Document 8: Excerpts from Mary Daly, The Church and the Second Sex (New York: Harper and Row, 1968), pp. 11-14, 112, 113-14, 178, 179-81.

Document 8: Excerpts from Mary Daly, The Church and the Second Sex (New York: Harper and Row, 1968), pp. 11-14, 112, 113-14, 178, 179-81.


   In contrast to The Illusion of Eve (see Document 6), Mary Daly's The Church and the Second Sex focused not on the practical concerns of married women, but on historical and theological analysis of Catholic sexism. While both books were hopeful, Daly used much more pointed arguments and language to criticize the church. She warned that if changes in the church did not occur, people would be forced to conclude that the church was "the inevitable enemy of human progress." Yet in 1968, Mary Daly was committed to helping the church "renew" itself, arguing that the church had within it the capacity to transform society for the better. Furthermore, she believed that faith could support a woman's process of liberation.

p. 11


The Case Against the Church

‘Christian ideology has contributed no little to the oppression of woman’

Simone de Beauvoir

   Those engaged in the struggle for the equality of the sexes have often seen the Catholic Church as an enemy. This view is to a large extent justified, for Catholic teaching has prolonged a traditional view of woman which at the same time idealizes and humiliates her. It is precisely this ambivalence, characteristic of so many Catholic utterances about women, which those committed to improving the legal, professional and economic condition of women find deplorable.

   Proponents of equality charge that there is inexcusable hypocrisy in a species of ecclesiastical propaganda which pretends to put woman on a pedestal but which in reality prevents her from genuine self-fulfillment and from active, adult-size participation in society. They point out that symbolic idealization tends to dupe women into satisfaction with the narrow role imposed upon them. Made to feel guilty or ‘unnatural’ if they rebel, many have been condemned to a restricted or mutilated existence in the name of religion. Moreover, the Church has been described as a pressure group exercising influence on the practical level, through whatever press media and political, religious and social organizations it controls, to prevent changes which would improve the condition of women. Thus it is maintained, with supporting documentation, that

   ‘wherever the Catholic Church is strongly implanted, in the countries where it is the state religion or simply the dominant religion, the hierarchy has always persisted in maintaining woman

p. 12

in her traditional situation of inferiority, and in opposing every liberal reform capable of improving her condition in the family and in society.’

   So effective has the conservative pressure and propaganda been, that this idealizing ideology is accepted and perpetuated not only by countless members of the clergy, but indeed by many women. Fascinated by an exalted symbol of ‘Woman’, they are not disposed to understand the distress imposed upon countless real, existing women.

   In the light of this state of affairs the Catholic Church appears to many as the last stronghold of anachronism and prejudice, refusing to adapt its structures to the condition of modern women, still preaching to them the passive virtues of obedience, submission and meekness, while seeming to refuse or ignore the profound aspirations of half the human race to liberty and full personhood.

   It is true, of course, that many Catholic women in America and other advanced countries do not suffer explicitly from any of this, and accordingly they are not aware of any real problem. To reach and convince such persons, recent writers of feminist polemic have amassed an impressive body of historical facts. These demonstrate that in the recent past Catholic bodies have opposed the right of women to vote and to an adequate education; and that in some regions they still uphold legislation that will keep married women in what can only be called a condition of servile economic and legal dependence. Other evidence supports the claim that in all countries in which the Catholic Church is the state religion or the privileged religion — e.g. Italy, Spain, Portugal — the infidelity of a woman is severely punished (in some cases, by imprisonment) whereas the man is punished only if he installs a concubine in the home. In these countries, moreover, the Church promotes the totalitarian family: the father has patria potestas over the children, even if there is a legal separation due to his own wrong-doing, and he has the administration of the goods of the household. Ecclesiastical

p. 13

pressure against birth control fits naturally within this context of oppression. In the poverty-stricken south of Italy, it is shown, it is not rare for a woman to have twenty children. The reduction of the woman to the condition of biological beast, the spread of delinquency and prostitution coincident with the multiplication of offspring who cannot be adequately provided for — critics impute these in large measure to the policy of the Church which even today, it is charged, continues to combat the legitimate aspirations of women, justifying this by archaic ideology, making a fetish of ‘nature’, while ignoring the vocation of the individual to dominate ‘nature’.

   When it is objected that ecclesiastical attitudes in the advanced countries deviate significantly from this ‘traditional’ pattern, the contemporary critics often counter by saying that any moderation is not indicative of official attitudes, but is instead necessitated by a cultural milieu hostile to the ‘traditional’ mentality. But this counter-argument is hasty and unconvincing. While it is impossible honestly to maintain that it is false, nevertheless a criticism which does not go further is simplistic and therefore unsatisfactory. It is better to recognize that, since the Church is immersed in a wide variety of social situations, inevitably there are various patterns of interaction. The more progressive milieu produces a more progressive Church. While this may be seen as an enforced compromise, it would on the other hand be naive to imagine this modification of the Church as the stretching of a rubber band which will automatically snap back to ‘normal’ when the pressure is removed. There is no compelling reason to preclude the possibility that a progression is involved. The day-to-day and country-by-country experience of the Church is educational, and it brings about evolution of its doctrine. However slowly, surely the Church learns somewhat from ‘the world’, and eventually progressive thinking does have some influence upon the upper regions of its ponderous organism. If pessimism on this score was plausible before Vatican II, it is no longer a completely realistic attitude.

   On balance, if some of the contemporary criticism of the

p. 14

Church's stance on women is over-simplified and unsympathetic, it is also in large measure supported by indisputable facts. The very minimum required by intellectual honesty and good faith is that the questions thus raised be faced by all without defensiveness, rancor, or dissimulation. There is mounting evidence of a growing awareness among Catholics that there is a problem. It is one thing, however, to know that a problem exists and something else to face it. Moreover, it is essential to any worthwhile discussion to establish the nature of the problem, even though its complexity may not allow a very easy formulation.

*    *    *

p. 112

   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. Thus, evidence of the ‘spiritual and mental distinction between the sexes’ is seen by Father Arnold in the fact that boys play with steam engines, ‘giving early evidence of the signs of coming power’, whereas girls play with doll houses. The fact that boys are given steam engines and forcefully discouraged if they show any signs of interest in dolls is simply not taken into account. So also, Fathers Danniel and Oliver, in their revealingly entitled book, Woman is the Glory of Man, make undemonstrated universalizations. Thus woman, ‘whose entire psychology is founded upon the primordial tendency to love’, is said to have ‘a natural spontaneity toward submission’, and to be ‘more easily subject to illusions’. Those who fail to fit into this pattern are dismissed as not being ‘true women’.

*    *    *


p. 113

   Obviously, within the artificial world of this ideology, there is no room for development. The formula is very simple: once the a priori norms of femininity have been set up, all of the exceptions are classified as ‘de-feminized’. Criticism is directed exclusively toward individuals who fail to conform; never is it directed to the assumptions of the ideology itself. This can be seen in the way in which the question of ‘women in authority’

*    *    *

p. 114

is handled. There are ‘two pitfalls’ for the woman exercising authority ‘of the masculine type’. These are ‘the danger of becoming masculine’ and ‘the danger of transforming into faults normal feminine reactions’. What this means is that if the woman fails to exercise authority well, she is being ‘feminine’; if she succeeds, this is a sure sign that she is too ‘masculine’. Moral: she cannot win.

   Unwittingly, Gertrud von le Fort herself suggested the most efficacious means of defeating the Eternal Woman game:

   ‘But when the woman seeks herself, her metaphysical mystery is extinguished; for in raising up her own image she destroys the image that is eternal.’[A]

   It is precisely this — the emergence of a significant number of creative women who will raise up their own image — that can significantly weaken the hold of the paralyzing stereotypes upon human consciousness.

*    *    *

p. 178


The Second Sex and the Seeds of Transcendence

‘I do best by obeying and serving my sovereign Lord — that is, God.’

Joan of Arc

*    *    *

p. 179

We have said that we are in fundamental agreement with de Beauvoir concerning the facts of history.[B] Is there no disagreement, then? We have already suggested the answer to this. Disagreement may bear more upon the attitude concerning the facts and interpretation than upon the facts themselves. It also may bear more upon what a critic has omitted than upon what is actually said.

   The fundamental difference between Simone de Beauvoir's vision of the Church and women and that which motivated this book is the difference between despair and hope. For this reason our approach is fundamentally far more radical than that of the French existentialist. De Beauvoir was willing to accept the conservative vision of the Church as the reality, and therefore has had to reject it as unworthy of mature humanity. However, there is an alternative to rejection, an alternative which need not involve self-mutilation. This is commitment to radical transformation of the negative, life-destroying elements of the Church as it exists today. The possibility of such commitment rests upon clear understanding that the seeds of the eschatological community, of the liberating, humanizing Church of the future, are already present, however submerged and neutralized they may be. Such commitment requires hope and courage.

   De Beauvoir herself has acknowledged that religion has been able to work a transformation, enabling women to perform works comparable to men, although the only examples she cites are

p. 180

Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Avila. We have seen that she becomes quite lyrical concerning the case of Teresa who, it is claimed, lived out the situation of humanity, taking her stand beyond the earthly hierarchies, and setting her pride beyond the sexual differentiation. We could well argue that there have been others in all ages who have transcended ‘the earthly hierarchies’, and, although they have been comparatively few, they have served as beacons, signalling to others the fact of undreamed of possibilities in themselves. We can truly say that the Church has, indeed, worked to bring about this transformation, that it has inspired men and women to reach beyond the limitations imposed by their environments, even beyond the limitations imposed by itself as institution.

   It is essential, however, that we do not dupe ourselves, supporting our optimism with a facile apologetic. It is easy to say that Christianity has ‘always taught’ the dignity of the human person, and indeed it is true that the prophetic voice has always called out from the depths, however muffled that voice may have been by alienating notions spawned in an alienated society. However, it is not necessary to belabor this point defensively. Our optimism is not dependent upon the past; rather, it arises from a call, a summons into the future. Harvey Cox expressed the Christian condition accurately when he said the Jesus Christ comes to his people not primarily through ecclesiastical traditions, but through social change, that he ‘goes before’ first as a pillar of fire.[C] There is no need, then, to be obsessed with justification of the past. In fact, while it is necessary to watch the rear-view mirror, this does not tell us where we are going, but only where we have been.

   Simone de Beauvoir rejects Christianity as burdensome baggage inherited from the past. The life-affirming alternative to this is response to that liberating Power which calls us to transcend the archaic heritage and move toward a future whose seeds are already within us. Our response to the French existentialist is one of friendly respect and gratitude, for without her light we may not have recognized so acutely our own darkness and therefore may not have discovered the dimensions of our own

p. 181

light. Rather than a philosophy of despair, we choose a theology of hope, not because the former is ‘false’, but because we think it represents an incomplete and partial vision.

   It is part and parcel of Christian hope and courage that these qualities do not allow us ultimately to rest in the illusion that we are in possession of fixed blueprints for our future. God is present, yet always hidden, and the summons from that Presence gives a dimension of transcendence to our activity, by which we are propelled forward.

   In the exercise of self-transcending creative activity, inspired and driven forward by faith and hope, sustained by courage, men and women can learn to ‘set their pride beyond the sexual differentiation’. Working together on all levels they may come at last to see each other's faces, and in so doing, come to know themselves. It is only by this creative personal encounter, sparked by that power of transcendence which the theologians have called grace, that the old wounds can be healed. Men and women, using their best talents, forgetful of self and intent upon the work, will with God's help mount together toward a higher order of consciousness and being, in which the alienating projections will have been defeated and wholeness, psychic integrity, achieved.



   A. Daly refers here to Gertrud von le Fort (1876-1971), the German author of a widely cited book about the eternal feminine, The Eternal Woman, trans. Marie Cecilia Buehrle (Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing, 1954).

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   B. Daly was heavily influenced by the French feminist and existentialist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986), who articulated a critique of institutional religion in her book The Second Sex. Daly spends the early chapters of her book evaluating and expanding on de Beauvoir's thesis. Here, Daly explains where she differs from de Beauvoir.

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   C. Harvey Cox (1929- ) is a theologian best known in the late 1960s for his book The Secular City.

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