Reforming the Church

Catholic and Feminist: The Surprising History of the American Catholic Feminist Movement


By Mary J. Henold
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008, 328 pp., $32.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Frances Kissling


American feminists have a hard time understanding Catholic feminism, let alone taking it seriously. There is of course, the usual fascination with Catholic women’s stories, especially if sex, guilt, and leaving the church are part of the equation and if you throw in a lesbian nun for good measure. And there is the desire to add a prochoice Catholic feminist voice to the efforts to keep abortion legal, to challenge Catholic hospitals that refuse to provide emergency contraception, and to persuade Catholic social service agencies to facilitate adoptions by gay and lesbian couples. Respect for the well-educated nuns who populated Catholic women’s colleges through the 1960s is widespread. Numerous Catholic women who are products of all-girls’ education have risen to high political office, including Geraldine Ferraro, Nancy Pelosi, and Barbara Mikulski, and many movement leaders, including Ellie Smeal of the Fund for a Feminist Majority and Kate Michelman of NARAL, although they may be secular now, were raised Catholic.

Many Catholic nuns made headlines during the 1980s because they publicly challenged Vatican orthodoxy on gender and religion: the Vatican 24, a group of nuns who signed an ad in the New York Times claiming there was a legitimate diversity of opinion in the Catholic church over abortion; Sr. Agnes Mary Mansour, head of Michigan’s Department of Social Services, who was forced to resign from the Sisters of Mercy because she refused to comply with a Vatican demand that she not release state Medicaid funds for abortion; Sr. Jeannine Gramick, who disobeyed a Vatican order that she cease working and speaking on issues related to homosexuality; and Sr. Teresa Kane who, on October 7, 1979, as president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, greeted Pope John Paul in Washington’s National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception with a request that the church provide for “the possibility of women as persons being included in all ministries in our church.”

But Catholic women as feminists are suspect. Non-Catholic feminists wonder how their Catholic sisters can remain in a church that is so steeped in sexism and patriarchy and does so much that harms women. Why do they lend their credibility to such an institution? They seem like battered women who stay in abusive marriages! Meanwhile, orthodox Catholics want to know why the feminists don’t just leave and become Protestants if they can’t accept Church positions on gender, sexuality, and reproduction.

In Catholic and Feminist, Mary J.Henold, an assistant professor of history at Roanoke College, provides a thorough and thoughtful analysis of the dual identity Catholic feminists forged in the 1960s and 1970s and their “complicated choices about what to love, believe, challenge, and abandon in their religion, feminism, and daily lives.” she debunks the commonly held belief that Catholic feminism developed as an offshoot of secular feminism, providing convincing evidence that the Catholic feminists of the 1960s were responding to historical events within the Church such as the Second Vatican Council of 1962 – 1965, which she characterizes as “an inspiring but overtly sexist event that enraged and exhilarated Catholic women in equal measure.” Henold argues that Catholic feminism grew

organically within Catholicism…born of women’s experiences as Catholics, their wrestling with injustices, inconsistencies, and inspirations of their own faith traditions as well as exposure to and participation in feminist and nonfeminist activism outside the church.

Henold’s chronological narrative examines how Catholic feminists lived out their dual identities, describing first the theoretical origins of Catholic feminism, then Catholic feminist interactions with the larger feminist movement—especially with the National Organization for Women’s Task Force on Religion—and moving on to the organizations Catholic feminists created for themselves. In each phase, Henold brings the history to life with personal narratives by key leaders in the movement about their decisions either to work within the church or to move on and out.

The theoretical foundation was laid down in the sixties by Rosemary Radford Ruether, Mary Daly, and Sydney Callahan. Interestingly, there was not a nun among them. At Boston College, Daly was single and only much later emerged as a lesbian. The other two were married—Callahan with seven children and a Ph.D., and Ruether with three children and a teaching position at Howard. This early trinity explored women’s identity, critiqued the patriarchal understanding of women’s nature, and addressed questions related to women’s sexuality. Henold highlights Ruether’s 1964 Saturday Evening Post article on contraception as

arguably the most reasoned and frank treatment of the question in the sixties. Ruether argued that the Catholic interpretation of natural law was untenable because in real life, more often than not, husbands and wives had sex for reasons other than procreation.

Personally, I found this article striking. My own entry into Catholic feminist circles occurred much later, in the mid-1980s. By that time, most of the movement’s leaders were nuns, and questions related to sexual ethics were off the table. I remember remarking at one meeting that the Catholic feminist movement seemed unaware that most Catholic women were far more engaged in figuring out what constituted a healthy sex life within and outside of marriage than in worrying about whether they could become celibate priests. This comment went over like a lead balloon.

The Catholic feminist leaders of the sixties and seventies were generous in donating their papers to archives, and Henold makes good use of that material as well as of the oral histories she conducted. The experiences of less well-known figures, such as Elizabeth Farians and Rosalie Reinhardt Muschal, an early leader of the Women’s Ordination Conference, demonstrate both the enormous faith these women maintained in the face of an overwhelmingly dismissive church and the dark night of the soul no Catholic feminist can avoid.

Henold’s treatment of conflicts within the movement is straightforward and sympathetic but unflinching. One such challenge was race; another was the power struggle between laywomen and women religious. Just as women of color have challenged racism in the larger women’s movement (most recently during the Democratic primary race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama), black and Latina women in the Church criticized Catholic feminists, most notably during the late seventies and early eighties, their peak period of institution building. Henold links the racial critique with the emergence of feminism among women religious and these women’s growing involvement in Catholic feminist circles. Many women religious felt liberated by the reform of congregational life ushered in by the Second Vatican Council. No longer confined to traditional professions such as nursing or teaching, some were receiving modest stipends to work as community organizers and in other justice ministries. They had the time and the resources to take on leadership roles in the new feminist organizations. Was their desire to lead well-meaning but misguided? Or were the women of color insensitive to feminism as a meaningful component of social justice? Shawn Copeland, an African American theologian, said:

When I see the American religious woman fascinated to the exclusion of other matters of oppression with ordination then I ask you “Will you be any kinder to black people? Will you be any kinder to red people…I think not. I think not.

These debates among Catholics were similar to those in the women’s movement as a whole. One is reminded of Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech, in which she insists on her identity as both black and female; and of Alice Walker’s commentary on the Democratic primary, in which she points out that “Clinton [is always] referred to as ‘a woman’ while Barack Obama is always referred to as ‘a black man.’ One would think she is just any woman, colorless, race-less, past-less, but she is not.” In contrast to Clinton, says Walker, Obama has “no baggage of past servitude or race supremacy.”

Of course, Catholic feminists brought considerable baggage to the debate, especially women religious. While most of the white nuns involved in the Catholic feminist movement had long histories of antiracist work, the histories of their orders—to the great embarrassment of these nuns—were full of segregation and racial prejudice. Few orders were integrated prior to the 1970s: black Catholic women entered separate orders. I remember asking my own order in 1961, when I entered the convent, why there were no black sisters and being told that “they preferred to be with their own kind.” Many Catholic schools, North and South, were also segregated. Although many white sisters deeply wished to be part of a fully integrated Catholic feminist movement, they were stymied both by this history and by the fact that black Catholics were (and still are) only two to three percent of Catholics. The number of African American nuns was miniscule. And, as the Copeland quote above suggests, African American sisters had other than feminist struggles on their minds.

A bitter struggle around race and gender among feminists continued well into the late 1990s, and Catholic feminists, much like secular ones, have never fully resolved that tension. Few African American women participate in the Catholic feminist project. Over time, the movement over time has been more successful in including Latinas, but even their numbers are small.

A more fundamental tension, which is at the heart of the book, is most likely also at the heart of this problem of reconciling gender and race politics. Henold returns time and again to the tension Catholic women feel about their relationship to the institutional church. Did they wish to reform the it or leave it behind? By the end of the book, the movement has rejected reform and is focused instead on the creation of alternative women’s faith communities and outright resistance to institutional sexism. Catholic and Feminist leaves off where the real revolution begins. That will be story worth telling and Henold will do Catholic and all feminists a service if she continues to chronicle the movement.

Frances Kissling is a visiting scholar at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. For 25 years, until 2007, she was the president of Catholics for Choice, where she went toe to toe with US bishops and the Vatican on issues related to women, sexuality, and reproduction. 
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