Toward a Catholic Feminism

It would seem a contradiction in terms to speak about a Catholic Feminism. Over the issue of abortion, secular feminists and the Church have been at war. They seem to be irreconcilable opposites. Certainly, if we confine feminism to this one issue, they are on opposite sides; but feminism, properly defined as the coming to terms with equality and the combating of degrading stereotypes and debasing, often violent repression of women, is very congenial to the Church’s personalism. The dignity and infinite value of every human being, both male and female, is at the very core of the Church’s mission.

With the exception of feminism’s espousal of the right to an abortion, which the Church can never countenance, much good has come from our culture’s drive for equality.

This hit home when I recently took in a couple of Broadway shows of musicals that I have always loved: ‘My Fair Lady’ and ‘Carousel’. I had seen these musicals in the past but had never noticed how badly women were treated in them. In ‘My Fair Lady’, Professor Henry Higgins tries to change the poor girl Eliza into a Lady by changing the way she speaks, moving from a low-class cockney “peasant” to a high-class “posh” Englishwoman. George Bernard Shaw, who wrote the play ‘Pygmalion’ that the musical is based on, was writing about class in England (he was a liberal socialist). But in the course of the play and musical, the Professor berates and insults Eliza so much that today’s audience has to grit its teeth. And when he refuses in the end to give any credit to her, a modern audience loses all respect for Higgins. In traditional staging of the musical, Eliza goes back to the Professor whom she loves and gets his slippers for him, as he demanded on numerous times before. Realizing the sea changes in our culture, the director in this production has her pat his cheek and run away from him. This complete change is justified in my own mind by the harsh treatment of Eliza, which cannot nor should not survive in the post “#MeToo” movement.

In “Carousel”, the difference in time perspective was even more pronounced. Julie is in love with a drifter named Billy. Everyone but she sees that she is headed for trouble. But the excuses she gives concerning why she stays with him even though he beats her, just seem like a horrible joke. In fact, there was an audible gasp in the audience when she tried to excuse his behavior!

My point in bringing up these two examples is that much has changed in our attitude toward women. Nothing in this shift, moreover, is at variance with our Catholic faith. In fact, the equal treatment of women and the respect called for in dealing with women is completely in line with our faith. This cultural shift, felt in religions throughout the world, is in many ways the natural outgrowth of our Judeo-Christian heritage. The faith that gave us Esther and Mary has no problems with women voting or having equal pay or with having a choice in childbearing through natural family planning. But a Catholic feminism cannot say that there are no differences between men and women, nor that the privilege and the responsibility of bringing children into the world can be regulated by any means whatever, including killing the preborn child. This is not true feminism. Many of the early exponents of women suffrage were against abortion because it was a violation of women and not just a choice.

True and authentic feminism celebrates the uniqueness of women and the complementary role they play in defining the human family. This must never mean subservience to men. Unfortunately, this has been true even of the recent past. The two musicals that I cited are painful reminders of this.

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