The philosophy governing feminism in Canada has been explored briefly in two early articles on “Feminism’s basic values” (The Interim, October and November 1985).
This “ideological” and secular feminism (the Latin secula means “world”) of Simone de Beauvoir, Kate Millett, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Germaine Greer, et al., is a struggle for rights, equality and power. Its underlying philosophy is that of alienation between man and woman. Thus it seeks autonomy for woman in the fullest sense possible, if necessary despite her biological nature of child bearer. In daily life, therefore, the hinge on which progress depends, it is thought, is the acquisition of “freedom of choice,” especially freedom of “reproductive choice.” If women can overcome their biological dependency on man, true freedom will have been achieved.
Feminism has also won adherents among Christians who have turned their attention to the role of women within the various religious communities. The most aggressive of these proceed from the same principles as their sisters in society at large.
The connection between secular feminist thought and feminist groups within the Roman Catholic Church has been touched upon earlier in New York Times of October 7, 1984, entitled “A Diversity of Opinions Regarding Abortion Exists among Catholics.” Hence the articles: “Pro-abortion Catholics?” (February 1985); “Pro-abortion feminists and nuns” (May 1985); and “Nuns and ideological feminism” (October 1986).
Christian feminists have adopted the same method of consciousness-raising as their secular sisters. The tool employed is the telling of history, renamed “herstory.” Story-telling sessions which dwell on past and present hurts are designed to produce anger, notes Cornelia Ferreira in “The feminist agenda within the Church” (which will be available soon as a pamphlet from Life Ethics Center, Toronto). In an expanded form, the present experiences of women are combined with rewritten history – including biblical history – to show that women have always been oppressed. As William Oddie observes in his book What will happen to God? Feminism and the Reconstruction of Christian Belief (London, 1984), a sense of grievance is established merely by repeating the claim to grievance itself. This generates anger which, in turn, leads to an atmosphere of alienation.
As a consequence of this induced anger a number of feminists have left the Catholic Church. Some have joined Christian faith communities which they perceive to be more open to the winds of change. Others have gone further afield and are now pursuing Goddess mythologies and liturgies, surrendering themselves to pagan rituals which had been dead and buried for centuries or which survived only on a subterranean level in esoteric literature. Astonishing as it may be, even witchcraft is gaining popularity among them.
A further group of feminists remains within the Church seeking to bring about change from within.
Meanwhile, many ordinary women are puzzled by much of this, wondering why they have never experienced this “oppression” by the Church about which they hear so much, but which never seems to be spelled out.
It is only with programs such as the Green Kit, the women’s discussion materials approved by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) on advice of an Ad Hoc Women’s Committee, that they sometimes allow themselves to be drawn into story-telling sessions. These self-revelation sessions serve the same function and appear to have the same outcome as the self-examination, group therapy sessions of the period immediately following the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), namely the inducement of anger. These gatherings led a number of priests and nuns to abandon their vocations, presumably after discovering that the institutions to which they belonged were restrictive of their personalities.
Story-telling sessions place the emphasis on unburdening oneself. Emotion and feeling, therefore, are the dominant mood, enhanced sometimes by a mood-creating environment. Meanwhile, a rational questioning of people’s motives or a critical analysis of the stories themselves is ruled out of order. Those who refuse to go along are looked upon as poor benighted individuals who, as yet, have not been liberated from their dependencies.
Feminist activists within the Catholic Church in Canada are proceeding in a similar way by introducing these “consciousness-raising” meetings at the parish level, made so much easier now that they feel free to claim the approval of the CCCB in Ottawa for what they are doing.
One tool currently much employed is the movie Behind the Veil: Nuns, produced by women’s Studio D of the National Film Board. One reviewer begins her review as follows:
“The film Behind the Veil: Nuns has fleeting moments of scenic beauty and religious insights, but otherwise it is an unremitting tale of woe, a tale of suppression of women and the tyranny of men. Reflecting the bias of its producers, the feminist wing of the National Film Board, it portrays nuns as all-wise and all-virtuous and priests as unenlightened and villainous. In fact, the only male to escape unscathed is Jesus himself. His mother, on the other hand, is the only woman in the whole story to be treated unkindly, because she is seen as “the ever-serving passive female.”
“The film is narrated by its writer, Gloria Demers, with a little help from some of her friends. These friends are the women in the film who – with the exception of one Irish nun – are all Americans, the most vocal being the Dominican sisters Sue Secker and Donna Quinn. Sister Quinn is the past-president of the National Coalition of American Nuns. Cast as heavies in the story are Pope John Paul “for his ultra-conservative views on contraception and sexuality” and Saints Jerome, Augustine and Aquinas because of some indiscreet comments they made about women hundreds…of years ago. (Peggy McIsaac, Canadian Catholic Review, October 1985).
Part of Behind the Veil is devoted to eulogizing the pre-Christian Celtic Druids with their supposedly noble priestesses and female deities, all, it is firmly suggested, cruelly suppressed by a patriarchal Christian Church inspired by its sexist prejudices towards women. As if this travesty of history is not enough, even the hoary myth of a Pope Joan is resurrected as true, suppressed, of course, by sexist male celibates.
Before going further let us note first that theology in general has, as its reason for being, the idea that there are always new aspects to be discovered and insights to be gained from revelation, even though this revelation itself was complicated at the end of the apostolic age. Consequently, theological investigation of the place of women in revelation and salvation history is perfectly justified.
Moreover, such an investigation comes naturally enough at a time when women are acquiring greater confidence about their roles in society at large. Such theological reflection may well prove necessary in developing a better grasp of the role of both women and men in the meaning of sexuality in general.
Before Vatican II the term used was the theology of woman, analogous to such subjects as the theology of grace, or of the sacraments, or of any other “theme” or theological subject. Only in the sixties was this term replaced by “feminist theology.” The question which Cardinal Simonis of Holland raised in a 1986 article was: Does this change of name indicate a shift of content as well?
The answer is yes. Feminist theology sees itself in the same category as political theology or theologies which attempt to develop a new attitude towards the whole of Christian revelation. Theologies, in other words, which seeks a radically new interpretation of the “depositum fidei,” the deposit of faith. In such endeavors it is possible – indeed probably unless great care is exercised – to take the part for the whole and thus misinterpret or deform Christian faith itself.
Let us ask, therefore, three basic questions, and answer them from within the feminist theology itself.
– What is the direction of feminist theology?
– Does it accept the deposit of faith as held by the Church?
– How does it relate to the Church?
The direction of much feminist theology may be gauged well enough from t hose who express it in popular language.
In March 1984, at an Ottawa conference on “Women and Roman Catholic New Visions,” a Sister, a teacher of theology, stated that women “shouldn’t be dictated to by all male celibates.” A week or so later, at a similar kind of conference in Toronto, a second Sister, also a teacher of theology, was reported by the papers as having said: “the greatest sin of the Roman Catholic Church is the sin of patriarchy.” Another participant in the same conference objected to what she called “relics based on sexism,” such as referring to God as “Heavenly Father.”
A third feminist teacher of theology, Elizabeth Lacelle, a former nun, at a third conference in March 1984, this one in Kitchener, Ontario, asserted that the patriarchal, authoritative structure of the church is not evangelical. It does not reflect service and communion but power and division. Here one sees how the rejection of patriarchy comes to include the rejection of the hierarchy. As modern society has abolished monarch and aristocracy, so should the Church abolish the hierarchy, it is thought.
The same idea was put forward by theology professor Joanne Dewart at the same conference, when she asserted that “today’s Roman Catholic Church after two centuries of western democracy, deliberately retains a monarchical model, and in that church the laity are seen as passive recipients…”
Aside from her remark about the laity, which ignores the primary task of all church members for personally seeking holiness, the implication of this statement is that the structure of the Church is a purely sociological or cultural phenomenon and can be changed at will.
At the time of this Kitchener conference, Lacelle was head of the above mentioned Canadian Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Women. Before being appointed to this position she had made it clear that in her opinion “women have a long history of not being taken seriously by a male hierarchical church” and that if they cannot be ordained priests “they are excluded from making decision on the whole life of the Church.”
Other charges heard more recently include the following:
– that the patriarchal system of the Roman Catholic Church that treats women unequally is similar to South Africa’s apartheid system;
– that women are offered two roles in the Church, that of Mary and that of Eve; the former places her on a pedestal, the latter in the gutter;
– that as the Church “affirms patriarchy as the will of God,” women can only have a minor role;
– that the patriarchal structures of the Church are unfaithful to the gospel and enforce a kind of obedience, which we moderns, since the Holocaust, have come to distrust;
– that men do not understand and cannot speak for women;
– and finally, that “the new theology will be revolutionary because it must include women’s experiences, which is a new ingredient…”
I could go one, but I won’t.
Some people, while acknowledging that this sort of accusation may be annoying, do not think they should be taken too seriously. But those who make these charges are very serious indeed. My purpose here is to show that what is being said is expressed in secular language and secular concepts – language and concepts which are radically inappropriate in the context of a divinely-related religion.
A brief analysis of each of these statements would show that they represent an important deformation of the faith. The charge, for example, that “women shouldn’t be dictated to by all male celibates” may sound simple, but it represents a four-fold rejection. It rejects the manner the Church is structured (dictatorial), the nature of the priesthood (male), and a highly recommended state of life (celibacy). By implication, it denies the belief that the first two characteristics are of divine origin and by will of the Savior.
It is not as if those who make these accusations are doing so out of ignorance. On the contrary, those who say these things come from among the best educated Catholics, many of them having studied theology at university. One may go further and state that the most aggressive feminists within the Church seem to be associated with Schools or Faculties of Theology, finding a particular focus of strength in the “Women for Ordination” movement.
In English-speaking Canada, feminist activity has its center in the Catholic Faculties of Theology of the Toronto School of Theology, St. Michael’s and Regis. The School’s other Faculties, of course, represent religious communities which have made secular feminism and moral permissiveness part of their official stance.
With the above in view, how does one answer the question “What is the origin and direction of this kind of feminist theology?” The answer must be that it has transferred the false sense of male female alienation of secular feminism into the realm of the Church, bringing with it the same mistaken interpretations of equality, power and sexism.
To the question: Does feminist theology accept the deposit of faith as held by the Church? the answer is: No. The Bible is seen as deformed, sexist and requiring re-interpretation. The concept of God is deformed, it is said, though a patriarchal imposition of God as Father and God as Son and all the other masculine designations such as Lord, King, Judge, Shepherd. These terms are to be replaced.
Similarly, the understanding of Jesus as Son of God is said to be patriarchal and, therefore, unacceptable. Christolatry is a form of patriarchal idolatry. To be saved from sin means to overcome original sin, which is sexism, and this cannot be accomplished by the purely masculine symbol of Jesus as we have it today.
With regard to the manner of changing the God image, solutions from the more extreme feminist theologians range between those who seek the feminization of the divine and those who seek the divinization of the feminine. The first group has developed elaborate theories, making much, for example, of feminine nouns used for the Holy Spirit, in Greek (pneuma) and in Hebrew (ruah), and thus they speak of “She” and “God our mother.” In the second group, some feminists do the opposite with the image of the Virgin Mary of what most feminists have done. Instead of declaring the Virgin as an utterly impossible and irrelevant model for women – one presumably projected by patriarchal misogyny which denounced everything female and sexual as bad – they elevate her and add her as a fourth person to the Holy Trinity. Neither group is capable of a balanced understanding of the role and importance of Mary, the Mother of Jesus.
Finally, the last question: How does feminist theology see the Church? The answer is: in a way unacceptable to Catholic theology. As on other subjects, the thinking is dominated by a male-female, oppressor-oppressed, powerful-powerless syndrome which now makes the Church the enemy, the last bastion of male superiority, one which a number of feminists have rejected and abandoned already.
Others, still within the Church, consider the question of ordination the great litmus test. They see it as a right which must be given to women in order to end their oppression and discrimination within the Church’s power structure. Some demand, at the same time, a so-called “declericalization” of the priesthood, including the abolition of celibacy.
While much of feminist theology is esoteric and remains restricted to exclusive circles, many false ideas have been given widespread circulation in the popular press. For example, in September 1984, at the time of the Pope’s visit to Canada, a Chatelaine magazine article entitled “Women versus the Pope,” carried remarks such as these:
“The idea of woman as evil, the fallen woman, Eve, the temptress, is very, very deeply rooted in our theology,” says Sister Diane Bridges. “Woman is the vessel, the fertile ground that receives the seed, and therefore she is treated like dirt.”
After explaining that “in North America, we are at a very different place culturally” (by this she meant from where the Polish Pope comes from), the same Sister states:
“It is a reformation. We have to rethink the whole thing. The Church is not the hierarchy, the church is the people of God. Leadership comes from below, for service: it does not dominate. The people themselves call priests to the priesthood.” (Emphasis by magazine)
It should not be thought that any of these opinions are original. They are repetitions of what has been said by others. The last observation, for example, is based on the theory promoted by some theologians that baptism, which of course is received by all members of the Church, bestows the fullness of grace required for all ministries in the Church, including the priesthood now reserved for those “ordained.”
In the same Chatelaine article of September 1984, Anita Birt, organizer for Canadian Catholics for Women’s Ordination (CCWO), is quoted as stating: “I object to any group of men making rules for women.” Earlier, Miss Birt, a pastoral counselor, also vehemently objected to the “Dare to be a Priest” billboard put up in Toronto during a vocation drive for the priesthood. And at a June 1984 CCWO weekend at Loretto College, Toronto, the papers quoted her advocating the strategy of pressuring the Church by withholding money from parishes on Sundays. In February 1981, she rehashed the old charges in an article for the Globe and Mail, a newspaper only too happy to oblige.
The September 1984 article of Chatelaine also freely quoted from Mary Malone, at that time still a professor of Church history at Toronto’s St. Augustine’s Seminary and the School of Theology.
“Women’s role is often reduced to no more than propagating the race,” sighs Dr. Mary Malone. “There is nothing in the Bible that says this must be true. It’s a patriarchal tradition. The church took over a social structure and interpreted it as God’s will. Now we’re told God wants it that way. Patriarchal tradition has been given a theological basis.”
A few months before the Canadian visit of the Pope, in May 1984, 1,700 Quebec women demanded to be recognized as what they called “complete human beings.” “We want to live fully our rights and responsibilities as daughters of God,” they stated. One of the spokespersons was described as a member of the Christian feminist group L’autre Parole. Two months later, in another report about Quebec women in the Church, the same group, L’autre Parole, was described as “an organization which has worked to maintain or save abortion committees in Quebec hospitals and women’s groups in their protests to bishops over the abortion issue.”
Immediately before the Papal visit itself, petitions were circulated for women who chose “to speak out against the anti-woman laws” of Catholicism. The group issued a statement accusing the Catholic Church of having “perpetuated the oppression of women in all countries, denying our right to sexuality and pleasure and condemning us to give birth to children whether we want to or not.”
This brings me to a final observation regarding feminist theology. Its practitioners are disinterested in the defense of the family. One may go further and note how leading feminist theologians of Catholic background have joined the pro-abortion, anti-life, anti-family movement with public statements of support. Take, for example, the three acknowledged American Catholic feminist theologians Mary Daly, Rosemary Ruether and Elizabeth Schussler-Fiorenza.
Mary Daly defended abortion in the late sixties. She left the Church in the early seventies. Today her “theology,” if we may call it that, is hailed especially by lesbians.
Of the other two, Rosemary Ruether has scorned the teaching authority of the Church for many years. In 1967, in her book The Church against Itself, she projected the thesis that “the spirit which founds the institutional Church and serves as its trustee is, by definition, not the Hagion Pneuma of Pentecost, but a time-serving spirit which belongs to the world.” In 1986 Ruether joined the Humanae Vitae dissenters and, ever since, has not had the slightest hesitation taking the opposite position of the Church on any issue under dispute, be it moral or doctrinal.
The signatures of both Ruether and Fiorenza were among the 15 leading names in the now famous or notorious New York Times abortion advertisement of October 1984. This ad was organized by Catholic “theologian” Marjorie Maguire’s Catholics for Choice, who used the presidential elections and the pro-abortion voting record of vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, to make hay. The 15 names were accompanied by 82 additional ones, of which 24 belonged to nuns.
That Catholic feminists continue to fight their war for full autonomy from Church teaching was made clear again at the annual awards dinner of the Women’s Ordination Conference in the United States in February 1987. Among the one man and six women receiving rewards for being “prophetic” were Fr. Charles Curran, dissenting moral theologian, whom the Vatican has designated as “unsuitable to teach Catholic theology”; Sisters Patricia Hussey and Barbara Ferraro, two of the 24 New York Times nuns who have reiterated their rejection of their Church’s and on abortion; and lay woman Mary Hunt and Sister Diann Neu, co-directors of the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual. Hunt is a lesbian who gave the major address on that subject to the November 1986 Chicago Conference, sponsored by Chicago Catholic Women. (The conference was entitled “Spirituality, Sexuality and Survival in Our Churches.” One of its organizers was Sister Donna Quinn.) Neu is a promoter of feminist liturgies and considers “heterosexism” as an expression of the sin of “patriarchal sexism.”
One may also recall how in August 1985 Sister Theresa Kane called for “bonding and solidarity” between feminists and the homosexual community to oppose the “idolatries” of authoritarianism, sexism, militarism, racism and imperialism. Sister Kane gained international prominence in 1979 when she publicly confronted Pope John Paul II in Washington with a call for women’s ordination.
When one removes the rhetoric and disgusted argumentation, most church feminists appear to have only one basic argument: In society today women can occupy the highest offices in the land; hence they ought to be able to do so in the Church. Either this requires ordination, they say, so that women can achieve full equality with men within the hierarchical structure; or it requires the replacement of the hierarchical structure with a democratic community under which men and women are equal.
The Catholic Church responds by pointing out that the premise is incorrect. Secular society and ecclesiastical society, state and Church, are two very different entities. The one will pass away, the other already marks the beginning of the Kingdom of God which will never pass away. The one is transitory; the other is the body of Christ even though that part consisting of the living human members is still on pilgrimage searching to adapt themselves more fully to The Way, The Truth and The Life. The nature of this body, even in its temporal aspects of origin, structure, and goal, is divinely willed and divinely designed. A true understanding of any part of it or of any role whether of the individual or the group, must therefore come from within its own value structure, not from without by means of a secular i.e., worldly, understanding.
“The hidden wisdom of God…is wisdom that none of the masters of this age have ever known…” (1 Cor. 2.)
The Church also insists that a priesthood restricted to men just as much as God’s design of male and female has nothing to do whatever with discrimination, or inequality, or superiority and inferiority.
Next issue: The Church, Ordination and the Mission of Women.
Father Alphonse de Valk, C.S.B., is a Catholic priest and a member of the Congregation of St. Basil.