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Feminist voices by turns positive, pugnacious

By Kaye Ashe
Sheed and Ward, 172 pages, $14.95

By Joan Chittister
Eerdmans/Novalis, 187 pages, $20


Paradoxically, inevitable and uncertain are both apt words to describe the impact of feminism on the church and religion in the view of these deeply committed Christian feminists, Dominican Sr. Kaye Ashe and Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister. Both present convincing arguments for regarding feminization as a revolutionary movement with the power to revitalize institutions or to render them irrelevant. All depends on whether or not a thoroughly patriarchal system such as the church opens itself to receive the gifts feminists have to offer or prefers a path of resistance.

The two books share a broad platform of agreement, beginning with the basic assumption that the church has everything to gain from receptivity to feminist perspectives. They agree that considerable progress has been made toward feminization, judging from the fact that “women are speaking out everywhere” (Chittister) and that women are demonstrably much more a part of the church’s life today than they were prior to Vatican II (Ashe).

They agree, also, on the destructiveness of patriarchy on the church as well as on society as a whole: The long-standing and pervasive assertion of male dominance over the female has had a pernicious, not to say tragic, effect on people’s lives. Both offer an analysis of how patriarchy has influenced past religious belief and practice and of how feminist thinking has begun to change things. Each, however, goes about this critique in very different ways.

Ashe sets a constructive, conciliatory tone from the outset by expressing satisfaction with the ways women’s “presence, voice, experience, history, gifts, energy and creativity” are already being recognized in the church as in civil society. At the risk of being regarded as a hopelessly naive optimist, she contends that the feminization of the church -- that is, its wholehearted embrace of a feminist vision of equality, inclusion and mutuality -- is well along the way to realization, thanks to the power of the Spirit and the prophetic imagination of many individuals.

We are invited to draw our own conclusions on the subject by reflecting with her on the extent to which women’s perspectives have begun to transform spirituality, ethics, language, ministry and leadership. Five respondents who have filled positions of leadership in the Dominican order or the scholarly world -- Frs. Donald J. Goergen, Daniel Syverstad, Edward M. Ruane, Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, and Sr. Patricia Walter -- offer their reflections in a special appendix.

Chittister, in a style by turns abrasive, poetic and humorous (we have “30 words for car, ... and dozens of names for dog breeds, [but see] using two pronouns for the human race” as fine), declares that the church is in a rut so far as progression towards feminization is concerned. It behooves men and women who believe in God and the Christian path to struggle to promote Christian feminism, to go deep and think fresh -- in a word, to seek after the “heart of flesh” promised to the prophet Ezekiel.

Making adroit use of personal anecdote and the language of passionate advocacy, Chittister challenges the reader to embrace feminist spirituality and carry the message to nonbelievers. Full-page illustrations in color by artist Nancy Earle add an often striking visual reinforcement to the narrative for each of 16 brief chapters.

Whether we find one book or the other more illuminating or persuasive is largely a matter of taste. Reading the two in tandem is a highly recommended exercise for all seeking an appreciation of what feminism has to offer the church.

Spirituality, or the ways human beings think, feel and act with respect to God, is perhaps the most revealing of the areas Ashe and Chittister explore as they consider the past effects of patriarchy and the future potential of feminism. The rediscovered works of women like Hildegard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich and Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz remind us of dimensions of spirituality that have lain hidden for centuries, overlooked on bookshelves dominated by Thomas à Kempis, Ignatius Loyola and Alphonsus Ligouri.

We have much to learn from the women: A disposition to see the sacred in the mundane; appreciation of the goodness of the human being, body and soul; an esteem for love, friendship and relationships as being at the heart of morality; and an integrated view of moral goodness and virtue without distinction between actions taken in a private or public arena.

Ashe offers a particularly sensitive treatment of the subject of women’s leadership and exercise of the ministries of theologian, ethicist, and pastoral/liturgical presider, complemented by Chittister’s consideration of issues of power and autonomy, and of St. Benedict’s 12 degrees of humility viewed through the lens of feminist spirituality. Rather than being a denial of the hierarchy’s legitimate concern for sound teaching and unity, women’s desire for an “autonomous existence” and ministerial roles commensurate with their human dignity is a protest against the excesses of patriarchy and clericalism.

Enlightened by feminism and Benedict, a “major countercultural witness” in his age, women and men today can embrace a “spirituality of right relationships,” rid their hearts of the warped pride that feeds violence and commit themselves to a humility that brings each one to authenticity, dispels patriarchal delusions and empowers all to realize and fulfill their potential.

There is some understandable exaggeration in both volumes, intent as the authors are on accounting in an all too brief space for the emergence of patriarchy in church and society over two millennia, and on sharing their vision of how feminism can revitalize a world about to enter the third millennium of the Christian era. Historical detail is necessarily omitted, generalizations are made with scant attention to the complexities of human motivation and action. Did the masculine emphasis on reason over emotion from the Renaissance onward really account for the slave trade, exploitation of a new laboring class and the extermination of whole races of people -- or did emotions such as greed and lust for power and the unwitting introduction of diseases among people lacking natural immunity play a role? Are all past movements toward human dignity and freedom to be found wanting because women were second-class beneficiaries or ought we to appreciate each as a step toward dignity and freedom for all?

Perusal of the historical record reveals giants of the spiritual life such as Teresa of Avila whose gender in no way inhibited influence, and important junctures in the development of canon law at which the prevalent tide of patriarchy and clericalism was stemmed. To cite an example, Clement V’s bull of 1311, Quia Contingit, had far-reaching consequences for women’s leadership when it declared that the office of hospital administrator was open to lay or religious men or women rather than being an ecclesiastical benefice as clergy were then claiming.

That numerous other examples of this nature could be cited should not detract from Ashe and Chittister’s tour de force in presenting a convincing case for looking to feminism for the clear-sightedness and spiritual energy to “love the God we cannot see and to see the God around us whom we have yet to come to love” (Chittister). Isn’t this where gender equity and the gospel message converge, after all?

Sister of St. Joseph Karen M. Kennelly is president of Mount St. Mary’s College in Los Angeles.

National Catholic Reporter, October 16, 1998