In Defense of Feminism

I write in defense of feminism; I hope feminists will not think with friends like this who needs enemies. Feminism, however, is not easy to define or evaluate. It is a slippery term like liberal or conservative. In many minds it may mean nothing more than a minority position, held largely by women, where the majority position is the status quo. There is a general feminism that consists of fair-mindedness towards women’s issues, with a hope that men and women can be what the creator wanted them to be, although it is not entirely clear what is nurture and what is nature. This general feminism assumes women have some legitimate grievances, though there is no necessary agreement about what social changes might be remedial. Most women and many men, with or without wives and daughters whom they cherish, would subscribe to feminism so characterized. The Church is not threatened by this feminism, especially if all this good will were given Church initiative and understanding so that it is not co-opted by a more partisan feminism.

Partisan feminism I define as feminism with a specific doctrine. I do not think that all partisan feminists are doctrinaire and impervious to any opposing argument. I do think partisan feminists have a belief in place. Those beliefs sometimes conflict with Church teaching. At times the conflict is very real, as the abortion defense, which for some may be only a pro-choice position, and at other times the conflict is quite debatable, as the ordination controversy.

For high-profile partisan feminists one might look to the NOW leadership or the editorial policy of Ms magazine. Both organizations are in the news, political, ideological, with a feminist secular ethic. Not all is bad with these organizations, but some collision with Church doctrine could be anticipated. I once contributed to NOW and subscribed to Ms. I no longer do so because I do not think they are the best spokespersons for feminism, nor do I support some of the directions they have taken. Many of their hopes for a humanity without narrow sex-role prescriptions and limitations I subscribe to, and I do not go out of my way to condemn the whole in order to reject a part.

Partisan feminists are also found in many low-profile organizations, and they are not easily and fairly generalized about. Like charismatic pentecostal groups, it all depends on the leadership. There are, for example, feminist theological students and faculty. They want substantial changes in the Church, and the ordination of women is a central cause for those undertaking the training appropriate to that task. Their opposition is low-profile, since they campaign within the system. They may challenge male students  to defend their theology of ordination; they may boycott ordination ceremonies; they may establish separate women’s commissioning ceremonies of their own. Some of these women (and men) may be reckless about the good of the Church or at least may seem misguided: others appear to me deeply hurt by their experience of Church and know not where to turn. Publications by people with quality education and sympathetic to such feminist suffering tend to be very worthwhile. The Church needs more of them. Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza’s recent book, In Her Memory, comes to mind, as well as the work of Rosemary Reuther and Phyllis Tribble, or George Tavard and Carroll Stuhmueller.

There are other feminist groups, low-profile and radical in doctrine, but not in the Church theological tradition at all. I think of feminist groups in Berkeley, Ca., where a return to white magic is how I would characterize the literature I read. This is feminism in the mold of mother goddess; it is woman as oceanic, as mystic, as healer and good witch, as mystery. Their beliefs seem to entail that not only are women different than men but they are better; they are non-violent, ecologically sane, holistic, and community-friendly. Most people will not join cults, though some will find a necessary stage in their life journey in just such groups. I think of this feminism more in the genre of mysticism and holistic lifestyle than a theology to argue or defend. I believe its membership is largely unchurched.

Finally, most feminist groups in the Church that I know of have the welfare of the Church at heart. They do not wish to throw the baby out with the bathwater. “Priests for Equality” reached a membership of 2000 before it was disbanded; its participation in feminism was moderate and respectful. At the Women’s Ordination Conference in Baltimore (1978), which I attended, the tone of the majority was anything but anti-Church. The Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) and the National Association of Women Religious (NAWR) have published some excellent broad feminist literature. Who could condemn such efforts?

Religious women usually speak out of a base in council and community that protects them from an easy charge of irresponsibility. One may find their strategies unfortunate, but it is unwarranted to find their religious constituency disloyal to the welfare of the Church as they see it and as it remains to be debated. In this academic year at the University of Notre Dame a group called “Women in Theology” sponsored a series of competent lectures on topics of feminist interest. Who can quarrel with responsible scholarship? They ask only that they be fairly heard and if an opposing view must prevail that it be fairly presented to debate. I find these feminists of faith have no quarrel with Jesus of the Gospels; their quarrel is with the shortcomings of the Church when so observed. At their best they are loyal critics, no more inimical to the ecclesial commonweal than any other minority group that seeks Church reforms. Semper reformanda has sounded faithful and reasonable to me on my sisters’ lips.


Rev. Nicholas Ayo. C.S.C., taught in the General Program of Liberal Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

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