Modern Catholicism needs to re-examine its uneasy relationship with feminism, and there’s no better time than this year’s tragic anniversary of Roe v. Wade. As it turns out, January 22 follows hard on the heels of a new landmark—January 15—for Catholic feminists, namely, the Pope’s unprecedented appointment of a woman, Francesca Di Giovanni, to a managerial position in the Secretariat of State. Francis had previously preached, on January 1, that women “should be fully included in decision-making processes… Every step forward for women is a step forward for humanity as a whole.”
April may be the cruelest month, but January is surely the second cruelest: the 30th is the date set for the first general assembly of the German bishops’ “synodal path,” an event on which Catholic feminists are building high hopes, since one of its four workgroups is focused on “Women in Services and Offices of the Church.” According to Professor Marianne Schlosser, who quit the preparatory group in late September, this workgroup has shown a “fixation on women’s ordination.” It is the belief of Acies Ordinata’s Roberto de Mattei that “the questions that will be raised by the German ‘Synodal Way’ will have consequences not only in Germany but in the whole world.”
Feminist historians such as Mary J. Henold, author of Catholic and Feminist, like to make a distinction between Catholic feminism and the broader feminist movement. While both aim to liberate women from so-called patriarchal oppression, secular feminists believe the Church must be destroyed since they see it as institutionalized patriarchy: as Ti-Grace Atkinson said, “The struggle between the liberation of women and the Catholic Church is a struggle to the death.” Catholic feminists, however, think that the Church doesn’t need to be destroyed. But they believe something just as terrifying: by working from within, the Church can be transformed into a non-patriarchal, non-hierarchical institution—a “discipleship of equals.”
Essential to this goal of radical transformation is their belief that the Church redefined itself at Vatican II. No longer was it an institutional and hierarchical church but simply an assembly of “the People of God,” calling the laity—including women—to participate fully (i.e., democratically) in the mission of the Church. Catholic feminists such as Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza argue that the Council’s emphasis on the priesthood of the faithful, as in Lumen gentium, and its use of the expression “ecclesiastical ministry” in place of Trent’s “hierarchy,” meant that priestly functions should now be exercised by both laymen and women.
This interpretation was lent a sheen of verisimilitude by the changes in the Mass following Vatican II, when certain liturgical duties accomplished formerly only by clerics—such as acting as lectors and distributing Holy Communion—were opened not only to laymen but also to laywomen. (Although altar boys were not clerics, they were understood to fulfil a clerical function officially attached to the minor order of acolyte. Permission for girls to serve at the altar was celebrated by Catholic feminists, albeit in their usual grudging “It’s about time!” manner.
Church representatives also lent a sympathetic ear and even paid lip service to some of the claims of the broader feminist movement, which declared that women had been systematically oppressed by the patriarchy throughout history, as described by Romano Amerio in Iota Unum. So, when John Paul II attempted to silence the cries for female ordination with Ordinatio sacerdotalis (1994), the Catholic feminist reaction was similar to that of a hungry pack of wolves who, after having their appetites whetted with a few roundels of sausage, realize the lion’s share is about to be snatched from them.
It’s important to note, however, that despite the distinction between Catholic feminism and secular feminism, they are equally incompatible with Catholicism. They both intend to end the patriarchy—whether they prefer to destroy the Catholic Church or to vitiate it of its hierarchical essence is merely methodology. Both kinds of feminist believe that fulfillment means placing one’s individual desires above all other considerations. Both kinds refuse to believe that there is any significant difference between male and female natures. And both kinds engage in a sort of Gnostic determination to overcome the realities of biological sex, especially by making war on the female reproductive system.
Many well-intentioned persons identify with the broader cause of feminism—even Catholics who would never push for female ordination. In some cases, this is because feminism has caricatured the past as a place where women were routinely disrespected, ignored, and essentially imprisoned within their homes. Young women who accept this version of events uncritically feel that such a world would be unbearable, so they consider themselves moderate feminists by default.
In other cases, women have been on the receiving end of real injustice from men, or they have witnessed a man meting out injustice to other women. To them, feminism appears to be the only movement that will protect them from being taken advantage of by men. This injustice may be as simple as a failure—or a perceived failure—of love; as Simone de Beauvoir wrote, “No one would take me just as I was, no one loved me; I shall love myself enough… to make up for this abandonment by everyone.”
The masterminds (or perhaps I ought to say mistress-minds) of the feminist movement fall into neither of these categories. They’ve figured out how to rub salt in these wounds of injustice, keeping them raw and angry, with the aim of harnessing the power of human resentment, and of using that energy to transform society from a hierarchical, patriarchal structure—like the Catholic Church—to an egalitarian society, where it’s every man (and woman) for himself and the only authority is the state.
This is, naturally, hugely destructive for the family—which, like the Church, is an essentially hierarchical and patriarchal structure. Patriarchy comes from the word father; all paternity, as St. Paul reminds us, is named after the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ. As Pius XI teaches in Casti connubii, God has entrusted to the husband and father the sacred duty of ruling the family, a task for which he is accountable primarily to God. His wife, a mature adult who has freely chosen this marriage, is below the husband in the hierarchical order, and she has the responsibility of aiding and supporting her husband—a task no more shameful than that of serving as second-in-command to a general.
Painful though this subordination may be to the feminist mind, it is socially necessary to maintain the strength of the family structure. Both men and women are asked to sacrifice themselves—in different ways—for the good of the family, and although this runs counter to the feminist doctrine that self-sacrifice will ruin your life, centuries of large and happy Catholic families prove them wrong.
But what about the rights of women? Leo XIII made it plain in his encyclical Arcanum that the single best guarantor of the rights of women is the influence of the Catholic Church over society. It was the Catholic Church that forbade divorce, polygamy, and the objectification of women; it was the Catholic Church who insisted that the moral law against philandering applies equally to men and women; and it was the Catholic Church that instilled in families the confidence and courage to welcome the children God saw fit to send them, without fearing He would not provide. Single men and women benefited as much as their married counterparts from living in a society where virtue, nobility, and refinement were cultivated and honored.
Will the machinations Cardinal Marx is brewing up for the German synodal path result in further sacrilegious attempts to ordain women? It’s hard to say. But one thing is plain: women’s ordination is only the tip of the feminist iceberg. If we don’t fight feminism on every front—starting in our own hearts, where the great Solzhenitsyn tells us the line between good and evil is drawn—its program for social and ecclesiastical destruction, already hugely successful, will inexorably continue towards its ultimate goal: the annihilation of the patriarchal and hierarchical structures that are essential to our Catholic civilization.
Image: The Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine of Siena by Clemente de Torres