Feminism + Catholicism = ? By Dawn DiPrince


Oh, so many people cannot figure out why/how in the hell I can be a feminist AND a practicing Catholic. And, I must admit there are days when I, too, am perplexed.

For example, one recent Sunday after Mass I waited outside the Cathedral while my children ran and climbed and smelled flowers around a statue of St. Therese. After a few minutes, two modestly dressed women with clipboards walked up to me and asked: “Would you like to sign a pro-life petition?” I snappishly said no. (Still wishing I would have asked more questions. How do you define pro-life? What good will a petition do?)

I sensed a little surprise from them. I’m sure I was the picture of Catholic motherhood, if you didn’t notice the electric blue toe nails. Only about 30 minutes earlier, I was on the altar reading Scripture to the congregation — something I’ve done since I was 17, when I realized that was likely the closest I would get to priesthood. Also during Mass, my two older children were altar servers (the gender-neutral of “altar boys). And, we were waiting outside because my husband was washing chalices as part of his duties as Eucharistic minister.  So, I certainly appeared to be someone who would gladly sign their petitions.

And, later that week, I read a nauseating blog post published by the National Catholic Register where a converted Catholic woman discusses the importance of modesty. She writes:

“But once I saw it [modesty] in practice, I saw it as an opportunity, not a punishment. By dressing in a way that dignifies the body that God gave us, we have an opportunity to show our gratitude to God. By clothing ourselves in a way that doesn’t cause the men we meet to face one more source of temptation that day, we have an opportunity to help them carry their crosses.” (emphasis is the author’s)

Oh, wow! Is this Catholicism? WHY do so many women and men continually define Catholicism in terms of women’s bodies?

Yolanda Lopez, “Portrait of the Artist as the Virgin of Guadalupe”

Recently, the Catholic blogosphere has been ablaze with talk of a schism within the Church. The army of men at the top of the papal hierarchical pyramid look down at the people who populate our Church, as they cling to an archaic version of power that — to many of us — has little to do with the core of our Faith. They do a better rendition of the Sanhedrin, the court who convicted Jesus, than they do in emulating Jesus.

We go to Mass on Sundays and we hear Jesus’s message of love and helping the poor, but the patriarchs tell us a different story. They want us to believe that Catholicism is defined by how they control women and their sexuality. This false premise of Catholicism has served to separate many feminists from spirituality. Author Leela Fernandes offers this excellent analysis:

“While feminists have rightly been wary of religious institutions that have sought to control women’s bodies and sexualities, this wariness has inadvertently allowed conservative religious and political organizations and movements to colonize spirituality.” (from Transforming Feminist Practice)

In other words, the Church hierarchy would love for us, feminists, to slink away from our faith and religious practice. By bringing our bodies to Church, insisting on our faith and our sexuality, we disrupt their power. (If you don’t believe that power has become more important than God to some leaders in our Church, you only have to remember how they did more to protect the patriarchy from abuse scandals than they did to protect children from sexual assault.)

Will we ever have the ability to transform the Church and its patriarchy? I don’t know the answer to that, but we can, as Fernandes argues, use feminism as “a means to decolonize the divine.”  We can use our physical presence to complicate their simplistic divisions. Most importantly, we can dismiss all attempts to separate our bodies from our spirits. They want us to choose between the materiality of our bodies and the spirituality of our soul. The Trinity — with its unification of Heaven, Earth and Spirit — demonstrates why we don’t have to choose.

Dawn DiPrince is a writer, teacher, mother, and community activist. She is an outspoken and practicing Catholic and is a vocal advocate for motherhood issues, LGBT rights and immigrant rights. DiPrince is active in local progressive politics, including her own (very close, but still losing) political campaign in which she ran as a social justice Catholic and mother. DiPrince currently teaches writing and literature at Colorado State University-Pueblo and writes for her own blog Searching for Mary – an exploration of Catholicism, women and social justice. 



Categories: Activism, Catholic Church, Christianity, Feminism, General, Justice, Women in the Church

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8 replies

  1. Yay! Another great piece Dawn. I just love Fernandes. I haven’t put her down since our summer course. Thanks for reminding me of this portion. So important.

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  2. A very refreshing and encouraging article! As an individual who has looked into the church a lot and found nothing but intolerance due to my sexuality it is wonderful to know that there are active catholics out there who are more understanding, loving and embracing just as Jesus actually taught.
    Is there a link to Dawn’s blog? I would love to check it out.

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  3. Catholic women cannot find respect within an institution which literally murders their sisters all over the world.
    For the simple fact is, that preventing poor women from feeding the children they already have by burdening them with more, is murder by another name; as is denying women the protection from the aids which their husbands may carry. Every woman who dies of aids when her life might have been saved by the use of a condom has been literally murdered by those who denied her the opportunity to make herself safe.
    The Catholic Church argues that all abortion is murder, regardless of whether the fetus is a tiny clump of cells or a near fully formed baby of six months gestation. This is obviously absurd, as I have argued elsewhere on these pages. The early Church itself had a problem about when a fetus became a human being : some Church Doctors said at the moment of conception, some when the fetus was recognisably human, others at the moment of quickening, as when Mary visited Elizabeth and the child ‘leapt in her womb’.
    But this is something the contemporary Church is no longer willing even to debate.
    Meanwhile, children die because their mothers have too many mouths to feed. Girls die in the backstreets of third world slums because no-one allowed them the legal termination which would have saved them. Young women die in agony in Irish hospitals whose regulations will not permit the doctors to save their lives.And everywhere women die again and again from aids, leaving their children orphaned, when the greater number of these deaths would have been prevented by the use of condoms.
    To allow a death which could have been prevented, is murder. To forbid women the contraception which would save their lives is murder. These are the killing fields, where girls and women die needlessly because of decisions which are made by a handful of men half a world away. And the fact that women in the Church are denied any say in the decisions made on their behalf does not exculpate them from collusion in the deaths of their poorer sisters.

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  4. It’s very consoling to hear from another Catholic woman who shares my questions and concerns and has dug in her heels to stay.

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  5. Sorry to disappoint you, but this method of staying will not work. Women need to stop enabling abusive men, enabling the church with free domestic labor that women provide that institution. Just as you would no longer enable a man who is beating you and getting drunk every night, it is the same thing. Honestly, what will it take women to walk out of this attrocity, to support alternative catholic places…. and get the hell out of the roman church.
    This is not a feminist position, this is a patriarchal collaboration, nothing more, and I won’t support you in this.

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  6. Please read my two books, the eBook “A GENDER NEUTRAL GOD/ESS: Be Inclusive but MAKE NO IMAGES was the Religious Change” and “I Will Love Unloved: A Linguistic Analysis of Woman’s Biblical Importance.” They are about feminine biblical material that has been changed and downplayed through translation decisions. Women need to reclaim this material and their role in churches. Just walking away from religion leaves patriarchy in control.

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  7. Dawn,

    I enjoyed this post and found Fernándes’ quote especially enlightening. It has me thinking: What is the key to overthrowing colonial rule? If feminists just leave the Catholic Church and similar religions, I don’t think that will be enough of an exodus to have an overthrow impact. If they convince all the other women to be feminists and then ALL the women leave, churches of all types would cease to function.

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  8. Hi Dawn —

    I think this is an important post. I think it’s necessary to stand up for feminism and for ourselves as women wherever we find ourselves. But I wonder if it’s possible for a Catholic woman to refuse to allow the patriarchal church to separate her body from her spirit. Isn’t that exactly what happened with the image of Mary, the most important woman in Catholicism? She’s the VIRGIN MOTHER. As opposed to the goddesses who preceded her, she supposedly gave birth without the contamination of the body in sexual intercourse (no original sin). How do you get around this disruption of women’s reality? And how does the Trinity allay this problem? In the Catholicism I know, the three figures in the Trinity are all imaged as male.

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