Three years ago, I interviewed Abigail Favale about her book Into the Deep: An Unlikely Catholic Conversion (Cascade Books, 2018), a work that I described as “a moving, insightful, and vulnerable account of her journey from the Evangelical Protestantism of her youth through feminism and then into the Church.” Favale, who has an academic background in gender studies and feminist literary criticism, has written and spoken widely on topics related to women and gender from a Catholic perspective since entering the Church. After teaching for several years at George Fox University, she is now a writer and professor in the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame. She lives with her husband and four children in South Bend, Indiana.
Her new book is The Genesis of Gender: A Christian Theory (Ignatius Press, 2022), an analysis and critique of gender ideology and the gender paradigm. Favale recently corresponded with me about the feminist roots of the transgender movement, the difference between “sex” and “gender”, the importance of the Book of Genesis, and articulating a Catholic response to transgenderism.
CWR: The opening chapter of The Genesis of Gender describes some of your journey from Fundamentalist Protestantism to Evangelical Feminism, with the latter leading to “a reductive and bifurcated understanding of Church history” and a naive feminism “characterized by enthusiastic cherrypicking.” Is there a sense in which you, in your twenties, traded one form of fundamentalism for another?
Abigail Favale: There’s a sense in which that’s true, but there’s also a sense in which that’s overly simplistic. For one, I rode a bit of a merry-go-round with faith and doubt during my evangelical upbringing, at least once I hit adolescence.
With feminism, I was more of a “true believer,” eager to evangelize for the cause and to offer apologetic defenses of feminism as needed. There might have been fleeting moments of doubts or uncomfortable questions, but I mostly brushed those aside. As an evangelical, I had those niggling thoughts… What if this isn’t true? But during my postmodern feminist heyday, I didn’t really question whether I might have something wrong.
CWR: In recounting the various stages of feminism that you embraced and then left, you set the stage for your discussion of sex and gender. How important is it for the average reader to have some sense of the history of feminism and the various philosophical and cultural streams therein?
Abigail Favale: I think it is helpful, even vital, to have a clearly articulated worldview—and part of this process is developing an ability to assess other claims and perspectives at the level of worldview. This is not something I was taught to do in graduate school; I was implicitly trained in a worldview perspective (in this case, secular postmodernism) without ever being asked to step back and ask: what are the underlying premises here? Do I really think those are true?
The current conversation about gender seems to come out of nowhere, but is really the fruition of other cultural and philosophical shifts that have been happening for a while, and many of the premises taken for granted in this new gender paradigm are ones that most people would find hard to accept. So in this book I wanted to provide a crash course of sorts, an insider’s look at the implicit worldview of gender theory, so people are better able to recognize the underlying claims that are being made.
CWR: There is, you state, “a danger in dismissing feminism too hastily…” You’ve been criticized in some circles because you propose a Catholic feminism. In what ways does your book explain and present a Catholic feminism? What are the biggest misunderstandings or misrepresentations of it?
Abigail Favale: Human beings are prone to reactionary, totalizing thinking—if feminism misses the mark, it must be all bad. But the feminist movement, in its various “waves,” was seeing and responding to some real problems, real barriers to realizing the full dignity of women in society. It also created some very real problems and new barriers!
Feminist thought has never had a robust metaphysics—an account of what is real. For that, feminist theorists often turn to other philosophical systems. This feminism is so various in its viewpoints and approaches; it is grafted onto other philosophies, like liberalism, or Marxism, or postmodernism.
I do think it is possible to have a feminist perspective that is rooted in a Catholic worldview, one that is concerned with cultivating and celebrating the dignity of women and highlighting ways in which that dignity is threatened.
CWR: I suspect some readers might be surprised that you focus (in the chapter titled “Cosmos”) so much on cosmology and the Book of Genesis. What are some basic foundations you seek to present in that section?
Abigail Favale: Origin stories are incredibly important—not because they merely tell us where we come from; more importantly, they articulate who we are, and our ultimate purpose. Our contemporary moment is obsessed with the question of “identity,” and trying to root our identity in some solid and meaningful ground.
For the Christian, the conversation around identity must begin with our cosmology, which is found in Genesis. The first three chapters of Genesis layout the essentials of a Catholic anthropology: human beings are unities of body and soul, and we are made in the image of God.
Moreover, sexual difference—our maleness and femaleness—is the crowing flourish of creation, part of how we uniquely image the interpersonal and life-giving love of God. Any Christian theory of gender has to spend some time camped out in Genesis.
CWR: The history of “three waves” of feminism is complicated, but you take pains to unpack some key elements. What are some aspects of those “waves” that eventually lead to the current controversies over gender and trans-ideology?
Abigail Favale: As I noted earlier, feminist thought tends to be grafted onto an underlying philosophy. The first wave of feminism was grafted onto political liberalism, concerned with legal equality under the terms of a liberal democracy. Second-wave feminism was influenced more by Marxist thought, and third-wave feminism took a postmodern turn.
On the popular level, today’s conversation about gender borrows heavily from all three of these philosophies, blending them into a dizzying cocktail—appeals to rights and autonomy (liberalism); appeals to oppression-based identity categories (Marxism); appeals to the social construction of reality and open-ended self-definition (post-modernism).
CWR: You argue that the “implicit worldview” of feminism today “is what I am calling the gender paradigm”, and: “First and foremost, this paradigm is a godless one.” What is “the gender paradigm”? And what qualities of this feminism reveal its godless character?
Abigail Favale: The gender paradigm is one that sees “truth” and “reality” as exercises of social power. This paradigm rejects any appeals to “nature” or the “natural,” as in an inherent state of being. There is no God or creator, and thus we are not created beings. Instead, we create ourselves. We do not receive our sense of identity or meaning from the world; we impose it onto the world. Our bodies are blank slates; they do not carry any intrinsic meaning, and we should wield technology to overcome any supposedly “natural” limits that impinge on our autonomy.
CWR: I would be remiss if I didn’t ask, at this point, the question: “What is a woman?”
Abigail Favale: A woman is the kind of human being whose whole body is organized around the potential to gestate life within oneself. A man is the kind of human being whose body is organized around the potential to create life in another. The word “potential” here is important: a potential exists even if it’s not able to actualized. This definition, then, includes infertile men and women. In fact, the very category of “infertility” signals an inherent potential that is not being realized.
Being a woman is not merely a matter of biology, but it necessarily includes biology. But because woman is a personal category—i.e. referring to a whole person—it also has psychological, spiritual, social, and experiential dimensions. On a deeper level, womanhood (and manhood) has sacramental meaning; our sexual differentiation as male and female is an icon of the Trinitarian God.
CWR: How did the term “gender” arise and evolve? And how has it become separate (or even antagonistic toward) the word “sex”?
Abigail Favale: In the mid-1950s, psychologist John Money borrowed the term “gender” from linguistics to articulate his theory that sexed human identity is a matter of socialization rather than biology. He coined the term “gender role” and make a distinction between what he called “gender” (the social expressions and norms attached to sex) and sex itself.
Second-wave feminists adopted this terminology, and it quickly swept through the humanities and social sciences. This sex/gender split, while useful in some ways, ultimately drove a wedge between body and self, between female and woman. In the postmodern turn of feminism, Judith Butler upped the ante by positing that sex itself, not just gender, is also a social construct. This move paved the way for a bewildering reversal of the sex/gender distinction.
In our time, sex is the construct, and “gender,” the subjective sense of oneself—is what’s truly “real.”
CWR: Why do you think we are witnessing such an explosion of “trans-” individuals? And such a widespread embrace and promotion of transgenderism?
Abigail Favale: I think we are witnessing a complex phenomenon fed by many cultural trends and ailments. Most of the “explosion” we are seeing in trans-identification is among young people, which is a novel development. We are also seeing a broad mental health crisis among young people, and a wide range of complex kinds of suffering and angst are being funneled into this simplistic framework that purports to reveal the source of the suffering and the solution: change your body and you will be happy.
I also think young people are unconsciously rebelling against negative and reductive narratives about womanhood and manhood. Increasingly, our cultural understandings of gender are shaped by pornography, and the idea of men as domineering predators and women as victims.
Thirdly, and perhaps most significantly, this trend began to spike alongside the rise of social media. Young people increasingly live online lives—and the internet is a disembodied, fluid world, where it’s possible to construct your own unique avatar. Moreover, social media is full of influencers who are peddling transition as a panacea and providing guidance and scripts for young people to follow.
CWR: What can Catholics do to not only respond to what I call “the tyranny of trans”, but to help people see that our sexuality is a gift from God?
Abigail Favale: Well, don’t panic and overreact by reinforcing traditional gender stereotypes. Instead, shift the focus to embodiment and the goodness of the body. Help young people develop their own unique personalities while also affirming the goodness of their sexed identity.
Pay attention to language—use reality-based language and, whenever possible, quietly opt out of requests to use language that is at odds with reality. But also be careful to maintain the distinction between the flawed framework of gender theory and the real people who are caught up in that framework. Make every interaction a loving one, focused on the individual person in front of you, not an abstract identity category.
Listen, love, and speak the truth when called upon. And remember, we’re all works-in-progress, and God is infinitely patient with us.
CWR: Any final thoughts?
Abigail Favale: Be not afraid. That’s always a good one to keep in mind.
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