25 years after Evangelium Vitae, we still need a “new feminism”

April 2, 2020 | Published first in Catholic World Report

by Michele Schumacher

Perhaps at no point in human history has the urgency of the proclamation of the “Gospel of Life”—the name given to the 11th of Pope Saint John Paul II’s 14 encyclicals—been so apparent as today. Indeed, on this 25th anniversary of Evangelium Vitae (promulgated March 25, 1995), more ferocious than ever is the systematic and ideological calling into question of the dignity and protection of human life, by the very institutions that have been traditionally charged to protect it: the state, the medical profession, even—and perhaps most sadly, as John Paul II pointed out in this same encyclical—the family itself, “which by its nature is called to be the “sanctuary of life” (EV, 9). On a more positive note, it was within the context of this “culture of death” (12) and even of what he considered a “conspiracy against life” (17), that this holy pope, in “cooperation” with “the episcopate of every country of the world” (5), pointed to women as “occupy[ing] a place, in thought and action, which is unique and decisive” in “transforming culture so that it supports life.” For this reason, he called upon us, women, “to promote a ‘new feminism’ which rejects the temptation of imitating models of ‘male domination,’ in order to acknowledge and affirm the true genius of women in every aspect of the life of society, and overcome all discrimination, violence, and exploitation” (99).

What is the “new feminism”?

Drawing from the important passage of Evangelium Vitae cited above (no. 99), one can point out the following characteristics of this so-called new feminism. 1) Its primary goal is that of transforming the culture in view of promoting and sustaining human life. 2) It proceeds from the thought and action of women, which is to say that it cannot be limited to theory or praxis, but seeks a marriage between the two. 3) A new feminism draws from the fact that women’s thought and action are “unique and decisive”: our contribution is not, in other words, identical with that of men (and the next phrase reaffirms this point by insisting that it “rejects the temptation of imitating models of ‘male domination’); nor is it incidental. 4) A new feminism challenges “male domination,” in contrast, for example, to male headship or leadership. This is not to say it denies leadership roles to women. In any case, leadership—like headship—is always to be understood and lived as service for others. 5) Beyond its affirmation of women’s unique thought and action, a new feminism encourages women’s “true genius,” the content of which remains undefined, although we will seek to fill that out in what follows. 6) Far from limiting the scope of women’s influence—to the domestic sphere, for example—it seeks to foster it within “every aspect of the life of society.” 7) A new feminism seeks to “overcome all discrimination, violence, and exploitation”; that of women, certainly, but also that of children, the handicapped, the elderly, and all those who are weak and defenseless.

In view of these characteristics, there is good reason to believe that a new feminism will advance in an almost organic manner: our praxis of acting out these principles will help to advance our theoretical understanding of a new feminism, which in turn will further incite our praxis. Women are, of course, both actors and theoreticians in this endeavor, but we are not alone. A new feminism that isolates women is no better, and is perhaps worse, than that which it opposes: namely, “models of ‘male domination” on the one hand, and “discrimination, violence, and exploitation” on the other. It follows that all of us have a part to play in the formation of this new feminism, although it was specifically to women that John Paul II addressed the challenge to promote this “new feminism.”

What the new feminism is not

It is, extremely important that in promoting the new feminism, we avoid potential misunderstandings associated with the term feminism itself. Indeed, there are almost innumerable strands of secular feminism, whence the very real possibility of falsely believing that what is promoted by one strand might also be promoted by another. Many eco-feminists, for example, are radically opposed to chemical contraception, which they rightfully denounce as endangering women’s health. Most other strands of feminism, in contrast, promote it as foundational to the “liberation” of women from male servitude, which in turn is presented as a supreme goal. To speak of a “new feminism” almost inevitably risks misleading people into thinking that its goals are in agreement with those of the various strands of secular feminism, such as the so-called right to abortion, which runs counter-current to the life-blood of the new feminism. Even with regard to a major goal that we do share with nearly all forms of secular feminism—that of promoting women’s rights and dignity—the new feminism differs insofar as it follows the example of Pope John Paul II in his insistence not only upon women’s rights, but also upon our responsibilities. Hence the title of his apostolic letter “On the Dignity and Vocation of Women” (Mulieris dignitatem).

Finally, in addressing the new feminism as “new,” we risk misleading people into thinking that it is reactionary in character: a sort of Christian response to secular feminism, and this—I insist—is not the case. While a new feminism might draw inspiration from certain tenants of secular feminism and might likewise learn from its faults, it is “new” in the sense of the radical novelty of Christianity itself, which does not simply adapt itself to what is already given. “No one puts new wine into old wineskins; if he does, the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins” (Lk 5: 37-38).

All of this is to say that we must be very careful in our employment of the term “new feminism,” which is still another reason to insist upon a common understanding among its proponents of what is understood thereby. Among the most important aspects of this particular feminism is the admission that men and women are equal but different; and it is this fact that allows us to point to their complementarity and to likewise “acknowledge and affirm” what John Paul II calls women’s “true genius.”

The genius of women

Although the concept of women’s “genius” remains relatively ambiguous in the context of Evangelium Vitae, one might point out that it suggests, almost by definition, the surpassing of the norm, pointing to an extraordinary giftedness. In employing this concept, Pope John Paul II might have sought to direct our attention away from what many secular feminists rightfully denounce as the presenting of the male as the standard against which women are judged. On the other hand, many (secular) feminists also denounce the concept of women’s genius as another attempt to categorize, stereotype, or otherwise delimit women by imposing upon us a male ideal of woman: an ideal which necessarily implies that she is different, and thus “other,” than man. Such is an important theme in the work of the famous French feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir. Similarly, the gifted philosopher and faithful advocate of the new feminism, Sr. Prudence Allen, RSM, has done marvelous work exposing the widespread and regrettable influence of Aristotle’s reduced vision of woman (as a “defective” male) upon philosophy up to and including the medieval era and well beyond.

Given this problematic historical background, one almost inevitably walks on eggshells in attempting to define the concept of women’s genius. It is not enough to insist that women are “equal but different,” because the question immediately arises: how are we different? Obviously, if we are to emphasize metaphysical foundations—as I insist that we must—we cannot simply point to biological differences. For this reason, Pope John Paul II did well to point not only to the distinct vocation of maternity, but also to the specifically spiritual dimension of motherhood, such that it can never be simply reduced to the bearing and birthing of children. On the other hand, many secular feminists go beyond this insight to argue that motherhood is simply a matter of “choice” and abortion a matter of freedom.

Perhaps the only way around this catch-22 is to proceed from our own experience as women. For those of us who believe that creation reveals the infinite goodness and wisdom of an all-powerful Creator, it becomes obvious that virtue consists in acting in accord with our being and that our actions reveal who we are as creatures. In observing our actions, moreover, we might better understand the nature from which those actions proceed. This is not to admit that biology is destiny; nor is it to grant that women have a different nature than do men. We too are human and thus fully rational creatures. On the other hand, human nature is necessarily sexual, which means that the human person is either male or female and not simply androgynous. This empirical observation and norm—which is not denied by the reality of those who are sadly born with characteristics of both sexes (the intersexed) any more than the phenomenon of blindness denies sight as proper to human beings—is the origin of the important question inspiring Pope John Paul II’s 1988 apostolic letter on the dignity and vocation of women: the question “of understanding the reason for and the consequences of the Creator’s decision that the human being should always and only exist as a woman or a man” (Mulieris dignitatem, 1).

It is perhaps that question which might also direct our investigation of women’s “genius”: that which we, specifically as women, offer to our common cultural heritage and more specifically to the promotion of a culture of life, in accord with the challenge of John Paul II. Instinctively, I share his belief (cf. MD, 30) that our specific contribution is linked to both our experience of mothering and to our natural disposition for mothering. Hence, we are profoundly aware that life—both physical and spiritual life—is a gift and not simply a choice. On the other hand, Sr. Prudence Allen has argued with good reason that a woman’s recourse to contraception—especially chemical contraception—might inhibit this otherwise natural, and thus experiential, awareness, precisely because a woman is thereby no longer disposed to receive life. This is an important point to keep in mind when the argument is advanced “from experience” that women do not necessarily have a natural disposition for mothering, or a so-called maternal instinct. When, in fact, nature is altered by the human will in a way that is arguably in conflict with nature’s purposes, it cannot be brought to the witness stand to testify against itself.

On the other hand, and more positively, it is surely the case that most of the manifestations of women’s true genius are not explicitly expressed within the context of promoting a new feminism. Hence, for example, every time that we as women interact with other women or men with even an implicit desire to contribute to a culture of life, we are effectively promoting the primary goal of the new feminism. In so doing, we—often unconsciously—bring to our daily activities and preoccupations that “genius” which belongs to us by virtue of our natural disposition to receive and nurture life, and likewise of our actual experience of doing just that. The various manners in which we cooperate in the promotion of the so-called new feminism are thus almost impossible to enumerate: visiting the sick and elderly, helping single mothers, caring for young children, offering an encouraging word, holding a hand, promoting the missions, offering an encouraging example to those who have lost hope in the possibility of a happy marriage or a fulfilling family life, promoting political candidates and laws in view of protecting human life and the well-being of all peoples, especially those who cannot defend themselves; and the list goes on and on.

Of course, it must be granted that men too are engaged in these life-giving and life-sustaining activities, but their manner of doing so is different. I am inclined to agree with many secular feminists engaged in the realm of epistemology who argue that women tend to have more relational manners of thinking, and thus also of behaving, than men do. In other words, it is argued that we women tend to view ourselves within a complex, or tissue, of relations, and not as isolated monads, a view that is said to be more typical of male thinkers. This is another area where contemporary secular feminist philosophers and new (Catholic) feminists might find common ground. According to the analysis of both, women tend to be more relational in our self-conceptions and more empathetic towards others than are our male counterparts, who tend to be more isolated in their thinking patterns and more objective and individualistic (though not egocentric) in their manner of acting.


Unlike many feminists who use this epistemological or phenomenological data to argue for the dismantling of male-dominated institutions and social structures, and for the de facto rebuilding of those same institutions and structures with women’s “superior” influence, new feminists argue for the importance of male and female influence within our social structures and institutions. Men and women are different and complementary, a new feminism maintains.

From this perspective, complementarity is not about “allowing” certain traits to one sex that might not be ascribed to the other. Rather, it is about surpassing the more or less natural limitations of each sex (the caution in this wording is important, because room must be granted to cultural influence, which after all, is part of the mystery of being human), precisely by means of his or her relations with the other. The 20th-century philosopher and saint Edith Stein, who is often cited by new feminists, has some interesting things to say to this question. She addresses certain diminutive tendencies of each of the sexes—the man to his “world” of work, for example; the woman to “her” children and the pettiness arising out of her sometimes excessive concentration upon relationships—that can be avoided by healthy interactions between the sexes, as in the married state.

Advocating complementarity does not presume—and so-called traditional thinkers and new feminists are constantly misunderstood on this point—that neither men nor women are complete in themselves and that they need to enter into communion with one another so as to be expressly “whole.” Rather, there is a sense in which both sexes are challenged, encouraged, and expanded, as it were, in their continually dynamic communion with one another. Precisely in moving beyond the limitations of each one’s “I” in an unceasing effort to enter into an authentic communion of persons, the natural capacities of both man and woman are, in other words, fostered, developed, and even fulfilled. Hence in the education of children, for example, there is good reason to promote the active presence of both mother and father.

Unfortunately, the emergence of true complementarity has often been stifled by social structures that impose straight-jackets on women and men by hindering or prohibiting them from arriving at a natural, almost organic, balance between work and family—or even work and prayer (ora et labora)—in accord with each one’s gifts and needs. To be sure, the struggle to find a balance is a very real one. One challenge is a system that instrumentalizes its workforce, reducing its employees to a means to its own gain. In such an environment, there is no place for the  concern to, for example, assure employment for single mothers, especially employment that will not compromise their primary vocation to care for and educate their children. Nor is there a place for assuring adequate maternity leave; nor still that of allowing for part-time employment for mothers and fathers, who likewise wish to accord primacy to educating their children, and who are, frankly, much too often left out of these discussions. Still more lamentable an example is what John Paul II points to as a “conspiracy against life” in a culture that “denies solidarity” and is “excessively concerned with efficiency,” so as to consider the weak, ill, elderly and unborn as “useless” and “intolerable burden[s]” (EV, 12).

More positively, many married couples are convinced that they are not only responsible for their own so-called personal vocations, but that they are also responsible for a shared vocation: as the parents of their children, of course, but also in the many multidimensional manners in which together—as husband and wife—they contribute to the building of a culture of life.

The call to a contemplative outlook

Such a contribution is certainly fostered by the conviction that we truly are “our brother’s keeper” (Gen 4: 9) (cf. EV, 19). Still more fundamentally, however, it is strengthened by the conviction, born of faith, that we are the sons and daughters of a heavenly Father, to whom we are ultimately responsible for our own lives and even for the lives of all those who pass along our paths and share our destinies. From this perspective, a new feminism is rooted in what John Paul II likewise refers to in Evangelium Vitae as a “contemplative outlook”: “It is the outlook of those who see life in its deeper meaning, who grasp its utter gratuitousness, its beauty and its invitation to freedom and responsibility. It is the outlook of those who do not presume to take possession of reality but instead accept it as a gift, discovering in all things the reflection of the Creator and seeing in every person his living image (cf. Gen 1:27; Ps 8:5)” (EV, 83).

To be sure, this outlook is not unique to the new feminism, but it is only to the extent that we are still able to marvel at the mystery of our beings and lives as given (not just factually, datum, but also generously, donum) and thus as created, that we might truly appreciate the most basic intuitions of the new feminism, and contribute to its fostering. Because we really can and do admit that God has created us male and female, it makes sense to raise the questions at the heart of the new feminism: what is specific about being a woman, as differing from a man? Is there a specific call or task that might be attributed to women as female? Like all genuinely human questions that occupy the hearts of men and women throughout history, these are questions that cannot be resolved with simplistic answers. Rather, they must be lived and reflected upon throughout the various stages of our lives, with an appreciation for natural beauty and an awesome respect of mystery. After all, it is the attitude of wonder—far more than that of doubt—that has advanced learning and culture through most of the tradition of humanity.

We thus have good reason to believe that the new feminism—in its search for metaphysical understanding—does not represent a passing phenomenon. Like a virtuous woman, it is destined to leave its mark upon human history and human hearts.

Michele Schumacher is a doctor in theology (S.T.D.) and a private docent at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. Among her many publications, she is the editor and contributing author of Women in Christ: Towards a New Feminism (Cambridge/Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004).

Copyright 2020 Catholic World Report. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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