Sunday, August 21, 2011

Feminism and Catholicism

In a few days, I will start teaching “Introduction to Women’s Studies” for the fall semester.  I thought this would be a good time to reflect on how I see some tenets of feminism and Catholicism fitting together.  I’m sure some of you have wondered how I reconcile these two seemingly different perspectives, although you have all been polite enough not to ask.

Seemingly different is a good way to put it.  Feminism and Catholicism have some very obvious differences, but they are also very similar in ways that might surprise you.  I will focus this post on the similarities; let me know if you’d like me to hash out the differences in a later post.  

To begin, one of the main tenets of Catholicism is that we should respect the human dignity of every person; this is rooted in the belief that we are all made in the image of God.  Every person means even those people who disagree with you, those who behave in ways you cannot understand, or those who believe differently than you.  Every person includes those whose lifestyles may offend you, those who have committed murder and await their sentence on death row, and those who practice different faiths.  Each individual person deserves our respect, our understanding, and fair treatment.  Similarly, feminism is about changing our society so that all members can experience equality.  Feminists believe that everyone deserves the same respect and opportunity from our society, and from other people.  As a mother, as a Catholic, and as a feminist, I want this egalitarian society for my children and grandchildren.

Many feminists work hard to overhaul our society so that women, minorities, the poor, children, immigrants, and others can receive advancement opportunities that have historically been denied to them in this county and in other parts of the world.  Feminists help those who have been affected by violence, and they teach others how to help and how to avoid victimization.  I compare this to the social justice work that many Catholics are involved in.  Catholics also help victims of violence, the poor, and immigrants and work to change our society so that fewer people are affected by these situations.  Both feminists and Catholics see the societal structures that trap people in poverty, violence, and discrimination as problems our society needs to solve.

Feminists have worked hard to improve the status of women in our society, and this has led to more women entering the workforce, pursing artistic professions, and leading single lives.  While some Catholics may also argue that the liberation of women has led to more divorce, more promiscuity, and increased use of contraceptives, I would argue that these situations were already on the increase before the women’s movement succeeded in giving women the opportunity to make decisions for themselves.  Our society is influenced by many forces, only one of which is feminism, and the morality of our society as a whole reflects the collective values of many individuals.

Because Catholics and feminists share concerns about the way our society treats people, especially those who have less resources than others, the two groups can work together on certain issues.  Here is one of the ways I see them as compatible: God gave human beings free will to obey his commands or not, but man restricted woman’s ability to exercise her free will for millennia, thus forcing her to his will.  Unfortunately, many women continue to be subject to the will of men, and this continues to concern feminists.  It should concern the church as well, because an individual who makes her own decision to abide by the will of God has true faith.  A woman who follows God’s law because she is forced to by someone else has more fear of that person than respect for church teachings.

The more freedom women have, the more freely they can choose to follow their vocations as wives, single persons, or mothers, and the better they can understand and live those vocations.  Women who choose a faith-filled path in life understand how to balance their will with God’s in ways that are true to both.  Feminism, or any other social movement, cannot be blamed when women or men choose their paths without God’s guidance.  

I believe feminism has enabled women and men to freely practice their Catholic faith, and to deepen their faith through the practice of equality, including through marriage.  The heart of feminism is equality, and a strong marriage is based on equality.  You can read about the biblical basis for equality at the blog of my friend Lauran and her husband Eric; he wrote a textual analysis of Ephesians that highlights the apostle Paul’s messages about submission.  I will offer a brief summary: The oft quoted “For the husband is the head of the wife… wives should submit to their husbands in everything,” is usually presented as a stand-alone argument for male dominance.  Taking this verse out of context ignores the verse immediately before: “Submit to one another,” an instruction to all believers.  And the verses that follow instruct husbands to love their wives as equals: “just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her;” you rarely see this verse quoted in a male dominated culture!  You can read Eric’s full textual analysis here; it is long, but well worth your time.  Eric also argues that his faith liberates him from a culture that tells him to be a tyrant over his wife.  Powerful feminist stuff.

I’d like to hear your thoughts about how feminism and Catholicism share similar views, or your responses to my ideas.

Reminder: you can enter a raffle to win a signed copy of my chapbook until August 31; see my giveaway post for details.


  1. (I'd like to see a future post about differences)... I actually came to identify myself as a feminist because of my faith not in spite of it, so this post resonates with me. There is oppression within the Church... but I do not think that is the spirit of Jesus, rather human error.

  2. Thanks so much for your comment, Lauran. It is unusual to hear people say their faith led them to feminism, but maybe that will be more common in the future. I think that oppression is certainly a human failure to understand Jesus's teachings.

  3. I am impressed and grateful for this post, Elisa. For years I have tried to reconcile my Catholic faith with my strong, feminist views. Your post sums up eloquently what I have not been able to articulate. Thank you!-- Maria MM

  4. I'm glad to help, Maria. We need more Catholic feminists to articulate how to bring these two ideologies together.

    Click on "a later post" above to read the next part of this post titled "Feminism and Respect Life Month."


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