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.