For many people, the Catholic perspective on marriage and family life is a fraught subject. Official statements and, to varying degrees, the work of professional theologians and popular thinkers can seem to fall short of the complex, lived realities and diversity of familial circumstances in the lives of members of the Body of Christ. Too often, we are presented with an idealized depiction of “the Christian family”: the pious nuclear family modeled on the Holy Family.
It is well known that, in this model, those who are divorced, especially if remarried, are left out. However, the ramifications go even further: Limiting the view of the family to this single image means we are left without any meaningful recognition of the familial commitments of single adults. Also missed are the importance of relationships with and responsibilities to our parents, potential siblings and extended families, including in-laws. For many Catholics, especially women, the corollary discussions of gender become particularly painful.
With “Amoris Laetitia,” Pope Francis offers a refreshing departure from this oft-repeated model. While not the bulk of the document, he offers a radical shift in tone regarding gender and feminism. Catholic teaching on gender upholds gender complementarity, which maintains that men and women have distinct roles, even characteristics, grounded in their biological sex. For example, St. John Paul II’s “Mulieris Dignitatem” framed femininity as linked to motherhood, which is necessarily compassionate and nurturing, regardless of whether or not an individual woman is actually a mother. One consequence has been that mainstream feminism has often been viewed as suspect in Catholic circles because it seeks to modify gendered roles in families and is seen at the popular level to be synonymous with sexual liberation. While Pope Francis does not reject complementarity, he begins to move this conversation in a new direction.
Francis clearly states the important contribution of feminism to the world and church. He sharply condemns any view that would blame “women’s emancipation” for the many ways in which women’s bodies are reduced to objects, including surrogacy and commercialization and sexualization in the media. For example, while a variety of voices, both secular and religious, see these kinds of phenomena as instances of cultural change, even decline, due to increased choices and sexual freedom available to women. However, the pope maintains these attitudes are the result of male chauvinism. The commodification of the female body, then, is the result of sexism. In his reaffirmation of the church’s stance against all forms of abuse against women, he writes, “we must…see in the women’s movement the working of the Spirit for a clearer recognition of the dignity and rights of women” (No. 54).
Further, he seems to practically take the teeth out of the content of complementarity. Some forms of secular feminism see gender roles as socially constructed and distinct from biological sex. Francis rejects this view, maintaining the perspective that biological sex and gender are not the same, but are deeply related. Still, when he discusses masculinity and femininity, he is critical of gender stereotypes that would limit people’s way of being in the world. He explains that “masculinity and femininity are not rigid categories” (No. 286). Women have the capacity for leadership, and men have to take on tasks in the family in order to “accommodate the wife’s work schedule.” Here he seems to breaking down any gender roles that place women in the home and men in the world that gender complementarity would seem to support.
These small tonal shifts offer a subtle development in the way the church relates to feminism. Pope Francis notes his appreciation of feminism and, in a key development, identifies it as the work of the Holy Spirit. In so doing, he offers hope and belonging to many women who feel pain about belonging in the church, or who may have one foot out the door.