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‘Coloring outside the patriarchal lines’

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
South Bend, Ind.

Fifteen women, widely recognized as among the country’s most distinguished theologians, recently produced a manifesto of “hope and courage” inviting other women to imagine a future different from the one possible under current Catholic church leadership, declaring, “The way things are now is not the design of God.”

The manifesto was produced during a three-day retreat April 28-30 at St. Mary’s College in South Bend, Ind., for 15 of the women theologians who have, over the past 16 years, been part of the Madeleva Lecture series, an annual event honoring Holy Cross Sr. Madeleva Wolff. Wolff was an internationally known poet and president of St. Mary’s from 1934-1961. The series, under the direction of Keith J. Egan, was founded in 1985 to continue the nun’s pioneering efforts in women’s education and to provide a forum for women’s concerns in the church. Wolff started the first graduate theology program for women in the United States in 1943, and is credited with initiating what now, 60 years later, can be seen as the advances of women in theological scholarship and intellectual leadership in the American church.

Asked to compose a “Charter for Women of Faith in the New Millennium,” they produced instead “The Madeleva Manifesto: A Message of Hope and Courage,” inviting women to imagine different church structures and reject those that have excluded women from full participation and ownership.

This year’s 16th annual Madeleva lecturer was Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Sandra Schneiders, professor of New Testament studies and spirituality at the Jesuit School of Theology and the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley, Calif. She characterized Madeleva, who died in 1964, as someone “who was coloring outside the patriarchal lines long before we realized that those lines did not, in fact, provide the whole picture.”

Former Madeleva lecturers now hold chairs at many of the top theological schools in the country and are past or current presidents of the major national theological societies and associations.

This year’s event, three years in the planning and timed to coincide with the Jubilee Year, was the context for Schneiders’ talk, “With Oil in Their Lamps: Faith, Feminism and the Future.” The talk was presented April 28 to an audience that included some 400 students, alumni and faculty from St. Mary’s College and the University of Notre Dame. It expounded the feminist theme that helped shape the manifesto, which was presented to the public the next evening during a panel discussion with the other participants.

In her address, Schneiders reviewed the history of the women’s movement and the rise of feminist consciousness in the 20th century. She defined feminism as “a comprehensive ideology, rooted in women’s experience of sexually based oppression, which engages in a critique of patriarchy as an essentially dysfunctional system, embraces an alternative vision for humanity and the earth and actively seeks to bring this vision to realization.”

The complexity of the women’s movement, its global character and broad goals, and the fact that feminism means many different things to different people has often obscured and obstructed the efforts of feminists in the church, she said. “Gospel feminism,” in contrast, has deepened and expanded the concept to include basic human liberation, “right relations” in every respect, and is inseparable from the gospel of Jesus, whose life and example is now the primary source for the women’s movement within the church, Schneiders said.

“We need to claim, consciously and publicly, without apology or equivocation, our conviction that the feminist vision is not simply one utopian dream among others, the private cause of some disgruntled women, but a crucial factor in the shaping of the future because it is quintessentially a gospel vision of full humanity for all persons and right relations among all creatures,” she said.

The cost of patriarchy has been high in the Catholic church, she said. Citing the experience of fellow Madeleva lecturers, Schneiders told her audience: “Today, women like Joan Chittister, Denise Carmody and Mary Collins, who are trying to open the institutional church and its ministry to the vocations and gifts of women, are pushing a Sisyphean boulder of nearly 1,800 year’s weight up the greased hill of a fiercely defended male power structure.”

As difficult as women’s journey has been, especially for those who are committed to change from within, Schneiders said she finds hope in the long-term advances women have made in education, especially because of the work of women religious. If this can be extended into future generations, and if young people can be drawn into mentoring relationships with committed women, both religious and lay, this gospel-centered, feminist consciousness will have its effect over time.

Schneiders described Jesus as a model of the “lived tension” appropriate to feminists living in today’s church. Jesus was faithful to his religious tradition, to synagogue and to the ritual practices of his day. But he did not hesitate to transform them in the light of his mystic encounter with God and his vision of the reign of God. He was often led to exceed the letter of the law for the sake of the spirit of the law, to set aside ritual observance for spiritual reality, Schneiders said. The tension was especially apparent when Jesus responded with compassion to outcasts and the oppressed. Jesus’ life of service and his sacrificial death were played out in this mediated tension.

Schneiders said the kind of conversion needed to understand the claims of feminism in the church would only come through “shocks to the imagination.” She cited the experience of Oscar Romero, who changed from a timid ecclesiastic and supporter of the status quo to a tireless champion of the poor when confronted with the tortured body of his martyred priest friend, Jesuit Fr. Rutilio Grande. “He did not simply change his political ideas: His world changed.”

In a later open session, Schneiders spoke of a bishop whose conversion came when a personal friend was raped. “After being up close and personal with this kind of pain, he will never be the same,” Schneiders said. “His imagination was traumatized. He cannot sit at a bishops’ meeting and discuss abortion, domestic abuse or any women’s issue in the same way again.”

Schneiders concluded her lecture by citing the parable of the wise virgins awaiting the bridegroom with their lamps filled with oil as a means of inviting women not to despair but to actively prepare for what is, in the final analysis, “God’s great work, not ours.”

As if to illustrate the kind of lived tension required of feminists in today’s church, at the liturgy celebrated Saturday evening with the Madeleva lecturers, assembled board of trustees, alumni and weekend guests, Dominican Sr. Mary Catherine Hilkert took the pulpit to preach after Holy Cross Fr. Michael Connors, the presider, had delivered a brief “homily.” He yielded to her for a “reflection” on the gospel story of doubting Thomas from John 20:19-31.

An obvious maneuver to satisfy the letter of the law, this simple adaptation in liturgy is commonly used as the church continues a deep debate over liturgical correctness. Hilkert used the moment to tell of those first women apostles “carrying the gospel of resurrection to a church of locked doors and locked hearts.”

Hilkert noted the feast that day for Catherine of Siena, a 14th-century laywoman thrust into the center of the ecclesiastical warfare of her own day as peacemaker to both a wounded church and a divided society. Catherine died an apparent failure, leaving a church in schism and a civil society at war, Hilkert noted, a message to her listeners about the need for an enduring faith in “things unseen.”

The Madeleva group’s manifesto was presented to the public, proclaimed in both English and Spanish, by Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister and Jeanette Rodriguez.

The 300-word statement was addressed to women throughout the church whose suffering has been, in Schneiders’ words, “to be there, in the trenches, waiting for something that is still not there.” Addressed particularly to young women, the statement offers encouragement and solidarity to the thousands of women who now serve the church in theological ministry and as the essential work force that gives operational existence to the pastoral structures of the domestic church.

St. Joseph Sr. Elizabeth Johnson said the message was for those who are “hanging on by their fingernails, in deep spiritual distress.” She used the image from rural Ireland of women who bank the fire in the hearth when evening comes to conserve fuel and make sure it doesn’t go out. “We are entering into a particularly dark time,” Johnson said, “a time to keep hope alive. When morning comes, the banked fire can be flared up again.”

During panel remarks after the proclamation, the audience was given glimpses into the two-day process that produced it. The group affirmed its decision to maintain a carefully nuanced continuity with secular feminism, despite its heavily loaded association with hot-button issues such as abortion, while focusing its goals within gospel values. The group admitted that feminism still faces major unresolved issues of how equality should respect real gender differences. Authentic “gospel feminism,” they said, lies somewhere between the problematic gains of liberal feminism -- women in boxing, or women adopting the aggressive competitiveness of men -- and the dualistic trap of romantic or “papal” feminism -- women locked into gender-assigned roles based on a notion of complementarity that still subordinates women to men.

Holy Names Sr. Mary Boys summed up the panel’s regard for their careful and deliberate labor. “We all hate editing by committee. We cared about every phrase. We invite you to re-imagine what it means to be the whole body of Christ.”

Chittister, who guided the panel’s freewheeling exchanges with an exuberant authority, thanked her feminist brothers for their “holy sensitivity” and said she would stake her own hopes on “the certainty of Easter Sunday for a battered, broken and rejected Jesus.”

Following the session, Chittister told NCR that these are difficult times for the progressive Catholics who have waited and worked for the fulfillment of Vatican II promises of a more collegial, inclusive church. At a time when even one of its most progressive voices, Bishop Rembert Weakland, is predicting a period of retrenchment in liturgical and pastoral life under an increasingly cautious American episcopacy, and when Rome seems especially intent in punishing dissent, Chittister said she still sees a profound renewal underway, with or without official church approval.

“The message is out. No structure is going to stop it. What the heart knows, no institution can wash away. Whether a woman feels despair or hope doesn’t make any difference,” she said. “The heart knows that something is happening. Simplicity is its truth, and its truth is in its simplicity. The Holy Spirit is seeding the world for change. There is a message here for every person, and they can respond by organizing, gathering together, communicating and together speaking out. How sad, how tragic, it will be if people have to go elsewhere, even to secular feminism, to hear the gospel.”

Patrick Marrin is editor of Celebration, NCR’s sister publication on liturgy.

National Catholic Reporter, May 12, 2000