8.3.4 CST on women: a “new feminism”?

Back to 8.3.3

Unit 8 Contents

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One variety of feminism, as you may know (if only from looking at the Wikipedia entry on feminism just now), is called ‘difference feminism’.  This label implies recognition that in some ways men and women are inherently different, or, in other words, that not all significant differences between men and women are socially constructed.

Within feminist thought ‘difference feminism’ is highly controversial for one obvious reason.  This is that, historically, it has been claims about inherent differences between men and women – such as to do rationality – that very often have formed the basis of discrimination against women, for example exclusion from public roles.  Most feminists, especially in the English-speaking world, have tended to emphasise ways in which women and men are the same, rather than differences, in order to press their basic case for equality of treatment.

Some Catholics have presented the Church’s teaching in the various documents referred on the last screen as a form of ‘difference feminism’.  Indeed some use the label ‘New Feminism’, in line with a call by Pope John Paul in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae.  He wrote:

It depends on [women] 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.”  (Evangelium Vitae, #99)

Some secular feminists also began to use the label ‘new feminism’ during the 1990s.  For example, the prominent British journalist Natasha Walter published a book with this title in 1998.

What is centrally at stake between most varieties of secular feminism (including ‘new’ ones) and Catholic teaching as summed up in the CDF’s ‘Letter on the Collaboration of Men and Women’ is whether the latter’s understanding of male-female difference really is consistent with affirmation of equality or whether it in fact legitimizes serious inequalities.  What many see, in turn, as at the centre of this issue is the Catholic doctrine that the priesthood is for men alone.  Secular feminists – of many stripes – undoubtedly regard this doctrine as rendering the claim that there is a Catholic ‘new feminism’ implausible, because it looks to them like a prime example of appealing to gender difference in a way that legitimizes exclusion from leadership.

Moreover there are Catholic contributors to this area of discussion who regard the affirmation of inherent differences between men and women in the teaching of John Paul II and the CDF document as problematic partly because they contribute to sustaining the doctrine of male-only priesthood.  If you studied Unit 6, you might recall that Cahill touched on this in discussing the metaphor of family as ‘domestic church’ (6.3.7).1

One well known such contributor is Tina Beattie, who teaches at the University of Roehampton in London and has published extensively on a range of topics in theology, including women.  The next reading is her commentary on the CDF document, published in The Tablet.

I hope that what I’ve written on this screen forms enough of an introduction to this article to enable you to appreciate it in a wider context of debate.

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Reading (5pp)

The Tablet, 7 August 2004, Tina Beattie, ‘Feminism, Vatican-Style’

Note

A book by Beattie examining these issues much more fully was published not long after this article, in 2005: New Catholic Feminism: Theology and Theory (Routledge).

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Reflection

From the parts of the CDF document that you have read, do you think that Beattie is fair to it?

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On this and the previous screen, we have begun to look at whether the lacuna that Donal Dorr identified in CST to do with justice for women has been filled over the past two decades.  Some would argue that statements since then, including the two from which you have read (the ‘Letter to Women’ and the CDF document), go a long way towards doing this.  Others would argue that these say little that hadn’t already been said and that the lack of opportunities for women in church leadership represents a huge stumbling block.

We can’t explore this subject further here, but you can form your own view.  It certainly doesn’t follow necessarily from a vision of women and men that emphasises all three of equality, difference and complementarity that priesthood must be male only.  Taking a diametrically opposed view (and thinking way ‘outside the box’), nor does that doctrine necessarily exclude women from Church leadership, because affirmation of difference possibly could lead to a different but equivalent female authority structure.  As such points suggest, there are surely new possibilities to be explored in this area of discussion.

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Reflection

From the last two screens, what conclusion do you think we can draw about:

– the issue of justice for women in CST?

– CST’s relation with feminism?

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This and the previous screen have given only a brief outline of how justice for women and questions about feminism are addressed within CST.  While it isn’t easy to draw clear conclusions from this, I suggest that there is surely potential for much more dialogue between secular feminism, especially those varieties that are open to recognition that not all male-female differences are socially constructed, and Catholic teaching based on affirmation of all three of equality, difference and complementarity.

There is much mutual suspicion (to say the least) between many feminists and many Catholics, and certainly great mutual ignorance.  This is even though there have been Catholic theologians writing on and identifying with feminism for several decades (some of whom are as critical of official Church teaching as many in secular feminism are, if not more so).2. Yet granted that affirmation of difference is, in principle, not the same as inequality, and need not legitimize it, and granted also that some of the most influential voices in feminism have since the 1980s explored difference, there is surely potential for fruitful conversation.3

You may wish to explore this topic further.  While there are many ways of doing so, one starting point would be a very good article which connects up some of what we have looked at on the last two screens with issues about both working life and family covered in earlier units.  This is by Christine Firer Hinze, now one of the leading scholars of CST in the USA.

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Optional reading (30pp)

Christine Firer Hinze, ‘Women, families and the legacy of Laborem Exercens: An Unfinished Agenda’

From Journal of Catholic Social Thought, 6.1 (2009), pp. 63-92

Note

The link takes you to a pdf of the article.  We are most grateful to the Journal of Catholic Social Thought for permission to make this available.  See information on the Journal here and here.

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End of 8.3.4

Go to 8.4 CONCLUSION: ‘LIVING LIFE TO THE FULL’

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  1. The Church’s teaching that only men may be ordained to the priesthood was summarized by Pope John Paul II in Ordinatio sacerdotalis in 1994.  See: http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/apost_letters/documents/hf_jp-ii_apl_22051994_ordinatio-sacerdotalis_en.html

  2. Lisa Cahill was introduced in Unit 6.  Pioneers among feminist Catholic writers include Rosemary Radford Ruether and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza.  A recent book reviewing how feminism and Christian faith are related is Mary E. Hunt and Diann L. Neu, eds, New Feminist Christianity: Many Voices, Many Views (Skylight Paths, 2010). 

  3. Prominent feminist writers who have explored aspects of male/female difference include Carol Gilligan, Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva. 

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