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Catholicism and feminism


About twelve years ago, I gave a paper at a conference on “Women’s Health and Human Rights” at the Vatican. A highlight of the event was a special audience for the conference participants with Pope John Paul II. To the surprise and delight of his listeners, he benignly proclaimed “Io sono il Papa feminista”— “I am the feminist pope.” And Pope John Paul II meant it. In 1988, he had issued an apostolic letter, Mulieris Dignitatem, with the English title On the Dignity and Vocation of Women. He repeatedly called for the development of a “new feminism” which would honor and celebrate the “feminine genius” in all walks of life, public as well as private, in the work world as well as the domestic world.

A feminist Church?
More broadly, if feminism is ultimately about affirming the dignity and well-being of women, we must applaud the many crucial ways in which the Roman Catholic Church as a whole is a feminist Church. It has done an enormous amount of good for women in precarious circumstances throughout the world, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. For example, the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development, Gender & Women runs programs around the world that help women organize into cooperatives for the production and marketing of goods; provides shelters for basic needs; educational programs in literacy; and training in business knowledge and empowerment. The Mother Teresa School for Girls in Ghana educates over 550 girls from preschool through high school. At the same time, it is safe to say that many people don’t share the late Pope’s easy association of feminism and the papacy. In fact, there are some—both feminists and Catholics—who would bristle at the association.

Secular feminists have frequently decried Catholicism as opposed to the flourishing of women, in particular its opposition of contraception and abortion. For their part, officials in the Vatican have regularly published broad denunciations of feminism, castigating its destructive effects on society and the family, particularly children, both born and unborn. Sometimes, Catholic women find themselves caught in the middle, loving their Church and their faith, but dispirited by occasional statements that suggest that the Vatican views them as disordered or defiled, simply by virtue of their being women. I am thinking here, of course, of the public relations firestorm raised by the Vatican’s recent announcement of two sacramental crimes: clergy sexual abuse and the attempt to ordain a woman. Even women who support the Church’s restriction of the priesthood to males winced at the grouping of these two acts in the same document.

So how do we sort out the convergences and divergences between Catholicism and feminism? There will, of course, be the need for nuanced historical, cultural, and geographic studies. Neither Catholicism nor feminism can be encapsulated in a bullet point on an outline. The tensions between the two are not the same in the United States as they are in sub-Saharan Africa. At the same time, nuanced rigorous comparative analysis of the normative frameworks of Catholicism and feminism sorely needs to be undertaken. Facilitating this sort of analysis, of course, is a central purpose of the “Contending Modernities” project, which will unfold over a period of several years.

Here and now, however, I can only briefly suggest that we give some consideration to three normative polarities within the Roman Catholic framework itself, polarities which help illuminate how John Paul II could honestly and truly say that he is a feminist pope, on the one hand, and there could also be significant points of strain between Catholicism and feminism, on the other. These three polarities are: 1) Equality and Difference; 2) Nature and Nurture; and 3) Complementarity and Collaboration. Many Catholics see these tensions as creative, and affirm the importance of holding onto both poles in each polarity. Catholics want to affirm, after all, that men and women are equal—and that are not the identical in every significant respect. So, for that matter, do many feminists. What, then, is the root of the antagonism? In my view, a significant part of it is attributable to fear. Each party fears that the other is in danger of letting go of one pole, to the detriment of women and indeed, to the detriment of all of society. So in order to help feminists and Catholics to come to a better understanding of each other, we need to examine the fears of each group.

Equality and difference
On the one hand, the Catholic tradition has long held that all human beings are made in the image and likeness of God, equal in dignity, possessing the same human nature, no matter their sex, race, ethnicity, or social status (Gal. 3:28). On the other hand, the Church does not see human persons as purely spiritual bundles of reason and will. We don’t merely have bodies, we are embodied, and that embodiment s part of the goodness of God’s creation. In particular, our different embodiment as either male or female is a divinely ordained aspect of the created order, which needs to be honored and respected if humanity is to flourish. In a nutshell, the Vatican worries that some strands of secular Western feminism are emphasizing the first point—equality—to the detriment of the second point—difference. It worries that this obscures the ontological difference between men and women, and the goodness of that difference for both individuals and society. In particular, it fears that an insufficient appreciation of difference will denigrate women’s unique power as mothers, who shape and nurture the next generation.

But the Vatican isn’t the only one who has worries. Feminists are worried too. The way in which some Vatican documents—and some supporters of papal feminism—try to specify these differences between men and women concerns feminists, because it can seem as as if certain character traits are being defined and imposed as either “male” or “female” without any regard for empirical study or individual difference. And that definition and imposition, they believe, contributes to inequality. Consider, for example, the position of papal feminist Gloria Conde: Quoting Judith M. Bardwick, she writes: “The ‘masculine’ is equivalent to the objective, analytical, active, inclined to thought, rational, indomitable, interfering, one who obstructs, independent, self-sufficient, emotionally controlled, and self-assured. With his mind, the man distinguishes, analyzes, separates, and perfects. The ‘feminine’ corresponds to the subjective, intuitive, passive, tender, sensitive, easily influenced, docile, receptive, empathetic, dependent, emotional, and conservative. Her mind picks up relations, she possesses intuitive perception of sentiments, and she tends to unite rather than divide.”

The trouble with this sort of sharply dichotomous understanding of the difference between men and women is that it undermines women who are doing jobs that don’t correspond in every respect to the traditional “feminine” virtues. In the beginning of my teaching career, for example, a young man came to me about a grade; he was upset that he got a B+ in my class. Couldn’t I see how he was really an A student; how the low grade I gave him marred the perfection of his transcript, how important it was to him to get an A for his future career? I told him I could see—but I still couldn’t change the grade. It wouldn’t be just. As he left the office in frustration, he offered a final reproach: “But you’re a woman. You’re supposed to be nice!”

Nature and nurture
Where do these differences between men and women come from, anyway? This question brings us to a second flash point between Catholicism and feminism: the polarity between nature and nurture. On the one hand, the Catholic tradition recognizes that human beings are essentially social—our understandings of who we are, of our place in the world, are shaped and transmitted by the languages, cultures, and societies in which we live. On the other hand, that tradition also proclaims that there is some irreducible core of “human nature” that remains constant across time, place, and culture. Let me emphasize the importance of the Church’s commitment to the notion of a common human nature. It forms the basis not only for the proclamation of equal human dignity, but also for the tradition’s confidence in the possibility of articulating some basis for a universal morality that transcends particular religious and cultural traditions.

In our cosmopolitan and fractious world, I believe that commitment to human nature will be increasingly indispensable. The Vatican believes that the secular West has gone too far in endorsing the first pole—nurture—to the detriment of the second pole—nature. It worries that the idea that human nature, including sex and gender, are completely malleable does not give enough weight to the created order, whose intricate pattern is embedded in the physical and psychic structure of human beings. The Vatican is making an important point. Nature matters. Some differences between males and females seem ingrained, not imposed. That point is brought home immediately and intuitively to anyone who has ever beheld an eighteen-month-old boy cheerfully repurposing a Barbie doll as a hammer.

More scientifically, we know that endocrinologists are making great strides in understanding the way in which male and female hormones, such as testosterone and estrogen, affect our brains, and therefore influence our ability to reason and to choose. The mind and the body are not separate entities. It is a serious anthropological mistake to think of human beings as androgynous minds encased in male or female bodies. For their part, however, feminists worry that what some people view as the designs of nature are in fact not natural at all, but are in fact the deceptive mask worn by ingrained patterns of sexism. Consider, for example, the article on “Woman” in the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia, in which one of the authors maintains that the education of women should be directed toward their roles as wives and mothers. The author hastens to observe that “the Catholic Church places here no barriers that have not already been established by nature.” While a few women might go on to earn higher degrees, he asserts that “the sexes can never be on an equality as regards studies pursued at a university.” Ironically, that assertion may be turning out to be correct—just not in the author supposed. A recent study showed that women outnumber men at every degree level in higher education in the United States—even, since last year, with respect to Ph.Ds. Men still outnumber women in some fields, such as engineering, but overall the educational gap between men and woman has closed, and even begun to reverse itself.

Complementarity and collaboration
With all these women flooding the educational system, men find themselves competing for advancement and academic honor not only with other men, but also with women. Is that worrisome? Pope Benedict XVI has expressed concern about the increasing relationship of competition between men and women, and calls instead for a collaborative relationship between the sexes. (See, e.g., Joseph Ratzinger, “On the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World.”) In his view, the basis of a collaborative relationship is the recognition of the complementary gifts and skills of men and women. Men and women should view themselves and their roles as complementary, not as competitive; women in particular should not aim to emulate the strengths of men, but should instead nurture their own distinct gifts. Complementarity, in his view, is most clearly visible in the roles that men and women play in marriage and family life, but it is also should be visible in other contexts as well. One of the hallmarks of papal feminism, in fact, is an effort to define the “feminine genius” in all spheres of women’s existence in terms of the virtues of motherhood.

For their part, feminists are worried about the call to complementarity, not necessarily because they are opposed to the idea that both men and women bring some distinct and important gifts to human society, but because of the way that idea tends to work out in practice. In fact, they fear it undermines collaboration, which in Latin means “working together, ” because it tends to promote both separation and practical inequality. The great Protestant theologian Karl Barth explicated male-female complementarity in terms of A and B; one need not be a psychic accurately to guess which sex is assigned to the B position. The way the concept of complementarity works in geometry also reveal the potential problem: Two angles are complementary if they add up to 90 degrees. If we begin with a 68 degree angle, then the complementary angle must be 22 degrees. The complementary angle is all and only that which the primary angle is not.

Analogously, if we begin with a man, then a woman must be all and only that which a man is not—her role is to fill in the gaps. If complementarity is taken too far, then, it does not facilitate collaboration, but rather fosters entirely separate spheres of interest and specialization. The concept of complementarity notion rightly affirms the importance—and unique demands—of motherhood on women. But how does it account for the gifts, ambitions, and concerns that men and women share in common? How does it account for the fact that men and women have many of the same talents, as well as different talents? It ought not, in my view, to be considered a destructive form of competition for men and women to strive for excellence—together—in the many areas and interests which they share. The common pursuit of excellence—or virtue—is also a type of collaboration. In fact, it is a key element of the classical definition of friendship.

My larger goal for Notre Dame’s Contending Modernities Project is that it will broadly exemplify the collaboration spoken of so movingly by Pope Benedict XVI. I look forward to collaboration among Catholics, Muslims, and secular thinkers, collaboration between men and women, and collaboration between papal feminists and secular feminists. I anticipate collaboration in the pursuit of excellence and in furtherance of the common good. Most importantly, I hope for collaboration as we address our fears, build our trust, and cultivate our friendship.

M. Cathleen Kaveny, a scholar who focuses on the relationship of law and morality, joined the Notre Dame Law School faculty as an associate professor in 1995 and was named the John P. Murphy Foundation Professor of Law in 2001. This post is the text of the remarks Prof. Kaveny delivered at the public launch of Contending Modernities on November 19, 2010.

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  • Dan December 23, 2010, 1:02 am

    I believe that modern secular feminism (which I realize has numerous variants) is at its core antithetical to Catholicism. The antithesis derives from their diametrically opposed views concerning the nature of love and the value of power. The Church teaches that love, which is always intertwined with suffering, is to give the self away; feminism preaches love of power and self-aggrandizement.