Action Alert!

Quick hits: the illusion of Catholic feminism and more

By Thomas Van (bio - articles - email) | Jan 20, 2017

Pro-life feminist groups have been in the news this week because of their pointed exclusion from the Women’s March on Washington. While we should reach out for common ground with anyone who is fighting abortion, the idea of Catholic feminism is problematic. The Catholic feminist movement is based on the claim that there was some original, unsullied feminist movement with ideals compatible with Catholicism that was only later hijacked by “radical” or “neo-feminists.” But this is wishful thinking at best.

Those who like to think of themselves as pro-life feminists repeat over and over that so-called “feminist foremothers” Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were against abortion. This may surprise them, but so was Margaret Sanger—that doesn’t mean we should assume her other views were compatible with the Faith. As Dawn Eden demonstrated in 2008, both Stanton and Anthony were hostile to marriage, the family and religion, and promoted the war between the sexes and the idea of marriage as an oppressive power relation. Nonetheless, a well-known Catholic commentator recently proclaimed on Facebook not only that true feminists must be pro-life, but that pro-lifers must be truly feminist. (Hooray, another new requirement for me to be called pro-life! I think I’ll just start saying I’m anti-abortion now, thanks.)

The other flimsy prop of Catholic feminism, which Eden also discusses in her essay, is Pope St. John Paul II’s remark on the necessity of “true Christian feminism.” We can quickly note two things about this: First, John Paul used the word “feminism” a whopping total of once in all his writings, and maybe once or twice in speeches. Second, it is evident from the context that he was not calling for an adaptation of a secular ideology into Catholicism, but used the word to show that everything necessary for the uplifting of women already exists in the faith, and is waiting for us to use it. A “true Christian feminism” would be to feminism as the Catholic reformation was to the Protestant one: both were trying to “reform,” both intend to uplift women, but the former has a radically different basis and spirit from the latter—indeed they are fundamentally in conflict.

St. Edith Stein, a contemporary of the early feminists, recognized this, writing in her Essays on Woman:

The Catholic Women’s Movement... is still in agreement with the moderate elements of the middle-class feminist movement. But it should not be forgotten that the latter developed on a foundation foreign to us… The Catholic Women’s Movement must rest on its own foundation, the foundation of faith and a Catholic world view which is well thought out in all its consequences.


In 2014 I reviewed Catholic pianist and composer Mark Christopher Brandt’s album Round Trip. More recently Brandt has made a documentary about the making of this album, which also functions as an inspiring autobiographical meditation on the role of artists in uplifting the world, the purpose of the dreams God gives us for our lives, and the relationship between art, career ambition and family. Even if you haven’t heard the album the documentary is based on, I can’t recommend Round Trip: The Making of an Artist highly enough to musicians and artists of all kinds. I consider it essential viewing for Catholic artists in particular.


America has a remarkable, vulnerable interview with Silence actor James Garfield in which he describes his experience doing St. Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises in preparation for the film. If other interviews make it clear that this doesn’t mean Garfield is now a Catholic, it still seems that he has had a real encounter with Christ—let’s pray that it bears fruit.


We recently lost Nat Hentoff, a great jazz writer, civil libertarian gadfly, and self-described “still-necked Jewish atheist” who was nonetheless an unrelenting opponent of abortion. Hentoff’s 1992 article describing his experience as a “heretic” on the left—in contrast with the sellout Jesse Jackson who abandoned the pro-life movement in order to boost his career—is worth reading.


On a lighter note, Zach Anner, a nonreligious comedian with cerebral palsy, recently interviewed a young Catholic homeschooling mother of five for his “Have a Little Faith” series. He asks her intelligent, probing and sympathetic questions about Catholicism and homeschooling, and the result is a very positive and amusing portrayal of Catholic faith and family life:


I’m assembling a personal collection of articles under the category “The Left’s War on Science.” Recent additions: An L.A. Times op-ed on the futility of gender-neutral parenting, biologist Jerry Coyne on the Left’s a priori ideological denial of the evolved biological differences between men and women (warning: Coyne is an outspoken anti-theist and his website reflects that), and John Tierney asking, if conservatives are really waging war on science, where are the casualties?


Catholic sci-fi author and blogger Michael Flynn has been noted on this site for his excellent nine-part series on the Galileo affair. Now he is applying his meticulously detailed, nuanced and humorous approach to the huge topic of the Crusades.


Catholics whose thought is all too secular emphasize fighting for social justice over personal morality. An excellent First Things essay by Dan Hitchens puts Dorothy Day’s work as an activist in the perspective of her views on erotic love. Day saw sex as good and even profoundly spiritual, yet:

In a startling letter to her co-campaigner Jim Forest, who had left his wife for another woman, Day told him that if he stayed in the new relationship he would be ‘a hollow man,’ that he was ‘denying life’ by abandoning his spouse. She told Forest (with whom she remained on good terms; he later wrote an admiring biography of her) that there was no point in being a pacifist if his sex life was disordered:

‘Your letters emphasise all the good the CPF [Catholic Peace Fellowship] is doing, but I assure you that all that means nothing. The dishonesty, the deceit involved negates the good. . . . If you gave all you had to the poor and delivered your body to be burned, it is all nothing but sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal, if you have not charity, the love of God which you have turned from to have the love of women.’

Thomas Van is an administrative assistant and writer at CatholicCulture.org. A jazz pianist with a music degree, he often takes the lead in our commentary on the arts. See full bio.

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