Feminism and Catholic fidelity

With how many newspaper editorial pages expressed outrage over the Vatican’s paper on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, something tells me we’ll be looking at the mainstream news pages’ take on things for a while to come.

I wanted to highlight what I thought was an extraordinary discussion hosted by PBS’ Judy Woodruff. When hosting such a debate, it can be difficult to get good quality guests from “both sides” as it were. Particularly in this case. While reporters are definitely hearing on background from sisters displeased with the Vatican document, getting a televised discussion with one is another thing entirely.

Woodruff discussed the question of “Vatican Rebuke: Are U.S. Nuns Promoting ‘Radical Feminist Themes?’” That’s a slightly more narrow focus than the document as a whole and it served the segment nicely. For the discussion, viewers were introduced to Christendom College’s Donna Bethell and Fordham University’s Jeannine Hill Fletcher. Bethell supports the Vatican document while Fletcher opposes it. She identifies as a Catholic feminist theologian and is a laywoman. Given the constraints, I thought it was a good choice.

And even though both guests disagreed with each other, they were cordial, articulate, thoughtful and thought-provoking. Speaking as a non-Catholic who is interested in the issues, I found the discussion fascinating. I would enjoy an even longer debate between these two women.

So to whomever found such great guests, good work. And as for the debate, while it’s clear that Woodruff isn’t exactly fluent in the religious vocabulary in use for this debate, she actually did a great job. I found her questions to be friendly but challenging and it really brought out the best in each guest.

For this GetReligion analysis, I’d encourage you to watch the debate, but here’s an edited snippet of the transcript as well:

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me start with you, Donna Bethell.

You agree with what the Vatican has done here. Why is what the Women Religious did offensive to the leadership of the church?

DONNA BETHELL: Well, I think to understand this correctly, you have to know that the church expects a great deal of people who are publicly consecrated in the church for its service, which is what Women Religious are.

And at the very beginning of the document, they quote Pope John Paul II to the effect that it’s important that consecrated persons in the church be faithful to the teaching of the church and witness to it in their life and works.

The second point is that the Leadership Conference of Women Religious is an entity established by the Vatican, approved by the Vatican, its statutes approved by the Vatican for the purpose of supporting the Women Religious in their life and work. And so it’s the responsibility of the Vatican to see that the conference is actually doing its job. And that’s what it’s done in this assessment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And the finding is that they strayed from Vatican teaching?

DONNA BETHELL: Yes, as you summarized, and in other areas, they found that they either put out materials that are troublesome, not presenting the full doctrine of the church. They supported speakers at their conferences who — some of whom challenged the church or simply ignored its teaching in various aspects, and that they have not been a positive.

It’s not — it’s one thing to actually contradict the church, but it wasn’t just their job to avoid contradicting their church. It’s their job to present the fullness of the Catholic faith and to help their members to understand it and to live it. And that’s where they had been found short.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jeannine Fletcher, how does the Women Religious group see this? Do they acknowledge, in your understanding, that they’ve strayed from the doctrine?

JEANNINE HILL FLETCHER, Fordham University: Well, my work as a feminist theologian — I am not religious. I’m not ordained. I’m a laywoman. So I don’t have an insider’s picture on this.

What I do have is a sense of the life and work of Women Religious in this country and around the globe as being people who very much carry on faithfully the Catholic tradition, especially in the work of social justice. So these are Women Religious who are at the U.N. defending — defending human rights. They are in our colleges and our universities.

They are running our hospitals. And so from the perspective of being faithful to the church, they are — in my understanding as a feminist theologian, as a Catholic feminist theologian, they are continuing the work of the church.

Now, at issue is the teaching, the doctrine of the church, the authoritative stance on issues. Now, the one element of the report seems to suggest that they’d like for the Women Religious to go back to the catechism more, present the catechism more, or take up the issues that the bishops have found important, the issues against women’s reproductive rights or denouncing homosexuality…

DONNA BETHELL: Well, the Vatican in its document actually commended the kinds of activities, apostolic, social justice activities, that the sisters are carrying out. It recognizes those.

It says you must — but that’s not enough. That’s not the fullness of the Catholic faith. We are also engaged in primary justice in the defense of life, for example, from conception to natural death in the issues of abortion and euthanasia. And the church expects its consecrated publicly — public witnesses to be fully on board and to be advancing the Catholic view of the right to life.

So that’s just one point, where it’s not that they’re being criticized for all the great work that they do. That’s recognized. They’re being asked to be fully in the church.

And it goes back and forth from there, even getting into doctrinal issues. I do want to point out that I believe that Hill Fletcher was saying she’s not religious in the sense that she’s not a woman religious. She later says “in my understanding as a feminist theologian, as a Catholic feminist theologian” and I think she means that she’s a Catholic, she’s a feminist and she’s a theologian not that she studies the theology of feminism or of Catholic feminism.

Anyway, I wanted to highlight this excellent discussion that educated viewers about the conflicting visions over the future of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

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  • Martha

    This is not a comment about the coverage so much as it is a personal reflection.

    The narrative seems to be in the process of casting as a fight between reactionary old men in the Vatican versus religious women out working in the real world and doing good.

    I don’t deny any of the good that the revamped orders of sisters and nuns have done, but I am old enough to remember over the course of twenty years or so when they went from this (the habit in the 60s and 70s when I was in primary school) to this (adopted five or more years after I left secondary school, and now apparently they’ve gone to this).

    The thing is, we were the first generation that were experimented on under the notions that were unleashed subsequent to Vatican II, and I won’t indulge in any false nostalgia for the ‘good old days’ (my father was an altar boy and could rattle off the Latin responses even in his sixties, but had no idea what they meant because no-one bothered to explain them to him), but our formal religious education pretty much stopped stone-dead when we entered secondary school (aged 12-13). We got the first wave of the ‘social justice’ teaching, and yes, that was fine, but in any other subject nobody would have dreamed of saying “Okay, you’ve learned addition and subtraction and long division and mulitiplication; we won’t bother teaching you algebra and trigonometry and calculus, because your parents will do that at home. We’ll talk about if Johnny has five apples and Mary has three, what are the sources of injustice and inequality in the world that resulted in this outcome?”

    I educated myself on theology out of reading a copy of Dante’s “Divine Comedy” that was languishing on a dusty shelf in a classroom bookcase, and in latter years by getting into discussions online (when asked “So what do you Catholics really believe about X, Y and Z”, I had to say “I have no idea, but I’ll get back to you just as soon as I look up the Catechism online”).

    The thing is, the sisters were so busy making themselves ‘relevant’ that they never noticed that the world has turned around and said “Thanks, we’ll take it from here”. Healthcare, social work, education – all these are expected to be provisions of the state, and in my own country, for one, the state is busy getting what religious remain out of the classroom (not even letting them back in to prepare children for Communion and Confirmation, for example).

    So the modern sisters are not doing anything that secular social workers and the likes aren’t doing, and if that’s the case, what’s the point? If your primary mission is encouraging empowerment through access to decision-making, good luck to you, but why call yourself “Sister” to do it?

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Don’t you think, though, that this interview did a good job of discussing just that issue? I thought the two women were basically discussing this point throughout their chat, no?

  • http://www.cyberbrethren.com Rev. Paul T. McCain

    I applaud the Vatican for taking action here. One would think that anyone of sober judgment would realize that an organization has every right to expect its members to teach and act in accord with the organization’s policies and positions.

    I read the statement putting in my own church’s vocabulary, like “pastors” and “ordained” and “Lutheran Church” and found it very telling from that perspective.

    It is a matter of basic integrity not to claim allegiance to an institution and then work around it to assert one’s own private agenda.

    That was a very helpful interview, quite fair and balanced, I thought.

  • Jeff

    This was more like a teaser-trailer for a good conversation than a good conversation in itself.

    Some issues were introduced in a useful way, but none of them were really explored in substantive depth.

    The question I wish Fletcher had been asked is what her grounds are from within “the Catholic tradition” for arguing for stances on sexuality morality that are essentially indistinguishable from the stances of a left-liberal counter-tradition that has always defined itself in very large part in opposition to the Catholic Church.

    What are we to make of this phenomenon in the thinking of people like Fletcher where “the Catholic tradition” and the left-liberal tradition, proceeding from opposed presuppositions, seem somehow always to arrive at the very same logical ends — only left-liberalism always gets their first, with Catholicism lagging behind, such that left-liberalism is always, as it were, more Catholic than the Catholic Church, and people like Fletcher are more authoritative teachers of the Catholic faith than any Pope?

    And what does Fletcher herself make of that phenomenon?

    This piece was a promising start, but there was so much further to go.

  • http://authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

    I need to take a closer look at the video, but my first reaction is this. There seems to be a lot of spin happening, and I mean the attempt to portray what these wayward women religious advocate as somehow being consistent with Catholic doctrine. But let me reiterate, I need to take a closer look at it and could be wrong.

    In the meantime, to Martha’s point, this has been brewing for a long time, as a nice little recap from Fr. Z on his blog shows: http://wdtprs.com/blog/2012/04/nuns-gone-wild-a-trip-down-memory-lane/

    The heritage of this controversy is this: “We nuns know better than those outdated old men in Rome, and Catholic doctrine should change to embrace the new reality.” It is very interesting to see how it is playing out in the present.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    When I hear a reporter like Judy Woodruff use the phrase “Vatican teaching” or “Vatican doctrine” in its interviews or stories
    to me it is like hearing fingernails scratch down a blackboard. That is because very frequently the media applies those words to teachings or doctrines that go back to the very foundation of Christianity.
    Looking at some topics that I have seen media people or radical sisters put under the heading of “Vatican” doctrine or teaching include The Resurrection, parts of the Nicene creed, the sacredness of human life, Christ the One Saviour, etc.
    But these-and many other Catholic teachings– are NOT “Vatican doctrine” but, in very many cases core teachings of the Catholic Faith as well as of Protestant, Evangelical, and Orthodox Christianity.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Note: By NOT “Vatican doctrine” I mean “not dreamed up by some crusty old medieval men in the Vatican”–which is what is usually implied by those who use that phrase.

  • Julia

    As well as “Vatican teaching” and “Vatican doctrine”, there is now “Catholic tradition” with a small “t”. This seems to be an attempt to eliminate the institutional church, specifically institutional authority.

    It was a very interesting beginning, and I’d like like to see these two invited back for an entire hour. Each speaks very well for her viewpoint.

    As I’ve said before, in the Catholic church theologians are more like think tanks. They don’t define doctrine themselves although they may influence the adoption of developed doctrine by those who do have the authority to declare doctrine.

    This is as good a discussion as I have seen.

  • Jeff

    It would have been especially good if Woodruff had asked Fletcher to parse exactly, precisely what being “in the Catholic tradition” means, in the way that she uses the term.

    To an outside observer like me who is neither a Roman Catholic nor a left-liberals, what it seems to mean is being a Liberal Protestant — a Mainline or Oldline Protestant — who uses the prestige and resources of the Roman Catholic Church to promulgate the liberal views of the Secular Left, not only but especially with regard to the promotion of abortion and homosexuality.

    If it means something other than that, it would be good to know *what* and *how,* and maybe Fletcher could have explained, if Woodruff had asked.

  • Jerry

    I liked the interview. Woodruff allowed both people to explain their frame of reference. My one complaint is that it was too short. Right at the end the essential question was raised that I wish time to answer and that was what part of the doctrine of the Catholic church might change. Because that is an essential question that lies behind at least part of this story.

    That issue was raised about the change in the doctrine about salvation being possible outside the Catholic church. That topic itself would probably need at least a 30 minute segment to explore. But I wish a few seconds had been allocated for Fletcher to answer that question.

    That to me is a problem with a time-limited live interview. If discussions and interviews could be a bit longer and then edited down to fit the time, there would have been an opportunity to add those few seconds.

    Of course, the problem with the edited format is the editing itself since bias can creep in there. But skillfully done it would have given Fletcher a few seconds to respond to this point that was raised at the last second.

    One other point: Usually I laud Religion & Ethics Newsweekly for their coverage of religious issues but I think they seriously fell down here. David Gibson, RNS reporter, gave what to me was a much worse report on the Pope’s decision. He had the opportunity to reflect both Fletcher’s and Bethell’s perspective and failed. Instead he framed it as a “hostile takeover” which implies that the nun’s group was a separate organization which of course it’s not. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/episodes/april-20-2012/vatican-report-on-us-catholic-nuns/10824/

  • Martha

    Mollie, yes it was a good piece. It’s even more excellent that they used two women to be the pro and con speakers, instead of taking the easy and cheap way of having uptight Fr. Rigid speaking for ‘the Vatican’ versus attractive and intelligent Ms. Modern Catholic Laywoman. I appreciated that.

    But how many news reports are going to take this approach to consideration of both sides? What newspaper has asked, for example, Sr. Simone Campbell, why exactly she was “stunned” by the CDF document, given that this whole process formally began back in 2008? So far, if your impression of the affair was garnered from the papers, you would imagine that some secret Vatican task force snooped around and suddenly sprang this smack-down on American nuns who had been innocently going about their business with no idea they were about to be censured – all tied in with the American bishops’ politicking in this election year, no doubt.

    The Vatican is asking the LCWR to consider what is the function of the modern religious congregations, particularly now that the state has taken over so much of the provision of services that the apostolic sisters (as distinguished from the enclosed nuns) were set up to do. If they are going to be engaged in distinctive Catholic ministries, then what does it mean to be Catholic? If, on the other hand, it is a matter of secular work sprinkled with some kind of transcendent spirituality not founded on Jesus Christ, what is the value of identification of themselves as Catholic (and indeed, with that phrase about “moving beyond Jesus”, obviously some of them are asking that same question.

    But if the modern, relevant orders are not attracting novices (and I agree, there can be a degree of romanticisation of the contemplative life which will not survive the reality of what the novitiate is like), then why not? Why aren’t young women wanting to become involved in these orders? That’s a question I don’t see addressed anywhere, and it’s not quite as simple as “they want boyfriends and social lives and good paying jobs”.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    I’m glad you said that about the “stunned” line. I forget which article it was that used that language to frame an entire story but I kept thinking, “You know, I’m not a sister and I’m not even Catholic and I could see this coming like a Mack truck down a desert highway.”

    In fact, I think I’m going to find that piece and have us all look at it.

  • Jerry

    NPR radio had a wonderful report http://www.npr.org/2012/04/23/151222359/vatican-reprimand-of-u-s-nuns-divides-faithful which had a note about the possible approach of the Archbishop who was appointed by the Pope. It’s a talk program but I would urge people to listen to at least the first 12 minutes of the 30 minute program. At the end of the program, the two women talking about Jesus and the Samaritan at the well and how the different interpretation of that story is a root cause of this issue. If you don’t have time for the entire 1/2 hour, listen to the first 12 minutes and skip to the last several minutes.

  • carl jacobs

    Fordham University’s Jeannine Hill Fletcher … identifies as a Catholic feminist theologian and is a laywoman.

    There are Roman Catholics and then there are Roman Catholics. It would be helpful to define what “Catholic Feminist theologian” actual means in terms of doctrine. Is she a Catholic by self-definition or a Catholic by Rome’s definition? Her mere assertion isn’t enough to establish her bona fides to represent anything other than her own ideological bent.


  • Julia

    carl jacobs said:

    Her mere assertion isn’t enough to establish her bona fides to represent anything other than her own ideological bent.

    carl hit one of the nails on the head.

    Is she Catholic b/c she goes to church and is active in parish life as a lay person? Even if that is so, then as a professor she still doesn’t represent the church and its doctrine in the same way as a consecrated sister who is also a professor – unless the church has given her some authoritative office.

    Catholics who are ordained or consecrated to the religious life have taken vows beyond what is expected of lay people. This gives them an aura of Church authority to folks in the pew or classroom, which is why it’s a serious matter when their actions or teaching go astray.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    What I am most frustrated by are the photos that accompany all the editorials Mollie discussed. Take, for example, this piece by Steve Lopez in the L.A. Times. Look at the photo accompanying the piece and what do you see? The backs of a bunch of nuns in full habit. By the looks of it, they’re probably Nashville Dominicans, more formally the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia, and far less formally, the Dixie Chicks (yes, we Catholics can have fun). The Nashville Dominicans are probably the fastest growing order in the U.S., and they are definitely not members of the LCWR. Instead, they are members of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, the group set up by the Vatican to counter the LCWR after the latter had gone terribly awry.

    But the impression one is left with in seeing something like the Lopez piece, is that the Vatican is going after these nice nuns who are wearing full habits, saying their prayers and educating and caring for the sick and the poor. The reality, on the other hand, is what Martha pointed out in this or as can be seen in this. Why do these journalists insist on visually presenting the Hollywood version of nuns (which is the way they should be, btw — that’s one thing Hollywood gets right) when the reality is that you can’t distinguish an LCWR nun from your grandmother or great aunt? The only thing I can figure is that they have an agenda and this suits the agenda. If anyone has a different idea, I’m willing to entertain it.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    I address just what you point out in the post that will be published tomorrow morning …

  • Maureen

    She actually says, “I am not… uh… a religious.”

    Transcribers tend to not hear the a/uh thing, so they tend to not write it down. It’s a lot easier to ignore the uh’s and hear the indefinite articles when you’re engaged in conversation with the speaker.

  • http://cleansingfiredor.com/ Thinkling

    First, I agree that as such point/counterpoint pieces on religious topics go, it was quite good. But someone on another site pointed out an interesting nugget about this interview which would be easy to miss.

    There was more to the dialog than just the discussion. If you watch Bethel near the end while Fletcher wraps up her last point, about the malleability of doctrine, Bethel stares at Fletcher in astonishment, then smiles glibly and shakes her head. If I can put words in her mouth: “You are a theologian and you are saying WHAT?” So while Fletcher got in the last word verbally, Bethel’s nonverbal response was discernable.

  • Dill

    She later says “in my understanding as a feminist theologian, as a Catholic feminist theologian” and I think she means that she’s a Catholic, she’s a feminist and she’s a theologian not that she studies the theology of feminism or of Catholic feminism.

    Mollie, I just wanted to point out that Jeannine Hill Fletcher DOES study theology from a feminist perspective. I believe the term “feminist theologian” usually refers to a systematic theologian who uses feminism as the system through which s/he analyzes and categorizes theology, similar to how a Thomist uses the works of Thomas Aquinas.

    At the very least, Dr. Hill Fletcher’s faculty profile on the Fordham Theology page includes “Feminist and Postcolonial Thought” among her academic interests. It is very likely she identifies as a feminist outside of her academic interests as well.