About 13 years ago, I presented a paper at a conference on “Women’s Health and Human Rights” at the Vatican. A highlight of the event was a special audience for the conference participants with Pope John Paul II. To the surprise and delight of his listeners, he benignly proclaimed, “Io sono il Papa feminista,” “I am the feminist pope.”
He meant it. In 1988, Pope John Paul II issued the apostolic letter “Mulieris Dignitatem” or “On the Dignity and Vocation of Women.” Repeatedly he called for the development of a “new feminism” designed to honor and celebrate the “feminine genius” in all walks of life, in the world of work as well as the domestic world.
If feminism is ultimately about affirming the dignity and well-being of women, the Roman Catholic Church as a whole is a feminist church in many crucial ways. It has done an enormous amount of good for women, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, in precarious circumstances throughout the world. To take only one example, the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development, Gender & Women runs programs around the world that help women organize into cooperatives for the production and marketing of goods; it also provides shelters for basic needs, educational programs in literacy and training in business knowledge and empowerment.
At the same time, it is safe to say that many people do not share the late pope’s easy association of feminism and the papacy. In fact, there are some—among both secular feminists and Catholic feminists—who would bristle at the association. Secular feminists have frequently decried Catholicism as being opposed to the flourishing of women, particularly by its opposition to contraception and abortion. And officials in the Vatican have regularly published broad denunciations of feminism, castigating its destructive effects on society and the family, particularly upon children, both born and unborn.
Catholic women can sometimes find themselves caught in the middle, loving their church and their faith but dispirited by occasional statements that suggest that the Vatican views them as disordered or defiled simply because they are women. Last July the Vatican caused a public relations firestorm after its announcement of two grave crimes under canon law: sexual abuse by members of the clergy and the attempt to ordain a woman. Even women who support the church’s restriction of the priesthood to males winced at the decision to group these two acts in the same document.
In order to sort out the convergences and divergences between Catholicism and secular feminism, there must be nuanced historical, cultural and geographic studies. The tensions between the two are not the same in the United States as they are in sub-Saharan Africa, for example. At the same time, nuanced, rigorous, comparative analysis of the normative frameworks of Catholicism and feminism sorely needs to be undertaken.
Consideration must be given to three normative polarities within the Roman Catholic framework itself, polarities that help illuminate Pope John Paul II’s claim, even while significant tensions remain between Catholicism and feminism. These three polarities are: equality and difference, nature and nurture and complementarity and collaboration.
Many Catholics and many feminists see these tensions as creative and affirm the importance of holding onto both poles in each polarity. But there is also antagonism. Each party fears that the other is in danger of letting go of one pole, to the detriment of women and, indeed, to the detriment of all of society. An examination of the fears of each group will facilitate a better mutual understanding.Equality and Difference
On the one hand, the Catholic tradition has long held that all human beings are made in the image and likeness of God, equal in dignity, no matter their sex, race, ethnicity or social status (Gal 3:28). On the other hand, the church does not see human persons as purely spiritual bundles of reason and will. We humans do not merely have bodies, we are embodied, and that embodiment is part of the goodness of God’s creation. In particular, our different embodiment as either male or female is a divinely ordained aspect of the created order, which needs to be respected if humanity is to flourish.
The Vatican worries that some strands of secular, Western feminism are emphasizing equality to the detriment of difference. It suspects that this unbalanced emphasis obscures the ontological difference between men and women and the goodness of that difference for both individuals and society. In particular, the Vatican fears that an insufficient appreciation of difference will denigrate women’s unique power as mothers, who shape and nurture the next generation.
Feminists are worried too. The way in which some Vatican documents—and some supporters of John Paul II-style feminism—try to specify these differences between men and women concerns feminists, because it can seem as if certain character traits are being defined and imposed as either male or female without any regard for empirical study or individual difference. And that definition and imposition, they believe, contributes to inequality.
Consider, for example, the position of Gloria Conde, a feminist in the John Paul II style, in her book New Woman (Circle Press). Quoting Judith M. Bardwick, she writes: “The ‘masculine’ is equivalent to the objective, analytical, active, inclined to thought, rational, indomitable, interfering, one who obstructs, independent, self-sufficient, emotionally controlled, and self-assured. With his mind, the man distinguishes, analyzes, separates, and perfects. The ‘feminine’ corresponds to the subjective, intuitive, passive, tender, sensitive, easily influenced, docile, receptive, empathetic, dependent, emotional, and conservative. Her mind picks up relations, she possesses intuitive perception of sentiments, and she tends to unite rather than divide.”
The trouble with this sort of sharply dichotomous understanding of the difference between men and women is that it undermines women whose personalities or jobs do not correspond in every respect to the traditional feminine virtues. Here is an example. In the beginning of my teaching career a young man came to me about a grade; he was upset that he got a B plus in my class. Could I not see how he was really an A student, how the low grade I gave him marred the perfection of his transcript? I told him I could see—but I still could not change the grade. It would not be fair to his classmates. As he left the office in frustration, he offered a final reproach: “But you’re a woman. You’re supposed to be nice!” For any professor grading an exam, male or female, fairness has to trump niceness.Nature and Nurture
Where do these differences between men and women come from, anyway? This question points to a second flash point: the polarity between nature and nurture.
On the one hand, the Catholic tradition recognizes that human beings are essentially social; our understandings of our place in the world are shaped and transmitted by the languages, cultures and societies in which we live. On the other hand, that tradition also proclaims that there is some irreducible core of “human nature” that remains constant across time, place and culture. The church is committed to the notion of a common human nature. This commitment forms the basis not only for the proclamation of equal human dignity but also for the tradition’s confidence in the possibility of articulating some basis for a universal morality that transcends particular religious and cultural traditions. In this cosmopolitan and fractious world, belief in a common human nature will be increasingly indispensable.
The Vatican believes that the secular West has gone too far in endorsing nurture to the detriment of nature. The idea that human nature, including sex and gender, is completely malleable worries the Vatican, because the idea does not give enough weight to the created order, whose intricate pattern is imprinted upon the physical and psychic structure of human beings.
The Vatican is making an important point. Nature matters. Some differences between males and females seem ingrained, not imposed, as anyone might suspect who has ever watched an 18-month-old boy cheerfully repurposing a Barbie doll as a hammer. More scientifically, endocrinologists are making great strides in understanding the way male and female hormones, like testosterone and estrogen, affect our brains and therefore influence our ability to reason and to choose. It is a serious anthropological mistake to think of human beings as androgynous minds encased in male or female bodies.
For their part, however, feminists worry that what some people view as the designs of nature are not natural at all but are, in fact, the deceptive mask worn by ingrained patterns of sexism.
Consider, for example, the article on “Woman” in the 1914 Catholic Encyclopedia, in which one of the authors maintains that the education of women should be directed toward their roles as wives and mothers. The author hastens to observe that “the Catholic Church places here no barriers that have not already been established by nature.” While a few women might go on to earn higher degrees, the author asserts, “the sexes can never be on an equality as regards studies pursued at a university.” Ironically, that assertion may be correct—just not in the way the author supposed. A recent study showed that women outnumber men as students at every degree level in higher education in the United States. Men still outnumber women in some fields, but overall the educational gap between men and woman has closed and even begun to reverse itself.Complementarity and Collaboration
With women flooding the educational system, men find themselves competing with them for advancement and academic honors. Pope Benedict XVI, when he was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, expressed concern about such competition between men and women and called instead for a collaborative relationship between the sexes (“On the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World,” 2004).
His view is this: The basis of a collaborative relationship is the recognition of the complementary gifts and skills of men and women. Women in particular should not aim to emulate the strengths of men but should instead nurture their own distinct gifts. Complementarity is most clearly visible in the roles that men and women play in marriage and family life but should be visible in other contexts as well. One of the hallmarks of John Paul II-style feminism, in fact, is an effort to define the “feminine genius” in all spheres of women’s existence in terms of the virtues of motherhood.
For their part, many other feminists are worried about the call to complementarity, not necessarily because they are opposed to the idea that both men and women bring some distinct and important gifts to human society but because of the way that idea tends to work out in practice. In fact, they fear it undermines collaboration, because it tends to promote separation and practical inequality.
The great Protestant theologian Karl Barth explicated male-female complementarity in terms of A and B—one need not be a psychic to guess which sex is which. The way the concept of complementarity works in geometry also reveals the potential problem: Two angles are complementary if they add up to 90 degrees, so a complementary angle is all and only that which the primary angle is not. Analogously, if one begins with a man, then a woman must be all and only that which a man is not—her role is to fill in the gaps. If complementarity is taken too far, then, it does not facilitate collaboration but rather fosters entirely separate spheres of interest and specialization.
The concept of complementarity rightly affirms the importance—and unique demands—of motherhood on women. But how does it account for the gifts, ambitions and concerns that men and women have in common, even in parenting? For men and women to strive for excellence—together—in the many areas and interests they share ought not to be considered a destructive form of competition. The common pursuit of excellence, or virtue, is a key element of the classical definition of friendship.Toward a Better Conversation
How to begin bridging the tensions between Catholicism and feminism? In my view, more attention must be paid to the concrete circumstances in which women live their lives. Pope John Paul II observed that many working women carry out their jobs with a maternal spirit. Turning that observation around, I suggest that many mothers around the world must deploy a broad range of skills in working to raise their children. The church offers an important iconic ideal of motherhood: the Virgin Mary peacefully cradling a newborn baby. But mothers in war-torn lands, for example, do not have that opportunity; they must tirelessly labor to feed and protect their children. Even in peaceful countries, babies grow up; dealing with a teenager in crisis because of drugs or alcohol requires steely resolve more than maternal sweetness.
Life is complicated. Allowing the actual circumstances—and struggles—of women around the globe to take center stage may enable many feminists and many Catholics to move past an either/or understanding of the three polarities.
Listen to an interview  with M. Cathleen Kaveny.