Rebuking Abigail Favale’s Squishy ‘Christian’ Feminism

News: Commentary
by David Gordon  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  June 8, 2022   

'No' means no

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A few weeks ago, Dr. Abigail Favale appeared as a guest on Matt Fradd's well-watched podcast, Pints With Aquinas. The topic? So-called Christian feminism. You see, in her past life, Favale numbered herself among the select group of dour gynocentric zealots that the world has come to know as "feminists." So devoted was Favale to the septic ideology that, by her own admission, it "kind of became [her] religion." What stood out, however, as Fradd's interview of Favale progressed, was that she has not fully apostatized from that unhappy cult of woman. Indeed, it appears that Favale is now laboring under the delusion that Catholicism and feminism may somehow be wedded, that she may "re-imagine" (as feminists are wont to do) her new religion to accommodate her old one.

She has another think coming. 

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Dr. Abigail Favale as a guest on

Matt Fradd's Pints With Aquinas

Favale seems fundamentally oblivious to feminism's true identity. When, for example, Fradd pressed her to define feminism, she gave a meandering, sanitized description of the "three waves," treating each wave as a distinct entity with unique aims. She didn't even take a crack at distilling the ideology's essence, at providing a "theory of everything," so to speak. Quite the opposite — Favale alleged that feminism doesn't like actually, really, necessarily have a true "root" or common corpus (as some feminist theory is grounded in Marxism, some in liberalism, and some in post-modernism), which is a load of horsefeathers.

All feminist theory does, in fact, harken back to a common nucleus. According to Rory Dicker, feminists of every stripe want to "liberate women from the constraints and oppressions caused by patriarchy, a social system in which men rule" (A History of U.S. Feminisms [Berkeley, CA: Seal Press, 2008], 8). And as Carol Hay writes, "If there’s one theoretical concept that's central to feminist philosophy, it's oppression" (Think Like a Feminist [New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2020], 31). Not just any oppression, mind you. Hay makes quite clear that patriarchal oppression is the feminist's bête noire, raging that the world's social institutions — e.g., the family, the workplace, religion, culture and media — "unfairly disadvantage women while unfairly privileging men" (ibid.). The essence of feminism, it can thus be said, is the desire to upend the rule of men over women; to "smash the patriarchy," as the barren purple-haired viragos are fond of chanting. It is an ideology designed to "free" women and to usher in sexual equality.

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Pope Pius X

The problem is, patriarchy is part of the divine plan and absolute equality is not. And that's why there is no Christian feminism. Let the modern egalitarian take heed of Pope Pius X's exhortation that "women in war or parliament are outside their proper sphere, and their position there would be the desperation and ruin of society; woman, created as man's companion, must so remain under the power of love and affection, but always under his power." Let him be mindful of Pius XI's admonition, in Divini Redemptoris, that "it is not true that all have equal rights in civil society. It is not true that there exists no lawful social hierarchy." (Although, it would also behoove many "Trad" men, who I fear do straddle the line of genuine misogyny, to simultaneously keep close to their hearts Pope Francis' remonstration that "women have much to tell us in today's society; at times, we men are too machista [chauvinistic].") 

That Favale still has not come to terms with the heaven-born nature of patriarchy is betrayed perhaps most of all by the blatant eisegesis and literary torture she performed on the text of Ephesians 5 in order to void the clear mandate of Scripture that wives are to obey their husbands. Pressed by Fradd to give her opinion about the "infamous" passage, Favale responded as follows:

You mentioned John Chrysostom's homily [on Ephesians], and, in the homily, actually, he says that God has entrusted to women the presidency of the household. ... So earlier, when you talked about headship, Ephesians 5 says that the husband is the head of the wife — it doesn't say the husband is the head of the household; that's because "head" means something very particular there; it means, like, "source," and this kind of gift of generosity. I think the way you have to understand headship between husband and wife is the way you have to understand ... it's an image of how the Father is the head of the Son in the Trinity: That's the source of headship. ... Headship in the Catholic understanding, it really is about radical generosity. ... The head is to be the source of life, this gift that is lifegiving and that is continual, but also the Father–Son relationship, there's no sense in which one is primary and one is secondary. The Fatherness and the Sonship within the Trinity are coeternal ... so that is also a way in which we should see the headship between the husband and the wife as being not one where one is primary and one is secondary and one is over and one is under, but rather there is this difference that enables generosity and love.

There's a lot wrong here, so let's just take it from the top. 

First, Favale, by sheer force of smoke and mirrors, seemingly puts man in a place of subordination to woman in the household by invoking John Chrysostom's fourth-century homily "The Kind of Women Who Ought to Be Taken as Wives" as a kind of counterweight to Ephesians 5. While Favale is technically correct when she says that Chrysostom assigns wives the "presidency of the household," her takeaway from this — that husbands somehow lack domestic authority — is egregiously wrong. Does Favale earnestly believe that the same Chrysostom who said, in his homily on Ephesians, that the wife "is the body, not to dictate to the head, but to submit herself and obey" and "when you [wives] obey your husband[s], do so as serving the Lord," concurrently holds that in the context of running a household, the wife rules over the husband? Surely she's trolling. 

Her takeaway from this — that husbands somehow lack domestic authority — is egregiously wrong.

Note well that the word "preside" has etymological roots in the Latin word "praesidere," which means "to sit before," and in the context of Chrysostom's exposition, functions as a clear reference to woman's calling to the quietude of the domestic life. But beyond this, the Golden-Mouthed Saint is propounding that in the household, a woman is a "second authority" who rules in the husband's absence, as a prime minister does for a king, or a teacher for a principal. After all, "man reigns, but woman governs," as the saying goes. It's unfathomable, however, that Chrysostom would carve out an exception to the revealed doctrine of male headship within the four walls of the home, as if it's some magical locus exempt from God's all-encompassing will. Chrysostom himself delivers the death blow to this silly objection, when he preaches in his Ephesians homily, "Where there is equal authority there can never be peace; neither where a house is a democracy, nor where all are rulers; but the ruling power must of necessity be one." Pope Leo XIII, in his renowned encyclical, Rerum Novarum, echoes Chrysostom's sentiments: "A family, no less than a state, is, as we have said, a true society, governed by an authority peculiar to itself, that is to say, by the authority of the father" (§13).

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At the same time, it goes without saying that Chrysostom and Leo XIII would hold close to their hearts the injunction of the Pontifical Council for the Family that masculine authority must be wielded without false "machismo," if it is to serve as "an attractive model for … sons, and inspire respect, admiration and security in … daughters" (The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality, §59). But be reminded, this doesn't entail gutting legitimate patriarchal authority as the "Christian" feminists and their "ally" prelates would have us believe. Rather, ditching false machismo while clinging to authentic patriarchy means respecting the happy sexual dichotomy articulated by Fr. Brian Mullady in his work Christian Social Order: "The role of the father is more one of intellectual affirmation. ... The role of the mother is more one of emotional tenderness. ... [The husband] must be the spiritual head of the family, [and the wife] is the spiritual heart of the family."

Your false coin of equality shall never receive Christian currency.

Indeed, generally, a husband should consult with his wife before making major decisions, because the obeisance that she owes is not that of a servant, but of a beloved helpmate (Pope Leo XIII, Arcanum, §11). The wife serves as a husband's consigliere, and she should not be relegated to a hyperbolically passive role where she has no persuasive say (as opposed to authoritative say) in domestic affairs. The marginalization of the wife is the mark of a brutish and insensitive husband, which the Christian man is not. It is elemental that the head's determination of the proper path profits from the gentle guidance of the heart. Do not neglect to note, however, that consultation with one's wife is a dictate of prudence, and not a sine qua non for a valid executive order.  In some of life's exigencies, consultations between spouses are impracticable or impossible, and the trusting obedience of the wife must be expected, nevertheless. We see this principle at work in the lex orandi of the St. Joseph Novena, where we pray: "[Mary] submitted to [Joseph's] guidance with naturalness and easy grace and childlike confidence" and "[he] had a right to her love and obedience; and no other person so won her esteem, obedience, and love." So too, if there's a paralyzing and irreconcilable split in opinions, the husband's will must prevail — but this should be infrequent in functional marriages. 

Moving along, Favale proceeds to interpret the headship of husbands over their wives referenced in Ephesians 5 in a manner so limited, stilted and unnatural that virtually all of the force and meaning of the passage is obscured.

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Pope Leo XIII

In what helter-skelter universe can headship be strictly reduced to "radical generosity" or being the "source of life," as Favale would have us believe? To be sure, Scripture scholars take a far less fanciful view of this pericope, with the International Bible Commentary underscoring that headship entails three duties: ruling, protecting and preserving (F.F. Bruce, ed., International Bible Commentary With the New International Version [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, 1986], 1438).

The Church Herself holds that headship and authority are inseparable, with the Catechism of the Council of Trent teaching that the wife "was not formed from [her husband's] head, in order to give her to understand that it was not hers to command but to obey her husband" (John A. McHugh and Charles J. Callan, trans. [Rockford, IL: TAN Books, 1982], 377).

Pope Leo XIII also connects headship and authority, writing in his encyclical Arcanum, "The husband is the chief of the family and the head of the wife. The woman, because she is flesh of his flesh, and bone of his bone, must be subject to her husband and obey him." (But to those who would use the magisterial teaching on headship to reduce the husband from king to tyrant, St. Thomas Aquinas says this: "Nor was it right for [woman] to be subject to man's contempt as his slave, and so she was not made from his feet" (Summa Theologica, Pt. 1, Q. 92, Art. 3).)

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Of course, when cornered by cogent, straightforward biblical exegesis and the corroborating Tradition of the Church, feminists invariably fall back on their canned accusations that you're "just a fundamentalist." Yeah, yeah — spare me. While basically every theological dilettante knows there are four senses of Scripture, it's elemental that these senses aren't to be placed in opposition to one another. The literal and the moral senses are never to be understood as mutually exclusive. The allegorical can't swallow the historical. By way of illustration, it's not like St. Paul said, "Wives, submit to your husbands," but what he really, truly meant was, "Husbands, run your households like dysfunctional Western democracies, and make sure you suffer from low testosterone by the time you're 35."

So while "radical generosity" and "being a source of life" are all really swell ideas and perhaps represent secondary or tertiary layers of meaning (maybe — honestly, to me they reek of throwaway niceties to mollify indignant bluestockings), don't attempt to use them to beguile and ultimately annihilate the black letter of Holy Writ. 

Why is it so incredible that Scripture should say what it means and mean what it says? Is it because a faithful reading of the "hard sayings" of the word of God runs afoul of the perverse suppositions of feminism and the moribund culture that it's witched? Saint Augustine warns the faithful against interpreting Scripture through a worldly lens. It's worth quoting him at length on this score: 

It frequently happens that a man will think nothing blameable except what the men of his own country and time are accustomed to condemn, and nothing worthy of praise or approval except what is sanctioned by the custom of his companions; and thus it comes to pass, that if Scripture either enjoins what is opposed to the customs of the hearers, or condemns what is not so opposed, and if at the same time the authority of the word has a hold upon their minds, they think that the expression is figurative.

Sorry, would-be Catholic feminists. On the male headship thing, God has spoken; the case is closed. As St. Paul would say, quit trying to conform the Church to "the standards of this world" (Romans 12:2). Your false coin of equality shall never receive Christian currency. 

Favale's final sleight of hand with regard to Ephesians 5 is to analogize the relationship between a husband and wife to the relationship between the Father and the Son in the Godhead — as opposed to analogizing the marital relationship to that of Christ and the Church, as Scripture does. Recall that in Ephesians 5:22–23, St. Paul writes, "Let women be subject to their husbands, as to the Lord: because the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is the head of the Church." Nowhere does St. Paul compare the spousal dynamic to that of the First and Second Persons of the Holy Trinity because, as Favale rightly notes, such a comparison would preclude any kind of subordination, since each person of the Holy Trinity "is God whole and entire" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, §253). It stands to reason that the sacred author foregoes the Father–Son analogy for spouses, as wives are elsewhere instructed to "be subordinate to [their] husbands" (1 Peter 3:1). So by shifting the analogy, Favale is shifting the analysis; and that, of course, is exactly her game. After all, if we leave the Christ–Church analogy unmolested, then it's inescapable that wives are to be ruled by their husbands, just as the Church is ruled by Christ, and that no more can a wife disobey her husband than the Church can disobey Christ.

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St. Thomas Aquinas

Favale elsewhere conflates a husband's wielding of authority over his wife with a sinful desire to "dominate" her — the fruits of a post-fall rupture in the harmony between the sexes. This is flat-out incorrect. Adam was vested with authority over Eve from the very beginning. This is evidenced by the fact that, in the pristine state of original justice, he presumes to name her, calling her "Woman" (Genesis 2:23). This is no small detail. Indeed, it's widely known by Scripture scholars that "in the ancient world, to give a person a name was a sign of authority over him" (Bruce, International Bible Commentary, 116). Even feminist theologians have to countenance this inconvenient truth. Rosemary Radford Ruether, for instance, admits, "In the original, unfallen creation, woman would have been subordinate and under the domination of man" (Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology [Boston: Beacon Press, 1983], 94). The redoubtable Thomas Aquinas himself weighs in on this question, in the Summa Theologica, saying that civil subjection "whereby the superior makes use of his subjects for their own benefit and good" was present between man and woman "even before sin" because "good order would have been wanting in the human family if some were not governed by others wiser than themselves. … Nor is inequality among men excluded by the state of innocence" (Pt. 1, Q. 92, Art. 1). Hence, if Favale is using "domination" to describe men wielding authority over women in a sinful manner, we must draw the distinction that properly executed patriarchy is in no wise domination, just as marital conjugality can't rightly be called fornication. Although similar in form, one is properly ordered, while the other is sinful. 

Favale also confides that the all-male priesthood was a major sticking point in her journey to acceptance of the Faith. And this should surprise exactly no one, because the all-male priesthood is itself a corollary of the Church’s doctrine of male headship. Fundamentally, woman may not act "in persona Christi," in the person of Christ — Who is the Head of His mystical body, the Church — as priests do in liturgical and sacramental functions, because headship is foreign to her nature. Put another way, woman cannot represent Christ's authority due to what theologians call her "essential subordination" (Karl Lehmann, "The Place of Women as a Problem in Theological Anthropology," in The Church and Women: A Compendium, eds. Hans Urs von Balthasar, et. al, trans. Maria Shrady and Lothar Krauth [San Francisco: Ignatius, 1988], 15). The priesthood is therefore inimical to woman's nature, as is any position of ecclesial or liturgical headship.

This is why Pope Benedict XIV railed against the "evil practice" of allowing women to aid priests in the celebration of Mass, exhorting, "Women should not dare to serve at the altar; they should be altogether refused this ministry" (Allatae Sunt, §29). This is why then-Cdl. Jorge Mario Bergoglio warned, "In the theologically grounded tradition, the priesthood passes through man. The woman has another function in Christianity, reflected in the figure of Mary" (Jorge Mario Bergoglio and Abraham Skorka, On Heaven and Earth: On Faith, Family, and the Church in the 21st Century, trans. Alejandro Bermudez and Howard Goodman [New York: Image, 2013], 102). And, of course, it's with this in mind that St. Paul hands down the command to "let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent" (1 Timothy 2: 11–15). Paul's not being sexist; he just knows his theological anthropology.

The Church can no more disavow patriarchy than she can disavow gravity or the hypostatic union.

In the end, Favale is doomed to discouragement because she's intent on doing the impossible: in her words, espousing a feminism "that's an expression of a Catholic worldview." She's failed to reckon with the fact that circles can't be squared, with the fact that feminism is root and branch anathema to the Catholic faith, with the fact that feminism is per se sinister because it perverts woman from man's helpmate to his rival. Patriarchy, the very concept that Favale has, wittingly or unwittingly, crafted a host of tenuous theological arguments to discredit, is revealed to mankind both naturally and supernaturally. The Church can no more disavow patriarchy than she can disavow gravity or the hypostatic union. As the erstwhile Cdl. Ratzinger once mused, "For the Church, the language of nature ... is also the language of morality" (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger With Vittorio Messori, The Ratzinger Report, trans. Salvatore Attanasio and Graham Harrison [San Francisco: Ignatius, 1985], 97). If God has willed patriarchy, then who can contend with it?

Interestingly enough, Favale remarked to Fradd that "feminism is always parasitic on an underlying worldview." Bearing that in mind, I have a message for feminists all over the world: Stop trying to make the Catholic Church your host.

--- Campaign 31877 ---

 

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