The Challenges of Opening a Dialogue between Catholic and Secular Feminist Legal Theorists

48 Pages Posted: 3 Nov 2008 Last revised: 29 Jan 2009

See all articles by Susan J. Stabile

Susan J. Stabile

University of St. Thomas - School of Law (Minnesota)

Date Written: November 27, 2008


Catholic Feminist Legal Theory has much to contribute to our analysis of various social, political and legal issues. However, in order for a Catholic Feminist Legal Theory to make a contribution to the dialogue about issues of law and public policy, it has to be able to speak effectively to those outside of the faith tradition. In particular, it has to get past the instinctive reaction of many people that a Catholic feminist theory cannot be reconciled with secular feminist theory.

The question addressed in this Article is whether it is possible for a Catholic Feminist Legal Theory to be taken seriously by secular feminists and other legal scholars. The Article identifies and discusses some of the major challenges to the articulation of a persuasive Catholic Feminist Legal Theory to a non-Catholic feminist audience. With respect to each of the issues identified as a challenge to secular feminists, my focus in this Article is not whether the Church's position on the issue in question is correct. Rather, the focus is whether the position of the Church on the issue can be shown to be grounded in truth claims that do not sound in subordination of women or otherwise do violence to the aims of secular feminists.

The Article addresses five issues: (1) the place and role of Mary within Catholicism; (2) a historical narrative of subordination in the Church; and the Church's position on (3) contraception, (4) marriage and family and (5) the ordination of women. It concludes that the first two of those issues, properly understood, do not present any problem from a secular feminist perspective. With respect to the third and fourth issues, it concludes that although the Church's positions on contraception and marriage/family are grounded in claims that do not on the surface seem inherently oppressive to women, the positions do imply a view of homosexuality that will be difficult for secular feminists to accept. Compounding the difficulty, the fifth issue, ordination presents a more directly challenging problem from a secular perspective. Thus, ultimately I am pessimistic about the ability of a Catholic Feminist Legal Theory to be able to engage in meaningful dialogue with secular feminists.

Keywords: feminist legal theory, catholic feminism, catholic feminist legal theory, catholic legal theory, law and religion, gender equity, family law, marriage

Suggested Citation

Stabile, Susan J., The Challenges of Opening a Dialogue between Catholic and Secular Feminist Legal Theorists (November 27, 2008). U of St. Thomas Legal Studies Research Paper No. 08-33, Available at SSRN: or

Susan J. Stabile (Contact Author)

University of St. Thomas - School of Law (Minnesota) ( email )

MSL 400, 1000 La Salle Avenue
Minneapolis, MN Minnesota 55403-2005
United States

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