On Saturday, Catholic San Francisco turned out in full force to honor Father Charlie Gagan, the longtime, much beloved Jesuit pastor of St. Ignatius – a magnificent structure gracing the campus of University of San Francisco, an archdiocesan parish. During this celebration liturgy, Father Gagan paused and offered prayer for the marvelous works of the 57,000 sisters of the Leadership Conference on Women Religious – a conference founded in 1956 for administrators from women’s religious orders.
I join the many prayers and voices of support for these women religious leaders. The lives of most Catholics and many non-Catholics have been touched with the love, charity and tenderness lived daily by the stalwart women of faith these women represent.
Father Gagan’s call to prayer was timely. The LCWR was stung recently by a critical assessment of its compliance with certain Catholic teachings and the appointment of “an Archbishop Delegate, assisted by two Bishops, for review, guidance and approval, where necessary, of the work of the LCWR.” This is hard medicine to swallow for some of these dynamic women. But it also comes as relief to others who, like me, welcome the oversight action of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith. It is hopeful news for pro-life women and Catholic New Feminists. With this oversight, LCWR may find its way to offer a spiritual example and leadership to pro-life women throughout its membership and within the Church itself.
This has been a long time coming.
I reflect here on one prong of the CDF’s conclusions, specifically that the LCWR had become dangerously dominated by “themes” of radical feminism that are “incompatible with Catholic faith.” Without specifically saying so, the CDF has finally brought to conclusion the conference’s ambivalent relationship with secular, pro-choice feminism.
It seems well accepted today that Catholic women, including religious, played a significant role in promoting the individual rights agenda of radical feminism, justified as a religious pursuit by the Christian call to promote social justice. The relationship between LCWR and radical feminism was forged decades ago when many Catholic sisters welded their call to religious life with a social justice mission to pursue the rights of women both within the Catholic Church and in secular society. “Both the call and the awareness of a woman’s right to pursue that call were labeled as holy.” (Catholic and Feminist: The Surprising History of American Catholic Feminist Movement, Mary Henold, 154) As Professor Henold has observed, “Once the LCWR went feminist, it did so wholeheartedly, using is conventions to speak out against sexism, support the ERA and women’s ordination, criticize the institutional church, and promote consciousness-raising among women religious.” (Henold, 103)
Abortion rights, of course, were a critical component of the second wave feminism LCWR embraced – the single item of the feminism agenda which most deeply divided Catholic radical feminists and lead to the founding and secular funding of Francis Kissling’s oxymoron “Catholics for Choice.”
Sadly, in my opinion, many Catholic feminists, including the religious leadership of the LCWR, opted to ignore the fundamental conflict between the Church’s teaching on abortion and the foundational nature of abortion to the radical feminist agenda. Had they parsed the conflict theologically and rationally, they may well have discovered earlier the profound impact of placing a woman’s individual rights ahead of the rights and interests of children and families. But leadership among religious women became consumed with the individual rights rhetoric of radical feminism and limitations upon their own secular power and position within the “oppressive patriarchy” of the Church they loved and served.
As a result, “The first fact about abortion that one notices perusing the Catholic feminist archival record is its absence . . . the majority of Catholic feminists found themselves caught among competing loyalties, beliefs, and strategies and therefore chose to avoid the subject as much as possible.” (Henold, 220) A policy of “avoidance and silence” emerged to cloak the conflict faithful Catholic women had with the movement’s devotion to unlimited, unrestricted services to terminate unborn life.
In some unknowable measure, Catholic radical feminists did not have a real conflict because many, in fact, had rejected the Church’s pro-life teaching.
Anecdotal evidence from interviews, though, suggests that a majority (but not an overwhelming majority) of feminists active in the Catholic Church were in favor of abortion rights. As women committed to both feminism and Catholicism, it is likely that most viewed abortion as a significant moral dilemma (instead of a mortal sin, on the one hand, and a triumphant rallying dry, on the other). (Henold, 221- 222)
This policy of “avoidance and silence” – one tolerated throughout the American Catholic Church for three decades – was shattered in secular circles by prominent Catholics like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi who famously declared that not only was she a devout pro-choice Catholic, but that the teachings of the Catholic Church on abortion were inconsistent and permitted personal exercise of conscience. Roused, the bishops finally recognized the damage and scandal created in the pews when radical feminism is proselytized as consistent with Catholic teachings in all respects.
It was perhaps the LCWR’s moving beyond its “avoidance and silence” abortion policy to the next level of blinkered denial that has finally provoked the CDF itself. LCWR has continued to support the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act because they are “assured” that no funds will be used for abortion services – even as the USCCB and myriad other pro-life groups have exposed both the abortion funding and abortion strategy of this administration and the health care legislation and related regulations. This new defiant denial of fact – much like a Sergeant Schultz “I see NOTHING. I know NOTHING” – has broadcast the LCWR “silence” on the Church’s abortion teaching as near deafening dissent. As the CDF noted,
The documentation reveals that, while there has been a great deal of work on the part of LCWR promoting issues of social justice in harmony with the Church’s social doctrine, it is silent on the right to life from conception to natural death, a question that is part of the lively public debate about abortion and euthanasia in the United States.
With Father Gagan, I pray for the religious women whose worthy work is tainted –and whose autonomy is curtailed – by the appointment of the Archbishop Delegate. I also pray for the religious women within the LCWR who have felt overwhelmed and compromised by the LCWR’s policy of avoidance and silence on an issue so dear to the heart of women of faith: the protection of unborn, innocent life. I pray these women will finally be given voice to dissent from radical feminism, rather than the Church they love.