The recent passing of Boston College theologian Mary Daly merits a few words of tribute to this Catholic feminist and a few questions about her contributions. Mary Daly was “in place” with a doctorate in theology and a faculty position at a prominent Catholic institution in 1966 when the full impact of the Second Vatican Council was working its way through the grass-roots of Catholic America. Surprising to her critics and satisfying to her supporters is the way everyday Catholics of 2010 accept premises once considered radical. (I recommend reading Joan Chittister’s insightful comments.)
Daly’s first important book, “The Church and the Second Sex” (Harper & Row, 1968) was about the systematic oppression of women in the Catholic Church. While it caused a major row in 1969 over tenure (she got it!), its statements seem unspectacularly obvious today. I think most of Catholic America has absorbed key principles of Daly’s scholarly production. Not only do we recognize her message that women are not given full opportunities within the Church; she gave us some reasons to explain why.
Daly insightfully tracked down the origins for the Church’s preference for males. It came from Hebrew anthropomorphizing of God as “Father,” that is, as a male parent, she wrote. While many world religions had goddesses, the Abrahamic tradition generally imaged the Divine only in male terms. That shaped the policy of allowing only men to be bishops and clergy in the Church, because, suggested Day, men were thought to be more like God than women. Hence, she concluded, the Catholic Church is built upon patriarchy.
A reader can agree with Daly’s general premise, of course, without swallowing whole every assertion she made. Daly was a theologian, whose job is to make people think about the implications of the faith. Her task was distinct from that of the hierarchy which is supposed to enforce doctrine. In retrospect, Daly’s challenging ideas have been softened by the passage of time.
Daly came up short, however, when it came to promoting an effective remedy for gender prejudice. For instance, should we now stop praying, “Our Father, Who art in Heaven….” and substitute, “Our Parent, Who art in Heaven…”? Keen on theological matters, she was nonetheless shortsighted about some historical causes of patriarchy. In the early Church, there were more 50-year old men than women leaders of that age. Improved health care during the19th century reduced mortality rates for women in childbirth, so only then did women begin to outnumber men. The laws of supply and demand do not excuse patriarchy, but they help explain traditions that were perhaps more pragmatic than blameworthy.
Daly made a substantial feminist contribution to academia’s vocabulary. Instead of “homocide” or “genocide” she gave us “Gyn/nocide.” Women were to “Re-member themselves,” reassembling the meaning of each of their organs and body parts without influence from patriarchy. It was important to teach “herstory” instead of “history,” to use “Mister-ectomy” to end “phallocracy.” If you like this kind of inventiveness, see Daly’s “Websters’ First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language” with Jane Caputi. In my experience, however, many such neologisms are scarcely ever used by ordinary Catholics. When people in the pews finally hear such vocabulary, women often smile, while men usually scowl.
Daly can be faulted, I think, for eventually allowing her personality to obfuscate her message. She described herself as a “radical lesbian feminist” and as “post-Christian”, terms that allowed some critics to unfairly dismiss all she said. Refusing to permit male students into her classroom as a form of revenge for centuries of oppression of women was also a misstep. When taken to court it was declared a violation of civil rights by Daly and eventually led to her “retirement.”
In my opinion, Daly allowed some of her feminism to degenerate into “anti-masculinism.” It was a way of fighting fire with fire, but two wrongs do not make a right. It would be better, I think, to remember her for how she made Catholic feminism into a widening of Catholic humanism. We need more of that.
(Read more on Roman Catholic leadership/clergy at Patheos.com.)