catholic and feminist: identity, action, and faith

catholic and feminist: identity, action, and faith August 21, 2016


This post is a part of the Patheos Catholic Channel series, “Catholicity: Identity and Its Discontents.” Read more here.

Catholic and feminist: yes, I am both.

And yet, “feminist” was a dirty word in most of the religious circles I wandered through, in my earlier years. People around me spoke of feminists as angry, baby-hating witches, or whiny malcontents, so as much as I objected to male privilege (I didn’t call it that, but I saw it) or to the hegemony of the patriarchy (didn’t call it that either) – or to the incessant portrayal of women as desirable only for their looks – or the societal requirement that I pretend to be brainless in order not to scare off the delicate (but still superior) males…it just did not occur to me to put the label “feminist” on my objections. I didn’t want to be labeled. I almost enjoyed, in a malicious way, seeing other women successfully capture the stereotypes of the Feminine Mystique, so I could remind myself of my own superiority to them: because, on some level, I didn’t want all women to enjoy equal rights. I wanted to be one of the select few who had earned them.

I should mention that I was also an Ayn Rand fan (embarrassing, yes, but I was only sixteen) – and rather a horrible person.

Catholicism, at that time, was another way for me to feel superior, especially since I spent time studying the philosophy behind our theology. But on a deep visceral level, I hated the faith I espoused, even when I loudly championed it. I hated the example of Christ which challenged me to reject my Ayn Randian ways. I hated the idea of holiness as dying to self, especially because it seemed that the suggestion that I die to self was tied up with a series of accusations against my own female-ness: that, as a woman, I needed to die to self even more, because my self was so paltry, so irrational, so vile. I needed to cover my unholy female body, lest I distract the males from their superior pursuits.  I was obliged to cultivate the special “feminine virtues” which were all about weakness, submissiveness – nihilism, really.

I got over being an Ayn Randian, thanks to hefty doses of real philosophy, and thus began to think less about my own glory and more about my identity in a community of persons. But this didn’t mean I became comfortable with what the church appeared to be telling me about being a woman, a rhetoric embroidered throughout with subtle or less subtle hints about inferiority, and a special sinfulness. Being educated in the classics of the Western tradition meant that I was often one of three women in a room full of men, devoting serious intellectual consternation to whether Aristotle or Augustine or Aquinas were right about this or that metaphysical assertion, yet never questioning the blatant sexism of their views on humans. Was this because we all just knew it was silly, the product of an earlier time? Or was it that philosophy class at a Catholic university was a last refuge for guys who really wanted to consider themselves superior to women? It was hard to tell.

Suffice it to say, don’t tell me feminists don’t have a sense of humor. Without a sense of humor, I couldn’t have looked past the nonsense spouted about women, by our ecclesiastical greats, and appreciated the genuine wisdom in their other pronouncements.

I have written before about how feminism strengthened my Christianity – because, ironically, discovering that I was a feminist led me, ultimately, not away from the faith where I felt repeatedly judged, but instead more deeply into it, into its heart, past the gatekeepers who are a little confused about ins and outs.

I discovered that Christianity meant an alternative to the narratives of power of secular society. I noticed that so many landmark feminist novels (The Golden Notebook, The Awakening) upheld sexual liberty as a guarantor of genuine freedom, while at the same time defining sexual liberty only through relation to men. Now, I do believe in sexual liberty, but I believe it leads beyond the orgasm, and that escape from institutional marriage into a hedonistic paradise with the man of your choosing is still a sort of dependence on males for pleasure and identity. The liberation of the feminist whose devotion of God gives her the freedom to walk away from men (see Jane Eyre) is a greater one.

I discovered that the stupid and often hurtful things that Catholic men had said about women for centuries were things that came from within their own human sinfulness, or from traditions outside of Christianity. I learned to reject these things, because they are not of Christ, and are as foreign to the truth of our faith as the idea that it is licit to kill the enemy.

As I wrote elsewhere, I noticed that:

The “virgin” and “whore” archetypes, set in opposition (or sometimes, actually, combined in a strange potpourri for male dominance) reduce females to sexual relation to a man. Once both virginity and sexual experience are withdrawn from this artificial structure, we can see both of them better in terms of female self-ownership, the female as a subject with aspirations, desires, and a divine destiny. Mary of Nazareth as perpetual virgin, then, seemed to me a woman of remarkable self-possession, courage, and decisiveness. I began to look at her more as she acted in the story of the gospels, less as she was professionally mansplained to me by male theologians. I dared to think, and to see Mary as a woman who thought, who contemplated, who pondered, who analyzed – who had an interiority, secret musings – “but Mary kept all these words, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).

Looking anew at Mary and other female saints – looking anew at the women of the Old Testament who entered into the drama of salvation history by consistently defying societal norms for female behavior – looking, ultimately, at the words and deeds of Christ in the gospels, and the structure of the church he founded – I came to realize that being feminist and being Christian did not, as many suggested (and as I had felt for years) constitute an inherent contradiction.

I knew many liberal feminists were critical of religion. I knew many Catholics were quick to inform me that I couldn’t be both Catholic and feminist. The beauty of having a mind of one’s own, and having spent years training that mind to function just a bit, is that one can ignore these people telling one what one can and can’t do. Here I am, doing it.

I understand that this might still be confusing to some. So, I would like to clarify a few points:

  • On identity: my Catholic identity is tied up with the sacraments, with those “invisible signs of an invisible reality” – and therefore with a real presence of Christ in my faith life, not simply through my own beliefs and choices, but through this intimate relation, this genuine encounter with God made human, the knowledge of Christ’s love for me made manifest. Because Catholic identity, Catholic religion, is about not “right belief” but “true relation” – it runs deeper than any of the intellectual assents I may make throughout my life. Western Catholicism, with its rationalist heritage, likes to emphasize proper assent to doctrinal teachings, and certainly this is important, as we are rational creatures as well as bodily and affective ones: but, I think, sometimes we overemphasize this to the point that we reduce our faith to ideology. Because Christianity is not simply about intellectual propositions, it is possible for all of us to be a faith community, even as we disagree on how to interpret teaching. If we could just remember that, perhaps we could learn not to be so mean to one another on the internet – not to punish those with whom we disagree, shunning them or degrading them or removing their livelihood.
  • Feminist identity is different. Feminism is not a religion, and has no sacraments; there is no feminist deity (well, except for Christ, in whom there is neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free). There is no feminist magisterium, no feminist pope, no feminist creed, beyond that of the moral requirement for equality between the sexes. Feminism is not an ideology, either, however: it is a movement, or, rather, a series of movements, a series of activisms. There is no one “feminism” but instead many “feminisms.” Some of these are better than others. Some are incompatible with Christianity, but others are, I think, intrinsic to it.
  • To act as a Christian goes beyond politics. To live as a Christian means to live with belief in an ultimate reconciliation, a divine justice beyond any paltry justice we manage to achieve on earth. It also means a radical commitment to non-violence. This means that feminisms that use force or degradation to achieve their ends are not consistent with Christian life.
  • To act as a feminist is to act politically. While some Christians say we must avoid politics, I disagree: human life has significance on earth, and what happens in the public sphere on earth influences human lives. War, capitalism, technology, misogyny, abortion – all of these are intimately connected in a web across the public sphere, and to ignore this because our faith is in Christ is to adhere to a gnostic or even nihilistic false Christianity, forgetting that bodies matter, that suffering is a real evil, and that we have an obligation here and now to serve the least of these, in Jesus’ name. Feminist activism means that we do not simply wait for divine justice. We know that human justice is insufficient – just as we know that human love is imperfect – but, we pursue it anyway.
  • Faith, as a Christian, means faith not in a set of propositions, but in the person of Christ – the Truth, the Logos. Yes, this does entail belief in propositions – in the words of the Credo, for instance – but this is not the ultimate pinnacle of our faith existence. Our faith is a gift, and the gift is not simply that we believe “this is so” – but that we encounter divine presence.
  • Being a feminist, on the other hand, means assenting intellectually to certain beliefs about humanity, history, and ethics, even though – as asserted above – feminism is more about action than ideology. This is not something that requires divine gift. The beliefs that I hold as a feminist are beliefs that I have learned, through observation and education. They are “given” in this natural sense, but not in any divine sense.

I emphasize the above because people who speak of feminism and Christianity as incompatible are making a category error, treating both as though they were ideologies, instead of remembering that one is beyond ideology, and the other is more about action.

I emphasize it, also, because those who assert that I can’t be both feminist and Christian seem to think there is only one feminism (and act as though there were many Christianities, as though we were not in any way united in Christ).

These people are one reason why being a feminist and a Catholic can be a lonely, and sometimes embattled experience. Never having read a feminist text or talked with an actual feminist, they create straw-feminists among themselves, saying any number of insulting things about us, trading snide assumptions about what feminists are trying to do (destroy the family, destroy men, eat babies, something) – while offering, as proof, nothing that an actual feminist has ever said, but something that some other professional mansplainer of feminism asserts. Unfortunately, some of these mansplainers are revered as academic experts in Catholic circles. They may in fact be spot-on about a translation of Augustine, or about the transcendental properties of being, but they are utterly, and deliberately, ignorant about feminism. People listen to them, however. There is an industry for those who continue to weave sexism into the faith, and this industry rewards them for insulting and reviling people like me. There is also a system of reward or protection given to other women who will join with them in denouncing those of us who don’t buy the old lies.

Sometimes they use the language of “complementarity” to pretend that they are siding with John Paul II, but they use it to speak, not of the complementarity of two equally necessary elements in a delicious dish, but as though women were the garnish that complements the dish. It’s no accident, really, that these people repeatedly misspell “complementary” as “complimentary” – since that seems to be what they actually mean.

The other reason why being a feminist and a Catholic can be lonely is that some secular feminists assume, because I am religious, that I am benighted, puritanical, mindless, and self-hating. Because I choose to use natural fertility management, they assume that I must be bowing to my patriarchal superiors. It could be argued, really, that dutifully taking man-made drugs in order to have man-offered sex is anything but liberated – but, I realize that women have diverse and complex situations in which to manage their own reproductive systems. They have called me a “breeder” – as though not being ashamed of my reproductive capacities, and choosing to bring more humans into the world, were somehow an un-feminist choice. They often will not listen to me when I try to build bridges on the basis of common ethical concerns, such as the need for genuine health care, and opposition to rape and domestic violence.

But it’s not so bad, really, because there are more of us than there used to be. And as we do succeed in bridging gaps with secular feminists (and, often we do, and have wonderful exchanges – especially because, as noted, there are many feminisms) – we are strengthened in our mutual respect. And as women who have been brought up with forms of Christianity into which sexism is still woven learn to reject the lies, our numbers are growing. You might not notice it, because we’re not marching around topless or screaming things from rooftops (usually). Many of us are married, and love our families. Many of us are single, working as teachers or computer programmers or farmers or lawyers. Some of us stay home with our children; some of us are in the workforce. Many of us are in the religious life. We may be involved in various activist groups; many are busy working to oppose abortion by means of greater education, communal support, and access to medical and financial assistance.

Some Catholic feminists are even men.

Most of us wish there were more openness to female involvement in the decision-making practices of the church, and not just on a parochial level – that wherever and doctrinally possible, women would be involved and included, instead of sent off to work on the cleaning or floral arrangements, or organize benefits to buy new carpets, lest our presence “feminize” the church too much, or provide a slippery slope to heresy. Are we really so disgusting? So frightening? Is the church so shaky an institution that she (she? Oh yes – the church has already been feminized!) lives in fear of the rebellious potential of half the human race? If we have to be kept on the margins in order to maintain ecclesial purity, are you sure you’re talking about the Bride of Christ, the Body of Christ, or have you tried to make the House of God into a man-cave?

If you are reading this and thinking “this resonates” – if you have wondered whether there are others out there who think like you, with profound devotion to Christ and his Church, but also rejection of sexism – you are not alone! There are many of us. You can find us in Facebook groups, some private and some open. Feel free to send me a friend request on Facebook, if you are interested in connecting with others of similar mind.

image credit: The Abbess Mathilde,_Abbess_of_Essen#/media/File:Otton_Mathilde_croix.jpg. PD-US


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