Donna Steichen, Ungodly Rage.  The Hidden Face of Catholic Feminism.  San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991, 420 pp, $21.50

Isn’t feminism a side issue for right-to-life supporters?

In this very revealing examination of Catholic feminism, Donna Steichen shows it isn’t.  In fact, the number of entries for abortion in the index is revealing.  What Steichen shows conclusively is that Catholic feminists are radical feminists first, and Catholics only secondarily, if at all.  They have the same coloration as secular feminists, and like the latter, they look on abortion as a woman’s right, a symbol of reproductive freedom.

Radical feminism

Many of their leaders, like Rosemary Ruether and Elisabeth Schussler Fioenza, were among the signatories to the notorious 1984 New York Times ad which denied that there is any binding Catholic teaching on  the morality of abortion.

Many more were among the thousand signers of the 1986 ad declaring solidarity with those who had signed the first one.

The reader of the book may be struck, however, by the fact that the feminist disease has particularly affected women’s religious orders.  Steichen writes that the misapplication of “the spirit of Vatican II” has been more profound among the sisterhoods than among any other groups.

Former sister

One former sister told her, “I left the convent because I couldn’t find anyone to pray with anymore.”  Other nuns abandoned their habits, anathematized subordination, and pressed for a reconstituted priesthood.  Moreover, Steichen writes, “They began to insist that non-marital sexual unions, abortions, contraception, homosexuality be declared licit, even among women vowed to chastity.”

The average Catholic will be shocked by such a statement; surely it cannot be true, surely there are nuns still in convents, still dressed in modified habits, still saying their prayers, still carrying out spiritual and charitable work in the service of the Lord.  Undoubtedly this is so.  But it is still true that nuns and former nuns have played leading roles in the radical feminist movement which defies the Church and rejects the moral authority.

The great watershed, here as elsewhere, was the dissent from the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae.  In 1969, Sister Margaret Ellen Traxler founded the small, but vocal group called the Coalition of American Nuns, growing more vociferous as time went by.  In 1982, she and Sisters Ann Patrick Ware, Donna Quinn and Deborah Barrett appeared on a Phil Donahue show to declare their opposition to Senator Hatch’s ‘states rights’ amendment against abortion.  Sisters Traxler and Quinn hold public celebrations each January 22 to commemorate the passing of the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.  Among the 96 sisters of the 1984 New York Times ad, there were twenty-four nuns, an astonishing number.


Still more astonishing is the defense of abortion provided by Sister Madonna Kolbenschlag as “a rational and complex act.”  Such a defense goes hand in hand with rejecting Church authority.  In a retreat she helped arrange in the spring of 1985, she explained that personal experience rather than authority ought to be the basis for decision making; it would enhance woman’s autonomy and increase her ability to “enter into a process of discernment” whereby she could make free choices such as the decision whether or not to continue a pregnancy.

A year and half later, at the Women in the Church conference held in Washington, Kolbenschlag explicated the Garden of Eden episode as signifying that woman was to be excluded from knowledge and power.  Then she drew the lesson for our own times in a mocking way; thing, she said, have not improved.

“So now we see what a seamless web this is: the Vatican preoccupation with contraception, abortion, female altar servers, ordination, nun’s habits and constitutions.  It’s all part of one piece!  It’s not about the mind of Christ…And the abortion controversy is not about life.  It’s about control over women’s sexuality and power!”


With some differences of emphasis, Ms. Steichen writes the characteristic marks of the ‘Catholic’ feminists are hostility to law (especially the teachings of the Church); defense of sexual libertinism, including contraception, abortion, homosexuality and unrestricted sexual expression; and political activism.

U.S. Bishops draft

Zeal for the last has replaced the former zeal for serving God and society in hospitals and schools.  The odd thing is that ‘Catholic’ feminists still retain a foothold within the Church – as speakers to Catholic groups, advisors, consultants and so on.

Approval of abortion has often been described by feminists themselves as the single decisive test of commitment to feminism; it ought also be an obvious test of non-commitment to Catholicism.  Yet in neither draft of their letter on women do the American bishops condemn feminism; in the second draft they actually praise it.

Summarizing the involvement of Catholic feminists in Catholics For Free Choice as a litmus test, Donna Steichen says she does regard it as such because abortion is indeed a watershed issue dividing the orthodox from the revolutionary.  No ‘dialogue’ can make traditional Catholics doubt the immorality of abortion; they may not understand the nuances of every question facing them today, but they do know that killing babies is wrong.

“Thus Catholics who offer public support for abortion clarify their status in the eyes of pro-life Catholics.   Beyond ambiguity, beyond sincere differences, beyond academic qualifications, beyond the labels of liberal or conservative, they stand revealed as utterly wrong.”  The Catholic feminist elite stands condemned.

Because of the capsule biographies of feminist leaders which it contains, descriptions of the groups they support and accounts of the conferences which they have held, this is a most useful book to possess, read, and refer to.  It brings the perspective of a sensible Catholic to bear upon a legion of women who require our prayers and sympathy but not our admiration or imitation.