Catholic Feminism Is a Call, Not a Contradiction
A Letter from Samantha Povlock
(Click on the letters to enlarge)
I’ve always felt alive in my boldness. There’s something electric about diving into a meaty debate about truth, or gathering a group of people to fight for the vulnerable.
My soul swells in a particular way for women – fighting for women to be seen, heard, and valued as full equals to the men around us.
"My soul swells in a particular way for women – fighting for women to be seen, heard, and valued as full equals to the men around us."
Sometimes I would see this same passion and boldness in other women, too. I saw a fearlessness and a drive that mirrored my own and I thought – these are my people.
They called themselves “feminists.”
They seemed to embrace my desire to be bold, to fight, to make the world a better place for women.
They affirmed a side of me that I had often felt ashamed of.
Raised a cradle Catholic, I attended Catholic grade school, high school, and even a Catholic university. So almost every community I had been part of was Catholic. Or at least, made up of people who called themselves “Catholic.” And I was Catholic, too.
I loved my faith then, and I love it now. I love Truth.
But I struggled to reconcile my boldness with the quiet, docile picture of Mary that every song at church seemed to paint. I thought that’s all the Church envisioned for women.
"I struggled to reconcile my boldness with the quiet, docile picture of Mary that every song at church seemed to paint. I thought that’s all the Church envisioned for women."
I wasn’t part of any communities that called themselves “feminists.” But I read their blogs and watched them talk on TV, but I struggled to see joy, or peace, or hope, in their words.
And I knew those things were real – because I had found them in my faith.
In college I filled my history requirement with a class called The History of Sexuality in America. The class was taught by a professor with different political views than me, and yet – she had the same heart for women. That semester I read and learned about how women had been deeply, deeply hurt through various ways men had taken advantage of women’s sexual vulnerability: through marital rape (which wasn’t outlawed until the 1970s), being abandoned while pregnant, and through a general disregard for women as equals, justified on the grounds that women’s hormonal changes made them “hysterical.”
I realized – it’s no wonder feminists sought options like contraception, and abortion, in an attempt to protect, guard, and preserve their own dignity and that of women who came after them.
But when I look around me, I still see women who are hurting.
I still see how women are being sexually assaulted by men, abandoned after becoming pregnant, or generally disregarded as equals. These injustices only increase when we consider women’s experiences globally.
“Feminism is the belief that men and women are equal.”
Here’s the thing: Catholics believe that.
And we need to CLAIM IT.
“'Feminism is the belief that men and women are equal.' Here’s the thing: Catholics believe that. And we need to CLAIM IT."
Because women are still suffering in the United States and around the world, for the simple fact of being women.
But secular feminist solutions, though well-intentioned, have not succeeded in attaining true equality for us. Because without the lens of complementarity, men are still made to be our benchmark – for our bodies, our styles of leadership, and our vocational fulfillment.
I realized that this is where Catholics need to speak up – loudly.
In 1995, St. John Paul the Great wrote:
“It depends on (women) to promote a ‘new feminism’ which rejects the temptation of imitating models of 'male domination,' in order to acknowledge and affirm the true genius of women in every aspect of the life of society and overcome all discrimination, violence, and exploitation.”
When I first read this, and I felt joy, peace, hope – and I felt bold.
Later that semester, I discovered St. Edith Stein, and her incredible, affirming wisdom on the true differences between men and women in “Essays on Woman.”
I dove into Church documents I had never heard of (like Mulieris Dignitatem and On the Collaboration of Men and Women), and discovered that in the last century, all of the Popes have been writing about women’s equal dignity, and the urgent need to work towards justice for women within the church and in the world.
I realized that maybe Catholics were my people after all. And that not only was there room for a Catholic feminism – but that the leaders of our Church were calling for it.
Sisters, the Church needs us.
The Church needs your strength – the Church needs your boldness. She needs your maternal heart like a Mama Bear going after her lost and suffering bear cubs. She needs you to be fierce, and cunning, and obedient.
"The Church needs your strength – the Church needs your boldness. ...She needs you to be fierce, and cunning, and obedient."
Mary reveals the power in obedience – power to persist in the face of catastrophic tragedy, doubt, and fear. I realized the Devil had tried to hide this power behind my impressions of Mary as boring and meek, because his greatest fear is it being unleashed in the world.
“The hour is coming,” wrote Pope Paul VI, “in fact has come, when the vocation of woman is being achieved in its fullness, the hour in which woman acquires in the world an influence, an effect and a power never hitherto achieved.”
Catholic feminism is not a contradiction – it’s a call.
For women + for the Church,
Tell us a little bit about yourself!
Hi! I’m originally from Indiana, living in Chicago now and just adjusting to big city life after being here for 5 years. I work downtown in project management at a bank and my husband Matt and I have one son, Liam Augustine. I come from a huge Polish and Italian family, and never had a bowl of pasta I didn’t like! I’m an Notre Dame grad, and it was there I first “met” my hero, Edith Stein.
Where online can we keep up with you?
(At our website) FemCatholic! I also run all the FemCatholic social media – we’re @FemCatholic on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. The FemCatholic Forum Facebook group is one of my favorite places to “meet” other catholic feminists.
Tell us about how you came to start FemCatholic!
In 2016 I was accepted to the GIVEN Catholic Women’s Leadership Conference in Washington D.C., which was put on by the Council for Major Superior Women Religious. To attend the conference, I had to put together an “Action Plan” using my gifts to serve the Church and the world. After reflecting on my passion for women and faith, I discerned that a blog platform would be the perfect way to share my knowledge with the world. Since then, it’s grown into a community of Contributing Writers, a virtual book club, and a conference that we’re planning for 2019 in Chicago!
Practically speaking, what does being a Catholic feminist look like?
I think being a Catholic feminist means recognizing that the feminine is GOOD – that women’s bodies are good, and women’s charisms are good (God given charisms like our tendency to focus on human persons, not stereotyped charisms like cooking 😉 ). From complementarity we know that maleness and femaleness are meant to work together, helping us grow towards holiness and salvation. Our fallen world has long prioritized “masculine” ways and traits, and I think this has harmed both women AND men. We need to first expand and clarify our understanding of what it means to be “feminine,” and then work to give the feminine proper recognition for the irreplaceable value it has in our families, our workplaces, and our world.
There are definitely Catholics (and non-Catholics!) out there who believe Catholicism and feminism are opposing forces. To the Catholics who feel this way, what insight would you offer them here?
I would encourage them to read Pope John Paul’s Letter to Women, and note that this Pope, who is now a canonized Saint, took time to acknowledge the oppression women have and do face. It’s a social justice issue that women are not being recognized as equal to men, and one we as Catholics are called to respond to, just like other social justice issues.
I would also suggest reading the book “Subverted: How I helped the sexual revolution hijack the women’s movement,” which was our June / July FemCatholic book club pick. This memoir by a Catholic convert explains how the original women’s movement started by Susan B. Anthony was convoluted by the 1970s sexual revolution. This history is so important, because I think it provides the background and framework through which to understand how feminism more recently has become all about sexual power, instead of true empowerment and equality for women in ALL areas of life. Catholics may not connect with the contemporary secular feminist movement, but I think those would much more so find a home in the original women’s movement.
To the millennial Catholic woman who doubts her value and place in the Church — what would you say to her?
I would say – that’s exactly what the Devil wants you to think, and what he wanted Mary to think: “just a young girl from a small town having a baby out of wedlock? You’re a nobody and you can’t make any real impact.” But this and more is what Mary shows us – that in fact, that’s EXACTLY where God works often times; in the small, unseen moments and “yeses” in our lives. You have to know that YOU are not a mistake, and that it’s not a mistake that God made you a woman. Both with Eve and with Mary, God allowed the fate of humanity to be radically changed by a WOMAN. And he continues to work through women – through all kinds of women from Joan of Arc to Josphine Bakhita to Gianna. If you are doubting your place in the Church, ask God – who are you calling me to bring your love to? Who does my heart swell for? What am I doing to say “yes” to loving them?
Fill in the blank
My favorite liturgical holiday is…
the new feast of Mary, Mother of the Church that Pope Francis just announced this year!
A saint I identify with the most is…
St. Gianna, because she was a working mom, but also because she wanted something so objectively good (to be a missionary in Africa) but when she and her spiritual director discerned it was not her path, she said “yes” to the alternative God had in mind, never knowing how impactful her witness there would be (as a married, working mom saint!)
My favorite quote is...
“’Do not accept truth without love, or love without truth,’ for one without the other is a destructive lie.” – Pope John Paul II, quoting Edith Stein at her canonization.
I feel at peace when…
I’m able to be vulnerable enough to receive how much God loves me.
A current obsession of mine is...
iced coffee with peppermint!
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