New Saints for Women Raised Catholic: Mary Daly

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As we wade through this oh-so-complicated story of what it means to be a woman raised Catholic, we need help to understand the Catholic belief system and its impact on women. Lucky for us, there are people who dedicated their lives to figuring this out, none more effectively than the audacious, rebellious philosopher and theologian Mary Daly. For her work on our behalf, she is elevated and declared a New Saint for Women Raised Catholic.
 

Who was Mary Daly?

As you might guess from her name, Mary Daly was a good Catholic girl. She was educated in Catholic schools, and attended The College of Saint Rose, and then Catholic University. She obtained a doctorate in religion from St Mary’s College, and wanted to earn a doctorate in sacred theology (the highest possible degree in the study of Catholic theology) from Catholic University, but because she was a woman, she was refused. So she went to Switzerland, to the University of Fribourg, where, because the university was state-controlled, she could not be excluded. There she obtained two doctorates, in philosophy and in sacred theology. 

While in Friborg, she spent a month in Rome in 1965, as an observer to that great Catholic event, the Second Vatican Council, where, she wrote, “the Catholic church came bursting into open confrontation with the twentieth century.” Like so many others, Daly was full of hope and excitement that Vatican II might lead to significant progress toward equality for women. But what she saw in Rome was how things really worked. The contrast between those with power - cardinals and bishops, old men with their “arrogant bearing and colorful attire” – and the few nuns who were there as powerless observers, with their “humble, self-deprecating manner and somber clothing” was “appalling”, as was the gratitude of the nuns for the privilege of being present. (1)

The contrast between her hopes for change, and the visible reality of what the church really was and who it really benefited, catalyzed the writing of Daly’s first book, The Church and the Second Sex, published in 1968.

In it she argued for reform within the church. But after publishing The Church and the Second Sex, Daly came to reject the possibility of reform as a remedy for the inequality of women, because the church’s entire belief system was steeped in misogyny. As she explained in a press statement, a woman asking for equality in the church would be comparable to a black person’s demanding equality in the Ku Klux Klan. 

Her second book, published in 1973, was Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation

In it she explained why the church would never, and could never, accept women as full human beings. What was needed for the liberation of women was not a theology that duplicated or imitated the Catholic belief system, with women priests or a Goddess who replaces God, she wrote, but a new theology that recognized and celebrated women’s full humanity.
 

The root problem: how we think about ourselves

As might be expected from a woman who held three doctorates, Daly meticulously researched and analyzed the history of misogyny within the Christian belief system, from the Old and New Testaments to Roman Catholic church documents both historical and modern, from the writings of the early church fathers down through twentieth century religious philosophers.

In her quest to understand the impact of Christianity’s attitudes and beliefs about women, Daly uncovered a deeper problem. The belief system we were raised with, which underlies the entire system of our society, has dictated and defined society’s thinking about women for so long that we as women have forgotten any other way of thinking about ourselves. We accept the church's story about our abilities, our potentials, our language, our roles, our possibilities as the way things are. Because we were taught to think inside this patriarchal structure, as were our mothers, and their mothers, and all our female ancestors for thousands of years, we naturally believe that this is the way the universe is. We naturally accept that God is of course a man, that we are of course more limited creatures than men, that we of course need the church's male leaders to help us understand our purpose. And that we should of course be grateful for that leadership, which reveals our (secondary) place in society and in the universe. 

This is the great success of the Catholic belief system, which underlies all of Christianity and all of western society. It has eradicated from women’s consciousness any concept of our real identity as human beings. We understand ourselves, and we define ourselves, from the perspective of that patriarchal, male-oriented belief system, and in reaction to it. 

The question Daly tried to answer was this: How can women become fully human again, if we have no idea anymore of who we are as human beings? 

“What is required of women at this point in history”, she wrote, “is a firm and deep refusal to limit our perspectives, questioning, and creativity to any of the preconceived patterns of male-dominated society” so that we might move “beyond the God of patriarchal philosophy and religion.” (2)

Daly also saw how the Catholic belief system cost men their full humanity, and as a result caused terrible damage to the planet through overpopulation; pollution; racism; endless wars; and empty, soulless hyper-consumerism.  The only solution, she wrote, is for women to understand, to see, and then to speak the truth to our sisters. Only when more and more and more of us see, understand, and speak, can anything change. And change it must, because the cost of not changing course is, literally, Nothing. (3)

On this journey to understand what being raised Catholic has done to us, and to figure out how we might discover and recover our selves, we are so lucky to have a saint as fierce and fearless and tenacious as Mary Daly to help guide us, and inspire us to also be fierce and fearless and tenacious. 

 

Notes

(1) Daly, Mary. The Church and the Second Sex. Boston: Beacon Press, 1968, p 8

(2) Daly, Mary. Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women's Liberation. Boston: Beacon Press, 1973, p.7

(3) Beyond God the Father, p. 197-198