As you will see, everything I have learned about being a submissive wife first came from answered prayers to God and then from asking my husband. It turns out that much of what he taught me (and in some cases, that which we learned together), I may hereby pass onto women who may be craving—and lacking—what I myself was formerly missing. (35)
Everything one needs to know about Stephanie Gordon’s new book, Ask Your Husband: A Catholic Guide to Femininity, published by TAN Books, can be found in this passage. We learn both the genesis of this version of wifely submission–from the highest possible authorities in the author’s life–and the intended audience–women who are seeking something radically different from contemporary ideas about women and marriage. Stephanie Gordon asserts that “When a woman speaks, she ought to direct her listeners to the wisdom of her husband,” (9) thus, the “wisdom” at the heart of this guide for women comes from a man, Timothy Gordon, who is well-known in the reactionary Catholic media sphere as a podcaster and author of The Case for Patriarchy, which was published by Crisis Publications (a division of Sophia Institute Press) in Fall 2021.
This is not to dismiss Gordon’s own voice–which is most certainly hers, and a strong one. But the vision of marriage, family life, and vocation that underlies Ask Your Husband is based almost exclusively on Tim Gordon’s reactionary views, presenting a dumbed-down, combatively written, and negligently edited teaching on household patriarchy that has more in common with Christian fundamentalism than anything recognizably Catholic. Ultimately, as I will explore in future articles in this series, Ask Your Husband’s advice primes women to relinquish their agency and identity in unhealthy ways, possibly making them vulnerable to coercive control and abuse, while selling short the great gift of the sacrament of marriage, lived by husband and wife in mutual love.
Why pay attention to a “tradwife” book? On its own, the book has caused a bit of a stir in Catholic social media, both in support of and opposition to its content. The Gordons have apparently successfully led a campaign to boost the book’s Amazon reviews and rankings, offering the first chapter for free and inviting reviewers in a recent video on Tim Gordon’s channel. It has over 300 ratings as of this writing, 85% of them “5 stars,” with 11% 1-star reviews. The book has remained in the top 100-200 in “Christian Marriage” book sales since its February 1 release date, debuting in the top 10 in the category, and one of the few books in the Christian Marriage category written specifically for Catholics.
Beyond the current buzz, the book is emblematic of a shift in recent years, with a growing number of Catholic commentators offering explicit defenses of “patriarchy,” and assuming a posture of “anti-feminism.” Criticism and suspicion of feminism—even of St. John Paul II’s “new feminism,” as in this book—have become standard fare in both traditional-leaning and more mainstream “orthodox” Catholic spaces. Many criticisms have sprung especially from more reactionary corners of Catholic media, such as Crisis Magazine, Taylor Marshall’s YouTube videos (particularly in his since-scrubbed-from-YouTube show with Tim Gordon, “TnT”), the sermons of Fr. Chad Ripperger, as well as an organization called “Fix the Family.” Their brash commentary directly targets Christian feminism, denigrates working women, and even in some cases argues against educating women or women’s suffrage (a view even briefly promoted by pro-life speaker Abby Johnson on Twitter prior to the 2020 election).
But others, such as Carrie Gress, Ethics and Public Policy Center Fellow and author of the book The Anti-Mary Exposed, believe there is no need for a Catholic feminism. Jared Zimmerer, author, speaker, and Director of the Word on Fire Institute, penned a provocative essay in 2016 for “Those Catholic Men,” in which he called for “reinstating the Christian patriarchy”. Fr. Dwight Longenecker, a married Catholic priest who converted from Anglicanism, has been writing favorably on the subject of Christian patriarchy since at least 2009, both on Patheos and for the National Catholic Register. Longenecker also offered his own endorsement of Ask Your Husband, calling it “an unapologetic defense of traditional marriage, encouraging women to affirm their femininity by embracing the Scriptural, time-tested vocation of wife and mother.” It should be noted that Tim Gordon has been invited to shared his perspective on mainstream conservative Catholic platforms—including an interview on Matt Fradd’s YouTube channel in August 2019, and an appearance on the Counsel of Trent podcast with Catholic Answers apologist Trent Horn in October 2019, who challenged some of Gordon’s claims (and where Gordon promoted a book that would not be published for another two years). Gordon has also been featured promoting his Case for Patriarchy on the Guadalupe Radio Network and Ave Maria Radio, and the book was endorsed by Bishop Joseph Strickland. These discussions exemplify a shift in Catholic conversations around feminism and patriarchy. For these Catholics, the discussions no longer revolve around the “new feminism” of John Paul II, but demonstrate a new openness to ideas that had been dormant for quite some time.
With this ideological groundwork already laid, Ask Your Husband provides practical guidance and moral prescription for women seeking to live out their (or their husbands’) newfound “retrograde” convictions. While it does give the appearance of theological and philosophical argumentation (references to Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, the Bible, the Catechism of Trent, and various encyclicals abound), the treatments of these topics are typically superficial, nodding towards arguments that readers’ very online traditionalist Catholic husbands may be familiar with, such as how the pope can err in teaching or the level of authority of the Catechism of Trent—which Gordon gets wrong, by the way—but without delving very deeply. At times Gordon goes out of her way to wade into weird, tangential arguments at length, which gives the feel of reading marital advice gleaned from the Great Catholic Twitter Wars of 2017-2022, rather than a cogent and focused “guide to femininity.”
So the book is significant in what it attempts to do–not for any groundbreaking argument found within it–which is to shape the beliefs and expectations of women who read it. It is designed to socialize women to accept a subordinate position in marriages to “alpha” men, and to uphold the patriarchy so that women’s sacrifices within it have decidedly spiritual meaning. Unabashedly directed at a female audience, this marriage manual primes women to surrender their own agency and identity in the name of faithfulness:
With God’s grace, simple, yet faithful, housewives do accomplish sublime things—even and especially those who have no formal education, marry young, and submit themselves to the Christian patriarchy every day of their lives. This is what the Lord asks of us. The path to faithfulness involves following our Lord and our husband’s lead, not our own foolish pride. (23)
While Tim Gordon takes the macro view of the Christian feminist “color revolution,” Stephanie cozies up to her sisters in Christ, tutoring them not only to “humble themselves to their husbands’ authority,” (45) but to reshape what they believe they deserve–both from him and from God:
Ladies, never presume that you deserve more than—or even as much as—our Lady did. Never presume that you know better than God which spouse ought to run the household. The Lord chose one perfect woman to bear and raise the one perfect man, the Son of Man. None of us is she. (19)
This results in an insidious and duty-driven Pelagianism in which women are taught to doubt their own worth as beloved daughters of God, and to believe that they deserve nothing, not even their own discernment of God’s will for their lives. The Gordons’ joint efforts inculcate in their readers a false vision of marriage, one which both exposes women to potential harm and–just as significantly–sells women and couples short of the great gift that is sacramental marriage lived in mutuality, by which the spouses reveal to one another and to their families the gift of Christ’s love.
Catholic Patriarchy of the Household?
Ask Your Husband follows a tack taken by many in reactionary Catholic media, explaining its regressive claims are a kind of secret knowledge, teaching that has been “marginalized…because the Church and the world refuse to preach it boldly” (14). Although later chapters attempt to situate Gordon’s moral mandates for wifely behavior in both Scripture and Tradition, in the first chapter she admits that this passage from the Catechism of Trent is “the only definitive catechetical statement by the Church on the matter” of wifely duty:
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. (14-15)
These few sentences form the basis for conclusions about how wives ought to act in myriad times and places. All of the book’s guidance derives from this, from the insistence that women must never leave the home without their husband’s permission (18)—certainly not to work in a job (chapter 5)—to the assertion that “God created women to be beautiful so their husbands would remain attracted to them” (178), to, finally, the moral obligation to have sex upon request (199).
In this patriarchy, which for Gordon “simply means the Christian priesthood, which was established under two fonts: the clergy and the lay household,” (23) the man is not merely the head of the household but occupies the elevated, kingly, and dominant role of priest. The Gordons both assert, based on a strict and non-figurative reading of Ephesians 5:23, that “the husband is the priest of the home, the domestic church.” (9):
Within the domestic hierarchy, the husband is ‘priest of the home,’ meaning he is duty-bound to prepare his family for heaven by instructing them in the faith. As a consecrated priest is to the larger Church, the husband is to the miniature Church, the family. (38)
Furthermore, the husband is “sacramentally appointed by God himself,” (15) “the household’s irreplaceable priest” (17). But unlike the clerical priest, who must answer to his bishop, the household priest is “accountable only to Christ.” (9)
The idea of “the priest of the home” as being an exclusively fatherly role is in fact absent from Church documents on family life and marriage–including from before Vatican II. There are no citations except to Scripture in the book for any of Gordon’s assertions about the “priesthood of the home” and the concept is more readily found in fundamentalist Christian patriarchy circles than in Catholic ones. “Protestants, because they take Scripture so seriously, are better on this issue than Catholics,” opined Tim on a recent video, speaking of the “hierarchy of the household.” Catholics instead believe that all the baptized possess the common priesthood and that both parents exercise their baptismal gifts as priests in the domestic Church–along with their baptized children (Familiaris Consortio 59).
Even the Catechism of Trent in the section on the priesthood does not make distinctions between lay men and women with regard to this priesthood: “Regarding the internal priesthood, all the faithful are said to be priests, once they have been washed in the saving waters of Baptism.” (Emphasis added) Catholicism in fact has a robust understanding of the baptismal priesthood, albeit one principally developed since Vatican II, which emphasizes that “priest” is an identity all the baptized share, without distinctions as male or female, both according to Scripture and to Tradition:
There is, therefore, in Christ and in the Church no inequality on the basis of race or nationality, social condition or sex, because “there is neither Jew nor Greek: there is neither bond nor free: there is neither male nor female. For you are all ‘one’ in Christ Jesus. (Lumen Gentium 32, quoting Galatians 3:28)
Men do not possess or have claim to a special version of the baptismal priesthood, nor do they communicate God in a special way to their wives that women cannot otherwise access on their own. In fact, it is consistently emphasized that both parents, together with their children, are called to exercise their baptismal priesthood in the life of the family, the domestic church:
It is here that the father of the family, the mother, children, and all members of the family exercise the priesthood of the baptized in a privileged way “by the reception of the sacraments, prayer and thanksgiving, the witness of a holy life, and self-denial and active charity. (CCC 1657)
In contrast to this, Gordon’s view places the husband as a sort of intermediary between the wife and family and Christ–one might visualize it with patriarchal Christian Bill Gothard’s infamous “umbrella of protection”–downplaying women’s dignity as baptized co-sharers in the one priesthood of Christ. “We are equal but only in dignity,” she writes, preoccupied more with roles and the duties that arise from them which women are obvious to her, and which women are morally obligated to accept:
In fact, our dignity enjoins us to fill specific roles preordained for us. Married women, there is great dignity in accepting that which God has created you for: serving a husband (with or without any eventual children) at home. Stop trying to contest this basic moral fact of nature. It constitutes a rebellion against God. (139)
Gordon’s combatively counter-cultural stance here blinds her to the full scope of the dignity of the vocation of women, and to God’s own teaching revealed in Scripture and taught by the Church. “All the baptized share in the one priesthood of Christ, both men and women,” John Paul II wrote in Mulieris Dignitatem 27, citing Lumen Gentium 10. The example of Mary, the Mother of God, whom Gordon rightly calls upon her readers to emulate, makes this clear: her relationship with her Son and her role as Mother of the Church were her own response to her own, personal call from the Lord. It is not denigrating homemaking, wifehood, or motherhood to push back against the collapse of God-given female dignity into a shallow, rigid set of roles, none of which derive from Christ’s own priestly, prophetic, and kingly offices.
The next installment of this series will examine some of the specific advice the author gives to women in Ask Your Husband and why it is dangerous.
Image credit: Ben White for Unsplash.
Rachel Amiri is a contributor and past Production Editor for Where Peter Is. She has also appeared as the host of WPI Live. She is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame with degrees in Theology and Political Science, and was deeply shaped by the thought of Pope Benedict XVI. She has worked in Catholic publishing as well as in healthcare as a FertilityCare Practitioner. Rachel is married to fellow WPI Contributor Daniel Amiri and resides in St. Louis, Missouri, where they are raising three children.