Feminism is a movement of the Holy Spirit
By Glen Argan
Most of the attention drawn by the release of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) a year ago centred around the issue of the reception of Communion by divorced and civilly remarried Catholics.
However, the document is a font of wisdom on many topics, and perhaps the first anniversary of its release on April 8 will provide a spur to examine some of those other concerns.
One such topic — the pope’s declaration that feminism is a movement of the Holy Spirit — has so far received scant attention. This is unfortunate. For the pope’s brief comments on the topic represent an evolution in Church teaching. They also stand as a challenge to Catholics who view contemporary feminism as akin to the work of the devil.
It is easy to disregard the rightful challenges of the women’s movement to society if one caricatures feminists as domineering, self-centred, promiscuous women who hammer young girls with the message that being a successful woman means independence and power over men.
When we stereotype an advocacy group in such a manner, we not only polarize the discussion and marginalize the message its proponents bring, we also set the ground for physical and other forms of abuse. Not the sort of thing Christians should be doing.
In one short paragraph (54), Pope Francis spoke in favour of women’s rights and women’s participation in public life. He decried “unacceptable customs” such as genital mutilation, violence against and enslavement of women, patriarchal cultures, the exploitation of the female body, surrogate motherhood, and the lack of equal access to dignified work.
He continued: “There are those who believe that many of today’s problems have arisen because of feminine emancipation. This argument, however, is not valid: It is false, untrue, a form of male chauvinism. . . .
“If certain forms of feminism have arisen which we must consider inadequate, we must nonetheless see in the women’s movement the working of the Spirit for a clearer recognition of the dignity and rights of women.”
Painting the canvas of feminism with broad strokes of black and white draws a false picture of a multi-hued movement.
What rock bottom Church teachings must we strive to protect in discussing feminism? First, the right to life of the unborn is inviolable. Upholding the rights and dignity of women should not lead to killing the unborn.
Second, God created the human person in his image, male and female. Sex and gender are divine gifts, not social constructs that can be manipulated at will. As well, the sexes are complementary; each fulfills the other without a superiority of one over the other.
But complementarity should not lead to rigid roles. At the least — and maybe the most, too — it means that women can have babies and men cannot. Who actually raises those babies is not cast in stone. Later in Amoris Laetitia, the pope states point blank: “Masculinity and femininity are not rigid categories” (286).
Pope Francis elaborates on the issue this way: “Taking on domestic chores or some aspects of raising children does not make (the husband) any less masculine or imply failure, irresponsibility or cause for shame.”
One has to wonder why Christians would polarize this issue, which should instead be an opportunity for dialogue. Is it because of a yearning for simplistic answers to complex questions? Is it because otherwise good Catholics hunger for superiority over those who are not of our fold? Is it because people see distortions of the principle of human equality and are fearful of those distortions becoming the norm for society?
Pope Francis repeatedly calls for dialogue. But without common ground, there is no dialogue and no overcoming of differences. The lines will only continue to harden.
If we want to end the scourge of abortion, we won’t do it by further polarizing the debate. Asserting our own moral superiority and demonizing those who disagree with us is no way to move forward. We need to seek common ground with those who do not share all of our views. We need to understand feminism as a movement of the Holy Spirit and move to the place the Spirit is calling us.
(Mustard Seed column was published in The Catholic Register, Toronto [www.catholicregister.org], April 17, 2017)