So, I reached back into my past for inspiration, to 1973, when I was required to write a semester paper as a credit elective. The Washington Theological Coalition, as my school was called then, taught a core curriculum for all students for theological masters degrees, but we were permitted to choose a specialty, and mine was morality. In my school, the morality department embraced both Christian ethics and spirituality, somewhat like the Catechism’s organization today. Having been skillfully advised by priest/graduates from the classes ahead of me, I was careful to choose a topic that I figured my professors knew nothing about.
So, for my independent study, I proposed “Women’s Liberation and the Church.” I think my faculty readers were intrigued more than anything else, and when pressed for my objectives, I said that there was a large body of secular literature and certainly much media activism coming forward on behalf of the equality of women, and that I hadn’t seen much Catholic literature or action on the subject in the 1960’s. [There were, in fact, several Catholic women who had published on the subject by the early 1970’s, but I was unaware of that.] I don’t recall setting out to critique the Church, but I was already mindful of Father Andrew Greeley’s observation that “the Church arrives on the scene a little breathless and a little late.” I did have a dim sense that feminism, like the antiwar movement, then at its peak, was something the Church would have to deal with pastorally and academically. And, I was just plain interested.
As much as I loved the Catholic University Mullen Library in my university days, it was not exactly noted for its secular feminist literature, which necessitated my making frequent trips up Rhode Island Avenue to the Maryland Book Exchange, which sat adjacent to the University of Maryland. It was a massive independent textbook/research book dealer, the prices kept very low for us struggling young radicals. The Book Exchange was a great help to me, and I returned home with piles of used copies of the works of feminist thinkers and activists obtained at bargain prices. [I could never understand how, during an anti-war demonstration, the store was later set on fire.]
I was lucky that I was a full-time graduate student of the Coalition. Had I continued at Catholic University, where I obtained my B.A., I don’t think I would have had the freedom to undertake that kind of research, at least under the auspices of its school of theology. CU was more buttoned down, a pontifical university. Its few forays into radical politics had not gone particularly well. In March 1971 several of my classmates attended a lecture by a radical feminist, Ti Grace Atkinson, at the CU student union, who in her comments made a statement about the Virgin Mary that was both tasteless and blasphemous. William F. Buckley’s sister Pat rushed from the audience to the stage and took a swing at Ms. Atkinson; the story subsequently ran in the Washington Post and Time Magazine. The Coalition, which I attended, was formed in 1969 by a consortium of religious orders who pooled their best academics into an academy that seemed more at home with the tenor of Vatican II as we understood it then.
It was not simply the secular crusading for women’s rights that generated my interest, though. I went into this paper project with several real life “givens” from my Catholic life. Attending summer school at St. Bonaventure University for several summers with religious sisters from the Northeast, working retreats for religious in DC and New Hampshire, and working with several Georgetown women’s high schools providing weekend retreats, I came quite naturally to the idea of working with women in ministry. I heard a great deal from them about the struggles of religious women’s communities with local bishops and what today we would call clericalism.
But long before that, as a kid I noticed quite a difference in the lifestyles of priests and nuns. I was in the fourth grade when I was called to the principal’s office. I liked Sister Macrina and we got on well, but a summons is still a summons. In front of her eighth-grade girls’ class [she had no office], she asked if my dad could drive the sisters of the parish convent to the community’s motherhouse in downtown Buffalo for the wake of one of their religious confreres who had died. [I always wondered later how she knew he had just purchased a new 1957 Chevy 9-passenger station wagon for our growing family.] My dad and I took care of business, and after the sisters were dropped off, I told him it was too bad the convent didn’t have its own car. I knew the four priests in my parish each owned a car—I used to get paid to wash them.
But back to 1973 Washington: I read a lot of authors who probably would not be recognized today—Erica Jong, Kate Millet, Simone de Beauvoir, among others—and Betty Friedan, whose 1963 The Feminine Mystique is still respected as one of the best popular analyses of women’s unrest in the United States after World War II. As I recall, Friedan discussed the power of male corporations and institutions in shaping the self-image of American women. In my generation we still joke about TV’s June Cleaver doing her housework in pearls, but Friedan was the first author to critique this stereotype as a form of masculine economic suppression.
Friedan made very good sense to me, as she resonated with protests of other forms of commercialized pressure [e.g., the tobacco industry and the auto industry] and she prepped me for examining the limited Catholic writing available at that time on women’s identity. The two Catholic authors I can still remember are Sidney Callahan and Mary Daly. Callahan’s best-known work at the time was Beyond Birth Control . I regret I do not have a copy of my paper today, but my memory is that the author, a psychologist and a mother of six children, was attempting to hold together “the Catholic middle” in the face of Pope Paul’s teaching banning the use of artificial birth control. The idea of a male authority figure legislating on medical issues of deep concern to women—without their input—was, at the least, questionable to many, and Callahan, who remains a devout Catholic, was attempting to take the debate to a higher plane.
It is quite a leap from Callahan’s maternal and spiritual outlook to that of Mary Daly. Did twentieth-century Catholic higher education produce a more controversial iconoclast of Catholicism’s male history and orientation than Mary Daly? Daly died in 2010 at age 81. Her life, academic history, and writings are truly one of a kind. She began her career as a Catholic theologian at Boston College. Her early work, The Church and the Second Sex, nearly cost her a tenured position. [If you want to see what could get you fired from Boston College, there is a generous excerpt from this book on Amazon here.]
Looking at her career and the development of her thought, can one even call her a Catholic theologian? My professors thought so. Boston College thought so for a long time. There was a long list of theologians exploring the outer edges of the Catholic universe at the time, and Daly would have been one of them. But note that she was among the first women to reach full doctoral and faculty status and join the faculty of a Catholic university. Amazing as this may sound today, Catholic women were not permitted to seek masters and doctoral level degrees at any Catholic institution of higher learning in the United States until after World War II. [Sidney Callahan's advanced degrees were in the field of psychology.]
At the time I read Daly, she was emphasizing the structural and existential struggles of being a woman throughout history in the Church, a reality that more recent historical research has affirmed. Just today Phyllis Zagano raised the historical theological slant against femininity in her reporting on the Amazon Synod now in session in Rome. As her research and speculation later unfolded, Daly turned to new language and concepts of God purified of masculine overtones. At some point she consciously moved from theology to philosophical sociology, plumbing the depths of both universal womanhood and male manipulation of the female experience. She was actually taken to court for her refusal to allow males in her classes; she argued that the collegian women in her classes behaved differently in the presence of boys.
I do think she served the Church well in at least two critical ways. First, she put the troubled past of the Church before the world with her initial books and reminded us that Christianity is not exempt from the adage that “the victors write the history.” This was my biggest takeaway from reading her and formed the basis for my concluding paragraph, that Catholics must approach our common life with the understanding that our tradition is cast by the masculine mind.
Her second contribution is a philosophical error, for want of a better word, that has remained a prod to my conscience for many years. Daly’s method of thought was based on a primacy of female experience. She came to be criticized by women of color, who argued at she, a prosperous and highly regarded white woman, was overreaching, that she could not know the experience of women in multiple cultures and settings. One can see that establishing an infallible primacy of one’s own judgments of moral reality based solely on limited human experience, male or female, is a road to a type of chaos that we are presently experiencing in religion and society.
The basic theological issue in play here today is the forum of personal experience and conscience vis-à-vis a common vision of love and justice, or put another way, my ability to “sympathize” or to “feel with” the suffering and hopes of others. It is common to hear Vatican II Catholics referred to as “cafeteria Catholics,” implying a process of picking and choosing which doctrines and moral teachings to be observed, based upon individual subjective feelings. On the other hand, blind obedience—in this case to a male and clerical structure—has proven the wisdom of Lord Acton’s nineteenth century dictum, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Nearly a half-century later feminism, in the best sense of the word, remains one of our Church’s greatest moral frontiers. It addresses the very heart of how we think and feel in our religious identity. I am pleased to say that much of the best moral writing in Catholic academics is the product of women theologians. In future posts I will be working with Sister Anne E. Patrick’s Liberating Conscience: Feminist Explorations in Catholic Moral Theology  and Sister Margaret Farley’s Just Love  to go much beyond what was available to me in 1973.
I burned a lot of gas and spent a pile of money on books, but I did get an A. I do wonder, though, if in 2019 there is any seminary anywhere that would allow a seminarian to do a project like this. It is a much more button downed church world today. I’m rather glad I had the privilege.