This is rough and painting with broad brushes because those are inchoate thoughts, but here goes.
I think there needs to be strong, vibrant feminist thought within the Catholic Church. I think the Catholic Church needs to be feminist; it needs to view promoting the advance of women on the same level as it views ministering to the poor*, just as Jesus preached and practiced (at least for his time) a radical equality of the sexes.
[* Please disregard any potentially patronizing implications of women = the poor. You know what I mean.]
This needs to be undergirded by a certain type of feminist thought which we don’t have yet, i.e. truly feminist and truly Catholic.
By this I mean we need to avoid/move past a certain number of pitfalls. Here are the main problems I see in the interaction of Catholic and feminist thought.
- For extremely understandable reasons, “traditional” secular feminist thought is primarily concerned with issues of power, and power structures. While this is fine and dandy when it comes to social reform, it leads you to dead ends when you’re dealing with Catholic issues, because true Christianity is not concerned with wielding or even changing power (or only transitionally) but with rejecting/submitting to it. A classic example is the ordination of women. If you think the main obstacle to women’s equality is power structures, then the Catholic Church cannot be feminist until it has women priests, and women bishops, and women popes, because you view the Church as first and foremost a hierarchy, and this hierarchy is dominated by men. But this is a category error. The Church is not a Masonic Lodge with levels of holiness whose higher rungs are reserved for men; the goal of Christian life is holiness and fulfilling one’s vocation which is open to men and women equally. A good feminist response would be to say that this is all fine and true in theory, but that in practice the Church is always going to be disinclined to feel strongly about women’s issues if its centers of power are male-only. To which I would say, first of all, if you’re a Christian you shouldn’t discount the power of empathy so much, and second of all, “call Vatican II’s bluff” and demand a greater role for the laity and consecrated women within the Church’s power structure. There’s no reason why, say, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith can’t be a lay or consecrated woman (at least no Evangelical reason). Both theologically and pragmatically, this seems to me to be much more fertile grounds to explore.
- Also understandably, secular feminist thought (at least of the “first wave” variety) preaches not only the radical equality of the sexes but their identity. Gender is wholly a social construct. “One is not born woman, one becomes a woman.” Again, as social critique, this has lots of power. And I definitely think Church intellectuals need to pay a LOT more attention to how gender is socially determined and to critique those determinations, instead of rejecting gender theory as a whole. But as theology, rejecting sexual difference outright flies in the face of, at the very least, most of the Bible and two thousand years of tradition. We can argue about what that difference ENTAILS (e.g. what is the moral status of homosexual relationships), but I don’t think you’re ever going to get the Church to reject sexual difference outright. Instead of trying to force that paradigm out, I think you have to work within it.
- And finally, and this is where I chide the conservatives now, even if you take sexual difference for granted, the Church also cannot, and should not, embrace what I would call “patronizing pseudo-feminism”. This is the line of argument that goes, either, “of course the sexes are equal but they’re also complementary” and oh whaddaya know, this complementarity means that women have to take on traditionally submissive roles and men have to take on traditionally dominant roles (again, sexual complementarity has a lot of merit as theology; what’s bullshit is using it as an excuse to perpetuate the patriarchy); or, worse, “no the sexes are not equal, women are SUPERIOR to men, so superior that all this messy business of wielding power is beneath them.”
Again, my mind is all jumbled up about this. I’m not sure I have any penetrating insight, and I certainly don’t have answers. I don’t know if I’m even making sense. But this is an important endeavor, and I think these are a few avenues of thinking that might bear fruit.