In the encyclical letter
Evangelium Vitae ("The Gospel of Life"), among the 105 paragraphs so
elegantly written by Pope John Paul II, paragraph ninety-nine jumped out and grabbed
this pro-life feminist. It reads:
"In transforming culture so
that it supports life, women occupy a place in thought and action which is
unique and decisive. It depends on them to promote a 'new feminism' which
rejects the temptation of imitating models of 'male domination' in order to
acknowledge and affirm the true genius of women in every aspect of the life
of society and overcome all discrimination, violence and exploitation."
Quite a stunning set of
marching orders! Soon, out of seeming nowhere, came hundreds of women
telling one another that they, too, had noticed this novel language in
a papal encyclical. They all acknowledged that they had had similar
thoughts. And in 1996 several hundred women attended a conference in
Washington to discuss the meaning of a "new feminism" in service to life --
a feminism specifically rooted in Catholic teaching.
The Secretariat for
Pro-Life Activities of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and a
national group of professional women called "Women Affirming Life" sponsored
the two-day affair. The conference provided many uplifting moments, many
intellectual epiphanies. Perhaps the most enlightening outcome was the
revelation that throughout the United States and Canada (as well as abroad),
thousands of Catholic women had been musing about the shape of a new
feminism. The Pope's words in Evangelium Vitae struck a deep chord in
them, and they used the occasion of the document's issuance to go public in
a more fervent way.
The Shape of Things
All this talk about a new
feminism might alarm some who only see feminism in its older, 1960s style.
Even today only about one quarter of all adult women are willing to assume
the "feminist" label. And when the talk turns to specifics -- what's wrong
with "old feminism" and what women "really want" in a new feminism -- the
potential for controversy increases greatly. Feminism, new or old, is
inevitably a touchy subject for almost everyone. Some view it as a heroic
movement that won for women the basic rights to vote, to own property, and
to be admitted on an equal basis with men in schools and places of
employment. Others see it almost exclusively as a movement that gave us a
litany of troubles, such as the sexual revolution, abortion, and latchkey
kids. Many in the former group consider it ungrateful to criticize those who
made it possible for the women of today to work in interesting
careers, to go to the best schools, and to expect fair treatment from their
husbands. Groups like the National Organization of Women, for instance, get
very agitated when Ivy League-educated, well-employed, happily married women
publicly criticize the failures of old feminism.
But some ugly realities
cannot be avoided. Even though many women, including me, reap the
benefits of some of the accomplishments of old feminism, many of its
"fruits" are demonstrably disastrous -- even for the women they were
supposed to help. And clearly, fruits this poisonous don't come from healthy
trees. There must be some thing or things at the roots of the old feminism
that are problematic.
This observation makes it
clear that in examining the old and constructing the new, we should begin
with the foundations of the old feminism.
The Roots of Old
Not coincidentally, right
foundations are the subject of what is possibly the most insightful section
of Evangelium Vitae. The Holy Father recognized that we can't hope to
transform our culture into one that serves life without supplanting the
misguided ideas that fueled a culture of death. Likewise, we cannot build a
new feminism by choosing and rejecting this or that discrete outcome of the
old: "I'll say no to the sexual revolution, but I'd still like to get into
the college of my choice, please." That may work on an individual level, but
at the level of a movement, a set of consistent, animating ideas must first
exist. And these ideas may, and do, lead to the conclusion that although
we should overthrow the sexual revolution, nevertheless we should
embrace educational equality. A coherent body of ideas will help explain why
this is so, as well as provide the foundation for a set of consistent,
wholesome outcomes for women and for society at large.
Where do we begin?
Evangelium Vitae provides more than a few clues. The Pope recognized
implicitly in paragraph ninety-nine that old feminism needed to be replaced because
it did not serve life. He further implied that the old feminism merely
mimicked patterns of "male domination" and "violence" against life, making
it one of the engines of the culture of death. Attempting to get to the
roots of the culture of death, the Pope explores the ideas that engender
virulent moral problems such as sexual promiscuity, abortion and euthanasia,
plus bioethical problems such as harmful embryo experimentation and
surrogate motherhood. These ideas, not coincidentally, are the very ones
embraced fervently by groups that are considered feminist today. The cause
of abortion is the signature piece, the number-one goal of groups like the
National Organization for Women and the feminist majority. Examining the
roots of the culture of death as the Pope does, therefore, is the same
examination that is required to understand old feminism's fundamental
problems and to discover clues that will help us build a new feminism, one
that serves life.
Although it is impossible
to briefly describe a movement the size of feminism, it is not unfair to
summon up its spirit by recalling some of the slogans for which old
feminism is best remembered: "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a
bicycle," "Not the Church, not the state, women must decide their fate," and
the oft-repeated "freedom of choice" and "my body, my choice " Beneath the
surface of these glittering phrases lurk three dangerous ideas, ideas that
eventually led to those harmful outcomes for which old feminism is renowned.
The first is the idea that
freedom is an individualistic matter: it's not about others but only about
me. Evangelium Vitae describes this notion of freedom as one that
"gives no place to solidarity, to openness to others and service of them."
It "ends up becoming the freedom of the strong against the weak who have no
choice but to submit" Thus, old feminism became isolationist where men were
concerned; this stance was even more isolationist where unborn and even born
children were concerned. The result was the invention of a "right" to sever
that relationship. By this sad logic, support for abortion on demand was a
natural goal for a feminism that exalted the isolated individual --
abortions without spousal consent or even notice and abortions on minors
without notice to parents.
And out of all the talk
about freeing "victimized" women of burdensome childbearing came a "freedom"
that was nothing other than absolute power over the life or death of
powerless children. Also out of this same misguided notion of freedom came
too little concern about the effect of exaggerated individualism upon even
our born children -- cavalier attitudes about how often they can be left in
the care of non-family or about the effects of divorce on children or of
Mommy or Daddy living with a new "friend." All of these sad outcomes are, in
an important sense, the natural outgrowth of embracing bad ideas about the
nature of freedom.
Good Versus Evil
Closely related is the
second foundational idea embraced by old feminism: freedom has no relation
to a higher truth or good. According to Evangelium Vitae, this notion
of freedom "shuts out even the most obvious evidence of an objective and
universal truth." The person exercising it ends up "no longer taking as the
sole and indisputable point of reference for his own choices the truth about
good and evil, but only his subjective and changeable opinion or, indeed his
selfish interest and whim." Old feminism tried, for example, to ignore
certain truths about human love and sexuality: that we are not created to be
happy in a series of promiscuous and uncommitted relationships, that we can
harm our psyche and even our bodies in sexual relationships outside of
marriage, that babies are a natural result of sexual intercourse. The sexual
revolution was a natural, if tragic, outcome of this sort of thinking about
freedom untethered to truth. The same is true of abortion; old feminism
acted as if the truth about the humanity of an unborn child could be denied
by fiat. But it can't and it won't, and women who abort learn the tenacity
of this truth over time. They regularly report feeling anything but free
after denying the fact of their relationship with another human being, their
The third flawed premise of
old feminism held that you could forget God while maintaining a good
understanding of who the human person is meant to be. Old feminism seemed to
decry religion as the mother of all of women's problems. Christianity in
particular, with its God the Father and Son Jesus, was laughed off the
premises. It was declared impossible to be both a liberated woman and a
faithful member of a Christian Church. According to Evangelium Vitae,
the consequences of this are far-reaching. Humans are no longer able to
consider life as "a splendid gift of God .... Life itself becomes a mere
'thing,' which [humankind] claims as [its] exclusive property, completely
subject to [its] control and manipulation." Practical materialism reigns:
"The values of being are replaced by those of having." And in this context,
"suffering, an inescapable burden of human existence but also a factor of
possible personal growth, is 'censored,' rejected as useless ... and in
every way to be avoided." Within this climate, the "body is no longer
perceived as a properly personal reality.... it is reduced to pure
materiality... to be used according to the sole criteria of pleasure and
efficiency. Consequently, sexuality too is depersonalized and exploited.
Procreation then becomes the 'enemy.' "
How clearly these words
describe the logic which led old feminism to embrace so many errors:
material success for women as superior to work within the family;
unencumbered choice as superior to marriage and family life; sex as
recreation; children as burden; abortion; and even physician-assisted
suicide. In the euthanasia cases before the Supreme Court in 1997, the legal
arm of the pro-abortion movement filed a friend-of-the-court brief endorsing
physician-assisted suicide. Their grounds? Decisions about the human body
are to be left to the "autonomous" self; our bodies are our personal
possessions to be disposed of as we see fit.
Here, I will digress
slightly. The overlap between the ideas that animated old feminism and what
the Pope calls the "culture of death" is not a matter of merely theoretical
or intellectual interest. When I first read the Pope's "diagnosis" of the
roots of the culture of death, I noted that he had captured in a few brief
pages the essence of what I had come to perceive only after logging
thousands of miles and speaking with many pro-abortion feminists. What may
at first appear to be separate and distinct problems -- promiscuity, teen
pregnancy, divorce, abortion, euthanasia -- are actually related outgrowths
of misguided thinking about freedom and about God.
When an angry woman
approaches me after I've given a talk, her objection to a specific point
gives way quickly to a more basic disagreement: "No one can know what's
right for sure, so stop trying to force your opinion on me," "No Church is
going to tell me what to do with my body," and so forth. Her anger,
and what passes for reasoning, in connection with her opinion about abortion
goes far beyond the conviction that women ought to be able to snuff out the
life developing within them. It is based upon the ideas that freedom equals
a right to do whatever we want, whenever we want, regardless of whether
others are hurt or whether truth is violated. It is based upon ignorance
about God and about why we were created and how we ought to behave as
daughters and sons of God. It stands to reason, therefore, that their
opinion on abortion is not going to be changed in isolation. Rather,
the underlying dispositions that lead them to say yes to abortion must first
change. This is, in large part, the work of a new feminism in service to
life. And it is terribly important work.
The New Feminism
Not by accident have I
sketched the outlines of a new feminism in a critique of the old. The key is
getting our foundation in order, avoiding the mistakes that dogged old
feminism from the beginning and that led to the embracing of harmful social
Almost by definition, the
overarching goal of any feminism is to realize -- in action, in the world --
the dignity of the human person who is female. In Evangelium Vitae,
the Pope refers to this when he says that feminism acknowledges and affirms
"the true genius of women in every aspect of the life of society." The marks
of a new feminism, a Christian feminism in service to life, are distinctive,
however. Women's well-being is not pursued in isolation; rather, our
well-being, dignity, and freedom are always related to the well-being,
dignity, and freedom of others.
As the members of the human
race who bear the next generation, who have a special relationship with new
life, we must never forget that all freedom is relational. As the Pope
states: "You are called to bear witness to the meaning of genuine love, of
that gift of self and of that acceptance of others which are present in
a special way in the relationship of husband and wife, but which ought
also to be at the heart of every other interpersonal relationship. The
experience of motherhood makes you acutely aware of the other person."
Thus, we must bring to
every struggle undertaken in the name of a new feminism an acute sense not
only of women's rightful place but of the well-being of others. While
wholeheartedly supporting true equality for women in all arenas, we must
also attend to the needs of those who are affected by our actions -- most
especially the needs of children. As relatively powerless people, children
merit our special care and concern to ensure that their needs are not
trampled upon. New feminism, for example, must honestly confront the moral
dilemmas faced by the working mother, something old feminism never
adequately addressed. Caught up in a fight to allow children to be
"disappeared" by abortion, old feminism could never quite bring itself to
grapple with what mothers owe their children.
New feminism must also
remember that men are profoundly affected by the path of women's lives. It
never adopts an "in-your-face" attitude but remembers that true freedom for
women respects the dignity of males as well. Think of the progress that
could be made in respect for women if men were seen always as partners, not
adversaries! And every woman with a supportive husband or a father
who is sure his daughter can do anything understands what I'm talking about.
A new feminism also
remembers that it is a waste of time to rail against objective truths.
Trying to be free of our bodies' reproductive abilities or of the emotional
consequences of promiscuity is as futile as trying to be free of gravity.
We need to jump off a
building only once to know that we cannot escape the reality of gravity.
True freedom with respect to our sexual selves respects our God-given nature
to give ourselves sexually only within the lifetime commitment of marriage.
Giving ourselves in any other context gives too much away that is never
Finally, and most
importantly, a new feminism, a Christian feminism, remembers God. How can we
fail to understand the dignity with which we've been endowed if we remember
the One who created us and why? The beauty of the story of women's creation
and the dignity and holiness of Mary and of the other women in Scripture,
in the Old and New Testaments, speak volumes about who women were created to
be. Throughout the New Testament in particular, Jesus' respectful encounters
with women were as noteworthy in that day as they ought to be in our own. A
new feminism must remember that God will never underestimate women's
potential or the gifts we can bring to private and public life. At the same
time, it remembers that, like Jesus, the model for humanity, and like all human beings, we are created to serve others. Such a feminism
will leave no victims in its wake. When we embrace a feminism that remembers
God, we will reject abortion, we will not taunt men, we will not abandon our
This sketch of a new
feminism awaits completion by women of this generation and of those to come.
Clearly, the old ways of feminism were a disappointment to many and fatal to
many unborn. Clearly, as women assume greater roles in many kinds of public
and private institutions and as family dilemmas arise, we need a new
feminism to address these challenges. The teachings of the Church offer
wisdom here. The day will come, I am confident, when my children and yours
will no longer be confronted with the false choice offered by old feminism;
they will have a new and healthy feminism to call their own.
Copyright © 1997
Liguorian Magazine All Rights Reserved
director of planning and information for the Secretariat for ProLife
Activities of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, acts as the
national spokeswoman for the United States Catholic bishops on abortion.
This essay was originally published in Liguorian May 1997, reprinted with permission from Liguorian, One
Liguori Drive, Liguori, MO 63057. Women
The Blessed Virgin Mary and the Woman - Prof. Aldrich – Taiwan (29.5.02)
Where is Mary in the
lives of women? We stand at the crossroad of our Catholic faith
in general and our devotion to Mary in particular. Like many pilgrims, we
pause, in order to look around, to listen and to learn from the Blessed
Mother for the future.
In order to provide some insights to the two
questions raised above, we shall try to take two steps by quickly reviewing
two church documents on Mary written after Vatican II.
Marialis Cultus and Redemptoris Mater
Pope Paul VI.’s
apostolic exhortation Marialis Cultus was published ten years after
Vatican ll. (1974). Its stresses that devotion to Mary must find its origin
and effectiveness from Christ, find its complete expression in Christ and
lead through Christ in the Spirit to the Father. Devotion to Mary must be
rooted in the great themes of salvation history; it should be shaped by the
feasts of the liturgical year, especially to the centrality of Christ; and
be attuned to the situations of time and place.
There is a strong
emphasis on Mary’s ‘active and responsible consent’ especially for women who
participate in decision making in the community. By this we can say that the
Pope offers a ‘pleasant surprise’ for women, when he stresses that the
Blessed Virgin has been a woman of strength, who experienced poverty and
suffering, flight and exile.‘ This offer new hope to those contemporary
women who are finding their own determination by imitating the Sorrowful
Mother, realizing their feminine vocation as consecrated virgins or as
mothers and wives of families richly blessed with many children.
Pope John Paul ll.’s encyclical
Redemptoris Mater was written on the feast day of the Annunciation of
the Blessed Virgin Mary to initiate the Marian Year 1987. The Marian Year
was meant to celebrate the two-thousandth anniversary of the birth of the
Blessed Virgin Mary. It is also meant to be preparatory celebration for the
coming two thousandth commemoration of the birth of Jesus. This encyclical
has a different purpose than that of Marialis Cultus. Its focus is
more doctrinal than devotional, but doctrinal reflection is intended to lead
to a renewal of devotion.
Redemptoris Mater took up some of the
issues still left open during Vatican II. This document stresses the
‘singularity and uniqueness of Mary’s place in the Mystery of Christ and her
‘active and exemplary presence in the life of the Church.‘ Her mediation is
mediation in Christ. Her mediation is linked to her motherhood, which
distinguishes her as mediatrix from the mediation of all other creatures.
Finally, her mediation is from within and not from above the Church, which
embraces the whole of humanity.
In the Church’s mission of love and service,
Mary leads the new evangelization in bringing the compassion of Jesus, the
healer and reconciler, to the Asian people. Her evangelical presence
witnesses to her compassionate heart, expressed through her silent and
discreet, but efficacious interventions.
Paul VI. Marialis Cultus, 34-37.
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