The Vatican, ‘feminism’ and U.S. women religious

This story appears in the LCWR and Apostolic Visitation feature series.

by Anne E. Patrick


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Twice in recent months Catholics have breathed a sigh of relief when press conferences in Rome announced the friendly settlement of difficulties between Vatican officials and American women religious. On December 16, 2014, the apostolic visitation of non-cloistered U.S. women's congregations that began in 2009 came officially to a close with gracious statements from representatives of the Vatican's congregation for religious, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR), and the American sister who had been the official Visitator, Mother Mary Clare Millea, ASCJ. And on April 15, 2015, in a report issued jointly by officers of LCWR and the bishops who had been mandated to investigate the group's doctrinal orthodoxy, both sides agreed that the mandate had been accomplished and their conversations had "borne much fruit." The report adds:

The very fact of such substantive dialogue between bishops and religious has been a blessing to be appreciated and further encouraged. The commitment of LCWR leadership to its crucial role in service to the mission and membership of the Conference will continue to guide and strengthen LCWR's witness to the great vocation of Religious Life, to its sure foundation in Christ, and to ecclesial communion.

These words were affirmed by Archbishop J. Peter Sartain and Bishops Leonard Blair and Thomas Paprocki, and by LCWR officers Sharon Holland, IHM, Marcia Allen, CSJ, Carol Zinn, SSJ, and Joan Marie Steadman, CSC.

In an essay for the volume Power of Sisterhood: Women Religious Tell the Story of the Apostolic Visitation (University Press of America 2014, p. 24), Dominican Sr. Patricia Walter aptly describes the apostolic visitation as part of "the contentious process of receiving the Second Vatican Council," and this is true of the doctrinal investigation of LCWR as well. In my book, Conscience and Calling: Ethical Reflections on Catholic Women's Church Vocations (Bloomsbury / T & T Clark, 2013), I observe that the two groups of officers of non-cloistered U.S. women's communities, LCWR and CMSWR, give evidence of being influenced by different conciliar documents.

Both groups of women religious studied all the major documents of Vatican II more assiduously than did most Catholics, and they integrated these teachings into their processes of renewal. Over time it became apparent that the larger group, representing about 80 percent of U.S. sisters, has been especially influenced by Gaudium et Spes, with its emphasis on mission to eradicate injustice, while the CMSWR communities have stressed Perfectae Caritatis and undertaken their renewal with greater concern for preserving some monastic aspects of religious life and a distinctive habit, and with following an agenda set by the hierarchy. In distinguishing these two groups of sisters, it is important to recognize that there is diversity within both organizations, and that although their visions for radical discipleship may differ, sisters from both sorts of communities have much in common. As theologian Christine Firer Hinze notes in an online article for America, June 18, 2012:

[B]oth LCWR and CMSWR communities serve the gospel at contemporary frontiers, living lives of passionate love in and from the heart of the church. Both articulate and practice the basic elements of consecrated life (vows of poverty, chastity and obedience; life in community, and mission) in light of prayerful discernment of the needs of the church and the signs of the times.

That said, Hinze adds that the CMSWR communities tend to understand gender, sexual difference and men and women's vocations in a way that is much closer to Pope John Paul II's emphasis on gender complementarity than do LCWR communities. Indeed, it seems clear that those responsible for initiating the apostolic visitation and the doctrinal investigation were more comfortable with understanding women's nature and role as special and limited, and with concerns that feminism, at least in its "radical" form, has harmed women religious’ life in the United States. (Officials who complained about "radical feminism" did not define what this means, or explain how it differs from the sort of feminism they might approve.)

There are many definitions and types of feminism, and feminists differ widely in their analyses of injustice, levels of commitment to liberating action, degrees of explicitness of commitment, and opinions about specific problems and their solutions. I have defined the term "feminist" broadly to indicate a position that involves a solid conviction of the equality of women and men and a commitment to reform society so that the full equality of women is respected, which also requires reforming the thought systems that legitimate the present unjust social order. Both aspects of this definition are important.

Certainly affirmations of women's equality show progress in a tradition that taught for centuries, thanks to Aristotle, that females were a lesser form of humanity than males. Affirmations of women's equal human dignity achieve little, however, if they are not accompanied by efforts to remedy the twin injustices of sexism, namely patriarchy and androcentrism. Patriarchy literally means "father rule." As an ethical term it designates social patterns of domination and subordination, especially (but not exclusively) those flowing from attitudes that do not respect the full humanity of females. Such attitudes, which revolve around the experiences of males, are termed androcentric.

Androcentric attitudes include not only viewing women as inferior to men, but also seeing them as so essentially different from men that their roles must be circumscribed, or "special." Sometimes in the latter case women are thought to be superior in specified ways, but when thus placed on a pedestal they are deprived of rights and opportunities that ought to be recognized. When Cardinal James Gibbons opposed women's suffrage in an interview for the New York Globe on June 22, 1911, he exemplified this "essentialist" thinking: "Why should a woman lower herself to sordid politics? . . . When a woman enters the political arena, she goes outside the sphere for which she was intended."

Certainly Pope John Paul II did not oppose women's suffrage, but his teaching on gender roles and his emphasis on a special "genius" of women betray a type of androcentrism that is increasingly seen as problematic. Many of Pope Francis's statements about women are also tinged by this essentialist understanding of human nature, which sees women as complementary to men in ways that effectively limit women's contributions. There are of course women who share such an understanding of women's nature, but the problems in this position quickly become evident if we imagine a situation in which all sacramental and decision-making power in the church were in the hands of women. If such an imaginary female prelate were to call for an infusion of "the masculine genius" into this woman-dominated structure, would that not seem condescending?        

Although Pope Francis gives evidence of androcentric thinking, I believe his commitment to initiating processes of reform that allow for the voicing of divergent views is promising where justice for women is concerned. Clearly he recognizes that women should have greater influence in the church, and his actions in washing the feet of young women on Holy Thursday and allowing the investigations of U.S. women religious to be ended without imposing strict new controls on women's communities and their officers give reason for hope. In an article on "Women in the Church in the Age of Francis" for A Matter of Spirit (Summer 2015), I discuss these matters more fully. Here I will conclude by listing several issues that deserve prayer and reflection now that the official investigations of U.S. women religious and LCWR have ended in a friendly way:

1) Is the gender-based imbalance of power in Catholicism that made the apostolic visitation and doctrinal investigation possible in the first place a human construct subject to reform, or a divinely established order to be maintained despite cultural change? This is the fundamental theological issue, which I will discuss in a separate column.

2) How should we address the sociological reality of the dramatic decline of younger Catholics' involvement in the church and the historic shift, noted by Patricia Wittberg, SC, in "A Lost Generation?" in America (February 20, 2012), to a situation where fewer young Catholic women are interested in religious vocations than young men?

3) How much change in opportunities for women is optimal in the global church, and how can it best be introduced?

4) How can the diversity of perspectives (on feminism and other topics) be accommodated in a spirit of charity and unity?

5) How can feminists come to appreciate that hierarchy is not necessarily patriarchal, or based on claims of ontological superiority, but can be simply a way of arranging for administration and accountability in a large, complex institution?

[Anne E. Patrick, SNJM's most recent book is Conscience and Calling: Ethical Reflections on Catholic Women's Church Vocations ​(Bloomsbury/ T&T Clark). She is William H. Laird Professor of Religion and the Liberal Arts, emerita, at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.]

Editor’s note: This article is based on the author's paper, "Tensions Over 'Feminism,' U.S. Women Religious, and the Contested Reception of Vatican II," presented May 22, 2015, at Georgetown University for the 9th Ecclesiological Investigations Network International Conference, "Vatican II – Remembering the Future."