Perhaps greater than any earthly conflict in the news, the battle between the Rebel Alliance and the Galactic Empire, or Mordor and the Fellowship of the Ring, is the self-proclaimed war between “Trads” and Catholic feminists.
I understand that many Catholic feminists find the ordeal frustrating. I myself find a certain level of dark comedy within the cyclical social media dust-ups over whether it is sinful for women to work outside of the home in the year of our Lord 2020. I have learned the hard way to protect my peace while engaging with others and reading their online musings. (If I didn’t, I would lose my mind and, quite possibly, leave the Church.)
These conflicts are not a new or unique sign of our current times, as a casual reading of Scripture and Church history confirms. Catholics have always fought over who or what is really “Christian.” Notably, when it comes to the role of women and Christian feminine expression, our faith has proven revolutionary in its inclusion of women in salvation history (e.g., Mariology and female saints) and yet is consistently rife with debate over women’s performing the most basic of human activities (e.g., using their God-given talents to contribute to the world and take care of their families).
When it comes to women, our faith has proven revolutionary and yet is consistently rife with debate.
It would appear incongruent to identify as both a feminist and a “Trad,” and yet I have integrated both schools of thought into my values and spiritual life. Having been a Latin Mass-attending feminist for several years, I can testify that my friends and pastors are nothing like what I see caricatured on social media or the wider Catholic internet because, after all, the internet is not real life.
In my experience, the conflict between Trads and feminists is rooted in a misunderstanding of terms. What exactly is a (Catholic) feminst? What exactly is a Traditional Catholic (a “Trad”)? I will not expound on Catholic feminism here, since FemCatholic is already doing this important work, but I'll clarify what Traditionalism is and how it has influenced my feminist worldview.
Most associate “Traditional Catholicism” with attending the Latin Mass, which is certainly part of it, along with preserving all ancient liturgies. But the core of the movement has more to do with a desire to preserve pre-Vatican II Catholicism in both worship and belief. Trads firmly reject modernism, a distinct heretical philosophy not to be confused with legitimate cultural progress or organic ecclesial development. Many Trads, myself included, are skeptical of the implementation of Vatican II, feeling that certain factions within the Church took liberties with the documents in a manner ultimately harmful to the faithful. However, to be clear, the Trads with whom I align are not sedevacantists who question the validity of the Pope or Vatican II as an authentic church council.
FishEaters has several introductory articles about Traditionalism that are well worth a read to understand what Trads generally believe:
- The dogmas of the Faith understood in a manner consistent with the way Catholics had always understood them — i.e., rejecting the errors outlined above — and an upholding of traditional Catholic moral theology.
- A desire to preserve and restore all of the ancient liturgical rites, and to do so not because they are “preferred” but because they are objectively superior to the new rites and should once again become normative.
- A deep understanding of or intuition about the importance of preserving not only intrinsic tradition (the unwritten Deposit of the Faith handed down by Christ and His Apostles) but also the ecclesiastical tradition (extrinsic tradition) which has served to preserve intrinsic tradition and allows parents and priests to pass it down in an effective way.
- A strong sensus Catholicus (Catholic “sense” or “instinct”), including a cautious, Catholic approach to novelty.
You might read these beliefs and think, “Isn’t this just plain old Catholicism?” It should be, but isn’t, quite.
Cultural Catholicism and a Spiritual Journey
I grew up a cultural Catholic. I attended Catholic school from first through 10th grade and went on to graduate from a Catholic university. My faith wavered for many years until I, too, was scandalized by the Cross; fully realized that Jesus Christ is indeed the savior of the world; and decided that I wanted to dedicate my life to the Gospel.
This was a multi-year spiritual journey that reached its peak in college when I was trying to decide which kind of Christian I wanted to be and, specifically, if I wanted to truly embrace Catholicism. I read many writings and was particularly struck by St. Augustine’s Confessions. I read the Catechism cover to cover and then decided to make a general Confession for the first time in several years.
I had always gone to Mass mostly out of habit, but suddenly, I saw everything Catholic with new eyes and a yearning heart. Like many reverts and converts, however, I was a bit disappointed in modern expressions of the Faith. Where was the fervor, the beauty ever ancient, ever new? I knew that the sacraments were valid and that I was “getting something” out of Mass even if I found the music awful and the homily redundant (and occasionally theologically inaccurate) — but still, I wanted something more.
It wasn’t just about the Mass. While preparing to receive Confirmation, I was taught that choosing a Confirmation saint was “old and outdated.” When I started seeking out Catholic devotions such as Benediction with a holy hour or regular Confession, I had to drive to a parish 30 miles away (in L.A. traffic). If the Church really thought the sacraments were paramount to developing the spiritual life, why was it so hard to access them? Why did priests consistently dismiss my questions or suggest that certain Catholic practices just weren’t part of the faith anymore?
The Treasure Trove
Shortly before I graduated from college, a friend invited me to Latin Mass. Having never heard of the Latin Mass, I blindly said "yes.” While I thought the Latin Mass was different and odd, it also mesmerized me. I didn’t know much Latin, save for the few phrases I had learned in theology class, but as I sat in a completely packed church, I knew that this, or at least a shadow of it, was what I had been looking for all the time. I began to seek out the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM) on a consistent basis, and once I found a regular parish, my spiritual life blossomed.
Traditionalism seeks to unite the faithful with clear teaching, liturgy, and ecclesiology. It hopes to reverse the tide of poor catechesis and formation that has led to weakened or nonexistent belief in the most basic of Catholic teachings, such as the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. There’s a liturgical saying especially loved within Traditionalism: Lex orandi, lex credendi, which means, “As we pray, so we believe.” I mean this in the most inoffensive way possible: I can assure you that there is not a single person who identifies as a Trad and does not believe in the Real Presence. Likewise, religious vocations within Traditional communities are growing exponentially.
Catholicism is by its very nature, traditional. Yet, in embracing Traditionalism, I have found a treasure trove of Catholic identity, intellectual thought, devotions, and practices that were denied me at the beginnings of my young faith.
Do you want to connect with the environment in a Christian manner? Try celebrating ember days. Need some ancient feminine wisdom? Try the Desert Mothers, the female doctors of the Church, and — well — Scripture. Are you postpartum and wanting some healing? There is a Traditional Catholic devotion for that. In an age of beautifully filtered hustlers pushing flat tummy tea and crystals on Instagram, now is the time to resurrect the wisdom and spiritual practices of these holy women.
In an age of beautifully filtered hustlers pushing flat tummy tea and crystals on Instagram, now is the time to resurrect the wisdom and spiritual practices of these holy women.
So, why the heated conflict between Trads and feminists? Traditionalism views feminism with great suspicion, especially as it relates to the spread of New Age beliefs and support for elective abortion (despite the fact that the first feminists were pro-life). My response to Trad objectors is simply that, if the world had submitted to Christ and the Church, and if the Church had consistently followed Christ’s lead in its treatment of women and other marginalized peoples, then there wouldn’t be a need for feminism today. But alas, here we are. The Gospel is about reclaiming and restoring all things in Jesus Christ, and I see no reason why feminism should be exempt. A truly Catholic feminism is not at odds with the Faith.
If the world had submitted to Christ and the Church, there wouldn’t be a need for feminism today.
On the other hand, many feminists do not have enough good faith for Trads, whom they often view as openly misogynist and racist. I can see where they are coming from, although when it comes to matters such as women’s ordination, I find the idea that I don’t have to be the same as a man to reach my full potential as a Christian woman to be refreshingly feminist.
For the Common Good
Nevertheless, I recognize that one of the problems with Trads (and American Trads in particular) is that more often than not, they have actually left the Faith and traditional Catholicism behind and unwittingly picked up hatred, Western white supremacy, and American nationalism. And yet, notably, some of the best homilies I’ve heard on these subjects — rightly proclaiming hatred, racism, and misogyny as sinful idolatry that can send a soul to hell — have come from Traditionalist priests.
You might never know it from the Trad wars on social media, but Traditionalism is for the common good. It opposes rampant capitalism and consumerism that keep families, especially working women and working mothers, in chains. Cardinal Robert Sarah, a favorite leader among Traditionalists, spends several chapters discussing these ideas in his new book, The Day Is Now Far Spent:
Capitalism is based on the idol of money. The lure of gain destroys all social bonds. Capitalism devours itself. Little by little, the market destroys the value of work. The result is a new form of slavery, a system in which a large part of the population is dependent on a little caste ... The truth of capitalism must be judged by the yardstick of the freedom that each person can keep and increase. It is clear that today the managers, like the hired workers, are caught in the gears of national and international decisions that limit their freedom ... Economic freedom implies our responsibility as men before God and our fellow citizens. It is not an absolute without rules or limits. It is at the service of everyone’s good (p. 274-275)
Traditionalism rejects economic imperialism and globalism while having clear and distinct views against racism, holding it as an intrinsic evil. As Pope Pius XI said in his 1937 “Mit Brennender Sorge” (“With Burning Concern”), an encyclical “on the Church and the German Reich”:
None but superficial minds could stumble into concepts of a national God, of a national religion; or attempt to lock within the frontiers of a single people, within the narrow limits of a single race, God, the Creator of the universe, King and Legislator of all nations before whose immensity they are “as a drop of a bucket.”
Trads are often rightly criticized for the rigidity of their views on modesty and gender roles. From my personal research and experience, this has more to do with individual opinions than with Traditionalism itself. And it is worth noting that most of the women at my TLM parish work outside the home, with no question of whether it is sinful. I have also heard the idea expressed that the option for mothers not to work outside their homes is a right that, in a just economic system, should be financially available to every family:
We are not all the same, of course, and there are great overlaps in masculine and feminine behaviors. Some women are called to marriage, others to the religious life, and others to virginity, with or without a secular career, like the brilliant Maria Gaetana Agnesi (A.D. 1718-1799), whom Pope Benedict XIV appointed as the Chairwoman of higher mathematics at the University of Bologna in A.D. 1750. Some women are natural so-called “tomboys” and others are the frilly sort. We have role models as diverse as the perfectly maternal Blessed Virgin; the fiery St. Joan of Arc; the lyrical St. Hildegaard von Bingen; the philosophical St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross; the artistic St. Catherine of Bologna; the mystical St. Teresa of Avila; the feisty St. Catherine of Siena; the industrious St. Frances Cabrini; the bookish St. Catherine of Alexandria; the domestic St. Martha; the been-around, penitent St. Mary Magdalen; and the child-like St. Thérèse of Lisieux -- among many others! We can model ourselves after any or all of these types of women, but we are, thank God, not men and never will be. The denigration of the feminine must end (Fisheaters).
Traditional Catholicism has plenty to say on economics, politics, racism, and family life that are, indeed, consistent with Catholic feminism. Both belief systems strive to uplift the dignity of women and marginalized peoples in a culture that seeks to debase us all. Both labels are a human grasp at complex histories and spiritual realities. Both Traditionalism and feminism remind me that the freedom of the Gospel is for women just as they are, not as anyone — whether from the secular world or within the Church — wishes them to be.
Catholic women have always taught in the Church. Catholic women have always brought their faith into industry and public life. Women are an integral and undeniable part of Catholic tradition. I am humbled to continue building my very Trad and very feminist spiritual life in the footsteps of the mighty women who have come before me.
Women are an integral and undeniable part of Catholic tradition.