What does the Church say about feminism?

Denver events spark deeper conversation about women's place in society

Therese Bussen

Ever since the Women’s March in D.C. on Jan. 21, the topic of feminism is abuzz in both the mainstream media as well as the Church. But for the Church, the woman has always been essential, and especially since St. John Paul II’s pontificate, the conversation about her inherent femininity and her place in society has been prominent.

With the recent launch of the Hispanic division of Endow, the Aquinas Institute’s Great Debate tackling the topic, “Is the Church anti-woman?” on Feb. 23 and an upcoming women’s conference March 25,  it’s evident that the question of who women are and what their role is in the Church is taking deeper root.

“Right” feminism

What is the proper way to understand true feminism, then, in light of the Church’s beautiful teaching on her dignity, worth and inherent gifts?

Endow, an origination that aims to facilitate conversation among women on their authentic femininity through small groups and is based on St. John Paul II’s teachings, offers the Church’s perspective. Denver’s Endow branch, which is where the organization originally started, recently launched its Hispanic division.

Sair del Toro, director of Hispanic Endow in Los Angeles, shared what this looks like.

“There is a complete confusion with the concept of ‘feminism.’ Today, people think that being a feminist means to have the same type of job, or the same salary as men and to work the same amount of hours,” del Toro said. “That is not a healthy feminism. The true feminism is to know what you were created for. The woman’s heart cannot be measured by the size of her salary…but it is measured based on how much they love.

“The true feminism is knowing how to behave in all the circumstances in which we live in this modern world. A woman now works, a woman now has commitments she didn’t have before. True feminism is to behave with the dignity that God gave us as women, to be an example of your faith. With our behavior and our example, a woman [changes many people],” del Toro added.

Pope Francis has recently taken measures to include women in the Church’s decision-making, saying that they are not simply here to “wash the dishes.” Del Toro agreed, saying that not only can a woman be a mother to her children and a wife to her husband, but she also continues her education and is in positions of leadership, “or even as the president of a corporation.”

“But the most beautiful thing about a woman is that she does not stop taking care of her family. She remains the heart of the family that transforms societies,” del Toro said.

Del Toro referred to St. John Paul II’s letters on women and how the dignity of woman was restored by Jesus, as he spoke to and healed many of them in a time and place where interaction with women was seen as taboo.

St. John Paul II wrote in his apostolic letter Mulieris dignitatem (“on the dignity of women”), “…The Church desires to give thanks to the Most Holy Trinity for the ‘mystery of woman’ and for every woman…for the ‘great works of God,’ which throughout human history have been accomplished in and through her. After all, was it not in and through her that the greatest event in human history — the incarnation of God himself — was accomplished?” (#31).

“We don’t have to fight to have a place,” del Toro said. “That place has been given. Christ gave it to us.”

Is the Church anti-woman?

It’s a question that the Aquinas Institute for Catholic Thought, an intellectual formation arm of the St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Center at the University of Colorado Boulder, took on at their 10th annual Great Debate on Feb. 23.

Dr. Mary Anne Case, a law professor at the University of Chicago, and Erika Bachiochi, a visiting fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, met on the common ground of feminism as the debate’s panelists.

The question is not new. People have long asked why the Church does not allow women to be priests, which then spurred this deeper debate question. Bachiochi, who describes herself as a Catholic feminist, holds that the Church does indeed support women. Case believes that while Catholic feminism exists, the institution of the Church, more specifically the hierarchy and the clerics, are anti-woman.

Dr. Case said that men and women shouldn’t have “fixed notions” concerning their roles.

Bachiochi said that she agreed with Case on several issues, and that the voices of women do need more of a platform in the Church. However, she said that demanding that women be allowed to become priests reeks of clericalism.

“I have no less authority than a priest as a baptized Christian,” Bachiochi said. “A priest has authority to represent Christ in a sacramental way, and I have the authority to represent Christ in every other area of my life.”

However, Dr. Case pointed out that men in the Catholic Church “have all of the opportunities, and then some. How can the church not be anti-women…if women are not part of the decision-making?”

Bachiochi agreed, and then referred to how the Pontifical Council of the Laity is a crucial branch of the Vatican. The council exists to assist the Pope in “all matters concerning the contribution the lay faithful make to the life and mission of the Church,” according to their website, and is a platform where the feminine has a say.

Bachiochi additionally noted that “Mary, the Mother of God, is heralded by the Catholic Church as the single greatest human that has ever lived,” and that several female saints are Doctors of the Church.

“The greatest among us are not the clerics, but the saints,” Bachiochi said.

The Debate proves that this is a timely opportunity, even a call, for women to unite with one another on their common beliefs — the dignity and equal rights of women — rather than divisive issues.

Drawing close to Mary

With so many talking about feminism and what it means to be a woman, it’s important to remember the greatest example of the “feminine genius” that ever lived: the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Angela Igielinski, co-chair of the Denver Catholic Women’s Conference, hopes that the event on March 25 will be a place where women rediscover their identity.

“The hope is to help women discover who they are in Christ…and to really continue our conversions to Jesus,” Igielinski said.

The retreat, which is a parish initiative, is titled, “Feminine Authenticity — The Perfect Yes!” The day will offer an opportunity for adoration, confession and talks and is expecting up to 200 women to attend. The theme will focus on Marian spirituality and Luke 1:38, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done unto me according to your word,” to encourage retreatants to meditate on Mary’s “fiat” and apply it to their lives.

With Mary at the helm of heralding authentic femininity, all women can “model her humility and obedience to God,” as the conference’s website says, and remember that the most important way to change culture is first by prayer.

Only after praying will we be able to offer words of love, truth and compassion to both men and women in our culture.

“We have to talk to them, we have to be there, we have to pray,” Igielinski said.

For more information on the conference, or so register to attend, visit denvercatholicconference.com/about.

Carmen Elena Villa and Catholic News Agency contributed to this report.

COMING UP: What women really want is to speak for themselves

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Julie Filby

This story continues a periodic Denver Catholic Register series on the theology of women.

During a visit to Denver last week, Helen Alvaré, law professor at George Mason University School of Law in Virginia and longtime pro-life and pro-family advocate, spoke with the Register about Women Speak for Themselves.

WSFT is a grassroots initiative Alvaré co-founded in February 2012 as a response to the Health and Human Services mandate forcing religious institutions to provide contraception, sterilization and abortifacient drugs to employees through health insurance. In an open letter to President Barack Obama, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and members of Congress—drafted with friend and fellow attorney Kim Daniels, spokeswoman for the president of the U.S. bishops—Alvaré indicated that “no one speaks for all women on these issues” and she put a spotlight on religious liberty issues.

The letter quickly spread, signed by thousands of Catholics, some non-Catholics; Democrats, Republicans and Independents.

“The fact that it caught fire shows that there was an untapped market for this set of messages,” Alvaré explained. “It is a set of  messages.”

What provoked the letter wasn’t only the HHS mandate, she said, but the associated claim that women’s freedom is encapsulated in sexual expression.

“(It was about being) free from the potential for relationship and I don’t just mean a child,” said Alvaré who has served as a consultant for the Pontifical Council of the Laity at the Vatican and an advisor to the U.S. bishops. “The way the administration was promoting it, it meant sexual expression free of the potential of a relationship with a man.”

It was telling by people who “came out of the woodwork” supporting it, including Planned Parenthood leadership, the National Women’s Law Center in Washington, D.C., activist Sandra Fluke and actress Lena Dunham—each indicating it was “about time” somebody paid for “really good, expensive birth control.”

“The emphasis was never just on not having a child,” Alvaré said. “It was on being a person who sexually expresses yourself because it’s about you, it’s your identity, it’s your freedom; maybe it’s your equality with men, who also have sex without bearing children.”

The message was clear, she said, and insulting.

“Equating women’s freedom with expressing oneself sexually was so ridiculous, so insulting, for many, many reasons,” said the wife and mother of three. “Where have they been while the rest of the intelligent world has been assessing the fallout of the sexual revolution?”

Laws of economics, psychology and sociology have shown the number one losers in that scenario are women, she said.

“It’s since the introduction, not only of the pill, but of wide-scale programs to push it, you have more unintended pregnancies, more out-of-wedlock births, more single motherhood” she said, “and, therefore, more poverty.”

If that was the best the federal government could do for women, she’d had enough. It was then that she drafted the letter with Daniels.

“We sent it out to about 30 of our friends and it went to 42,000 without even trying,” she explained. “We just want (the administration) to stop lying about what a women’s agenda would look like.”

If you ask women what they really want, she continued, they want to make contributions to the public square, equal pay, equal opportunity in education and to “make all the vocational contributions the Creator has made them capable of.”

“But it turns out 50 years after the pill, they actually want to get married and have children in most cases too,” she added.

Alvaré, who participated in an international gathering of women in Rome Oct. 10-12 hosted by the women’s section of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, is encouraged by Pope Francis’ call for a deeper theology of women.

“I think it’s wonderful,” she said. “You’ll notice when he says that, his next statement is usually that we need to think about bringing  women into positions in the Church. One thing he seems to intend is to see what it’s like when men and women are working side by side, in a complementary fashion, inside the Church.

“That’s clear from his remarks,” she said and she intends to be part of what she hopes will be the Church’s complementary model to the world. “I think that’s coming and I’m very excited.”