Cover story -- Church in transition
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Issue Date:  April 22, 2005

Feminist critique sees much pain, some hope


Maria Pilar Aquino, the daughter of migrant farm workers, grew up “with a thirst for knowledge and a passion for theology.” The Nayarit, Mexico, native moved with her parents to San Luis, Ariz., as a young girl. César Chávez was active in nearby fields, and nuns were role models.

Decades later, Aquino, now a religious studies professor at the University of San Diego, views John Paul II’s pontificate as a time of regression, missed opportunities and worse.

“During the early years of John Paul II’s pontificate, his initial two major social encyclicals Laborem Exercens [1981] and Solicitudo Rei Socialis [1987], which advocated for the dignity of work, the primacy of labor over capital, global justice and solidarity seemed to confirm that the church was oriented toward transformation and renewal,” she said. “But these hopes were soon suffocated and turned into despair.”

Meanwhile, Christine Gudorf, for a decade and a half a theologian at Jesuit-run Xavier University in Cincinnati and today an ethicist at Florida International University in Miami, attributes her departure from the Catholic school faculty to John Paul II. “The [Xavier] university’s academic leadership was very supportive of academic freedom, but I’d get calls from the development office informing me that some big donor had just withdrawn a pledge because of some lecture I’d given,” said Gudorf. “The change that John Paul II brought about is the reason I’m no longer at Xavier. It was no longer a safe place for someone like me, in ethics, who specialized in sexuality.”

She left Xavier voluntarily in 1993.

The feminist critique of John Paul II’s church offered by Aquino and Gudorf may not be fashionable at a time when wall-to-wall media coverage amounts to a secular canonization of the 264th pope. But the critique is more widespread than media coverage might suggest.

In the weeks since John Paul II’s death, a drumbeat of commentary focused on his special connection with the young. Few of them, it seems, took Aquino’s classes.

“My more than two decades of experience in the classroom provides extensive evidence of disinterest, disappointment and frustration,” she said.

“Each passing year,” said Aquino, “it is becoming more and more difficult to teach Catholic theology or Catholic social teaching.”

And, make no mistake about it, much of the blame lies with John Paul II, who, said Aquino, “fashioned a nonparticipative church where the clerical structure and sexist hierarchy had primacy. He sought to deactivate any theological discourse based on the option for the poor and the oppressed, and he showed no inclination nor will to discuss issues of the full participation of women in all spheres of the church’s life.

“How are we Roman Catholic theologians expected to teach about the pertinence and validity of Catholic theology when we are confronted on a daily basis with young students whose knowledge of the church has come through the news media speaking about priest sexual abuses, about unjust censorship against prominent Catholic theologians, about sexist Vatican policies and declarations, or about the abuses of power by the authoritarian Roman curia?” asked Aquino.

Ignorance is vast. “How are we to teach as I am faced with younger generations who have barely or never heard about the Second Vatican Council or the conclusions of the Latin American bishops at Medellín [Colombia]?”

Added Gudorf, “I’m teaching this class on the medieval church. It used to be canceled all the time because there’s so little interest in the church, the Catholic church. They all want something exotic. I renamed it ‘Saints, Witches and Cathedrals.’ In the last three or four years I get 70 to 80 students in this class. It just says something about how easy they are to manipulate,” she said with a laugh.

But it’s not simply a lack of basic knowledge -- it’s also apathy and its twin, hostility. Gudorf estimates that only 20 percent of the cradle Catholic graduate students she teaches and about one-third of the undergrads are active in the church. John Paul II’s church, she said, offers few answers to the questions they are asking.

For example, said Gudorf, the ethical issues of the day are “tough, and the church doesn’t recognize it.” She speaks from both professional understanding and personal experience as a critic of John Paul II’s 2004 redefinition of ordinary and extraordinary medical care.

“Two of our three sons have serious birth defects. One died in October. Some years ago we decided that because some bishops were very conservative about this issue we would not use Catholic hospitals for these sons. They’ve both been in situations where they’ve been comatose for some days. And we knew what was going to happen. And they did not want and we did not want to have them in a vegetative state for years at a time.”

Another example: Gudorf received an e-mail from a former student, the mother of two children. The father committed suicide two years ago. She wrote that she was four weeks pregnant by a man she’d been seeing for three months. Said Gudorf, “The woman is still in school and working, too.”

The former student told Gudorf, “This is not necessarily a permanent relationship. It’s in its early days. We can’t see each other very often.”

“Intellectually,” the former student told Gudorf, “I think I want an abortion. But I don’t know if I can live with it.”

Gudorf’s reaction? “I thought, ‘Oh, my God, so what am I going to tell her? Go see your parish priest?’ ”

Ultimately, said Gudorf, “I told her that everybody has to make decisions for themselves. I can only point out some of the reasons on both sides. And then I advised her that whatever she did, she should do some praying about it. That she should think ahead to the future if she decides to have the child, to what kind of a mother she thinks she can be to this child. If she decides to go for an abortion, she should find some way to ritualize it so that she accepts her own decision and deals with this and doesn’t just desperately try to forget it. What angers me so much about the church position is they don’t recognize that it’s so tough.”

A new pontificate, a new day? Aquino is not without hope. “As I see it,” she said, “the last 26 years under the papacy of John Paul II, have been of resistance against the Vatican and Roman curial oppression in its obsession to eliminate any trace of critical liberation thinking. But those years have also been of struggle for a new democratic and participatory paradigm of church. Perhaps the great achievement of John Paul II is that through his implementation of pyramidal and centralizing policies, he has unintentionally contributed to widen the space of the church for theological dispute and contestation, thus intensifying the notion of church as a site of struggle.”

And Gudorf? Will she stay or will she go?

“The whole Vatican II period,” she said, “was a kind of Protestant Reformation in that it engaged the laity in theological questions that they hadn’t been involved in before. What John Paul did was to end that, because it didn’t make any difference what the people said. So now, theology doesn’t matter to them.”

If the situation doesn’t improve, what will she do?

“If it doesn’t?” she asked. “I don’t know what -- I really, really don’t.”

Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large. His e-mail address is Extended versions of these interviews can be found on

National Catholic Reporter, April 22, 2005

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