Current Comment

Feminism and Patriarchy

Theological and doctrinal developments sometimes come out of officially discredited movements. Though Pope John Paul II and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith criticized the errors of liberation theology, for example, the church soon afterward incorporated leading liberation ideas like “structural sin” and “the preferential love of the poor” into its own teaching. Blessed John Paul, even as he tutored Eastern European countries on their transition to market economies in “Centesimus Annus” also reminded them of Marxian insights on alienation, exploitation and marginalization that are still valuable (Nos. 41-42).

In the same way, it is past time for church officials to recognize the proven insights of feminist theology and to dialogue with its critique of the injustices done by patriarchy. It is unfitting for all those insights to be dismissed as theologically “radical.” Jesus’ contemporaries held him in suspicion for openly keeping company with women. The Gospels of Luke and John and the letters of Paul provide ample evidence that women played key roles in the early church. Even in the patristic era, the Christian practices of celibacy and the love of learning led to the emancipation of upper-class women and to their friendship with men. That Christian-inspired social equality ended because the church failed to evangelize fully the military culture of the German tribes, who subordinated women.


Particularly when it comes to the equality of women, both inside and outside the home, the church should acknowledge its own historical inculturation, accept the legitimate insights of feminist theology and purify official theology of the distortions inflicted by patriarchical, pre-Christian Roman and later feudal Teutonic images of womanhood. For as the church proclaims the Gospel as the guarantor of human dignity for all, those vestiges of history continue to impart a counterwitness.

Far-Sighted Leaders

Too many elected leaders continue to subject the country to an especially ruinous trend, which is to put short-term political or partisan advantage ahead of the long-term public interest. Consider, for example, the recently passed House bill to eliminate the Prevention and Public Health Fund, which is part of the Affordable Health Care Act. The reason given for cutting this fund is to use the money to extend for a year the low interest rate currently charged to college students. But the bill is a double fault.

First, in this economy, which has produced so few jobs for graduates, there is no excuse for giving students such a short extension—except election-year politics. What will happen to the interest rate after that? Few economists expect the economic recovery to eliminate the need for low-interest student loans. Far-sighted leaders ought to make a better-educated work force a priority—more engineers, math majors, gerontologists, scientists, inventors, not to mention critical thinkers.

Second, it makes no sense to cut preventive health services. The fund’s major expenditures are for immunization; local, city and state programs to reduce obesity and smoking; and the training of primary care doctors and physician assistants. The nation faces an epidemic of childhood obesity, an increase in diabetes, a prescription-drug addiction crisis and other preventable health issues, plus a shortage of physicians and ever-rising health care costs. Far-sighted leadership, in fact, established the prevention fund. It is one of many future-oriented parts of the health care reform, which is designed for long-term public benefit—healthier citizens—and ought to lower health care costs.

Still Invisible

The homeless man under a bush in the park and the bent-over woman pushing a shopping cart loaded with all she owns are familiar sights. They strike a chord especially this year, the 50th anniversary of Michael Harrington’s The Other America. He coined the term “invisible poor,” who are unseen both because they are socially marginalized and because the affluent look the other way. Mr. Harrington, who died of cancer in 1989, would now be 84. Though he said the intellectual decadence of the neo-Thomism taught at Holy Cross College alienated him from the church, his years at the Catholic Worker and Catholic social teaching enriched his commitment to socialism. His biographer, Maurice Isserman, recently reported a conversation with Harrington’s sons (The Nation, 5/14). What would Harrington do today? he asked. They mentioned his respect for European socialism and suggested he would regret that incivility dominates our political discourse and would be dismayed that 46 million Americans live in poverty.

In 1971 Holy Cross gave Harrington an honorary degree. Catholic universities should honor others who lift the veil of invisibility from the 49.9 million without health insurance, the 8.1 percent unemployed, those in low-wage jobs without benefits, the 46 million on food stamps, the growing lines at soup kitchens. They believe, as President Obama put it, that the growing gap between rich and poor is “the defining issue of our time.”

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Mary Ann Hinsdale
6 years 8 months ago
Congratulations to the editors for these far-sighted and astute comments.  I always enjoyed reminding my students at Holy Cross (where I taught for 13 years) that Michael Harrington was an alumnus, AND a socialist alumnus!  I totally support the idea that Catholic universities should honor those like him who "lift the veil of invisibility" of the ignored and "invisible" poor.  I also endorse your comments on feminism and patriarchy and the continuous mislabeling of any feminist position as "radical" in ecclesial statements.  An obstacle facing the appearance of either topic on the commencment platform is the U.S. bishops determination to ban any but "the most pure" in terms of Catholic orthodoxy.  In this new "error has no rights" strategy, they fail to recognize this only propounds the loss of their credibility, given the clerical sex-abuse cover-ups by the hierarchy.  Furthermore, until "feminist theologies" no longer are seen as only by, for and about women, there will not be much progress. Is there any free-standing diocesan seminary that teaches courses on feminist theology (without demonizing it)?  I still hear of colleagues who tell their women doctoral students not to self-describe as "feminist," less they not be taken "seriously."  So, I'm afraid there still is a long way to go on that score.
Mike Evans
6 years 8 months ago
When was the last time you heard a well delivered homily urging respect and compassion for the poor of our own local community, state, nation, world? Too often it is simply one outside missioner making a presentation, asking for American congregations to contribute this one time to their ministry. Recognition of the needs of the poor has been subsumed under the desperate attempts to control the discussion on church hierarchy and finances. Only rarely do we look outside of ourselves and our oun comfort zones to engage the real but unseen world of the poor, neglected and marginalized. That there is even any Catholic support for the Paul Ryan budget is a telling indicator.
Tom Maher
6 years 8 months ago
" ... proven insights of feminist theology ... " ?    What on earth are you talking about?  What  is "feminist theology"  And what insights does this unheard of subject have ?  Who,  What, Where When and Why?   Does the phrase "feminist theology" even make sense as a serious study? 

This is more politcal manipulation of? ?w?o??m?e?n? and the Church for secular poli?t?cal purposes?.
Tom Maher
6 years 8 months ago
Comment # 3 continuation

This is more political manipulation of women and the Church for political purposes.
Anne Chapman
6 years 8 months ago
Comments #3 and #4 are clear evidence as to why the all male group who are the hidden faces of the Magisterium desparately need to undertake some serious reflection, and then get up the courage to shed its traditional patriarchal theology and develop its understanding of legitimate feminist theology.
6 years 8 months ago
Every theologian I know is familiar with Feminist Theology.  This editorial does a wonderful job of introducing the reader to it.  God's creation is holy and a theology that deals with the holiness of the woman addresses that.  Peace be with you, Tom.  A good book on the subject is  She Who Is by Elizabeth Johnson.
Tom Maher
6 years 8 months ago
Patricia Krommer # 6

What is needed in this editorial is plain statements of what are some of the concrete problems to justify the statement "it is past time for church officials to recognize the proven insights of feminist theology ..."  to be meaningful.  The reader should not be expected to take exotic courses in theology or read exotic books to get a explaination of simple facts of the case the editorial is trying to make. 

By the way I do know that many of Sister Elizabeth's theological views were recently strongly disapproved of by the Bishops.  Sister Elizabeth's  issues are not self-evident and not everyone agrees with her.
Katherine Schlaerth
6 years 8 months ago
Those of us who actually work with the poor will tell you there are probably three distinct subgroups. Those who are mentally handicapped are not capable of caring for themselves in a complex society, and under the principle of subsidiarity the most local organization capable of asisting, should. This may be the town, the county or the state. A second group consists of persons working at low income jobs, often two jobs at a time, and these workers are often immigrants. They are part of the backbone of our country, are scraping by, are teaching their children solid values, and in this country such hard work will be rewarded probably in the second or third gr=enerations. The third group, who frustrate us all, are used to being cared for and "milk the system" forcing others to work and pay exorbitant taxes so they can continue a lifestyle of ease. For those who think I am being unnecessarily harsh, I invite you to spend a 10-14 hour day with me (and I work on weekends as well) and see what I see. Please understand that I am speaking of the "poor" in this country only. Having worked in a third world country years ago, I feel the above categorization does not apply elsewhere.
I am heartily sick of leftist academicians and politicians who schill for more taxes and government intervention at a higher than necessary level (subsidierity again) and never even get to know the "poor", a very diverse group!
Virginia Edman
6 years 8 months ago
I suspect that the comments on feminism are an answer to the Vatican's charge that the women religious have some radical feminist ideas.  The sisters that I know have evolved into feminists because they have spent decades in the Church as subservient and unequal.  Many have had more experience with the real world then the bishops ever will, yet their opinion is not often considered important as they are only women.  If a man, be he a priest or a lay person, says he does not get it, that is no big surprise.   
Mike Evans
6 years 8 months ago
Kate' complaint about the third group of persons in need who "milk the system" would lead one to believe it is ok to underfund aid and health care and assistance to all the groups because she has encountered someone she considers "undeserving." First, Jesus didn't exempt us in Matthew 25 from feeding the hungry who passed some litmus test. Second, the stereotyping of this group would indicate it is of huge size and dominates the entire corps of the needy. In fact, the 200 or so families we see each week at our emergency food locker are not milking the system, they are desperate to simply survive. The disabled have had their grants cut and cut again, and in California they are ineligible for food stamps. So many seniors on small social security incomes are caring for their grandchildren with little or no help. And single moms with toddlers in tow are hard pressed to keep them in high priced rental housing, basic food and even shoes. It is just an insult to these brothers and sisters to call them milkers of the system. They certainly are not.
James Thompson
6 years 8 months ago
Mike, Please re-read Kate's comment. In carefully reading both your comment and Kate's comment I believe you did not understand what she said and you should retract the parts of your commentary that abuse her. I think your critique of what she actually said is unreasoned but your intension (to help the needy) is honorable. Based on personal experience I do agree with you that the state should raise enough revenue to meet the minimal needs of the poor and misfortunate because charitable organizations acting alone can't relieve all the human suffering.
Mona Villarrubia
6 years 8 months ago

Tom, Wikipedia has an article on Feminist Theology for those who need somewhere to start. It is not a Catholic phenomenon, note. In the article I found this quote by Sojourner Truth from her, "Ain't I a Woman?" speech:

"And how came Jesus into the world? Through God who created him and the woman who bore him. Man, where was your part?"

I like that!

There are lots of excellent books and articles by women theologians, but they do tend to be unpopular with many in the all-male hierarchy. But then, that's illustrative of the problem isn't it.

Karen Silver
6 years 8 months ago
I think it's essential that women's voices become more prominent in today's Church and that the voices of nuns, who are on the front lines in the interface between poverty and God, not be silenced and stomped on. One of the nuns I studied with at Fordham would be a candidate for the red hat if she had the right biological equipment. She had brains, power and the capacity to love greatly but with common sense.

Donald Wuerl took it upon himself to launch an attack at a wonderful woman who wasn't even part of his see, because she stood up for a view of God that threatened his power. He needed to prove that he had the power that went with the testicles. He is a major player in the suppression of opposing voices. Women have ceased being passive victims. We know that Mary Magdalen was a powerful woman and not a repentant whore, someone who Jesus valued for her strength and her ability. The Church seems to be leaving Jesus behind while it kicks devoted women in the face. This is shameful. This is not the way Jesus would have acted. Nor would the person who spoke the wonderful words in Matthew 25:31-46 have countenanced the lack of care for the poor that is inherent in the abandonment of the nuns.


The latest from america

In cities across the country, local activists marched in support of a progressive agenda centered on economic justice, racial justice and immigrant rights.
Brandon SanchezJanuary 20, 2019
Screengrab from a viral video showcasing a confrontation between a Native American drummer and a group of Catholic high school students in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 18, 2019. Screenshot via YouTube.
Several clips of the encounter circulating on social media show a small group of Native American drummers, who were in Washington for the Indigenous People’s March, being surrounded by a much larger band of teenagers.
Pope Francis has suppressed the Ecclesia Dei Commission, a significant decision with consequences for the Holy See’s relations with the priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X.
Gerard O’ConnellJanuary 19, 2019
Photo: IMDB
A new Netflix miniseries brings out the story’s aspects of adventure and conflict, with occasionally pulse-pounding results.
Rob Weinert-KendtJanuary 19, 2019