Woman in church_Jan2011 cover

Mary Daly and the second sex


This article appeared in the September 1968 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 34, No. 5, pages 21-24).

An interview with theologian Mary Daly

Dr. Mary Daly is a woman of several roles and locales, some of them—past and present—in a man’s world. She is the first woman theologian on the faculty of Jesuit-run Boston College. Besides a philosophy doctorate from St. Mary’s College, Notre Dame, Indiana, she holds doctorates in sacred theology and philosophy from the University of Fribourg, Switzerland. Her formidable research into the upper regions of Paul Tillich’s theology and into the theology of the transcendence of God still did not erase her pique at the issue of feminism within the Catholic Church. What emerged is a provocative volume entitled The Church and the Second Sex, published recently by Harper & Row. Here is how a scholar, a well-qualified theologian and a college professor—who also happens to be a lady—views her church, and its attitude, theology, history, and its male establishment when faced with women as people. Time of confrontation: the final third of the apocalyptic 20th century.

Let’s begin by asking you to sum up what you regard as the church’s attitude toward women.

The church and the history of the church’s attitude toward women has been a record of contradictions. On one hand, the church has put women on a pedestal; you see this in the scriptures, in the Fathers, the theologians, in the popes—particularly Leo XIII, Pius XI, Pius XII. On the other hand, in point of fact, the church has actually humiliated and degraded women. When I say women have been put on a pedestal, I mean in the figure of one woman—Mary, the ideal, the model. This has served as a compensation process, because women in the concrete as individuals are not treated as human beings of equal stature with men in the church.

In your recent book, you use the term, the Second Sex, to describe the role and position of women in the Catholic Church. What would you indicate as the main signs that women are a second sex in the Catholic Church?

l’d point out, first of all, that the title of my book, The Church and the Second Sex, is derived from the masterpiece of Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, which was published in 1948. This book, which has never received adequate attention in the United States, surveys the problem of women not only in the church but in society in general. In what she has to say about Christianity’s influence on the degradation of women, she is correct but perhaps incomplete in her analysis.


Now you ask me what are the signs of the secondary status of women in the church. The most obvious sign and crystallization of the whole problem, to me, is the exclusion of women from the priesthood. Here you have a clear-cut case. By the very fact that women are excluded, you are saying that no matter what the personal qualifications of the individual, no matter what the educational stature or virtue, by reason of sex alone a whole mass of persons are excluded from functions which obviously they are capable of performing. But I take this merely as symbol and sign of the problem. I don’t think it will be any panacea to go out and ordain women.

Would it be possible, in your opinion, to label people’s attitude toward women on whether they favor ordination of women?

As a matter of fact, I do think it is almost a litmus test, because it’s here that you find the most violent emotions aroused. Very often a conversation will be going on about equality of the sexes within the church and people will appear to be very rational. But when you mention the problem of the priesthood, suddenly the most irrational reasons will come forth. For example, someone will say: “But men can’t be mothers, and there is no insult in this, so there is no insult in women not being priests.” As if you were talking on the same plane.

To me, this is deeply significant. I think we are witnessing in our time a crumbling of hierarchies altogether. Literally for thousands of years, the human race has lived, at least in the Western culture, in a state in which we thought in terms of hierarchical caste, in which we advocated priesthood, the laity—and within the laity, men and women. Now when you talk about women priests, you are doing something which violently contradicts this; it’s a revolutionary image. You are putting together two opposed symbols: the woman, who is the lowest in the scale of hierarchical values, with the priest, who is supposed to be the highest. This is threatening to many people because they feel that the whole order of things is being upset. They sense this instinctively without realizing it.

What other signs would you identify as showing the secondary position of women in the Catholic Church?

Well, start with liturgical functions. Consider the experience of a young girl going to Mass in the ordinary parish church. She sees that, first of all, the Mass is being said by a priest and the servers are all boys. When she goes to confession, she confesses her sins to a man. When she receives Confirmation, a man does this. The Pope is a man. And the angels are called he. Christ is male. God is called He. I think you have to consider the very subtle conditioning that comes through. She is conditioned to think in terms of specific inferiority because of this.


Now this is all part of it. All sorts of problems are connected with this. The position of the nuns within the church is problematic, because although they are rather exalted—they are sacred persons canonically—at the same time they are part of the laity. They are not part of the clergy within the Catholic Church. The Vatican organizations which govern their lives have been traditionally all male.

I think this is linked up also with sexuality in marriage. It is very significant that in theological treatises in the Middle Ages, and even much later, the marriage act was described as the use of the woman. The whole attitude was not that marriage was a partnership between persons but of the man using a woman for reproductive purposes. Also, there is the whole structure of the theology that has developed about the Mary-Christ relationship. Mary is always seen as subordinate, as representing the creature with Christ, of course, being divine. In the way this comes through to the popular mentality, the psychological implications are that the male is divine and the female is a creature. All these things are interrelated and extremely complex.

Would you spell out the influence of Marian theology on the role of women in the Catholic Church?

I don’t want to discount Marian theology because I see value in it. But you have the problem crystallized in a book by a Belgian Jesuit, Pierre Galot, which appeared during the Vatican II years, called La Femme et L’Eglise (“Woman and the Church”). In this book, the good Jesuit theologian takes everything that was said in Vatican II about Mary and then applies it to women in general. What you come out with inevitably is a very subordinate role for women. Mary is seen as subordinate to Christ, as always cooperating with him but in a subordinate role. From these symbols, he leaps to the concrete situation and sees the woman as always cooperating with the man in a subordinate role. It gets to be almost a comedy. The book is rather amusing, if you read it with any sense of irony at all. For example, he says that the man has the honor of preaching and the woman has the honor of listening; and of course there is no indignity in this because the preacher has to have someone to listen to him.

How, in biblical and theological terms, would you answer the arguments of those who say—either explicitly or implicitly—that woman belongs in a subordinate position?

This is a question that could take a couple of hours to answer. In my book, I analyze biblical texts—scripture, Genesis, St. Paul. The New Testament statements reflecting the antifeminism of those times were never those of Christ. The most striking antifeminist passages are, of course, in the Pauline texts and they are the ones most frequently cited by clerics who were brought up in the old school. There is a fundamental answer to this: We have to see these texts in their historical context. For example, St. Paul wanted women to have their heads covered because in Corinth to go out with your head uncovered was to behave like a prostitute in that society. But to take that statement out of context and now tell women that they should have hats on in church is rather absurd. So a fundamental principle is to see statements always within the context of evolving consciousness and cultural revolution. To take biblical statements as dicta for what must be done now, abstracting from time and space and abstracting from history, is, I think, a perversity.


Then are you saying that the church reflected the society and culture surrounding it in assigning a secondary role to women?

True. I think the Catholic Church was reflecting the times. I also think there is some justification in saying it pushed women ahead a bit in the early centuries. However, when the Industrial Revolution really started springing women free, the church started reacting in a regressive manner. Now hopefully we can still discover within Christianity the seeds of liberation. You can find within Christianity the message of the dignity of the human person. It’s there. At the same time you can find the regressive element. I think the important thing is to try with what insight we have at this particular point to distinguish the regressive elements in Christian doctrine from the liberating elements.

Then what would you say is the theological basis for the equality of women from the point of view of the Catholic Church?

The important thing is to see now the problem of the relationships among the sexes. Essentially, all of us are made in the image of God. This is what we have to consider. If there is value in Christianity, it is in this: That it has given the message that we are all born to develop ourselves in creative, self-transcendent activities, to move more and more in the image of God. Any teaching and any practice that hampers this would be harmful and would really be anti-Christian.

What was the impact of the Vatican Council—which you observed in one of its sessions—on the role of women in the church?

I think Vatican II was a beginning, not an end. Conservatives like to think of it as an end, but in fact, it was the beginning of a tremendous explosion within the church. What we saw for the first time as far as women are concerned was the timid beginning of an assertion of their existence. It wasn’t until the third session that women appeared as auditors within the Vatican, and even then it was rather ironic: Just a few women sitting there allowed to listen but having no voice whatever. I remember the tremendous impression of seeing those old men in red sitting up there in their higher seats and then the few auditors—including a few women, mostly nuns in black—sitting in very humble positions. They were not allowed to speak, having no active role at all. Yet there was all that self-glorification for having even given them that much, this little bit.

There were events that occurred in Vatican II that were very significant. For example, a woman journalist was excluded from receiving Holy Communion with her fellow journalists because she was a woman, and that received great attention from the press. I think the journalistic response was very, very important in generating an awareness on the part of women of their really despicable situation within the Catholic Church. There was a kind of outburst, a gradually-spreading awareness that there is a problem. This alone was a triumph. Just two or three or four years previous to that, it had been taboo even to speak about such a question as women priests. If you were to raise the question, you were considered a kind of nut. But then you found theologians speaking about it sanely, analyzing it. Hans Kung has said he saw no theological objection to women priests. Karl Rahner examined the subject and found that it’s open to question and Bernard Haring, who is not one of the most radical theologians by any means, has expressed on openness about it.


I would say that Vatican II has opened the way and things are moving forward. But the whole thing has to be seen in the context of evolving structures, so that in a sense it is almost anachronistic now to be worried about women priests. Who cares? The priests themselves are having an identity crisis and a larger question is being asked: What is the priesthood in the Catholic Church? Once you see the larger context, you see that the question of women priests is already passé. It is worth arguing, it has to be argued out, it has to be worked out—but it has to be seen in the context of very, very rapidly changing structures in which the distinction between hierarchy and laity is diminishing.

Let’s take some specific questions and look for connections between antifeminism and the church’s stand. First of all, the connection between antifeminism and the church’s attitude on birth control.

In a way, it is almost boring to have to talk about birth control, because I think as far as the generation under 25 is concerned, that issue is finished. They are going to decide for themselves. The people who are still groaning over the problem of birth control are for the most part over 30. Yet it would be silly to say that this is not an important problem in our time. There is a very definite connection, I think, between antifeminism and the problem of birth control. The root of the connection is this: I think the church has—when I say church I mean the official church, the theologians, the popes, Doctors, Fathers—has seen the woman as an instrument for reproduction. As long as you look at man-woman relationship in the terms that he is a person and she is not really a partner but an instrument for reproduction, then you are going to see marriage as primarily for the sake of offspring. As a result, we had built into canon law the notion that the primary end of marriage was the production and education of offspring. As long as you are thinking within this framework, birth control seems evil and against the very notion of marriage. But when you shift the emphasis and begin to see women as persons, you expand your view­ point of the man-woman relationship to personal relations primarily. Then you see offspring as an outcome of this primarily human relationship between two persons and your whole viewpoint of birth control shifts. This is what is happening now.


What about abortion and divorce? Do you make a connection between those problems and antifeminism?

Yes, I think that they are all connected. But they are distinct problems and it would be too easy to lump them all together as if each one did not present a distinct type of problem. It’s very clear in countries such as Italy and Spain in which Catholicism is dominant that divorce laws are most rigid and generally operate against the woman. You find in those countries a certain hypocrisy; that is, hold the family together no matter what. But it is understood that the man is free to do whatever he wants on the side while the woman must be forever loyal.

As for abortion, this constitutes another problem. I think one often detects a kind of insensitivity, perhaps even a kind of sadistic attitude, in the writings of the theologians about abortion. There is a failure to recognize the immense burden that theology has placed upon women. At the same time, I do think there are grave moral problems involved here. In the end what we have to recognize is the sovereignty of the individual conscience, which is much more important than any legalistic codes.


Do your remarks point to antisexuality as well as antifeminism in the Catholic Church?

You are pushing me into a realm of specialization and theory which isn’t mine, namely, psychology. Admittedly, I am on rather shaky ground here. But from observation, and just from reading a number of theological texts, I am certainly led to the suspicion that there is a deep­ rooted connection between antisexuality and antifeminism within the Catholic Church. I suspect that very often the celibate male cleric is really enacting a kind of self-hatred in his projections about women and in his writings about the second sex.

Do you mean self-hatred or fear he will fall into temptation?

Well, I think the two may be identified. He hates himself because of his susceptibility to temptation. You find in the Fathers of the Church very good text examples of identification of Eve as the temptress. Sexuality was almost totally identified with the female. She was identified with the sexual function. There seems to be a failure on the part of the Fathers of the Church to see that they themselves may also be tempters, that the male may be the tempter. There is a kind of self-excuse involved here. And, of course, you have all the compensating mechanisms, too. Perhaps as a result of guilt feelings over this projection of all evil into the woman, you have the glorification of the ideal, Mary—the Virgin Mary who is all pure, immaculate, “our tainted nature’s solitary boast.”

Where does the nun fit into this picture of the church and the second sex?

I think the emergence of the nun today is very profoundly connected with the emergence of the married woman. The nun has always been a paradoxical figure and a very fascinating figure in Christian history. In the Middle Ages when the married woman was seen primarily as an instrument for reproduction, it was the nun alone who could realize her personhood. She wasn’t merely an instrument for the mail. At the same time, this was at the price of isolation from the male, which was hardly ideal. Today we find that the married woman—through the use of the pill, through birth control—is becoming more liberated from slavery to biological fertility. A sense of liberation is in the air. The nuns are catching on to this and beginning to see themselves as persons throwing off their veils, going out and becoming active.

In terms of what is happening today, do you feel that religious orders of women are dead as we have known them in the past?

Yes, I think they are dead as we have known them in the past. But I don’t think this means that everything has stopped. What you find is an emergence of some­thing. I am not sure that we should call it the emergence of the new nun, because here you are hanging onto a term which is anachronistic. But you do have people who have a common concern, who want to shake off old structures but nevertheless have a sense of deep commitment to something. Perhaps none of our terminology is adequate. Call it commitment to God, service to God, service to God through our neighbor, call it what­ ever it may be. As we have known nuns—yes, I think they are obsolete. But I see many vibrant, intelligent, and promising young women who have committed their lives to these orders. I think they may transform the structures tremendously and yet retain some sort of continuity with the past.

What is your picture of what will happen to the woman in the Catholic Church? What changes do you project in the decade of the 1970s?

This is almost an unanswerable question because the really basic question is, what is going to happen to the church in the 1970s?

Image: Photo by Tom A. Wright