One tension between feminism and religion can hinge around the pro-life/pro-choice debate. The majority of feminists would hold a pro-choice stance, so how would Catholics who hold a pro-life theology mesh this with a commitment to feminism? I interview Caroline Farrow, who is a speaker from Catholic Voices and a weekly columnist for the Catholic Universe.
[To the reader: A quick reiteration – the aim of the Faith In Feminism project is simply to represent the many diverse expressions of feminism that exist. For every interview representing one perspective, a counter perspective will follow in a future interview. The views we publish are those of our contributors and in publishing them we are in no way affirming nor rejecting their viewpoint, simply showcasing them.]
VB: As a committed Catholic do you also embrace the term ‘feminist’ or is that a movement you’d rather not align yourself with? Do you think the two are compatible?
CF: I would certainly consider myself to be a feminist in the sense that I believe that women were created equal to men, something that is reaffirmed right at the beginning of the Bible, man and woman are created equal, both in the image of God. “In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them…and blessed them”.
Contrary to popular belief, Catholicism certainly supports a feminism that promotes equal rights and opportunities for women. Back in 1988, the Blessed Pope John Paul II wrote an encyclical Mulieris Dignitatem (on the dignity of women) in which he challenges the literal interpretation of Genesis 3:16, in which it is stated that “Your desire shall be for your husband and he shall rule over you”. He argued that a woman cannot become the object of domination or male possession as that diminishes both sexes.
VB: So they might not be as polar as many might imagine?
CF: Catholicism and feminism are compatible, but some of the baggage of twentieth century feminist movements needs to be shed. Feminism should not be about identity politics, or attempting to become like men, or discarding/suppressing the things that make us women and differentiate us from men. Rather it should be about embracing our feminine vocation in all its fullness and yet still being considered equal to men. In an ideal world men and women should not need to compete but complement each other.
If feminism is about accepting the inherent dignity of women and embracing the ‘feminine genius’, if feminism fights oppression and discrimination of women, and allows for freedom of access to education and employment for women, then it is compatible with Catholicism. We need to open up and redefine what it means to be a Catholic Christian feminist, but the vision is an overwhelmingly attractive and positive one.
VB: Has much work been done already within Catholicism to explore this new definition of Catholic Feminism?
CF: Yes, the Hildegard group has been founded in the UK by a group of young Catholic women, precisely to unravel and deconstruct current notions of feminism, to identify what is positive and to promote a vision of feminism to which all women can aspire.
VB: Many feminists would see Catholic teachings that ban contraception as inherently against the freedom of women to control their own reproductive rights. How do you as a woman take these teachings on board and see them as life-giving to you rather than restrictive and male-dominated?
CF: Catholicism agrees that women should be able to make decisions in terms of whether or not to have children, but it differs from the cultural norms as to how best to achieve this. When Pope Paul VI reaffirmed the Church’s teachings with regards to contraception in his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, one of the key themes was responsible parenthood. No woman should be expected to endlessly produce children until she collapses with exhaustion and her uterus falls out! Couples are expected to continually prayerfully consider whether or not it is appropriate for them to procreate taking into account a number of factors.
VB: So how does that work in practice?
CF: To be honest, the practice of Natural Fertility Awareness is far more empowering to women than conventional contraception, especially as it doesn’t involve taking in doses of synthetic hormones over a large period of time in order to suppress natural fertility. If you think about it logically for a moment, a woman’s fertility is a natural process; it demonstrates that her body is working properly. It actually feels very patriarchal to expect a woman to interfere with her natural bodily rhythms, especially when one considers that taking hormones for a prolonged period of time carries some risks.
VB: That’s an interesting perspective; that it’s actually more patriarchal to meddle with our own hormones…
CF: Yes. What Natural Fertility Awareness, as promoted by the Church allows women to do, is be highly in tune and alert to their monthly cycles and therefore take the decision as to whether or not to engage in sexual intercourse, during a fertile period. It is actually very freeing for women, in that there is no deception; we know that no method of conventional contraception is 100% effective, so women and men are always automatically open to the possibility that a child may occur, although it is perfectly acceptable to make use of infertile phases in order to be sexually intimate.
VB: Does it really work though?!
CF: Mother Theresa taught NFA to illiterate women in Calcutta slums using sticks, a study of poor Indian women who relied on abstinence in their infertile period, had a pregnancy rate of less than 1%. Sexual intercourse is always potentially life-giving, to claim otherwise is deceptive and leads us into all sorts of pickles!
I feel NFA is far more empowering to women globally, especially in developing countries, it gives them the opportunity to understand their body and make responsible decisions as opposed to having Western ideals of chemical contraception imposed upon them, which only profits the pharma companies. One of my colleagues is an African aid worker who notes that most of the time, women are given long-acting hormonal contraceptives without being informed of the side-effects or consequences.
VB: So you feel you can be anti-contraception and yet strongly feminist?
CF: I do. Contraceptives help to convey the notion that a woman is available for consequence free sex, 24/7. Couples who use NFP, such as myself, testify that periodic abstinence helps to make one’s spouse a more considerate lover, able to control their urges when necessary for the good of the other, instead of a means of sexual gratification. A recent study by the Family Research Council claimed married Catholic couples have better sex than other demographics! I see contraception as pandering to the whims of men for consequence-free sex at the expense of women’s health and natural fertility.
VB: Many feminists would see the Catholic belief that ‘abortion is always wrong’ as taking away the freedom of choice from women. How would you answer them on that?
CF: Very often pro-lifers such as myself are talked about derisively in terms of being “anti-choice” implying that we somehow want to remove a woman’s freedom and oppress her. This ignores what the nature of the actual choice. Not all choices are inherently good however. We all have the choice whether or not to remain faithful to our partners and spouses for example, but just because infidelity is an option that won’t incur criminal sanctions, it doesn’t render it a good or moral one.
If one accepts the biological truth that a human life is formed at conception, then abortion is a choice to destroy another human being, or to put it more strongly to kill an unborn child.
VB: Why do you believe women want to have the right to an abortion?
CF: Most women who have an abortion do so because they feel that there is no other choice, there are a combination of societal pressures that compel them to think that there is no other sensible option. I would therefore question the notion that abortion is a choice made independently, in the absence of other considerations, it isn’t a choice as simple as choosing veneers for one’s kitchen worktops as Caitlin Moran claims.
Catholics recognise this, which is why there are many apostolates specifically set up to help support and care for pregnant women, many of whom are having an abortion against their will, or because they feel there is little other option.
VB: So if the freedom to choose to terminate a pregnancy isn’t the solution for society, what do you feel is?
CF: If we really want to give women a choice, we should be working for a society in which no woman is put into a position where she is facing the prospect of having to have an abortion and working to change those social factors which drive a woman to an abortion clinic door.
We need far better attitudes towards motherhood, we need to stop seeing it as a barrier to career success for example and better solutions for women who find themselves with an unplanned pregnancy. Abortion feeds a culture of despair, that there is no hope for a woman and that her unborn baby would be better off dead, which is a deeply un-Christian sentiment and contrary to our faith, which is always about hope and consolation.
VB: The high role given to Mary by Catholics is seen by some believers as very pro-women, as it elevates Mary as a key female figure within Christianity. Do you think this brings a healthier balance to the potentially male dominated Christian faith?
CF: Mary is rightly a very key female figure within Catholicism, but I think we need to be wary of stating this in terms of identity politics or as if she is a figure inserted by men to appease women. I don’t believe that the Catholic church is male-dominated: whilst the priesthood is purely a male vocation, it is certainly not the most valuable way in which one can serve.
Even though the Vatican is potentially male-dominated (although Pope Francis and Pope Benedict have taken welcome steps to correct that in terms of making key female lay appointments) actually the Church is more than simply the Vatican. It consists of every single believer throughout the globe; it is the body of Christ here on earth.
Furthermore most of the laity are in fact women and so it’s rather patronising the way that some consider that they are too simple to realise that they are being brainwashed by a male hierarchy!
VB: So you see a very pro-women theme throughout the New Testament?
CF: Yes. Christ was a man but in the eyes of his contemporaries he was very much a promoter of women’s rights, which caused wonder and scandal at the time, “they marvelled that he was talking with a woman” (John 4:27). The Gospels are filled with women of all ages and conditions and women were the first witnesses of the Resurrection.
VB: How do you see Mary’s unique role?
CF: She’s a key person for women to look up to. Just as Christ fulfils Scripture as the New Adam, Mary is the New Eve. Eve, the first mother of the living was directly instrumental with Adam, the first father of the human race in the loss of grace for humanity. Likewise, Mary was directly instrumental with Jesus Christ, whom St Paul called the New Adam, in the restoration of grace to humanity. As St Jerome put it, “Death through Eve, life through Mary” and therefore we see the equality of men and women as laid out in Scripture, restored in the different roles of Christ and His Mother.
VB: What does she mean to you personally, as a woman?
CF: Mary is the most exalted of all Christians, she is the first Christian. We do not worship her nonetheless, but we honour and venerate her above all saints. We don’t honour her because she overcame her destiny as a woman but because she did what no man ever could. We venerate her because of her strength, grace, humility, maternal love, perseverance, tenderness, piety and sacrifice. Mary isn’t there as a token for Christian women, but the model for all Christians. Men are called to honour women out of respect for Our Lady, but also to imitate her themselves.
So whilst she is not the key person for Christian women to look up to, all of us most follow in Christ’s footsteps, Mary is Theotokos, god-bearer and in that way contributes to a celebration of all that is feminine. We shouldn’t forget that God allowed his body to be created from Mary’s womb and chose a plan of redemption in his Incarnation that glorifies all women!
VB: Do you think Protestantism might seem less Patriarchal if it embraced an increased veneration of Mary?
CF: I do think the suppression or avoidance of Mary by some Protestants can contribute to a feeling of inferiority by women. A very misogynistic narrative abounds of Eve’s fall, forgetting Adam’s equal guilt and without Mary the New Eve to right wrongs, it can’t be a surprise if some Christian women feel cursed rather than blessed and thus kick back against their presumed suppression.