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Bishop shuts down women’s series

NCR Staff

A retreat house in the Arlington, Va., diocese has cancelled a series of presentations on women’s spirituality at the request of Bishop Paul S. Loverde, who charged that the presenters “hold positions contrary to the formal teachings of the church.”

Complaints from a conservative Catholic activist group in Arlington triggered Loverde’s investigation of the presenters.

The series was to run one evening a month for three months, beginning Feb. 29, at the Dominican Retreat House in McLean, Va. Presenters were to be Mary Hunt and Diann Neu of the Washington-based Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual, and artist Mary Lou Sleevi of Arlington. Hunt has been an adjunct associate professor in the women’s studies program at Georgetown University for approximately five years.

A spokesperson said that because of “pressing pastoral and diocesan matters,” Loverde could not respond to NCR requests for comment. A column by Loverde in the March 2 issue of the Arlington Catholic Herald, however, lays out the reasons for his action.

“If the water in the well is allowed to become polluted, no one should be surprised when the people who drink it become ill,” Loverde wrote, saying the analogy was intended to underscore the “serious oversight” required of those responsible for formation in the faith.

Loverde said he had asked his staff to investigate the three presenters, calling the research “objective and thorough.”

That research, according to Loverde, found that Hunt refers to herself “as a Catholic feminist liberation theologian, pro-choice and lesbian.” Neu, Loverde wrote, has “authored a prayer service referred to as ‘liturgy’ and called ‘Eucharist.’ ”

“Sleevi’s paintings appear to be the focal point for those who believe that women must ‘oppose the patriarchal church,’ ” Loverde wrote. They “are accompanied by words of ‘empowerment,’ which may sound innocent enough but they take on a whole new meaning when they are applied in a feminist context.”

Loverde added that the three women “are reported to belong to organizations which have publicly supported positions opposed to the church, i.e., Women’s Ordination Conference, Catholics for a Free Choice and Call to Action.”

“We cancelled the series as a demonstration of good will to the bishop,” said Dominican Sr. Anne Lythgoe, spokesperson for the congregation in Elkins Park, Pa. “Our sisters have been in Arlington for almost 40 years, and never has there been any reason for the diocese to question their loyalty.”

Lythgoe said the sisters who invited the three presenters were familiar with their backgrounds.

The presenters told NCR they were not contacted by Loverde or his staff as part of the investigation.

Hunt said she was not surprised by Loverde’s action, insofar as she and Neu were concerned. “I’ve been out as a lesbian for 25 years,” Hunt said. “I’ve been publicly pro-choice.” She said the information about her and Neu in Loverde’s letter was “basically accurate.”

“What’s problematic is that we call ourselves Catholic,” Hunt said. “He wouldn’t care if I was an out lesbian, pro-choice Unitarian.”

Sleevi, however, told NCR that she felt Loverde’s letter amounted to “slandering my good name.”

“All of this has been lifted out of context,” she said. “I feel like I’ve been punched in the belly.”

Sleevi, a longtime Mass-goer in the Arlington diocese, said she has given retreats to religious orders and twice had her work exhibited at meetings sponsored by the U.S. bishops’ conference. Two collections of her art with scriptural reflections have been published by Ave Maria Press. She and her husband have been active in the Christian Family Movement, cursillo and the charismatic renewal.

Sleevi denied that her paintings are a focal point for opposition to the church.

“I believe that patriarchy is not big enough, and that feminism is not a dirty word,” Sleevi said, “but in my mind that is not an attack on the church.”

Both Sleevi and Hunt acknowledged ties to Call to Action and the Women’s Ordination Conference. Hunt said she has served on the board of Catholics for a Free Choice, but Sleevi said she has never been a member.

The Northern Virginia chapter of Call to Action plans to sponsor the series itself in the coming year. Hunt said she is “ready and willing,” but Sleevi has declined to take part.

Loverde was urged to look into the series by an Arlington-based group called Les Femmes, which had planned to hold a candlelight prayer vigil at the retreat house unless the series was cancelled. The group encouraged members to send e-mails and letters to Loverde.

Loverde refers to these communications in his March 2 column. “Although I fully affirm that persons who dissent from the formal and authentic teachings of the church … cannot be permitted to speak in our Catholic institutions, I am saddened that often the letters I receive attack persons rather than their positions. Such was the case in this recent situation,” he wrote.

Mary Ann Kreitzer, who heads Les Femmes, said she agreed that Catholics should voice concerns charitably “to the degree that’s possible.”

“But if the burglar has his hand in the silver box, it’s hard to always be charitable when you’re trying to get his hand out,” she told NCR.

Kreitzer said Les Femmes was formed by Catholics “frustrated over the fact that the only women who appear to be heard in the church are feminists.” She said she was pleased with Loverde’s action. “Thank God for such a wonderful bishop,” Kreitzer said. “He obviously is going to be a father to this diocese.”

Hunt said that she believes the cancellation raises a “real estate” question.

“We look forward to a day when Catholic real estate will belong to the whole church and when differences will put us in dialogue and not in jeopardy,” she said.

National Catholic Reporter, March 17, 2000