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What Do Feminists Want? Does the Bishop Know?
by Donna Steichen
Over the past two years, Touchstone and its readers have intelligently and charitably addressed the subject of women’s ordination, advancing and rebutting theories with such thoroughness that there seems little need to entertain further arguments for or against ordination, those against having, quite properly, triumphed.
Still, it seems useful to raise two practical questions, tangential to debate about the propriety of ordaining women but important to Roman Catholics trying to read the signs of the times in the light of faith. The first: Do religious feminists want women’s ordination? The second: Have Catholic leaders responded appropriately to feminist demands?
Do religious feminists want women priests?
It is common knowledge that a civil war is underway for control of the Roman Catholic Church in North America. Feminists are prominent among the rebels, and most Catholics assume they know why. Feminists, they think, are angry because they want to be priests, or at least want priesthood opened to other women, but are thwarted by a Church they see as oppressive, intransigent and misogynist. Because feminists keep saying so, even members of the hierarchy who ought to know better seem to believe this. But it isn’t true.
Catholicism, authentically lived, does not oppress women but liberates them. If, as the Catholic Magisterium maintains, Jesus Christ intended it, an exclusively male priesthood cannot be evidence of oppression because Jesus the God-Man cannot be an oppressor. Those who claim otherwise implicitly deny the most central of Christian doctrines, and so have no business clamoring for ordination. But oppression is not, in fact, what drives Catholic feminism, nor is longing for priesthood.
Admittedly, there are women who mistake some other impulse for a call from God and conclude that they must become priests. One example is Marianne Neisen, who after 18 years with the Franciscan Congregation of Our Lady of Lourdes in Rochester, Minnesota, asked her religious superiors for permission to remain a nun after her impending ordination as a Methodist minister. Her superiors denied her request, with apparent reluctance, but Sister Neisen went on to become Reverend Neisen anyway. At last report she was serving as pastor of two small churches in Montana. Her case surely is not the only one of its kind, but it seems to be rare; I could find no other to cite by name in Ungodly Rage. Women like Neisen are undeniably nontraditional, but they also may be devout and well-meaning. In any case, they are not representatives of the Catholic feminist movement, but exceptions to it, of a kind particularly alarming to feminist leaders. The truth is, the feminist movement doesn’t want priesthood, for its members or for anyone else; the movement is not striving for ordination but for the obliteration of priesthood. Anyone who examines the statements of feminist leaders over the past generation can find ample evidence that ordination is not their goal.
Consider, for example, Dr. Rosemary Radford Ruether, the best known tactician in the feminist movement, and one of the frankest. In her writings, she dismisses such essential Catholic doctrines as the Incarnation, the Virgin birth, Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist and even the immortality of the soul.1 For 20 years she has publicly expressed contempt for the theory and practice of priesthood. When WomenChurch held its first “convergence” in 1983, Ruether said in her address:
Most Roman Catholic women neither can nor wish to be ordained within priesthood as presently defined.2
In 1983, Mary Hunt became founder and co-director of Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual, better known as WATER, a group on the uttermost fringe of organized feminism. Hunt is not only a feminist theologian, but also a long-time director of the abortion lobby Catholics For a Free Choice (CFFC), a leader in the Conference for Catholic Lesbians, in the Women’s Ordination Conference, and WomenChurch Convergence. Of priestly ordination she said in 1987:
I suggest we forsake ordination into this horrendous system in favor of ministry on our own terms.3
WATER’s co-director, former nun Diann Neu, is a designer of rituals like one that appears in a current CFFC brochure, meant to affirm a woman’s choice of abortion. Her 1982 essay in the liberal theological journal, Concilium, declares:
Women would never want to celebrate Eucharist in the present hierarchical-patriarchal church guilty of the sin of sexism.4
Surely the national head of the Women’s Ordination Conference, at least, wants ordination for women? Not exactly. Ruth McDonough Fitzpatrick, who holds that post, explained in a 1993 newsletter editorial:
Ordination is not the answer, we need to make the connections and break open the patriarchal system before it destroys us and the whole church.5
These remarks, in and out of context, reveal important information about the campaign for women’s ordination. Clearly, the feminist movement does not want women to be ordained as male priests have traditionally been ordained. Its pro-ordination rhetoric is propaganda for a convoluted political strategy. Certainly nothing about it suggests any desire to take up a cross and follow more closely in Jesus’ steps.
The second revelation follows logically: feminists not only do not want their pro-ordination propaganda to succeed, they explicitly fear that success would result in a loss of revolutionary zeal through absorption into a priestly caste. Mary Hunt admitted this in a revealing 1987 interview, when she said:
Although it was a smart strategy to start talking about ordination, it would at this point be an experience of assimilation if women were to be ordained. . . . And that doesn’t mean any lessening of our pressure in terms of institutional change. . .6
The same caution has been heard from Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, a professor at Harvard Divinity School who is sometimes called Catholic feminism’s pre-eminent scholar (often by persons unacquainted with conditions prevailing at Harvard Divinity School). In a celebratory history of Catholic feminism, feminist Mary Jo Weaver offers a thumbnail review of Schüssler Fiorenza’s ideological evolution, reporting:
Because of her long standing commitment to declericalization and structural change within Roman Catholicism, (Schüssler Fiorenza) is wary of women seeking ordination within the present system and has been at pains to warn against a ‘new clericalism’ if ordination is sought without significant structural change.7
Anyone who doubts that these views are representative need only consider whether Rosemary Ruether or Diann Neu, for example, would be apt to urge that women take positions requiring obedience to bishops, or a celibate way of life.
Why, then, do feminists continue to storm about the exclusion of women from priesthood? Because as long as the campaign for traditional ordination does not succeed—and they are confident it will fail—it helps them accomplish their necessary next step. As in every revolution, the rebels must delegitimize established authority before they can overthrow it.
Painting the Church as misogynist and intransigent for refusing to abandon Judeo-Christian tradition by ordaining women helps discredit her in the eyes of a society with little taste for authority or respect for tradition. Feminists claim ecclesiastical rule is so rigid that they are impelled to mutiny. It is not rigid rule that provokes revolution, however, but its sudden relaxation; rebellion occurs when rules are eased, and intensifies when efforts to appease rebels are perceived as weakness.
The key to understanding feminism’s ultimate goal is the phrase “renewed priestly ministry.” Auxiliary Bishop P. Francis Murphy of Baltimore, who some years ago announced his conversion to feminism, confessed in a 1992 article that he is “personally in favor of the ordination of women into a renewed priestly ministry.”8 And Ruth Fitzpatrick of the Women’s Ordination Conference told reporters at the 1987 Women-Church Convergence:
The goal is not to have women ordained into the clerical state but to renew priestly ministry.
What that ambiguous term means is an end to priesthood understood as a consecrated body of men ordained by the Church, with the power Christ gave her, to make his sanctifying grace available to the faithful through sacraments that effect what they signify. The “renewed priestly ministry” that feminists seek in its place is ministry understood to originate in an autonomous community that temporarily appoints its own agents to perform ritual actions whose meaning is merely symbolic. Any role the Church might have in such a system would be similarly symbolic, a matter of endorsing what already had been done by the community. Congregational selection and validation would replace the priesthood chosen and ordained by the hierarchical Church. That is the meaning of those references to “declericalization and structural change” and “break[ing] open the patriarchal system.” As early as 1975, in an address to the first meeting of the Women’s Ordination Conference, Rosemary Ruether scoffed:
Women must demystify in their minds the false idea that priests possess sacramental ‘power’ that the community does not have.9
That point of view is no longer so rare among those who call themselves Catholics as to rate a shrug of dismissal. Feminists are prominent in the modernist insurrection, but they do not comprise its entire force. Many of their allies in dissent express equal antipathy for ordained priesthood and equal enthusiasm for congregationalism. Among these rebels are champions of process and liberation theology, promoters of abortion and “gay rights,” disciples of Creation Spirituality, environmental totalitarians, defrocked priests who seek reinstatement without repentance, zealots for romanticized Eastern spiritualism, Centering Prayer, the Enneagram and the Sufi “Dances of Universal Peace.” Not all these partisans are feminists first, but virtually all are sympathetic to feminism and, like feminists, skeptical or scornful of the basic tenets of the Catholic faith. So deep is their common distaste for patriarchy and hierarchy that they shrink from conceding even God’s superior authority; the chief appeal of process theology may be the controllable nature of a “God within.” The rebels insist on a right to invent their own reality. Legal freedom to pursue what the Church calls evil does not satisfy them; they demand that she join them in calling evil good.
Have Catholic authorities responded prudently to feminist demands?
The Church, of course, must tell them the truth; she cannot change reality to suit the sinner’s will. But however gently she puts her moral teaching, dissenters feel it as reproach, as if she were not describing the truth about existence, but creating it. Behind the endless rebel complaints about “the Vatican’s current teaching” is a suggestion that popes and bishops arbitrarily invented the moral law and could change it tomorrow if they would just be reasonable. Resentment of the Church’s inflexible rectitude soon blazes into hatred, and the rebels thunder the ancient cry of defiance, “I will not serve!”
So the war begins. The Church’s Magisterium has splendidly fulfilled her obligation to arm the faithful by enunciating the universal truths the rebels denounce. During his pontificate, Pope John Paul II has repeatedly affirmed the sanctity of human life, and issued such documents as Familiaris Consortio, on the rights and duties of Christian families; Mulieris Dignitatem, on the dignity and vocation of women; Veritatis Splendor, on the splendor and immutability of truth; and most recently, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, reaffirming the male priesthood.
But individual bishops, faced by rebellion in their own dioceses or national conferences, have not always stood equally firm. Feminists, in their campaign to discredit the Church, have had not only the predictable assistance of the media, but also the unlikely cooperation of their intended victims as well. Admittedly, bishops are disadvantaged on several counts: the feminists know they are engaged in political combat, but most bishops apparently don’t, and in any case are not practiced politicians but kind and often unworldly men, inclined to accept others at face value and to believe what they are told, anxious to relieve suffering. They also are anxious to avoid bad press.
Time after time, Church leaders capitulate before feminist offensives, rewarding insurgents with concessions while abandoning defenders of tradition. A recent example was the leaked letter from the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship stating that individual bishops may allow the use of women altar servers, an announcement imprudent at least because it validated the years-long disobedience of feminist sympathizers, betrayed faithful priests and laity who had resisted the practice, and so elevated expectations among women and girls who hope for ordination that the pope was compelled to follow up swiftly with the apostolic letter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, declaring definitively that “the church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women.” As was inevitable, the same feminist propagandists who had claimed victory in the altar girl affair now vehemently condemned the Church for failing to meet the expectations so recently raised.
Like other reasonable people, bishops tend to assume that integrity will compel those who separate themselves doctrinally, spiritually, and emotionally from Catholicism to remove themselves physically as well. That happened frequently in the past, when irreconcilable dissidents reluctant to depart might expect to be expelled by religious superiors. But public excommunications virtually ceased after the Second Vatican Council, just as a new wave of dissenters noted that the departure of previous separatists had relieved the Church of their troublesome presence without noticeably changing her. To make sure the current rebellion would have a different outcome, the new rebels decided they would not leave the Church. Instead, having ceased to believe in historical Christianity, they clung to their jobs in the Catholic bureaucracy to work from within as “transformative” agents. They call it “defecting in place.”10
To succeed, this strategy demands pragmatic dishonesty in those who employ it and credulous trust in those responsible for defending the Faith. It has had both. Feminist leaders continue to call themselves Catholics though they have come to hate the Church, the Scriptures, Jesus the male Redeemer, and God the Father. Feminist followers, at work in chancery offices, parish schools, retreat houses, and Catholic colleges, camouflage their subversive initiatives with public protestations of love for the Church. But 90 percent of those who attended the first meeting of the Women’s Ordination Conference were nuns, many of whom later abandoned their vows only to take lay jobs in the Church bureaucracy. Today, church employees and women religious make up the overwhelming majority in rebel organizations. Yet most Church authorities seem deaf or uncomprehending.
Few clerics seem able to believe that tenured scholars at Catholic universities, with whom they may share conference platforms, can be the same feminist theologians who invented a “goddess Sophia” in a mad attempt to replace the Holy Trinity. These feminist scholars are indeed lost sheep, who might have been prize winners if they hadn’t strayed into quicksand, leaped into tar pits, or contracted rabies. That the shepherds should want to rescue them is admirable, even Christ-like. But prudence is the queen of the virtues, and it is imprudent for a shepherd to sacrifice the normal to prove to the abnormal “how important they are to us.” The Good Shepherd does not “dialogue” fruitlessly with reprobates while they drive the rest of his sheep off a cliff. It is time for the bishops to shake the dust of feminism from their sandals and turn their attention to the flocks they were given to tend. The Church is not debating an abstract theory; she is fighting a deadly war. Short of direct divine intervention, she cannot win it unless her legitimate authorities will weed out the subversives who hold influential posts in their own institutions.
1. Rosemary Radford Ruether, Sexism & Godtalk, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1983). Re Jesus, see pp. 116–122; 134–138. Re life after death, see pp. 257–258.
2. Rosemary Radford Ruether, Women-Church (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985), p. 67.
3. Mary Hunt, in the address to the Women’s Ordination Conference Awards Dinner, reported in New Women/New Church, May/June 1987.
4. Diann Neu, “Our Name is Church: The Experience of Catholic-Christian Feminist Liturgies,” Concilium, no. 152 (1982): 75–84.
5. Ruth Fitzpatrick, editorial, New Women/New Church, Winter 1993.
6. Mary Hunt in Inside Stories, (Mystic, Connecticut: 23rd Publications, 1987), p. 132.
7. Mary Jo Weaver, New Catholic Women, (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985), p. 161. Ms. Weaver teaches Religious Studies at the University of Indiana, Bloomington.
8. Bishop P. Francis Murphy, “Let’s Start Over,” Commonweal, Sept. 25, 1992.
9. At the first meeting of Women’s Ordination Conference, Detroit, 1975. Quoted in Mary Jo Weaver, New Catholic Women, p. 113.
10. The phrase was coined by a feminist theologian, Sister Miriam Therese Winter, who teaches at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut.