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Last week, I stumbled across a blog post in which a Catholic feminist critiqued certain interpretations of the New Feminism and laid out nine suggestions that she thinks will refresh and direct its implementation. The author encouraged respectful dialogue about this topic, so I will respond to her ideas below, respectfully, of course. Let me begin, however, by sharing my personal history and how it has led to my ministry in Feminine Genius Inc.
I did not emerge from childhood as a skirt-wearing, Jesus-loving girl. I come from a really rough background, growing up in a cult where I was sexually wounded and taught through shaming and manipulation that my personal freedom was not important. Because of the weird religiosity of the cult, I was largely schooled by secular media regarding what it means to be a female. I took my fashion cues from Seventeen Magazine and my dating tips from Vogue. I had no guidance regarding the meaning of my body, or what to do with it, except from movies like “The Titanic”, which I definitely watched in the theater five times, “Something About Mary”, and “Shakespeare in Love”; I should add the caveat that I did learn one thing from the cult, which was that sex was BAD outside of marriage and that you were a sinner if you did it. Because, you know, that’s a really effective way to teach the virtue of chastity. Not.
So, as you can imagine, I made risky choices with my clothes and my body as a young adult. During my undergrad years at the University of Notre Dame, I acted in the way that I thought all normal young women acted, experimenting with alcohol and “hooking-up”, which in those innocent days only involved kissing. Despite being a successful student and active in various leadership roles on campus, I judged my value by the attention I received from male co-eds and viewed the value of my body in its capacity to attract admiration. I objectified myself and, while I appeared happy, I was in a good deal of personal pain. I compared myself to other young women and was deeply insecure, dabbling in punishing my body through depriving it of food and horrified of being “fat.” In addition to my body issues, I experimented with various philosophies and religious expressions. I was a “progressive” Catholic for a time, rallying for female priests at the Call to Action national conference in Madison, Wisconsin. I was a Marxist Catholic, volunteering among migrant workers in Naples, Florida and women and children in Honduras, as well as participating in anti-military demonstrations on campus and studying Dorothy Day, Gustavo Gutierrez, and Dan Berrigan. I stopped practicing my faith during my semester abroad in India and leaned heavily into Hinduism, exploring ayurveda and yoga. I searched the world round for the answers to my existential questions.
Thanks be to God, Who saved me. Through the power of the Holy Eucharist and the support of amazing friends, I began to experience love that I had never before known. And, when I encountered the writings of Pope John Paul II for the first time, I felt that here was the first man who truly understood me and who I could fully trust. He was my first true father and his call to the youth to be holy and brave resounded in my heart. I loved that man. He spoke, into my darkness and shame, words of mercy and flourishing, and I will be happy if the fruit of my life’s work consists in deepening his legacy. I am a child of generation X/Y who has come out of the culture of death into healing and safety. The Catholic Church is my family and my home. God the Father in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit is my deepest comfort and source of life. I am one of those who Colleen Carroll Campbell calls “the new faithful” and my approach to the secular culture, as well as all those who do not share my faith, is not one of condemnation but missional hope.
Kendra’s background shares some similarities with mine, and I know that both of us approach our ministry through Feminine Genius Inc with a spirit of compassion, humility, and love. We know how we have suffered as a result of the lies told by our secular culture, and we know that so many women in our generation are, also, wounded. We minister in humility with a deep awareness that we are still very much learning and being formed in the truth; it is in this spirit that we offer our experiences with wearing skirts, for example, or with navigating the waters of motherhood, wifehood, and our own personal fulfillment. We are not dogmatic but hope to gently propose the healing Truth that we have encountered and invite others to experience it, too.
I understand that my feminist fore-mothers lived in a different time than I do, a time when misogyny and disrespect for the dignity of women where socially acceptable, even economically enshrined, and I appreciate the tremendous efforts that those women made to break through glass ceilings and open up boardrooms. However, as a student at Notre Dame, there was pressure on me to be “successful” in such a way that discounted the importance of rearing my children, as if that were not important enough; my friends and I worried that we we were being unfaithful and ungrateful to our feminist fore-mothers when we decided to be full-time mothers, rather than working at Deloitte, and I still receive scorn from secular feminists, as if my choices are not worthy of respect.
With that said, let me turn to the blog post that I read. The author begins by stating, “I will assume a readership that recognizes very serious problems with the very idea of a patriarchy, but which is also willing to take seriously the idea that one can truly be Christian and a feminist.”
Okay, let’s start with the term “patriarchy.” As a Generation X/Y gal, the word “patriarchy” doesn’t resound much with my own experience. I understand that second and third-wave feminists used the term “patriarchy” to mean “oppressive male authority”, but I find that use of the term imprecise. The official definitely of patriarchy refers to fatherhood and its leadership role, and, in my life that has been sorely lacking, except through good priests and God the Father. I think that holds true for many young women in my generation; our fathers largely failed to protect and empower us, and were absentee emotionally, as well as physically. I could go for a little more good fatherhood in my life. Therefore, I prefer more precise terms when referring to men, such as “misogyny”, “wounded masculinity”, “healed masculinity”, and “lust and objectification”. Men, in the universal sense, are not the enemy, and a term like “patriarchy” is emotionally loaded and seems to engender resentment toward men in general, which is not okay.
She then goes on to list nine suggestions for moving the New Feminism into maturity. They are as follows, with my responses immediately after.
1. “The New Feminism must be kind.” We agree. Every person is an equal Other who bears the image of God. Kendra and I propose to women the truths of the Gospel and the beauty of Catholic teaching but always do so with respect for the freedom of the Other whose duty it is to seek truth sincerely. One aspect of of feminist dialogue that Kendra and I find disheartening is the “mean girl” syndrome. If the pagans were converted by seeing how the early Christians “loved one another”, I would imagine that present-day pagans are pretty turned off by the way that Catholic women can ridicule and laugh at other women in ministry. Recently, Pope Francis preached about the way that hypocrisy among Christians undermines their witness, stating, “Inconsistency on the part of pastors and the faithful between what they say and what they do, between word and manner of life, is undermining the Church’s credibility.” Even if Catholic feminists disagree with each other on principle, they offer a poor witness to Jesus Christ when they don’t “walk the talk” in their manner of speaking about each other and respecting the dignity of the other.
2. “The New Feminism must take cognizance of Third-world issues.” We agree. We feel particularly passionate about working against human-trafficking, and Katie’s heart burns to reach out to women in Russia and in India, where she has spent time in previous years and where women are so often wounded and oppressed by misogyny and lust.
We think, however, that the author makes an unnecessary dichotomy, however, between First-world and Third-world issues when she writes the following: “That means we need to remember that such things as fashion codes and gender roles mutate according to culture, and that there are very, very, serious problems women elsewhere are having to deal with, which sort of undercut some of our worries about whether our prom dresses are modest enough.” We don’t agree with that. Sins against women are bad whether they happen at the prom or in a brothel in Thailand, and to make such a jab at the “modesty movement” in the United States is unnecessary and not practicing the very kindness that the author calls for. It is true, according to Catholic doctrine, that fashion codes and gender roles mutate according to culture…somewhat. It depends upon what she means by “fashion codes” and by “gender roles.”
3. “The New Feminism must be academically rigorous. That means that we need to start engaging with fields of thought such biology and anthropology, that can help us check our assertions.” We agree. Our faith teaches that the sciences of biology and anthropology are to be respected and studied and that God’s Truth never contradicts itself. However, it seems to me that many scientists in our day, whether in the social sciences like anthropology or the life sciences like biology, espouse a materialist nominalist view of the human person and of the created world; so, we read the hypotheses of these scientists with an awareness of the philosophical hermeneutic, and we remember the exhortation of Pope John Paul II in Fides et Ratio to direct all scientific inquiry toward the ultimate good of the human person which is the Truth about God, stated in this passage:
As devout Catholics, we delve a little deeper when scientific “discoveries” surface that contradict the tenets of our faith. We want to help women direct their steps to the Truth which sets them free, that Truth which Jesus Christ offers through his Church, and are confident that good science corresponds with the truths of our faith.
4. “The New Feminism must shed the idea that most women in the world right now are godless relativists.” Kendra and I don’t think that most women are “godless relativists.” Women have a natural affinity for the spiritual and are very rarely “godless”; many women in our day, however, are not grounded in the Truth that offers freedom and flourishing and practice the superstitions of neo-paganism, pantheism, and spiritualism. While each of these spiritual groups may offer certain attractions, it is only in the Catholic Church that the deepest freedom of each man and woman is protected and taught, and we propose to every woman the fullness of joy in the heart of God the Father through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit where she will find perfect love and everlasting mercy and tender healing.
5. “The New Feminism should be active and public.” We agree with this and do our best through our little apostolate to host public events and engage in public discourse.
6. “The New Feminism should be pluralistic. We should remember that not every Christian woman is white, middle class, and English-speaking.” Absolutely. Feminine Genius Inc would love to partner with our Christian sisters of other denominations to eradicate sex-trafficking, violence against women, abortion, and so forth. However, as we minister in humility, we also know that we have limited resources of time and energy; while we are open to working inter-denominationally and while we laud the beautiful ministries supported by our Christian sisters, we do our best to minister where we are and to the neighbors in our midst. If the only women we reach are Catholic, we trust that Our Lord will send other laborers to other harvests and don’t need to worry about reaching every community.
7. “The New Feminism needs to very seriously question the traditional gender roles and stereotypes that have been placed on women for
centuries in thisculture and in others.” The term “gender roles” is imprecise and I wonder what the authormeans by questioning traditional roles. Does she mean that women should have equal employment opportunities as men and that women should fill engineering job, construction jobs, military roles, and so forth? Or, is she referring to “gender roles” like the notion that only women birth children and nurse them. This traditional gender role, of course, is now obscured in secular culture by sex change operations, which allow a woman to become a “man”; however, the woman who has undergone the operation still may retain her uterus and mammary glands, as was a case that gained national attention, where the “husband” carried “his” baby girl to term. “He” argued that he was a man and that being pregnant and giving birth did not make him less than a man and his claims were supported by laws and court decisions; “he” is legally a man married to a woman but, because his wife is infertile, he bears the children for the family.
So, first, let me address the question of changing gender roles through changing bodies. Pope John Paul II, in his theology of the body, stated that the body expresses the person, echoing ancient Catholic doctrine articulated by Saint Thomas Aquinas as “anima forma corpis” (the soul is the form of the body). I understand these statements to mean that I am my body and that my body says something about who I am interiorly, in my soul. If I have the body of a female at birth, I am a female; my female body expresses truths about my feminine soul, such as that I am spiritually inclined to mother nascent life, physical or spiritual, and am naturally gifted at sustaining that fragile life. In this view, which I understand to be the orthodox Catholic position, when a woman feels like she really is a man, her feelings are a sign of a serious psychological and emotional-spiritual wound, rather than a sign, as our secular culture believes, that she really out to be a man. As a woman who was sexually wounded in childhood, I can really relate to women who reject their femininity, seeing it as a liability and a weakness, and who posture themselves as men. At Feminine Genius Inc., we pray for such confused women but we stand with the Church in believing that sex changes do not solve the real dis-order within a woman’s heart and soul. Women who are wounded and confused about their identity need healing from God and a good psychologist, not operations.
Now, with regard to questioning traditional gender roles by encouraging women to excel in Calculus and chain-sawing and krav maga, we stand with the Church in supporting those women. Pope John Paul II in Mulieris Dignitatem, as well as Saint Edith Stein (Teresa Benedicta) in her Essays on Woman, encouraged women to participate in all levels of society, in business as well as government. The beautiful distinction that Pope John Paull II made, reaffirming the thought of Saint Edith Stein, was that, whatever a women does, what matter is WHO SHE IS. Pope John Paul II repeatedly reaffirmed in Mulieris, as well as the theology of the body and in his “Letter to Women”, that a woman is always a helpmate (bride) and a mother. Whether spiritually or physically, the woman only flourishes when she acts out her spiritual motherhood and spiritual companionship through her work. If a woman is a computer software engineer, Saint Edith Stein writes, she will only truly enjoy it if she can connect it to personal values and see her work as a service to others. Women are only truly fulfilled through abstract work if they can somehow make it concrete and particular through connecting it to persons. It is this tendency of women to seek the personal and the particular-concrete that Pope John Paul II called the “feminine genius”. At Feminine Genius Inc., Kendra and I seek to empower women as women, in their spiritual maternity and companionship, whether they work as teachers, artists, doctors, city planners, or full-time mothers.
8. “The New Feminism should involve itself with religion on a personal level – that means that we move beyond the idea of a church as just an authoritarian governing body telling us what to do, and instead take cognizance of ourselves as women in relation to the person of Jesus Christ.” I hope that I have already made clear that the Feminine Genius Inc. is grounded in a personal encounter with Jesus Christ; however, we don’t view the Church as an authoritarian governing body telling us what to do. We view the Church, as I have already said, as our sanctuary and mother, as our wise teacher and field hospital.
My journey, through Marxist pacifist progressive Hinduism into the arms of Jesus in the Eucharist, taught me deeply to believe and trust what the Catholic Church teaches. She is wise and very ancient. Her doctrines offer the clearest and most beautiful explication of what it means to be human and to be truly free. The mission of Feminine Genius Inc. is to lead every woman to the fullness of joy in the heart of God the Father in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, and we cannot do that apart from the Church who is the Eternal Bride and guardian of the Sacraments.
9. “This means that the New Feminism should try to find new ways for women to be genuinely involved in church affairs. What about involving women in magisterial and administrative roles, since – unlike the administering of the sacraments – these are not required to be done in persona Christi? We should recognize that while there are enduring teachings of the church that are not going to change, there may be traditions and disciplines that SHOULD be changed. What about restoring a female diaconate, for instance?” At my parish in small-town Texas, the only male in magisterial and administrative roles is our pastor, Father George. Women are the office managers, the events schedulers, the choir director (and, oh what power she holds, as she chooses every week songs that support her particular theological biases and forces us to sing them; Saint Augustine said, “He who sings prays twice” and if the law of prayer is the law of belief–”lex orandi lex credendi”–our dear choir director is one of most powerful catechist at our parish), the DRE, the volunteer catechists, the lectors, the Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, and so forth. It would be a blessing to the parish, I think, to have a few more males in leadership roles, in order to foster the complementary gifts of men and women and bring a bit more balance to parish ministry.
I know that this is not the case in Vatican City, however, where it appears that men outnumber women, and I agree with the author that it would be a blessing to Church governance to involve women more at the Vatican.
As for the female diaconate, I think that if we are honest about history, we have to admit that evidence of female deacons seems limited to the role of preparing female catechumens for baptism. In the early Church, baptism involved full immersion in nothing but one’s proverbial birthday suit, and Catholics then thought it best to have women undress women. There are volumes to be written about the gift of women in the Church in areas other than ordained ministry, but I will simply close this section by highlighting Pope Francis’ interview in America magazine, where he said the following, “Women are asking deep questions that must be addressed. The church cannot be herself without the woman and her role. The woman is essential for the church. Mary, a woman, is more important than the bishops. I say this because we must not confuse the function with the dignity. ”
I like this statement. I like how the Holy Father distinguishes here between function and dignity. I think that, when we women believe that we won’t be fully equal to men until we can do all the same things as men, we fail to recognize our particular charism and ministry in the Church. I do not think that ordained ministry will truly foster female flourishing, but I will save further comments on that for a later post.
I hope that this response to the blog post fosters deeper mutual understanding and is the beginning of an ongoing conversation between committed Catholic women. I know that both the author and I want women to flourish and be truly fulfilled and, while we might disagree about the means to promote that flourishing, we can pray and work together to strengthen the Church and evangelize our culture.