Sr. Prudence Allen

What is Feminism? Is it Compatible with Catholic Teaching? 

Q: What is feminism? Are their particular schools of feminism and if so, which kinds of feminism are compatible with Catholic teaching?

Even though the word ‘feminism’ did not come into use until after the 19th century, it is possible to offer a general description of its meaning and to trace its development. Feminism seems to be a kind of organized set of thoughts and actions that seek to remove obstacles for women to flourish as human beings.

Historically, the first obstacle that feminists addressed in the fourteenth century was women’s lack of access to higher education.

The next obstacle addressed by feminists in the sixteenth-seventeenth centuries was the lack of women’s participation in citizenship by voting and holding political office.

Next, the obstacle addressed by feminists in the nineteenth century was violence against women.

In the twentieth century two further obstacles for women identified by feminists included discrimination against women in work and exploitation of women in various situations.

The answer to the important question of which kinds of feminism are compatible with Catholic Teachings flows from a careful consideration of whether or not a particular feminism adheres to basic ethical and political principles.

For example, the principle of the common good involves working for the good of each person within a group and of each group as a whole (See Catechism of the Catholic Church #1905-1927).

So you need to ask yourself when addressing a particular feminist theory, does this feminism seek the good not only of all women, but also of all men, children, and developing human beings? To the extent that it does, then it is compatible with Catholic teaching. To the extent that it does not, then it is not compatible with Catholic teaching.

Historically, most feminisms developed from a previous kind of humanism which articulated a particular vision for the flourishing of men. To get a fuller understanding of the values embedded in a particular feminism it is helpful to know the humanism that provided its backbone.

For example, Simone de Beauvoir’s feminism is undergirded by Sartre’s existential and Marxist humanism; American secular feminism is embedded in the principles of secular humanism and pragmatism; post-modern feminist theories flow from deconstructionist philosophies which undermine the unity of the human person. All these three examples oppose fundamental values of the common good. They  dismiss an important segment of the common good by promoting an ideology that rejects or even kills a portion of society so that another portion can have some so-called development. It may seem daunting to feel that one has to read all the theories to understand a particular feminism. Instead, all you really have to do is to ask the question, does this theory promote the flourishing of all persons, or does it entitle a particular group over the well-being of another group? The answer to this question will lead you to understand how compatible it is with Catholic teachings.

There are really only two kinds of feminism that fulfill this test fully in all respects. They are both Catholic in inspiration.

The first was the Renaissance Feminism promoted by Christine de Pizan (1363-1431), a wonderful Catholic widow and mother of three. During a time of ‘Renaissance Humanism’ or rebirth of higher-education of men, as the daughter to the physician of the King of France, Christine had access to books and libraries and became aware of the satires and slander written by male authors against women and against marriage. She engaged in public debate with these men to address multiple errors in her opponent’s arguments. Drawing upon a Thomistic philosophy and Catholic theology of the human person as an integrated soul/body composite unity created by God, she provided contrary examples of women’s intelligence and good character. Author of 41 books, Christine de Pizan’s Renaissance feminism is compatible with Catholic teachings. If you would like to read more about her, you could explore The Concept of Woman  (Volume II-Part 2:537-547; 605-615; 654-658; and Volume III:18-24).

The second was the New Feminism of Saint John Paul II (1920-1978) based on the contribution of several philosophers in the developing traditions of personalism and phenomenology. Drawing on the previous work of Dietrich von Hildebrand, Jacques and Raïssa Maritain, Emmanuel Mounier, Gabriel Marcel, and Saint Edith Stein, Karol Wojtyla/John Paul II introduced a New Feminism to the world in 1995 in Evangelium Vitae #99. He stated that while it is possible for Catholics to work together with other feminists to overcome discrimination, violence, and exploitation of women, new feminism supports the culture of life in all its phases. It seeks a woman’s complete dedication to give herself in union with God for the common good of all women and men in the sphere of her activity from conception to a natural death (III:475-480). How a particular woman decides to foster this dedication  to the common good will reveal her feminine genius. If you would like to read more about these philosophers see The Concept of Woman (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2016, Volume III: 478-486).

For further research specifically about feminism, see Sr. Prudence Allen, RSM, “Philosophy of Relation in John Paul II’s New Feminism,” (67-104) and “Can Feminism be a Humanism,” (251-284) in Michele Schumacher, ed., Women in Christ: Toward a New Feminism (Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U.K.: Eerdmans, 2004).