The Best and the Brightest of the Catholic Bad Girls

How does power respond to those who want a place at the table? As Gandhi once explained, power has five strategies. First, it simply ignores those knocking at the door; when that fails, power pretends the seekers are only a few very unimportant and disgruntled people, not worthy of attention. If they manage to survive being ignored and marginalized, power attacks them either physically or verbally. Those who survive then find their goals and even identity co-opted. Finally change happens.

While I’ve never felt powerless, I have found reflecting on this analysis helpful in understanding the reaction of Catholic popes, bishops, and those who are part of the Catholic boys club to uppity Catholic women—I knew we’d finally gotten to them in 1998 when Sydney Callahan reported in Commonweal on a Vatican meeting on women where John Paul ll announced that he was the “feminist Pope.”

The declaration was a sign of the extent to which it had become unacceptable to dismiss, marginalize, satirize, or simply roll your eyes and trash feminism—and Catholic feminists. It was time for the church, at least in its clerical identity, to shape an acceptable form of Catholic feminism and to anoint some “good” Catholic women. Of course, the Vatican was the last place to recognize this need; political astute and worldly clerics (and laymen fellow travelers) had already recognized that in the cosmopolitan environments they wanted to move, the church’s misogyny as well as the nearly all-male institutions they were associated with were an embarrassment.

A Modern, Sophisticated Rectory Housekeeper

Some level of gender sensitivity and integration was necessary. But not too much, the church seemed to say, and not with women who make us uncomfortable: nice women, polite women, not pushy broads. It’d be especially helpful if they respected the priesthood. A modern, educated, and sophisticated version of the rectory housekeeper seemed to be what was needed.

Oh, and most importantly the church wanted women who didn’t think they understood theology well enough to criticize it and get in trouble with the Vatican. After all, one cannot go around claiming that it is good theology that women are moral agents, capable of making good decisions about their nature, sexuality, and reproductive choices. Women like Catherine of Siena, Joan of Arc, and Juana de la Cruz need not apply. The good women wouldn’t be very interested in sex, other women, or power. They’d care about poverty, world hunger, development, and education. When it came to women’s lives, only women you could put the adjective “poor” in front of would deserve attention, and they wouldn’t make an issue of ordaining women to the priesthood. If they weren’t nuns, their personal lives would be a sign of goodness (if they were married and had kids) or hidden (if they were single). For the single ones their public persona was one of perpetual virginity, free to serve others and the church. No hint of sexuality about them. Good-looking Mother Teresas.

Bad Girls Don’t Care About Men

With apologies to these women, because I have no desire to stereotype them (I have more in common with them than in conflict); Mary Ann Glendon, Mary Cunningham Agee, Helen Alvare, and now, Alexia Kelley, became the Good Catholic Girls. And, they were and are put up against the Bad Girls: Mary E. Hunt, Sr. Donna Quinn, Rosemary Ruether, and Agnes Mary Mansour, for example.

One of the major differences between the two groups is that the bad girls don’t care at all about the men. It’s not that we don’t like them—and we’re not all lesbians. It is just that their maleness and self-importance, their knowledge, Catholic wit, and PJ O’Rourke bad boy charm don’t impress us. We didn’t sleep with priests, we don’t go to them for advice on our personal woes, they are not our confessors or spiritual directors. We don’t invite them to speak at our conferences, and we don’t particularly think they are the best theologians. Moreover, you can’t count on them if you get in trouble. They barely get their act together to defend one of their own (like Charles Curran) and when women are attacked by the Vatican (like Jeannine Gramick on homosexuality or the Vatican 24 on abortion or Yvone Gebara in Brazil) not one of them will speak out. Some of us think they are cowards.

But enough about them.

This is about the best and the brightest of the bad girls (BBBG) who had their heyday in the 1980s and ’90s when Catholic feminists were radical feminists. The acronym BBBG comes from a talk Mary Hunt and I gave at a Chicago Catholic Women meeting in the 1980s. It was a time when Catholic women, members of religious communities and the rest of us, were thinking about hot button issues. We were so very different from the progressives in the new groups that have formed in the wake of the 2004 elections, particularly Catholics United and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.

We were seeking to redefine what it meant to be Catholic—as well as to change the world. We were Catholics in Resistance to injustice inside the church because we believed injustice inside the church led to public policy positions that hurt women. And many leading Catholics of that time were either pro-choice or recognized that one could be pro-choice. One could count on the fingers of one hand progressive Catholics who were actively anti-abortion (Richard McSorley, the Berrigans, Julie Loesch Wiley come to mind).

In the 1984 election, Catholicism and abortion was a big issue. Geraldine Ferraro, a pro-choice Catholic, was the Democratic nominee for vice president. Ferraro had written in the introduction to a briefing book prepared by Catholics for Choice for a congressional meeting that brought together about 20 pro-choice and pro-life Catholic members of Congress that “the Catholic position on abortion is not monolithic and there can be a range of personal and political responses to the issue.”

Then Cardinal O’Connor of New York attacked her. Catholic women’s groups mobilized and Ferraro was greeted at campaign rallies with signs that said “Catholics for Ferraro” and “Another Catholic for Choice”.

Ferraro, of course, was criticized by some male theologians and journalists for having the audacity to think she, a lay woman, could comment on theology. The comments then were similar to those made when Biden and Pelosi responded to media questions about their position on choice. Jesuit Tom Reese declared “Politicians should not do theology.” Chris Korzen of Catholics United judged Biden’s comments to be not only unwise but theologically incorrect. “As far as the church is concerned, doctrine is off limits. When public officials make those comments, of course the bishops need to correct that error.”

What, according to Korzen, was Biden’s doctrinal error? He had said that the church’s position on when life begins had changed over time and Thomas Aquinas had not considered the fetus to receive a soul at conception. In fact, Biden made no error of fact in his statement, although the information he cited is not convenient for the bishops who claim nothing on abortion has ever changed in the church. it is, however, Korzen whose theological knowledge is questionable.

A Diversity of Opinions

Catholic feminists and progressive theologians in 1984 reacted quite differently from Korzen. Rather than defending the flawed presentation of Catholic teaching articulated by the bishops and excusing the politicians’ pro-choice position by citing the good they did on other social justice issues, they defended Ferraro’s right to be pro-choice.

In a newspaper ad paid for by Catholics for Choice and published in the New York Times on October 7, 1984, Catholics (including 24 nuns, 2 priests, and 2 brothers) ran under the headline “A Diversity of Opinions Regarding Abortion Exists Among Committed Catholics” and argued that Catholic politicians who disagreed with the official position should not be punished.

Signers included nuns who were members of the National Coalition of American Nuns who had come out in favor of public funding for abortion in 1976. Prominent among them were Srs. Margaret Traxler, Marjorie Tuite, and Donna Quinn; the three had impressive histories of civil rights activism. Traxler had marched with Dr. King; opposition to US imperialism in Central America was Tuite’s passion and grassroots activism for women on welfare drove Quinn. Quinn and I shared some Grand Marnier at a Religious Coalition for Reproductive Rights organizing conference a couple weeks ago. While breathing in the fumes, she expressed disdain for the Notre Dame anti-Obama protest and remembered her own picketing of Reagan at Notre Dame. Sister Maureen Fiedler, who had fasted for the ERA and five other sisters of Loretto signed the CFFC ad as well.

Academic theologians Daniel Maguire (who co-wrote the ad, along with me and his then-wife Marjorie) and Rosemary Ruether were signers, as were Srs. Margaret Farley and the late Ann Carr. Farley, an ethicist, had analyzed the issue of sterilization in Catholic hospitals and rendered the opinion that ethics required the hospitals to offer the procedure postpartum, as it would subject women to greater risk if they waited and had a sterilization months later. The order was threatened with “receivership” by the Vatican if they implemented the opinion and they backed down.

The Vatican also threatened the signers of the NY Times ad and demanded the nuns, priests, and brothers retract or face dismissal from their orders. The men immediately requested that their signatures be removed. The nuns stood firm; only one requested her name be removed.

Complex negotiations ensued—most of the nuns wrote something reassuring to the Vatican and none were dismissed. They have by and large continued to be publicly pro-choice. Two were really bad girls and refused to give the Vatican anything. The Vatican backed down but Barbara Ferraro and Patricia Hussey, who ran a shelter for the homeless in West Virginia, were so disillusioned and angry that they left their order.

A few Roman Catholic nuns in public office took great risk to defend poor women and their access to abortion. Some would describe themselves as pro-choice, others would not. In 1982, Sister Agnes Mary Mansour was head of Michigan’s Department of Social Services where she monitored Medicaid funds for abortions. The Vatican demanded that she stop funding abortions or resign from her order. She resigned.

Sr. Elizabeth Candon was president of Trinity College in Vermont. In 1972, she let women meet on campus and plan Vermont’s first abortion clinic. In 1976 she defended the state’s policy of paying for poor women’s abortions, and a few years later simply said that it was women who should make the decision about whether or not abortion was moral.

But BBBGs were not only open on the question of abortion, they challenged just about everything else, without regard for personal safety or future position. Sr. Teresa Kane was chosen to greet the Pope in DC in 1979. She used her remarks to politely and obliquely suggest women should be ordained. Sr. Jeannine Gramick became a passionate advocate for GLBTQ Catholics, conducting workshops all over the world. The Vatican ordered her to be silent and she refused. In 2002, seven Roman Catholic women defied the Vatican and found a bishop to ordain them. They now number 50 or so, have their own bishops and ignore Vatican decrees that they are excommunicated.

A lot of BBBGs got out of Catholic universities as fast as they could so they could say what they believe and teach freely. Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza went from Notre Dame to Harvard and pointed out that Jesus never ordained anybody. Christine Gudorf left the University of Dayton for Florida International University, where she could say that the ethical standard for sexual relations was pleasure and justice, not marriage.

Mary E. Hunt, the baddest of all, just formed her own organization with her partner Diann Neu and took the right stand on everything: abortion, sex, GLBTQ, you name it.

Some BBBGs were unfailingly polite and worked the system as best they could. Farley, Carr, Kane, and Mansour come to mind. But the rest of us had no respect for authority. We picketed bishops and Popes, stole their dresses, stood up at the consecration of the Eucharist and said the words out loud. At Marge Tuite’s funeral—after the priest welcomed those of other faiths but told them not to take communion—we walked up and down the aisles and near dragged our friends out of their seats and up to the communion rail. Who ever heard of inviting people to dinner and not giving them anything to eat?

We are the “old” feminists; the ones the Vatican calls “exaggerated secular feminists”; the ones Ratzinger says sow discontent and hatred of men. The “new” feminists are all for the complementarity of men and women, and they stay in their place. They go to the Vatican; we go out to dance salsa together. And we stand up time and time again for women’s freedom. We are public witness to the fact that the hierarchy only has the power you give it. What are they going to do? Tear out our fingernails?

Don’t get me wrong, a lot of the good girls care about women, and being careful is not always a bad thing. We all have our theories of change; BBBGs tend to think it happens at the margins and the good Catholic girls, at least the ones who want change, think it happens at the top. Both are needed.

But the last thing we need are men telling us who’s a better feminist, never mind Catholic.

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