Part 3: The New Catholic Feminism

The following is part 3 of a 20-part series.

Radical Feminism comes in several forms.

Socialist or Marxist Feminism roots the subjugation of women in bourgeois capitalist economic and social arrangements. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels laid the groundwork for this form of feminism by teaching that the struggle for women's liberation from social servitude and sexism is akin to the wider social struggle of the working class against slavery and oppression by the capital-owning class.

When Marx and Engels were writing, of course (that is, in the mid-19th century), there was a fair degree of truth to that assessment. Thanks to customary laws dating back to the Renaissance, and to the newer Napoleonic Code, only men were allowed to be true property owners, while women were largely confined to the home or the convent, and their domestic role limited them largely to child-bearing and child-rearing.

The Marxist-Feminist theory, however, suffered badly from a subsequent reality-check: The fact is that in the 20th century women often achieved real legal equality and made advances in social equality as fast in capitalist countries as they did in socialist ones. Employers in the West gradually warmed to women in the marketplace because it gave them a much bigger pool of talented and skilled employees to draw upon, even as it contributed to a chronic labor surplus that helped keep wages down. Moreover, laws in the West that gave women close to equal rights to family property (especially in cases of divorce) acted as a degree of deterrent against the misuse of financial power by those husbands who earned and controlled most of the family income.

Some Christian feminists, inspired by Marxism, have opted for the use of a Marxist lens in the way they read and interpret Holy Scripture. The actual intent of the biblical authors (that is, the message the authors meant to convey to their readers) is held to be of little value. Rather, the interpretation of what biblical authors wrote is said by the Marxist-Feminist to be "a political act": in other words, an interpreter of Scripture is always reading the Bible either from the perspective of the oppressors or the oppressed. To do the latter - that is, to take the side of the oppressed - one must unmask and reject all (perceived) sexist and patriarchal elements of Scripture (and of Church Tradition too), and highlight instead those elements that are perceived to be truly egalitarian, the ones that uphold men and women as in every sense "equal." As feminist theologian Letty Russell once wrote: "One must defeat the Bible as patriarchal authority by using the Bible as Liberator." Catholic theologian Elizabeth Schussler-Fiorenza also wrote: "only those traditions and [biblical] texts that break through patriarchal culture ... have the authority of [divine] revelation." Of course, that is really just another way of saying: "I will accept as divine revelation about men and women only those aspects of Scripture which agree with my Marxist-Feminist ideology, and I will ditch whatever in the Bible does not agree with that ideology." And that means that one's highest authority for discerning what God has revealed to us is not Holy Scripture and Sacred Tradition, fashioned by the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church, but one's own favorite brand of feminism. All very helpful, if one has decided in advance to insist on one's own way, rather than discerning and following God's way!

Some of the work of the Marxist-Feminist theologians has been rather ridiculous. A case in point is the very title of Schussler-Fiorenza's most famous book: In Memory of Her. It is a reference to the woman who anointed Jesus with oil during Holy Week prior to his arrest, when Jesus said of her: "Wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her" (Mk 14:9). But she is never given a name in the Gospels, which only goes to show, according to Fiorenza, how the original, egalitarian example of Jesus was undermined by the Gospel writers, and how women's contributions to the apostolic church were marginalized and hidden by subsequent generations of Christians, as the early Church quickly caved-in to the norms of Greco-Roman culture, and the second rate status it accorded to women. All very interesting ... except that Jesus cannot have been quite as much of a modern egalitarian as Fiorenza claimed, given that he only chose men to be his twelve apostles - and Fiorenza fails to notice that Mark has several nameless characters in his Gospel, including one in the very next chapter of his book: the centurion who stood at the foot of the Cross and proclaimed, "Truly, this man was the Son of God!" (Mk 15: 39). Father Francis Martin commented: "If the omission of a name is the sign of gender prejudice, what shall we say of the omission of the centurion's name? It is more likely that they are both nameless in order to accent their typological functions" - in other words, they symbolize the true attitude of faith in the crucified Jesus that all Christian disciples ought to have (The Feminist Question, p. 103).

At even further remove from the New Catholic Feminism, in many respects, is the perspective known as New Age or Eco-Feminism. In a nutshell, this movement seeks to reverse the ideology of patriarchy and male superiority by replacing it with a matriarchy based on the notion of female superiority - or at least, in the interim, to separate women from the dominating and corrupting influence of men as much as possible. The leading author and spokesperson for this perspective was Mary Daly, whose book Beyond God the Father (1973) became a feminist classic. She taught at Boston College for 33 years, until she was dismissed for refusing to allow men into her graduate level classes.

Eco-Feminists often contend that women are closer to the divine feminine matrix of nature of which we are all a part: also called "Gaia," a name derived from the earth-goddess worshipped in many ancient religions. The recovery of the worship of all of nature or Gaia, the empowerment of women through the practice of Wicca (aka "witchcraft"), and the fashioning of a society without any hierarchies at all are among the primary goals of New Age or Eco-Feminism. And all this can only begin to happen when women set themselves apart from men as much as possible. Hence, lesbianism becomes a laudable social and sexual option (Mary Daly was herself a lesbian). Moreover, women should practice a radical environmentalism that recovers their unity with mother earth, and a revival of the practice of Wicca that enables them to tap into the divine power for transformation hidden in the "background" of nature herself.

As we shall see, this form of feminism is in some ways a caricature - at times even a demonic caricature - of the New Catholic Feminism. Most Catholic feminists (and many other Catholic thinkers too) would admit that according to both Scripture and Catholic Tradition, women do possess a unique spiritual sensitivity, a special ability to surrender themselves to God and open their hearts to his Spirit, as well as a unique closeness to the gift of human life, and a special appreciation for the interdependence and embodiment of human life - all of which gives them natural predispositions to virtues such as compassion and faith. But these unique potentials are certainly not fostered by the worship of nature, the practice of Wicca or lesbianism, or by blaming everything that is wrong with the world on the sins of men, while turning a blind eye to their own sins! Rather, they are nurtured and fostered by the love of Jesus Christ, the Bridegroom of the soul, and by learning to love others as he has loved us.

There are many other forms of Radical Feminism as well, such as "Post-Modern Feminism" (one that we will discuss as we proceed with this web series), and even one called "Intersectional Feminism" that makes a valiant attempt to combine several streams into one.

One of the main things that differentiates the New Catholic Feminism from all of these forms of secular feminism, however, is that it studiously avoids overblown rhetoric. Many secular feminists today claim that in the western world there is a "War on Women" being waged (as Hillary Clinton likes to say); that women are suffering "systemic violence" by men in almost every area of our culture (in the family, the marketplace, the political, academic and media worlds, and even in the churches).

In fact, to some extent it is this overblown rhetoric that has given "feminism" a bad name. Polls show that only about 1 out of every 4 women in the United States consider themselves to be feminists - in part, it seems, because even though they definitely want the injustices they suffer to cease (see last week's article in this series), they do not really share the perception that they are suffering "violence" from every social angle, and so they do not really want to fight a culture war against men, as if most men were their "oppressors." Polls also show that over 80% of young women in the 18-25 age group still hope to get married, have children, and start a family of their own. They rejoice in the fact that they can vote, have equal access to education, work outside the home or start a career if they choose, and marry whomever they choose. As Catholic New Feminist Elizabeth Fox-Genovese once wrote:

It remains unproven that the [western] world is as uniformly hostile and detrimental to women as feminists contend. Indeed, key indicators like women's college attendance and their earnings suggest that we have seen dramatic improvement in a remarkably short span of time. (See her online essay "Catholic and Feminist: Can One Be Both?" Accessed at

To some extent, American women just do not believe the statistics that feminist academics churn out for their consumption, because these statistics do not always fit with their lived experience (e.g. the oft-repeated statistic that 22-35% of women who visit a hospital emergency room do so because of domestic violence - a statistic that has been debunked many times, for example, by the Centers for Disease Control and the Federal Justice Department's Bureau of Justice statistics - the actual figure is less than 1 percent).

American women know that there is a "wage gap" between men and women in the marketplace, but many also know (as a study by the United States Department of Labor in 2009 showed, a study that surveyed the results of more than fifty peer-reviewed papers on the subject) that this is not primarily the result of sexual discrimination, but more often the result of women's different life preferences - such as what they chose to study in school, where they choose to work, and how they choose to balance home and career. In the medical field, for example, a 2012 New York Times article reported:

Female doctors are more likely to be pediatricians than higher-paid cardiologists. They are more likely to work part-time. And even those working full time put in 7 percent fewer hours a week than men. They are also much more likely to take extended leaves, most often to give birth and start a family.

These are the kinds of things that lower the "average" female wage as compared with men - and in some cases, even the average remuneration that women receive for holding the same jobs as men (e.g., when performances raises are given out to salaried workers, they often go to the person who is putting in the extra hours). All this is not primarily the result of sexism, and certainly not indicative of a lack of ability or commitment by women; rather, it is largely the result of the fact that women often have different priorities than men, and a different understanding of what leads to happiness and fulfilment.

Finally, while the secular feminists usually say that the drive for more legal restrictions on abortion is another sign of "the War on Women," a 2011 Gallup poll showed that about 44 percent of American women are generally Pro-Life (vs. 50 percent who are generally Pro-Choice, and the numbers were similar for men). Clearly, on this issue a sizable number of American women do not feel that they are under attack.

As long as feminist elites in the academic and media world continue to be out of touch with what American women really experience, and how they truly feel, the secular "feminist" label is going to remain unattractive to many, and an opportunity exists for other perspectives - including the New Catholic Feminism - to gain a hearing.

Another mark that clearly distinguishes secular feminism from the New Catholic Feminism, is that the latter is based on what God has revealed to the world, by the Holy Spirit, lighting the way for us through Holy Scripture and Sacred Tradition. In other words, the New Catholic Feminism really is authentically Catholic.

Next Time: Rooted in Scripture

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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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