Why Catholics Can’t Be Feminists. Part 1

Wives should be submissive to their husbands as if to the Lord because the husband is head of his wife just as Christ is Head of the body the Church, as well as its Savior. As the Church submits to Christ, so wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

-Ephesians 5:24

 My husband has a name for Catholic feminists. He calls them “Catho-feminists.” Catho-feminists are practicing Catholics who adhere to the Church’s teachings but otherwise live their lives by the feminist code—they don’t take their husband’s last name, put their careers before their families, and have their own interpretation of Ephesians 5:24.

There are two kinds of Catho-feminist. The first kind does not think of herself as a feminist, yet her life has many of the trappings of feminism, such as a career that pulls her away from her duties as a wife and mother. The other kind of Catholic feminist does call herself a feminist and justifies her position by citing the existence of a benign form of feminism. This benign form of feminism, associated with the first wave of feminism in the 19th century and with certain aspects of contemporary feminism, does not exist. I’ve discussed the myth of a benign form of feminism at length in several other posts—The Total Anti-Feminist and The Many Faces of Feminism? In this post I will discuss why feminism—all of it—is bad from a Catholic point of view.

Another name for Catho-feminists might be “cafeteria feminists,” applied in the same spirit as is “cafeteria Catholics” (those Catholics who take of the Church’s teachings what pleases them and reject what upsets them). In an attempt to reconcile Catholicism with feminism, Catho-feminists or “cafeteria feminists” denounce whatever in feminism is distasteful to them and accept whatever is useful to them. These women may think the sexual revolution damaged women and that abortion is evil, but they enter any profession they like, put their children in daycare, and ask their husbands to share the housework. One can attempt to break up feminism to suit one’s beliefs, as cafeteria feminists have tried to do. However, just as cafeteria Catholics make a mockery of their faith, cafeteria feminists obscure the truth about feminism. For example, the cornerstone of contemporary feminism is access to legal abortion, and a Catholic cannot have anything to do with a movement that is driven by maintaining a woman’s right to abort her child.

By taking a look at feminism in its origins, ideology and its effects it becomes clear that Catholicism and feminism are incompatible.


The origins of feminism as an ideology and a socio-political movement are firmly planted in the Enlightenment and its child, liberalism.

“The tradition that most obviously nourished woman’s rights advocates was Enlightenment rationalism, its nineteenth-century political legacy liberalism, and its social representation bourgeois individualism,” writes feminist historian Nancy Cott about the roots of feminism in the U.S. (The Grounding of Modern Feminism). Cott also cites Protestantism and utopian socialism as two other “intellectual seedbeds” from which feminism sprang.

None of these intellectual seedbeds are amenable to Catholicism. This in itself is reason enough for Catholics to reject feminism.

The Catholic Encyclopedia’s discussion on “The Modern Woman Question” similarly places the roots of feminism in untenable soil:

After this the natural basis of society and the natural position of woman and the family were shaken to such extent by the French Revolution that the germ of the modern woman’s suffrage movement is to be sought there. The anti-Christian ideas of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries led to a complete break with the medieval Christian conception of society and the state. It was no longer the family or the social principle that was regarded as the basis of the state, but the individual or the ego…The conception of society as composed of individual atoms leads necessarily to the radical emancipation of women…

In its discussion on liberalism, the Encyclopedia calls the French Revolution the “Magna Charta” of liberalism and states: “By proclaiming man’s absolute autonomy in the intellectual, moral and social order, Liberalism denies, at least practically, God and supernatural religion. If carried out logically, it leads even to a theoretical denial of God, by putting deified mankind in place of God.

The Catholic Church has condemned liberalism in encyclicals such as Gregory XVI’s Mirari Vos (On Liberalism and Religious Indifferentism, 1832), Pius IX’s Quanta Cura and Syllabus Errorum (Condemning Current Errors and the Syllabus of Errors,1864), Leo XIII’s Libertas Praestantissimum (On the Nature of Human Liberty, 1888), and St. Pius X’s Pascendi Dominici Gregis, (Feeding the Lord’s Flock, 1907).

As liberalism became entrenched in man’s worldview during the 19th century, the popes of that time became passionate critics of it.

Liberal feminism is the dominant form of feminism—the one which has shaped our lives and left no woman unharmed. Liberal feminism’s founder was Mary Wollstonecraft, the 18th century English writer who wrote the feminist classic A Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792. Both early feminists such as suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and later feminists such as Betty Friedan, were inspired by Wollstonecraft. While many of the views she sets forth in A Vindication would be considered un-feminist by contemporary feminism’s standards (for example, she admits women are physically weaker than men), Wollstonecraft’s ideas about women’s equality and rights—anchored in the un-Catholic ideas of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution—set the stage for feminism as we know it.

The early women’s rights movement in the U.S., of which woman suffrage became the coalescing goal, metastasized in the white, Protestant, middle-class circles of the 19th century. These “nativists” were decidedly anti-Catholic.

As the suffrage campaign wore on, suffragists began to use nativist arguments to bolster support for suffragism. Leaders of suffragist organizations frequently gave speeches encouraging their Protestant audiences to support woman suffrage in order to counter the “ignorant foreign vote.”

During the 19th century, America saw an influx of Irish and German immigrants as well as immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. The nativist response to the influx of these mainly Catholic immigrants included attempts to curb immigration and immigrant voting, and the implementation of a thorough “Protestantization” program in the public school system. Anti-Catholic propaganda was inserted into school textbooks and Catholics were barred from teaching.

Protestant men and women viewed the immigrant (Catholic) vote as a threat to their dominance and control in society and saw woman suffrage as a means of countering the immigrant vote. Protestants thought that Protestant women, who were already active in civic life through a myriad of clubs and organizations bent on reforming society, would vote, while immigrant women, who were much less if at all active in civic matters, would not vote. Protestants believed that immigrant women would never vote in significant numbers. The woman suffrage campaign then, became tied to the Protestant struggle to retain their power and ascendancy in American society.

The suffragist rhetoric of the vote being an “inalienable right” of all human beings (Catholic immigrants could not, after all, be denied the status of human beings) was replaced with the nativist-inspired rhetoric of protecting the country from the influence of the “ignorant foreign vote” by enfranchising Protestant, “native” women.

The Catholic Church’s lack of support for suffragism in the 19th century, however, should be viewed apart from the above-described political power struggle—the Church expressed its misgivings about woman suffrage based on the merit of woman suffrage, informed by Church teaching.

Priests and bishops in the U.S., while not unanimous in their opposition to woman suffrage, saw, as the Protestant anti-suffragists did (see my post The Antis), that the enfranchisement of women would, as one priest said at an anti-suffrage meeting, “entail consequences fatal to the legitimate work and destiny of women.” To the Church, whose view of woman was mother or virgin, in the home watching over her family or in a convent watching over the world, woman suffrage was seen as a threat that would take her away from her true role. Further, the Church viewed suffragism as a daughter of liberalism which the Church condemned.

James Cardinal Gibbons, Archbishop of Baltimore from 1877-1921 and spokesman for the Catholic Church in America at the time, continually spoke out against suffragism during the latter part of the suffrage campaign, often being quoted in The New York Times. Gibbons, author of Faith of Our Fathers, an explanation of the Catholic Faith in the face of the 19th century nativist movement in the U.S., had won the respect and attention of both Catholics and non-Catholics in America.

In a 1913 New York Times article Gibbons is quoted as saying, “I am opposed to female suffrage, because I am in favor of perpetuating the real dignity of woman.”

In another New York Times article in 1913 Gibbons said, “Equal rights do not imply that both sexes should engage promiscuously in the same pursuits, but rather that each sex should discharge those duties which are adapted to its physical constitution and are sanctioned by the canons of society.”

In a letter written in 1915 and made public through the press, Gibbons gets to the heart of the issue, writing that the advocates of woman suffrage “are habitually preaching about women’s rights and prerogatives, and have not a word to say about her duties and responsibilities. They withdraw her from her obligations which properly belong to her sex and fill her with ambition to usurp positions for which neither God nor nature ever intended her.”

He continues:

Woman is queen indeed but her empire is the domestic kingdom…If she is ambitious of the dual empire of the public and private life, then like the fabled dog beholding his image in the water, she will lose both, she will fall from the lofty pedestal where nature and Christianity have placed her and will fail to grasp the scepter of political authority from the strong hand of her male competitor.

Other priests and bishops at the time made speeches at Catholic events and anti-suffrage events to protest against woman suffrage.

Another notable figure in the Catholic Church in America who spoke passionately against woman suffrage was Fr. Machebeuf, Vicar Apostolic of Colorado. Fr. Machebeuf, on whom Willa Cather based her character of Fr. Vaillant in Death Comes to the Archbishop, was a tireless missionary and is considered to be instrumental in establishing the Church in the American West. In 1877, he gave a two-part lecture on woman suffrage in Denver in which he prophetically stated:

Then, when the wife is carried away by political excitement, or is discharging the duties of the office to which she has been elected, as judge, sheriff, representative to Congress, what is to become of the family? The mother will have little leisure and less inclination to attend to her children. A stranger, or even the father, cannot supply her place. Children need a mother’s care, nobody can supply the place of a mother. Children, then, must be neglected, almost abandoned they will be in the way, and looked upon as an incumbrance. Mothers will repress their maternal instincts, and the horrible crime of infanticide before birth, now so fearfully prevailing, will become more prevalent still, and the human race be threatened with destruction, in open violation and contempt of the command and blessing of the Creator, “Increase and multiply.”

He foresaw the connection between feminism and abortion that would spring to life in the 1960s. The germ of “reproductive rights” was present in feminism at this early stage as witnessed by Fr. Machebeuf.

Feminism in its roots and origins was decidedly anti-Catholic—the words of these clergy who protested so passionately against woman suffrage attest to that fact.

In the next part of this post I will discuss why Catholics can’t be feminists based on the ideology of feminism, which is an outgrowth of its roots in liberalism with its goal of perfect liberty and equality for the individual.

Part 2 of this essay will be posted next week.