There are some words that have become so loaded that it is very hard to use them to convey meaning. They have become Rorschach Tests–the receiver of the word reads his own fantasized meaning into it. They have become shibboleths–to use them, or reject them, is a sign of political or group affiliation. Using them derails the conversation because they elicit an emotional response. I call them totem-words.
Take, in Catholic World, “Vatican II”. You can be sure that when someone says “Vatican II”, they almost never mean the historical event of the Council itself, or the documents produced by the Council (the way one does when one says, e.g. “Nicea”). Instead what they mean is “The Spirit of Vatican II” (itself a totem-phrase), or “some liturgical practices that have occurred as a result of Vatican II”, or “modernism” (totem-phrase), or whatever. They read their own meanings into the word. And there is a political aspect to it. If you proclaim, loudly, that Vatican II is the best thing ever in the history of the Church or the worst thing ever in the history of the Church, you are displaying your political affiliation.
This makes discussion really hard; because everyone reads their own reading into the word, everyone is speaking about something different and everyone is talking past each other; because the word is a political shibboleth, discussion becomes acrimonious, because the word is a badge of whether you are in the Gang Of The Worst People Evar or the Gang Of The Best People Evar (or vice versa).
There is a kind of reverse-idolatry going on. Idolatry is to take something in the world–often something God created to be good, like sex or power–and elevate it to the status of a deity. But there is also a kind of reverse-idolatry which is to take something quite ordinary and “elevate” it to the status of Priest of Baal–the Evil That Must Be Confronted At All Costs. Totem words elicit idolatry or reverse-idolatry.
One reaction might be to try to just drop the words and come up with other words. But I don’t think that’s right. First of all, because those words do, or should, carry meaning, and can be useful. Second of all, because it doesn’t actually solve anything–people are still generating private meanings of the word in their head. But, perhaps, most of all, because we are the people of the Bible, and the Bible places a tremendous emphasis on words. God creates the world by using words. The Second Person of the Holy Trinity is the Word of God. To be touched by God is to receive a new name, sign of a new identity. God cares about words. Language is a gift of God, and like all of God’s gifts we have to be faithful stewards of those gifts. Just ignoring this perversion of a word is not the right thing to do. We are called to rescue our brothers and sisters from sins. We are also called to rescue words. Words are part of God’s good Creation that we, baptized as priests, are called to “tend to” and divinize.
One such word crying out for a rescue is the word feminism.
There are many Catholics for whom the word feminism is such a totem-word. It conjures up fantasies and anxiety. It’s a dirty word. It’s a totem word.
And we need to mount a rescue operation.
The first thing that should be said, perhaps, in the course of such a rescue operation is that feminism, as a broad intellectual and social movement, has many strands. Yes, there are people who identify as feminists who believe things that are incompatible with the Catholic Tradition, and who not only believe these things but believe that feminism entails believing things that are incompatible with Holy Tradition.
Well, guess what, there are plenty of people who believe stupid and/or crazy things, and we don’t let that tie us into knots.
There are plenty of people who believe that being a Catholic, for example, necessarily entails being pro- or against the death penalty. These people are wrong. The way to respond is simply to say that, it is not to hyperventilate or go into histrionics.
The way I would talk about feminism, in order to rescue it from being a totem word, would be to start by saying that, as an empirical finding, women, in most every social setting, though in different ways and to varying degrees, suffer injustice as a result of being women; that such injustice is common enough, and too-often-ignored-enough, that it calls for a specific kind of awareness, a specific kind of discourse, and a specific kind of movement, to redress it.
These are all things that Catholics can (and, I think, should) affirm. Stripped of its totemic qualities, this is all, pretty much, that feminism means. To say all this is not to say that all varieties of feminism are acceptable, or that none can be critiqued–as, indeed, self-identified feminists constantly squabble amongst themselves about the correct answer to various questions, as happens in all movements.
The reason I know feminism is not a dirty word for Catholics is because St John Paul II used it in his magisterium. He called for a “new feminism”–which means he thought certain varieties of feminism are not unworthy of critique, which is definitionally true of any intellectual corpus, but also that “feminism” was not, by itself, a dirty word. I want to be very clear on this: from the standpoint of the Roman Catholic Magisterium, rejecting a priori all forms of feminism is, strictly speaking, error.
The Gospel calls for, I want to say, a certain quality of awareness and of being. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me,” says the Lord. Jesus says this within the context of the famous judgement episode. The justified do not know why they are justified; they do not know that they served Jesus when they were serving the “least of these.” Before even serving the least of these, we need to have a specific awareness of who are “the least of these.” One must have “eyes to see” and “ears to hear.” The Christian should have a sort of Sixth Sense for injustice.
Our Lord, of course, gave a perfect example of this. I sometimes say that the Gospels are the first feminist stories in the history of world literature. There is one pattern that shows up over and over again: a woman speaks up, says something; she is casually and brusquely dismissed by a man, as would have been normal in that society; the woman ends up vindicated. This is the case, for example, of the woman who anointed Jesus with the expensive oil (yep, the Gospel denounces #mansplaining). This is the case of the Blessed Virgin Mother at Cana–Jesus dismisses her before acquiescing to her wish. This is the case, most strikingly, of the women at the Tomb. Cultural patterns that dismiss or devalorize women’s perspectives are pointedly, repeatedly rebuked by the Gospel. Jesus’ public ministry is bookended by affirmations of the validity of women’s perspectives, from the “first sign” at Cana of Galilee to the greatest sign of the Resurrection.
I could go on and on. Because of her sexual promiscuity, the Samaritan woman is ostracized by her community, and yet she is the one that Jesus chooses to announce the Gospel to her community. To say that–of course–Jesus does not approve of sexual promiscuity does not exhaust the meaning of this profound, powerful sign. Such ostracism because of sexual promiscuity is something that Jesus would have been painfully aware of. The Gospel of Mark tells us that when Jesus began preaching in his hometown, the people who listened to him dismissed him saying “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?” What’s striking here is that in the culture of 1st century Palestine, you would not refer to someone as the son of their mother; you would refer to him by the name of their father. Jesus would have been Yeshua ben Yossef. Except that we know that after the Annunciation, Mary went to stay with her cousin Elizabeth for several months before returning to marry Joseph. She would have been visibly pregnant on her wedding day; or in any case, Jesus was born significantly less than 9 months after his mother’s wedding (and ancient peoples knew how long pregnancy lasts just as well as we do). What this is saying is that Joseph might not have been Jesus’ father (of course–the Gospels are not without humor–this was true in a way the speaker could not have imagined). “Is this not Jesus the son of Mary?” is a cruelly underhanded way of saying “Is this not Jesus the bastard, whose mother is a whore?”, with all the violence this would have carried in a tight-knit, traditional community. We can imagine this one man saying “Is this not Jesus, the son of Mary?” and the other people around him guffawing or exchanging knowing, mocking, contemptuous glances. By this time, Jesus was in his thirties–it almost certainly wasn’t the first time he’d heard such talk. So Jesus would have known very, very well how the Samaritan woman had experienced her social status in her community.
I haven’t often seen the Gospel story of the woman taken in adultery paralleled with the story of Susanna from the Book of Daniel. Susanna is a beautiful woman. As she takes her bath, she is approached by two lecherous men who tell her that unless she has sex with them, they will testify that they have caught her in adultery. The reason why this is so terrifying is because under the Hebrew law system, a woman’s testimony was inadmissible; only men’s testimony would have been. In other words, it is not merely these two men’s actions that cause the injustice–it is the social structures of the society which enable and encourage the injustice, and make it so terrifying. I sometimes wonder if that’s not what was going on with the woman “taken in adultery” from the Gospel.
To radically question and challenge social structures that create injustice against women (yes, very much including the “hook-up culture” and other contemporary evils) is something that the Gospel calls on us to do. And such structures do indeed exist; they are all around us, if we have the eyes to see. And they are structures that Christians have often been blind to; and indeed that they have perpetuated; take for example the historically common interpretation that blames David’s taking of Bathsheba on her, completely doing violence to the text, or Saint Augustine’s very disturbing comfort with spousal abuse.
For example, with all the nuance that we all know a Twitter hashtag allows, the #YesAllWomen phenomenon highlighted something that we are all-too-often unaware of: the fact that a great many women are subjected to various levels of harassment and violence (or suggestions of violence) of a sexual nature in their daily lives, something which it is very easy for men to miss or ignore. But as Christians we are called to have “eyes to see” injustice and to combat it; and it should be self-evident, I hope, that sexual harassment is a form of injustice. But because “feminism” is such a totem-word, some conservatives who happen to be Christians have gone a bit haywire and turned what should have been an important teachable moment into yet another front in the culture wars.
Thankfully, Catholic Tradition, which is the life of the Spirit within the Church, gives us plenty of examples of saints and role models who are feminist icons. Starting with the women of the Gospel–Mary, Mary Magdalene, Phoebe. Joan of Arc. Blanche of Castille. Mathilda of Tuscany. Catherine of Siena. Maria Montessori. Mother Teresa. And many, many, many more.
Nope, feminism is not a dirty word for us.