The Catholic Response to “Abolitionist” Feminism

Feminism is a slippery issue that gets more slippery the more you think about it. It starts off seeming perfectly clear. One Catholic feminist, an intelligent woman, tells us that “The core of feminism lies in the simple demand that women receive the same respect as men as independent, capable human beings.” She’s right, I think, but on reflection the demand is not so simple. If independence and capability have the same place in women’s lives as men’s, why the emphasis on relationships and style? Why the special concern with protection and vulnerability? Also, “respect” sounds like a formal arm’s-length relation. Is that what women want most, or would they rather have something a bit more like attention and consideration?

People go for different things, and the rewards they get are not exactly the same. Soldiers get more honor, businessmen more money, journalists more column inches. The feminist demand is that women get exactly the same reward men get and to exactly the same degree. Does that mean they don’t get any special reward as women? Or do they get both? Or maybe one or the other depending on what they want at the time?

Another intelligent Catholic woman, somewhat feminist in her way, suggests that “a feminist is always someone who feels some distress or dissatisfaction with the way women are treated.”   That also seems right, but where does it lead us? Not every woman is dissatisfied with the same things, or with the same thing at all times. Hence all the different feminisms, each at odds with the others, not to mention all the women who say they are not feminist. A hundred sixty-four years after the Seneca Falls Convention, the Woman Question is still unresolved. In fact, no one seems to know what it is or what an answer would look like. Men notoriously don’t know what to do about women. But if women know what to do about themselves, why all the self-help books? The lists of “summer makeovers” in women’s magazines? The endless discussions of roles and relationships and conflicts and what it is to be a woman? And why is the whole area so very touchy?

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Women are various and changeable, or so people say, but life goes on, and talk must eventually come to an end. The modern world likes to be clear and decisive, so official feminism has decided to solve the woman question by abolishing women. Make them the same as men, and there’s nothing further to talk about. Then we can get on with the real business of life: producers can produce, consumers can consume, businessmen can be busy, bureaucrats can sit in their bureaus, and so on. What could be simpler or better?

The idea goes back to Plato’s idea in the Republic of raising girls as well as boys to be warrior-athletes schooled in mathematics, music, and metaphysics. Today it’s employee-consumers instead of warrior-athletes, and political correctness does duty for more substantive studies, but the basic idea is the same: get rid of messy stuff like sex and the sexes for the sake of a rational system that does what those in charge want it to do.

With that as the implicit goal, almost all countries have ratified CEDAW, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which requires governments to

take all appropriate measures … to modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based … on stereotyped roles for men and women.

So it is now formally recognized at the highest levels of law and politics that it is a duty of government to root out conduct that suggests that men and women differ in any way that matters. That duty is universal and comprehensive, and it means that if Belarus wants to have Mothers’ Day, or only 30% of Slovenian children are in daycare, it’s a problem under international human rights law.

Beyond its evident absurdity and inhumanity, such a situation is an obvious problem for the Church. Women priests are only the beginning. The “abolish women” theory of feminism, which is where the movement has ended up as a practical matter, gets rid of the natural law idea that the sexual aspects of the human body have intrinsic meaning. The effect is to do away with Christian moral doctrine on sexual matters generally. If sexuality has no intrinsic meaning, it’s up to you what to make of it, subject to practical concerns about awkward pregnancies and STDs that lend themselves to technological fixes. So if some kind of sexual conduct rings your bell, go for it, but use a condom. And if contraception fails or plans change, abortion becomes a necessity to free women from the unjust burden, now viewed as wholly extraneous to who they are, of having female bodies.

The problems for Christianity go deeper even than moral doctrine. Sex is at least as meaningful as rocks, ostriches, and planetary nebulae. So if human sexuality has no intrinsic meaning, but only the meanings particular persons happen to give it, nothing in the natural world has intrinsic meaning. But if the natural world means nothing, and it’s all just a blank tablet for us to fill in with our own meanings and use for our own purposes, what becomes of the Incarnation? How could God express who He is through a natural order that—it now appears—means nothing whatever? Islam attributes the world and moral law to the absolutely arbitrary will of God, so it does not recognize natural law. Nor does it recognize the Incarnation. Aren’t those two positions connected? Doesn’t the Incarnation depend on the goodness of the created order?

It is evident that abolitionist feminism is radically at odds with Christianity, not to mention humanity, natural law, common sense, the common good, and social justice,  which gives each what is due and so wants Mothers’ Day for mothers in Belarus and maternal care for children in Slovenia. That seems an important point, given the power of the feminism of CEDAW, the Democratic Party, and The New York Times as a social, political, and legal force. Nonetheless, most of the contemporary Church doesn’t want to say much about it. Bl. John Paul II may have called for a “new feminism,” a sort of refurbished femininity, but the day-to-day operational ways of thinking that have given us altar girls and “inclusive language” draw more on secular trends that have no use for women as women or men as men. Going with the flow may be an effective way to remain comfortable and socially acceptable for a while, but basic problems don’t go away, and vagueness is not the way to deal with threats to the Faith and the common good that are backed by immensely powerful forces. Most of us fall short of what we should do in all sorts of ways, so the situation is understandable, but when the problems are so basic and unavoidable we need to do better.


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