What do Martin Luther and Mary Daly have in common? They both realized that they could not reform the Roman Catholic Church from “the inside-out.” They came to believe that some institutions, even those dear to the heart, are not worth saving. One of the most significant differences between Luther and Daly—aside from the obvious differences in time, culture, race, class, and sex—is that Luther’s faith in God remained intact whereas Daly’s did not. Mary Daly, due to her positions on Catholic thought, came to represent what is now referred to as Post-Christian Feminism (or Post-Religious Feminism). Post-Christian feminism, as seen in the writings of Mary Daly, Daphne Hampson, and Sarah Sentilles (each with differing takes), argues that there are certain incompatible values between Christianity and feminism, and as a result of this, Christian feminists ought to consider how to respond to this incompatibility. As Rita M. Gross states in Feminism and Religion, “The most difficult question facing a feminist who discovers her traditional religion to be patriarchal and sexist is what to do next” (107).
So the question remains: should feminists reform Christianity from the Inside-out or abandon the Church altogether?
Those who attempt to reform their religious institutions from the inside-out are innumerable. I can think of Rosemary Radford Ruether and Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza as examples of “Christian feminists” who opt out of the post-Christian ideology. These scholars are usually referred to as “Christian reformists,” since they believe that genuine reform is needed and possible. Ruether is fine with women leaving the Catholic Church because they want to be ordained through some other denomination, but regarding herself she says, “I am very committed to keeping or trying to support the continuance of progressive perspectives in Catholicism.”
Fiorenza also calls for great change to occur within the Church. One of Fiorenza’s bold proposals is: “organize to take over the only democratic office in the Roman Catholic Church: the College of Cardinals.” Both Ruether and Fiorenza would agree with many of the critiques posed by post-Christian feminists, but the manner in which Ruether and Fiorenza choose to respond is quite different.
Rita Gross points out how both Mary Daly and Carol P. Christ differ from the “reformists.” She says,
Their works are especially valuable because each began as a radical reformer, publishing important books and essays in which they hoped to make sense of biblical religions and to call them away from their sexism. Eventually each became convinced that this effort would fail because patriarchy is too integral to the outlook of those religions (Feminism and Religion, 147).
Gross avoids the question over who is correct, the reformists or the revolutionaries, by pointing out both want patriarchal religion to change, and although there may be some principled differences between them, they share many of the same goals.
One of my liberal Catholic friends once compared the Church to a family. He said, “Just because your family has problems doesn’t mean you should abandon them.” I thought about this for a while, considering its merits, and finally got up the courage to ask, “What if your family is abusive?” I knew at this point we would ultimately disagree, but at least the point became obvious. We had different takes on the negative vs. positive impact that the Roman Catholic Church has on the world. We also had different criteria for what “abusive” means.
Another problem I had with the “family analogy” (we can call it the prosapia analogy) is that, to the average Catholic, the Magisterium, the Episcopacy, the College of Cardinals, and the Roman Curia are generally more distant than the individual’s own family (You may be able to call the authorities to report abuse by a family member, but try getting the Pope arrested!). Certainly it is easier to hold your family accountable than an institution as large as the Roman Catholic Church. Despite these differences, I felt I understood the overall point of his analogy: we may be “born into” structures (e.g. the Church, the State, and humanity) that have oppressive tendencies, but we have a responsibility to reform these structures from the inside out.
Finally, there is a third category understood as “secular feminists” who find principled objections to the content of religious symbolism and the ways in which institutionalized religion has translated them into practice. The works of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Annie Laurie Gaylor, and Ophelia Benson are just a few examples of this type of feminism. These feminists think that organized religion not only promotes sexism and patriarchy, but that the “spiritual” or “mystical” beliefs espoused by these institutions serve to keep women in a state of permanent subjugation. Although critical of “spiritual” beliefs, it can be said with some confidence that the primary target of their frustrations is organized religion. Ali, primarily known for her strong criticisms of Islam, expresses her views quite clearly: “A woman’s lack of social equality and freedom is a direct consequence of the teachings of Islam.” Gaylor, the co-founder of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, unabashedly asserts that, “Organized religion always has been and remains the greatest enemy of women’s rights.”
While sorting out one’s own views on which method is best, one has to keep a few questions in mind. First, does Christianity have an essentially misogynistic core? Can Christianity be Christianity without its patriarchal characters (e.g. the Trinity, or as Mary Daly refers to them, “the Supreme All Male Cast”)? Second, is the institutional character of Christianity worth saving? Finally, which method is most likely to bring about genuine change for women? To answer these questions is to answer the main question of this article: reformer, revolutionary, or rationalist?
Although I agree with the rationalist and revolutionary over the reformer, I applaud much of the work done by women to change the misogynistic tones of their religion. I cannot help but find it hard to believe that Christianity can eventually be morphed into something non-patriarchal. If one were to act like Thomas Jefferson and cut out all of the misogynistic passages in the biblical text, I believe we would have a very small bible! If somebody started a tradition based on this new bible I would be less averse to it than to traditional Christianity. This, of course, is highly unlikely, and is the reason I choose to promote the social critiques of the revolutionary and the logical critiques of the rationalist.
Kile Jones is a Ph.D. in Religion student at Claremont Lincoln University working on the intersections between secularism, atheism, and religious belief.