Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Book Review: The Church and the Second Sex

My biggest take-away upon re-reading feminist theologian Mary Daly's The Church and the Second Sex was how tame her critiques therein were regarding the Catholic Church. The Daly of 1968, when The Church and the Second Sex was first published, was not the Daly of 1973, when her more radical Beyond God the Father was published. So, to read the 1985 Beacon Press edition of The Church and the Second Sex, which includes both Daly's 1975 preface and her 1985 afterword, is to observe Daly's progression from a theologian who once believed Christian reformation to be a desirable aim to a "Post-Christian Feminist" theologian who believed Christianity to be too damaged, too flawed, to bother reforming at all.

1) Mary Daly the Daly Critic

Perhaps even more than the content of The Church and the Second Sex, which renders many valid critiques of the Catholic Church, I particularly enjoyed reading Daly's critiques and observations of her own past entrapment in patriarchal thinking. In short, her progression to radical seems to have come from a place of disappointment, both at her own naivete in believing that the Catholic Church might one day address its own sexism and misogyny in a serious manner and at the fact that it has failed to do so.

In her 1975 introduction, Daly recalls not having access to feminist thought, certainly not to the extent that we do in 2010, and the lack of "a more adequate vocabulary" with which to critique the Church. For instance, throughout her 1968 Church and the Second Sex, she uses "'man' and 'he' as though they are generic terms" and uses "they" instead of "we" in reference to women (15-16). The 1975 Daly found this usage of the so-called generic masculine "annoying," but understood the importance of the terms in order to render an appearance of "detachment and objectivity" (16). Marking her further progression into the radical rejection of all things Catholic, in Daly's 1985 afterword, she has stopped capitalizing Catholic, Church, the Christian god, and the names and titles of Christian leaders, presumably to indicate a lack of reverence for these institutions and figures.

2) Mary Daly the Church Critic

Daly begins The Church and the Second Sex with French feminist Simone de Beauvoir's understated criticism of Christianity:

"Christian ideology has contributed no little to the oppression of woman."

Daly then devotes much of her book to examining how the Catholic Church "pretends to put woman on a pedestal but which in reality prevents her from genuine self-fulfillment and from active, adult-sized participation in society" (53). Christianity, she argues, is a "record of contradictions" wherein "every human person" is said to have equal worth, but which in reality places women on a degrading pseudo-pedestal that serves as a "substitute for recognition of full personhood and equal rights" (74). Putting women on am alleged pedestal, she argues, is the Church's way of heralding women, it is a way to give the appearance of equal rights without actually having to support equal rights.

Not surprisingly, Daly notes the sexism in the Pauline texts to support the argument that the "social inferiority of women was, indeed, reflected in the New Testament" (80). Here, she cites the I Corinthians notion that "man is 'the image and glory of God,' whereas woman is 'the glory of man,'" the Adam and Eve myth whereby "Adam was formed first, then Eve," and Paul's idea that women should not speak in church or unveil their heads (80-81).

In her 1975 introduction, Daly addressed her critics who argued that she cherry-picked sexist quotes to support her argument. Namely, she noted that her critics have been unable to offer "philogynistic" texts to negate the misogynistic ones (23). Furthermore, I would add that even if Daly did hand pick sexist quotes from the Bible, the reality is that church leaders have nonetheless been using Paul's words to justify the subjugation of women throughout history.

3) The Pedestal of Invisibility

Daly devotes a chapter to "Pedestal Peddlers," those who insist that all women belong within the category of the Eternal Woman. Unlike how men are individuals, women are grouped into the class of Woman, a static, unchanging category of "thing." The traits of Woman, the Pedestal Peddlers tell us, are that "she" has a "natural vocation to surrender and hiddenness" and that she finds fulfillment in motherhood, both to her husband and her children (149). She finds salvation in submission (59). Like the venerated Mary, she is a passive receptacle, silent (162-3).

She can never form an authentic union with a man, Daly argues, because she herself has been denied authentic personhood. So, tellingly, theological treatises on marriage insist that the primary purpose of marriage is for procreation- a view that is "quite consistent with the tacit assumption that women are not fully human" but exist primarily for reproductive purposes (186). After all, how could a marriage be primarily a relationship between two persons when one partner in the union is not quite a person? (I wonder how Maggie Gallagher and other "marriage defense" women feel about their complicity in this particular ideology.)

Those who push the idea of the Eternal Woman, Daly argues, oppose female emancipation and do so by characterizing any individual woman's deviation from the Eternal Woman as "masculinization" (150). That is, women's "efforts to become more completely human" are interpreted as efforts to become "masculine" (Ibid.). And then, in an argument that still pertains perfectly to today's anti-feminists, Daly notes:

"Typical of the method of those who would perpetuate woman's imprisonment on her time-honored pedestal is a pseudo-psychology, which is manifest in their uncritical interpretation of certain behavior patterns as coming from some immutable 'nature," without considering the possibility that this behavior is in large measure the effect of early and subtle conditioning." (154)

While the Catholic Church places women on the pseudo-pedestal known as Eternal Woman, Daly recalls how the Church simultaneously invisibilizes women. For instance, one woman suggested to a bishop that the words "Orate fratres" (Pray, brothers) be changed to "Orate fratres et sorores" (Pray, brothers and sisters). The bishop opposed her request, explaining that "in principle a woman cannot offer sacrifice to God. He maintained that a laywomen has a much lesser share in the sacrifice of the Mass than does a layman" (125). Daly also noted that in a papal audience, Pope Paul addressed mixed groups as though no women were present ("My sons" and "Sons and brothers") (126).


Daly ended her second chapter with a wish:

"Hopefully, Church leaders will profit from the mistakes of the past, and not continue to repeat them." (117)

Unfortunately, the Catholic Church still opposes women's reproductive freedom, the ordination of women, and the idea that marriage is about something other than procreation. It advances the idea that god is a male entity and that men and women are "complementary" beings, as opposed to human individuals. Thus, do Daly's words, more than 40 years later, still ring true:

"Christianity, and the Catholic Church in particular, has not yet faced its responsibility to exorcise the devil of sexual prejudice."

Or, in Daly's 1985 voice:

"Many feminists, vehemently anti-pornography, have told me that they have found media coverage of the pope and his cardinals more Disgusting than pornography. While the latter is woman-hating to (its) hard core, it is, by comparison, almost straightforward in its intent. In contrast to this, the papal and hierarchical processions, parades, performances, and preachments are absolutely hypocritical about their intent" (XIX).

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