By Courtney Barnes
The media promotes a feminist who is at war with men. She wrestles her due from her would-be oppressors, demonstrating that she can compete with the big boys. As illustrated in the Nike commercial featuring Mia Hamm vs. Michael Jordan, her anthem is “anything you can do I can do better.” However the Catholic intellectual tradition presents a different view. The Catholic feminist is she who promotes equality of the sexes by demonstrating what is uniquely feminine. She does not compete with men in an effort to shatter the glass ceiling. Her due is God given, therefore it is grace that empowers her to rise above obstacles. She enriches all of humanity by bringing uniquely feminine attributes to the playing field. Therefore Catholic theology reveals that the world does not need strong women to replace weak men. The world needs strong people who empower each other in an mutual effort to uplift humanity.
The Catholic feminist does not make men her point of reference for human excellence. The “anything you can do I can do better” mentality is pervasive. If women seek to outperform men, then it is still men who have the privilege of determining the standard of achievement. However if human excellence is the goal, an objective standard which takes into account authentic masculine and feminine strengths can be determined. Consequently men can look to women to imitate their expertise to complement their own. Likewise women can look to men without limiting themselves to masculine stereotypes. A new mutually beneficial exchange is developed through which neither party is threatened by the success of the other.
It is one error to trap persons into gender stereotypes, however the remedy is not to abolish gender difference. Gender difference is analogous to ethnic variety. The archaic “color blind” philosophy erases ethnic variety to embrace our common humanity. However to ignore race is to be blind to both stereotypes and the truth about humanity. God made a variety of persons and therefore there is some wisdom to be learned in diversity. Likewise there is wisdom to be learned from the beautiful reality of gender difference.
So how do strong Catholic women discover that which is uniquely feminine? Scripture must be our point of departure. St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, known as Edith Stein in academic circles, remains the standard for a sound, scripture based Christian Feminism. In her essay “Woman’s Formation” Stein writes, “Holy Scripture counsels us on the destiny of the human being in general and that of woman in particular.” Stein places her study in the context of revelation and creation. She goes on to demonstrate how every woman has the charism of motherhood for the sake of kingdom. Stein explains how both motherhood and consecrated virginity for the sake of the kingdom are sublime vocations: “These works for God’s kingdom are not foreign to feminine nature but, on the contrary, are its highest fulfillment and also the highest conceivable enhancement of the human being.” Therefore the work of Edith Stein illustrates how motherhood is the foundation of every woman’s unique gifts.
Throughout salvation history God reveals the sublime nature of motherhood. Women give birth through faith to save their people. Whether it’s the birth of a physical child in Hannah the mother of Samuel, or the birth of virtue in Esther, holy women in scripture reveal that motherhood is both a material and spiritual participation in the work of salvation. In her essay on formation, Edith Stein defines spiritual motherhood: “...spiritual maternity—i.e., the winning of souls and their formation for God.” This definition demonstrates how motherhood is not an obstacle to a woman’s potential, but a unique participation in a supernatural reality which bears fruit on earth and in heaven.
Pope St. John Paul II used Edith Stein’s insight in his Theology of the Body discourse, his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, as well as his pastoral Letter to Womenpromulgated that same year. In fact, John Paul II went so far to coin the term “New Feminism” calling all Catholic women, “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” (Evangelium Vitae, 99). This call has been answered by many consecrated religious and Catholic intellectuals such as Helen Alvaré and Women Speak For Themselves, Feminists for Life, The Sisters of Life and Endow to name a few. However their voices are often muffled by the old feminism that is alive and well in the secular media.
Secular feminism is so prevalent that Pope Francis went so far to denounce all feminism in an offhand remark made during the Summit for the Protection of Minors: “...in the end every feminism ends up being a machismo with a skirt” (“Pope Francis: Woman is the image of the Church,” 2019 ). However, given that the Holy Father was not making a formal pronouncement on faith and morals, an important clarification must be made. The faithful Catholic woman does not have to reject the New Feminism as defined by Pope St. John Paul II. The New Feminism is not only compatible with the orthodox theology of the Catholic faith, but remains a call to action for a deeper understanding of the vocation of women.
Faithful Catholic women must answer this call to articulate how our God given nature is neither liability nor weapon but supernatural gift. This gift can promote the peace and unity without which men and women cannot thrive as human persons. Furthermore it clarifies what it means to thrive, and places human excellence in the context of our nature as sons and daughters in relationship with a loving Creator. Therefore our modern world needs New, Catholic Feminists empowered by our matriarchs to cultivate life and win souls for the kingdom on earth and in heaven.