Marking a Milestone
by Helen Hull Hitchcock, Editor
Anniversaries always invite us to look back -- to review, recall, reflect -- to mark where we've been and what we've done. This year, Women for Faith & Family observes a milestone anniversary -- our 20th. And many of the articles in this issue of Voices focus on aspects of the Affirmation for Catholic Women, the statement of fidelity to the Church and her teachings that we initiated in September 1984. The Affirmation is still in circulation; you will find it on the last page of this issue.
In 1984, the US bishops announced their plan to write a pastoral letter on women -- and their intention to conduct "listening sessions" with Catholic women as part of the process of preparing to write it. They appointed a special committee of bishops charged with the task of writing the pastoral letter, who selected several women as consulters. Of these women consulters all but one were feminist theologians: most were religious sisters, and most had published works challenging Church doctrine on a range of issues. (All but two bishops on the committee were sympathetic to feminist "concerns".)
Women, the Catholic feminists claimed, were oppressed by the Church and felt alienated by the "patriarchal hierarchy". They charged that Catholic Church was "male-dominated", "sexist", and "marginalized 50% of the Church" (i.e., women). Ordaining women was demanded as a matter of "justice to women". Church teachings on abortion and contraception were openly challenged, The very language we speak was a major target, too. Feminists claimed the language excluded women because the collective noun for all human beings in English -- man -- is a masculine-gender noun. The Scripture -- even the way we address God as Father (which has nothing to do with the "defect" of the English language) did not escape the feminist demands for radical revision. The Bible itself is a sexist document, written by males about a "male" God: it intrinsically excludes and alienates women, and perpetuates their domination by men. So Scripture and liturgical texts must be purged of this sexism, feminists insisted.
The list of complaints by feminists against the Catholic Church was regularly featured in the media in 1984 -- and this had been building for more than a decade.
A few highlights of the many factors, both within and outside the Church, that contributed to an atmosphere of dissent and increasing feminist hostility to Catholic doctrine at this time might be worth recalling.
For most of the 1970s, the secular feminist movement had concentrated its efforts on "consciousness raising" and the Equal Rights Amendment. The ERA had been quickly approved by both houses of congress by early 1972, and momentum was strong for ratification by the states. The ERA eventually failed -- largely due to the efforts of women, notably Phyllis Schlafly who mobilized opposition in 1972; and the project finally ran aground after nine years, in 1983 -- three states short of ratification.
But the ERA was not quite dead. In 1993 the proposed amendment to the Constitution was expanded to include non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, assuring "marriage" rights for homosexuals. The ERA is reintroduced into each session of Congress and held in Committee. As the March for Women earlier this year amply demonstrated, feminists still regard abortion as their fundamental right.
The fateful Supreme Court decision of January 22, 1973 -- a day that will live in infamy -- occurred in the midst of heat generated by feminist radicals and the sweeping momentum of the early success of the ERA. That women -- especially Catholic women -- were leaders of the movement to oppose the Court's decision to legalize abortion was largely ignored. Catholic feminist activists intensified their demands that the Church must change her doctrine, change her very self-definition and her essential structure to conform to their notion of justice for women.
In 1980 the "White House Conference on the Family" had been dominated those who advocated "alternative forms" of family life. That same year the Synod of the world's Catholic bishops meeting in Rome focused on the family. The Apostolic Letter, Familiaris Consortio, issued in 1981, was Pope John Paul II's response to the bishops; and the Vatican's Charter for the Rights of the Family followed in 1983. Earlier, in 1979, the pope began focusing his Wednesday audience messages on the essential nature of man and woman, and the first collection of these theological essays appeared in book form, as The Original Unity of Man and Woman, was published in 1981. The completed series, known as the Theology of the Body, provides the theological foundation for the magisterial teaching on several related matters that was to appear.
At the 1980 Synod on the Family, also, a universal catechism for the whole Church was first proposed, though it would be twelve years before the catechism would appear -- in French. The English translation was delayed until 1994 because feminist-inspired "inclusive" language had marred the first draft. The Catechism provided an authoritative resource of Catholic doctrine covering a spectrum of issues.
The demand for ordaining women to the priesthood gathered considerable steam after the Episcopal Church in the US authorized it in 1976 (and also withdrew objections to abortion). Most mainline Protestant denominations already had women ministers. The restriction of the ordained priesthood to men in the Catholic Church was considered a senseless tradition arbitrarily maintained by misogynist males -- or worse. Hierarchy itself was regarded as intrinsically oppressive, in an atmosphere of militant egalitarianism. And the Catholic tradition of celibacy was regarded as medieval, if not evidence of institutional psychosis.
These are but a few highlights of the events and prevailing environment of dissent in the years preceding the formation of the Bishops' Committee on Women with its mandate to produce a pastoral letter on "women's concerns". But this review may help remind us of the historical context -- and the chaotic cultural atmosphere -- that impelled a handful of women in St. Louis to try to do something positive to overcome the distorted image of Catholic women and their "concerns" the bishops were receiving.
The result was the Affirmation for Catholic women, a succinct, eight-point statement of fidelity to Church teaching and acceptance of Church authority on key issues particularly affecting women and families -- ranging from abortion, to marriage and family, to ordination and education of children. Women for Faith & Family was formed to distribute the Affirmation, and to help transmit the voices and the real concerns of faithful Catholic women to the bishops and other Church leaders.
At the time, we genuinely thought this undertaking would last for a few months. A year or two, at most -- until the "women's pastoral" was completed.
That did not happen. The process went on -- and on -- for nine years. The project was abandoned in 1993 after a much revised and retitled version was not issued as a pastoral letter of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, but simply as a report of the BCOW to the Administrative Committee of the USCCB "to provide material for future action".
But, like the ERA, the "women's pastoral" is undead -- as we remarked at the time -- and "the error persists". The BCOW, created to produce the "women's pastoral" still exists, and is still at work. The jointly administered Bishops' Committees on Laity, Women, Family and Youth have issued several subsequent documents based on the motivations that inspired the original effort. Among others, the BCOW issued a pastoral letter opposing domestic violence against women; the Family committee produced the deeply flawed "Always Our Children" addressed to parents of homosexuals -- a statement that was issued without being submitted to vote by the conference. At present, the Laity committee is at work on yet another statement on "lay collaboration" urging more leadership roles for women in the Church.
The "spirit of the women's pastoral" still haunts. A conference sponsored by Boston College in April 2004 featured addresses by three of the people who worked on the document. Bishop Matthew Clark of Rochester, NY, an original member of BCOW, presented a workshop titled "When Bishops Listened to Women: The Women's Pastoral 12 Years Later". The workshop also featured theologian Pheme Perkins, one of the consulters, and Susan Muto, who served as the writer of the failed pastoral from 1988-93. The workshop explored reasons why the initiative never gained acceptance. Bishop Clark said he'd interviewed women at St. Bernard's School of Theology and Ministry to see what women want from the Church.
"Women want their experience to be heard, honored, integrated and absorbed", he said. "They want their Church to be affirming to all and welcoming to all those currently excluded. They want a process of listening that is not condemnatory, not dictatorial. They want a development of more adequate theology that speaks to matters of sex and sexuality, open and honest dialogue, wherein disagreement should not be feared. They want a Church that looks for genuine healing and not just sustenance, a Church that will look for remedies. And they want a spirituality that is reflected in rituals and celebrations that encourage and celebrate life while specifically addressing the stresses and strains of modern living".
Pheme Perkins asked, "Is the Church too old, too ancient, too moribund to be saved?" She said the Church is "seriously crumbling at a number of points", and needs to be repaired. "We are enmeshed in an ugly disaster thanks to the Church's blind devotion to a culture of secrecy and shame", said the professor of theology at the Jesuit Boston College. "Women's experiences can and must help translate this Church into one of more egalitarian and collegial relationships". Professor Perkins was interrupted by applause when she announced, "Women recognize patronizing and demeaning language even when it is cloaked in piety".
Susan Muto observed, "The Women's Pastoral may have been a 'failed project', but it has not been a 'failed process'. Once the voices are released, you can't put them back into the boxes. Let me tell you, during those years of research and listening to women, we heard many voices of affirmation, but we heard many more voices of outright alienation, too".
This conference, reported in the National Catholic Reporter May 14 ("Women call for transformed Church") was all about voices, one of its organizers stated. Jennifer Tilghman-Havens, director of the Boston College's Women's Resource Center and co-chairman of the event, said about 600 attended the conference (almost all women), which "speaks to a hunger, of wanting to be nourished in a Church where women don't always feel entirely accepted and embraced".
This summer a spate of media critics reacted strongly to a document on the collaboration of men and women in the Church and in society released July 31 by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. (Mary Ellen Bork comments on it in this issue.) The level of ire the Letter inspired was surprising, considering that it said nothing new -- it was, in fact, a relatively brief summary of Church teaching on the topics it covers. But the reaction is not so surprising when we recall that we are still mired in the same ideological slough. The plagues of abortion and euthanasia have not been meliorated, in fact, they are more intense -- and we've encountered even more moral toxins in the past two decades. Cloning. Assisted suicide. Withholding food and water from disabled people. Human embryos created and destroyed for "stem-cell" research. The list could go on. All undermine the value of human life at the very root, yet all are pitched as essential to liberty and justice. These aberrant practices are actively promoted, not just in college classrooms and academic conferences, but in state legislatures and courts - and in grade schools and comic strips and television shows. And new coalitions are forming to promote them.
The homosexual "rights" movement, for example, has made common cause with the feminist movement (as in the addition to the ERA) both outside and within the Church. Groups like the National Organization for Women and Catholics for a Free Choice and Call to Action may be "graying", but they have lost neither zeal nor influence. The militantly pro-abortion "March for Women" in Washington last spring attracted the active participation of prominent and powerful individuals - including the Catholic man who would become the Democratic candidate for President of the United States.
As Catholics and as women, we ignore these grave matters at our peril. Confrontation is inevitable as assaults against basic assumptions about humanity become more intense and focused during this election year. Media preoccupation with the Catholic Church's stand on fundamental moral issues -- yes, abortion still tops the list -- targeting in particular the bishops' insistence that Catholic politicians uphold the basic tenets of their faith and oppose abortion or refrain from receiving Communion, has dramatically accelerated divisions and polarization, both in this nation and within the Church. In many ways (and for many reasons we cannot include here) the situation is even more critical now than in 1984.
But there are bright spots in the overcast sky. And at least two of them are contributors to this issue of Voices: Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Sister Sara Butler. In 1984, both were convinced feminists. Dr. Fox-Genovese headed the Women's Studies program at Emory University, where she still teaches. Her essay inside addresses some of the fundamental problems with feminism, which is an overall focus of the Affirmation for Catholic Women. Sister Sara, another consulter for the "women's pastoral" (one of only two who stayed till the finish), was a strong proponent of ordaining women in 1984, but during the protracted process, she changed her mind. Her article in this issue reviews the doctrine of ordination, the subject of Item 5 of the Affirmation.
Sheila Liaugminas's article on celibacy gives another perspective on ordination. Margaret Whitehead's essay on Familiaris Consortio magnifies the focus on that papal document in Affirmation's Item 8. Nancy Valko's "Bioethics Watch", reflecting on the pope's address last March confirming the moral obligation to provide food and water to severely disabled people as part of "ordinary care" (his address is also inside), relates to the Affirmation Item 3, affirming the sacredness of all human life.
Another steadying signal in the stormy sky is the firm beacon of teaching from the pope and the Holy See of the past twenty years. I intended to note how some of the most important Church documents that appeared after 1984 helped give direction to the floundering faithful, including WFF. But I have space only to list them, with the hope we can revisit some of them during the coming anniversary year.
1987 Redemptoris Mater - The Mother of the Redeemer
1988 Christifidelis Laici - post-synodal letter on the laity
1988 Mulieris Digitatem on the dignity of women
1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church (See Links Page)
1994 Catechism appears in English
1994 Ordinatio Sacerdotalis - on priestly ordination
1995 Evangelium Vitae - encyclical "The Gospel of Life"
1997 Ecclesia de Mysterio - on collaboration of laity
2003 Ecclesia de Eucharistia - "The Church of the Eucharist"
I had also hoped to summarize Women for Faith & Family's formal responses to some of the major issues we encountered in the past two decades, but that, too, must wait. This partial list gives some idea.
1987 Testimony for the Synod on the Laity based on more than 10,000 letters from women.
1989 Statement on Feminism, Language and Liturgy (jointly with women religious of the Institute on Religious Life and Consortium Perfectae Caritatis)
1994 Statement on US involvement in the UN Conference on Population in Cairo
1994 Statement on Ordinatio Sacerdotalis
1995 Statement on Feminism, Language and Liturgy (revised following Ordinatio Sacerdotalis and the Catechism.)
1997 Statement on "Always Our Children"
2001 Letter to Missouri legislators on the revived "Equal Rights Amendment"
Our major effort the past few years has been Voices, expanded, improved, and with a distinguished editorial board. Also our ever-growing web site, begun in 1999, which provides resources, literally, to the world.
We wish we could say that our modest (but not always easy!) efforts have effected real changes in the often discouraging and disheartening moral landscape we now occupy. Obviously we cannot hope to reform the world or even a significant part of it. But we can brighten the corner where we are. What we can do -- and we must -- is to remain faithful to what we believe, to do our utmost to make it possible for the warmth and light of God's Truth to penetrate even the darkest, coldest and most forbidding corners, and to melt hearts of stone. For we know that this Truth of Jesus Christ is the source of all authentic freedom, all real hope. It has the power to liberate captives, to heal the broken-hearted, to nourish the sick and the sick-at-heart, and to bind up the world's wounds with His love -- beginning in our own families.
And this is what all women for faith and family want -- and are most seriously determined to do. We believe God has called each one of us into being at this particular moment in history, not at some other time, for a reason. We give Him thanks. We seek His will. We rely on His strength. And we will stay the course. God being our aid.
Helen Hull Hitchcock is founding director of Women for Faith & Family (1984-present) and editor of Voices. She is also editor of the Adoremus Bulletin (1995-present), a monthly publication of Adoremus - Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy, of which she is a co-founder and member of the executive committee. She is married to James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University. The Hitchcocks have four daughters and three granddaughters, and live in St. Louis.
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