When America, the with-it Jesuit weekly, devoted a recent issue to the plight of women in the big, bad Catholic Church, Lisa Sowle Cahill, feminist author and well-known theology professor at Boston College, pilloried "Catholic teaching" because it allegedly relegates women to an "inferior and subordinate" status.

Another contributor, Susan Ross, complained that because only male priests can celebrate the Eucharist, "virtually no women's religious community deals with the Eucharist without some pain." Watching a man say Mass "symbolizes, for many, women's second-class citizenship in the Church," Ross opined.

This standard-issue feminist portrayal of Catholicism as patriarchal oppressor ignores the fact that Christianity was the first institution in the world to elevate the status of women. Indeed, the church's much-denigrated stance on the so-called "pelvic issues" of abortion and extramarital sex that so irk today's feminists are the very things that helped rescue women from the universally low esteem in which they were held in the pagan world at the dawn of the Christian era.

Women enjoyed very few rights at the time of Christ's birth. Athens, where classical civilization reached its zenith during the fifth century B.C.E., denied women citizenship and the right to own property. In ancient Rome, a woman who committed adultery was put to death, while her husband could brag with impunity about his sexual adventures. Vestal virgins who broke their vows of chastity were buried alive.

What changed this sorry state of affairs? Mostly the much-maligned Catholic Church. The new religion spread rapidly in part because it offered a radical new spiritual order in which every human being, male or female, had equal value in the eyes of a beneficent Creator. Indeed, the presence of so many women hailed by name in the epistles of St. Paul testifies to the importance of women in the early church.

Of course, the most prominent woman in the history of the church is the Virgin Mary. Her life-giving "yes" to God's request to bear his son was, after all, the beginning of the whole Christian drama. The church, which owes its existence to the freely given decision of a young woman, rightly venerates her. In turn, Mary adds a human touch to the church. The old Catholic joke is that Mary intercedes when her son is inclined to be stern.

While many of today's feminists defend a form of abortion that amounts to infanticide, they forget that the early church's bans on abortion, which was horrendously dangerous for women, saved many female lives. Moreover, its curb of infanticide, for which girl infants were more at risk than boys, helped attract female converts.

Women embraced Christianity in such staggering numbers in ancient times that in 370, Emperor Valentinian I issued an order to Pope Damasus I that forbade Christian missionaries to set foot inside any pagan house where females lived.

Before Christianity, a woman had no legal say in picking her mate. Although feminists love to hate the popes as mitered misogynists, it was the early and medieval papacy that developed what was then an unheard-of idea: the consent of both spouses to marriage. The church was the first institution to insist that women have that right.

Christian wives, like pagan wives, were still required to be faithful to their husbands. But there was a new element: Husbands were required to be faithful to their wives. It was history's first dent in the sexual double standard.

Feminists may sneer that the ancient and medieval church allowed only two roles for women--nun and wife--but they forget that previously, women were regarded as men's intellectual and moral inferiors, and thus had not been viewed as capable of the contemplative life. In the convents, where literacy was often mandatory, many women flourished as scholars, teachers, writers, artists, and physicians. Medieval abbesses broke the Gothic glass ceiling, frequently ruling "double" monasteries that housed both sexes. The only man to whom these distaff dynamos answered was the pope.

Ordination of women remains a much-misunderstood issue. It's not about equality--women areequal, the church has always insisted--but about differences between the sexes. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob has a high degree of gender awareness: "Male and female, he created them." A priest is not superior to a laywoman, but his functions in the church are different from hers, just as a father's are different from a mother's in the family. A priest's vocation is supposed to be one of sacrifice, not the exercise of clerical rank.

In turn, women in the church have been able to exercise enormous power, even over bishops and popes--as Catherine of Siena did in medieval times and Dorothy Day in our own--not by virtue of hierarchical status (a worldly yardstick) but by the sheer prophetic force of their distinctively female holiness.