By Emma Mutch
Feminism is seen in our society as a universal good. You will have seen campaigns where celebrities hold their hand up to say I support women.
Feminism is assumed to be a virtuous position because we are told that if you are not a feminist then you must be a misogynist or someone who doesn’t believe men and women have equal dignity.
So of course, if you’re a good person, then you’re a feminist because believing that women are valuable and equal is a good thing. Now obviously that’s a bit simplistic but stick with me.
The first thing to point out is these are false alternatives – feminism is not the only position or belief system that affirms the value and equal dignity of women. This is the primary position the Church has held and must continue to hold as we seek to engage with feminism. The Church affirms the inherent value and dignity of women as well as their equal share in bearing the image of God to the world. In short, the Church does not need -isms because its own theological and philosophical work is sufficient.
But this does not mean that every feminist view or value is opposed to the Catholic position. A great example of this is male sexual predators. Catholics agree that sexually predatory behavior and the objectification of women is wrong because women are made in the image of God and to objectify them is to transgress against their personhood as well as defame the image of God.
Feminism is an intellectual tradition, a movement with a belief system, authoritative writers, and disputed issues. Areas of dispute give rise to different kinds or even denominations of feminism. Nonetheless feminism in general is essentially post-Catholic or post-Christian. This means that when feminism seeks to define what it means to be a woman it does not begin with the ideas of Creation, Fall, Sin, and Redemption which do constitute the major aspects of a Catholic anthropology.
So, the fundamental difference between feminism and Catholicism is what we believe about people – what personhood means. Basically, feminism is about social, economic, and political equality between the sexes.
The Church responds with a more foundational view of equality. In Pope St John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter, Mulieris Dignitatem, he sets out what the Church believes woman are. He begins his letter with the creation narrative in the book of Genesis. St John Paul II argues that the creation narrative gives us reasons ‘for recognizing the essential equality of men and women from the point of view of their humanity…The woman is another I in common humanity.’ Here he is referring to the following passage in Genesis:
“So God created man in His own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
This tells us that man is a person, men and women are equally that person because both were created in the image and likeness of a personal God. Here is the framework from which we can engage with feminism. As I mentioned earlier feminism at its core is about the social, political, and economic equality of men and women. The Catholic response to this is first that men and women are equal in a much more meaningful way. They are spiritually equal; they are equal bearers of the image of God.
This is so much more fundamental to the value of the human person than how much political clout someone has or how much their salary is. The Catholic position takes these material standards of equality and turns them on their head to say that a man and a woman are fundamentally equal in the eyes of God regardless of social, political, or economic value. Now that is not to say that we shouldn’t listen to women or vote them into office or pay them equally for the same job. We should do those things, but we do them because we already know a) that women are equally rational and spiritual beings as men and b) political, economic, and social status has nothing to do with personhood.
So, in essence, the Catholic position advocates a more fundamental equality between men and women that should have implications for how women are treated. This is not motivated by a belief that men and women are the same or that these external things are indicative of personhood, but that men and women are equally bearing the image of God. Indeed, the Church’s positions affirms that there is no greater equality than this.