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March 23, 2008

Catholic Feminism

We were trying to come up with a way to combine Women's History Month (our obvious theme for March) with the holiday this weekend (Easter), so of course, our initial thought was about how Catholicism has historically been so anti-women. And certain members of the ESC were raised Catholic and even went to Catholic school, so you can't say we don't at least have some personal insight on the subject. We originally intended to write about the ways that women within the feminist movement have opposed the Church and its historically sexist teachings.

However upon further research, we discovered that there are in fact many women who consider themselves "Catholic Feminists". Yes, it sounds like an oxymoron. This was very interesting to us... because the two seem to be so at odds with each other. Obviously, any kind of woman can consider herself a feminist (which is a point we've tried to drive home so many times), so religious women should be no different. But the conflicts between Catholicism and feminism just always seemed too strong to fully reconcile. I've always found it funny how people will fight so hard and make so many compromises to fit different parts of themselves together, because at a certain point you have to admit that the church is at least somewhat anti-women.

Catholicism has many aspects that strongly contradict those of feminism (that is, those that coincide with female equality and autonomy). The Catholic Church morally opposes contraception, abortion, sex outside of marriage, and homosexuality. These beliefs limit a woman's right to control her own sexual activity and fertility... which in turn limits her ability to make important life choices (regarding her career, her family life, her physical health)... and can cause her stress, anxiety, guilt, or low self esteem. The Christian religion has a long history of oppression of women.

From Roots of Sexism in Religion:

The major male dominated monotheistic religions Judaism, Christianity and Islam have had a profound effect on women's lives up to and including the present day.

Sexism, meaning the degrading of women to second class status is rooted in these religions. Woman was supposedly created as an afterthought from Adam's rib. Her role established in the scriptures as temptress, whore, foot-washer and domestic servant, unclean during menstruation and untouchable until ritual cleansing after childbirth.

The religions themselves practice overt discrimination against women within their own institutions. They are run by men for men.

...Women bore the brunt of the superstition, misogyny, throughout the Catholic Inquisition in Europe, and the puritan fanaticism in the 15th and 16th centuries, when many were hunted down as 'witches'. They were persecuted, imprisoned and hanged for being possessed by the devil, old women and a few children and men were hounded by the 'Great Witch finders'...

...Within living memory women were punished for sexual misdemeanours, their children taken away and they themselves put into institutions for the mentally ill for 'moral turpitude'.

...Women have been at the forefront of the suffering caused by their exclusion from rightful participation in the running of society.

From Root Causes of the Crisis in the Catholic Church:



Three historical prejudices have colored the church’s view of women:

1. Society considered women inferior beings.
2. The church considered women to be in a state of punishment for sin. The church held that women were held responsible for bringing original sin into
the world, and for being a continuing source of seduction.
3. The church taught that women were ritually unclean because of their monthly periods. The church held that menstruation caused defilement.

These prejudices, though cultural in origin, became theological prejudices. They are the real reasons for excluding women from the priesthood, as is clear from the writings of the Fathers of the Church, the canons of local synods, church law, and medieval theology.

...years ago women had little standing in the Church, like in society in general. Women were not allowed to receive Holy Communion during their monthly periods; and after giving birth to a child they needed to be “purified,” i.e., churched, before re-entering a church building. women were strictly forbidden to touch “sacred objects,” such as the chalice, the paten, or altar linen. They certainly could not distribute Holy Communion. In church, women needed to have their heads veiled at all times.

The church also barred women from:

  • Entering the sanctuary except for cleaning purposes
  • Reading Sacred Scripture from the pulpit
  • Preaching
  • Being Mass servers
  • Becoming full members of confraternities and organizations of the laity
  • Receiving Holy Orders. (This barring, of course, continues).

More Evidence of Church Sexism...

  • Readings that portray women as positive role models are largely missing from our liturgy. The absence of women works to condition us to regard women with negative images.
  • Women are largely unrecognized as canonized saints. More than 75% of canonized saints are male.
  • Catholic Tradition has taught that the female body is a source of evil. Women were described as harlots, bloody, and corrupt. Redemption was found through silence, submission, virginity, and childbearing (all at the same time is best, some would say). This tradition trains women to be controlled, instead of partners. At the same time, it teaches men that it is appropriate to dominate others sexually.

Based on all of that, I've always seen religion as the rigid, conflicting side in the attempt to merge Catholicism and feminism. That is, feminism to me is common sense - women deserve equality - while I found Catholicism to be sexist and oppressive in nature. It was so interesting to view the issue from the other side. (I still don't agree with the other side on most parts, but yes, it was definitely interesting and did give me some insight into the mind of the Catholic Feminist).

In Can Secular Feminists and Catholic Feminists Work Together to Ease the Conflict between Work and Family?, Susan J. Stabile writes:

Secular feminists and Catholic feminists share a concern about issues that affect women both generally and in their ability to participate fully in the workplace. They also share a concern about family, albeit not always in the same way. That is, while there are places secular and Catholic feminists can walk together in promoting a restructuring of the workplace to accommodate family, there are also areas in which they part company.

A not insignificant strand of feminist thought is anti-family (at least traditional family) and anti-traditional forms of marriage. “Since the middle of the nineteenth century, but at a rapidly accelerating rate since the 1960s, feminism has been waging a relentless attack on all institutions, notably the family and the Church, that have curtailed women’s autonomy.”

This is a central dividing line for some. Some of the difficulty many religious women have with feminism is the tension “between feminism’s emphasis on women’s individual goals and the collective goals of family and community.” For many women, the fact that “feminism has, from the start cast the care for children as work fit only for servants, or at least as work that no woman should ever be compelled to shoulder,” is problematic.

Of course, I don't believe that feminism is anti-family or against raising children. To me, feminism is about choice - in this case, the choice to have a career or a family or both - based on what you want from your own life, not based on what a woman's role is or where a woman's "place" is.

Stabile addresses this freedom of choice from a different perspective than I'd have ever thought of. She describes the secular feminists' freedom of choice as "autonomy in promoting individualism ... the conviction that no one has the right to tell a woman what to do," while she describes the Catholic feminists' freedom of choice as "free choice to become the kind of person God intends."

Freedom involves a choice in favor of truth, making freedom that which enables us to break out of the condition of alienation of self from others and from God. ...The difference between secular and Catholic thought here reflects a very different view about external authority. Catholic thought proceeds from a belief that God “created the universe in accordance with a divine plan.”

...when Catholics affirm our belief that God is the maker of heaven and earth, we affirm that there is one who made us and who gives our lives their purpose and meaning. That is, someone other than ourselves assigns the end and goal of our existence. From the Catholic perspective, we live in a world that is not ours to do with what we please; we live in a universe not designed by us for our own goals and purposes. It is for us to choose whether to live in accordance with God’s plan, and thus to fulfill who were intended by God to become.

That is quite countercultural. Our society generally, and certainly feminist legal theory, celebrates the rights of individuals to make whatever choices bring them pleasure, accepting that anyone’s vision of the good is as valid as any other. Secular feminist theory, like liberal theory generally, believes we assign the purpose of our lives. Thus, the reality that we exist in relation to God also invites us to reconsider secular feminism’s rejection of any notion external authority and to understand freedom in a way that does not require abandoning notions of responsibility toward others. Catholic feminist legal theory invites us to understand that, far from being limiting (the way secular theorists view it), authority is freeing.

Authority is freeing? Hm. I'm not a religious person, so I suppose it's not fair for me to scoff at that statement. I think that people should be able to "serve God" as they see fit and if that includes getting married, raising children, and being a "good Catholic", more power to ya.

However, to say that Catholicism is not sexist because it's God's authority instead of man's authority seems to be reaching a bit. Whether or not the Bible is in fact the word of God is up for debate, but what is not debatable is that the Bible was written down, interpreted, and enforced by men. And as we already know, many cultural beliefs have influenced the interpretation of religious doctrine.

Or maybe - let's suspend our belief for a moment and suppose that the Bible really is the exact, unrefutable word of God, meant to take entirely literally. That doesn't make it any less sexist or oppressive. All it would mean to me is that the Christian God is, to an extent, anti-women and that is not a God I wish to serve. (For the record: I'm not saying that God is anti-women, but the Church's doctrines are most definitely sexist. If you're going to defend that sexism by saying it is the word of God, it would only imply that God Himself is sexist).

Not only does the Church provide unequal treatment of women, but it serves as a rationale (albeit often unspoken) for the unequal treatment of women within society, family, business, government, etc. As much as the United States was based on the separation of church and state, religion still unequivocally influences every aspect of our lives.

That's not to say that the Church completely disregards and disparages women. Catholicism does teach that at birth, all men and women are created in God's image and at baptism, transformed in Christ's image.

In Catholic and Feminist: Can One Be Both (CatholicEducation.org), Elizabeth Fox-Genovese writes:

Feminists see Catholic teaching[s]... as the negation of Catholicism's profession to honor the equal worth and dignity of women and men. Yet belief in the equal dignity of women and men lies at the heart of Catholicism. Catholicism has always insisted upon the freedom of each individual to follow or rebel against the Holy Spirit. Catholicism has always acknowledged the special dignity of women, the ideal of which is embodied by the Virgin Mary.

...Women's right to equal treatment and respect, like their right to equal partnership in the mystery of redemption, derives from their equal value as persons in the eyes of God. And many of their responsibilities, like men's, derive from the same source. But women also have specific responsibilities that derive from their nature as women, notably their ability to bear new life and the special intimacy of their relation to it. Thus the Pope does, to be blunt, insist that in some essential ways women and men differ and that, in the measure that they do differ, must be acknowledged to have subtly different vocations.

On the face of it, many recent Catholic statements about the nature, dignity, and rights of women appear to have much in common with feminism. ...everything depends upon the meaning we ascribe to the words Catholicism and feminism, and today the meaning of both is hotly contested. The core of feminism lies in the simple demand that women receive the same respect as men as independent, capable human beings. Yet the very simplicity of that demand raises as many questions as it answers. What does equal respect for women and men mean, and what does it require?

...Feminists would counter that their real object is to ensure the equality of women and men within the faith — their equal "personhood." Yet their equality of personhood has been there from the start. It is the equality of roles — of worldly authority, standing, and freedom — that is at issue. Neither Christianity in general, nor Catholicism in particular, has taught that standing in the world testifies to a person's worthiness.

...If feminism at its angriest depicts the world as dangerous to women's self-respect and ambition, it simultaneously suggests that a properly reconfigured world will promote women's happiness and fulfillment. ... Happiness and fulfillment flow from our relations with other people and with God, and they may as often derive from self-denial as from self-promotion. A Catholic feminism must be flexible and capacious enough to encompass human and divine love and all of the constraints and rewards that both afford.

In the end, I suppose some Catholic Feminists are coming from a position of hope... that the conflicts between Catholicism and feminism can be resolved, that the that the flaws they find in their religion can be fixed, not ignored.

From Root Causes of the Crisis in the Catholic Church:

...can the church’s teaching about the equality of men and women and the positive steps we have seen in the past 50 years propel us past sexism to women decisionmakers, to women priests, and to a kinder, gentler new church? The answer lies in the future and in the church’s as-yet-hidden capacity for radical change.

Maybe feminism doesn't require that you relinquish your faith entirely, but rather that you embrace the aspects of Catholicism that speak to you and work to reform those that are oppressive. (Case in point: Women Church Convergence).

I honestly don't think I could ever consider myself a Catholic based on what I know of Catholicism and how I feel about feminism, but perhaps that is due not only to the flaws of Catholicism, but my own flaws? Maybe I just don't have enough faith.

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