Many, many people believe that it is impossible to support women and to submit to the Church. I am a Catholic and a feminist because I refuse to accept this false dichotomy. I refuse to submit to the narrative that says I must choose between women and the Church.
G.K. Chesterton once wrote that paradox was “truth standing on her head to get your attention.” There’s a lot of that in Catholicism - things that seem like they shouldn’t really coexist, but do - beautifully. In fact, Catholicism is often described as “both/and."
For instance, Jesus is both human and divine.
Mary is both virgin and mother.
Human beings are both body and spirit, both wretched sinners and the glory of Creation.
Our faith engages in both reason and mystery.
God is both infinite and near to us.
He is both just and merciful.
And we are called to both as well.
Both / and.
These things are all true, but they force us to do a double-take. They make us pause, and think a little deeper about what we’ve just heard. They make us question if we really do know all that we think we do about these two things that seem mutually exclusive. That’s one reason why it’s so important to me to claim the Catholic feminist label - not only because, well… I am a Catholic and a feminist, but also because it’s still a little shocking to say so, and it can (I hope) break down harmful, preconceived notions about Catholicism and feminism.
Either / Or leads to despair
It’s very tempting, however, to fall into an either/or dichotomy instead. Even when we know that our faith is about both/and, it’s hard to recognize all the ways the world asks us to choose either…or.
Case in point: American politics. The first presidential election in which I could vote was the 2016 election. Talk about disillusionment! While I had previously been sometimes frustrated with certain aspects of politics, I was now absolutely disgusted with both parties. I refused to vote for either major-party candidate - which made no practical difference, in my solidly-red state, but it was a small act of rebellion for which I congratulated myself. In fact, I just about swore off politics (which isn’t really even possible, but I gave it an admirable try). I was so fed up with the hypocrisy and, frankly, evil on both sides of the political spectrum that I renounced both of them. Going further, I renounced everything partisan and everyone with any specific agenda. But this, despite being very difficult to pull off, quickly devolved into extreme cynicism.
I realized recently that what started as righteous anger became a shield of (mostly internal) criticism and cynicism in order to distance myself from divisiveness and any partisan bias. I found fault with liberals AND conservatives. Not just in a way that was meant to bring out the truth, but in a way that was meant to build me up because I’m not them. I thought the best defense is a good offense, or something like that. But it’s not healthy or charitable at all. And it’s pretty lonely, because it essentially means rejecting just about everyone.
I'd scroll through my newsfeed and come across stories from pro-life outlets, and would cringe and scoff at how news stories are being spun to fit an agenda. When I read stories from more mainstream media, I would sit there, scanning for the ample evidence that, again, news stories are being spun to fit an agenda (albeit a quite different one).
Somewhere deep down, I really (although unconsciously) thought this was what it was to be a Catholic feminist - to be constantly at war with the world and everyone in it. To be compassionate in person - and, sure, even online. But also to harbor this simmering frustration and ready criticism for everyone and every group who didn’t live up to my Catholic feminist ideal. I could just chalk it up to perfectionism, which comes naturally to me. And maybe that’s what it is. But I think it’s deeper than that. It felt safer to reject everything than to associate myself with sinful, broken human beings who create sinful, broken communities. I didn’t want to align myself with anyone or any group that might let me down or cast me in a bad light by association.
Somewhere deep down, I really (although unconsciously) thought this was what it was to be a Catholic feminist - to be constantly at war with the world and everyone in it.
Which is so ridiculous! I am a proud Catholic and a proud feminist. So, first of all, I’m already a bit of a anomaly, and probably shouldn’t be too picky about who I’m willing to associate with and who’ll have me. But, second of all, although I have been profoundly disappointed in many Catholics and many feminists, that doesn’t mean I’m rejecting the name or those communities. And it’s worth saying that I disappoint them too. We all fall short of what it truly means to be whatever we profess.
But these are the people I have chosen to associate with. Not because they’re perfect, but because we have shared values, goals, and ideals. These are my people. And I’m going to get really cliche here, but honestly, isn’t that true of all of us? We share our lives with other people and communities because we belong, not because they’ll never disappoint us.
Jesus walked this narrow path first
I once heard someone talk about Jesus’s profound humility in claiming us as His own, in giving us His name. We talk about how it can be difficult to stand up for our faith and our relationship with Jesus. Do we ever consider the fact that Jesus has chosen to be associated with us? When we take His name as our identity, when we call ourselves “Christians”, we represent Him. And, oh, how often we fail. And we are judged, sure, but Jesus gets judged for our sins too. And yet He still chooses to be associated with us. He doesn’t reject us in order to remain untouched by the evil and sin that we perpetrate. He’s there in the thick of it.
It is so difficult to be in the world, but not of it. It’s incredibly hard to see evil, to recognize even well-intended mistakes, to feel a duty to call them out, and not to sink into a disillusioned, jaded mess whose default is to look for everything that’s wrong. That’s how we get the stereotype of the “angry feminist”. That’s how we get to be suspicious, distrustful people who are always looking for what’s wrong without ever stopping to celebrate the good. That’s how we learn to always be searching for a mistake to point out - even if only to ourselves, even if only to reassure ourselves that we’re right not to be “one of them”.
I’ve been seeing all of the “either/or's" that are offered to me, and I’ve been so frustrated with the pointless and senseless dichotomy, that I’ve consistently responded “neither”. But that leaves me empty, with nothing, raging alone at the world.
I’ve been seeing all of the “either/or”s that are offered to me, and I’ve been so frustrated with the pointless and senseless dichotomy, that I’ve consistently responded “neither”. But that leaves me empty, with nothing, raging alone at the world.
Instead, I’m going to start trying to accept both. I don’t want to turn a blind eye to the failures of any group, but I don’t want to reject all of the good in the world out of spiteful perfectionism. St. John Paul II quoting Edith Stein tells us, “Do not accept anything as the truth if it lacks love, and do not accept anything as love which lacks truth! One without the other becomes a destructive lie.”
A truly Catholic Feminism isn't about me - it's about God's will
Feminism is a matter of love and truth. It’s a matter of social justice. And yes, it is tempting to focus entirely on what is wrong with the world, how selfish and sexist we are, and that encourages bitterness and selfishness in me. Properly integrated with my faith, however, feminism is a particular perspective on injustice that isn’t just about me - it’s about other women, it’s about men, and it’s about following God’s will and loving my neighbor. It’s an act of love and service for people made in the image of God. And if I don’t see any improvement in social justice in this life, I can offer that profound disappointment and frustration - and, yes, anger - to God, because it’s no longer about me or even about making a perfect society on earth, but about doing God’s will, even when everything seems to be failing spectacularly. It’s a constant balancing act, but a necessary one.
It’s a constant balancing act, but a necessary one.
I am a Catholic and a feminist because I refuse to accept the false dichotomy that says I must choose between women and the Church. As a Catholic feminist, I ought to be well practiced in this world of both/and. I’m not, but I’m going to start trying.