those dealing with true femininity and the family. However, this post by Joseph Shaw is, IMO, pointing out an evident flaw in Alice’s reasoning recently, one that I do not think she is aware of herself. (In other words: women are never “superior” to men, as Alice appears to be saying, only different and with distinct roles; both sexes created by God in the beginning to be of equal dignity and value, and to compliment each other.) Therefore I thought this article would interest our readers, following on from the discussions on the notorious Bruce Jenner sex-change affair.

From Joseph Shaw on LMS Chairman blog.

Mantillas at St David's, Pantasaph, during the St Catherine's Trust Summer School

Mantillas at St David’s, Pantasaph, during the St Catherine’s Trust Summer School

Regular readers will know that I am just as happy criticising allies as criticising opponents; I think people who are ‘on the side of the angels’, and those influenced by them, are just as much in need of having their ideas refined in the furnace of reasoned discussion as those who are completely wrong-headed. So in this spirit I wanted to say something about Alice von Hildebrand, who is having an influence, in particular, on discussions of head-coverings for women in church, as I promised when I posted a video about mantillas in which her views (though not her name) are mentioned.

Not long ago I read her short book Man and Woman: A Divine Invention, where these topics are discussed. She is in favour – as am I – of head coverings for ladies in church, and she appears to give a theoretical basis for the practice which bypasses the embarrassing (to many) stuff in St Paul about women being ‘under authority’, which he tells us is a central symbolic meaning of the veil (1 Cor. 11:10).

This may seem convenient, but in fact it is problematic, since she is constructing a theology of the complementarity of the sexes and St Paul’s treatment is the treatment of complementarity in sacred Scripture. Furthermore, she provides her readers with no resources to deal with St Paul’s difficult passages. Instead, bypassing the issue of authority, she wants to talk about superiority, and tells her readers that women are superior to men (‘this superiority is mostly a moral one’, p73).
The key argument (expressed at greater length in her The Privilege of Being a Woman) is that women’s bodies are ‘touched’ and thus ‘made holy’ by God when he infuses a soul into the fertilised egg. I have to say I find this a completely unconvincing idea, and actually rather distasteful: people don’t become holy by virtue of their biological functions, however important and honourable those functions may be. It doesn’t seem to derive from anything in St Paul or the wider Tradition. One peculiar implication would seem to be that mothers are more sacred than virgins.

It is perfectly true, and in St Paul, that we veil what is sacred, and that head coverings are connected with this. But that is not because of what women are, but what women represent: namely, the Church. In this way we can understand the idea of the woman’s head ‘having authority over it’ because she represents the Church which is under the authority of Christ; the man’s head does not have this ‘authority’ over it because he represents Christ, to whom he is himself subject as a member of the Church.

Pope St John Paul’s talk of the ‘spousal character of women’ is helpful in explaining why it is women who are best fitted to represent the Church as the Bride of Christ. As St Paul says, as women represent the Church, men represent Christ the Bridegroom, and the relationship between Christ and the Church is mirrored in the relationship between a husband and a wife (Ephesians 5:22-33).

It is this sense that husbands must love their wives (or their families) as their own bodies, sacrifice themselves (as necessary) for them, and take up responsibility for them. To vary the comparison here, you can’t separate the idea of the Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep from the idea of the Shepherd who leads the sheep. The leader who does not protect is a tyrant; the protector who does not lead is a mercenary.

I think it is fascinating that in discussing the role of men as the head of the household, Plato and the Islamic tradition both explain it in terms of the inferiority of women. Plato thought that women (and slaves and children) were deficient in reason. Islamic sources say that women are morally deficient as well, and overrepresented among the damned. This kind of argument has got nothing to do with St Paul’s reasoning, and an authentic Catholic view. The specialisation of roles, whether in the family or in the Church as whole, does not imply inferiority of either sex compared with the other, but simply a specialisation of roles. Someone has to be in authority over a community; it doesn’t imply an intellectual or moral deficiency on the part of the community’s other members. Saying women are morally superior to men, just as much as the other way round, implies something very unsatisfactory about the created order of things. Did God create one of the sexes as fodder for Hell?

It is in this context that Catholic societies developed a happy toleration of women being independent and, indeed, exercising authority when things happen to fall out that way. Medieval and early modern Catholic Europe had reigning Queens and important noble women, business women, important female mystics and abbesses, and female artists. It wasn’t the rule, but it wasn’t against the rules either. The principle of male headship articulated by St Paul didn’t prevent a widow like Chaucer’s Cressida or an heiress like Shakespeare’s Olivia having complete self-determination, a situation which would never be allowed in ancient Rome or Greece, any more than in traditional Islamic societies.

Is this, Sebastian’s description of Olivia in Twelth Night, the description of oppressed womanhood?

Or else the lady’s mad; yet, if ’twere so,
She could not sway her house, command her followers,
Take and give back affairs and their dispatch
With such a smooth, discreet and stable bearing
As I perceive she does…

Alice von Hildebrand goes on, in her book, to explain that we can see women are more pious because there are more of them in church, ‘especially in Latin countries’. She can hardly be ignorant of the reason: in Latin culture, piety is regarded as effeminate. Does she think this is a good thing? Since it is not a cultural universal, should we not rather work to ensure that boys and men are not put off religion by a completely accidental and indeed false appearance of sissy-ness? If only for the sake of Catholic women, who want to marry good Catholic men.


There is more detail on the head coverings issue in the FIUV Position Paper.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Doubts about Alice von Hildebrand on the sacredness of women

  1. kathleen says:

    Just one little detail Jo Shaw states that I do not wholly agree with:

    “in Latin culture, piety is regarded as effeminate.”

    Not really, at least not in my experience, and not amongst the generally more educated ‘Latins’ anyway. However this may sometimes be the attitude in small rural villages among, er, ‘agricultural workers’*, the men either staying away entirely from attending Mass, or hanging around the church door instead! (N.B. I don’t like using the word *’peasants’; it appears to have some derogatory connotations!)

    As in many other places, where the Mass has become more liberal – and hence ‘feminised’ – women do certainly outnumber men among the congregation, but in the more traditional celebrations of Mass there is usually a more even balance of both. I have particularly noticed this in the Opus Dei church I sometimes attend, where the Mass is very reverently celebrated; there are always a lot of men present there.

    During religious processions, acts etc. there are definitely more men than women taking part, especially in the magnificent Holy Week celebrations.

  2. toadspittle says:

    “God … infuses a soul into the fertilised egg.”
    What a wonderful concept!

    [The rest of this comment is totally inappropriate and has been deleted by a Moderator]

  3. johnhenrycn says:

    Toad, if that was posted for laughs, I fear your second childhood has arrived.

  4. toadspittle says:

    Very likely JH.
    Happens to us all, if we live too long.

  5. I do not subscribe to the belief that women are more pius than men. There is an interesting moral issue there however, if women were truly more pius, possessing some kind of moral superiority, how than would we justify having failed men so badly, having allowed them to go so far astray? To whom much is given, much is expected, right? With authority comes responsibility. In the very process of trying to claim our moral superiority, we have actually proven our inferiority. We are now not only accountable for our own behavior, but for the behavior of all men.

    God however, presents us with the most beautiful paradoxes. There is strength in weakness, there is power in humility. When men and women are in harmony, they are sacrificial towards each other, loving, and truly begin to reflect what Christ taught. It goes way beyond our silly ideas about inferior and superior and turns worldly concepts on their head. Christ Himself washed the disciples feet.

  6. toadspittle says:

    “in Latin culture, piety is regarded as effeminate.”
    I’d say this was true.
    Certainly the scene at Mass, where I live in Catholic Northern Spain, is as just Kathleen describes it. And, in Southern Italy (Mafia-style country, to be sure) as far back as a century ago, the Sermon on the Mount, and similar ‘effeminate’ ideas, such as “turning the other cheek,” and “loving your neighbour,” – were regarded, by the men at least – as being not only absurdly impractical – but, indeed, well-high incomprehensible. (Viz: The Godfather movies.)
    …So Norman Douglas tells us. And I doubt if attitudes are all that much different today.

  7. toadspittle says:

    D’oh! I can never remember what I said that was so unspeakably awful that it got axed by Those Far Above Me.
    So I suppose I’m very likely to say the same again, unknowingly.

    Oh, well. They can just ‘kill’ it (as we old hacks call it) again. No harm done.

  8. toadspittle says:

    “It is perfectly true, and in St Paul, that we veil what is sacred, and that head coverings are connected with this.”
    Which, presumably, is why men – although fortunately not women – are absolved from veiling their heads. Which heads usually contain nothing more sacred than an enormous and ludicrous self-regard that they – like Mel Gibson, Sepp Blatter, and Tony Blair – (yet unlike, for example, panthers, horses, sharks or eagles ) – closely resemble God.

    Let’s get a grip here, please.

  9. johnhenrycn says:

    Alice von Hildebrand was married to a far superior theologian than she. On the other hand, there has never been a female Jack the Ripper; but on the other, other hand, there never been a female Mozart, Bach, Beethoven or Brahms.

  10. johnhenrycn says:

    …even if your musical tastes run more to 20th century composers, here’s the Top Ten list chosen by that cute chick, Clemency (“Lord Have Mercy”) Burton-Hill for the BBC at the time of the last Synod:
    Even more telling is her comment on the people she was sorry to leave out:

    “Any such list must be an exercise in subjectivity, of course: my omissions will no doubt outrage some. What about Elgar and Sibelius, Bartók and Janáček? Vaughan Williams? Or John Williams? Ravel? Xenakis? How could I leave out the post-modern giants Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle? To say nothing of Olivier Messiaen, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Ligeti, Berio, Lutosławski, Steve Reich? And how about John Adams, Elliot Carter? Well, sure. All of the above composers, and so many others, have bequeathed us masterpieces that have moved us, astonished us, baffled us, made us think, made us cry, made our hearts soar. After much soul-searching, these are simply the 10 geniuses who, for me, have done so the most.”

    Of course, there have always been many, many composerettes, and I can even recognise the name of one of them – Anne Boleyn.

  11. kathleen says:

    Very true JH, and neither are there any great female names for inventors, scientists (Marie Curie being the exception), discoverers, architects, et al, or…. chess players! I’ve been chewing this over, wondering what it could imply 😉 and scanning the web for information.

    One could argue that women have never had the same opportunities in the past as men, having also been discouraged from these fields, and those few who wanted to patent their work or discoveries have often had to resort to putting their husband’s name to them to get any form of recognition… but that cannot be the only reason, and cannot always be said to be the case.

    Perhaps it would be true to say that on the whole men are more daring, more adventurous, more prepared to take the steps necessary for high achievement than women. This person’s opinion is interesting:
    “Inventing is about rebelling. Every inventor rebelled against what society told them was possible and dared to travel to unknown lands. Men don’t care what society thinks, women do. Women are too logical and cautious to risk endless hours and money over something they may never come true.”
    And this other one:
    “It has been known for a while that there are certain abilities (such as spatial processing) that men are better at than average and some (such as interpersonal communication) that women are better at. Plus there are differences in nature as well — not many women are that interested in fixing stuff, and not that many men are interested in child care.”

    So it could be said that while men and women are equal in value, both created by God “in His own likeness” (CCC 2331), and thus both are called to holiness of life – there are plenty of saints of both sexes – there are differences in our make up as well as our bodies that simply add to making life so enchanting. 🙂

    But about that lack of female chess champions…..

  12. Brother Burrito says:

    Kathleen, I read about this woman only yesterday:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s