Part 1: The New Catholic Feminism

The following is part 1 in a 20-part series.

Over the past few months, whenever I would speak to anyone about the new web series I was working on, they would invariably turn to me and reply: "The New Catholic ... what?" For most of us who lived through the last few decades of the culture wars in western society, the idea that one could be both a Catholic and a feminist is simply unthinkable.

Catholicism and Feminism are surely sworn enemies, on opposite sides of the fence when it comes to many of the hot issues of the 21st century: abortion and contraception, for example. Many believe that a "Catholic Feminist" must either be selling out authentic Catholicism or selling out authentic feminism.

Some accuse "The New Catholic Feminism" of selling out in both directions. Even worse, the whole movement remains largely unknown outside of Catholic academic circles (and a well-kept secret even there).

And yet, slowly, quietly, it is having an influence on the formation of Catholic minds and hearts today - especially through the group called "Endow," which, according to their excellent website, seeks to promote a new, more holistic vision of what it means to be a woman:

We envision a world where every woman has the opportunities, the knowledge, the courage and the support to be the best version of themselves - made in the image and likeness of God. And, being made in God's image, it is our vision that each woman encounters her infinite value and dignity, untold talents and beauty, each deserving of respect and of love. We envision this world, because we believe the world needs a renewed feminism with truly feminine leaders, sharing the particular genius that is unique to each and every woman.

The movement has its origins in the writings on the dignity of women of Pope St. John Paul II, and especially from section 99 of his encyclical letter Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life):

In transforming culture so that it supports [the dignity of every human] life, women occupy a place, in thought and action, which is unique and decisive. It depends on them to promote "a new feminism" which rejects the temptation of imitating models of "male domination," in order to acknowledge and affirm the true genius of women in every aspect of the life of society, and overcome all discrimination, violence, and exploitation.

In a nutshell, the New Catholic Feminism proclaims that women have distinctive gifts that they bring to families and to wider society as women, and that we need to welcome and foster these gifts.

To begin with, we must learn to distinguish true Catholic Feminism from its counterfeits. In fact, as soon as one looks up the meaning of the word "feminism," one discovers that there have been a multitude of varieties of feminism over the past 250 years. An authentically Catholic feminism, however, could never fully buy into any of the following forms that feminism has taken in the past:

1. Liberal Feminism

First of all, the New Catholic Feminism is not just a warmed-over version of Liberal, Enlightenment Feminism. Liberal Feminism really began with Mary Wollstonecraft's book a Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792, and continued in various ways in the activism and writings of Elisabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Simone De Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, and Gloria Steinham. In her book Feminist Thought: A Comprehensive Introduction (1989), Rosemarie Tong defines Liberal Feminism as the view that:

female subordination [to men] is rooted in a set of customary and legal constraints that block women's entrance to, and/or success in the ... public world. Because society has the false belief that women are, by nature, less intellectually and/or physically capable than men, it excludes women from the academy, the [political] forum, and the marketplace. As a result of this policy of exclusion, the true potential of many women goes unfulfilled. ... Gender justice, insist liberal feminists, requires us first to make the rules of the game fair, and second, to make certain that none of the runners in the race for society's goods and services is systematically disadvantaged.

If that is all that Liberal Feminism entails - a commitment to social justice in the sense of fair and equal access to public roles, functions, and rewards - then the New Catholic Feminism can be categorized as fairly "liberal" as well. As we have seen, St. John Paul II promoted "the true genius of women in every aspect of life and society." In another papal document, his "Letter to Women" of 1995, he elaborated on this further:

And what shall we say of the obstacles which in so many parts of the world still keep women from being integrated into social, political, and economic life? ... as far as personal rights are concerned, there is an urgent need to achieve real equality in every area: equal pay for equal work, protection for working mothers, fairness in career advancements, equality with spouses with regard to family rights, and the recognition of everything that is part of the rights and duties of citizens in a democratic state .... [A] greater presence of women in society will prove most valuable, for it will help manifest the contradictions present when society is organized solely according to the criteria of efficiency and productivity, and it will force systems to be redesigned in a way that favors the process of humanization which marks the civilization of love ....

The time has come to condemn vigorously the types of sexual violence which frequently have women for their object, and to pass laws which effectively defend them from such violence. Nor can we fail, in the name of the respect due to the human person, to condemn the widespread hedonistic and commercial culture which encourages the systematic exploitation of sexuality, and corrupts even very young girls into letting their bodies to be used for profit .... How many women have been and continue to be valued more for their physical appearance, than for their skill and professionalism, their intellectual abilities, their deep sensitivity, in a word, the very dignity of their being! (sections 4, 5 and 3)

In this Letter, the Pope actually went beyond the call for equal access by women to public functions, to decry (by implication) such things as rape, spousal abuse, sexual harassment, pornography, and prostitution. In all these areas, and in calling for an end to these forms of injustice, Liberal Feminists and the New Catholic Feminists certainly can find some common ground.

Since the 1960s, however, Liberal Feminism in North America has generally bought into the notion that there are no significant "natural" differences between men and women other than their distinctive reproductive organs and reproductive burdens. They hold that any other perceived differences between them are mere "social constructs." It follows that men and women are spiritually, psychologically, and socially the same, and that we ought to treat them as interchangeable social units. As a result, Liberal Feminists have added some new items to the list of what they consider to be essential to "equal rights" for women.

In particular, Liberal Feminists call for the spread of the use of contraceptives (and now they insist that society should uphold "free" access to contraceptives as a civil right, even by forcing employers with moral qualms about contraception to pay for them for all their female employees). For women, as for men, it is argued, sexual intercourse should be without risk of pregnancy, constantly available and completely separable from commitment. One wonders: Why should women claim the right to be as sexually irresponsible as men often are? Wouldn't it be better for society to require men to grow up, rather than encourage women to come down to their level? Unfortunately, our contraceptive culture has made women more available to non-committed men, and thus more liable to be sexually used, and then abandoned by men. Suppose, rather than passing out contraceptives, our society said to men: If you father an illegitimate child (which can be proven now by DNA testing), you are responsible financially to support that child - for at least 18 years. That might put an end to the "hook up" culture pretty quickly!

The Liberal Feminists also call for the legal right in most circumstances to kill their own unwanted, unborn children ("abortion rights"). They argue that women have neither a special bond with, nor a special calling to protect innocent human life in their womb (like men, they say, their freedom and independence from such commitments usually should take precedence). But this ignores the terrible personal costs borne by women themselves who have abortions, and again, it just plays into the hands of male sexual irresponsibility: the corrupt, male-centered secular culture that puts selfish goals, career advancement and an ever-higher standard of living ahead of the needs of others, and makes all this the true measure of success in life, and the road to personal happiness.

Of course, if women are to have equal access to public roles and functions, the Liberal Feminists argue that this also should include the ordination of women to the Catholic priesthood. After all, women can perform priestly tasks just as well as men - as if the priesthood was just a religious "job" with "tasks" to perform, and the nature of the ordained ministry is defined by us, and not by Jesus Christ.

We shall look at each of these issues in much greater depth later in this series. Suffice it to say for now that the New Catholic Feminism movement has typically argued that these additional, Liberal Feminist demands are not truly matters of equal rights for women at all; in fact, they undermine the true dignity of women, and the distinctive contribution that women can make to the establishment of a culture of respect for life, and the building up of a civilization of love.

Next Time: Finding Common Ground with Liberal Feminism

Follow the series at

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception.

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