Social Friendship Includes Women, but Social Change Must Engage Women

By: Lisa Sowle Cahill

October 26, 2020

Responding to: Fratelli Tutti and the Future of the Catholic Church

Social Friendship Includes Women, but Social Change Must Engage Women

Laudato Si is a landmark encyclical in Catholic social teaching (CST), and Fratelli Tutti amplifies some of its main themes. Both encyclicals introduce important new concepts, most notably, “everything is connected” in Laudato Si and “social friendship” in Fratelli Tutti. Common to both is the diagnosis that justice-oriented religious teaching and high-level accords have been for the most part “ineffectual” in reversing environmental destruction and global inequalities because, as Laudato Si puts it, there is an utter lack of “political will” at the national and international levels, where self-interest takes cover under a “technocratic” pretense that everything can be resolved without any real cost to beneficiaries of the status quo. Both encyclicals orient CST in a new direction, by appealing for interreligious cooperation, popular mobilization, and broad-based momentum toward a more solidaristic social consensus that can put public pressure on exploitative uses of power.

But there is a missing dimension: women. Women are essential change-agents—and even the most active ones—when their local communities and families are under stress. Yet women’s agency is essentialized, romanticized, politically subordinated, or entirely neglected. At a basic level, Laudato Si still uses male imagery and pronouns for God and puts humanity into binary gender categories, while assuming stereotypical gender roles for women, including our mother earth “who groans in travail.” The encyclical does not even recognize, much less prioritize, women’s agency for change. The apostolic exhortation Querida Amazonia, following up on the 2019 Amazon Synod’s “wisdom from the people” ecological agenda, seems explicitly to constrain women by cautioning that their leadership is valid only if it genuinely “reflects their womanhood.” The reader is left to wonder (or to suspect) what that would mean in practice.

Women are essential change-agents…Yet women’s agency is essentialized, romanticized, politically subordinated, or entirely neglected.

Even while Fratelli Tutti was in the final drafting stages, controversy broke out over the proposed title, “all brothers,” and over the central theme, “fraternity.” While defenders maintained that “fraternity” is meant inclusively, critics objected that male-favoring terminology unnecessarily orients the imagination to male priority and reinforces sexist practices in church and society. Evidently sensitive to such warnings, the pope did take steps to embrace inclusivity. The term “fraternity” (borrowed from St. Francis) is qualified early and often by the explanatory addition of “brothers and sisters,” as in the introductory clarification that the encyclical is meant specifically to address “the universal scope” of “fraternal love,” “its openness to every man and woman.” The author hopes to contribute to “fraternity between all men and women” because humanity is “a single human family,” “brothers and sisters all.” 

More importantly, a gender-neutral equivalent or companion term, “social friendship” is frequently placed in proximity to “fraternity.” The encyclical is intended to evoke “a new vision of fraternity and social friendship that will not remain at the level of words;” “social friendship and universal fraternity necessarily call for an acknowledgment of the worth of every human person….” And the encyclical explicitly calls attention to women’s dignity and rights, condemning abuses such as sex trafficking and forced abortions, and calling it “unacceptable that some have fewer rights by virtue of being women.” Advocates for women will certainly concur in Francis’ assertion that “the organization of societies worldwide is still far from reflecting clearly that women possess the same dignity and identical rights as men. We say one thing with words, but our decisions and reality tell another story.” Many will be quick to add that this accurately describes the institutional Catholic Church and most other religious bodies. 

It is fair to say that these gestures toward gender equality represent an evolving commitment by the teaching Church and by Pope Francis himself; the willingness to listen and revise is one of this pope’s most admirable and attractive qualities. Yet the justice work of specific women or women’s organizations is not referenced, though, as Liz Dodd points out in The Tablet, the 2020 heads of CAFOD, Pax Christi, and the St. Vincent de Paul Society were all women. The term of the woman head of Catholic Charities USA had only recently ended. No women are cited among the 292 footnote sources. This is both striking and a lost opportunity, because most of the grassroots community-building and policy advocacy in regions afflicted by poverty, violence, shortages of basic resources, environmental damage, and forced migration is done by women (rightly noted by Meghan Clark in the National Catholic Reporter). It is these women who need to be lifted up and encouraged, not only as a matter of their own dignity, but because the Church’s political appeal and effectiveness depend on them.

It is these women who need to be lifted up and encouraged, not only as a matter of their own dignity, but because the Church’s political appeal and effectiveness depend on them.

Take armed conflict as an example, which afflicts women with rape, trafficking, and increased domestic abuse, in addition to devastating homes and families. Fratelli Tutti spends 44 paragraphs upholding Pope Francis’ growing conviction that armed violence must be met with nonviolent strategies, including “grassroots” movements, and that such strategies can be effective means to social and political peace—a claim made even more strongly in his 2017 World Day of Peace Message. Evidence is abundant that women are the most committed, diligent, persistent, courageous and effective peacebuilders in violence-torn societies. Yet when faith traditions—including the Roman Catholic Church—develop peacebuilding initiatives, they either fail to enlist women’s leadership, or ignore the fact that women are already making the community-level overtures that enable success and sustainability. Similarly, in Catholic ecological activism, women are on the front lines because they are responsible to provide daily sustenance and because they often define their goals and values in terms of their children and the coming generations. 

CST needs a much sharper “gender lens” to define who bears the brunt of ecological harms, armed conflict, and structural violence; who has the energy and the courage to end these evils; and who deserves the ecclesial and political recognition that empowers them to carry on. Without engaging these most crucial partners—women—papal social teaching will fail the test of its own “common good” and “social friendship” rhetoric, and lose out on a critical opportunity to turn its aspirations into reality in the Church’s concrete activities.

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