The Current Crisis of American Catholic Feminism

My good friend Jim Keane has written a stirring encomium to the religious sisters who are members of the LCWR at In All Things.  The pastor at my parish this morning referenced the tremendous motherly role that many of those sisters have played in our lives.  On this Mother’s Day we do well to remember them.

Yet the pastor also reprimanded the Vatican for its importunate “attack” on those same sisters, as he called it.  Also on this Mother’s Day, I think it well to reflect on a part of this discussion that is often left out.  That is on the current crisis of Catholic feminism in the United States.  

In her excellent sociological analysis of nuns and feminism, Visual Habits: Nuns, Feminism, and American Postwar Popular Culture, Rebecca Sullivan notes that in the post-war era, nuns became the blank slate upon which many feminine dreams were written.  They were deemed acceptable as such a slate because “they fired up dreams of feminine independence while smothering any possibility that the flames might spread out of control.” Eventually, of course, nuns reacted strongly to playing this role for American civil society and instead embraced a more radical form of feminism.

Unfortunately, part of what was embraced was the slowly emerging feminist ideal of the exclusive right of women to their body.  Betty Friedan and others decided to found the National Organization of Women.  Sister Mary Aloysious Schaldenbrand went further by allying herself with Planned Parenthood in their efforts to make contraception more widely available.  These sisters began to pave the way for the feminist culture wars that were to come.

On the last page of her book, Sullivan remarks: “More importantly, however, they [nuns] force a reappraisal of femininity and feminism beyond a body politics of desire and pleasure, and into the realm of spiritual and intellectual fortitude.”  I could not agree more.  And part of me thinks that the current actions by the Vatican, however inopportune they may be, are encouraging just this kind of reappraisal.

Let me explain.  Among the many adherents of Catholic feminism in the United States, one of the great divides that continues to split the Church is that between those feminists who see abortion as an issue of women’s rights and those feminists who see it as an attack upon those same women.  The spectrum is quite polarized between those who chant that “abortion hurts women” and those who see abortion as a pillar of the women’s movement.  In the midst of this, figures such as Pope John Paul II and Joseph Cardinal Bernardin called for a new form of Catholic feminism and for a consistent ethic of life.  Here was a chance to be prophetic, for the Church to embrace both a healthy feminism and a firm rejection of its unhealthy manifestations.

Yet as I recently read Sister Elizabeth Johnson’s intriguing book on Mary, “Truly Our Sister,” I couldn’t help but notice that abortion was never mentioned.  Intended to be a modern retrieval of Mary for women in need of liberation, Johnson draws consistent attention to the “shared Calvary” of women throughout the world who suffer from civil wars, political repression, genocides, seeing their children “disappeared” in Central and South America, and numerous other forms of oppression, noting that they “all drink from the same cup of suffering.”  Absolutely right.  Yet in her moderate attempt to recover the figure of Mary for a modern Church, why the silence on abortion?  It only confirmed for me that there continues to be a crisis in American Catholic feminism, a crisis to which perhaps only those nuns who have the “intellectual fortitude” can truly speak.

And so in the midst of a very challenging time, I would like to ask those nuns to be the Catholic spokeswomen for us of what a healthy Catholic feminism should look like. I would like to ask them to weave a new seamless garment of Catholic feminism, a garment of which the Church in the United States and the world is in dire need.  Perhaps such a garment could be one of the positive outcomes of the current investigation, if pursued with intellectual fortitude and a courageous heart.

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  • Chris Sullivan

    Here’s a good example of such a consistent ethic of life from the LCWR aligned NETWORK group of nuns lobbying for social justice (and mentioned in the CDF document raising various supposed concerns about LCWR).

    [Scroll down to the prolife section].

    The allegation that LCWR/NETWORK are silent on abortion is simply not true.

    God Bless

    • Nathan O'Halloran, SJ

      I’ll admit that, unlike other groups, the LCWR has made every effort, and probably for good reason, not to ally themselves or even appear allied to the Republican Party. The shadow side of this decision has been a perceived silence and the questioning of whether they have done enough.

  • Julia Smucker

    This sentence made me stop and think:
    “The spectrum is quite polarized between those who chant that ‘abortion hurts women’ and those who see abortion as a pillar of the women’s movement.”
    I have tended to see the polarization as more between the rights of the woman vs. the rights of the child, with too little acknowledgement – on either side – of the grief and trauma that post-abortive women are left with. That’s why I find the rare voices that do speak to that harm to be oddly refreshing, in particular Feminists for Life, as well as a woman I know who is experienced in pregnancy and adoption counseling and has seen a lot of that kind of pain first-hand.

    But maybe I’m simply showing which pole I come down on in this case.

    • Nathan O'Halloran, SJ

      You’re right, those are the poles that divide the abortion issue. I meant to draw attention in this case to the poles within the feminism movement on the question of abortion and its relation to feminism.

    • Rainbow Sash Movement

      My mother was a wonderful person. When left alone with the responsibility of raising me, and my 4 brothers she had the wisdom to to listen to the Church, but she also understood that at the end of the day when it came to her children she was the final arbitrator. Could she explain the Eucharist no she could not, but she showed us the example of Eucharist in the way she lived her life.

      Did she make mistakes in some of her decisions, of course she did. But she always believed in the goodness of life and its wonder and communicated that wonderful hope filled vision to us.

      Love sometimes gets confused with perfection. Abortion is a terrible issue for all involved. Has it helped or hindered women? On that matter I must listen to the broad spectrum of women, and educate myself. It is easy to point at the ideal and try to ignore the messiness of life. The Gospels are quite clear on this matter it is in that messiness we find our answers, and I suspect that is were you will find both Jesus and Mary his mother..

      Our Pope and Bishops would do well to to understand they are frail human beings like the rest of us. In my opinion, infallibility if it is anything is a process listening to the Sense of the Faithful. Infallibility that is not balanced with charity is hollow, much like authority that seeks its own end..

      The nuns in my life like my mother were protectors and servants. They were not overly concerned with their authority. Thank God I was never sexually abused, but that had more to do with their presence in my schools, playgrounds and in my life.

      Life indeed is messy, one only has to look to the life of Christ’s mother to understand that. I wish those here who speak about abortion would understand that abortion is the result of poverty, and if you don’t understand that you will not begin to deal with abortion.

      How long have we been pointing the finger at each other over this issue? Perhaps it is time to try a different approach. I believe that is what our nuns are doing. God bless.

  • digbydolben

    And there are plenty of women whose pain and suffering derives from being forced to bear children they did not want and whom they cannot support.

    I think that what the Catholic Church needs is a dose of modernist existentialist ethics on this question: the choice should be the woman’s, always, but she must understand that the choice to abort will always seem immoral to most members of her communion, and, therefore, when she opts for it of her own free will,as a grown, adult moral agent, she must be prepared to bear, alone, the consequences of her action.

    Meanwhile, the State has no business criminalizing it, or even regulating it, during the first trimester, and the Church has every right to brand it a “grave moral evil.”

    • Brian Martin

      So what part of this statement does not currently exist?
      Also, on what basis do you say the state has no business criminalizing it?

    • Julia Smucker

      Digby, you illustrate well MM’s point about where extreme individualism leads us. It all comes down to the right to autonomy, with the only moral duty being to leave well enough alone, even when life is at stake.

      • digbydolben

        Because it has not been proved to me to any degree that is sufficiently satisfactory that a foetus is a human person, I do not believe that the State has a right to call aborting it “murder.” Of course, I still consider it to be a heinously immoral act, but there are many heinously immoral actions that the State has no business criminalizing.

        • brian martin

          Digby, thanks for clarifying. Perhaps you can clarify how you determine what the state does have the right to regulate or criminalize?

          • digbydolben

            Two general principles: a) the state should only make laws that actually CAN be enforced; laws criminalizing abortions, contraceptions, addictions–even divorce–cannot be efficiently enforced, and, therefore, conduce to disrespect of the Legislator; and b) the only things that should be made criminal are those which obviously and clearly threaten members of the society as a whole.Murder does, abortion does not. By the same token: no laws against adultery, sodomy, masturbation, gambling, non-toxic drug use, pornography (except in cases of exposure to minors), etc.

  • Tim Muldoon

    Have a serious look at Women, Sex, and the Church, edited by Erika Bachiochi, a lay woman, an attorney, which includes essays by mostly lay women (and one professed religious). The new feminism that I see is primarily a lay feminism.

    • Nathan O'Halloran, SJ

      Thanks, I’ll check it out.

    • brettsalkeld

      I just read that and found it quite good.

  • SB

    I don’t understand the sorts of people who argue, “But how dare the CDF say anything bad about nuns — nuns do so many good works!”

    Well, Mormons do lots of good works too, but that doesn’t mean that the Church agrees with Mormon theology. Doing lots of good works in no way means that a putatively Catholic group’s presentation of the faith is therefore beyond reproach.

    As an analogy, imagine that the nuns’ group, instead of having speeches by New Agey quacks (at this year’s conference), was having speeches by people who said that the Church should declare another round of literal Crusades against Muslims. Should the Vatican keep silent just because the nuns were still doing good works?

  • Neil

    There’s much to like about this post. But I worry that it is a bit incomplete:

    1. It seems to suggest that Betty Friedan was a nun.

    2. It seems to discount the possibility that one can believe that there are serious problems in the LCWR and that the CDF’s doctrinal assessment was too vague (“radical feminism”) and insufficient to justify the appointment of an Apostolic Delegate, etc.

    3. It seems to suggest that questions of “feminine independence” aren’t being debated, interrogated, developed, etc., in feminist theology. Is this really the case? (For instance, see the Anglican priest Sarah Coakley’s Powers and Submissions [2002].) Have things really been frozen for “Catholic feminists” since 1966, when Sr Mary Aloysius Schaldenbrand gave that keynote address at a Planned Parenthood conference?

    4. It is true that at times abortion seems to go unmentioned. I believe that Robert Imbelli mentioned the absence of abortion in Elizabeth Johnson’s book in his review in Commonweal. This is problematic. But the root of the problem isn’t only in the LCWR, I think. Here are some problems with more “official” Catholic discourse:

    a. As the historian John McGreevy has written, perhaps until recently (or not) the church was vulnerable to claims that it paid insufficient attention to women’s experience. (As Paul Swope has written, for many women, an unplanned pregnancy “represents a threat so great to modern women that it is perceived as equivalent to a ‘death of self.'” This at least has got to be acknowledged.)

    b. Often “official” Catholic discourse hasn’t sufficiently disentangled a concern for the unborn from a concern about policing women’s sexuality – this might be inevitable given the institutional need to link abortion with contraception and premarital sex. Furthermore, at times, “official” Catholic discourse has related the opposition to abortion to certain theologies of gender, motherhood, etc., that could be considered problematic to some Catholic feminists.

    c. “Official” Catholic discourse hasn’t always appreciated what we might call the “difficulty” of abortion. There are two things here. First, even if abortion is seen as immoral and criminal, one has to recognize that carrying an unwanted child to term places a burden on women – “death to self” – that is unusual in a liberal, contractual society that exists to protect its citizens and their pursuits of happiness. Second, even if abortion is seen as immoral and criminal, one has to recognize that enforcing abortion laws will be difficult, if not impossible, given the likelihood of mass civil disobedience and the undesirability of a police presence in a maternal ward.

    Thus, a Catholic feminist who opposes abortion might feel like she has to go out of her way to show that she appreciates female experience, isn’t threatened by female sexuality, doesn’t adhere to a crude gender binary, and understands all the burdens involved. It might not be heroic to remain silent, but it can be considered understandable, right?

    I hope that I’m being fair. Thanks.

    • Nathan O'Halloran, SJ

      1. Thanks for the correction.

      2. I agree with you on this one. If this is all they have on the nuns, then they don’t have much.

      3. Things haven’t been frozen in the wider world of feminism, but they have been for many of these groups of sisters, who still live in the past. And in the wider Catholic world, they have become polarized between Theology of the Body feminism and Tina Beattie, et al. One embraces complementarity as foundational to authentic feminism, and the other rejects it as essentialist.

      4b. As you allude to here, I think a lot of the polarization has had to do with contraception. Because one side has linked abortion so closely to contraception, the other side has shied away from being outspoken on abortion to as to avoid appearing to condemn contraception and the new lifestyle that it has offered to women. This goes with the “policing” of sexuality.

      • Neil

        Thank you for your kind reply. (I should also thank Mike McG… for his very, very generous reply.) If you don’t mind, I’d like to ask three questions here:

        1. I suspect that you’re right about the importance placed on “complementarity” – the claim that “male” and “female” have some sort of ontological significance. Have the advocates of complementarity made a sufficient response to critics who ask for some – any – evidence for this claim and about the gender fluidity that seems to be present in the tradition (see Coakley’s work regarding gender fluidity)?

        2. I suspect that you’re also right about the linkage of abortion to contraception. Has there been any convincing evidence – that is, something like a peer-reviewed sociological study – that’s linked legalized contraception to the legalization of abortion? (Obviously, there are many pundits, etc, who suggest that contraception diminishes the “need” for abortion, but the historian John McGreevy has also suggested that the Catholic Church’s opposition to contraception actually hurt its political voice against abortion, because the church seemed alienated from women’s experience.)

        Let’s say that the polarization really is due to claims about complementarity and an abortion/contraception linkage. These claims are not necessarily wrong, but, at present, let’s say they are highly questionable, especially if the answers to 1 and 2 above are “no.” Shouldn’t a lot (perhaps most) of the burden for the polarization then fall on those making the still-dubious claims?

        Thanks again.

  • civicsgeeks

    feminism is an ideology

  • grega

    In my view we do not have “a Current Crisis of American Catholic Feminism” but
    rather we witness a crisis caused by reemergence of good old-fashioned male only power clericalism.
    The bishops particular here in the US take themself rather a bit too serious these days – which in a pluralistic society does not go over well with the general populace –
    IMHO we witness a bunch of rather pompous guys pontificating over a church they desperately try to bend backwards. A loosing preposition really.
    And yes if one looks just a bit deeper the underlying attitude of the bishops towards women is rather condescending.
    I know you mean well but your sly attempt to rope in the abortion issue is just another facet to this anchient male power game.


    This responds to SB: in my experience, the trend is to not take any position on the contentious issues; our priests minister to a a center-left congregation, never mention what our right-wing cardinal says (do not agree or disagree but instead ignore); and everyone goes about their business. Notablly, the cardinal seems not to care. It is like everyone is in parallel universes when it comes to belief and conduct. It reminds me of the movie where the computer runs all of the nuclear warfare scenarios and concludes: the only way to win the game is not to play.

  • Anne

    “I’ll admit that, unlike other groups, the LCWR has made every effort, and probably for good reason, not to ally themselves or even appear allied to the Republican Party. The shadow side of this decision has been a perceived silence and the questioning of whether they have done enough.”

    The sad truth is any group dedicated to serving the poor, the troubled, the marginalized, the alien, the old, the sick, etc., often finds itself at odds with the Republican party; effort is hardly required to avoid the appearance of being “allied.”

    On the other hand, the anti-abortion establishment can be hard to satisfy if you don’t think and act like a Republican these days. Take the case of Rep. Stupak, the pro-life Democrat who worked to deliver a health care reform bill pro-lifers would approve. What did he get for his hard work once the bill was passed? A Republican on the floor of the House called him a “baby killer.”

    Given their general MO, the sisters of the LCWR should probably just be glad the worst that was said is that they haven’t “done enough.”

  • Mike McG…

    Sometimes I am near despair at the inclination to think in binary categories accompanied by the incapacity to *understand* the positions that sharply diverge from one’s own. In this regard, Neil’s post is exceptionally refreshing. As he evidences, the reigning tropes of American Catholicism are neither the only nor the best ways of framing controversies. So, kudos to Neil.

    Apropos of Neil’s comment #2 above, it is possible to *both* understand why certain positions taken and ideas explored by LCWR might be regarded by the Vatican (and centrist Catholics) as beyond the pale, *and* to simultaneously understand why the LCWR (and centrist Catholics) deplore the doctrinal assessment.

    Neil’s comment #4 is also very helpful. Women religious have been and continue to be an extraordinary gift to a church whose bona fides regarding women’s issues are questionable to say the least. Secular feminism is in a state of severe tension with hierarchical Catholicism. Women religious are caught in the middle, compelled to navigate between two sets of warriors who’ve agreed that abortion rights is the field of battle. It ain’t easy.

    I think we’re called to understand multiple realities, however dissonant it may feel to hold them in mind simultaneously:

    a. Prolife Catholics are understandly hurt by and even angry at the generally tepid recognition of their project by many LCWR communities. The public scorn for prolife sensibilities expressed by a limited number of highly visible nuns has burned bridges. Who will rebuild them?

    b. LCWR communities are understandably hurt by and even angry at the scornful unbraiding they have received from Catholics aligned with the prolife movement and their friends in chanceries and the Vatican. Bridges have been burned needlessly. Who will rebuild them?

    c. The prolife movement insists that abortion is a moral abomination and must be proscribed absolutely and everywhere; any compromise of the right to life is a betrayal of the unborn. The prochoice movement insists that abortion is a personal choice and must be protected absolutely and everywhere; any compromise of the right to choice is a betrayal of women. While both movements have Catholic adherents, the truth is that the link between morality and legality is complicated and not given to bumper sticker slogan responses. Bernardin’s seamless garment approach offered a way forward. Who will follow?

    • Julia Smucker

      Mike: count this both/and, seamless garment, centrist Catholic all the way in!

  • Greg

    Too Late Nate foru your seemless garment.

    These liberal dissident orders of nuns will last about 5-10 years at most, for most of them!
    And the Jesuits in the USA are in a similar situation as the Nuns.

    A few years ago, a priest in my Archdiocese compile a book on the disaster of Vatican II….one of the large chapters dealth with religious life.

    That was in 2005 and he found that 99.9% of the femminist orders of nuns had declined by as much as 80% from what they were in 1964.

    For instance, before Vatican II, there were close to 100 USA Orders of sisters which had 1,000+ members. Today, there is 1 ! The Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondolet…barely at 1,225.

    Before Vatican II, there were 181,000 nuns in the USA. Today, there are barely 50,000. The median age of sisters in 1962 was 34. Today, it is 76. In some communities world wide, like the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, the average age approached 80!

    So you can see, they won’t last decades! Possibly 5 years as a viable community.
    Most orders of USA nuns are no longer viable communities at all. Most have such an aged community, that fully 75% of money and time is spent maintaining and caring for their elderly members who need specialized nursing care.

    IN 1962, 97% of teaching staff in Catholic parochial schools were nuns.
    Today, it is less than 2% !

    Before Vatican II, it was not uncommon for the larger communities of sisters (those at or over 1,000 members, and some who had membership in the 8oo’s to 900’s) to attract 100+ novices and postulants per year.

    Many orders back then still maintianed the European system of recieving postulants. The formation term for postulants was back then 6 months. So some orders took in as many as 100 girls as postulants in September. They proceeded to become novices in March, and the order recieved another 100 girls as postulants in March as well.

    But by the early 1960’s, most USA orders had adopted the American system of recieving ONE group of postulants in September.

    Nuns used to staff over 250 Catholic hospitals in the USA and another 150 nursing homes and other works of charity. Today, they still staff 5 hospitals!! That’s all. And many have closed because the nuns pulled out….just like thousands of parochial schools.

    These old embittered radical femminists have only about 5 years to whine for women priests and other liberal garbage.

    They destroyed their own religious orders after Vatican II.
    They deserve what they get.

    BY the way, don’t fall for the sob stories of giving money to help support “our elderly sisters”. These “elderly sisters” like Sister Joan Chittister,76 and Teresa Kane,76 and Donna Quinn,78…are the radicals who helped start the revolution that destroyed their Orders 50 years ago. All the nuns in their 80’s and 90’s now, are the administrators who in their early 50’s as Mother Superiors ushered in the “reforms” that wrecked their orders.

    • Anne

      Greg: “These old embittered radical femminists have only about 5 years to whine for women priests and other liberal garbage. They destroyed their own religious orders after Vatican II. They deserve what they get. BY the way, don’t fall for the sob stories of giving money to help support “our elderly sisters”. These “elderly sisters” like Sister Joan Chittister,76 and Teresa Kane,76 and Donna Quinn,78…are the radicals who helped start the revolution that destroyed their Orders 50 years ago. All the nuns in their 80’s and 90’s now, are the administrators who in their early 50’s as Mother Superiors ushered in the “reforms” that wrecked their orders.”

      Did it every occur to you that many of these elderly sisters are the faithful ones who didn’t abandon their vows when the troubles set in?

      Aside from that, I think you need to do MUCH more reading about the lot of religious women before before the reforms and during the 60s. Blaming everything on “dissident” nuns is lame; why would a wrongheaded few have such an enormous impact if all was well to begin with?