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. Prologue

What Catholic women want

Photo by Lisa Kessler

A survey of recent books

By margaret O'brien steinfels

Equality among men and women, the major goal of the women's movement, is a challenge to Catholic Church practice. Most significantly, ordination--and all of the responsibilities for Church governance that follow--is reserved to male clergy. At present the Church looks beached on the shoal of intractable official resistance--even to discussing the ordination of women and/or equality in decision making. And yet, as this diverse selection of books shows, that intransigence hasn't stopped Catholics from thinking, writing, and acting as if the official view is an obstacle to be worn down, perhaps by words alone.

If there is one book to read on the topic of women and the Church, let it be Sandra Schneiders's admirable and very brief (143 pages) With Oil in Their Lamps: Faith, Feminism, and the Future. Drawn from the 2000 Madeleva Lecture at St. Mary's College, Indiana, the book is a model of that venerable Catholic format, status quaestionis. Her sober and knowledgeable analysis of the complexities, positive and negative, is informed, concise, and evenhanded.

A sister of the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and a faculty member at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Schneiders marvels at the way women, in three short decades, have changed cultural ideas about gender, agency, and self-determination, and believes the focus should now be on "a redefinition of humanity through imaginative change." As for Catholics, "the impact of reproductive issues and the ban on ordination," she argues, "has done more than anything to clarify and intensify feminist consciousness among Catholic women." The ban on ordination, of course, directly excludes women from important liturgical and ministerial roles. On top of that, when the Vatican went to work rooting out inclusive language in liturgical translations, Schneiders concludes that it was not "theology or dogma" at issue, but "a political commitment to consolidating patriarchal domination in the Church against the feminist challenge."

Those are strong words that would seem to discourage all but the most resolute believers. Schneiders is obviously one. And that may be due to an often overlooked fact: the central importance of women's religious communities as a source for feminism and for continued consciousness-raising in the Church. What an irony, in fact, that for several generations American Catholic institutions, usually run by women religious, prepared so many women for equality. Parish schools and high schools made Catholic women literate. Catholic colleges and universities educated women for work in classrooms, hospitals, social service centers, and the civil service, and still more recently for careers in academia, medicine, law, and politics--everywhere but in the official policy-making and governance roles of the Church.

Rather than lament the impasse between the Church and women (or at least some women), however, Schneiders urges that the standard for feminism in the future be the gospel understanding of justice as the "divine conception of . . . universal right relationship." For feminism that means a "commitment to the full personhood of every human being and right relationships among all creatures." She offers no predictions about the future or a resolution of the barriers to right relationships in culture and Church, but concludes with Matthew 25:1–13, the parable of the wise and foolish virgins. The five wise women with oil in their lamps are "a biblical metaphor for eschatological preparedness, which only makes sense to those whose faith and hope are undaunted."

The women authors of most of these books pay relatively little attention to the ordination question. Is that because Catholic feminists have moved beyond it? Or do they reserve their energy for other battles in the face of implacable Vatican opposition? Only John Wijngaards's The Ordination of Women in the Catholic Church: Unmasking a Cuckoo's Egg Tradition makes ordination the major focus of attention. A missionary in India for over a decade and then vicar general of the Mill Hill Missionaries, Wijngaards resigned from the priesthood in 1998 to work for the ordination of women. He is a learned man with sharp rhetorical skills; the book's polemical style could be read as a mirror image of the apologetics of pre–Vatican II theology, as Wijngaards marshals systematic criticism of the arguments against ordination found in Scripture and tradition.

Wijngaards fancies strong statements, examples, and metaphors, notably that of the cuckoo bird in the book's subtitle. Cuckoo birds lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. On hatching, the baby cuckoo quickly dispatches its nest mates and consumes the food brought by the parents that have bonded with the cuckoo as they would have with their own (now destroyed) nestlings. "One can therefore see a tiny warbler offering newly caught insects to a cuckoo fledgling several times its size!" Wijngaards explains: "The same happens in the Church with cuckoo's egg traditions. Those with teaching power are often blinded by the long-standing and seemingly ancient origins of the tradition, and will seek to defend its authenticity, even though the incongruity is obvious to impartial observers."

But Wijngaards does not ask us to take his word for this incongruity. He sets out to prove that "it is not God who decreed the exclusion of women, but pagan sexist bigotry which squashed the true Christian tradition of women's call to ministry." And he goes at it right down to a five-point refutation of the Vatican's claim that the prohibition of women's ordination is part of the Church's universal ordinary magisterium.

In Faithful and Fearless: Moving Feminist Protest Inside the Church and the Military, Mary Fainsod Katzenstein, a political scientist at Cornell, contrasts a Catholic feminist strategy of pressing reform by changing ideas and language with the judicial and legislative strategy, "politics as usual," adopted by women in the U.S. military.

The author argues that the Catholic feminist strategy has radicalized its advocates into working to reshape the whole institution in light of their reading of the Gospels. Thus the poor are as important to their agenda as the ordination of women. Katzenstein's research took her to the more progressive outposts of Catholic feminism, so it's little surprise that she found radical views. Still, the evidence of the books discussed here is that she is accurate in describing "discursive activism," or remaking meaning, as the modus vivendi of Catholic feminists, whether radical, moderate, or conservative.

For example, the reappropriation of women saints for feminist ends, and inventing a feminist theological tradition in the Church are two strategies Catholic women use in remaking meaning.

Who could be more emblematic in this task than Catherine of Siena (1347–1380), honored for her unstinting efforts to reform the Church? She persuaded Pope Gregory XI to return from Avignon to Rome and preached peace to a land devastated by the Black Death, corruption, and incessant warfare. Despite her youthful desire for a contemplative life, Catherine felt called by God to live publicly, preaching, counseling, and exhorting popes and peasants alike. In another Madeleva lecture, Speaking with Authority: Catherine of Siena and the Voices of Women Today, Mary Catherine Hilkert, OP, carefully distinguishes Catherine's self-destructive asceticism from the positive forms of authority that she exercised in a Church hardly ready to acknowledge them in a woman. The authority of vocation, of wisdom, and of compassion shaped and propelled Catherine's remarkable career. Hilkert highlights these forms of authority as mechanisms of change for contemporary women angered by resistance to their claims to influence and equality. Catherine of Siena "embraced a mission that was not of her making. . . . Amid plague and wars, poverty and papal politics, hunger for survival and hunger for the word of God, she heard a call to do what women did not do." And she heeded it.

Ditto, Joan of Arc (1412–1431), who during the Hundred Years' War (which began 10 years before Catherine of Siena was born) did many, many things that women never did.

In Joan of Arc, Mary Gordon examines her life through a feminist lens, pointedly asking: Why was Joan canonized at all--in 1920, almost 500 years after being burnt at the stake for heresy? Unlike Catherine, Joan was not recognized as a holy woman in her own time. Devil's advocates--Vatican officials assigned the task of refuting claims for her canonization--found good reason to recommend withholding a saintly crown, including inconsistent and erratic behavior, disobedience to her parents, refusal to answer the judges at her trial, and a lack of saintly fortitude, among other defects. In contrast to the romanticized portrayals of Joan in movies and drama, Gordon finds the negative assessments of these officials astute in exploring Joan's contradictions and questioning her saintliness. But their judgment was rejected, and it is this irony that Gordon plays upon in questioning the canonization.

Why is it, she asks, that the pope, in searching for a symbol to thwart modernism, canonized a "woman, who insisted upon the primacy of her individual experience, and has therefore been called by some the first Protestant"? How is that Joan was seen by the Vatican "as the curb by which the faithful could be brought to obedient, communal heel"? For the lesson of Joan of Arc's life, Gordon argues, is that "she defined the Church on her terms, not its own." Did the pope canonize more than he understood? Gordon has worked largely from secondary sources, making papal motives difficult to assess. Nonetheless, she has devised a fascinating argument for reappropriating Joan, this time as a feminist saint.


The Story of Ruth: Twelve Moments in Every Woman's Life
. By Joan Chittister (Eerdmans, 2000, 92 pp.)

Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women's Liberation. By Mary Daly (Beacon, 1985,
second ed., 225 pp.)

Dorothy Day: In My Own Words. By Dorothy Day; compiled by Phyllis Zagano (Liguori, 2003, 144 pp.)

Reconciling Catholicism and Feminism?: Personal Reflections on Tradition and Change. Edited by Sally Barr Ebest and Ron Ebest (Notre Dame, 2003,
304 pp.)

Joan of Arc. By Mary Gordon (Viking, 2000, 176 pp.)

Speaking with Authority: Catherine of Siena and the Voices of Women Today. By Mary Catherine Hilkert (Paulist, 2001, 144 pp.)

The Church Women Want: Catholic Women in Dialogue. Edited by Elizabeth A. Johnson (Crossroad, 2002, 142 pp.)

Faithful and Fearless: Moving Feminist Protest Inside the Church and the Military. By Mary Fainsod Katzenstein (Princeton, 1998, 288 pp.)

The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene: Legends, Apocrypha, and the Christian Testament. By Jane Schaberg (Continuum, 2002, 379 pp.)

With Oil in Their Lamps: Faith, Feminism, and
the Future
. By Sandra M. Schneiders (Paulist, 2000,
143 pp.)

Prodigal Daughters: Catholic Women Come Home
to the Church
. Edited by Donna Steichen (Ignatius, 1999, 400 pp.)

The Ordination of Women in the Catholic Church: Unmasking a Cuckoo's Egg Tradition. By John Wijngaards (Continuum, 2001, 224 pp.)


Exploiting the past for today's causes can take other forms: retelling, recalling, recasting. Joan Chittister, for example, retells The Story of Ruth: Twelve Moments in Every Woman's Life, drawing on the Book of Ruth from the Hebrew Scripture to examine 12 themes of significance for women today, including loss, aging, respect, recognition, empowerment. Phyllis Zagano, in compiling the writings of Dorothy Day: In My Own Words, recalls the words of this not-yet-canonized modern saint on poverty, community, war and peace, civil rights, and pilgrimage. How easily Day's ideas of social justice as well as her independence in founding the Catholic Worker movement fit into a Catholic feminist perspective, despite the distance Day herself might have kept from its criticism of the hierarchy and of Church teaching.

And then there is the invention of tradition--a practice frowned upon in Catholic theological practice. Mary Daly's Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women's Liberation, first published in 1973, was one of the first efforts at inventing a feminist theological tradition. A newer paperback edition has an "original reintroduction" by Daly, who taught in Boston College's theology department for many years. Since I gave Beyond God the Father a review critical of its anti-Christian and elitist polemics when it first appeared, it hardly seems fair to give it a second one three decades later. So I simply note that Daly's views, at least as she expressed them in her 1985 reintroduction, are themselves critical of herself. She didn't go far enough down the post-God, post-Christian, post-the-plain-meaning-of-words road in 1973! By 1985 her linguistic deconstruction and re-creation was quite pronounced: "Countering the clocks of father time, Raging/Racing women become Counterclock-Wise, asking Counterclock-Whys. Boundary-shifting Sibyls become Other-Wise, uttering Other Whys." That's a good question: "Why?" And that's my question about Daly's own inventions: "Why?"

The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene: Legends, Apocrypha, and the Christian Testament by Jane Schaberg, written some 30 years after Daly, may, in time, inform and broaden the Catholic tradition. It is a dense, scholarly examination of texts (and possibly missing texts), putting forth conjectures and reconstructions that the author thinks "privilege that tradition of the women at the tomb [of Jesus] and of the appearance to Mary Magdalene, [who] had a visionary experience of Jesus which empowered her with God's spirit." Schaberg's bottom line: Mary Magdalene may have been the first apostle, and a tradition of her centrality was erased from history, suppressed in the formation of the early Church and of the canonical accounts of Jesus' ministry.

Schaberg, though deeply committed to her thesis, has the grace to recognize that "my treatment will not be convincing to everyone." Just in case, she goes on, "I have failed to present a convincing, comprehensive reconstruction or reading, I hope I have failed well enough to destabilize existing ‘authoritative' readings."

However credible these works of reappropriation and invention prove to be (certainly some will not stand the test of time), they signal an enormous effort to change the way Catholics (and others) think about women and Catholicism. But are they successful? Yes and no. My hunch is that it is the actual experience of women that sustains the movement to change the Church (or not). And the final three books offer some evidence for that.

The Catholic Common Ground Initiative, organized by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin in 1996, has tried to bring together Catholics with different, even polarizing, views on a range of issues. It has not been easy. And yet, here is a book that shows it can be done. The Church Women Want: Catholic Women in Dialogue is a collection of essays commissioned by the initiative for a public program at the College of New Rochelle. (Disclosure: I moderated the sessions.) Conservatives and liberals, radical and moderate, women spoke to and with one another before an audience of several hundred women who agreed in advance to meet on four Sunday afternoons over a two-year period. The presenters laid out genuine disagreements on spirituality and worship, equality and complementarity, and women and society. A fourth session, on race and culture, was less about disagreement than about the absence of race and class considerations in the women's movement for social change. Table discussions and questions followed the presentations and cross-conversation by the panelists.

Over the two-year period, no agreement was required and no consensus was reached. Catholic women disagree about the kind of Church they want in the 21st century, but they are not going to kill or excommunicate one another over it. As the moderator of these four dialogue sessions, I was struck by how irenic and amiable women can be even while holding sharply divergent views. Susan Muto, who directs the Epiphany Association, and Miriam Therese Winter, director of the Women's Leadership Institute at Hartford Seminary, ended their debate on the spirituality of worship by hugging each other. And the audience, including many with serious, practical experience in the Church, in classrooms, and in social service agencies, was remarkably free--as the book itself is--of the political correctness and ideological rigidity that can make dialogue a frustrating, even hopeless, pursuit.

There are Catholic women, too, who do not want equality in the Church. Prodigal Daughters: Catholic Women Come Home to the Church collects the stories of 17 women who are at work building boundaries around the enclave of the more conservative Church they want in the 21st century. Such a strategy, they believe, will help protect them from a culture antithetical to their religious outlook and to the religious well-being of their children. These women strayed from the Church in their "prodigal" youth--some far, some not so far--after what editor Donna Steichen alludes to as the catechetical disaster following Vatican II. Now these women are safely back. "Through God's mercy," Steichen concludes, "the stories included here end happily. The authors have returned to various points on the Catholic spectrum--from garden variety Catholic practice to Tridentine indult communities, homeschool motherhood, the pro-life apostolate, Medjugorje discipleship, and the charismatic movement--but all are firmly at home in Holy Mother Church, who actually does encompass a good deal of diversity within her strong walls." Indeed, she does.

Steichen is no fan of feminism, Catholic or otherwise. But reconstructing a Church of the Golden Age, c. 1950, is almost as radical an act as inventing a new one; it certainly has the un-Catholic attitude of seeming highly sectarian. But finally, would these women, or Steichen herself, enjoy the freedom to speak and to imagine an alternate version of the Catholic Church if not for the women's revolution? It is an insidious revolution, when even its opponents depend upon its achievements.

Another and more familiar form of what women want is found in Reconciling Catholicism and Feminism?: Personal Reflections on Tradition and Change. That question mark underlines the theme: Can the two be reconciled? Many of the women in this book might be inclined to say no, and choose feminism. But for the most part they have not. As contributor Sandra Gilbert remarks in the foreword, these 22 essays are the stories of "those who claim the Church or at least those who feel the Church still claims them." That does not mean they are all practicing Catholics, only that they wrestle with Catholicism, even having chosen to leave it. But they also wrestle with feminism.

The editors were astute (and catholic) to include an international range of experiences of the Church and feminism. But most of the contributors are Americans who live with the libertarian feminism of a liberal culture and with the contradictions of a relatively liberal U.S. Catholic Church. At this moment in history, the links between Catholicism and American culture appear more tenuous than they have in several decades. By and large, these Catholic women reflect that tension by mediating a view of feminism that is unsatisfactory to the orthodox in both Church and culture. The
inherent ambiguity in this position can be painful, as many
of the stories attest. Yet it is important. Catholicism and feminism need each other, if only as necessary correctives. Feminism needs Catholicism for its communal understanding of the human person; Catholicism needs feminism for its courage and persistence in pressing the case for women's equality.

But will Catholic women continue their feminist struggle? One of the singular marks of the 21st-century Church is that it is being led in its first decade by women and men who embraced Vatican II: They understood its great promise and have lived by its remarkable vision as a community of intensely committed, if sometimes raucous, thinkers and activists. Once this generation passes from the scene, as is happening, will others be ready to follow in its footsteps while reading the signs of a new century? Steichen and many right-wingers and restorationists (men as well as women) claim the next generations of Catholics for their cause. Though their numbers will be small, they will be powerful if moderates and liberals abandon the challenges set forth by Vatican II.

In multiple ways, the Catholic women's movement is at the heart of this struggle. First, it raises fundamental questions about how we will redefine "humanity through imaginative change," in Sr. Schneiders's words. Second, it embodies a new way of understanding gender, which challenges the kind of community the Catholic Church is now and proposes (again, in Schneiders's words) "a gospel imperative" that is committed "to the full personhood of every human being and right relationships among all creatures."

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels was editor of Commonweal, 1988-2002; she is now completing "American Catholics in the Public Square," a joint project of the Commonweal Foundation and the Faith & Reason Institute.


Photo by Lisa Kessler


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