Words elicit emotional responses — whether we acknowledge it or not — and the word “feminism” invokes a range of responses. Some are positive, such as feelings of power and freedom. Others are reactions to perceived notions of selfishness, self-righteousness, and maybe even evil. Another word that might spark such a variety of reactions is “Catholic.” The word might make some think of home, love, and peace, while others think of hypocrisy, control, and judgment.
We ought to ask ourselves: What is at the foundation of these words? What is the truth behind what they mean? What happens when we combine them and speak of Catholic feminism? If we examine the essence of secular feminism and Catholic feminism, can we discover insights that they might learn from one another?
The Limitations of Secular Feminism
Growing up, a young girl is told that she can be anything she wants, that she does not need a man to be happy, that she is her own person — strong, independent, and capable. And this belief will encourage her to become a woman who looks after herself and fights for what she believes in. Secular feminism will serve as a guidepost for her, with its proclamation that women are worthy and capable of doing and becoming anything that a man can do or be. The advocacy for equity of treatment for the sexes defines feminism, and it seems simple and easy enough to support. Women are equally as valuable as men; how complicated can that be?
At its roots, this equal value is what secular feminism preaches. However, as this concept is applied to different aspects of life, it becomes muddled and begins to saturate the world with toxic mindsets. When secular feminism asserts that women can perform the same jobs as men, it is good. The problem lies in how secular feminism often goes about making this equity a reality. Rather than allowing women to work in these positions as women, some secular feminists subscribe to the notion that a woman must be more like a man in order to do so.
Rather than allowing women to work in these positions as women, some secular feminists subscribe to the notion that a woman must be more like a man in order to do so.
Examples of this notion include the portrayal of contraception as essential to a woman’s successful career, paired with a lack of support for working mothers. It can also be seen in the “stay quiet and adapt” mantra that many working women adopt, which leads them to tolerate practices that disadvantage women instead of speaking up for themselves. It is a mindset that tells a woman she must figure out solutions to “female-only” problems by herself, rather than advocate for change for all women, because she doesn’t want to be the squeaky wheel or the “problem employee.” This unintentional, negative side effect of secular feminism can lead companies to have a “token woman” employee or a female quota, thus inviting women to pit themselves against each other in the pursuit of a professional career.
Equal acceptance of women and men seems to be the name of the game for secular feminism. In some ways, secular feminists have mastered the art of suspending judgment and keeping an open mind by encouraging women to be whoever they want to be, regardless of how it might create waves in society. This open mind is exemplified in the diverse population of people who call themselves “feminists”; human beings of all races, religions, and sexualities identify as such. Secular feminism presents itself as a realm where all people are accepted.
At the same time, a problem arises from the lack of responsibility for the human soul when secular feminism pitches certain lifestyles. Autonomy, the ability to make choices, and personal expression are all important. However, in the pursuit of these goals, secular feminism often shies away from the negative effects of the extremes of these endeavors. When it speaks of body autonomy and the pro-choice position, it neglects the aftermath in the life of a post-abortive woman as she strives to move forward. When it promotes sexual liberation, it denies the emotional toll inflicted on a woman and the emptiness she feels in heartbreak. Secular feminism invites people in, but it lacks the ability to nurture their souls and, therefore, provide sound guidance through life’s trials.
Secular feminism invites people in, but it lacks the ability to nurture their souls and, therefore, provide sound guidance through life’s trials.
The Answer: Catholic Feminism
This gap is where Catholic feminism can step in, but first, we must address the deep wounds that the word “Catholic” can exacerbate. At present, there is sometimes a stigma that implies that all Catholics are judgmental and, at times, even hypocritical. This stigma is detrimental to Catholicism as a whole but also to Catholic feminism specifically. It sends the message that certain groups of people are not welcome, and it pushes away people who need the healing love of God and the grace He offers through His Church.
At its foundation, Catholic feminism shares the same basic goal of secular feminism: equitable treatment for the sexes. However, Catholic feminism does not stop there. Catholic feminism is rooted in a call to love all persons — no matter who they are or the magnitude of their sins. Our call to love as Jesus does necessitates a respect for the equal dignity of man and woman, as the Lord has created them.
Our call to love as Jesus does necessitates a respect for the equal dignity of man and woman, as the Lord has created them.
An issue arises when, instead of acknowledging the imperfect nature of human beings and striving to improve, we, as individual Catholics, outwardly express a type of elitism and judgment towards people who have strayed from the path toward virtue. If we act out of elitism and judgment, we might ostracize the people who need Catholic feminism the most: women who desire to be treated according to their dignity and empowered to live in a way that brings them genuine fulfillment.
The essence of Catholic feminism is love and the equal dignity of all persons. We offer it not just as a Band-Aid solution for the faults and failings of our world but in order to facilitate profound, loving relationships between human persons. In the areas where secular feminism offers a short-sighted or incomplete solution that doesn’t truly resolve the problems a woman faces, Catholic feminism offers healing for the individual that reaches the root of those problems.
Catholic feminism practices working through life’s challenges together, emphasizing that women have equal dignity as women and that they don’t need to be like men in order to receive just treatment. Furthermore, it encourages finding solutions that honor the inherent differences between women and men. While secular feminism strives for equality, it often tears down what it means to be female and prompts women to stifle their femininity. In contrast, Catholic feminism acknowledges, honors, and embraces the unique aspects of woman.
Catholic feminism encourages finding solutions that honor the inherent differences between women and men.
While secular feminism does well at inviting all people in, the “solutions” it offers women do not fix the problems they face; in fact, some of the solutions it prescribes are harmful to women. Catholic feminism does offer genuine solutions that fix the root of these problems; however, individual Catholics do not always do a good job of inviting in all people.
Extending the Invitation
So, how can Catholic feminists learn from secular feminists and more openly invite others in? It starts with acknowledging that no one is perfect. We are all human beings living in a fallen world, and we are all sinners.
We must root all of our actions in love. Rather than looking at others with eyes that are poised to judge, we must humble ourselves and look at everyone as a child of God who possesses a dignity equal to our own.
Rather than looking at others with eyes that are poised to judge, we must humble ourselves and look at everyone as a child of God who possesses a dignity equal to our own.
Practically, “inviting others in” looks like listening with our mouths shut and ears open. It takes the form of words of love and compassionate questions that ask “why” instead of arguments over a singular point of view. It includes listening to others’ stories and saying “I love you,” even when we disagree. It requires approaching people on the fringes of society and offering support. For it is only through opening doors that we can begin to change hearts.