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Can Feminists Find a Place in the Catholic Church?

January 25, 2010

The Vatican

I’m guessing this title might cause a knee-jerk reaction from some readers. It’s a conjunction I find equal parts fascinating and improbable. I do know some people, however, who identify as both, so I set about finding common ground between these two unlikely bed fellows.

This topic is best understood with the disclaimer that both identities are so historic, widespread and all-encompassing that within their large umbrellas there are many, many factions with which members of the group identify. It is easier to envision some overlap when considering that there are both pro-choice Feminists and pro-choice Catholics, for example. Granted, Church doctrine condemns abortion, so the latter is much rarer than the former, but the Church’s official stance has not kept members from assuming both identities.

Although I found more articles than expected about this topic online, they were all written by Catholics trying to convince their brothers and sisters in Christ to reconsider Feminism. “It’s not that bad, and really we have a lot in common!” seemed to be the underlying plea. All of the articles distanced themselves from “radical” or “neo” feminism. Nonetheless,  I was a bit surprised anyone had considered the idea, let alone written about it.

Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, founding director of the Institute for Women’s Studies at Emory University, is a very public and perplexing example of those who adhere to both labels. Although she founded the first doctoral program in Women’s Studies in the US, she also vehemently distanced herself from “radical feminists” and made many statements contrary to or critical of fundamental feminist thought.

In her article “Catholic and Feminist: Can One be Both?” she describes feminists as “downright hostile” to the Catholic Church, and says that goals such as equal pay for equal work show “[feminists’] single-minded focus upon the goods of this world and, beyond them, to the liberation of the individual woman from binding ties or obligations to others.” She’s not a fan of our “visceral hostility” towards male church leaders who assume the command of our (God given, according to her) bodies. Her language is accusatory and suspicious. She states that the two identities can and must coexist, but I’m not sold.

Her classist call to well-educated Catholic women is a particular turn-off and highlights the glaring discrepancies between her idea of Feminism and mine. With both a Masters and PhD from Harvard, she calls upon other women with her education to both cherish their role as mother and “develop and represent the dignity and vocation of women’s combined action at home and in the world.” The Professor seems to think that Catholic women who raise children and work as janitors, truck drivers or waitresses can’t pull off dignity.

If Fox-Genovese’s Catholic Feminism didn’t fly, David Reardon’s had no chance. Best known for writing extensively about abortion shame, Reardon argued that Feminism was traditionally anti-birth control, anti-abortion, and pro-mother-above-any-other-role. Frankly I don’t have the time or resources to research 19th century Feminist doctrine to confirm or deny his interpretations, but I can assuredly say that both he and I would agree that pro-choice Feminists and Catholics strictly adhering to doctrine will never meet in the middle.

Convinced I had determined feminism’s eternal exile from the Catholic Church, I came across an article entitled “Catholic and Feminist: You got a problem with that?” posted by an assistant editor at US Catholic. Otherwise unpublished, the author, Megan Sweas, seemed light years more pro-feminist than the previous two, and I was instantly drawn to the defiant nature of the title. She, like the other two, pointed out that the Church and Feminists do both take similar official stances on rape, violence against women, workers’ rights, and race and class equality. In the illustration accompanying the article, a priest stands with men and women of different races and ages proudly wearing “This is What a Feminist Looks Like” T-shirts.

Third World feminists challenge Western and predominantly white feminists to struggle not only with issues of gender but also those of race, culture, and class. This is essentially what Catholic feminism does. Catholic teachings on solidarity demand that we listen to the marginalized and oppressed. In this sense Catholic social teaching and feminism go hand-in-hand on many issues.- Megan Sweas

Now that is a definition of Catholic Feminism I can stand behind. Respecting all people regardless of education level, skin color, language, gender, etc. Acknowledgment of our short comings as humans and love for each other in spite of them: sounds grand. Unfortunately, not everyone is respected and loved by the Catholic Church, namely LGBTQ folks. Although historically the Feminist movement also shunned people with gender queer identities, modern feminism has become decidedly more inclusive. The Church, sadly, has not followed suit. Yes, faith in God has undeniably sustained many. The rejection and condemnation by Man on behalf of God, however, is just as powerful as that saving grace.

It is ultimately difficult to find a definitive middle ground between Feminists and Catholics because Feminism lacks the singular leader and iron clad doctrine intrinsic to the function of the Church. It seems, though, that in order to identify as both one must willingly ignore principle thoughts of each identity. Interestingly, Fox-Genovese states that women seek to be “liberated from the consequences of their bodies” which, one might argue, is the idea at the crux of both the Feminist movement and the Catholic Church. The former through demanded recognition of the many other aspects of women, and the latter through elevation of that which is separate from the body: the soul. Could the two have more common ground than we think?

  1. January 26, 2010 7:06 am

    I find strong feminist roots in women across the economic and cultural spectrum, provided these women are active in the workplace and economically aware. Only ignorance and subjugation impede the feminist awakening.

    Religion and feminism are two separate entities except within traditionalist and strongly paternal organized religion. This type of religion cannot last much longer, as women are largely responsible for family religious participation and financial support.

  2. January 31, 2010 2:13 pm

    First off, thank you for those articles. I plan to delve into them later.
    Second, I am a feminist and a Catholic, like my mother and her mother and her mother and her mother. To be both is to ignore the Catholic Church’s political doctrines and to prove your point through passages in the Bible. Such as there is nothing in the Bible against birth control or abortion. As for the LBGTQ issue, the offical stance is as long as you’re not practicing, it’s ok. Which by femenist and LBGTQ standards is still pretty crappy, but they are more accepting than most conservative churches. The Catholic Church will change; the Church always does. It just takes a lot of pushing from the lay people. I’ve seen positive changes even in my lifetime, and so I hope. Until then, when ever I hear a Catholic extol some unfeminist retoric, I talk back, even if it’s to the TV. (Then I just throw something.)


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