Is Catholic Feminism Working?

Published March 1, 2024

The Catholic Thing

The idea that Catholics must embrace feminism to engage non-Catholic women has been repeated so frequently that it’s simply accepted as a truism. But is it actually working?

Before answering that question, let’s take a close look at the work of St. John Paul II. He is generally invoked as the reason why we must have a Catholic feminism. As pope, John Paul was clearly interested in upholding the dignity of every woman. His 1988 Apostolic Letter, Mulieris Dignitatem, delved deeply into the nature of womanhood and has provided a backbone of sorts to the contemporary understanding of Catholic womanhood. What we do not find anywhere in that roughly 25,000-word document is the word “feminism.”

In fact, he only used the word one time: in his 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, where he called for a “new feminism.” In one short paragraph, he wrote:

In transforming culture so that it supports life, women occupy a place, in thought and action, which is unique and decisive. It depends on them to promote a “new feminism” which rejects the temptation of imitating models of “male domination,” in order to acknowledge and affirm the true genius of women in every aspect of the life of society, and overcome all discrimination, violence and exploitation.

Despite this single mention, feminism has been perhaps oversold to the faithful as the route forward for understanding womanhood. It has even been used to claim that those who don’t embrace Catholic feminism are rejecting John Paul’s wider Catholic vision.

Yes, John Paul II was deeply interested in restoring and upholding the dignity of women, but he saw too that it had to be pursued in a way consistent with the Catholic faith. What is often missed in by those focusing on the Polish Pontiff’s view is the modifier “new” – thereby implying that the “old” feminism is inadequate.

Through my own research about older feminism – most of which was not available during John Paul’s pontificate – it is clear that feminism has significant problems. Since the beginning, it has had deep connections with the occult, egalitarianism (influenced by socialism/Marxism), and the eradication of monogamy for the sake of liberating women.

These misguided efforts have led to more unhappy women, fewer marriages, and severe damage to the nuclear family. As an ideology, feminism has perpetuated the belief that abortion is the means through which women can achieve equality with men, resulting in 44-million worldwide abortions in 2023, more than all other causes of death combined.

Perhaps more fundamental to feminism’s problems is the question that has driven most of its forms since its inception, “How do we make women more like men?” Pope John Paul recognized this in his brief paragraph on feminism, saying that we must reject “the temptation of imitating models of ‘male domination,’” where women adopt male vices. This idea had led to the belief that children are an obstacle to women’s happiness, resulting in the extreme ways in which women’s fertility is curtailed, as if it is a curse instead of the blessing the Church and Scripture have always affirmed.

Feminism has long been considered a bridge to bring in outsiders via more familiar landscapes. The problem, however, has been that the hoped-for movement of women, from the outside in, has frequently had the opposite result, leading more Catholic women to identify with feminism than with the Church.

Catholic women currently contracept, abort, and divorce at roughly the same rates as non-Catholic women. Moreover, the teachings of the Church about women, which have developed slowly over millennia, have been overshadowed by contemporary feminist language which presents a shallow understanding of womanhood.

Although there are certainly individual cases to the contrary, Catholic women now resemble secular feminists more than secular feminists resemble us. Meanwhile, womanhood, and particularly motherhood, which has long been an icon of the Church itself, has been drained of its beauty, meaning, fruitfulness, and mystery. Instead of feminism becoming a bridge it has become the destination.

Feminism is the ideology that is driving our civilizational decay. Yet Catholic women are being led to believe that is the only way to restore or uphold the dignity of women. In an effort to appear relevant and engaging, Catholic feminism has become like brackish water, trying to maintain Catholic principles but not rejecting the old feminism’s problematic dogmas.

All of this might be understandable if the Catholic Church couldn’t offer anything better – if feminism was the means through which women gained true dignity and equality with men. In reality, Catholicism suffers from an embarrassment of riches.

The Church’s support for women started when Christ walked the earth, and became stronger and more pronounced as devotion to Our Lady grew and the witness of the saints spread. The Church, not feminism, pronounced the reality of women’s dignity and equality all of which is laid out beautifully by Pope John Paul II in Mulieris Dignitatem, and by many others, such as Edith Stein, Ida Görres, Gertrude von Le Fort, and Alice von Hildebrand. Women, and not just Catholic women, are starving for something rich, beautiful, and compelling. And though few see it, we have it.

Yes, there could be a new feminism, but it must be one that is completely divorced from the old; such a reality, particularly given how embedded the old feminism is in our culture, is highly unlikely to ever take root without real intellectual detox and deeper formation. It has been tried now for nearly 30 years, but the heavy weight of feminist ideology seems to smother Catholic efforts – or even the desire – to develop something discernibly “new.”

At its core, Catholicism doesn’t need feminism. A simple return to what the Church can offer wouldn’t just supplant whatever the typical feminism might have on offer, but significantly surpass it. If we are truly serious about drawing women to the Church while strengthening those already in it, it’s time we start promoting our abundance instead of continually propping up what is destroying us.

Carrie Gress, Ph.D., is a Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where she co-directs EPPC’s Theology of Home Project. She earned her doctorate in philosophy from the Catholic University of America and is the co-editor at the online women’s magazine Theology of Home.

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