Over the last several weeks, I’ve seen a 2009 opinion piece by former President Jimmy Carter resurface on social media — apparently it went viral over Easter this year. Entitled “Losing my religion for equality,” it offers Mr. Carter’s rationale for breaking off his longtime relationship with the Southern Baptist Convention on the grounds that the group’s leadership “quoting a few carefully selected Bible verses and claiming that Eve was created second to Adam and was responsible for original sin, ordained that women must be ‘subservient’ to their husbands and prohibited from serving as deacons, pastors or chaplains in the military service.”
As I’ve mentioned before, I do not subscribe to the view that Eve alone was responsible for original sin. I also agree that people have, at times, taken scriptures calling for wives to submit to their husbands out of context and overboard. However, I also think Mr. Carter overstepped himself, in at least four ways, and that Catholics, regardless of gender, should read this sort of thing and be troubled by it.
- First, he takes a potentially real problem — cherry-picking and misapplying Scripture to support unjust discrimination — and applies it to certain specific situations in which treating men and women differently may well be justified, either because of the fundamentally different ways in which we image God as men and women, or because of the wisdom of Christ and the traditions of His apostolic Church.
- Second, he lumps all forms of differential treatment of women together in a single pile — rape beside income inequality; slavery beside ordination — and suggests that religious teachings or traditions that support treating different genders differently contribute to all these things and are therefore equally “unacceptable.” (How the ordaining only men to the priesthood in one religion contributes to the stoning of rape victims in another is lost on me.)
- Third, he claims that all the world’s major religions a fundamentally treating women differently, and that male religious leaders have selfishly chosen to interpret their religious texts to support subjugating women. In doing this he puts all religions on similar footing, even though some have very different views on women and what constitutes chastity, adultery, rape, and more.
- Finally, he claims to be a lifelong Christian who is “losing his religion” in favor of a man-made ideal, which should make us question both the ideal and Carter’s own faith.
The Catholic Church, in its wisdom, teaches that while unjust inequalities must be eliminated, we are made equal in dignity but unequal in attributes, with our own strengths and weaknesses, in order to foster communion and charity:
Created in the image of the one God and equally endowed with rational souls, all men have the same nature and the same origin. Redeemed by the sacrifice of Christ, all are called to participate in the same divine beatitude: all therefore enjoy an equal dignity.
The equality of men rests essentially on their dignity as persons and the rights that flow from it: Every form of social or cultural discrimination in fundamental personal rights on the grounds of sex, race, color, social conditions, language, or religion must be curbed and eradicated as incompatible with God’s design.
On coming into the world, man is not equipped with everything he needs for developing his bodily and spiritual life. He needs others. Differences appear tied to age, physical abilities, intellectual or moral aptitudes, the benefits derived from social commerce, and the distribution of wealth. The “talents” are not distributed equally. … These differences belong to God’s plan, who wills that each receive what he needs from others, and that those endowed with particular “talents” share the benefits with those who need them. These differences encourage and often oblige persons to practice generosity, kindness, and sharing of goods; they foster the mutual enrichment of cultures.
— adapted from the Catechism of the Catholic Church 1934-1937
Equality is simple to sell, difficult to oppose, and impossible to achieve. It is a blunt tool at best and increasingly swings like a wrecking ball — destroying not only the injustice of arbitrary inequality, but the justice of recognizing genuine differences and giving unique groups or individuals their unique due.
Postscript: If someone has time and the knowledge top-of-mind to elaborate on and/or dismantle his pentultimate paragraph on the early Church, please do so in the comments. And if you want to go deeper, click the links to the two addition (and more recent) articles that appear at the top of the 2009 Carter article. Here comes the wrecking ball!