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Catholic and Feminist:
The Surprising History of the American Catholic Feminist Movement

by mary j. henold
university of north carolina press, 304 pages, $32


have never met a nun—there was a time when this would have been a truly bizarre statement from an American Catholic. Nuns were everywhere: running the schools, staffing the hospitals, flocking like slightly ominous birds in their easily recognizable habits. Nonetheless, many Catholics these days know no nuns—a fact that came to mind while reading Mary J. Henold’s new book Catholic and Feminist. Although she doesn’t quite acknowledge it, Henold’s work is in part the story of how a way of life vanished and took the ubiquitous nuns with it.

Many aspects of American Catholic life in the early 1960s—Catholic and Feminist covers only the period from the Second Vatican Council to the early 1980s—were troubling. There were structural inequalities in the Church for which (at least by Henold’s accounting) no theological justification was even attempted: a Catholic contact directory, for example, that listed (male) hospital chaplains but not (mostly female) hospital supervisors. One doesn’t need to be a feminist to wonder what possible purpose this could have served. Catholic and Feminist also features several stories of churchmen being palpably, personally hostile to the emerging Catholic feminists in ways that were not only counterproductive but ungracious. A snarling monsignor is not exactly a witness to the gospel of humility.

And there were problems on the theological level as well, although here Henold’s treatment is disappointingly shallow. She attacks the concept of the “Eternal Woman,” an archetype of surrender that submerges any hint of personality. Henold quotes a Redemptorist priest who wrote, in 1965, that women represent the “receptive surrender” of all mankind: Man “is too busy doing things to surrender. So God gave him dependence-in-the-flesh—woman.”

There were many reasons to sideline the Eternal Woman concept. The presentation of submission as a typically female activity ought to suggest that Christian men should strive harder to achieve submission to Christ rather than essentially outsourcing their spiritual lives to the womenfolk. This is not an angle of attack Henold emphasizes, however, perhaps because it would require her to present some kind of positive account of the value of Christian ­submission. As with most feminist writing, Catholic and Feminist is comfortable discussing power and subordination but is allergic to all talk of the virtues of authority and submission. The Eternal Woman is also usually an outsider’s view—an iconic glimpse, Beatrice in the window, rather then a way for a woman to understand her own life of conflict, irony, regret, and sin.

The early feminists did identify three other problems with the Eternal Woman ideology: It quickly devolves into happy-face theology, no more complex than a bumper sticker. Its abstraction was difficult for average women to apply to their lives of changing diapers and repairing runs in their stockings. And the saints certainly didn’t seem to submerge their personalities: Think of Joan of Arc, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila. Early Catholic feminists honored these models of Catholic womanhood—fierce and strange even in their total devotion to God.

But even the Eternal Woman has something to be said in her defense. Given that the author of The Eternal Woman was herself a woman, and Henold quotes several women who found the concept compelling, one would think there would be at least some attempt to figure out why any woman would accept this ideology.

A partial defense could begin by noting that, if the Eternal Woman must be entirely discarded, it’s not clear how we could keep other iconic feminine images, such as St. Francis’ Lady Poverty or St. Augustine’s Lady Continence. Must iconic womanhood be ditched entirely? If we discard the Eternal Woman, we may find that we’ve discarded the image of the Church as the Bride of Christ—and therefore the entire tradition of bridal mysticism, with all its piercing eros. We may also find that we’ve drained any possibility of mystical significance from many of the uniquely female experiences: pregnancy, childbirth, and nursing, for example, and maybe also menarche and menstruation. Obviously those experiences have a messy and painful earthiness, but it would be bizarre if they held no specific spiritual content in a theology in which humans were created male and female by God.

The discussion of the Eternal Woman reveals one of the biggest flaws in Henold’s approach: an inability or unwillingness to understand what others might see in the traditions and theology that feminists loathed. That would be acceptable, though not ideal, if she were writing solely about organizational structures or personal biographies. But Catholic and Feminist is an attempt to articulate a theoretical and even theological framework for understanding the intersection of Catholicism and feminism. A theory that neither responds to nor acknowledges potential criticisms is a weak theory.

But then, as Donna Quinn is quoted in Catholic and Feminist as saying, “I have never rejected anything in the feminist movement . . . . I’ve always said that I love the word feminism. I have put that first.” Henold makes it fairly clear that her story is not only about Catholic feminism but about feminism supplanting Catholicism. Her narrative arc moves from early attempts to renew a sense of women’s potential within the Church to a near-total withdrawal from Catholic ­practice.

Henold argues that many of her subjects ended up in a position of “sustained ambivalence.” Given how few of them could attend Mass without fury and how many veered off into dissenting groups like Roman Catholic Womenpriests, it’s easier to read them as committed feminists rather than as conflicted Catholics. Catholicism is not an ethnicity. It is possible to leave. If you do not believe women should attend Mass—the central prayer of the Church, the symbol of our communion, the wedding feast of the Lamb—then maybe ambivalence is the wrong word for you.

The central issue prompting feminists to leave the Church, at least in Henold’s account, is women’s ordination. On the one hand, this is understandable: Henold describes with great poignancy the pain felt by women who perceived themselves as being called to the priesthood or who felt excluded when the Eucharist many of them longed for could be consecrated only by a man. And all of them believe the Church’s attempted explanations for the all-male priesthood are illogical and unpersuasive.

But the focus on women’s ordination brings up the issue of power and authority once again. Throughout Catholic and Feminist, bishops are treated as if they have power, which they could deploy on behalf of women’s ordination if only they chose. This is, to put it mildly, not how many bishops experience their own position. Nor is it how they should experience their role, of course, since their role is as servants guided by the Holy Spirit, not rulers guided by their own best judgment. There is a one-line acknowledgment that it’s hard to talk about power in the Catholic Church, when Rosalie Muschal-Reinhardt says ruefully, “We were under the false impression that bishops had power . . . . They didn’t.” But even this one-liner isn’t fleshed out: Does Muschal-Reinhardt mean that the pope is the only one with power? Does she mean—surely not!—that the Holy Spirit might have something to do with the Church’s teaching on women’s ordination? Does she mean that tradition weighed too heavily on the bishops? Who exactly has the power the bishops lack?

A more in-depth look at the bishops’ self-conception might have led to interesting parallels. How should a bishop respond if he feels himself drawn to feminist ideals, as some of them did? What should his pledge of obedience to his superiors look like in practice, especially when he disagrees with Church teaching? Did any Catholic feminists see virtue in obedience even when one disagrees or doesn’t understand? (Would it depend on the issue?—for example, some Catholic feminists might have taken the “I don’t understand, but I will obey” stance on abortion but not on women’s ordination.) Once again, the questions Henold doesn’t notice are more interesting than the ones she answers.

All of these questions are just side effects of two main questions: If there really is a conflict between one’s Catholicism and one’s feminism, should Catholicism ever win? And, perhaps most central of all, can there be a feminist theology of submission—or does the feminist focus on equality and power relations necessarily crowd out any hope of understanding why a woman might find joy in kneeling, grace in bowing her head?

There’s approximately one page of discussion of this issue in Catholic and Feminist, briefly chronicling a fascinating division between the Wo­men’s Ordination Conference participants: Some argued that “a ‘theology of relinquishment’ must be at the center of any renewed priestly ministry,” while others “recognized excessive humility as an impediment to feminist consciousness and a capitulation to traditional Catholic definitions of womanhood.” But after that tantalizing glimpse, the prospect of a theology of relinquishment—would that be different from a theology of submission or of humility?—is never developed.

If feminism can give no positive sense to submission, it should come as no surprise that feminism led countless nuns to leave their orders. They must judge the value of what they found when they returned to the secular world. But reading Catholic and Feminist prompts the thought that the feminist nuns may have made themselves obsolete—attacking the Eternal Woman, only to become temporary women after all.

Eve Tushnet is a freelance journalist in Washington, D.C.