The Feminist Question

It was bound to come sooner or later. After my last post, where I speak heart-wrenchingly about Rome’s approach to the discussion of women, a friend queried in a private message: why are you hesitant to identify with the term feminist?

According to Webster’s dictionary, feminism is “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.” I would add to that “as well as equal dignity and responsibilities.” Certainly, if the definition would end there, and if we all agree on what feminism is and is not, then no doubt I am a feminist, and a very committed one at that.

However, feminism didn’t invent the “equality for all” vision. I see the dictionary definition of feminism as integral to the witness and teaching of Jesus. If I am a feminist, it has found its inspiration and motivation in the person of Jesus long before I knew feminist theory and praxis. My feminism thus arises from my Christian discipleship and is guided by the same.

Now I already hear another question, a puzzlement, an objection. Yes, I wholeheartedly admit that various institutional expressions have scandalously contradicted Jesus’ teaching and his vision for a discipleship of equals, thus betraying the very One God sent to save us from the blindness and patriarchal madness that caused such a deplorable track record in the first place!  Most likely the Church’s failure to fully live Jesus’ radical message of equality and inclusion has contributed to the need for the feminist movement.

What I find fascinating, though, is that this flagrant betrayal of God’s messenger has in no way negated the soul-power and guiding potential of Jesus himself. What amazes me is that the heart and soul of this compromised Body of Christ, the Church, still pulsates with the potent memory of God’s own revolutionary dream of love and mercy, justice and equality for all, a dream as relevant and as sorely needed in our suffering world as ever before. What amazes me is that this radical love and JesusFeminist4bmercy still have the power today to overthrow notions of superiority, of hierarchy, of status and religious arrogance, even in the hallowed halls of the ecclesial patriarchal edifice, keeping religious careerists off balance and the institution on edge. That is why I think Pope Francis is a God-send — just in time. That is why the Church in every time and place must continually re-examine itself in order to re-align its teachings and practice with the Gospel message — Ecclesia semper reformanda est. While still needing much conversion on women’s issues I nevertheless see Pope Francis working hard to restore the vibrant soul-power of Jesus and the radical compassion of the Christian message. So I’m willing to cut him some slack on the “woman-question.”

The sad part though is that because of the institutional compromising of Jesus’ message, many feminists have given up on Christianity as a possible ally in their quest, thus throwing out the Jesus-baby with the smelly church bathwater. While I regret yet fully understand this abandonment, it is the revolutionary witness of Jesus that keeps me in the Church. It is his wild energy that keeps feeding my hope and my active contribution in my small corner of the planet to bringing about God’s reign of justice, peace and mercy for all.

Having said all this, I still prefer to be known as a Christian “tout court” (as the French say) rather than a feminist. I salute the quest for women’s equality and dignity, condemning with feminism every form of violence and abuse against women.  I salute the feminist connections between the exploitation of women and the exploitation of the planet. I thus recognize feminism as in sync with the Biblical witness to the equality, mutuality and dignity of “male and female” as well as the beauty and integrity of creation. But modern usage of the term feminism itself has acquired a lot of politically charged overtones, to the point that multiple definitions now seem to operate. Using the term today tends to communicate a package of ideological goals, some of which feel compromising to my Christian commitment. Included in these are abortion, homosexuality, marriage and family life, family planning (why feminists swallowed the artificial hormones so readily instead of insisting on attacking the “fertility problem” where it belongs — with men, fertile always and everywhere — beats me), euthanasia (not sure about this last one). While open to greater understanding, I tend to lean towards more traditional points of view, still uncertain which way is truly forward. Time and thoughtful discernment (almost impossible in heated political debates) will tell which direction for each of these thorny and complex questions points to greater flourishing of humanity and all of creation.Feminism1

Precisely because the term feminism encompasses many different things today, the designation can be used in both affirming and constructive ways as well as judgmental, dismissive and disparaging ways, depending which group of people employs and interprets it. Frequently I find myself understanding more than one side of contentious issues while I see advocates on either side of a political divide turning a blind eye to opposing viewpoints in order to bolster their own or, worse, vilify those who disagree. In our zeal to be right, one-sided and simplistic arguments, dishonesty and misrepresentation, even in sophisticated and inconspicuous forms, creep in all too easily. In the end, however, these cannot stand in the light of day, no matter which side of a complex reality we come down on, and can even risk discrediting our argumentation . When it comes to tactics and errors, zeal for a cause can in fact turn us into an unflattering mirror image of our opponent, thereby running the risk of discrediting our own argument. A good dose of charity, respect and humility would greatly benefit advocates on both sides of today’s complex realities.

I would see such temptations as a manifestation of “original sin,” that subtle yet so present “objective disorder” to which we are all prone, esp. when zeal for a noble cause takes hold of us and we dismiss the need for self-criticism and humility: “Feminism without spirituality runs the risk of becoming what it rejects: an elitist ideology, arrogant, superficial and separatist, closed to everything but itself. Without a spiritual base that obligates it beyond itself, calls it out of itself for the sake of others, a pedagogical feminism turned in on itself can become just one more intellectual ghetto that the world doesn’t notice and doesn’t need.” ~ Joan D. Chittister, Heart of Flesh: Feminist Spirituality for Women and Men.

My liberation as a woman is grounded in the Gospel call to fullness of life: “I came that you may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). The witness and teaching of Jesus provides everything I need to guide my growth as a woman and to inspire me to do my little part in making the world a better place where it is easier for more people to be good, fulfilled and joyful; I see no need for additional labels. Meanwhile the door between my Christian spirituality and feminism is wide open, facilitating an ongoing process of critical reflection, evaluation and appropriation of the two. Most importantly in this process, however, is that my relationship with Jesus informs and sheds discerning light on my feminism, not the other way around. As a good feminist, I claim my experience and my voice as legitimate. As a good Christian, I seek the face of Christ in all women and men of good will, expecting the Holy Spirit to bring gifts through the “otherness” of all my sisters and brothers.

For further reading:
An interesting article appeared recently over at America Magazine: Feminist Case Against Abortion
Related site:  Feminists For Life

Radical, Gospel-inspired simple living is still embodied today by many courageous Christians: l’Arche founded by Jean Vanier, the Catholic Worker founded by Dorothy Day, and the Simple Way lead by Shane Claiborne — also see Red Letter Christians.

“We must each make a decision for ourselves on what works for our own lives.  Many will choose to leave behind the pain and rejection endured as a result of simply being a woman in religion that is embedded with structures that do not value women’s voices.  And, many will choose to stay and wade through the ongoing misogynistic practices in search for the nooks and crannies where one can find solace.  Both are feminist choices and every action contributes toward the ultimate objective of eradicating sexism and all oppression wherever they exist – including religion.” Thus says Catholic Gina Messina-Dysert in her TED-Talk on Feminism and Religion.

“If you feel deeply enough, you stay; not because you’re a masochist, but because it’s worth it. You’re struggling for the soul of something.” Thus says Elizabeth Johnson, one of my heroes in Catholic feminist discourse; several of her books grace my shelves. Here is a great article about her: Feminism in Faith

“Faith, religion, spirituality, cannot be subjected to sexist and misogynistic structures requiring women to renounce their freedom, their intelligence, their sexuality and capabilities to be part of them.” Words by Sr. Teresa Forcades, a medical doctor, theologian and Benedictine nun living at Montserrat, Spain, who has published a new book entitled The History of Feminist Theology. A short yet insightful interview with her can be found here.

Since I make reference to male fertility, I guess I should at least find a place where you can learn more about male contraceptive research —  click here.

There is a growing feminist movement in circles of Evangelical Christianity. Here is a recently launched initiative called The Junia Project with lots of solid reading in very accessible language.

Sarah Bessey wrote a great blog post on her integration of Christian discipleship and feminism.  Sarah’s words grace the image at the top of this blog post. She has also written a very engaging book with the title “Jesus Feminist.” Her words are a fitting ending to this challenging reflection:

Because I follow Jesus, I want to see God’s redemptive movement for women arch towards justice. God’s Kingdom tastes like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control. My life should still bear the fruit of the Spirit out. ~ Sarah Bessey

If we want to live counter-culturally as disciples, we have to live our lives and seek mercy and do justice counter-culturally as well. It’s tempting to want to employ the same tactics and arguments or methods that have been used on us or others but that is a temptation we must resist.  I don’t believe that silencing and shaming and other tactics of the world will really bring about God’s redemptive movement for women. We are to be gentle as doves and cunning as serpents. ~ Sarah Bessey

God is light, there is no darkness in him, so when we participate in the life of Christ now, we are marked as the bringers of light. The Apostle John wrote, “Anyone who claims to be intimate with God ought to live the same kind of life Jesus lived.” ~ Sarah Bessey


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I must speak (updated)

(While I have not changed this post, don’t miss some important updates at the bottom — Feb. 22)

So yes, in case you hadn’t noticed, I’m a very committed Catholic girl. My faith experience has grown a deep relationship with God in, with and through the person of Jesus. The sacramental life of the church has been a life-giving and love-giving source of spiritual water for my thirsting spirit. The deeper I grow in my Catholic faith, the bigger my heart grows towards all people of good will — Christian and otherwise.

Yes, my love for the Catholic faith and my thirst for learning and insight lead me to study the Holy things of God with fellow Christians of many other denominations, enriching me in unparalleled ways, resulting in my Masters in Theological Studies. It was then that I awoke to the realization that, while women’s faith witness is revered in my Catholic church, women’s voices are not considered in decision-making or having anything worthwhile to say in the public worship of the faith community. I readily admit that this has created much tension in my life and ministry. Yet at the same time it has also provided opportunities for challenging spiritual growth which may not have occurred otherwise. To my surprise, God has also blessed me with creative and life-giving ministry opportunities in both Catholic and ecumenical circles. O happy fault indeed …

So far so good, for the most part. Until now. I rejoiced this past December upon learning that the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Cultures announced a conference on Women’s cultures: equality and difference from February 4–7, 2015. I rejoiced when on December 28 this same Council invited women from around the world to submit short videos to share their experience of being a woman. The video posted on the Council’s website inviting submissions was rather strange to my way of thinking though  — a sexy blonde woman waving her curls back and forth with flair, looking more like a commercial for hairspray, quite unlike most women in the world. But what the heck, I thought, let it go. Then the timing and deadline for these submissions were a bit odd too: during the holiday season, deadline January 4. A minuscule window of communication easily missed by most of the world. Nevertheless I remained my natural optimistic self, always give the benefit of the doubt esp. to the men in Rome.

Until this week when my optimistic and trusting nature got a serious beating from the most shocking source. I abhor the image above; I almost threw up the first time I saw it this past Monday. It still hits me deep in the gut every time it assaults my eyes and makes a bee-line for my good-natured spirit. It speaks to me of the objectification of women’s bodies, of men’s brutal sexual exploitation of women, an exploitation that creates bondage and feeds lust, rape, prostitution.

So what then is it doing here, you might ask? Because I need readers of this blog to know … and this is the most embarrassing and painful part to share … that this is the image “gracing” the pages of the PONTIFICAL Council for Cultures at the moment. The image is accompanying a working document for this above mentioned conference at the VATICAN on Women’s Cultures taking place this week, a conference without the active participation of women (participating are 13 Cardinals, 5 Archbishops, 8 Bishops, 1 Monsignor, 1 priest, 3 laymen and at last, 7 women “observers” — seen but not heard?). Someone please tell me that a hacker placed the image on the Council’s website instead of chosen by the dear Council Cardinals. Alas, media reports this week have laid that hope to rest.

I am no flaming feminist, not by a long shot. I am a pro-life, natural family planning advocating, anti-euthanasia, pro-marriage, environmentally-conscious Catholic mother, spouse and grandmother, trying by fits and starts to live a faithful life. This week’s events at the Vatican, though, are pushing me too far. I don’t even want to go into the grossly inadequate content of the working document or the composition of the conference participants itself. Someone please tell me I got it all wrong, and that I’mNakedWomanNo grossly misinterpreting the good intentions of our church leaders. Someone please tell me I began with the wrong assumptions which lead me to this painful realization. But the image refuses to alter its message; it speaks a million painful words. As Jesus wept over Jerusalem, in profound sorrow for its refusal to accept Him, I cannot help but weep similar silent tears of grief, loss, sadness, embarrassment, shock and ecclesial alienation …

For more media coverage and commentaries on this subject, visit the following websites:

Vatican Effort Stirs Controversy

Spare Empty Words

Vatican Conference Funny

Update: I stand corrected — there are women addressing the conference currently underway in Rome. It would be so interesting to know the content of their presentations. See the conference schedule here.

Update on February 10, 2015: 
I had sent an email to Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, President of the Pontifical Council for Cultures, sharing my dismay at the controversial image used. This morning I, along with others who had sent similar concerns, received the following email in reply from Cardinal Ravasi: “I have received your objection to the use of “Venus Restored” by the artist Man Ray on the Pontifical Council for Culture’s website to illustrate the working document of the Plenary Assembly on“Women’s Cultures: equality and difference”. While registering your complaint, we have chosen not to remove the image, as we believe it speaks clearly for one of the central points of our document: many women, alas, are still struggling for freedom (bound with rope), their voices and intellect often unheard (headless), their actions unappreciated (limbless). Gianfranco Ravasi” 

Towards the end of my original reflection above I wrote: Someone please tell me I got it all wrong, and that I’m grossly misinterpreting the good intentions of our church leaders. Someone please tell me I began with the wrong assumptions which lead me to this painful realization. I’d say this is a prime example of the importance of checking assumptions and interpretations as close to the source as possible! This can be a lesson we can all take to heart every time we are tempted to judge another’s words or actions harshly.  However … as my own 28-year old daughter pointed out, the image remains objectionable as there is nothing that indicates why the woman is naked, bound, headless and limbless… And while these words might make Cardinal Ravasi look like a knight in shining armour, there is no acknowledgement of the “binding” of female voices in the church; after all, the voting members of the  Pontifical Council on Culture are all male and celibate … To be continued … 🙂

Update February 22, 2015
In many ways, we cannot ever know the real meaning of things. But we have to always make every effort to try to search the fullest meaning possible. So the Vatican had a conference on women without a lot of transparency and with some PR blunders, admitted by Cardinal Ravasi himself at a February 2 press conference. The PR blunders and the information vacuum quickly filled social media with a host of speculations and interpretations, mostly critical and negative, some no doubt justified but many others not. The extent of judging Vatican activities with either suspicion or hope depends not only on the Vatican’s actions, or lack thereof, but also on the fundamental trust or distrust on ecclesial affairs in the person making the judgment. I confess that I can vacillate between hope and joy on one hand, confusion and distrust on the other about activities, announcements and events in Rome, especially those pertaining to women’s role in the church.

Today I am happy to have found the first report from someone who not only attended the infamous conference convened by the Pontifical Council for Cultures, but who was also a presenter: Ulla Gudmundson. You can read her brief account here (make sure to bookmark this site as there will be more thoughtful reflections posted there leading up to the 2015 Synod on the Family). Gudmundson’s words help me swing from despair to cautious hope — are we making some headway, inch by inch? I know it’s Lent but I’m praying: Come, Holy Spirit, come …

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