There’s more than one way to be a Catholic feminist
When Amy Coney Barrett was nominated to the Supreme Court last September, the media and the public alike rushed to scrutinize not only her legal credentials and jurisprudential philosophy, but also her religious faith. The evangelical writer Katelyn Beaty wrote an especially thoughtful op-ed for The New York Times titled “Why Only Amy Coney Barrett Gets to Have It All.” Ms. Beaty asked: “If Judge Barrett’s Catholic faith and indisputable career accomplishments make her such a young heroine of the Christian right, why doesn’t the traditional Christianity to which she adheres encourage more women to be like her?”
To Ms. Beaty, the answer is clear. There is a troubling “reason few Christian women can simultaneously pursue career ambitions and family life in the ways Judge Barrett has: In traditional Christian communities, women are often asked to sacrifice the former at the altar of the latter.” Beaty concludes that “evangelical and traditional Catholic communities must find ways to honor and affirm the ambitions of half their members.” On this point, Ms. Beaty is unquestionably right. She is wrong, however, to assume that the experiences of women raised in Catholic and evangelical communities in the United States are interchangeable.
The Catholic Church is a global faith, with believers all over the world who profess the same creed and celebrate the same liturgies. Yet the universality of the Catholic Church makes room for religious orders, parishes and families to live out their faith through a vast array of cultural traditions and charisms.
Even within the United States, the Catholic Church encompasses countless subcultures, which send very different messages to young women about femininity, family life, marriage and careers. Some traditional communities go too far in one direction, enforcing rigid gender roles that can be overly restrictive, even oppressive or abusive. These communities can attract significant attention in the media, yet in fact those communities are in the minority. It is actually more common for Catholics to absorb and echo the values of their surrounding culture. In doing so, they fail to offer a real, appealing alternative to many secular visions of what it means to live the good life. We fail to provide a model for how to obtain a healthy balance between an individual’s ambitions and a family or community’s needs. This, too, is a failure—one that hurts both our daughters and our sons.
It is important to listen to and learn from the stories of women who have been harmed by both traditionalist and modernist distortions of the church’s teaching. Church leaders, parents and teachers must strive to avoid both extremes. Fortunately, Catholicism gives us the theological and philosophical tools we need to do just that. There is a beautiful message within church teaching on the feminine genius and the nature of vocation—one that today’s women and girls desperately need to hear.
It is important to listen to and learn from the stories of women who have been harmed by both traditionalist and modernist distortions of the church’s teaching.
Ethnic and Socioeconomic Factors
Before delving too deeply into philosophical debates about work and motherhood, it is important to note that, for many women, any such debate is irrelevant; they simply face practical questions of survival. The daily reality is that many mothers—both single and married—must work to provide for their families’ basic needs.
Attitudes about gender roles are also deeply shaped by cultural norms, which can differ among ethnic communities. Like the demographic makeup of the United States as a whole, the composition of the U.S. church has shifted significantly in recent decades. The Public Religion Research Institute reported in 2017: “The Catholic Church is experiencing an ethnic transformation. Twenty-five years ago, nearly nine in ten (87 percent) Catholics were white, non-Hispanic, compared to 55 percent today. Fewer than four in ten (36 percent) Catholics under the age of 30 are white, non-Hispanic; 52 percent are Hispanic.” The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University found that as of 2013, 6,332 parishes (35.9 percent of all parishes in the United States) “are known to serve a particular racial, ethnic, cultural, and/or linguistic community.” Of those, 4,544 (69 percent) serve Hispanic or Latino Catholic communities.
Ashleen Menchaca-Bagnulo, a professor of political science at Texas State University, who was raised Catholic by her Mexican-American family in Texas, said, “I don’t think the idea that God wouldn’t want women to work outside of the home was one that I ever encountered until I was in college, when I started to be exposed to more affluent and more orthodox circles.” As she grew up, Dr. Menchaca-Bagnulo took for granted that women would work, as her mother and grandmother did. “It wasn’t such an angst-filled issue,” she says. “I don’t even think it was talked about.”
Dr. Menchaca-Bagnulo, who is now the mother of two young daughters, said the gender roles she absorbed from her family and community were “very clear” but “also kind of fluid.” In other words, “the women are very feminine. And the men are very masculine. But there’s a lot of shared interests and responsibility. There’s a lot of group activities.” As she progressed through college and graduate school and encountered different Catholic circles, Dr. Menchaca-Bagnulo was surprised at some of the gender-based separation she encountered. In these circles, separate spiritual activities for women and men were common, as was more informal social separation: “The men talk together after dinner, and the women talk together after dinner.”
“While we were taught the body was good, my own body was treated as shameful.”
Traditional Gender Roles
To Dr. Menchaca-Bagnulo, the expectation that mothers should stay home with their children felt like “a status thing,” reserved for those who could afford to have only one working parent. Growing up, there had been “no expectation that your wife wouldn’t work.” But in the more affluent, white, self-consciously intellectual and orthodox Catholic circles she encountered, she said many people did have that expectation, whether it was “moral or economic or both.”
In healthy Catholic communities and families, a strong emphasis on the importance of motherhood can serve as a salutary corrective to broader American culture, which tends to devalue caregiving and exalt professional success over self-sacrificial love, especially among the middle and upper classes. In unhealthy communities and families, however, that emphasis on self-sacrifice can be used as a tool to wield power over women.
The faith should never be used to manipulate a person into staying in an abusive situation. But, unfortunately, sometimes it is. “I was raised that my goal in life was to get married and raise kids,” said Grace Parker, who asked to use a pseudonym for her family’s privacy. Ms. Parker, who is white and grew up in Texas, said she “didn’t get a single ounce of recommendation from [her] parents for pursuing a course of study that might build a fulfilling and worthwhile career.”
She was encouraged to pursue an education, but her studies were only “for fun.” In fact, Grace was actively discouraged from becoming financially independent. “There was not a single conversation with my parents in which they asked me what I planned to do to make money when I got out of college,” she remembers. “Instead, there were multiple conversations in which they forbade me to get a job during college in case I liked making money more than I liked school.” After graduation, her parents encouraged her to move back home, since she was still single, but again forbade her from getting a job. They agreed to pay for her master’s degree in education with the understanding that “all I was going to be allowed to do with it was tutor the Catholic community homeschool children.”
Sometimes these messages come from the surrounding Catholic community as well. Growing up in Arizona, Diana Tyler’s family went to what she described as “a pretty good parish—standard Catholic stuff.” But in addition, Ms. Tyler, who asked to use a pseudonym, said her family was part of “a charismatic Catholic group,” a covenant community that she now regards as a cult. She said that at talks for teens, leaders emphasized “stuff about controlling women,” telling the girls that they must dress modestly in order to keep men from sinning. “While we were taught the body was good, my own body was treated as shameful,” she said.
Ms. Tyler said that in the covenant community, “single women over 30 were considered pathetic. Most of the women did stay home and have kids. Some did have jobs, but they were all ‘little,’ and the attitude was patronizing. You could be a woman with a career—but never a high-powered one.” She remembers that “the general feel was that women were the helpers, not the main event. Women were the wives of men, not half of humanity.” If these messages had been countered by a healthy family life, they might have caused less damage. Sadly, in Ms. Tyler’s case, the culture in her religious community only made things worse, fueling a deeply abusive situation at home.
It was not until she left her parents’ home that she began to understand the depth of the dysfunction in both her family and her faith community. In college, Ms. Tyler was violently sexually assaulted. Her immediate reaction was, “I need to go to confession.”This was a wake-up call for her. As she put it, “if a survivor’s first thought the morning after is ‘I need to go to confession,’ then something is very, very wrong with the way they were raised and taught.” Ms. Tyler has since left the Catholic Church and is estranged from her family, who disowned her after they found out that she was living with her boyfriend.
“Your 20s are yours to do what you want with them, and then you get married in your 30s.”
On the other end of the spectrum, Sara Rennekamp, who grew up in Wisconsin, told me that she was always encouraged to pursue a career. In fact, in her education and faith formation, there was an assumption that a career should be a young woman’s priority, and that getting married and having children should be put off for another day. She sums up the attitude this way: “Your 20s are yours to do what you want with them, and then you get married in your 30s.” But, she says, “Following that rubric, there was very little about my 20s that prepared me for my 30s.”
When it came to both vocational guidance and character formation, the church didn’t offer Ms. Rennekamp anything different from the messages she got at her public school. Although her family was very involved in their parish—going to Mass weekly, attending religious education classes and singing in the folk choir together—Ms. Rennekamp feels there was something missing. “My formation had very little to do with a relationship with Jesus.” Instead, “it was more a kind of moralism. You know, ‘Be a good person’ type of thing.”
When Sara was in high school, news broke that the priest assigned to her parish, whom she liked and admired, had been credibly accused of sexual abuse. This revelation, along with the wider sexual abuse scandals of the early 2000s, made Ms. Rennekamp question the church, and her religious formation did not give her the tools to grapple with these deep betrayals. She remembers thinking, “If any religion is good enough, and the end goal is just to be a good person, then why in the world would I be in a religion that has these people in charge?” The church’s teachings on gay marriage and abortion also troubled her. Concluding that “these teachings seem completely cruel,” Ms. Rennekamp went away to college, stopped practicing her faith and became, in her words, “very anti-religion.”
By age 24, she was living in Washington, D.C., and, as she put it, “really living the casual relationship lifestyle.” As she had been taught, Ms. Rennekamp was pursuing independence and a career. “I was living for myself,” she says. “I had the job, I was having fun with friends and then hooking up with guys.” She had everything the world had told her would make her happy. And yet, she says: “I was just utterly miserable. And I didn’t really know why. It was just kind of this latent anger and sadness just brewing in me.”
One day, through a providential series of events, Ms. Rennekamp found her way to confession with a priest who ended up introducing her to a woman named Anne. Week after week, Anne had Ms. Rennekamp over for dinner. Anne, who is in her 50s now, is single and has no children. She and Ms. Rennekamp forged a deep friendship as they worked through Ms. Rennekamp’s objections to church teaching. Anne “did a lot of the heavy lifting,” Ms. Rennekamp remembers, by “just creating a relationship and answering the questions in love.” Because Anne “was very, very successful and very, very smart,” she also “stood athwart” the stereotypical idea that “Catholic women are supposed to wear denim skirts and have 10 kids and homeschool them.”
The church teaches that all women are called to motherhood. Not all women, though, are called to be physical mothers. Some, like Anne, receive others in a spirit of openness and receptivity, accepting and nurturing them as persons and helping them to grow as children of God. By building a relationship with Ms. Rennekamp, Anne helped her encounter Christ’s love for her. And simply by being who she was, she made Sara question her notions about what it might mean to be a faithful Catholic woman in the modern world. Anne’s “witness and her vocation as a single woman in my life was huge,” reflects Ms. Rennekamp gratefully. “That was used so marvelously and so beautifully by God to bring me back to him.”
The Catholic faith should help young women internalize the truth that they possess innate dignity and are worthy of respect and love.
All Extremes Hurt Women
Seeing women as merely “the wives of men” or equating the submission praised by St. Paul with codependency and subservience distorts the truth and beauty of church teaching. Rather than teaching young women that they must follow a rigid set of rules, parents and church leaders should encourage them to grow in love of God, developing their own gifts and discovering the personal and professional vocations that God has in store for them. The Catholic faith should help young women internalize the truth that they possess innate dignity and are worthy of respect and love. It should be a weapon against abuse and an antidote to trauma, not another set of chains keeping them from breaking free.
Ms. Tyler’s covenant community was rooted in the Catholic Charismatic renewal, which took place after the Second Vatican Council, but the gender roles she was taught were based on older cultural stereotypes. Communities with more traditional liturgical leanings can also fall into this trap. From a traditionalist perspective, is easy to assume that when it comes to sex and marriage, what is old is good and what is new is bad. It is true that contemporary gender ideology is opposed to the Catholic vision of the human person. It is not true, however, that defending church teaching requires that we reject all of the advances of feminism. Indeed, Pope John Paul II called upon Catholics to proclaim a “new feminism.”
Still, there is a reason that Pope John Paul II thought a new feminism was needed. The type of feminism that is most prominent in our society is based on a deeply flawed vision of the human person. When churches, parents and schools uncritically absorb and echo its message, as Ms. Rennekamp’s did, they too err. When Catholic communities slide to this secular extreme, they risk encouraging young women to accept those premises of second-wave feminism that are false. These messages push young women to reject their own bodies and base their self-worth in social status and recognition while they ought to be growing in confidence in their worth as beloved daughters of God. Even if they remain nominally Catholic, these women miss out on the richness of the church’s tradition and the encounter with Christ that Catholicism offers.
There is a reason that Pope John Paul II thought a new feminism was needed.
Duties of Parents
So if we should not be telling women they are required to be stay-at-home mothers, and we should not be pushing them to put their careers above all else, what should we do? How can parents avoid falling into one of these extremes?
In a section titled “The Duties of Parents,” the Catechismof the CatholicChurch affirms that, first and foremost, “Parents must regard their children as children of God and respect them as human persons” as “they educate their children to fulfill God’s law.” The central way that they do this is “by creating a home where tenderness, forgiveness, respect, fidelity, and disinterested service are the rule” (emphasis in original).
The church rightly emphasizes the importance of seeing each child as a unique person, with specific gifts and challenges, who will be called to love God and serve God through their own particular vocation. As parents strive to love one another and their children, showing tender attentiveness to one another’s needs, they are giving their children their first and most powerful lesson in what it means to live out one’s vocation. Single or divorced parents, too, can strive to show their children how to follow God in love and trust, and how God longs to give his grace to all of us, healing our wounds and leading us to himself.
It is not easy, but many families are quietly living out this middle way. When Mary Daly Korson reflects on her upbringing—first in Chicago and then in Louisville—she emphasizes how much her parents’ love and respect for one another was evident to their children. Although her mother stepped away from her career as a physical therapist to stay at home with her children, Ms. Korson says, “it was never understood as, like, ‘My husband’s career is first, and I’m supposed to be at home with the children.’ It was more, ‘We’re in this marriage, we’re a team, and we’re making decisions about what’s best for the family, in regards to what our respective gifts and talents are, and this is how we’ve discerned it’s going to be.’”
Focusing on the unique gifts and vocation of each member of the family, Ms. Korson’s parents taught their daughters and sons that they had a responsibility “to nurture our talents and to do well in the world, to glorify God.” They always emphasized that “careers and education are important, but they are secondary to your primary vocation, whether it be marriage or the celibate life.” In their own lives, Ms. Korson’s parents quietly but consistently put their family and faith first, getting up early or using the kids’ naptime to pray daily, saying the rosary with their kids and bringing everyone to Mass and confession regularly. Through their actions, they showed their children the importance of building a relationship with God through prayer, one that would sustain them through whatever their futures may hold.
Beauty in Diversity
Leo Tolstoy was wrong about happy families—they are not all alike. They are each wonderfully different, made up of unrepeatable human persons whom God has chosen to love one another and help one another grow in love for him. The church’s teaching on vocation reflects this truth.
Some families are drawn to more traditional life choices and styles of liturgy, while others are called to follow a more unconventional path or prefer to worship God in a more contemporary style. When it comes to the roles of women, there are harmful extremes at both ends—traditional and modern—that should be avoided. Yet ultimately parents should feel empowered to help their children explore the many ways of living out God’s call in their lives. And parents can do this knowing that simply by living out their own vocations they can teach their children to know, love and serve God.
Parents of girls should take special care to help their daughters see womanhood as a gift and an essential part of their identity, whether or not they fit cultural stereotypes of femininity. After all, the church teaches that all women have special gifts that our culture desperately needs, both at home and in every other sphere of life. As St. John Paul II wrote in his “Letter to Women,”
[I]n giving themselves to others each day women fulfil their deepest vocation. Perhaps more than men, women acknowledge the person, because they see persons with their hearts. They see them independently of various ideological or political systems. They see others in their greatness and limitations; they try to go out to them and help them (No. 12, emphasis in original).
The world needs women—physical mothers and spiritual mothers, married women, single women and religious sisters, working women and homemakers—to build “a civilization of love.” For as the Catechism tells us, love is “the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being,” both male and female, for we are “created in the image and likeness of God, who is himself love.”