Dear Edith: Feminism and the Council of Trent

October 17, 2019

Dear Edith,

I have a dear Catholic female friend who, upon watching Episode 11 of the Matt Fradd Show, which featured Timothy Gordon, is convinced that there is “no good” to be found in feminism. Specifically, she believes that all women who are married and mothers should not work outside the home.

She said that “feminism is evil” and in direct opposition to Church teaching. To support this claim, she shared the following excerpt from the Council of Trent:

On the other hand, the duties of a wife are thus summed up by the Prince of the Apostles: Let wives be subject to their husbands. That if any believe not the word, they may be won without the word by the conversion of the wives, considering your chaste conversion with fear. Let not their adorning be the outward plaiting of the hair, or the wearing of gold, or the putting on of apparel: but the hidden man of the heart in the incorruptibility of a quiet and meek spirit, which is rich in the sight of God. For after this manner heretofore the holy women also, who trusted in God, adorned themselves, being in subjection to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord.

To train their children in the practice of virtue and to pay particular attention to their domestic concerns should also be special objects of their attention. The wife should love to remain at home, unless compelled by necessity to go out; and she should never presume to leave home without her husband’s consent.

Again, and in this the conjugal union chiefly consists, let wives never forget that next to God they are to love their husbands, to esteem them above all others, yielding to them in all things not inconsistent with Christian piety, a willing and ready obedience.

I can understand her point when she references the above passage.

Could it be that St. John Paul II was wrong? What about Sts. Elizabeth Ann Seton and Gianna Molla? Were they acting in direct disobedience to the Council of Trent? My friend believes that Popes and saints are imperfect (which is Catholic teaching) and can sin, which was her response when I mentioned those three saints. In other words, she believes that the saints were wrong.

Have you ever heard of this passage from the Council of Trent? What are your thoughts?


The Council of Trent Response #1 - Laura

Dear Anonymous,

When I first read that juicy humdinger quote your friend sent you, I was floored, too. Did the Council of Trent really say that women shouldn’t work outside the home?

According to the excerpt that you quoted, it might seem like the answer is “yes”:

To train their children in the practice of virtue and to pay particular attention to their domestic concerns should also be special objects of their attention. The wife should love to remain at home, unless compelled by necessity to go out; and she should never presume to leave home without her husband’s consent.

However, when we understand what this passage actually is and the historical context in which it was written, and when we place it in light of the Church’s teachings on the dignity of women and the home, we see that God cares more about how and why we work than about where we work.

First and foremost, this quote is not actually from the Council of Trent. The Council of Trent was a long ecumenical council that took place from 1545 to 1563. It was called in order to refute Protestantism and clarify Catholic teaching, particularly on issues like the authority of the Church, the nature of the sacraments, and how exactly we are saved by God’s grace.

The quote comes from the Roman Catechism, also known as the Catechism of the Council of Trent. Because there was so much confusion at the time, the Council called for a catechism to explain Catholic teaching, especially for parish priests to use.

Like all catechisms, including the current 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Roman Catechism is not authoritative as such. Catechisms are useful because they contain a clear and succinct summation of already authoritative teaching, but they themselves are not binding. This means that you will occasionally find statements in a catechism that are more like a current assumption or popular opinion than unchanging Truth.

In light of these facts, you need not worry about disobeying the Council of Trent, but that doesn’t really address the main issue at hand. Whether or not this particular quote from the Roman Catechism is strictly authoritative (it’s not), there are still plenty of exhortations and encouragements from Church tradition that seem to send the same message.

So, is it true that a woman’s place is in the home, and does the Catholic Church teach this?

St. Paul says that younger women should “be sensible, chaste, [and] domestic” (Titus 2:5). In Greek, that word “domestic” is oikourgos, a compound word combining oikos (meaning family or household and its property) and ergon (meaning work). It can also be translated “workers at home” (NASB), “busy at home” (NIV), or “good homemakers” (NABRE). You get the idea.

Scripture, along with the tradition of the Church, encourages women to be good homemakers: to care for our families with genuine love, to be hardworking and prudent in managing a household, and to generously raise any children God gives to us. But does this mean that women shouldn’t work outside the home?

Not at all.

The idea that wives and mothers shouldn’t do paid work outside the home is a modern invention. In pre-industrial societies, there was no meaningful distinction between the two. The division between “home” and “work” only emerged with the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century.

The idea that wives and mothers shouldn’t do paid work outside the home is a modern invention.

In a very literal sense, housework was the economy. That Greek word oikos means both family and property. It is the root origin of our word “economy,” which simply means to manage (nemein) the household (oikos). Before the Industrial Revolution, nearly everyone worked in their own homes. Most were peasants, tending to their farms or working their lord’s lands. Others lived in towns and worked as blacksmiths, carpenters, tailors, and merchants. Even until recently, if you ran a shop, you often lived above it. We must avoid projecting our twentieth-century assumptions onto pre-industrial texts. Such a projection is anachronism at its finest.

History shows us that women have always gone “out” from the home to work, participating fully in a society’s economic life. St. Lydia, the first recorded Christian convert from Europe, was a respected cloth merchant who sold expensive purple dyes. St. Zélie Martin was a remarkable lacemaker who established her own business and raised five daughters. And let us not forget about the full description of the Proverbs 31 woman.

Since the Industrial Revolution, women have needed to go “out” to work, because “out” is where the work is. In pre-industrial societies, the bulk of economic activity centered around the oikos or domus, the family household. It was where wives worked, as much a part of the economic life of the village as their husbands, who either worked in the next room or out in the fields. There was a distinction in labor, but not a geographical division.

Edith Stein doesn’t hold back in explaining what this shift did to women:

The Industrial Revolution transformed average domestic life so that it ceased to be a realm that engaged all of a woman’s potential. For those with passive temperaments, this climate led to an immersion into an overly sensual life or empty dreams or flirtations. In strongly active temperaments, there resulted a turning away from the house towards professional activity (Essays on Woman 105).

To be clear, Edith Stein doesn’t claim that “domestic life” isn’t enough for women and that every woman needs a paid job in order to be fulfilled. She is saying, however, that the domestic sphere has been impoverished: As things currently stand, it cannot provide enough occupation for all women — or even all wives and mothers.

Dorothy L. Sayers, the famous whodunit author and a devout Christian, notes in her work Are Women Human?:

It is all very well to say that a woman’s place is in the home — but modern civilisation has taken all these pleasant and profitable activities out of the home, where the women looked after them, and handed them over to big industry, to be directed and organised by men at the head of large factories. Even the dairy-maid in her simple bonnet has gone, to be replaced by a male mechanic in charge of a mechanical milking plant (Sayers 32).

Most people don’t realize how much medieval women participated in the economy. During the Middle Ages, women controlled or dominated nearly all textile production, including spinning, dyeing, weaving, embroidering, and design. They managed the baking, brewing, milling, cooking, distilling, curing meats, and pickling vegetables. They played an important role in accounting, nursing, teaching, and a good portion of land management.

To do the kind of “domestic work” that most women did in the past, a woman today would need to leave the house, commute to the office, and arrive in time for a 9:00 a.m. meeting on textile investments in China or water drainage in new public housing allotment — because this is the modern equivalent of the activities that were historically managed from the home.

Returning to the excerpt from the Roman Catechism, if we know what this kind of passage doesn’t mean, we still need to ask what it does mean.

Can we just ignore it, or is the Roman Catechism still onto something?

As countercultural as it might be, the Roman Catechism is correct in that, as wives and mothers, our first priority after God is our family. If God calls us to married life, then our primary vocation is to love and serve our spouse and our family. As the Roman Catechism says, “Let wives never forget that next to God they are to love their husbands.”

One of the privileged tasks of motherhood is “to train their children in the practice of virtue.” Wives and mothers are also asked “to pay particular attention to their domestic concerns,” because that is how we love each other in a practical way — but that is a far cry from saying women shouldn’t work outside the home.

Being an oikourgos — a homemaker — isn’t about where you work but, rather, why you work. The question for every woman, whether or not she earns a paycheck, is simple: Does my work glorify God, serve my household, and promote the common good? Some women work outside the home so that they can contribute to the family oikos. Others do not work outside the home for precisely the same reason.

Being an oikourgos — a homemaker — isn’t about where you work but, rather, why you work.

It sounds like your friend has her heart set on being a stay-at-home mom, which is a wonderful and empowering decision to make. But if she is looking for an ironclad, magisterial statement that her decision is the only decision a woman should make, it simply doesn't exist.

The Church, as a loving Mother, gives us the freedom to discern how to work for the good of our families — either in the home or outside the home. But we need to remember that, in the sixteenth century when the Roman Catechism was written, the distinction between economic activity inside and outside of the home didn’t exist.

To borrow a quote from St. Paul: Wherever and however you work, “do everything for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).


Laura McAlister is an Aussie Catholic, freelance writer, and history lover. She is engaged to an Irishman; has a Master’s in Medieval History; and can usually be found discussing Jane Austen, mysticism, and gender roles over tea and biscuits. She writes about prayer, peace, and overcoming perfectionism at

The Council of Trent Response #2 - Ben

Dear Anonymous,

When trying to read to the heart of your letter, it seems like your ultimate question would read something like this: “What do we do when it seems that doctrine from various magisterial teachings in different times seem to conflict?”

This is a question I have puzzled over myself, given the Matt Fradd interview you referenced and other discussions that we see circulating about current events in the Church. I thought it was fitting that you raised these questions now, given the canonization of St. John Henry Newman last month. I think one of his signature works, “An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine,” provides us with some tools to make sense of instances like this, where we encounter Church teachings that are difficult to contextualize and/or seem opposed to other teachings.

Newman lays out the nature of how — and standards by which — the Church’s doctrine may develop over time, emphasizing that doctrine is not overturned or ruptured, nor is it simply handed down through years or generations. Rather — and this is his central thesis in the text — doctrine evolves over time in the manner of a living organism, since the Church is Herself a living organism: the Body of Christ. Newman writes:

“When some great enunciation ... is carried forward into the public throng of men and draws attention, then [doctrine] is not merely received passively in this or that form into many minds, but it becomes an active principle within them, leading them to an ever-new contemplation of itself, to an application of it in various directions, and a propagation of it on every side” (“An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine,” section 1).

In light of Newman’s insight that teachings and ideas are active and become more fulfilled through their analysis and application in interested minds, I believe that we can start to more clearly interpret Church teaching throughout history on women’s work outside the home from a perspective that carefully considers development of doctrine.

Teachings and ideas are active and become more fulfilled through their analysis and application in interested minds.

As you alluded to, in reviewing recent teachings on women’s work and roles in society from Church documents, we certainly can find some tension with the excerpt you referenced from the Council of Trent. In his 1995 Letter to Women, Pope St. John Paul II praises working mothers:

“Thank you, women who work! You are present and active in every area of life — social, economic, cultural, artistic and political. In this way you make an indispensable contribution to the growth of a culture which unites reason and feeling, to a model of life ever open to the sense of ‘mystery’, to the establishment of economic and political structures ever more worthy of humanity” (Letter to Women 2).

He later states:

“There is an urgent need to achieve real equality in every area: equal pay for equal work, protection for working mothers, fairness in career advancements, equality of spouses with regard to family rights and the recognition of everything that is part of the rights and duties of citizens in a democratic State” (Letter to Women 4).

Furthermore, in a 2004 letter to bishops by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), it is instructed that “women should be present in the world of work and in the organization of society, and that women should have access to positions of responsibility which allow them to inspire the policies of nations and to promote innovative solutions to economic and social problems” (emphasis added).

How do we make sense of these various Church documents and the seemingly opposing viewpoints professed by the Council of Trent? A careful examination of the context and principles of the teachings, along Newman’s hermeneutic, can help us see these differences as a development of doctrine surrounding the family, rather than a clash of ideas.

Let’s start by examining one of the Scripture passages referenced at the beginning of the excerpt from the Council of Trent, this one taken from the Letter to the Ephesians from St. Paul (as he is named in the passage you cited, the “Prince of the Apostles”):

“Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is head of his wife just as Christ is head of the church, he himself the savior of the body. As the church is subordinate to Christ, so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her” (Ephesians 5:21-25).

I propose that what Newman would call the seed or bedrock of the doctrine flowing from this passage is not so much the particular ordering of family or societal roles in a given time but, rather, the subordination of vocation, work, and family relationships to the self-emptying love of Christ within the spousal relationship. While the noted excerpt from the Council of Trent outlines a structure for family life under this rubric that instructs women to remain at home (in the pre-industrial era, where cottage industry would have often been the norm), we can see signs of a legitimate development of this doctrine over the past few decades in instances such as the passages referenced above from the CDF and Pope St. John Paul II.

How do we determine whether a teaching represents a legitimate development of doctrine or a rupture from what has been taught in the past and departure from truth? Newman is also helpful here, as he lays out seven “notes,” or frameworks by which one may evaluate a development. I will attempt to briefly show that expressions of the feminine genius in broader society and in the workplace represent a positive development of the doctrine from the Council of Trent, examining its merits according to three of the notes.

Expressions of the feminine genius represent a positive development of the doctrine from the Council of Trent.

The first note stipulates that any development of doctrine must maintain a “preservation of type.” In other words, the central identity or form of the doctrine must remain intact. I argue that while the explicit instruction or practice of women remaining at home changes from the Council of Trent to the teachings under Pope John Paul II, the central aspect of family life’s subordination in all ways to Christ is preserved, especially given the point that much of industry and craftsmanship would have been run out of the home during this time in history. The key is that discernment of family vocation must take place under the umbrella of discipleship, with a careful assessment of how work and home commitments for members of the family contribute to the proclamation and living out of the Gospel.

A family with a mother working outside the home is, therefore, not out of step with the vision of a family on the path of discipleship. Rather, the specifics of a family’s needs and gifts will guide how it embodies this vision, and the activities of both mother and father outside the home can be an important part of a family’s discipleship through the contribution of the mother’s gifts and service to the community and culture, while not obscuring the time and love a mother devotes to the home and her family. Therefore, the fundamental type of St. Paul’s teaching and that of the Council of Trent is preserved.

Newman’s second note explains that a legitimate development of doctrine must also display a “continuity of principles,” or the perpetuation of the fundamental practices and ideas that undergird the teaching. We can say that the acknowledgment that Christian wives and mothers work outside the home affirms numerous principles present in St. Paul’s exhortation echoed in the Council of Trent. However, here, I will attempt to describe two theological principles I see at work.

First, as the subordination of the family and individual to Christ amplifies the dignity of all men and women, so the dignity of wives and mothers is affirmed in their service and endeavors outside the home. As both men and women are imbued with will, intellect, creativity, and a desire to bring about good, the ability of both men and women to pursue work outside the home affirms these gifts and their exercise in service of God.

The ability of both men and women to pursue work outside the home affirms their gifts and their exercise in service of God.

Second, subordination to Christ individually and in the home points toward His incarnation and the divine grace that flows from it, and we can then understand our desire to participate in the true, good, and beautiful as responses to the gift of grace. Newman names this principle of grace as one of the fundamental and essential aspects of Christianity and reminds us that grace is “not only holy but sanctifying.” Divine grace is most certainly active in the life of the Christian home, and mothers and wives participate and respond to grace in their work and service at home. Their activities outside the home, if so discerned, allow for ever greater manifestation of Christ’s grace in the world.

Finally, Newman’s third note states that a true development of doctrine must display “assimilative power,” possessing the ability to absorb and adapt to the details of different eras and environments while not losing its core identity and principles. An examination of the doctrine in question reveals its power to take on the best aspects of societal changes while resisting elements that are in conflict with the Gospel. Technological advancements and changes in the nature of professional labor have created conditions that not only allow for greater participation in the workplace by women but also ask for their participation for optimal flourishing of the professional enterprises.

This doctrine does not, however, instruct that it is necessary for all wives and mothers to contribute to the professional arena or that they should sacrifice the interest of the family for such endeavors; it maintains that care for children and the home is of great importance. Pope St. John Paul II highlights the need for this prioritization, lamenting “how the gift of motherhood is often penalized rather than rewarded” in social and professional life and that “much remains to be done to prevent discrimination against those who have chosen to be wives and mothers” (“Letter to Women” 4). The Church’s teaching on women’s contributions outside the home has shown appropriate and effective assimilation to changes in society, recognizing the opportunity and need for women to practice their gifts outside the home, while asserting that such opportunities must not detract from care for the family.

Under the rubrics offered by St. John Henry Newman, we can see that the Church’s teaching on women’s work and social participation outside the home continues to emphasize that family and individual discernment must be subordinated to Christ and that it does not represent a rupture from the Council of Trent but, rather, displays lively and appropriate development of doctrine.

Family and individual discernment must be subordinated to Christ.

In conclusion, we can say an enthusiastic “yes” to the words and witness of Pope St. John Paul II, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, and St. Gianna Molla, as well as to the teachings of St. Paul and the Council of Trent. Newman’s work has helped me in my own journey of understanding doctrine. I hope that my words offer some help and understanding of how you, too, can read the Church’s teaching on women across history.



Ben is a recent convert to the Catholic Church who has greatly enjoyed learning about and becoming more immersed in the Church's rich intellectual and spiritual tradition. He is grateful for the contributions that FemCatholic makes to discussions in the Church! He works as a health care market researcher and also is passionate about music and sports, but moonlights as a discussion partner for his wife, Hope, who teaches high school theology.

The Council of Trent Response #3 - Amelia

Dear Anonymous,

About a week ago, I watched the interview between Matt Fradd and controversial Catholic personality Timothy Gordon. I confess I had been ignoring it because Gordon’s reputation seemed similar to other mouthy radio pundits who excuse themselves by saying, “I’m only telling it like it is.” As easy as it would have been to continue my blissful ignorance, too many good people I know seem to have been affected by the interview — some for better but more for worse.

Like his more secular hipster brothers who sometimes fall into the trap of idealizing a past time or way of living that they’ve never had to experience on a wide scale, Gordon seems to idealize the strictest interpretations of Church teaching and the oldest form of the Latin Mass he can find.

The idealization of any time or movement in the past reminds me of a kid’s interpretation of a visit to their grandparents’ house. Grandma and Grandpa seem like all hugs and kisses. The kids exclaim, “Man, wouldn’t it be cool if they were my parents instead of my own parents?” Maybe, but if you had grown up with Grandma and Grandpa, you would know their crazy side, and you’d perhaps be content to work through the dysfunction and disagreement you have with your true parents, here and now. Sixty years later, when your grandparents have had more time to mature and you only see them on certain weekends, they seem like perfect caregivers.

The lives of the saints attest to the diversity of holiness within religious orders and married life. Unfortunately, I didn’t see much respect for God’s personal call in Gordon’s interview when he made the blanket statement that all married woman should be an idealized Donna Reed type, “beautifying the home.”

The lives of the saints attest to the diversity of holiness within religious orders and married life.

During the interview, Fradd respectfully tried to balance out Gordon’s hasty statements, such as the assumption that any woman who Gordon hears snarking at her husband in a parking lot is a virulent feminist. Fradd observed that lots of women act out at their husbands not because they want to beat up on men but out of frustration due to a man’s lack of sacrifice and servant leadership. He pointed out that many men don’t know how to lead well because they themselves are acting from woundedness. He continued to say that we can’t definitively know why a woman might be in a foul mood based on a five-second observation in a parking lot, and maybe we shouldn’t tell a whole story about the state of society based on it.

There are many public speakers out there today, including Gordon, who assert that men should be the bosses of their lives and, by extension, of their wives. Fair enough; I think it would be awesome if men stepped up and lead more (and no, bullying doesn't count). But Gordon says that men can’t do this because feminists take away their mojo, a phenomenon that started with Eve back in the Garden of Eden.

At Mass last month, we heard the parable of the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8). A judge failed in his duties, and a persistent woman had to badger him until he did the right thing. Is this feminism?

In the Old Testament, Abigail saved her unjust husband Nabal from being slaughtered by David (1 Samuel 25). In doing so, she not only protected her husband but also her household servants and children. Is this feminism?

In the New Testament, a mother persists in asking Jesus to heal her daughter even though she is not Jewish (Matthew 15:21-28). In her determination, she exclaims, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters,” and her daughter is healed. Is this feminism?

What do you call it when a woman can’t stand by and allow a vacuum of leadership to be filled with evil? What do we call it when she fills in the gap, advocating for herself and others?

The Bible is full of faithful women who fill in the gap to help their children and husbands grow in virtue. Today, I still see the need for these faithful women. While I’m not a feminist in the secular sense, I don’t know what else to call myself when I see bad situations resolved by excellent women.

Gordon is correct about two things: Church teaching is important, and Church Councils are important. At the same time, we cannot dismiss the importance of discerning one’s unique call through prayer, reception of the Sacraments, and a well-formed conscience. And we needn’t conform to an imperfect person’s image of what our life ought to look like.

We cannot dismiss the importance of discerning one’s unique call through prayer, reception of the Sacraments, and a well-formed conscience.

A.E. Ruggaber is a wife, mother, writer, friend, and philosopher of sorts.

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