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An analysis by a theologian living in Philadelphia

The Catholic women factor in the United States

 Il fattore cattoliche  negli Stati Uniti  DCM-003
02 March 2024

The women’s question in the Church is no longer an exclusively Western, European and North American issue. This is the result of the gap between social promotion of women in society and the traditional (but not original) rigid differentiation of roles in Catholicism. The present phase in the history of Church-modern history relations, particularly the advent of post-colonial and de-colonial studies, has opened the eyes of Catholics to the global aspects of the women in the church issue.

However,  it is still true that the North American perspective -from the United States in particular- we are offered a unique and indispensable vantage point for understanding the intertwining of the women and church question, between internal (theological and institutional) and external (in the social, economic, political and cultural systems) dynamics. From the perspective of Church history, we have come out of the “American century,” but the United States is still a reference point for understanding global trends in the religious world, and in the Christian and Catholic in particular. The women’s issue in the United States, however, is often dismissed with a series of caricatures, myths and anti-myths (or negative myths) that identify it with the radical feminism that began in the 1960s and 1970s and is represented solely by the movement for presbyteral ordination or stances on issues of sexual morality. In reality, a longer and more complex history needs to be kept in mind to understand the women’s issue in the Catholic Church today.

The first factor is the contribution made by women to Church-building in North America over the past two centuries. That of the church in the United States is a Catholicism of recent immigration that saw its growth beginning in the mid-nineteenth century. She is a Church that began to exist, in a Country-continent still to be built, thanks to women. Women are the mothers (an idea of “heroic motherhood” that plays a role in the American reception of Paul VI’s encyclical, Humanae Vitae) and women religious who represent much more than the episcopate, clergy and male religious orders. They keep families going; populate the “Catholic neighborhood” with the parish at its center, and in a Country that until the second half of the twentieth century was officially though not constitutionally Protestant, where Catholics are considered second-class citizens. Women’s religious orders build schools, universities, hospitals that are no less important - indeed - than the parish and diocesan system. The contribution of women to the making of Catholicism in the USA, but also with a major global missionary thrust, is not a feminist myth, but history, and even recent history, which is very much alive in the self-understanding of the Church faithful in America.

A second factor is that of the reception of the Second Vatican Council in America, which has seen the voice of women’s theology emerge in different ways. There is the feminist theology of the big names: from Mary Daly's (1928-2010) groundbreaking text, The Church and the Second Sex (1968, before its post-Christian drift), to the seminal studies of Anne E. Carr (1934-2008), Elizabeth A. Johnson (1941) and Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza (1938- ). In fact, the birth of “feminist theology” can be situated between the years 1968-1975, contextually with what happened to Latin American liberation theology and North American black theology.

This proves it is impossible not to see in women and feminist theology in America a legitimizing element of a conciliar interpretation. Moreover, the reception that is faithful to the dynamics of the signs of the times of which it stands in relation to the role of women in modern society. However, it also marks the beginning of an epistemological shift in theology, which is capable of a feminist reading that restores the Bible and Tradition to a vitality for many centuries bridled by social and political dynamics that are not always evangelical. It is not only women who are raising the question of women in the church, but also male theologians (such as the editors of two special issues of Theological Studies and Concilium published in 1975). In 1995, American canonists stated, “in light of this research, the ordination of women to the permanent diaconate is possible, and may even be desirable for the United States under current cultural circumstances”. This is not just a topic of academic research reserved to the domain of a few elite universities. From the post-conciliar period onward, the arrival of generations of women theologians, religious and laywomen began to enrich the faculty of the more than two hundred Catholic (but not only) colleges and universities in the United States. This fundamentally changed the culture of American Catholicism, perhaps more than in any other Country.

A third element is the intersection with and differentiation from other feminist cultures. This includes mainstream, evangelical and fundamentalist Protestant Christianity, and other non-Christian religious traditions in America. Thanks in part to Vatican II, the interpretation of Scripture and tradition permitted Catholicism to make its own way on the path of rediscovering a feminine image of authority, which began with the feminine voices of the divine in the Bible. This has differentiated the thought and experience of women in Catholicism: both from Churches anchored in a rigid role-playing part of the settler and colonialist past of evangelical Protestantism, and from other religious traditions (Orthodox Judaism, Islam both of recent immigration and the Black Muslims). In an original and creative synthesis, one might say unique when the complex religious scene in the United States is considered. Catholicism resumes the form of a religious denomination known for its continuities but also capable of rereading tradition dynamically, while rediscovering forgotten or censored pages, not simply by a male religious authority but by centuries of dominant gender patterns. This had been happening since the beginning of the epic of Catholicism in the U.S., but then accelerated because of the massive cultural changes initiated by World War II, which brought about reflection and an irreversible maturity by the legal, social and economic innovations of the 1960s.

Finally, there is a fourth factor that brings us closer to our times. American Catholic feminism, in contact with other feminist cultures, has made Catholicism capable of reading the signs of the times in ways that are consonant with Pope Francis’ critique of modernity and post-modernity of late capitalism. An intersection of church social doctrine, feminist theology, and feminist thought that is critical of the identity obsessions of American culture (e.g., Lauren Berlant) offers Catholicism the opportunity to understand the capitalist and technocratic question in a unique way. In doing so, it is more fruitful than both the traditionalist illiberal critique of modernity and the “post-liberal” thesis that suffers from a lack of historical vision.

What is visible in America are the tensions of the period at the turn of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries between the “new Catholic feminism” as opposed to the theological feminism of the 1960s-1970s social-liberal establishment. However, these are tensions that are affected by generational dynamics that are also being redefined by the major sociological changes taking place, largely due to migratory phenomena that bring innovation to the role of women in American Catholicism. The post-conciliar history in America has much to teach, but has not ended.

The North American perspective does not resolve the existing tensions between the institutional system and instances of feminist theology. However, it helps to better understand its contours, beyond trivializations and caricatures. Above all, the question of the woman of the Church in the U.S. shapes and foreshadows some of the dynamics of Global Catholicism of which U.S. Catholicism is a part, and no longer being a province or extension of European Catholicism.

by Massimo Faggioli
Professor in the department of Theology and Religious Sciences, Villanova University, Philadelphia

The women’s issue in the Church, explained to me by our daughter

Above all else, the singular realization that has happened to me over the last sixteen years is a little like what has happened to other intellectuals from Catholic Europe when they came into contact with the United States. What we share is the sense of a new world opening up, and the rest of the world -including the old continent- changing shape and meaning. However, an essential difference from Tocqueville or Chateubriand, besides the two centuries that separate us, is that the two French writers had travel experiences (albeit long ones), but they did not start families in America, and they did not teach theology.

Our children go to a Catholic school, linked to our parish. Our pre-teen daughter is at the intersection of three different cultures when it comes to the women’s issue in the Church. At school and in the parish, there is a solid, traditional formation in force, jovially distrustful of gender issues (despite the fact that almost all the teaching staff are women): altar girls and catechists yes, preaching from the pulpit no - which corresponds to the religious and ecclesial sentiment of the vast majority of Catholics in the Philadelphia suburbs. At home, thanks in part to my wife’s humanistic training (American but Italian-speaking and a scholar of Italian Renaissance literature), there is an atmosphere of openness, while being aware of the pressures our times place on Catholicism, but also confident in the possibilities that modern or post-modern times offer for a new role for women in the church. However, in what is called the American cultural mainstream, the situation is more serious; in fact, placing women and Catholicism in the same sentence is usually the start of a joke or a tirade about the church’s atavistic, proverbial and unreformable sexism.

The question is how we should manage the intersection between home, church, and public space: between existing orders within the Church, the radicalization of public space demands on the Church on issues of equality and rights, and that mediating space that is or could be the family and home. The tensions between these three spheres can be felt on all issues, but particularly on the question of the role of women. I was surprised when our daughter noticed, one Sunday after Mass (she must have been in second or third grade), that in our church, women cannot do what men can do, which is a blatant contradiction of the very American idea that “you can become anything you want, if you just believe it enough”.

The good I have tried to do in the service of the Church has come largely from the women I have met, especially in the US and since meeting America. Be that my wife, fellow theologians, nuns and sisters, female students, and especially our daughter. As a Catholic, a theologian, and a father, the difficulty facing our daughter (in terms and distances much closer than for female students or colleagues) is to hold together on the one hand the respect due for God’s patience and the Church’s steps in history. On the other hand, there is the need for answers - here and now - of questions about the obvious contradictions between Jesus' message about the dignity of women and a certain ecclesiastical and social model in U.S. Catholicism. This is a model in which women knew where they belonged; after all, “To know your place” in English means “to be in your place”, without deluding yourself that you can change anything. Which is not really a Christian way of looking at people.

 (Massimo Faggioli)