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Photo of woman reading while sitting with her hands crossed on her lap.

Photo of woman reading while sitting with her hands crossed on her lap.

Can You Be a Catholic and a Feminist?

Jesuit School of Theology associate dean explores the increasing tensions between progressive Catholic women and their Church


Julie Hanlon Rubio’s new book asks a question that resonates with many Catholic women today: “Can You Be a Catholic and a Feminist?"

While earlier generations of feminists’ first answers to this question in the 1970s and their views are still broadly held, Rubio acknowledges a growing sense of their inadequacy. Catholic women and men still say, "It’s my Church and I’m not leaving," "Change will only happen if people like me stay and fight," and, "The Church’s work for social justice is more important than the issues that concern me as a feminist." 

Yet in the aftermath of #MeToo and #ChurchToo, when the Church seems disconnected from struggles for racial justice and LGBTQ inclusion, Rubio contends that those answers sound increasingly insufficient. Today, tensions between Catholicism and feminism are more visible, and ties to Catholic communities are increasingly weak. Can Catholic feminism survive?

In celebration of Women’s History Month and the publication of her new book, we sat down with Professor Rubio, who is also associate dean at the Jesuit School of Theology, to discuss the dilemmas, and offer paths forward as authentic Catholics and feminists.


How did this book come about, and who is your audience?
As a Catholic theologian, I began to notice that Catholic feminists were becoming rarer. For some Catholics, feminism was becoming harder to relate to, but for others feminism was a part of who they were but Catholicism was becoming harder to identify with. As I was looking more into this, I saw that this topic of Catholic feminism hadn't been seriously addressed in 20 to 30 years, and so much has happened since then—from the Pennsylvania grand jury report on Catholic Church sexual abuse to the Church wrestling with LGBTQ and gender identity issues. I wanted to write a book on this subject that spoke to the state of the church today.

When it comes to readers, there are some people who don’t think the Church needs feminism. And then there are people who are clearly feminists who have walked out of the Church and aren’t interested in engaging anymore.  I’m writing for those people in between, and I do think it’s a large group.

It’s important to me that the book is being really clear about “What does it mean to belong?” to the Catholic Church, and “Why stay?” That’s really the question, and the phrase I use is “conscious belonging.”

What does “conscious belonging” mean?
Conscious belonging means I’m participating because I want this wisdom, I want this community, I want to participate. But that doesn’t mean I’m silent or uncritical, that I stop remembering that there are problems. 

As Sr. Sandra Schneiders IHM (the first non-Jesuit and first female professor to be tenured at the Jesuit School of Theology) says in the book: “I never thought that to belong meant that I was saying I agreed with everything…. I’m going to stay, and I’m going to speak.”

I also think of the late Sr. Thea Bowman speaking out about how the Church needed to be more welcoming to Black Catholics, and who spent years going around the country talking about that, and prophetically spoke to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops about that. She located herself within the Catholic tradition, yet she did not compromise her beliefs.

On that last point, it was really important to me to not write a white feminist book, because feminism has been guilty of being too white. I tried very hard to be inclusive of Black feminism, Latina feminism, and Asian feminism, because it gives you a more complicated view of the subject. 

What else convinces you to stay in the Catholic church?
Many reasons. For instance, in chapters I write on what it means to be human, work, marriage, and sex, I try to show that while there is a lot of overlap between Catholicism and feminism, Catholic teaching is more profound than most secular theories or philosophies. 

I deeply appreciate the rich body of Catholic teaching on these issues. I realize that some people think of those things as a burden. It’s like all these documents that come down from Rome. But I also think that this is anchoring me. It’s a vision that compels me and also obligates me, even when it’s challenging.

There are times when you can be in Catholic spaces and see that things are getting better. I look at Catholic universities like Santa Clara, where you see a lot of women in leadership positions, and I think about how much that has changed and how that has made a difference in the University, and that’s really hopeful.

Then there are other times when the depth of the problem comes home to you. Certainly in the chapters I write on prayer, on power, on life, and on gender, there are really hard issues that make it difficult for people to hang in there. Hopefully this book gives readers strategies for dealing with those difficult issues.

Cover of Julie Hanlon Rubio's book


You believe feminism and gender studies have helped Catholic theology become better. How so?
For example, in the chapter about gender, I’m really talking about three things: the treatment of people who identify as LBGTQ, sexism and the identification of very rigid gender roles, and the issue of gender identity—and all three are related. It’s definitely a place where especially younger Catholics struggle with the question of “how can I belong?” That’s where I think feminist theology can be really helpful, because I see scholars and theologians in that space working really hard to show how the Catholic tradition can be opened up without giving away all that is wise in it. 

For decades, we’ve had strong arguments about opening marriage to same-sex couples. People have done the hard work with Scripture and Catholic teaching to show how the tradition can stretch because of what we know now that we didn’t know before about sexual orientation, and what we have seen about the goodness and fruitfulness of same-sex marriages. So in that sense, feminism and contemporary theology have moved things, and it would be difficult for me to figure out how to belong without that kind of theology. 

Pope Francis has acknowledged the need to give women more decision-making power in the Church. How would you sum up his efforts so far?
Pope Francis does not seem to be interested in changing teaching on the issue of female ordination. But we have seen openings within the Synod process for the ordination of women as deacons. That seems more possible now than ever before, and at least the conversation is not being shut down.

There are also a lot of positions that Catholic priests have always occupied, but it’s not really necessary that a priest occupies them. We’re asking the question, “Why can’t a woman be Secretary of this or that?” And he’s allowing for that. In fact, things are cracking open in terms of women’s participation in various ways at the Vatican. Also, the fact that we had women participating and voting at the Synod is just huge.

I would also add that Catholic magisterial documents now use inclusive language. So before, we might have had something written about “men,” and now we say “human beings” instead, which is an important development.

Most of your JST students are men, many of them training to be priests or deacons, and likely to continue to exert the most influence in the Church. What do you hope they take from your book?
I know many of these men wrestle with this question as people who will be representatives of the Church.They ask themselves, “How can I be part of this?” Like their lay classmates, they see the dilemma, and that’s a good thing. 

What makes me hopeful is that my students are people who see that complexity that I'm talking about in the book. It’s much easier to either not see the problem, or to walk away. The harder thing is to acknowledge it—really see it—and yet stay, and that's what they're doing. And they're doing that with great love for their ministry. 

The title of your book asks a question that we’ve been discussing in various ways throughout our conversation. To address the question more directly: “Can You Be a Catholic and a Feminist?”
It’s a resounding “Yes, but it’s complicated.” I want to make sure that people understand that I’m trying to hold together a real recognition of the problem of continued sexism in the Church and a deep respect for Catholic tradition as well as a joy in belonging to this church. 

My profession is being a Catholic theologian. I teach this tradition every day. I think that there is great wisdom in this tradition, and I wouldn’t be a theologian if I didn’t think so. But I’m holding both of those things together, and that’s unusual; it’s hard for people to understand how you can do that. My fear is that people will hear one, or the other, and I want to keep saying, “No, it’s about both.”

Editor’s note: As part of the Jesuit School of Theology’s newly-launched year of events related to the Synod, the school will host Women and Synodality: Where Can We Go From Here?“ on May 2-3. This in-person gathering will make space for imagining the role of women in the future of the global Church. Due to limited space, JST encourages prompt registration for those interested in attending.




Diversity, Faculty, Graduate, JST, Leadership, Social Justice, Spirituality

Photo courtesy of Unsplash

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