The Current Crisis of Catholic Feminism

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.

17 Responses to The Current Crisis of Catholic Feminism

  1. Douglas says:

    How old was the pastor who attacked the Vatican for their “attack?” My guess is at least 50. I’ve personally known a dozen or so young women who have become religious sisters over the past decade. I don’t think any of them have a problem with what the Vatican is doing.

    This strikes me more as a generational disconnect than anything else. The old nuns and their way of heterodoxical religious life are dying off with their orders turning over more and more of their ministries to laity while young religious sisters and vibrant orders are decidedly in the corner of the Vatican on this one.

  2. He is actually more in his late 30’s or early 40’s I think. However, he is from Ireland, which mixes things up a little.

    In general though I agree with you that in large part it is a “generational disconnect.”

  3. Douglas says:

    I just looked up Elizabeth Johnson of Fordham. She was born in 1941! That makes her old enough to be my grandmother and the great grandmother to my kids.

    What’s truly sad is how sisters like her drive young people away from religious life. As a professor, she is constantly surrounded by young women considering what to do with their lives, yet people like her drive them away. What a contrast to the witness of Mother Assumpta Long, OP; Mother Ann Marie, OP; Sr. Catherine Caldwell, TOR; and Mother Agnes Mary, SV. to name a few religious superiors whose way of life seems quite attractive to young women (at least those I know).

    • gowrite says:

      This moves beyond simply ignorant, juvenile blowing of hot air; it’s really sinfully calumnous. If you are offering the readers anything in the ballpark of true information, as opposed to mean-spirited calumny, I really must insist that you immediately post three examples that you know to be true wherein Sister Elizabeth Johnson has “driven away” young women. If you cannot name three examples, then you are seriously bound to acknowledge your calumny. If readers are going to take anything you say seriously, now’s the time to man up, little boy.

      • I didn’t claim that Elizabeth Johnson has “driven” anyone away. I noted a lamentable silence, in my opinion, on the question of abortion.

        • gowrite says:

          I know that you didn’t. That’s why I posted as a reply under Douglas’ posting. Sorry for any confusion. My reply was made for him, who most definitely DID claim that Sister Elizabeth Johnson has driven away young women from religious life. I really object to this sort of slander in your blog.

      • Douglas says:


        I stand by my assertion that religious sisters like Elizabeth Johnson drive potential vocations away. Like I said earlier, I have personally known a dozen plus young women who have joined various religious orders in the last 11 years (as long as I’ve been a Catholic). All of them look at sisters who won’t speak up about abortion and write off their orders as one’s they would never join (and didn’t, as a matter of fact).

        If you don’t believe me about sisters who are wishy-washy about standing up for life driving away vocations, I would strongly suggest you go out and talk to young women who have recently joined a religious order. I’ve done this in the last month with a 19/20 year old woman at my parish who had joined a convent, and I highly recommend it. You will find that young women are looking for a brighter light than religious like Sr. Elizabeth Johnson are casting.

        Young men and women are attracted to bold, faithful Catholicism. If they don’t see it, they are much less likely to be willing to make the tremendous sacrifices necessary to become a priest or enter religious life. It is no coincidence that only 10% of women religious being scrutinized by the Vatican are under the age of 60 and a majority of those women are in their 50s.
        Compare that to my sister-in-law’s order where the average age is in the mid-twenties.

        Douglas Coombs

      • Gowrite,

        Douglas did provide some names, but I have removed them, since I would rather not encourage that type of discourse on this site.


        I would rather not edit a comment, but felt compelled to in this case.

        • Douglas says:

          Nathan, I think I understand why you would edit out the names, but why edit out the part about priestly vocations? Probably the edited comment is more concise and to the point, but typically comments don’t get edited for conciseness.

  4. Douglas says:

    Sorry, I just saw your response. Late 30s or early 40s seems young for views like that. Are there many American-born Jesuits that age who share his views?

  5. kim/nannykim says:

    “Feminism” has such bad connotations for me that I do not like the use of it for Catholic women.

    • That’s unfortunate I think, since John Paul II also used it happily. I understand the bad connotations. But it does bring something new and original to women’s anthropology I think.

  6. arbutustree says:

    In the midst of all this “that terrible women’s equality ruining our lovely patriarchal Church” stuff, lets remind ourselves that misogynism does far more to drive people away from the church than feminism….

    Not to say that the original entry was in that spirit – I was very heartened to read an endorsement of Catholic feminism on this site.

  7. kim/nannykim says:

    I guess I could agree with the concept of the “new feminism”–which includes the complementary aspects of men and women. I do not like how some of the earlier feminist thinking basically tried to eradicate the proper differences in men and women and the beauty this entails.

  8. I’ve wondered the same thing: I.e., why an issue so critical to women as abortion is off the table when older women (nuns or not) get together. Since I’m over 60, I can speak for the boomers who are pretty darned tired of being told by ‘feminists’ what we’re supposed to think about the “male” Church, pelvic issues etc. I’ve done my best to encourage young women with religious vocations to join orders which are faithful to Church teaching (& that would include JPII’s teaching) over the years & I’m happy to say several are now young, happy nuns!

  9. Dear Nathan,
    May I know how to get the Vatican’s document putting LCWR under receivership? Thanks very much.
    Vic Badillo SJ

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