Winds of Change (to 1971)
Mary Daly’s life as a thinker and writer began with deep roots in the catholic church—as a belief system, as an institution, and as a tradition. While she later renounced her affiliation to catholicism, and to all institutional forms of religion, she made that definitive move from a distinct place: the centuries-long accumulation of catholic metaphysical thought.
Daly’s higher education started at the College of St. Rose, including stops at Notre Dame and The Catholic University of America, before reaching its apogee in Fribourg for two PhDs: one in philosophy and the other in sacred theology. While her extended stay in Europe during the early to mid-1960s meant that she was absent from the growing social movements in the United States, her education there included shocking examples of the depth of sexism embedded in “civilized” European culture in general and in theological academia in particular.
Her experience in Fribourg was isolating and hurtful. The all-male catholic students ostracized her, both in class and socially, and the hierarchy made it perfectly clear that she was unwelcome and that her presence was inappropriate. Still, Daly forged on, gaining the degrees she had sacrificed much to obtain. While in Fribourg, in the fall of 1965, she traveled to Rome to observe the proceedings of the Second Vatican Council; here, once again, “no one had invited” her and she “had no official role.” While she found the cardinals’ discourse to be “silly,” she did have the opportunity to converse with social activists and thinkers who shared her “exhilarating” hope for change.1
When she returned to America in 1966, she began her career as a professor at Boston College, and as an author. Her first book (aside from her doctoral theses), published in 1968, The Church and the Second Sex, forms the content of this first part. Later in her career, Daly would sneer somewhat at the timid, reformist character of this work, but its perspective marks a necessary stage in her development. A canny reader can detect kernels of her later ideas even in her faintest protests.
From her superb philosophical training she gained a lifelong affection for Thomas Aquinas. She also nurtured a connection to the aesthetic and mystic neo-Thomism of Jacques and Raïssa Maritain. Most significantly, she focused on the humanity and the intellect of women through her engagement with Simone de Beauvoir. It may be difficult for the contemporary reader to understand, but women’s thought—even in the case of a public intellectual like Simone de Beauvoir—was so consistently belittled, erased, or simply ignored, that Daly’s choice to take de Beauvoir seriously (even if critically) was a feminist act.
The Case against the Church
From chapter 1 of The Church and the Second Sex, pp. 27–31. All page numbers from The Church and the Second Sex are from the original first edition. Reissued editions in 1975 and 1985 included extensive additional materials, resulting in repagination.
Courage to See: the Courage to become dis-illusioned, to See through male mysteries, to become a Seer.
—Wickedary, p. 69
The Church and the Second Sex was the first full-length book that Daly wrote following her return to the United States and the launch of her teaching career at Boston College. As Daly took her place in what Emily Culpepper termed philosophia—a female train of thought—the title itself evidenced the stimulus provided through another female philosopher, Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986), particularly her work The Second Sex (1949). The excerpt here shows a Catholic and thus still partially cautious Daly explaining how and why she has chosen to highlight de Beauvoir, particularly the latter’s critique of the church and its role in the oppression of women. Significantly, Daly acknowledged and agreed with de Beauvoir’s view that “femininity” is a social construct rather than an eternal, unchanging essence. Given later critiques of Daly as an “essentialist,” knowing that she understood what was at stake in essentialist/constructionist debates from the beginning of her own philosophic career is significant. Some of Daly’s later characteristic impatience with the Catholic Church can be heard in her disgust at philosophically simplistic solutions and the church’s defensiveness in the face of atheistic critiques. But the retention of the male generic to include both men and women marks this as an early stage in Daly’s development. Finally, in a nugget of self-understanding, Daly outlined her own role as an activist philosopher when she wrote, “The thinker need not be a helpless spectator of the course of history. There is both place and need for creative thought and action.”
Facing the Problems
It has been claimed that since Simone de Beauvoir’s writings presuppose a certain philosophical attitude, that of the atheistic existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre, her interpretation of the facts should be rejected a priori by a Christian. On this basis, a naïve and pietistic rebuttal of her thesis runs something like this: “An atheist cannot really understand the doctrine and practice of the Church.” Unfortunately this sort of defensive stance, understandable though it may be, rests upon a highly questionable hypothesis. It simplistically assumes that non-Christians can have no valid insights concerning the expressions of belief and the behavior of Christians. Implicit in this attitude is the idea that the Church is a congregation of disembodied spirits, living on a wholly “supernatural” plane, whose “official” utterances and behavior are totally beyond the scope of merely psychological or sociological analysis. In fact, however, Christians are human beings, subject to the same kinds of failings as other people, and often owe a debt of gratitude to non-believers for their criticisms. Non-believers are an aid in the continual struggle to purify Christian doctrine of its inevitable admixture of nonsense and Christian practice of the tendency to hypocrisy and injustice. A certain callousness to the harmful effects of some ideas and situations, cloaked by the supranaturalist justification that “it will all come out right at the last judgment,” has led to—one might almost say “necessitated”—violent reactions.
Simone de Beauvoir’s atheistic existentialism does of course embody several salient ideas that are particularly relevant to her treatment of the problem of women. First, according to this philosophy, which is one of despair, there is only this life and what one makes of oneself in this life. Given such a perspective, the failure to develop what human talents one has—to lead the life of the escapist, and thus the life of the typical woman as de Beauvoir sees her—has the dimensions of high tragedy. Since the compensations of an after-life are denied, present injustice is seen and felt in all its poignancy. It is futile to speak about what a person might have done or might have been. He or she is the sum total of his works and nothing more. A second, closely related point is that since there is no God who might have a “plan” for this world, there are no fixed essences. There is no fixed “human nature.” Thirdly, it follows that
one is not born man or woman; one becomes thus. This is not to deny biological differences. What it means is that the characteristic attitudes of men and women are acquired; they are cultural, the results of conditioning. Thus, “masculinity” and “femininity” are the effects of historical processes. What is called “femininity” is really only a situation of fact in a given culture. It is not definitely grounded either in biology or in a mysterious feminine essence. Fourthly, the masculine-feminine opposition is alienating. Woman, as “the Other,” is exploited, duped. . . . In order to be liberated, she must first become conscious of her situation. She will then cease to be imprisoned in the false values of “femininity,” in a pseudo-nature. Once conscious of her real situation, she can be free to become whatever she makes of herself.
There is no cheap and easy answer to these basic elements in de Beauvoir’s philosophical position. In regard to the first point: to answer this life-view simply by superimposing belief in an afterlife upon the tragedy of the human situation on earth (with reference to the tragedy of woman’s situation in particular) is to miss the point of the modern atheist’s protest. De Beauvoir claims that such a belief is itself alienating: it distracts from the need to face the harmfulness of the given situation. Thus the “cure” perpetuates the illness. Religious thinkers increasingly recognize that there is meaning and value in this atheistic criticism of Christian belief. Faith in an afterlife can indeed be used as a psychological gimmick which helps to distract attention from present injustice.
In regard to the point about fixed essences: in the face of modern evolutionary theory, it is extremely difficult to uphold the idea of a fixed human nature, which is supposedly grasped by a process of abstraction, nor does there seem to be any justification for clinging to a medieval theory of knowledge. However, many contemporary Christian thinkers would deny Sartre’s thesis (adopted by de Beauvoir) that belief in the existence of God is inseparably linked with the assertion that there is an immutable human nature. Believing Christians also see man as an evolving being. Moreover, even if it is legitimate to speak of a human “nature,” this does not imply possession of an exhaustive or even exact knowledge of this “nature” through some mysterious process of abstraction of essences. Man’s knowledge of man is also continually evolving.
As to whether one is born or becomes man or woman, dogmatic assertions about an unchanging feminine essence do not find anything
like general acceptance among those who follow developments in modern philosophy and in the social sciences and psychology. In fact, our awareness of the profound and subtle effects of conditioning upon the human personality is continually increasing. There is an impressive stock of evidence in support of de Beauvoir on this point, and despite the tenacious hold of the “eternal feminine” upon the popular mind, the concept of woman is changing, whether one is existentialist or not.
Finally, the fact that woman has been exploited and that the fixed images of masculine and feminine have been used to further her exploitation is indeed demonstrable, as de Beauvoir among others has shown. There is nothing in all this to justify a refusal of the wealth of insight which her work brings to the problem.
What, then, can the Christian who is truly sensitive to the problem of women and the Church offer as an adequate response in the dialogue initiated by de Beauvoir?
As we have suggested, it will not be fruitful to begin with an opposition of philosophical or theological “principles” to her position. This offers too easy a way of avoiding the real issues. Indeed, many who are not adherents of Sartre’s atheistic existentialism agree in large measure with de Beauvoir’s analysis of woman’s situation. Since human knowledge does not begin with “principles” but with experience, the most fruitful approach will begin with an effort honestly to answer the question: “To what extent is this interpretation of Christianity’s role in the oppression of women in accord with the data of experience, that is, with historical fact?” This approach will entail an examination of sources—scripture, the writings of the Fathers and of theologians, and papal statements.
It is often the case that disagreement with a critic bears less upon what he has actually said than upon what he has failed to say. Therefore, one should ask a further question: has de Beauvoir omitted any significant data? There is a suggestion (probably an unwitting one) that she has, in the passages on St. Teresa, for whom, de Beauvoir says, the Church provided the needed condition for rising above the handicap of her sex. What are the implications of this? Why does de Beauvoir not develop this theme? It must be asked whether her analysis has brought into its perspective all of the important dimensions.
Before closing this chapter there is one other matter deserving consideration. It seems essential to this writer that we recognize that religious
doctrine and practice are not in fact static, but rather are continually evolving. This is in large measure the effect of developments in the physical and social sciences, and in psychology, mixed with the influences of changing social conditions. While there have been harmful distortions of doctrine and practice, it is not necessary that these remain with us. A constant purification of doctrine and reform of practice are not only possible but necessary. The insight necessary to effect this evolution comes from human experience, and especially from the challenge of encounter with opposed viewpoints. There are, clearly, promising elements already present in Christian thought which can be sources of further development toward a more personalist conception of the man-woman relationship on all levels. These seminal elements must be distinguished from the oppressive, life-destroying ideas with which they have been confused, and by which they are in danger of being choked off. The distinction having been made, there remains the necessity of seeking to bring about, insofar as our own historically conditioned insights enable us, conditions in which a genuinely life-fostering evolution can take place. For the thinker need not be a helpless spectator of the course of history. There is both place and need for creative thought and action.
A Record of Contradictions
From chapter 2 of The Church and the Second Sex, pp. 46–53.
“Faith of Our Fathers”: hideous hymn extolling a long dead faith of fatherland; perverted paean to dead faith, which is the patriarchal parody and reversal of Wholly Heathen Faith.
—Wickedary, p. 197
In The Church and the Second Sex, Mary Daly tackled the history of misogyny in the Catholic Church. Daly’s work on women’s place in the theology of the church was genuinely pioneering, both because she compiled original material and because her philosophic and Christian theological training enabled her to use forms of argument and analysis more sophisticated than those available to critics external to Christianity. For instance, she tried to understand the reasoning behind even the most odious of theological arguments against women’s full personhood. At the same time, the reason that Daly, after writing Beyond God the Father, referred to The Church and the Second Sex as written by a foresister of hers, can be detected here, in the attempt to defend the ultimate coherence of Catholic thought, the hope that a few sensible reforms might correct the surface errors caused by mistaken social notions of previous eras.
Despite not yet being able to unfurl the full implications of what she was seeing, Daly here grasped the structural nature of women’s ontological place in the schemas of the church fathers (she still capitalizes “Fathers”). I...