(The Joy of Love), a 256-page document penned by Pope Francis and released last week, contains unexpectedly nuanced discussion of issues like gender stereotypes, domestic abuse and other forms of violence against women. So is the pope a feminist? Well, it’s complicated.
It’s a question that’s been asked on numerous occasions, but the document (which includes quotes from bishops’ meetings and from religious and other texts) explicitly discusses feminism twice.
The pope states that women’s rights still need to be promoted and heavily criticises domestic violence, female genital mutilation and the “commercialisation and exploitation” of women’s bodies in the media, writing:
“There are those who believe that many of today’s problems have arisen because of feminine emancipation. This argument, however, is not valid, ‘it is false, untrue, a form of male chauvinism’. The equal dignity of men and women makes us rejoice to see old forms of discrimination disappear.”
So far, so good. However, he goes on to say:
“If certain forms of feminism have arisen which we must consider inadequate, we must nonetheless see in the women’s movement the working of the Spirit for a clearer recognition of the dignity and rights of women.”
This sounds more suspicious of the difference between the sound principles of a wider belief system and the potential for corruption or abuse in the way those principles are applied by the people who act in its name – which might be considered somewhat ironic, coming from the head of the Catholic church.
That said, he does acknowledge that it is “legitimate” and “indeed desirable” that women wish to study, work and have personal goals – but seems to set this against the need for women to fulfil their maternal duties, declaring in the same section: “The weakening of this maternal presence with its feminine qualities poses a grave risk to our world.”
So he is not exactly waving a feminist banner. In many ways, however, the pope is more progressive than we might have dared to expect. He strikes a blow against gender stereotypes, writing that “masculinity and femininity are not rigid categories”, and saying that we should not think “that it is not really masculine to cultivate art or dance, or not very feminine to exercise leadership”. He also advocates shared chores and parental responsibilities: “It is possible, for example, that a husband’s way of being masculine can be flexibly adapted to the wife’s work schedule. Taking on domestic chores or some aspects of raising children does not make him any less masculine or imply failure, irresponsibility or cause for shame.”
He even describes one of the Bible passages as having been written “in the context of a patriarchal culture in which women were considered completely subordinate to men”. He also seems aware of the potential modern misinterpretation of such dated texts, later writing: “Every form of sexual submission must be clearly rejected. This includes all improper interpretations of the passage in the Letter to the Ephesians where Paul tells women to “be subject to your husbands” (Eph 5:22).”
But while talking the talk of equality, the pope doesn’t always manage to walk the walk. Much like his stance on gay marriage, he seems keen to speak the language of inclusivity and progression without actually making any concrete concessions.
In a section entitled “You and Your Wife” (an indicator of the assumed reader), Francis quotes the Bible description of a man searching for a wife, who will be “a helper fit for him”. He speaks of the need for discrimination to disappear and of “growing reciprocity” within families, yet in the very next paragraph describes the important role men play “with regard to the protection and support of their wives and children”.
He dedicates an entire section to “the need for sex education”, citing the potential negative impact of influences like online pornography, but seems to criticise the practice of teaching young people about contraception and says he dislikes the term “safe sex” because he thinks it makes a potential baby sound like an enemy.
He speaks out against domestic violence, but praises the strength of a “love that never gives up” and says that “separation must be considered as a last resort, after all other reasonable attempts at reconciliation have proved vain” – even in cases of violence and abuse, where he admits that separation becomes “morally necessary”.
And it’s ironic that he describes motherhood as one of “the rights derived from [women’s] inalienable human dignity”, while he continues to uphold the church’s centuries old position on reproductive decisions. (“No alleged right to one’s own body can justify a decision to terminate that life.”)
The pope’s tentative overtures towards feminism are exciting, but they’re meaningless if simply overlaid upon existing unequal foundations that he makes no attempt to change.
So is the pope more liberal in his attitudes about gender equality than any pontiff before him? Almost definitely. Might he have a positive impact by updating ideas about gender stereotypes and roles? Hopefully. But is he a feminist? While he continues to preside over an institution that restricts women and prevents equality in so many ways, not by my definition, no.