I recently saw this article linked from Facebook with some offhand, optimistic remark about the relationship between Mormonism and feminism. Always interested in Mormon feminism, feminist Mormonism, and procrastinating the final I’m supposed to be writing, I clicked on over, only to find the title “The Curious Appeal of Roman Catholicism for Certain Latter-day Saint Intellectuals” and the name in the byline, Valerie Hudson.
Hudson isn’t someone whose theology I find particularly reliable, honest, or convincing, but it is true that I enjoy a little Catholicism on the side, and I sometimes dress up as an LDS intellectual for Halloween, so I started reading. Disappointingly, she has not a word to say about what actually makes Catholicism appealing, but has a lot to say about what’s wrong with the social policies and fifth-century theology of the Catholic Church. (As a side note, it could just be me, but I’m not sure that these “LDS Intellectuals” — a category she interestingly does not identify with, despite that she has a PhD and is a college professor — are all that enchanted either by the way Catholics handle gender in general or abortion more specifically. Me, I just like to hit up a Catholic church on Ash Wednesday to participate in a holy day that Mormons take no official notice of. I like the high church liturgy of the Mass, I appreciate the way the liturgical calendar imbues different meanings into different seasons, and most importantly, the I love, love, love the music. But maybe I just haven’t been invited to the Catholiphile LDS Intellectual club yet.)
Hudson’s evidence that LDS intellectuals are coveting after Catholic goods is that (i) someone once apologized for her having asked a maybe-rude question about celibacy to a visiting “prominent Catholic”; (ii) Richard Sherlock, a formerly-Mormon philosopher, converted to Catholicism; (iii) and a colleague of hers once spoke “in glowing terms about the nuance and sophistication of [Catholic theologians’] moral arguments, honed as they were by almost two millennia of theological work.” She took from this that he didn’t feel that Mormon moral reasoning was up to snuff. Maybe he didn’t, and maybe Mormon moral reasoning might not be (we hardly have a robust tradition of theological scholarship on our hands). Either way, it seems a little less like she’s noticed that some Mormons like Catholicism, as that she’s noticed that some Mormons don’t dislike Catholicism as much as she (as a Catholic to Mormon convert) thinks they should.
But all this is just the prelude to the truly bizarre central thesis of Hudson’s article: she’s writing to remind us of how sexist Catholicism is, compared to Mormonism. And while I (speaking as a Mormon feminist) certainly agree that Catholicism shares some of the patriarchal issues that Mormonism has, Catholicism also has a tradition of female veneration that Mormonism lacks, while not having the tradition of polygamous wife-swapping that many (most?) feminists find so troubling in Mormonism. While I certainly don’t see the Catholic Church with its all-male clergy as some bastion of feminist progressivism, I have a lot of trouble pointing fingers out of my own tradition and calling feminister-than-thou at the Catholics.
At several points in this article, I frankly wonder if Hudson is lying on purpose, or just embarrassingly ill-informed. She goes on for several paragraphs about how disenfranchised Catholic women are because they believe in a male God with no female counterpart. Except, I must point out, in contemporary Catholic theology, God having no body also has no sex or gender: God is neither male nor female. (It’s actually Mormonism, with our maybe-there-but-totally-silenced Mother in Heaven, that sets up a male God with no active or accessible female counterpart.)
Hudson describes how damaging it was for her to read Augustine and Tertullian as a child, internalizing their vision of the Fall and their negative views of sexuality and thus (the two are admissibly inextricable for so many early medieval thinkers) women. I love me some Confessions, but I do agree that fifth-century Christian views of women aren’t really the ones I’m lining up to get a testimony of. But I’m also pretty sure that Augustine, or even Aquinas, or even Paul VI (who was Pope at the time of Hudson’s conversion) isn’t the final Catholic statement on women. And Hudson acknowledges that “The Roman Catholic Church leadership and intellectual class would now never write types of things that Augustine and Thomas Aquinas did,” though she doesn’t give much airtime to anyone but the really old, misogynist Catholics, explaining that those early doctrines “linger on and creep into the consciousness of its membership.”
I don’t doubt that’s true. Also, there are some pretty fetid things taught by one B. Young that I could wave around to bolster my case that the LDS Church isn’t as feminist as you’d like to think it is. And you’d probably point out that all that’s been superseded by later revelation. And I’d reply, Yes, but isn’t it just a bitch how those doctrines linger on and creep into the consciousness of the membership? Golly, but it was damaging growing up in that environment.
(Hudson, in one of the most verbose flourishes of euphemism I’ve seen in a while, does acknowledge that “In all fairness, it should likewise be acknowledged that comparison of some statements by, say, Brigham Young with those of the living oracles evidences that, over time, the continuing stream of revelation that flows to the Church has resulted in a much fuller appreciation of the role of women in the divine plan.” Whoa there. I think I lost your point in your compensatory bout of testimony-bearing.)
The real knock-it-out-of-the-park-awesome pièce de résistance, though, is when she addresses the LDS Church’s much more nuanced view of abortion, relative to the Catholic view. In considering the really wretched case of a 10-year-old girl in Mexico who was denied an abortion after having been raped by her stepfather (a decision that the Catholic church endorsed) Hudson explains that:
The LDS Church would have had a different response, based on respect for the girl’s dignity and wellbeing as a daughter of God: abortion would be seen as a possible legitimate decision after prayerful consideration and consultation. But maybe that is because the leadership of the LDS Church is composed of men who have had loving, committed, intimate relationships with women, and are the fathers of both sons and daughters. The leaders of the Roman Catholic Church are, by principle, neither: they have never been the lovers of women or the fathers of 10 year-old daughters.
Wow. Just, I mean, wow. I don’t disagree that the Catholic response to this is sickeningly antifeminist. And I don’t normally go around telling people whether they’re “real” feminists or not, but Hudson is testing me on that. Let’s see if I’ve got this right: her evidence for the feminist-friendliness of Morminism is that the all-male LDS governing hierarchy is so much more sensitive to women’s dignity, and so much more nuanced when legislating the uses and abuses of women’s bodies, because THEY KNOW A LOT OF WOMEN???
Hand over your feminist card, Dr. Hudson. I’m about to stick it in a censer and watch it burn.