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A radical option for feminist communities


No one saw it coming: an abundance of women theologians. Three decades ago, as membership in religious congregations declined, Catholic women began to enroll as students of theology -- an academic pursuit generally restricted to male clerics prior to 1960.

“From 1970 on,” says Missionary of the Sacred Heart Fr. Diarmuid O’Murchu, “we find increasing numbers of women beginning to study theology. Then, as we moved into the late ’70s and early ’80s, we see lay people teaching theology.”

Talking to attendees at last year’s Religious Formation Conference, O’Murchu said recent research estimates that by 2010 in the English-speaking world -- the United States, Canada, parts of Europe, Africa and Asia -- 60 percent of all theologians in the Catholic church will be lay people, and three-quarters of them women.

The overall male monopoly on Catholic theology, in place for almost 2,000 years, will have toppled in a mere 40 years, he said.

Gathering the actual numbers on all this is less than easy. Masters of divinity figures (Association of Theological Schools in America and Canada, 1998) include Christian students of both genders: 29,263. Of those, 8,770 are women students.

Use the “23 percent of the population is Catholic” rule, and that’s roughly 2,400 Catholic women masters of divinity in the making. Knowing Catholic young women, the figure is likely to be higher.

The other figures, same source, provide a total of 237 member schools -- Protestant, Catholic and Christian -- with 68,875 students, 23,176 of them women. Roughly 6,000 Catholic women theology students. That’s an impressive number.

It doesn’t mean that all these Catholic women are feminists. But they are theologians.

This focus on theological study by Catholic lay women and women religious has to significantly impact Catholic ministry. (Most women theologians refuse to be intimidated by Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Pope John Paul II’s 1990 apostolic letter on higher education. They see it, quite rightly, as an attempt to control theological thought.)

So, despite Ex Corde, women’s academic horizons have broadened, and they are teaching theology at Catholic and others institutions nationwide.

Further, the shortage of male priests has left more than 10 percent of U.S. parishes without resident priests, and women are successfully taking on this pastoral work. Women theologians are chaplains in hospitals, prisons, hospices. They are spiritual directors, campus ministers and feminist liturgists. (And we can rely on Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and Hermann Häring for that information: Concilium, 1999/3, “Non-Ordination of Women,” Orbis Press.)

While in the past Catholic women who studied theology were often assumed to be seeking ordination, this is clearly less the case today. As much as many of them respect individual male priests, most women do not want to be co-opted into the patriarchal power structure of the Roman Catholic priesthood.

Equally, while they admire the progress made by many women ordained in U.S. Protestant denominations -- especially since the 1970s -- many Catholic women will not expend energy required to oppose the Vatican’s strategies of repression and censure. The women simply walk around that obstacle. Or away from it.

Typical is the recent decision by British Sr. Lavinia Byrne. She said she was “bullied” by the Vatican, pressured to declare support for church teaching against contraception and women’s ordination (NCR, Jan. 21). Instead, because of this “pressure from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,” she seeks dispensation from vows after 35 years as a member of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

What actually happens? Byrne, hurt, and in a sense homeless from her order, continues on at Cambridge Theological Federation, preparing students from Protestant denominations for ordination and preparing Catholic women for ministry in the church.

To a lesser degree, ordained women priests in Protestant denominations also face these pressures. Not long ago I attended the 25th anniversary celebration marking the first public eucharistic celebration by women in the U.S. Episcopal church.

The Rev. Alison Cheek was one of the 11 women deacons ordained as an Episcopalian priest in Philadelphia, July 29, 1974. When she recently returned to St. Stephen and the Incarnation Church in Washington, where she first celebrated the Eucharist, she noted that in 1973 there were no U.S. Episcopalian women priests, while today there are l,995 women priests and eight women bishops.

During a panel discussion she fielded questions about empowerment, tokenism and “climbing up the same ladder as men, and whether women made a difference as ordained Episcopal priests through their feminist values.”

Cheek responded, “[Episcopal] women [priests] are bonding together even more closely to change abusive structures. We cannot hang on to structures of a medieval church.”

For Catholics, the question is: Will Catholic women theologians seek ordination, fully aware that they face the burden of correcting abuses in the power structure of the all-male priesthood? Or will they choose non-ordination in order to take part in creative ministries rooted in equality, inclusivity and shared decision-making?

O’Murchu’s view is that the new generation of women theologians is not worried about the big problems of the institutional church. They are concerned about the major problems of our world: How do you do theology in the context of human rights, in the context of emerging ecological awareness, of politics, all-pervading capitalist materialism and affluence, of socio-economic injustice?

And if women theologians keep all forms of “justice center stage, what will it begin to look like?” he asked.

These are big theological questions of our time, said O’Murchu. And it is today’s religious communities that can best propagate and encourage this emerging sense of our world in theological terms.

To me, that suggests a radical option.

Feminist theologians and women in religious congregations should team up. Women religious can use their institutional strengths and theological frontiership to develop feminist religious communities.

At one level, those communities would be theological support groups for all women studying theology -- whether for ordination or not. The benefit to the lone, sometimes isolated theology students is obvious. The benefit to the religious communities is that, given their rich charisms, their focus on education, social justice and church work, their ministries would be extended, given new life in the person of the young women theologians.

Whatever the nuts and bolts of a new feminist religious community structure, the combination could mean a way new feminist ideas and models, new feminist insights into scripture and theology could be shared with the whole church.

What a great blessing.

NCR columnist Dorothy Vidulich is a Sister of St. Joseph of Peace and a co-member of the Loretto community.

National Catholic Reporter, April 14, 2000