This post is probably a bad idea. It will actively offend many people. I will, in contrast to many of the posts I have read about the topic recently, also not qualify it by saying that “not all Catholics/Protestants/Christians are the same and you have to distinguish between their leadership and lay people”, because I do not think that’s true (which is the essential point of this post). And, basically, this is a post about why I think that Feminism (TM) shouldn’t touch (christian, or more specifically: Catholic) religion with a ten foot pole.
I will, however, say that I have mostly encountered the curious intertwining of Feminism and religious beliefs in non-European feminist debates, and while I think that monotheistic religions share the same set of androcentrism, the lack of knowledge and legitimacy to talk about other religions than Roman-Catholic christianity will make this a specifically focused post; and I will be happy to hear counter-examples from other monotheistic or polytheistic religions. I also understand that while I am not a religious person and find the combination of social justice and religion odd at best, people have a right to their own beliefs and ways to make their lives easier and/or find different sources of strength, so I am not judging people for being religious per se, but I am going to judge the hell (harhar) out of a certain religious institution, and out of members who claim they are feminists.
Given the different historical and sociological make-up of many European societies and the US, I have mostly come across US feminists who also defined themselves as religious, specifically christian. I found that combination striking, because it is not only the patriarchal and hierarchical structuring of christian churches that seem to counter every feminist theory and practice, but the underlying patriarchal belief system that, in my view, runs diametrically to every feminist core belief (ha!) one might have, no matter what kind of feminism you pursue.
I, as George Carlin famously said, was “Catholic until I reached the age of reason” (in my case: also, until I realized that all the sexism, essentialized gender roles, heterosexism, and racialized paternalism was propagated in my name, and that no one cared and it did not matter whether I agreed with it or not, because I was part of an association that based its whole belief system and organizational structure on it), and I think the Catholic church clarifies early on who is in real control of one’s body and soul – and that’s not yourself. God is male, Jesus was male, and the one woman* of importance in Catholicism, Mary, was a “virgin” and through immaculate conception gave birth to the most important protagonist – so we like her!
Other women*? Not so much… Eve is the reason all mankind has to suffer, Sarah is a prime example of sexual objectification, Rachel is essentially defined by her (in)ability to give birth, women* of certain power in the Bible are usually described as hot (well, to paraphrase ;)) and simultaneously manipulative (Jezebel), others are weak and dim-witted (Lot’s wife) or defiant and evil (Delilah), and, as my priest once told me, a woman* without “feminine warmth” is a close second to the devil.
But who can blame the bible? It is literature, written by men* of their times (and “their times” is a multitude of different centuries and eras, all rolled into one book). The problem, to me, is that Catholicism defines the bible as the actual word of God, and the word of God is, thus, pretty damned misogynistic.
The organizational make-up of the Catholic church is, therefore, very much consistent. Women* are not allowed to become priests or enter any real position of power, women* are not supposed to have autonomy over their own bodies (both birth control and abortion are sins, since procreation is the purpose of sex that is only to be practised in heterosexual marriage, and life begins at conception; no matter that actually 98 per cent of Catholic women* have used some form of “non-natural” birth control at least once in their lives), and the strictly hierarchical organization with its multitude of dependencies as well as the Catholic churches’ simultaneous obsession with and shaming of sexuality seems to be just one fraction in the massive cluster of sexual assault and rape of children by Catholic priests, and its subsequent deception by the Vatican.
The Catholic church does not only promote misogyny, but is in the thick of heterosexism and cis-sexism (and the occasional Holocaust denial), as continuously shown by Pope Benedict when condemning “homosexual sex” and people’s rights to define their own personal and/or sexual identity. And while people still claim (and may be right in certain regards) that the Catholic church is still a social force of good that helps people in need in this world, it is alway clear where its priorities actually lie, and who is deemed worthy of their help and under which prerequisites, as, again, shown by the Pope who recently reprimanded US nuns for spending too much time with social justice issues and too little time condemning LGBTQ people and abortion.
To me, the Catholic church is not a force for good in this world [and here’s a video of Stephen Fry arguing why not, although I have to add that I disagree with his oversimplified link between Catholicism and Islam in terms of misogyny]. There is no unique Catholic morale, or teaching, or bible passage that supersedes worldly humanitarianism and basic common decency, and is thus the better social code for everyone. The Catholic church is a religious agency with a clear agenda; an agenda that is not even solely defined by talking people out of the need for improvement of their earthly existence by the promise of an alleged heavenly reward (i.e., the linchpin of classic materialist criticism), but by an agenda that aims at strictly enforced discrimination against anyone who does not adhere to their belief system or whose mere individuality is defined as “sin” (more on that in a minute).
The financial and active help the Catholic church brings to certain people in this world is never merely humanitarian, but always linked to a certain kind of conversion and/or credit points for people’s individual absolution scoreboard. The Vatican is one of the biggest enterprises on this planet with a shitload of money, and the privileges white, straight, European men* have do not magically vanish because these men* are priests.
From a merely humanitarian point of view, the Catholic church’s belief system and subsequent structure are both massively discriminating and massively condescending to people who do no believe in the same things Catholics do. Even if certain Catholic communities do not actively discriminate against LGBTQ people, for example, the latter are, nonetheless, implicitly regarded as inferior, since you “hate the sin, not the sinner”. To presume that the mere individual existence of people, because their LGBTQ sexuality or transgender identity, for example, is part of who they are, constitutes a “sin” or “abnormality” that must and can be “cured”, is horrifying.
So, how on earth can any Catholic person claim they are also feminist? The Catholic belief system negates everything that intersectional feminism stands for, and the active, communal life of Catholic churches may be dominated by women* and may be lived somewhat differently, but is always dependent on and housed by the church as a whole.
This is why I don’t make exceptions for people who say they are Catholics but also feminist and not heterosexist, etc. You have entered (most of you involuntarily, as I) and stayed in a religious institution that claims that your head is infallible and your doctrines are intrinsically just. If you like it or not, the Pope speaks for you, your association forces you to agree. The little freedom people have in their own church communities is exaggerated when it comes to simple questions like that, and the example of the Pope attacking nuns for not being anti-abortion enough and for putting their focus on helping people instead (…you just couldn’t make this shit up…) is giving you the real picture of what it’s all about: people should not be surprised or angry to be perceived as horrible when they choose to associate with horrible people.
It is an individual choice to continuously stay a member of an organization whose monetary, active and discursive influence is primarily used to try to curb the bodily and individual autonomy of people whom the leadership of that organization dislikes, and I find it completely justified to judge people for that choice, as I would judge them for every other choice that directly or indirectly brings harm to other people while the perpetrators claim (divine) righteousness.
If people believe they are feminists and are working for social justice while simultaneously being part of the Catholic church, it is not only ironic, but every form of activist success ultimately evaporates: starting in your own home and questioning your own beliefs and choices: it’s a (feminist) thing. Not actively and/or financially supporting people and organizations who discriminate against certain (groups of) people: it’s a (feminist) thing. Not joining a “I hate gay people” club while preaching LGBTQ rights or a “I hate women*” club while rallying for gender equality: it’s a (feminist) thing. Sadly, explicit Catholic “feminists” are guilty of all three; being a voluntary member of a discriminatory club means you discriminate, and this behavior is no less reprehensible when people combine it with “God”.