The Call to Dissent 

by Adele-Marie Stan


This piece originally appeared in the December 1985 issue of Ms. magazine.

Their Christian values compel them to challenge the church, say Catholic feminists.

It is a church rife with powerful and mysterious symbols, symbols that have, throughout the ages, captured the imaginations of even those from other religious traditions. Artists and writers have long been intrigued by the Roman Catholic Church with its taboos and secrets, and the church has always provided the world with entertaining theater; its secret sensuality--the smell of the incense, the taste of the wafer, the sound of its glorious music, the elaborate settings of its altars, the silk and velvet vestments--provides the means through which the congregants are seduced from childhood. Yet despite the ceremonial indulgence, it remains an institution that makes grave distinctions between the needs of the spirit and the flesh.

The church is an immensely wealthy institution that counts among its faithful many of the world's poorest citizens. It is an institution that has come, in recent years, to speak out against racial discrimination, yet it denies full participation in its structure more than half of its faithful on the basis of gender. And those excluded on this basis compose the bulk of the poor to whom the church claims to be committed;it is they who suffer the results of the church's highly restrictive policies on human sexuality. The pervasive duality of the church on issues of human dignity has led to what may well be the most dramatic challenge faced by its leaders in modern history--the challenge of its women.

Mutually exclusive?
There are many who ask if it's possible to be both a feminist and a Catholic; indeed about a million and a half practicing Catholic women do not attend church regularly, according to a survey by the National Opinion Research Center, because they apparently feel that the church isn't really theirs. Yet the American Catholic Church is still made up of more women than men, and among those who have stayed are some ardent feminists. To them, the question of whether or not one can embrace both Catholicism and feminism makes little sense. After all, American feminists have long fought for participation in this country's political system, even though democratic institutions have, throughout history, discriminated against and oppressed women.

"You look at the younger women," says Sister Margaret Ellen Traxler. "They're either getting out or they're staying in and they're howling."

Traxler knows a howl when she hears one; it's a noise she's often been accused of making herself. In 1969, Traxler, a Sister of Notre Dame, formed the National Coalition of American Nuns, an organization that has become an advocacy group for for some of the most activist sisters the church has ever seen. She is among the 24 sisters whom the Vatican threatened with expulsion for signing an ad that appeared in the New York Times calling for a dialogue in the church on the issue of abortion. (see "Sister Margaret Traxler and the Vatican 24," by Carol Kleiman, April, 1985.)

Traxler and her colleagues have been branded "radical nuns" by many in the hierarchy. But she is quick to point out that the label has been conferred upon women who have merely requested a dialogue with church officials on their concerns, women who ask for inclusion in a leadership that makes moral decisions for at least as many women as it does men.. "If we were radical," says Traxler, "we would get out of the church; we would get out of our religious communities...we would cut off at the root anything that we do not find consonant with our philosophy,"

Traxler is a sturdy woman of some 60 years. She has a talent for storytelling and is not above using either a shout or a whisper for dramatic effect. Some find her boldness off-putting: her working-class style of speech is nunlike. But to her, her style is as much a commitment as her religious vows. Wide-eyed, with expressive hands, she slowly quotes Flannery O'Connor. "'To the deaf, you must shout! And to the near-blind, you must draw large, wild pictures.' And that's why I am considered strident, radical," she explains. "They don't know how else to label and old nun who give all of her time to the poor."

Opening the church windows
Nuns of Traxler's ilk are largely products of the tumultuous 1960s. In 1962, Pope John XXIII called the church's highest ranging prelates together for the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) in an effort to "open the windows of the church to the modern age." Among the sweeping changes yielded from the three-year assessment were the translations of the Mass from Latin into the vernacular, loosening of the strict rules pertaining to fasting, participation of the laity in the Mass, and an altar turned around to face the people rather than the rear wall of the church. While such changes seemed vast and sometimes disturbing to the congregants, it was the spirit of Vatican II that set up the most cataclysmic changes within religious communities.

Since the spirit of the Vatican II encompassed broad issues of social justice and peace, religious communities were called upon to return to the original vision of their founders and adapt it to modern circumstances. American sisters, whose orders were founded as service communities for the poor and the sick, poured out of the parochial schools and convents, and into the world of the starving, the suffering, marginalized.

Sisters were also urged to get educated. So, the first stop for many, before hitting the streets in their war on poverty and injustice, was the university. In fact, today 43 percent of all American sisters hold masters' degrees. (Among the bishops, only 31 percent have masters' degrees.)

So, with the revelations born of academic life and their daily work with victims of life in the real world, the nuns often find themselves at odds with a comparatively cloistered male hierarchy that is educated in little other than church doctrine.

Is democracy a heresy?
Aside from the issues the nuns have embraced, the modifications they have made in the very structure of their communities have been an affront to the Roman hierarchy. Titles like "Mother Superior" and "Mother General" have been dropped, and nuns elect their leaders instead of having them appointed from the top.

But because they still answer to, and are indeed a part of, the ultimate in hierarchical institutions, conflicts frequently arise. The Sisters of Mercy have faced off with the Vatican more than a few times in the past several years. During John Paul II's historic visit to the United States in 1979, Sister Theresa Kane, then president of both the order and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, publicly confronted the Pope on the church's exclusion of women, paving the way for similar confrontations between the Pontiff and a Dutch and a Belgian woman during during John Paul's visit to the European Low Countries. (See "The Unexpected Things I Learned from the Woman Who Talked Back to the Pope," by Mary Gordon, August, 1982.)

And in 1982, sister Agnes Mary Mansour, Ph.D., became just plain Dr. Mansour after Rome's Sacred Congregation for Religious and Secular Institutes decreed that she either give up her job as Michigan's welfare administrator or leave her order. (See "The Nuns' Revolt," by Mary Kay Blakely, September, 1983.) The Pope's bureaucrats objected to the fact that a small part of Mansour's job was to handle public funds designated for abortion.

Because of the Vatican's recent enforcement of longstanding canon law prohibiting all clerics and religious from holding public office, Sister Arlene Violet left the Mercies last year to become Rhode Island's attorney general.

A plea for mercy
But perhaps the most tense confrontation between the Holy Father's legions and the Mercy sisters challenged their autonomy in the administration of their numerous Mercy Hospitals, a not-for-profit network rivaled in size only by the Veterans Administration. since in many areas of the United States the only hospital around is a Mercy Hospital, a committee of Mercy Sisters decided in 1977, after authorizing a study of community need, that they had an obligation to consider the rights of patients in determining hospital policy on sterilization; and after laborious study, they agreed that tubal ligations should be made available to certain women under certain circumstances.

The Vatican didn't agree. According to an informed source, Rome essentially threatened to remove the Mercies' executive team and replace it one hand-picked by the Vatican's Sacred Congregation for Religious and Secular Institutes if the sisters allowed sterilization procedures to be implemented in their hospitals. The sisters dropped the issue, and all procedures intended to control human reproduction remain banned from Mercy Hospitals.

The role of women
Sister Margaret Farley, Ph.D., an ethicist and professor at Yale Divinity School, participated in the Mercies' study on the tubal-ligation issue. She is among the many women in the church concerned about the close timing of three major upcoming Vatican-ordered treatises: a study on religious orders; the National Conference of Catholic Bishops' (NCCB) pastoral letter on the role of women; and the conclusions drawn from a special international synod (currently in session) to reassess the results of Vatican II "in light of new needs," according to Pope John Paul II.

The bishops' upcoming pastoral, scheduled for release in 1988, is perhaps the most troubling of the three, since the purpose of a pastoral is to instruct the flock. No women will be directly involved in the writing of the letter. NCCB will conduct no open, public hearings. The hearing of Catholic women was by invitation only. And of the five women serving on an advisory panel to the prelates, one, Ronda Chervin, is often referred to as "a Catholic Phyllis Schlafly," and another, Anne Carr, resigned earlier this year after her signature appeared on the notorious New York Times ad.

The bishops have already stated that their letter will pose no challenge to the church teaching on ordination, and they are not expected to deviate from the dogma concerning reproductive issues. In a recent report prepared for the synod now in session, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops said: "Particular attention must now be given to women, both lay and religious. Their role in the church and society must be clarified, their rights and dignity must be affirmed, and their advancement to positions of leadership and decision-making must continue." But the report, to no one's surprise, fell short of recommending ordination. It also called for the church to "define an appropriate Christian stance toward the secular feminist movement" and "the allowable limits of dissent," statements that some feminists feel hold ominous implications. The report also attributed the rise of dissent in the American Church to what it terms cultural factors, namely, "exaggerated individualism" and "exaggerated secular feminism."

"On the one hand the church should try in every way to utilize women's gifts and talents," William Ryan, associate secretary of public affairs for the Conference, told a newspaper reporter, "but not through their ordination. It is meant that they should be advanced as much as possible within the confines of church discipline."

The bishops writing this pastoral are not willing to talk about it. Bishop Joseph Imesch (Joliet, Illinois), head of the committee that is framing the letter, declined an interview with Ms., as did three other prelates.

With the bishops' pastoral so severely self-limited, is there any hope of some good coming out of it? Only if, in the letter, says Margaret Farley, the bishops urge the church to use the same criteria for assessing the role and needs of women that the bishops used in their previous pastorals on the nuclear threat and the economy. In those letters, the bishops based their arguments on "principles of respect for persons, attending to the marginalized, and...the need for institutions to be just in their structures," according to Farley.

Those troublesome nuns
With study on religious orders, the bishops are in a difficult position. The study was demanded by the Vatican in an effort to address what it sees as a lack of discipline among religious in the American Church, particularly among the sisters. But it was partly at the bishops' insistence that the sisters expanded their ministries.

Just how far the bishops are willing to go in the sisters' defense, though, remains to be seen. The Vatican 24, for instance, found little support among the American hierarchy. Jay Berman, spokesperson for the Archbishop of Detroit, called the sister signers "an embarrassment to their orders." A lecture by signer Sister Marjorie Tuite, a Dominican from Chicago, was canceled by San Diego Bishop Leo T. Maher after the Vatican responded with the expulsion threat. (Ironically, Tuite was slated to speak on economic justice.) A monsignor urged Catholic institutions to boycott a home for transient women run by another signer. "They're just pitiful little adolescent boys," Traxler says of what she calls "the mean bishops."

"We're all laywomen"
"It was out of the benevolence of the patriarchy that democratization and activism in the convents took place," insists Dolly Pomerleau, cofounder of both the Women's Ordination Conference and the Quixote Center where she currently serves as a codirector. "The moment that benevolence is removed, which we're seeing happen a little bit at a time, we see that nothing has really changed."

Mary Hunt, Ph.D., codirector of the Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual (WATER) in Silver Spring, Maryland, is a handsome woman whose stature and short dark hair lend her the look of a stern but fair schoolteacher. She believes that what was perceived and experienced by the sisters as real change was really contingent upon the communities' post-Vatican II leadership, elected during an age of liberalism. "but now what you see," she explains, "is that some of those women have been replaced, almost person for person, by more conservative people whose magnanimity and openness and personal courage is not quite the same...This is where you see that structural changes have really not taken place; so that you still have a Mother Superior whether you call her President or I call her Suzie. She's still structurally, in the eyes of Rome, Mother Superior, head of the congregation."

Lay activists like Hunt and Pomerleau are often frustrated by the willingness of their compatriots in the convents to play ball with the Vatican. "One of the things we have to deal with very seriously as Roman Catholic women," warns Farley, "is to not let division continue or escalate between all women in the church and women who happen to be members of religious communities. It's even a problem of using the traditional language: 'nuns' and 'laywomen.'"

Especially since, as Traxler sees it, "We're all laywomen, honey." What she means is that since nuns have no clerical status within the church, they are still considered "lay" by the hierarchy.

"I think one of the threats the women in religious communities pose to the Vatican right now is the process of reclaiming womanhood," explains sister Maureen Fiedler, codirector of the Quixote Center in Mount Rainier, Washington, an advocacy organization for women's equality, peace in Central America, and other "justice-oriented" issues. "Virtually every element of the old days, the old life, was an attempt to deny it, as in the habit, which denied the bodily shape of a woman and also secluded her almost like the purdah of [South Asian] countries. But I think the threat is especially in reclaiming our solidarity with women on a broad range of issues. Particularly, I think, one of the reasons why the New York Times ad was so threatening was that you had women in religious communities, who don't normally face issues like birth control or abortion in their own lives, making common cause with 'laywomen' or married couples who do."

Recent surveys have shown that as a whole, Catholics differ very little from the general public in their views on abortion, with 79 percent accepting it as a moral choice in certain circumstances, according to a 1983 Gallup poll. The National Opinion Research Center also found that 73 percent of single Catholic women between the ages of 18 and 24 engage in premarital sex and use a form of contraception not sanctioned by the Catholic Church.

Bridging the gap
One group that bridges the gap between women religious and secular women is the Women's Ordination Conference (WOC), an organization formed 10 years ago as an advocacy group for women who want to be priests. In its early days,the group was composed primarily of nuns, but now its ranks include almost as many 'laywomen' as sisters. But lobbying the church for women's ordination is only part of WOC's function; in essence, many of its members act as ministers to the greater Catholic feminist community. Most stop short of calling themselves priests, though, and have instead adopted the moniker "priestly women." According to Ruth McDonough Fizpatrick, a member of WOC's National Coordinating Team, inclusion in the hierarchy is not the aim of her organization; rather it seeks to build a "renewed priestly ministry, which essentially means a transformed church," one with a structure more reflective of feminist principles.

Fitzpatrick, a 52-year-old mother of three children, discovered the left wing of the church while attending Georgetown in the 1970s as a returning student. On the coordinating team with her are Marian Kelley and Sister Margaret G. Smith, both 72 and lifelong dissenters.

There's been some talk in the church lately of ordaining women into the permanent diaconate, a service role that was revived in the last 20 years to fill the gap left by hundreds of fleeing priests, and the lack of fresh seminarians. A permanent deacon (not to be confused with a transitional deacon (who is a future priest), is usually an unpaid minister of most of the sacraments; he is forbidden to hear confessions or consecrate the Eucharist.

The WOC leadership has taken a stance against women in the diaconate because they see it as an attempt to merely placate feminists without addressing the issues of church structure. But not all WOC members agree with their leaders. There are a number of WOC members who, if directly asked, would see the organization's acceptance of the diaconate as a good strategic move and would be ordained permanent deacons.

Mary Hunt, also a WOC member, believes that in the interest of maintaining the current structure of the church, allowing women into the permanent diaconate would probably prove to be a smart and appeasing move on the part of the hierarchy. "It's what I always call the sinister genius of the Roman Catholic Church--to hold many things in tension at once and then homogenize them. And that's what the discussion of bringing women into the diaconate is all about."

When the bishops were holding their closed hearings on the pastoral on women, WOC was among the groups invited to testify. Diane Neu, a writer of feminist liturgies and coordinator of WATER, used the occasion to show how the reproductive issues and the issue of ordination are intertwined, and by describing her role in the dissent community to present it as a model for the "renewed priestly ministry" touted by WOC.

Neu testified that part of the ministry she's created for herself is to counsel women who have had abortions. "As a priestly woman," she explained to the bishops, "as a woman who is already ordained by the community, I must stand with people who do not have a voice; I must be pastoral with the choices that people are making. I cannot judge; I must simply be present."

Dolly Pomerleau concurs that the issues of ordination, reproduction, and church structure are inseparable for Catholic feminists. "If the bishops think that all we're talking about is ordination," she says, "they haven't been listening."

Natural resemblance
Frances Kissling of Catholics for a Free Choice (fondly referred to as Frances "Cardinal" Kissling by her colleagues) not only sees the church's stance on ordination and reproductive issues as inseparable; she believes the issues feed off each other. The church justifies its exclusion of women from its leadership through a doctrine called the natural resemblance theory. In essence, she explains, the church contends that since Jesus Christ was the man, and since all of our imagery for God is male, that men are the natural leaders. Now it could be argued, says Kissling, that women are the natural creators with their ability to bear life, but their ability to create has, in the past, always been tempered by the randomness of nature.

"But what happens," she asks, "when women are not only capable or creating life, but are able to choose how, when , and why they wish to do so? A woman in control of her reproductive powers is even more Godlike than a man, The chutzpah of women taking that control is women saying in some way that they are God...and that's a real challenge to the patriarchal structure of the church."

Kissling doesn't buy the hierarchy's reliance on "the sanctity of human life" in its anti-choice argument. "We are not a pacifist church," she says. Indeed, even in the bishops' pastoral on the nuclear threat, they spoke of their belief in "a just war."

Kissling history is not atypical of the journeys between religious life and secular activism experienced by many dissent leaders. As a young woman, she entered a convent, only to leave before making it to novice. From there, she found the secular women's movement and after receiving her bachelor's degree in literature from the New School for Social Research, she became involved in the women's health movement, and eventually ran a private abortion clinic.

And while the call she answered as a young postulant may have been a false alarm, the call of one of the more powerful phenomena to rise out of the dissent movement, Women-church, feeds the fire in her.

The church has left us
Women-church is a broad national (and fast becoming international) network of Catholic feminists, many of whom have histories of activism in ares of social justice, and some of whom belong to religious communities. There was a time when many of these women, at least those whose work has been in the secular arena, described themselves as ex-Catholics, until the longing for their culture and tradition brought them to this movement. And it is they who pose the most serious threat to the institutional church, because they have taken worship into their own hands.

"You see, we say that the church has left us," Mary Hunt explains. "The whole point of the Women-church movement is to say that women as women cannot be full religious agents in the patriarchal church and, therefore, the only way we can be church is to be Women-church."

Because Women-church initially jelled in 1983 as a coalition of progressive organizations, most with commitments to issues of social justice and peace, it, like the secular women's movement, embraces issues that seem to some to go beyond appropriate bounds. (Today these coalitions exist as Women-Church Convergence.) Among the causes that eh Women-church movement has allied itself with is the Latin American movement for liberation theology, a movement the suffers from papal repression.

"We cannot separate any of these issues from the larger global economic and political repression," says Hunt, herself a liberation theologian who has done extensive work in Latin America. "Hand in glove go Reagan and the Pope. That has to be underscored because it is no coincidence that [repression of progressive religion and women's rights] has really revved up on both sides during the Reagan administration."

We are all Ferraro
When Archbishop John J. O'Connor of New York went after Geraldine Ferraro on the issue of abortion in the 1984 presidential election, many members of Women-church took it quite personally; they saw themselves in Ferraro and believe that her philosophical resemblance to Women-church members accounted for the force of O'Connor's response to her candidacy.

The New York Times ad sponsored by Catholics for a Free Choice, developed by a committee of concerned Catholics and theologians, ran counter to O'Connor's statement that no Catholic could, in good conscience, vote for a candidate who was pro-choice. (Although the 24 nuns who suffered the Vatican threat got most of the media attention, the advertisement was signed by 97 people, most of them members of Women-church..)

But those involved refuse to define their movement as a schismatic one, even though they create their own liturgies, presided over by priestly women and participated in by all present. Why do these women insist on defining themselves as Catholic when they abhor the institutional structure, forsake the sanctioned liturgy, and challenge dogmatic moral teaching? Because their Catholic identity is inseparable from their cultural identity, some will tell you. Because, say others, as Christians, they have a responsibility to speak out against injustice and correct it, especially injustice done in the name of Christ. Or, says Margaret Farley, despite all the injustice," there is some great truth there." It is Farley's contention that the very values she learned as a young Catholic are those that compel her to dissent.

Religious expression
The need for appropriate religious ritual has led to a growing body of work in feminist liturgies--Christian rites that speak to women and their experience.

There are some comparisons to be made between the celebrations of feminist liturgies an the rites of goddess ritual that have grown out of one segment of the secular women's movement. Both rely on nature symbols--tree branches, flowers, and apples are some of the symbols that turn up in the Christian rituals--and from each have come new songs or hymns, and fresh prayers or incantations. And, ironically, at a time when most parishes have forsaken the "smells and bells" of the Mass or yore, feminist liturgy seeks to return such sensual texture to religious celebration, and to allow room for personal expression in it.

Margaret Ellen Traxler asserts that "we don't always celebrate in the same way. When you have a birthday in your family, you don't always do the same thing, the same way, the same songs, the same words. It's a birthday, a coming together, a celebration. Now this [the Mass] is the celebration of the Eucharist. It does not have to be absolutely uniform. And the priest should be chosen from among the people; that's from the Gospel."

Much of the dissent in today's church was precipitated by groundbreaking works in the field of feminist theology. It was only two years after the 1973 release of Mary Daly's radical tract, Beyond God the Father, that the first meeting of the Women's Ordination Conference took place. Over the years, the movement has been fed by the scholarly work of women like historian Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and biblical scholar Rosemary Radford Ruether. "The fact that all the fundamental questions are being raised again," says ethicist and theologian Margaret Farley, her voice becoming impassioned, "and being raised in a way that is filled with life--I think it's terribly exciting."

Bearer of symbols
The bishops are not unaware of the importance of the Catholic women's movement. "I feel we are at a moment that could be compared to the doctrinal and theological problems represented by the admission of the Gentiles to the church in the apostolic age," said Archbishop John R. Quinn of San Francisco in an interview with the Boston Globe.

Quinn's comment is of special significance not only because he is heading the study on religious orders, but also because he is comparing this time in church history "with one of the earliest and most decisive changes in church history," according to the Globe's religion columnist, James L. Franklin.

But there's another layer to Quinn's comment that bears some discussion. The problems faced by the early church with the admission of the Gentiles had much to do with the pagan nature of the religions from which they came; their not in of God had little to do with Hebrew ideals--instead they came from systems of multiple deities, many of which took female forms. So, it is hard to overlook the importance of the archbishop's choice of analogy when one is trying to discern just how the church views its women. Are women still dangerously pagan and frighteningly mystical in the eyes of the patriarchy?

Responding to feminist insistence on the need for nonsexist translations of the Bible, Father Lorenzo Albacete, a former staff theologian to Archbishop James A. Hickey of Washington, D.C., told the right-wing National Catholic Register, "I think that this has the capacity to destroy biblical revelation and land us right back in a pagan religion. In the natural religions, the ultimate life force was generally feminine."

Margaret Farley feels that "pagan" is a bit too strong a word for the way in which women are viewed by the hierarchy, but she does believe that the Holy See finds in women a nightmare of the unconscious. "I have often argued," she explains, "that at an unconscious level, at least, there is a symbol system still operating in Western civilization generally, and in the Roman Catholic Church, which does tend to associate women with symbols of evil. They may not be considered pagan, but they are considered temptresses, and still more closely associated with bodiliness than men are. And Christianity hasn't dealt very well with those questions.

This is why I think the religious questions and the theological questions are so important for the [secular] women's movement generally," she explains, because "in a culture like ours, the symbols are still importantly inclusive of religious symbols. We may not recognize it, but [the religious symbols attributed to womanhood] are partly what we think about when we think about electing a woman vice president."

One gets the feeling that as the only tenured woman on the faculty of Yale Divinity School, Farley has thought hard about this problem. And because of her belief that "the Roman Catholic Church is still the bearer of profound symbols for all the churches," she contends that the work toward equality in the church is more than just a Catholic women's issue.

It matters, then, to all women that in many parishes, women are still serving Communion, despite John Paul II's admonishments against such indulgences of the feminine ego. And it matters that in one working-class parish in urban New Jersey, the priest ends the Gospel reading by saying not the liturgical "This, my Brothers, is the Word of the Lord," but rather, "My Sisters and Brothers, this is the Word of God," that, according to the National Catholic Register, instead of reciting the traditional "In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit," several priests at the daily Masses held on the campus of Catholic University of America routinely make the sign of the cross "in the name of the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sanctifier..."

Adele-Marie Stan is a "Ms." editor who belongs to a small parish in New Jersey. Special thanks to Linda Bennett for indefatigable research and provision of news resources.

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