Feminists and popes in conversation was the tenor of a talk from Sophie McGrath to the colloquium in Palmerston North last September.
Dr McGrath took as her basic premise that ‘most feminists and popes were people of goodwill dedicated to promoting the common good according to their own lights.’
She was interested to see how they agreed or disagreed in areas of common interest.
Her 20 years of research paired each pope of the last two centuries with a high-profile feminist in his period arguing that they were two significant strands in western culture.
She mostly chose non-Catholic feminists since it was often assumed that they had nothing constructive to say.
McGrath discovered that during the 19th and 20th centuries the chief topics of mutual interest to feminists and popes were: philosophy, religion and the church; relations between men and women; sexuality, chastity and celibacy; marriage, motherhood and the family; contraception and abortion; women’s engagement in the wider community; relationship between private and public morality; and education.
McGrath’s session was designated the ‘Voices of Women’ so she focused on such highly influential women as Mary Wollstonecraft, Margaret Fuller, Josephine Butler, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Harriet Martineau, Simone de Beauvoir Virginia Woolf and Edith Stein.
She explored some of the ideas, attitudes and values expressed by these feminists in the three areas of philosophy, religion and the church; relations between men and women; and sexuality, sex education and chastity.
McGrath suggested the following positive ways ahead for us in the Catholic community:
• Pursuing respectful dialogue within and outside the church confident of the existence of common ground between people of good will concerned for the welfare of humanity;
• Giving priority to recovering women’s history and integrating it into mainstream history;
• Educating people by all means possible, within the church and the wider community, to an awareness of the imperative need of restoring chastity as a virtue basic to the welfare of humanity;
• Being alert to the danger of perceiving man as the norm and women, the other; encouraging the production of encyclicals addressed to men to help them to develop positive theologies and spiritualities in relation to their sexuality;
• Facilitating dialogue between the sexes by encouraging education which promotes the development of the feminine aspect of the nature of boys and men, and the male dimension, especially of the capacity to reason, in girls and women;
• Giving high priority to the problem of luring back to the church the many men who are no longer active members;
• Nurturing the scholarship of women so that they:
o have a deep, intelligent understanding of their Catholic heritage
o are well equipped to take leadership in the church
o have a strong background to be able to dialogue with the leaders in the church
o have a strong background to be able to dialogue with feminists and others from different backgrounds in the wider community.