Real Radical Feminists Wanted
In Praise of Radical Feminists
I was fortunate to be taught in elementary school by Franciscan Sisters and in high school by Benedictines, Sisters of St. Joseph, School Sisters of Notre Dame, and Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. My children have been taught by Sisters of St. Joseph and by Daughters of Mary and Joseph. I owe much to these women.
One point of contention in the Doctrinal Assessment, and one for which the L.C.W.R. receives a reprimand, is the prevalence of “radical feminist” themes in some programs sponsored by the L.C.W.R. An alternative view, however, is that it is exactly their radical feminist nature for which American Catholic women religious should be praised.
A radical is someone who maintains strong principles and acts on them. What makes Catholic women religious so radical? Nothing more than the fact that they gave up their former lives and followed Christ.
Called ForthReading from the charter or mission of a congregation gives a sense of the charism that calls those women forth. These statements are Christ-centered. Consider for example, the following mission statement taken from the Web site of the Daughters of Mary and Joseph:
Let us now turn to the second aspect of the Doctrinal Assessment’s expressed concern: feminism. A feminist advocates rights for women equal to those for men. Feminism also provides a proactive approach to women’s place in society and church. Historically, women have been shut out from meaningful participation in the magisterium of the Catholic Church, much as until recently they were shut out of political and economic leadership in civil society. In the Catholic Church, women cannot be ordained to the priesthood nor to the diaconate. Feminist Catholic women religious therefore face a choice: leave the church or adapt. By and large, the religious communities in the United States have adapted. Some of these congregations were feminist before the term was even coined.
Janet Mock, a Sister of St. Joseph and the executive director of L.C.W.R., has also been in the media spotlight recently. The founding documents of her order exhort the sisters to do “all of which women are capable” to care for the “dear neighbor, without distinction.” (Their founding charter was also radical in that the sisters were not to live in cloister but in small apostolic communities; and they were not to wear habits, but to dress in the style of a widow of their station.)
The phrase “all of which women are capable” does not set arbitrary limits on service, does not acknowledge restricted abilities, does not set up a lesser comparison of women to men. “All of which women are capable” is a call to a sister’s full actualization of self in Christ. “All of which women are capable” is a positive feminist call to service. “Without distinction” treats the poor equally with the wealthy, the disenfranchised equally with royalty, the laity equally with the clergy, women equally with men. “Without distinction” is a democratic feminist ideal. The Sisters of St. Joseph have not wavered from this ideal in over 350 years.
Of what, then, are these religious women whose congregations are represented in L.C.W.R. capable? They have been and are C.E.O.s and board chairs of some of the country’s largest hospital systems. They have been and are presidents of universities, deans of colleges and principals of schools. They have founded and run service centers for the homeless, counseling and retreat centers, food pantries and thrift stores. They manage parishes without a resident priest.
Note that many of these roles were ones that were not open to women in their non-Catholic counterpart organizations at the time. It is small wonder, then, that American Catholic women religious have a feminist view that equates the roles of women and men.
By their very charism, professed Catholic women religious are both radical and feminist: radical in their response to Christ’s call; feminist in their carving out a role for themselves in the Catholic Church. For the L.CW.R. to deny the radical feminist nature of its existence, or worse yet, as the Doctrinal Assessment seems to demand, to renounce the radical feminist nature of its existence would be, I think, a dishonor to the hundreds of thousands of Catholic women religious who have served the U.S. church. It would also be a disservice to the Roman Catholic Church, its laity and its magisterium. For wherever the American Catholic Church presents an organized response to Christ’s call in Matthew 25: 35-40, there you will find member congregations of L.C.W.R. at the forefront. These are the exact roles that the Doctrinal Assessment “effusively” praises.
Let us all pray for a speedy resolution of the assessment of the L.C.W.R. so that the sisters can go back to the work to which Christ and their church have called them. Let us pray that these women who have committed their lives to the Lord, who trusted in Him, will see Him act, so that their justice will break forth like the light, their cause like the noon-day sun (Psalm 37).
Kevin McCardle is a professor at the UCLA Anderson School of Management in Los Angeles, Calif