Monday, March 29, 2004

The new Catholic feminism

Stimulating Commonweal article by Cathleen Kaveny of Notre Dame Law, contrasting the new feminism anchored in JPII's theology of the body with the "more nuanced" feminism of Buffy (a bit contrived, but I'll bite).
It's worth spending some time thinking about why it seems so difficult to engage some theologians of the body in an honest conversation. It would not be wrong, I think, to say that they are too naively romantic, or too lost in the tributaries of philosophical idealism, or too fixated on church teaching on contraception. Still, the fundamental problem, in my view, is squarely theological: they make the mistake of eliding the original state of grace with the state of redemption. The touchstone for the theologians of the body is the relationship of men and women before the Fall. West, for example, chides Johnson for being "locked in his fallen view and unable to cross the threshold back to 'the beginning.'"

We are not called to retreat to Eden, but rather to move forward in pilgrimage toward the New Jerusalem. Redemption does not erase sin; it transfigures it. Redemption does not gesture distantly at brokenness; it conscripts it into the service of salvation and new life. To encourage young people to believe that with a lot of hard work and a little bit of suffering, they too can have a relationship like the one between prelapsarian Adam and Eve is deceptive and cruel. It is also the road to despair. Transfixed by the illusory promises of a return to the purity of creation, they may be blind to the possibilities for a gritty but real redemption in their own lives.

...The irony of this dogmatically metaphysical new feminism is that it is susceptible to precisely the same charge that Glendon levied against old-line secular feminism such as that of Betty Friedan: it subordinates the complexities of real women's lives to its own ideological goals. At best, the authors in Women in Christ will play quietly and unnoticed with the pretty concepts in their metaphysical dollhouse. At worst, they will lead many working mothers to conclude that the church doesn't appreciate their lives, their attempts to be faithful to their own unique vocations in Christ, because they don't fit--and don't want to fit--the metaphysical picture concocted by philosopher-theologians like Stein and von Balthasar. For these new feminists, if working mothers are working because they have to, they are to be looked upon with pity; if they are working because they want to, they are to be looked upon with suspicion.
Well taken, but she's a bit sloppy with her use of theological concepts like "redemption," "sin," and "brokenness." And that's no mere technicality. As far I know, nowhere in Catholic teaching does redemption transfigure sin or "conscript it into the service of salvation and new life." She's confusing it with nature, and even then, it sounds like she would have misinterpreted it in Niebuhrian fashion. There's a lot to be said for an unfliching realism, but I'm afraid Kaveny doesn't quite transcend the contrast she's contesting. Still, it's a solid contribution to the debate.