Feminism's broad agenda within the Catholic Church

Feminism's broad agenda within the Catholic Church

Donna Steichen

The demand for women's ordination, highlighted by a recent conference in Dublin of Women's Ordination Worldwide, with its New Age-style liturgies, focuses attention on the broader issue of Catholic feminism.

While many who support women's ordination do not subscribe to the broader agenda of Catholic feminism, it is still timely to highlight it and describe what it is.

Contrary to popular belief, it is not aiming simply at seeking equity for exploited women religious. It is not even 'just' a campaign for women priests. Feminist trail-blazer, Rosemary Ruether, Professor of Applied Theology at Garret Evangelical Seminary in Evanston, Illinois, says in her book, Women-Church, "Most Roman Catholic women neither can nor wish to be ordained in priesthood as presently defined." And keynote speaker, Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, of Harvard Divinity School, told a 20th anniversary gathering of Women's Ordination Conference that women must refuse to join the Church's oppressive "kyriarchy."

Mary Hunt, founder of the radical Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (WATER), said in her essay in Inside Stories, "It was a smart strategy to start talking about ordination," but for women to actually be ordained would "risk assimilation."

Even Sister Joan Chittister, while demanding female priesthood, has said that the discipleship she advocates is neither ordination "in a clerical social club called a Church" nor "an intellectual exercise of assent to a body of doctrine."

If Catholic feminism is not a campaign for priesthood, then what is it? It is one division in a broad revolution within the Catholic Church.

The revolution is named "neo-modernism" for its 19th century antecedent. Rooted in Enlightenment philosophy by way of "demythologising" German Protestant biblical scholarship, modernism rejected the possibility of authentic Divine Revelation. Religious impulses, it taught, are an expression of human psychology, and what is called "revelation" is man's reflection on experience.

Condemned by Pope Pius X in 1907, modernism survived underground, especially among dissenting European theologians.

During the Second Vatican Council, when change was expected, they successfully reasserted it as an unwritten "spirit of Vatican II." Holding that truth changes with the times, neo-modernism denies the doctrines of Original Sin and the divinity of Christ. Today its agenda highlights doctrinal and moral autonomy, especially in regard to sexual matters.

When the winds of change blew through the Catholic world after the Council, some of the consequences were injurious. Not every change implemented a conciliar decree.

Some were novelties interpolated by ecclesial bureaucrats who thought the Council Fathers had not gone far enough. If challenged, innovators would claim "the spirit of Vatican II" as their authority. The damage to the Church in the past thirty-five years was more often caused by that illegitimate "spirit" than by the Council.

All Catholics suffered from neo-modernism, but none suffered more than women religious. Nuns were most vulnerable because their vocation, the following of Christ, was the totality of their lives. They lived the virtue of obedience in a tightly-structured system. When the system was rashly dismantled and the faith that maintained it deliberately undermined, docile obedience tragically hastened their collapse. Few seemed able to sift the errors out of the "new theology" presented in re-education classes and workshops. Many lost the faith to which they had given their lives, and "historical-critical" Scripture criticism was the reason most commonly given.

Without belief, sacrificial religious life made no sense. Nuns came to see themselves as victims of a Church that had deluded them in order to exploit their labour. Their love for her sometimes turned to hatred. But because human beings must believe in something, feminist witchcraft and New Age occultism often sprouted in its place, like thistles in an empty field.

In a 1997 address, Sister Sandra Schneiders, Professor of Christian Spirituality at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, California, told the Leadership Conference of Women Religious that today's shrinking religious communities are really being led by the Spirit, out of the medieval worldview of Aristotelian Thomism, into the postmodern worldview of chaos theory, where they are developing a "spirituality without religion."

Fiery demands for priestly ordination are standard at many women's ordination events, but rhetorical analysis reveals that they have little to do with any woman's desire to serve as curate of St Margaret's parish church down the street, or to serve anywhere at the bidding of a bishop.

Real objective

The real objective is a "renewed priestly ministry." That term requires definition.

The kind of priesthood feminists seek is not the present clerical model. Basic to their "new model" is an end to celibacy, to the criterion of maleness, and to the hierarchical order. In plain English, that would mean not only women priests but married priests, actively homosexual priests, and temporary priests, all selected by their communities and later - perhaps - formally consecrated by Church authorities.

These "renewed" priests would choose their own jobs independently of a bishop, teach a theology suited to their own tastes, free of any mandatum, live their own way. Nothing obligatory would mark them as Catholics.

What feminists want, in other words, is a priesthood entirely separate from the Roman Catholic Church. For that they need no Vatican permission; they need only willing candidates. But demand seems low. The same faces at many of their conferences show that this is by no means a mass movernent, just an influential one.

Donna Steichen is the author of 'Ungodly Rage: The Hidden Face of Catholic Feminism' and 'Prodigal Daughters: Catholic Women Come Home to the Church'. She lives in California. Her article first appeared in 'The Irish Catholic.'

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