Can you be both faithful to the Catholic Church and be a feminist?
If you look at the literal meaning of feminism, then the answer is emphatically yes, but when you look at the modern feminist movement, that confident “yes” turns into a blur of uncertainty and conflicting perspectives. The purpose of this post isn’t to give you a definitive answer, but instead address some of the common points of discussion.
Background of Feminism
A quick Google search defines feminism as the “the advocacy of women's rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men.” A lot of feminists will simply say it is gender equality. In the United States, we can see “waves” of the feminist movement. This isn’t to say there weren’t women speaking out before that, but rather to point out that these were established movements.
The first wave fought for suffrage and for women to have property rights. The second wave addressed concerns like education, workplace equality, sexuality, and what they considered reproductive rights. The third wave has (or had if you consider the current movement the fourth wave) addressed sexual harassment, advocated against violence towards women, and continued fighting for topics from the second wave. The third wave is sometimes described as less cohesive than the previous waves because the former waves had more formalized movements.
I saw mixed opinions on whether or not we are experiencing fourth wave feminism. Regardless of the wave, modern feminism continues to build on previous points of action, looks at social inequality in areas beyond sex, and challenges what actually defines being a woman.
One of the challenges is definitively defining what modern feminism stands for. While the umbrella concept of equality certainly applies to most feminists, how they define that varies greatly.
There are some organizations that identify themselves as pro-life feminists, while other feminists firmly state that you aren’t a feminist if you’re against abortion. Some feminists view LGBT concerns as integral to feminism, while other feminists emphatically separate it from the movement. Many feminists talk about men’s rights and address how men benefit from feminism, while there are the very few feminists who talk about how much they enjoy male tears. Some feminists are focused on issues that affect women on a global scale or that only affect women in countries besides their own, while others are more focused on local issues. Some feminists on social media focus on body image, undesired (and often harassing) compliments, and unrealistic beauty expectations, while others are more focused on human rights in other countries. It is a very diverse movement, and it is difficult to make a blanket statement about feminism as a whole.
One of the criticisms I see frequently about feminism is the name itself. Critics complain about the focus on women rather than a more gender-neutral term. The reason it is called feminism is because while both sexes experience injustice, to fix these injustices, you need to start with the worst case, in this case: women’s rights. This site does a good job explaining from a feminist perspective why they use feminism instead of humanism.
I also see a lot of straw man arguments against feminism. This comic takes a humorous (content warning) look at the accusations that feminists are a bunch of butch man-haters or want women to be the superior gender.
Yes, there are women who do a terrible job of representing feminism, but it isn’t fair to base an entire movement off of a few loud voices.
Dignity of Every Human Person
The Church teaches that every person has dignity because they are made by God. Starting in the first chapter of the Bible, we know that God created both male and female in His image (Genesis 1:27), and this is reaffirmed throughout scripture (1 Corinthians 11:12). Our sex does not separate us from our identity in Christ (Galatians 3:28). We are reminded of this inherent dignity every person possesses (James 3:9-10).
In addition to acknowledging this dignity, we are taught to treat people with love and respect. Christ commanded us to love our neighbor (our neighbor being everybody), even when it is difficult.
Acknowledging the dignity every human being possesses it outlined very clearly in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Part Three, Chapter Two, Article Three. For just a few examples, consider the following:
“Respect for the human person entails respect for the rights that flow from his dignity as a creature. These rights are prior to society and must be recognized by it.” (1930)
“Respect for the human person proceeds by way of respect for the principle that "everyone should look upon his neighbor (without any exception) as 'another self,' above all bearing in mind his life and the means necessary for living it with dignity."” (1931)
“Created in the image of the one God and equally endowed with rational souls, all men have the same nature and the same origin. Redeemed by the sacrifice of Christ, all are called to participate in the same divine beatitude: all therefore enjoy an equal dignity.” (1934)
Though the Catechism acknowledges that there are differences among people, that should not influence how they are treated in any way.
Furthermore, we aren’t just called to acknowledge this dignity, but also defend it against injustices.
“The equality of men rests essentially on their dignity as persons and the rights that flow from it: Every form of social or cultural discrimination in fundamental personal rights on the grounds of sex, race, color, social conditions, language, or religion must be curbed and eradicated as incompatible with God's design.” (1935)
“The equal dignity of human persons requires the effort to reduce excessive social and economic inequalities. It gives urgency to the elimination of sinful inequalities. “ (1947)
The Catholic Church recognizes that there is a difference between men and women, but despite that differences, men and women are of equal dignity. CCC 369 explains that both our equality and uniqueness in our sex is very intentional from God’s creation. The perfections of both men and women “reflect something of the infinite perfection of God” (370). The differences between men and women are complementary to each other (2333).
The Bible is also very clear that there is a difference between men and women. It is important to recognize that some of the differences come from the culture at the time, but other passages acknowledge the differences to highlight the complementarity between men and women.
We see the intentionality of male and female being created; both were made in the image and likeness of God. Though God does not have gender or sex, we come to understand that both the feminine and masculine are there.
Sometimes, people get caught up with Eve being referred to as the “helper,” but when looking at it with greater context, one may come to understand that she was an equal partner. In fact, the inequality between men and women is a consequence of Adam and Eve’s sin; when God is expressing the consequences, he says “I will intensify your toil in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Yet your urge shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Genesis 3:16). There it is, right after the pain of childbirth: there will be tension between them due (in part) to man ruling over her.
There are also a number of examples of women given important roles from Christ Himself.
Additionally, we can see a lot of parallels between Christ and his Church and man and woman. This can lead us to understand the importance of both as well as the mutual love and respect between both sexes.
The best phrase I’ve heard (unfortunately, I cannot find a source) is “Men are superior to women at being men. Women are superior to men at being women.” The differences between the sexes do not detract from the value of either; instead these difference enhance the beauty in God's design.
The Church encourages us to embrace the identity God gave us, celebrate our uniqueness, and treat everyone equal in dignity.
Critics of the Church
The most common criticism I hear is that the Church oppresses women or that it hates them. The easy is response is to tell them to look at Mary. Expanding on how the Church values women would require a lot more detail in this already lengthy post, but two simple points are that the Catechism is clear on the dignity of women, and the Bible pinpoints the source of inequality as a result of the Fall.
Trying to address the arguments about sexuality, birth control and abortion would take several other posts, so I’ll simply leave it as the following (recognizing that it doesn’t fully address it): the Church encourages us to not be imprisoned by our temptations and misuse our bodies in ways that ultimately harm us.
I personally have several issues with the modern feminist movement. I recognize these aren’t the views of all feminists, but they are the loudest voices.
- It seems like the movement believes that to be equal, men and women must be the same. I think our differences are beautiful and need to be embraced. There are certainly issues that have arisen from gender roles imposed by society, and I think there are still some lingering effects, but I don’t think we should try to ignore the differences altogether.
- Most of the feminist communications I’ve seen that have talked about abortion have been in support of it. Abortion is a huge human rights violation and has no place in a civilized society.
- Some of the loudest voices use misinterpretations of statistics to promote their sides. The best example is the gender wage gap. The problem with the 75 cents on the dollar is that it is based on every job with every level of experience, so part-time workers with no college degree are included in groupings with medical doctors with 20 years of experience. When you look at the data for a man and women with the same degree, job function, and level of experience, the wage gap is really only about 98 cents to a dollar. The problem is people are so busy fighting for equality in pay that they are ignoring that what we should be focusing on: why women tend to work part-time more and why the burden of family care tends to fall on them more (which isn’t even necessarily a bad thing if the husband and wife both agree on it).
Because of these concerns, I am hesitant to link myself to the modern feminist movement. As Catholics, we also need to be cautious that we avoid scandal, and associating with a movement that has beliefs contrary to that of Church teaching might cause scandal. At the same time, I do see that there is still gender inequality in society, even more so in other countries, and I want to be supportive of efforts addressing this. I don’t think it is a bad thing to associate yourself with the feminist movement if you prioritize your faith (as you should do with every aspect of your life) and make your true stances clear.
What are your thoughts? Can you be a Catholic feminist?