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Voices Online Edition
Lent-Easter 2002
Vol. XVII: No. 1

A young American theologian explores
"Christian feminism", receives Pontifical prize

Can "feminism" be Christian? Yes. Was the most influential theologian in Church history a mysogynist? No. Pia de Solenni, a young California woman who won the 2001 Pontifical Academy prize for her doctoral dissertation in theology written for the University of the Holy Cross in Rome, expounded on these questions in an interview published January 24 by Zenit, a news agency in Rome.

Dr. de Solenni, 29, a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College in California said that in her prize-winning thesis she analyzed different categories of feminism in the light of the theology of Saint Thomas Aquinas, the 12th century Dominican whose scholastic theology was the dominant influence on Catholic thought well into the twentieth century. Her thesis has been published by the Apollinaire Studi collection.

"In the light of Aquinas' theology", she said, "feminism" means that "woman is created in the image of God. Like man, she is created for the purpose of knowing, ultimately knowing God".

"True feminism, therefore, respects woman's identity as an image of God. Where she differs from man, a true feminism understands that these differences are constructive and complementary", Dr. de Solenni explained, echoing Pope John Paul II's well-known anthropology.

Four categories
Feminism can be divided into "about four basic categories", Dr. de Solenni told Zenit: equality feminism, difference feminism, anti-essentialist feminism and deconstructivist feminism.

She said that Pope John Paul II has "most notably developed" a category of "difference feminism" that maintains complementarity, that is that man and woman are different but equal.

"Deconstructivist feminism builds on all three groupings of feminist traditions", she said. "Besides saying as the anti-essentialists do -- that essence is something created by experience, in the context of a community -- deconstructivists maintain that things which are seen as true and somewhat absolute are, in fact, relative to the person", she observed. "Most postmodern feminists are deconstructivists".

"As Christians, we recognize the inherent equality of all human beings, man and woman. The differences are constructive even if we don't understand them. Remember that the differences existed before original sin", Dr. de Solenni told Zenit. "The tensions that arise from them, however, are due to original sin".

"Misbegotten males"?
Asked about Aquinas's view that females are "misbegotten males", Dr. de Solenni said, "Well he does say this in a few places, but they are all objections, meaning that they are not his own view, rather they are the position of the objector".

Submission, subjection
How did Aquinas understand women's subjection to men?

"He understands the headship of the husband to be an economic order which is imposed to create order for the good of all the individuals participating. Servile subjection, on the other hand, exists only for the good of the one commanding", Dr. de Solenni explained.

She amplified this view: "I think we can understand the concept of economic or civil subjection better if we back away from the example of marriage and look at democratic societies, or even sports teams. You pick a leader for the good of all the members, but the leader isn't necessarily the smartest or even the most virtuous".

Positive approach
Dr. de Solenni told Zenit that she thinks her fellow "Gen-Xers" who "lived through secularized feminism" are rejecting it.

A positive "Christian feminism" is needed, she believes, again echoing Pope John Paul II. The Holy Father has provided the theological basis in his catechesis on the book of Genesis, Original Unity of Man and Woman, in Mulieris Dignitatem (The Dignity of Women), and even adopted some of the language of the women's movement in his "Letter to Women" and "World Day of Peace message", written prior to the 1995 United Nations conference on women in Beijing. The pope used the term "new feminism" in his 1997 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life).

"We have to be very careful about how we communicate our message", said Dr. de Solenni. "Our message isn't about what you can't do -- no contraceptives, no abortion, etc. It's about what we can do. We need to rephrase our message and get it out there", she said.

The prize, instituted by Pope John Paul II in 1995, includes an award of $30,000. Dr. de Solenni's thesis was chosen by the Coordinating Council of the Pontifical Academies.

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