The traditional feminist discourse of the 1970s engaged the culture in the debate on women’s liberation during the Post Conciliar decade that followed Vatican II. The role of women in society was changing, and Madison Avenue marketed its brand of femininity—the “24-hour woman.”
[Remember this TV commercial? “I can bring home the bacon…fry it up in a pan…because I’m a woman.”] I’m not sure this is what any woman had in mind, but it did reflect a change in American culture.
By the 70s, feminist thought radically evolved, marking a departure from the early efforts of the women’s right’s movement begun by suffragist, Susan B. Anthony, who sought equality for women, the protection of children, and the unborn. Radical feminists do change their minds though, as did Sara Winter.
Somewhere along the way, womanhood and society suffered some losses.
Not just something, but someone
Elizabeth Fox-Genovese wrote in Women in Christ: Toward a New Feminism:
“A significant percentage of North American and western European women doubtless concur that, since the 1960s, feminism has decisively contributed to a dramatic improvement in the position of women as individuals… although some would legitimately argue that gains on the one hand have carried losses on the other.” (Equality, Difference, and the Practical Problems of a New Feminism, 298)
These ‘losses’ might be considered in the light of Christ, in a reflection on what it means to be a woman—but, first, it requires a look at what it means to be a person.
“Being in the image of God the human person possesses the dignity of a person, who is not just something, but someone.” (The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 357)
In Familiaris Consortio, St. John Paul II, confronted the ‘persistent mentality’ that contradicts the dignity of women:
“Unfortunately the Christian message about the dignity of women is contradicted by that persistent mentality which considers the human being not as a person but as a thing, as an object of trade, at the service of selfish interest and mere pleasure: the first victims of this mentality are women. (Italics mine, 24)
Mainstream feminism errors in its failure to consider an integrated approach, one that honors and supports the tremendous achievements of women, and the ‘very nature of woman herself.’ It is a false promise of “freedom,” or “choice,” if liberty is exercised to condemn personhood in the pursuit of a “right.”
Has ‘woman’ been exiled by women? It is worth revisiting St. JP II’s ‘new feminism,’ to develop a thoughtful response, and to consider the ways in which the Catholic Church is pro-woman.
Saint John Paul II’s ‘New Feminism’ – The Gospel of Life
In Women in Christ, Fr. Francis Martin wrote:
“By integrating what is true in the efforts of rights-oriented feminism into the question, ‘Who is a woman?’ we will arrive at a genuine development of doctrine in the area of Christian anthropology.” (141)
Sr. Prudence Allen, R.S.M, in Philosophy of Relation in John Paul II’s New Feminism, also wrote in Women in Christ:
“New feminism, as John Paul II defines it, is clearly God centered; he welcomes new feminists within the Catholic Church, and missions them towards particular kinds of action in the contemporary culture. Since it first appeared in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium vitae (The Gospel of Life), the expression ‘new feminism’ has been used to describe a call and duty of Catholic women.” (67)
Catholic feminism would seem to be a “prima facie logical impossibility,” she wrote, but she answers with St. JP II’s words, ‘it depends on them [women] to promote a ‘new feminism’ to transform culture.’ (68) Sr. Allen also identifies the fourfold roots of St. JP II’s anthropology of complementarity: ‘Women and men are the illustration of a biological, individual, personal and spiritual complementarity.’ (94)
Transforming culture: the primacy of being over having a ‘new life-style’
In The Gospel of Life, St. JP II exhorts everyone to cultural change and a ‘new life-style.’
“In a word, we can say that the cultural change which we are calling for demands from everyone the courage to adopt a new life-style, consisting in making practical choices—at the personal, family, social and international level—on the basis of a correct scale of values: the primacy of being over having,130 of the person over things.131 This renewed life-style involves a passing from indifference to concern for others, from rejection to acceptance of them. Other people are not rivals from whom we must defend ourselves, but brothers and sisters to be supported. They are to be loved for their own sakes, and they enrich us by their very presence.” (98)
Anthropology of complementarity
The anthropology of complementarity informs the ‘new feminism,’ which recognizes that man is made in the “image and likeness of God.” A philosophical argument that denies human existence as willed and created by God proposes (perhaps, even unintentionally) an arbitrary assignment of the value or worth of the human person based upon human consideration. In St. JP II’s words, human dignity is “not from other considerations, such as usefulness, strength, intelligence, beauty or health.”
True feminism should account for a vision of the human person as more than a body, more than ‘property,’ and consider the relationship of freedom to truth. Women, who advocate for a culture of life, are not guilty of feminist treason, nor do they wage a “war on women”. To the contrary, they advocate for unborn women. An authentic feminism inquires into the nature of human beings in relation to God and others, rejecting the polemics of militancy so prevalent in radical feminist activism.
Freedom apart from responsibility is destructive. “There is an even more profound aspect which needs to be emphasized: freedom negates and destroys itself, and becomes a factor leading to the destruction of others, when it no longer recognizes and respects its essential link with the truth.” (EV 19)
‘The nature of nature’ – on ‘being woman’
“God wills the interdependence of creatures. The sun and the moon, the cedar and the little flower, the eagle and the sparrow; the spectacle of their countless diversities and inequalities tells us that no creature is self-sufficient. Creatures exist only in dependence upon each other, to complete each other, in the service of each other.” (CCC 340)
In Women of Christ, Shumacher explored the idea of nature, and its role in feminist thought. She wrote, in The Nature of Nature in Feminism, Old and New, that “an authentically integral vision of this nature ought to, it seems to me, at least entertain the question of the human being’s orientation to God.” (41)
Shumacher summarizes the universal vocation:
“Rather than a form of divine determinism, the universal vocation to holiness in union with Christ is actually an invitation to direct freedom toward responsibility. As such, it supposes an important premise of the ‘new feminism,’ namely, that women really are responsible agents in charge of their own lives and not merely victims of oppression or creatures restricted by a patriarchal view of nature.” (47)
Women are empowered when they discover their being in the light of the Christian faith, and in relation to others. There are those that hold another perspective, however.
Donna Steichen’s book, Ungodly Rage: The Hidden Face of Catholic Feminism (which was written prior to St. JP II’s call to ‘new feminism’) documented the effort of some feminist theological proponents to replace patriarchy with matriarchal imagery, and who insisted on the ‘exorcism’ of ‘God as Father.’ (92)
Steichen wrote about one feminist theologian, Madonna Kolbenschlag, H.M., and her book, Kiss Sleeping Beauty Goodbye:
“The ‘New Faith’ will abandon the ‘intoxication’ of the sacraments, radically invert the concept of sin to place pride first on the list of virtues, reject the ascetic tradition as masochism and understand prayer as ‘the deepest contemplation of and contact with the self.’ Experience will replace revelation as the ground of moral judgment, and the New Faith will express itself as politicization, she [Kolbenschlag] predicted. It will be a politics of the left, obliterating patriarchal structure in the secular world as, in the world of the sacred, the New Faith obliterates patriarchal theology and the Church.” (93)
The problem with this perspective is this: If ‘human experience’ is the ground for moral judgment rather than divine revelation, then it aborts the universal language of creation, disturbing the harmony of the cosmos, and the sacred ecology of human life. (See CCC 2500, on truth and beauty)
G.K. Chesterton’s humor in Orthodoxy speaks to the problem with ‘experience’ as the moral standard: “That Jones shall worship the god within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones.”
Man and woman willed by God possess inalienable dignity
“Man and woman have been created, which is to say, willed by God: on the one hand, in perfect equality as human persons; on the other in their respective beings as man and woman. ‘Being man’ or ‘being woman’ is a reality which is good and willed by God: man and woman possess an inalienable dignity which comes to them immediately from God their Creator. Man and woman are both with one and the same dignity ‘in the image of God.’ In their ‘being-man’ and ‘being woman,’ they reflect the Creator’s wisdom and goodness.” (CCC 369)
Men and women are called to be a communion of persons, and to serve. Pope Francis has repeatedly emphasized the call to encounter Jesus, reminding the faithful of our responsibilities to others, and to reject the culture of death that promotes the unjust condemnation of the unborn.
The infinite perfection of God
Self-idolatry distorts our understanding of creation.
“In no way is God in man’s image. He is neither man nor woman. God is pure spirit in which there is no place for the difference between the sexes. But the respective ‘perfections’ of man and woman reflect something of the infinite perfection of God: those of a mother and those of a father and husband.” (CCC 370)
Pope Francis, in his September 7, 2013 homily at the Vigil for Prayer for Peace, cautions us against the temptation of ‘self-interest’ that nurtures self-idolatry:
“When we think only of ourselves and our own interests and place ourselves in the center, when we permit ourselves to be captivated by the idols of dominion and power, when we put ourselves in God’s place, then all relationships are broken and everything is ruined; then the door opens to violence, indifference, and conflict.” (The Logic of Power and Violence, the Church of Mercy: A Vision for the Church, 111).
Feminine originality in feminine fulfillment
In Mulieris dignitatem, St. JP II wrote about feminine originality:
“In the name of liberation from male ‘domination,’ women must not appropriate to themselves male characteristics contrary to their own feminine ‘originality.’ There is a well-founded fear that if they take this path, women will not ‘reach fulfillment,’ but instead will deform and lose what constitutes their essential richness. It is indeed an enormous richness. In the biblical description, the words of the first man at the sight of the woman who had been created are words of admiration and enchantment, words which fill the whole history of man on earth.” (10)
The essential richness of a woman’s contributions celebrate feminine ‘originality,’ expressed by the individuation of women in many diverse personal, professional, cultural, and social circumstances. A ‘new feminist,’ in JP II’s Christian anthropology and in Pope Francis’ words, rejects the logic of power and violence, and the objectification of persons as a means to personal fulfillment.
It is the person of Jesus Christ that is the hope of the ‘new feminism,’ and the divine maternity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, an eternal woman, who embodies it. A woman perfumed with the love of God embraces women (and men) in their fullest human expression, promoting a culture of life—and, changes the world, by living in the victory of mercy and love, not the logic of violence.