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On being a Catholic feminist
By Lisa Sowle Cahill ’70
Sometimes it seems that younger educated women are less interested in feminism than their older Catholic counterparts. This is to an extent true, partly because world of the former has begun to respond to the work of the latter for equality. Another reason is that, since first world women are enjoying more rights, the attention of Catholic activists has turned to other cultures. Catholic college students are increasingly aware of global injustice and poverty, of the role that wealthy nations play in contributing to oppression, and of the importance of trying to think and act in solidarity with the poor, both men and women. College women’s feminist consciousness is influenced by this development. One result is that they realize that poor women worldwide suffer double and triple oppressions—of gender, race or ethnicity, and class.
For feminists in the United States, it is particularly important to incorporate the voices of Catholic women within our own borders, now writing not only in African-American "womanist" theology, but especially in Latina "mujerista" theology. Latina theologians, such as Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, Maria Pilar Aquino, and Jeannette Rodriguez bring as an important corrective to "traditional" feminist theology a new emphasis on women’s relationships within the family, including motherhood. They tend to see the local community and base communities of faith as essential to their self-definition and social agenda, and therefore do not isolate women’s rights from the network of social relationships.
Jeannette Rodriguez points out that "Latina culture is a culture of storytelling." Stories are a way of rooting identity and theology in histories and relationships, and also of drawing the listener imaginatively into the story and experience of another. Rodriguez tells stories of her mother and grandmother, stories of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and stories of her friends telling stories. Like the slave narratives recounted by many "womanist" theologians, these stories are a way of reweaving the past into a meaningful future, and of connecting women with other women, past and present, and with their networks of family and support. The typical "feminist" theologian will note in such stories a strong dimension of love and strength in the face of immense suffering and a dire struggle to survive, experiences that are much less likely to part of the recent history of the white middle-class feminist.
These stories help us recover, first, a sense of empathy and solidarity with those whom our societies have oppressed; and second, an ability to speak more honestly and profoundly about human suffering. Both feminism and Catholicism are committed to social change, and to engaged action to bring about change. Yet it is necessary to confront the fact that suffering is an inevitable part of human existence, that a good deal of suffering is caused by human sinfulness, including our own, and that the only honest and effective way to combat suffering is to be willing to accept some part of the burden of Christ’s cross, in solidarity with "the poor." I doubt that I can compare feminist theologians to Christ, but maybe we can at least walk part of the way with Simon of Cyrene, sharing in some partial and temporary way the injustices that oppress our sisters.
As Shawn Copeland warns, womanist theology "repels every tendency toward any ersatz spiritualization of evil and suffering, of pain and oppression." Instead, it seeks to clarify the meaning of liberation in Jesus Christ, by "remembering and retelling, by resisting, by redeeming."
The insight I want to stress here is that resistance and redemption are possible, but only if we tell the story honestly and commit ourselves to doing things differently, albeit with the missteps and failings that are practically unavoidable. The step between solidarity and hope is repentance.