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.
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.
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.”