Feminism & the Catholic Church

Growing up, my family and I attended Mass every Sunday. I was baptized in the Catholic Church as a baby, attended Religious Education classes, received the sacraments of reconciliation and Eucharist when I was supposed to, and in high school, I made the decision to be confirmed in the Catholic Church. It was not until I graduated high school that I started digging and reading about the Church. I began reading about Catholic theologians and philosophers and began studying the history of the Church. A few months ago, I had a conversation with a friend of mine who is in seminary school studying to become a Catholic priest, and the topic of feminism was brought up. We debated back and forth on whether you can be both Catholic and a feminist.

My family is the stereotypical Catholic family. My parents have five children, my dad works, and my mom was a stay-at-home until my youngest sibling started school. We had dinner as a family every night, we prayed the rosary together, and my siblings and I went to nearly every church retreat. Though we followed the traditional Catholic lifestyle, my parents encouraged us to go to college and find a job to support ourselves. I always thought of my mom as a feminist. She may have been a stay-at-home mom, but she was undoubtedly the leader of our family. She raised my siblings and me to be strong. However, if I were to ask her if she would call herself a feminist, she would probably cringe and say no.

After talking with my seminarian friend about calling yourself both a Catholic and a feminist, he responded, “How can you be a feminist in a church that is basically anti-women?” To me, feminism is not a bad word despite the negative connotation attached to it, but when putting feminism and the Catholic Church next to each other, it is understandable why most people would raise their eyebrows. For one, men are the leaders of the Church. Deacons, priests, bishops and popes are all men — always have been and probably always will be. Does that mean that there are not women leaders in the Church? No.

His response left me with an unsettling feeling in my stomach. I think of women saints — powerful, strong and holy women. St. Joan of Arc had visions and did everything she had to do to fulfill them. St. Mother Teresa dedicated her life to serving others. St. Catherine of Siena, doctor of the Church, fought for peace during a time when the Church was divided. I think of women leaders in the Bible. Esther used her power for the better of her people. Mary Magdalene stood by Jesus’ side. And most importantly, Mary, the mother of Jesus, who led an example of love, mercy and motherhood. How can we say that women saints and women of the Bible are of any less contribution to our Church than our priests, bishops or popes?

Despite a long lineage of patriarchal structures within the Church, Saint Pope John Paul II’s ideology of “new feminism” introduced ways to reverse that. He understood the social, economic and political inequalities between men and women. In JPII’s Apostolic Letter to Women, he affirmed the vocation of women by saying, “Women’s dignity has often been unacknowledged and their prerogatives misrepresented; they have often been relegated to the margins of society and even reduced to servitude.” He also added, “There is an urgent need to achieve real equality in every area: equal pay for equal work, protection for working mothers, fairness in career advancements, equality of spouses with regard to family rights and the recognition of everything that is part of the rights and duties of citizens in a democratic state.”

More recently, Pope Francis called himself “a bit feminist”. Pope Francis, arguably the most relatable pope to young people since JPII, is also calling for change in the Church. In his document, the Amoris Laetitia, he wrote, ““History is burdened by the excesses of patriarchal cultures that considered women inferior.” In his approach to end traditional gender roles, Pope Francis says, “It is possible, for example, that a husband’s way of being masculine can be flexibly adapted to the wife’s work schedule. Taking on domestic chores or some aspects of raising children does not make him any less masculine or imply failure, irresponsibility or cause for shame.”

The Church is also far from perfect, but the Catholic Church is also far from being “anti-women”. With progressive leaders like JPII, Pope Francis and women of the clergy who fight for equality in the Church, we are heading towards the right direction. Women, especially since Vatican II, are becoming more integrated into leadership roles whether it is in the home, church or even the Vatican. So, can you call yourself both a Catholic and a feminist? Of course. Women may never be priests, deacons or bishops, but we are not inferior to such. We need JPII’s new feminism — the kind where men are not superior to women, the kind that embraces social, economic and political equality, and the kind committed to peace and protecting the dignity of women.

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