Commentary: Catholic Feminism vs Equality Feminism

Author: Prof. Janne Haaland Matlary

Commentary: Catholic Feminism vs Equality Feminism

Prof. Janne Haaland Matlary
Department of Political Science, University of Oslo

Men and women in family, society and politics

The Letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to the World Episcopate on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World underlines the equality in human dignity and yet the fundamental difference between the sexes.

Man and woman are equal in human dignity and personhood, yet different in a much more profound sense than merely the biological; "their equal dignity as persons is realized as a physical, psychological and ontological complementarity" (n. 8).

Their equality is therefore fundamental as persons, but their difference is also fundamental. It is not only physical, but also ontological.

What is the feminine?

This Christian anthropology of the sexes is far more profound than the simple biological reductionism advanced by some of the social constructivism asserted by many. It provides the answer to the pilot's question of where to steer between the Scylla of biological determinism and the Charybdis of contemporary pervasive constructivism.

Thus, Christians and non-Christians as well ought to study the rich and deep anthropology of the sexes in Catholicism in order to find solutions to pressing problems in the areas of family and women's policies.

The analysis presented by this Letter is something novel and promising in a world where biology has often been given too much emphasis — women are seen merely as child-bearers, as is still the case in many cultures even today — and where also the constructed nature of certain sex roles has been overemphasized, making the differences between the sexes insignificant, a mere "social construct". This latter ideology is a major problem in the West today.

In Catholic anthropology, the sexes complement each other, not only in a biological sense, but in the totality of life. Thus, parents are not only biologically father and mother, but are different and complementary in a profound sense for their children.

This point is missed completely by those who are only able to point to biology as the difference, and it is denied by the social constructivists who would argue that motherhood and fatherhood are merely social roles that can be deconstructed and, for this reason, have no importance for the life of the child. This latter argument is used by homosexual lobbies in order to redefine the family; they are often successful because fewer and fewer people seem to understand how and why the sexes differ.

Even more fundamentally, the relationship between the sexes — and indeed Christian life itself — is aimed at one thing only: the imitation of Christ through self-giving and service to others. This ideal, of course, may not be realized much of the time. In actual fact, relationships are often marked by power struggles and conflicts, and yet the Church teaches that these can be overcome and the ideal therefore remains the norm.

Moreover, women's special capacity for self-giving in pregnancy, child-birth and care for the infant is held up as indicative of women's particular capacity for self-giving, which is the essence of the feminine itself. It is also the exemplar of true Christian behaviour.

Therefore, the startling implication of Catholic teaching on the feminine is that women have a special ability to "humanize" the family, and society and politics as well, provided that such self-giving actually takes place. If a woman is able to live this self-giving, this way of living which looks to the good of the other, she will influence society to the maximum extent, and men should look to her in order to imitate her way of "other-regarding" love.

While both sexes share in the Christian capacity for self-giving love, the Church emphasizes that women have this ability in a specific way because of motherhood. And motherhood is not only physical.

When a woman truly lives her Christian vocation, this will mean that she occupies a privileged place in the Church, in family and in society. The Letter's analysis on this point should be required reading for all those who think that women have a lesser place than men in Christianity. It is in fact a woman, Mary, who is the supreme model of Christian life.

The paradox for modern man is, of course, that Christian power is equal to service. When the reflection about women's role in Church and society starts from the assumption that power is domination, the analysis falters. I will return below to the implications of this point for feminism.

What are the implications of this anthropology for the family, work life and politics?

Situation of women today

The perspective of history shows us that women are today in an unprecedented situation, at least in the West, but increasingly so all over the globe. They are educated and have professions outside the home.

The Catholic Church has always, from the very beginning of the school system in Europe, placed major emphasis on the education of girls and women. Today, the Church is one of the foremost educators also in the developing world.

From the very beginning, Christianity made women and men equal in an unprecedented way, in comparison with Jewish and Roman society. Education is the major force of change in traditional sex-role patterns. The entry of women into all professions in society and into political roles is truly new and truly revolutionary.

The dates when women received the right to vote remind us of how recently it was that women achieved equal political rights, and how this was accomplished in the face of much suspicion and resistance.

The Finns granted suffrage to women in 1906 as the first State, Norway in 1913, while a major country like France did so only in 1946 and the Swiss Canton of Appenzell in 1986.
The same picture holds true for many professions, to which women have been admitted only in recent decades.

Yet today women are politicians and professionals in all fields, and the majority of students in many universities today are women.

Yet women are very often discriminated against both in competing for jobs and in keeping them, since the standards are set by men, and men provide the only role models.

In addition, women are unable to combine having children with having a career outside the home. They are in fact often forced to choose between motherhood and their other work.
Finally, those who wish to choose the profession of working within the home are unable to exercise this option because of taxation policies which force both parents to work outside the home. This is the case in most European countries.

The problems facing women in the developing world are worse. Here women are responsible not only for their own family, but for whole communities as well, in an endless work day, often amid poverty and deprivation. "If one educates a woman, one educates a village", as a saying from Africa explains.

Thus, the Church puts major efforts into the education of women. Yet generalized problems of poverty and health remain, and Sub-Saharan nations are "forgotten" in the world economy.

First Principles: Catholic feminism

I used the term "Catholic feminism" here in order to underline the difference between this model and the common "equality model" of feminism discussed below. However, it is a term that is not strictly correct because there is no such thing as a separate Catholic feminism, nor should there be.

Catholics do not have special political programmes for women: what is Catholic is what is universal, however disputed that may be.

Furthermore, there is no reason to single out women and make an ideology called feminism for them alone. We speak about women and men and their cooperation and difference, not only about women.

Thus, my terminology is not very good, but it serves a didactic purpose.

What does the Letter advise about the practical and political implications of a Catholic, a "new" feminism? The implications of its anthropology are radical.

As stated, women should be able to choose to work full time within the family; women should not be forced to choose between a professional job outside the home and having children; and finally, the family comes first in the order of importance: society and politics are the result of the work done within the family, so to speak.

This turns the usual power-based analysis upside-down, and emphasizes the auxiliary role of the State and of society in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity.

The family is not a "client" of the State. Rather, the State and society depend upon the family and its work to bring up morally sound citizens.

Are women and men to be treated equally or unequally?

The Letter is very clear on the fact that women and men are different, and women must therefore not be treated as if they were men. This is a radical point.

Most feminism of the 1970s, far advanced as a political project in my native Scandinavia, worked on the equal treatment assumption. But discrimination occurs not only when like entities are treated in unequal ways, but when unlike entities are treated in the same way.

Contemporary policies for men and women's roles often treat men and women in exactly the same manner — and this is called equality!

Such policies have certainly led to many advances for women in work life, but the major issue of their difference has not been properly taken into account. Women have been allowed to imitate men. But women have failed to achieve policies which really take motherhood into account and which reflect the fact that women, if they are true to the Christian ideal of service, work and exercise leadership in a way different from men.
By this I mean that any woman can imitate an aggressive leadership style if that is what is desired in a corporation, but women do not like to have to behave like this. It is usually very difficult for a woman leader to be respected as authoritative on her own, female terms. Yet it happens, with experience and education.

The point here is that women should not have to imitate men, because they are not men. Their femininity is not only motherhood, but is much more than that.

Equality feminism: pervasive model

Scandinavian feminism, the foremost example of this equality tradition, has rightly opened the way for women in all professions outside the home and in political life, but has at the same time made it impossible for women (and men, for that matter) to work within the home, with children and with housework. The political project has been very much a matter of ensuring that women are not discriminated against in work life, but there has also been an ideological attempt to abolish the traditional housewife and the "patriarchal" family structure.
Thus, while one enjoys a full year of paid maternity leave (and some weeks of compulsory and paid paternity leave), the tax system does not take the family unit into consideration, but only individual incomes, making it rather impossible for one spouse to work within the home.

The conditions for motherhood are thus excellent until the child is 1 year old. After this, the only viable "solution" is to place him or her in day care, in Kindergarten.

When the Christian-Democrats introduced a payment to those parents who wanted to stay at home with a child (usually the mother), a payment equal to the amount expended by the State for the child in the Kindergarten, the outcry from the Socialists was strong: "Women are being forced back into the 'housewife role'! Feminism is being reversed!".

The fact that many mothers actually want to stay at home with their small children was and is unacceptable.

This model of feminism is clearly deficient, even though it is pervasive as a model for the Western world, especially in Europe. The ideas and trends that come from Scandinavia in this respect are empirically important.

The Letter refers to attitudes as the main obstacle to achieving the right kind of cooperation between men and women in contemporary society. This is an important point: trends, mentalities, common assumptions dictate much, also in terms of policies.

In Europe these attitudes are very much against those who wish to work within the family for the time being. Indeed, they are against the family as a concept itself.

The steep decline in birth rates in Europe is an alarming fact which is only now receiving the attention from policy makers. The attention given has thus far not been sufficient to be effective.

The family is not only contested in its natural identity by homosexual groups which are achieving "family rights" in country after country, but has been viewed as a repressive and "bourgeois" institution by most brands of feminist thought.

The most disdained person in such a family is naturally the housewife, who does not claim her "rights" to a life outside the home but who serves the other family members with her daily work.

To "liberate" women from the housewife's work and to give importance and value exclusively to work done outside the home were key themes of the feminist movement of the 1970s. In this context, the trends which are significant are two: individuals have rights, with the consequence that the family as a unit recedes radically in importance, and the only work that counts and has any status is that which brings power/money.

The individualist trend is extremely pervasive, and ultimately implies that the family is no longer relevant as a political or legal category.

To give one example, there is a major difference between the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, which lays down that "the family is the natural and fundamental unit of society", and the rights-based individualism which claims the right to have children (a non-existent human right: only children have a right to have parents). The rights-based argumentation of modern politics is also now the model for family and feminist policies. But if all that can exist are individual rights (with no duties), then the family must break down.

This kind of rights-language goes hand in hand with the power-analysis of feminism. The family and its work count for nothing in the hierarchy of power. Working in the family brings no money and no power, but is "only" a service to others.

What matters for women is to have at least 50 percent of all important positions in society, including politics. Quota systems are sometimes introduced to achieve this aim. The political focus is then only on the spheres of politics and professional work done outside the home.

The life of the family is not really relevant in the power-analysis, for at best it hinders women from realizing their talents. Having children becomes a liability for her as she competes with men for desirable work positions. Employers even ask her whether she has children, plans to have them and how many, while men are never asked such questions.

Recently, however, parents, that is, both fathers and mothers, have shown increasing interest in balancing work and family life. They are rediscovering the importance of having enough time and energy for their children and for each other.

Family policies in some countries allow for flexible work hours, especially for mothers with small children, and for "life-phase" planning so that one works less (true also for the father) when the children are small.

Yet it remains a fact that the point of departure here is the work situation, and not the family as such. The family becomes a "problem" that must be dealt with in order to have happy employees.

In sum, through the lens of power and a mistaken view of equality — that men and women are the same — children and family become obstacles to women's self-fulfilment. This obstacle can be dealt with through various policies, but it represents an entirely "negative" view of the woman. She is, so to speak, a man manqué.

In this model, the male remains the model for both professional work and politics, and his family and fatherly obligations are never counted.

The fact that women become pregnant, give birth and nurse, and that they by nature take care of the infant, all of this becomes a liability to their full "equality" and must be remedied to the extent possible.

This model of feminism is premised on the male model for women: we may imitate a male work life and a male political life, where all that can be hoped for is a parity between the sexes. The underlying logic is one of power: women should have equal access and equal privileges.

'Catholic feminism': implications

Against the "equality model", a "Catholic feminism" relies on very different principles.
First, the ideal driving force for human work is service to others. This is supremely important because it means that the powerful positions in the world are not always those that are seen as such, a startling idea for most people.

Second, women are not equal to men apart from the equality of their personhood. They are, as mentioned above, different from men in more ways than simple biology.

Mother and father are not replaceable or interchangeable; they are complementary. This means that the mother's work with children is of a very special importance, especially when they are small. The father's complementary position regarding children is also deeply important, but the mother is the key person for the very small child.

In whatever way the spouses divide between them housework and taking care of their children, it remains true that this work is of the utmost importance not only to the children, but to society as well.

The service to others that parents show their children, and which the children in turn learn, is the reason the family comes first in the order of importance. It is why the family is vitally important for the other spheres of life.

It is within the family that one is loved unconditionally, perhaps only there. It is therefore within the family that love is taught.

The service of politics, for example (the word minister means servant), can only be "replicated" when one has learned to love in a self-giving way. Otherwise political service becomes the search for political power, as is so often the case.

The sharp difference between service and power illustrates the point of radical difference between a Catholic feminism and current feminist thought.

The family is of key importance. It is not an aggregation of individual preferences, but an organic unity, the fundamental and natural unit of society, as all the major human-rights documents affirm.

Spouses have no right to have children, either individually or as a couple, but if they have children, these children in turn have the right to know and to be raised by their biological parents, as the Convention on the Rights of the Child states.

Moreover, mother and child are entitled to special protection by the State, again according to the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The State is also obliged to support and privilege the family.

The classic human-rights texts sum up much of what a Catholic feminism implies: the family is recognized for its pre-eminent worth to the State and society, and motherhood is emphasized in the same manner. The family is protected from State interference while being the object of special support from the State. Most importantly, the family is designated as the fundamental unit of society.

Contemporary feminist policies are at best tolerant of the existence of the family, at worst they are at war with it.

But no feminist model exists — apart from the Catholic one — in which the family is the fundamental unit of society, coming first in the order of importance, before society and politics.

As I have pointed out, the "balancing" of work life and family life at best puts these two spheres of life on the same level, thereby overlooking the pre-eminent importance of the family.

But if it all depends on the family — good citizens, good employers, the very moral fibre of society and politics — this surely cannot be right.

The appreciation of the key role of motherhood is only possible if the family is recognized as, literally speaking, the "fundamental unit" of society, as its building block. But this is very far from the case in Western politics today.

When the Norwegian Christian-Democrats suggested quantifying the cost of a 50 percent divorce rate in terms of the illnesses and other costs resulting from broken homes, they were immediately accused of discriminating against and scapegoating divorced people: were they any less important to the well-being of society than those who stay married? Could anyone say that their children were less happy and harmonious?

Thus, the current neutrality of most Western States regarding the traditional family — their reticence to affirm that family is indeed what the United Nations declaration tells us it is — means that the family as a concept disappears more and more as a politically and legally relevant category.

A Catholic feminism, however, has as its core principle that the family is first in the order of personal and societal importance. Therefore, the work of having children and raising them is unequalled.

Mothers come first in doing this work when the children are very small. Fathers have another but equally important role.

Fortunately, in modern family and work life the role of fathers at home with children is taken more and more and more into account. Fathers today want be with their children to a far greater extent than what was traditionally the case. Work hours need to be compatible with family life. One cannot work late every evening and be a parent.

Another assumption of a Catholic feminism relates to the power versus service concepts. This implies that work done well is not only done well in a professional sense, but also in an intentional sense. The "success" of work relates to its substance in the Christian ethical sense.

To serve others is nobler and more Christian than to serve one's own interests. In this respect, a Catholic feminism differs completely from current feminist thought.

It is also clear that work-as-service makes work in the family something extremely valuable and important. Seen thus, work is more than just the tasks undertaken, it is also cooperation and association with others. With education, women are in all professions, and should be there.


In this short article, I have only been able to touch on some points which give an outline of a different kind of "feminism", one based on Catholic anthropology. It has often struck me that most current commentary and critique regarding the role of women in the Catholic Church commits the very same fallacy as the feminist critique of the family. When the analysis is based on power-assumptions, it is bound to go wrong.

The difficulty and the challenge for a Catholic is precisely in accepting and living out the demand for self-giving love, and to understand that this is the kind of power Our Lord spoke of and taught.

This demand is naturally the same for both sexes, and sexual difference has no bearing on the need to understand this and live accordingly.

Yet, as the Letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith makes clear, women are at a particular advantage in doing this, being privileged to give life through birth and to care for the completely helpless child.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
12 January 2005, page 6

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