“They’re Both Broad Churches”: Can You Be A Catholic Feminist?

Mary Ward examines the intersection between feminism and religious identity.

On January 2, 1994 I became a Catholic.

I was four months old.* Understandably, I don’t remember it. Less understandably, my parents dressed a newborn baby in an itchy lace dress on one of the hottest days of the year. (In Smithfield, where coastal breezes wouldn’t be caught dead.)

I proceeded to scream my lungs out for an hour straight in response.

Stop! What are you doing? Catholicism? But, dad’s Anglican! Why couldn’t we go down that substantially more relaxed path?

 Hold up, did someone say free weekly wine tastings? I take it all back. Sign me up.

Afterwards, my family got together and ate cake. I probably had mild heatstroke, but, like I said, I don’t remember it.

I don’t have an exact date for when I became a feminist but I doubt I was wearing a lace dress and, if there was cake, it was because there was a special on at Woolies.

My feminism didn’t have a great catalyst. No missed employment opportunity, no catcall in the dead of night, no protest rally: just parents who thought men and women should be equal, and taught their daughters that this was what “the f word” meant.

Like Catholicism, feminism was presented as a truth. There were no tensions between the two. How could there have been? My grandmother was the first person in her family to attend university because she received a Church-sponsored scholarship to a school that would get her there.**

Feminism, by name, not just implication, permeated my education at a Catholic girls’ high school. I was a Catholic feminist. I didn’t question it.

People learn lots of new things when they start university. Some learn that the North Shore Line goes past Central; others learn that contacting textbooks does nothing to ensure their longevity.

I – through a series of conversations, flyers on the Eastern Avenue noticeboards and jokes made by particularly tactless sociology lecturers – learnt that Catholic feminism is not as widely accepted as I originally thought.

This hostile vibe led me to two possible conclusions: either the Church hates feminism, or feminists hate the Church.

The latter reasoning is why Vice-Chancellor of the University of Notre Dame (and practising Catholic) Professor Celia Hammond does not identify as a feminist.

Addressing the Dawson Society in September 2013, Professor Hammond delivered a lecture titled “Catholic Feminism: an oxymoron?” in which she concluded that feminism has become too radical – and too heavily synonymous with pro-abortion discourse – to support a Catholic feminism.

Speaking nearly two years later, Professor Hammond tells me she cannot identify as a feminist because she feels the movement has transitioned from its first-wave form (which she argues embraced all women) into something that attacks her beliefs.

“During the 1980s, my perception of the then-current feminist movement was that it was anti-man, anti-family, anti-tradition,” she says.

I ask how great a role her faith played in that assessment.

“My perception and my decision not to identify with [feminism] was undoubtedly due to a number of factors. My upbringing, my experiences, my education and my faith,” she says.

“I would emphasise that it was the ‘anti-everything’ perception of feminism that I did not want to associate with: I still strongly supported the pursuit of equality of opportunity for women.”

She has a point. The feminist conversation has shifted from equality to choice, yet, some of the Catholic women I spoke to for this piece felt it was only a certain type of choice that is affirmed.

“Working in the sex industry isn’t pleasing the patriarchy,” one said. “But going to mass led by a man is?”

Do feminists hate Catholic values? I (proved I have never taken a statistics subject when I) asked a group of non-Catholic women whether they thought Catholics could be feminists. The answer was a resounding: “Yes, but…”

“Yes, but it depends how Catholic you are.”

“Yes if you’re just involved in your local parish. But not if you’re really into the institution of the thing.”

“Yes, but not if you’re pro-life.”

If you guessed that last answer, you should consider a stint on Family Feud; it was easily the most common response.

Professor Hammond says the degree to which feminism has become preoccupied with access to abortion restricts the involvement of conservative and religious women.

“To the extent that the feminist movement precludes or attacks alternative voices on certain issues, or attempts to shut down pro-family, pro-life voices, it is not pro-woman; it is another form of confinement.”

I said before that the tension between Catholicism and feminism could be attributed to Catholics hating feminism, or feminists hating Catholicism, and – of course – I am giving Catholicism too much credit. There is sufficient evidence to suggest that the Church is more than a bit uneasy with this whole women’s lib business.

While the Second Vatican Council (held from 1962 to 1965) significantly expanded the roles women can play in a parish’s daily functions, this is the religion that time and time again refuses to call men and women equal.

It has been happy to describe them as “equal in dignity” (as done so by Pope Benedict XIV in a 2008 address to the Papal Laity Council) and even as equal in citizenry (as Pope John Paul II put forward in his 1995 Letter to Women, which advocated equal pay and citizen’s rights between the genders).

But, this equality is always anchored in difference, that men and women can perform equally important, but ultimately different, roles.

Jesus, by most accepted accounts, was a dude. From this logic, we receive the conclusion that you need to be a man to become a priest (and need to become a priest to become a bishop, need to become a bishop to become a cardinal, and don’t have much hope of becoming Pope without following that trajectory).

The stained glass ceiling is double-glazed. It also has bars over it. Oh, and the bars are alarmed.

In an article I wrote for BULL magazine earlier this year, I interviewed several women who had decided to join the convent before their 30th birthday.

When I asked them if they felt they were missing out on not being able to become priests, they each gave the same – theologically correct – response: men and women are different, therefore, they have different roles in the Church.

This is the argument taken by New Feminism, a school of thought originally created in opposition to the Suffragette movement, which has been revived by certain female Catholic theologians following the Second Vatican Council.

Under New Feminism, men and women are integrally complementary; neither gender is superior to the other. While this sounds a lot like equality-based feminism, the ideology is often used to create distinctions between women’s work (childrearing) and men’s work (work for actual cash dollars).

Writing for the Guardian in February, former NSW premier Kristina Keneally (a Catholic, a feminist and a South Sydney supporter; truly a woman after my own heart) argued the Church needed Catholic feminism – as in, a Catholic version of mainstream feminism, not necessarily New Feminism – more than ever before.

Prompted by comments made by Pope Francis that Catholic families should not “breed like rabbits”, even though he believed the Church’s ban on artificial methods of contraception was legitimate, Keneally said the Church needed to change its ways in order to maintain some sort of relevance to the lives of modern women, and that modern women should not be afraid to openly criticise the Church.

“A Catholic has an obligation to follow her fully-formed conscience, even if it brings her into conflict with church teaching,” she wrote.

“A fully-formed conscience consults not only scripture and church teaching but also the sciences and human experience.”

Am I a bad Catholic because I am a feminist who believes men and women are actually equal? Probably. Am I going to leave the Church? Unlikely.

Am I a bad feminist because I am a Catholic who kind of hates the way in which my religion is presented as inherently “anti-woman”? Probably.

Am I going to quit my job and leave my degree? Unlikely.

Am I a bad Australian because I think the offshore processing of asylum seekers is messed up? Probably. Am I going to move to Norway? Look, I would if it wasn’t so cold.

Ultimately, people pick and choose the parts of an identity they agree with.

After I finished writing this article, I asked my mother – the woman who birthed me into this identity crisis – for her opinion.

Did she think there was a tension between Catholicism and feminism?

She shrugged.

“They’re both broad churches.”


* To roll your eyes back to their natural placement: I’ve never been bothered by being signed up to a religious worldview so young. People are “born into” plenty of things: race, sexuality, the Freemasons, family businesses selling poorly constructed mobile phone cases, and Catholicism was my thing; as much a part of my family’s culture as race or Masonry for someone else’s.

** Also, she was/is very clever.