Press Watch: Feminism and the Failure of Authority

In the library the other day, I took another look at America, the Jesuit periodical, but there does not seem to have been any change under its new editor, George W. Hunt. The journal (paid circulation: 30,000) continues along its grey path of genteel apostasy, its sentiments and editorials deja vu in The New York Times. What is to me so dispiriting about the magazine is its lack of conviction, and above all the sense that its devotion to the marginal, the irrelevant and the secular is its way of avoiding the great undeclared war of our time, that between orthodoxy and heresy.

Thus the pointless editorials about the Gromyko visit (pointless because the same secular sentiments have already been expressed a hundred times in secular publications with circulations hundreds of times larger than America’s); the resounding cliches about Northern Ireland (an energetic pursuit of a political solution is to be encouraged; failure to act will tragically lead to more violence); ditto arms control (the President has an opportunity to go down in history—but must settle the disputes raging between departments of State and Defense), UNESCO (flagrant mismanagement), and so on.

On the religious front, there is of course no doubt that America is on the side of heresy rather than orthodoxy; but cautiously so; inconspicuously; slow but steady wins this race. Hans Kung? Is to be commended. Partial Tridentine revival? Came as a shock to some, but is the Vatican as willing to grant exceptions for liturgical experimentation as it is for liturgical anachronisms?

Msgr. Harry Byrne of Epiphany Parish in New York City was given three pages of the magazine to express his judicious sense that the papal teaching linking contraception and abortion should be subordinated to “the women’s liberation movement,” which is “burgeoning,” especially “in our America.” The priest evidently believes that papal teaching should be reconsidered in light of political expediency. “Opposition to the women’s movement may well be an albatross about the neck of the right-to-life movement,” he opined. The muddled cleric seems to believe that if only the opponents of abortion will form an alliance with the proponents of it, then the feminist opposition to abortion will melt away. This in fact is advice calculated to split the right-to-life movement down the middle, whether Rev. Byrne knows it or not. His position really is to advocate that the church should join the winning side. “An inexorable social revolution is underway concerning women’s liberation with which the church will of necessity come to terms,” he prophesies.

In fact, as I hope to show, the women’s liberation movement is a response not so much to patriarchy as to the kind of pusillanimity that Byrne himself typifies.

What a curious thing is Maryknoll, the monthly magazine of the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America: sixty-four pages in full and glossy color, filled always with pictures of those oddly androgynous-looking “missioners” who go to far-flung lands, and preach what amounts to socialism decked out in vaguely religious terminology. It too gives the impression that it cannot prudently tell its readers what it really believes, and no longer believes. It is of course hardly a secret that the Maryknoll order has become intensely politicized, in the direction of espousing the socialist ideology, but in the magazine this is kept as inexplicit as possible by using a vague, imprecise and constantly shifting language. (The latest Maryknollword is “option” and it can be simply translated as “socialism;” as in, “option for the poor.” It has nothing to do with “choice.”)

How frustrating the non-profit tax rules must be for publications like Maryknoll. In the October issue the publisher of the magazine told us that the November elections were “crucial,” but he was unable to tell us whom to vote for. The standard routine in the 1984 political season was for Catholic bishops, Catholic editors, and Catholic leftists in general, to tell us that we should not vote on the basis of single issues, that we should not vote our self-interest, and that we should support the candidate of “peace.” An article by Philip Scharper in the October issue of Maryknoll took just this line. (“Rather, as the bishops state, it is their intention to urge Catholics not to vote on one issue alone, nor to choose candidates on the basis of self-interest.”)

In the event, of course, Ronald Reagan received a sizeable majority of the Catholic vote. I like to think that this followed from the bishops’ advice. Looked at this way, Catholics voted for Reagan because of the abortion issue, but this was not single issue voting: they also supported him on the “peace” issue, perceiving that peace is achieved through strength, rather than weakness. As for “self-interest,” one in three Americans now receives some kind of government benefit in the form of welfare or social security, many of them Catholics,’ and we may guess that these recipients of U.S. Treasury checks decided that Reagan was the candidate most likely to curtail their benefits, and thus transgress their self-interest. So they voted for him.

It is something for the bishops to think about at least, and the editors, with their hazily worded advice.

In general the leftist drift among U.S. Catholic publications, a drift matched by the U.S. hierarchy as a whole, is a remarkable development. Commonweal, Our Sunday Visitor and of course the National Catholic Reporter should be added to the list. In my opinion this drift expresses a loss of faith more than anything else. It is not an easy matter, of course, to explain why such a loss of faith might have occurred, but an interesting article in Fidelity perhaps sheds some light on this. I should explain that Fidelity, like CinC, is a monthly journal of orthodox Catholic views, published in South Bend, IN. It is a lively publication, and its July issue contained an article of exceptional interest, “Is Notre Dame Still Catholic?”

In the November issue there was a piece by its editor, Michael Jones, entitled “Lunch With Sister Traxler,” a radically feminist nun with the National Coalition of American Nuns in Chicago. Jones elicited a very revealing comment from Sister Traxler. He asked her if there had been some “turning point” in her radicalization, especially her dawning perception of men as oppressors, etc.

“Oh yes,” she said after a short pause, “a situation in which the pastor was abusing girls sexually, and I reported it, and nothing was done. I reported it for three years in a row.”

This was 20 years ago, at a girls’ boarding school. The priest is now dead, apparently, but Sister Traxler provided no further details.

“Is it possible that the root of feminism is authority that failed?” Jones asked. “Is feminism in the church based on the experience of women who found men weak, either morally or pastorally? Is it possible that the presence of feminism in the church is the result of an abdication of authority by those who should have used it to defend the weak, and that the women who looked for it in their male superiors went away disappointed, only to seek real authority in the state?”

Yes, it’s possible. Looked at this way, feminism is not a revolt against patriarchal authority; it is a revolt against the breakdown of authority. I have long thought this with regard to the so-called sexual revolution in general. That was a breakdown of society’s constraints, established in the first place by a general acceptance of Christian precepts. When these constraints began to collapse under the rubric of “liberation,” our Christian superiors were to some extent unequal to the challenge, and were unable, in the U.S. at least, to resist this assault. Humanae Vitae was regarded as an embarrassment by many in the U.S. hierarchy, for example.

In any event, the sexual “liberation” that ensued worked greatly to the disadvantage of women. The marriage contract could easily be broken by men looking for replacement wives, and so on. Women got “screwed,” in both metaphorical senses of the word. It’s surprising that more women didn’t heed this little linguistic tipoff. But instead of taking the hint they took the pill. Instead of denouncing Hugh Hefner they accepted money from his foundation. Instead of rejecting sexual liberation, they embraced a more all-embracing ideology of liberation.

“Women’s liberation” in this ideological sense is identical with socialism. And that is what Jones means when he refers to “liberated” women seeking “real authority in the state.” These women, betrayed in many instances by men, sought to establish a socialist order in which the liberty to transgress God’s commandments is no longer an option—to use the word in its original sense. In other words, they have sought a coercive order, from which choice (liberty)—once-too-often abused—is to be banished.

Looked at in this light Nicholas Berdyaev’s comments about communism (written in the 1930s) become luminous. Communism, said this precursor of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, is a “reminder and a denouncement of an unfulfilled duty.” If communism arrives in a country where Christianity has been established but has failed to make inroads, or is inadequate to withstand corruption and sin, then “the good which is proclaimed in theory,” Berdyaev wrote, “but very inadequately achieved in practice, is undertaken in a spirit of terrible reaction against Christianity.”

Communism—for that is what ideological feminism, is; it is an attempt to establish a communistic order—should have a “very special significance for Christians,” Berdyaev wrote, for it tells us that “Christian justice has not worked itself out fully in life, and in virtue of the mysterious ways of

Divine Providence, the forces of evil have undertaken the task of realizing social justice.” That is why today’s communists talk so much about social justice, by which they mean, above all, vengeance.



  • Tom Bethell

    Tom Bethell is a senior editor at the American Spectator. A graduate of Trinity College, Oxford, he is the author of several books including Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity through the Ages (1998); The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science (2005); and Eric Hoffer: The Longshoreman Philosopher (2012).

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