September 4, 2013

Catholic Feminism: An Oxymoron?

by Tom Gourlay

The feminist movement has historically been viewed with great scepticism by many within the Catholic Church.

Celia Hammond

Professor Celia Hammond, Vice Chancellor of the University of Notre Dame Australia presented a paper titled ‘Catholic Feminism: An Oxymoron?’ at the Dawson Society Speakers Forum on 3 September 2013

Feminist history is often divided into three distinct ‘waves’. First-wave feminism was linked to the movement for women’s suffrage, and there is little that we could see in that movement that would be objectionable. However, the second wave of feminism, and the third wave which followed has been from the outset at great odds with traditional Catholic morality.

Second-wave feminism as you may know was linked closely to the promotion of the ideals of the sexual revolution in the 1960s. With the movement towards what they termed ‘sexual liberation’ came demands for access to contraception, abortion and no fault divorce – all areas which have been met, and continue to be met with hostility from the Catholic Church, which has been continually presented from feminist quarters as a male dominated, patriarchal and structurally oppressive misogynistic institution.

Against this backdrop Pope John Paul II, in his unique style, sought to reclaim the word and direct the movement to the building up of a culture of life. True to form, JPII went about re-defining the word and re-directing the movement, baptising it in a sense, and pushing for a ‘new feminism’ to flourish within the Church and in the world as a whole for the building up of what he called ‘a culture of life’ in contrast to the ‘culture of death’, which pervades the issues championed in second and third-wave feminism.

In paragraph 99 of his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, the now Blessed, and soon to be Saint Pope John Paul II, was clear in stating that a culture of life must be built, and it must be authentically pro-woman:

“In transforming culture so that it supports life, women occupy a place, in thought and action, which is unique and decisive. It depends on them to promote a “new feminism” which rejects the temptation of imitating models of “male domination”, in order to acknowledge and affirm the true genius of women in every aspect of the life of society, and overcome all discrimination, violence and exploitation.”

“In transforming culture so that it supports life, women occupy a place, in thought and action, which is unique and decisive. It depends on them to promote a “new feminism” which rejects the temptation of imitating models of “male domination”, in order to acknowledge and affirm the true genius of women in every aspect of the life of society, and overcome all discrimination, violence and exploitation.” – Blessed Pope John Paul II, (Evangelium Vitae n. 99)

This sentiment was found in his earlier work, the Apostolic Letter on the dignity and vocation of women Mulieris Dignitatem and has been further strengthened by Pope Francis’ call at the recent World Youth Day in Rio for the continued development of a theology of women.

In a press conference on July 29 of this year, Pope Francis showed his own pro-woman bona fides in stating the importance of the role of women both within the Church and in wider society as a whole.

“A Church without women is like the Apostolic age without Mary. The role of woman in the Church is not only maternity, the mother of the family, but its stronger: it is, in fact, the icon of the Virgin. Our Lady, the one who helps the Church grow… A profound theology of must be made of woman.”

And so, can we speak of a Catholic Feminism, or has the word been lost in popular parlance to radical anti-life and anti-family ideals? And what would a distinctly Catholic feminism look like?

To listen to Professor Cellia Hammond’s lecture click here