Part 14: Radical, Post-Modern Feminism

The following is part 14 of a 20-part series. Follow the series at thedivinemercy.org/feminism.

The extreme body-personality (or body-soul) dualism of contemporary secular feminism that we saw last time in the work of Simone De Beauvoir, takes an even more radical form today in the movement known as Post-Modern Feminism. According to Post-Modern Feminists such as Judith Butler and Donna Harroway, a human being cannot be defined as either male or female, for a variety of reasons:

(1) Because of the biological phenomena known as "intersex" conditions. "Intersex" is a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn't seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male. So, not everyone is born either male or female.
(2) Because the human body is merely a flux of constantly changing matter and energy. In fact, the entire molecular population of the human body is completely replaced about every seven years.
(3) Because we now know that the human body can be radically altered by technology, for example, by genetic manipulation, sex-change operations, organ transplants, robotic limbs, even to the creation of what is known as a human "cyborg" (i.e. a creature as much machine as organically human).


In no sense, therefore, can my body (initially male, female, or intersex) essentially define "me" or my life "vocation." On this view, the human body itself is mostly a cultural, linguistic and social construct. We now know that, far from the human body defining us as men or women, primarily masculine or primarily feminine, to a considerable extent we can define and create ourselves. Thus, according to the Post-Modern Feminists, I do not inhabit a given sex or gender identity that is essential to my nature; rather, I/we can define what we want our sex and gender to be.

To a Catholic - indeed, to anyone familiar with classical philosophy - none of this is very convincing.

1) The fact that the human body is to some extent malleable by technology does not necessarily imply that the human body has no essential nature given to us by God. It simply means that human beings have the capacity to use their God-given reason and free-will to mutilate the body's natural form if they perversely choose to do so - or to heal it of its wounds and brokenness, and restore its natural form as much as possible. The choice is ours.

2) The transience of the molecular population of the human body over time does not contradict in any way the evident stability of its natural form, if it is properly cared for in a healthy and balanced way. This form is only fundamentally lost by the death of the body.

3) The occurrence of intersex conditions, even if these are genetically rooted, is not an effective argument against a natural sexual binary in the human species. While it is true that all that is biologically natural to human beings will have some sort of genetic roots, logically this does not necessarily imply that everything genetically inherited is "natural" to the human species: for example, congenital blindness, sickle-cell anemia, genetic predispositions to alcoholism and melancholy. In other words, while genetic roots are a sine qua non for what is biologically natural to humanity, they are surely not a sufficient indicator all by themselves. One must also ask: does the inherited trait tend toward integral human flourishing - toward health, wholeness, and happiness? If not, then it may be the product of a wounding and brokenness in the human condition that has been passed down from generation to generation (in theological terms, a wounding of human nature first introduced into the species by the fall of our first parents into original sin), rather than part of the natural giftedness of creation.

Christians have another source for knowledge about what is natural to humanity: divine revelation, by which we mean what God has revealed to the world through his Son Jesus Christ, his chosen apostles, and the apostolic teaching tradition found in Holy Scripture and Sacred Tradition. That God our Creator intended there to be two, naturally complementary and equally valuable forms of fully human life, male and female, is taught first of all in the Old Testament (for example, in Genesis 1:27: "in the image of God he created them, male and female") and also in the words of Jesus himself, who spoke in Matthew 19:3 of "He who made them from the beginning male and female ...." The occurrence of anything else, genetically rooted or otherwise, technologically manipulated or otherwise, is a wounding of human nature as God intended it to be, and therefore something to be healed and overcome, not something to be embraced as an identity-option.

Finally, this whole new Post-Modern direction in modern feminism inevitably leads down a black hole to nihilism. This is the view that life has no ultimate meaning or purpose. Michelle Schumacher, a principle spokesman for the New Catholic Feminist movement, decries the "'mind over matter'" mentality according to which all things - not excluding the human body - can be determined by the manipulative power of the human will." She then quotes Catholic theologian Joyce A. Little:

This notion that I can become anything in general rests upon the assumption that I am not already something in particular. For if I am already something in particular, then what I can or cannot become will be determined to a very large extent by what I already am. In short, this notion that I, in the essential giveness of my being, am defined by nothing that I need take seriously is fundamentally nihilistic, since it assumes that I am intrinsically a cipher, signifying absolutely nothing. (Schumacher, ed., Women in Christ: Toward a New Feminism, p. 36-37).


The fear of Post-Modern Feminists is that all talk of the "giveness" of our human nature as men and women inevitably leads to rigidly defined social roles and expectations. Thus, only men can be leaders in society because it comes more "naturally" to them, while only women can be caregivers. This is what is called "role-complementarianism," and it certainly wreaked havoc on women's equality from about 1400 to about 1850 (see articles nine and ten in this web series). But it does not follow that just because there are biologically rooted differences between men and women in their natural gifts and character predispositions (also known as "quality complementarianism": see articles eleven and twelve in this series) that this logically or inevitably entails a whole society rigidly divided between male and female roles and occupations.

On the one hand, it is clear from Scripture, and from the writings of Pope St. John Paul II, that even if persons are "equal in value," this does not necessarily mean they must be "interchangeable in every social role" (not even in the life of the Holy Trinity itself!-see articles four and five in this series). There can be some gender-exclusive roles among human persons that do not violate the equal human dignity of men and women.

On the other hand, as the New Catholic Feminism holds, in most cases it is not a matter of assigning different jobs to men and women (since most jobs really can be done well by both sexes), but about men and women bringing the distinctive gifts of their masculinity and femininity with them into whatever social roles they seek to fulfill, guided and sanctified by the Holy Spirit. As Catholic philosopher Pia de Solenni once remarked: "True Feminism concerns itself more with how a woman exists, rather than the jobs that she can do. Whatever she does, she does as a woman, not as a genderless creature. The same is obviously true for a man" (from "Christian Feminism: A Fuller View of Woman" accessed at catholiceducation.org).

In fact, both St. John Paul II and the New Catholic Feminists point to just two social roles that we can be certain were intended to be gender-specific - but two that are vital to the destiny of the human race: motherhood, and fatherhood, and especially the form of fatherhood called "priesthood." By the ordinance of God the Creator, only women can be mothers, with all that entails, and by the ordinance of God the Redeemer, only men can be priests of the Church.

Indeed, one can hardly spend time in any authentically Catholic culture or subculture without noticing the exceptional importance of these two vocations for Catholic community life: from the ubiquitous statues of the Madonna and Child, to the sacredness and reverence accorded to the ministry of the priest. Here, the complementary "dance" of men and women in God's plan, and their different roles in the creation and redemption of the human race, receives unique expression. As we shall see next time, it is a crystallization of the great spousal mystery at the heart of all things.

Next Time: The Spousal Mystery of the Universe

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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