Friday, January 22, 2016

To be a Catholic feminist...


A little while ago, Facebook helpfully informed me that a few Catholic (male) friends had liked a page called "Those Catholic Men." The article highlighted in the sponsored post is entitled, "Women Don't Deserve Combat." In essence, the author argues that combat and war is beneath the dignity of women, and that out of a sense of chivalry, men must protect women from the "disgusting, abhorrent, crude, and destructive" front lines of combat. 

I should caveat that anytime I see anything about how men must protect women from something that may offend their feminine sensitivities or that women must be placed on a pedestal way up out of the way of whatever offensive part of society they must not be allowed to engage in, my hackles go up. 

As the title of this blog declares, I consider myself a feminist and a Catholic. I know some (ugh. Matt Walsh. ugh.) argue that those words are mutually exclusive, but they aren't.

This is not the first time I have encountered such an argument ("protect women!" "pedestal!" "beneath her dignity!"), and it without fail strikes me as somehow wrong. See also: the many men throughout history who have thought women should not be allowed to participate in politics, be able to vote, or to be considered a legal person. Catholic teaching, as the author emphasizes, does uphold women's dignity. (And that's another thing. Why is it always "the dignity of women" as if the human women were an afterthought here and men are upholding "dignity" in the abstract which is loosely connected to said women? Let's instead say "women's dignity" and actually place women front and center.) My hope is that we can begin to knock down the wall between "Catholicism" and "feminism" which so naturally and beautifully go together.

Even though the article focuses on women in combat, I'm not going to address that topic much for several reasons. First, it raises many questions to which I don't have answers and which the original author ignored or was outside his scope but which I think are necessary (I mention some at the end of this post). Second, it provides a great jumping off point for many other related things that I'd like to talk about more.

First up: men's and women's dignity. Throughout the article, the author references an encyclical (aka official, published document by a pope on some topic) by St. John Paul II called Mulieris Dignitatem. The author quotes:

  • “For whenever man is responsible for offending a woman’s personal dignity and vocation, he acts contrary to his own personal dignity and his own vocation.” (Pope St. John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatem) 

I don't disagree with this. The purpose of a vocation (any vocation) is to learn how to love God and your fellow humans more deeply, fully, perfectly. Your vocation informs every decision you make, because it informs how you love and respond to others (and by extension, God).

For men, part of their vocation is to uphold women's dignity - and all that entails, but I argue does not include deciding for women what that dignity encompasses - since in doing so, they must learn to love more deeply and perfectly. The conclusion might be made that upholding women's dignity does not necessarily come naturally to men... hence this is part of how they love/suffer (ha!). However, let's think a little better of men! A better conclusion may be that many men respond well to a charge, a task, a challenge (to uphold women's dignity and protect them), and he loves more perfectly once a task has been given to him. 

On the other hand, many women do not need to be charged with a task in order to respond - they simply see what needs to be done and do it. Or, they are naturally more willing to sacrifice without any hope of reward (i.e. the reward of completing a task) because the good of doing the thing is enough reward. 

For example, the Law Review stopped offering scholarships for board members. Do you know how many men ran for a board position the first year this went into effect? One! (and God bless Jake.) The other seven positions were all filled by women! Our advisor commented, "I should have known it would be all women." Go, women!

That being said, it's definitely also not true that women > men. Here's another quote the author pulled:

  • "Contrary to what the progressive feminist ideology would like to have you believe, we know that masculinity and femininity are actually not in conflict. One is not superior and the other inferior."

I think we should be careful about blasting "progressive feminist ideology" as a whole. My experience is that most "progressive feminists" want to undo some of the historic injustices done to women and restore women to their rightful place as equal to men, aka "one is not superior and the other inferior." Their methods may different, but many of their aims are just the same as the Catholic Church (respect for women, upholding women's dignity, fighting against injustices against women such as sexual assault, trafficking, feeling forced into abortions, etc.) How much better would things go if we worked together instead of antagonistically? 

I agree that masculinity and femininity are not actually in conflict, and I do believe in gender complementarity, which I know many people do not. Of course, gender complementarity is at the heart of this whole discussion, and if you do not believe in this, this may all be moot for you anyways. My purpose is to see how/whether it is possible to be both a Catholic woman and a feminist, and if so, what that looks like. I hope and believe it is possible and want to show other Catholic women that they can and should be feminists and do not have to abandon Catholic teaching to do so.

However, it's super important that we define our terms. So, what is feminism? The author thinks that:

  • "Feminism should be about protecting and promoting the dignity of women. Instead, feminism is a code-word for removing distinctions between men and women."

I agree with that one aspect of feminism is about protecting and promoting women's dignity. But feminism is much more than that (and it's not just a "code-word for removing distinctions between men and women".) It's about promoting women in the workplace, advocating for equal pay, demanding protections for pregnant women (like maternity leave and the right to breastfeed where they'd like), providing assistance to single mothers, and encouraging young women to go into STEM fields and in politics or government work.

As St. John Paul II wrote in another important document, "Letter to Women", "Unfortunately, we are heirs to a history which has conditioned us to a remarkable extent. In every time and place, this conditioning has been an obstacle to the progress of women. Women's dignity has often been unacknowledged and their prerogatives misrepresented; they have often been relegated to the margins of society and even reduced to servitude. This has prevented women from truly being themselves and it has resulted in a spiritual impoverishment of humanity."

He goes on: "As far as personal rights are concerned, there is an urgent need to achieve real equality in every area: equal pay for equal work, protection for working mothers, fairness in career advancements, equality of spouses with regard to family rights and the recognition of everything that is part of the rights and duties of citizens in a democratic State."

What else is he talking about than feminism? Feminism is not a concept reserved to the "liberal left," but should be a concern for every person - including Catholics and Catholic women.

As mentioned, the actual premise of this article, women in combat, is a tricky one because it raises so many questions. The author makes the point that if women are "life-givers," then being in combat goes directly against their nature since "the purpose of [combat]... is the intentional destruction of life."

But this begs the question: "what is combat?" If combat does not always mean the destruction of life, then perhaps a different conclusion must be reached. If combat includes intelligence operations, medical assistance, or searching for IED's, should women be excluded? What exactly constitutes combat that is specifically "life-destroying?" Is there any military involvement that is not life-destroying in some way? If not, would the author argue that women should not be in the military at all? 

I'm not sure there are any easy answers, which one reason among many why the Catholic Church has not taken a stance on this (also because the Catholic Church is not a political party). But for my purposes - as a Catholic feminist - articles this like one frustrate me, not because everything in them is wrong, but because they take such a moral high ground, with much wringing of hands and condemning any progress for women. Even if women in combat ends up not being in women's best interests, is it morally wrong? I doubt it. And every article like this one makes it harder for Catholic men and women to accept feminism as important and necessary.


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