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A glimpse of the goddess frees her religious imagination.

The debate over the place of women in the Roman Catholic Church was pushed to a new level of visibility earlier this month when Pope John Paul II urged U.S. bishops to counteract Catholic feminists who engage in such practices as nature worship and other rituals that depart from traditional Christianity.

Catholic feminists in the United States agree that to venture into ancient goddess and nature worship departs from traditional Christianity. But many feel that they have been driven to explore such alternatives because the "patriarchal church" has denied them full participation.

Critics of this view, of course, say that Catholic is Catholic and to venture into pagan rituals is to leave Catholicism behind.

One of the most aggressive antifeminist activists is Donna Steichen of Ojai, Calif. She said she can't be certain that her campaign influenced the recent papal statement. But she knows, she said, that "the Holy Father has a copy of my book" because a friend "handed him a copy."

Her book, Ungodly Rage: The Hidden Face of Catholic Feminism, has been dismissed by Catholic feminists as "libelous, defamatory and an intentionally malicious misrepresentation of the persons, movements and writings which this book purports to describe."

How high up Steichen's influence runs is a matter of conjecture. But her conviction, that Catholic feminists are on a downward path toward paganism and even satanism, has certainly found an agreeable seedbed in the Roman curia.

More than one Vatican official has lashed out against "radical feminists" in the U.S. church and voiced concerns over rituals that invest credibility in the godesses of mythology or other religious traditions. And the pope, in his July 2 statement, made during an audience with two U.S. bishops, urged active opposition to "a feminism which polarizes along bitter, ideological lines."

While not naming any specific groups, the pope said some feminist groups go well beyond the debate on women's ordination. "In (feminism's) extreme form, it is the Christian faith itself which is in danger of being undermined."

Some feel that the pope was responding to reports of an April conference in Albuquerque, N.M., of Women-Church (NCR April 30), a rather diverse gathering with a heavy Catholic feminist emphasis that met for the third time since 1983.

But Ruth Fitzpatrick, head of the Women's Ordination Conference, a Catholic feminist group in Fairfax, Va., and an organizer of the Women-Church Conference, insists the pope was responding to Steichen's book.

The pope, she said, was a victim of "very bad disinformation." Fitzpatrick compared Steichen's campaign to the anticommunist witch-hunts of the 1950s. She is convinced, she said, that since the fall of communism, conservatives in the church have been looking for anew scape-goat and found it in feminism.

What follows are excerpts from an article by Mary E. Hunt, theologian and codirector of WATER (women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual) in Silver Spring, Md., describing her conditional acceptance of some aspects of pagan religions. -- TOM ROBERTS Religious News Service

WATER's library is full of scholarly, if controversial, publications on goddessess: important woarks like Marija Gimbutas' "The Language of the Goddess"; Elinor W. Gadon's "The Once and Future Goddess"; Carol P. Christ's "Laughter of Aphrodite: Reflections on Journey to the Goddess." Women's bookstores carry goddess T-shirts, medallions and bumper stickers. There are goddess calendars and books of days, guides to goddess sites throughout the world, and even goddess coloring books for our children. ...

I do not like all of the goddess paraphernalia. Some of it is religious kitsch, like the medals and statues of my youth. Nor am I persuaded by some of the scholarship which sounds more like wishful than research. Of course, I reject a great deal of patriarchal scholarship as propaganda, too. But I can no longer push the full-figured female from my mind, nor do I want to. These symbols and stories are the stuff of serious change.

The deconstruction of patriarchal religion -- in bald terms, the assisted suicide of God the Father -- left many of us bereft of divinity. ... But the human hunger for meaning and value, sated by the culinary genius of religionists throughout history, finds new expression in goddess worship.

Perhaps it is having a female doctor, dentist, lawyer, lover, accountant, and other powerful women in my life ... Perhaps it is seeing in the faces of older women friends the wisdom I hope to acquire in time ... Perhaps it is the pitiful state of even the most progressive churches ... Perhaps it is the open-mindedness that comes with the years and curiosity ... Perhaps it just takes time to try on new options, even if none of them fit, finally ... The goddess is appealing. ... The very utterance |goddess' in a patriarchal, monotheistic culture says diversity, pluralism, planet. This is not a cheap intellectual sleight of hand but a push toward thinking in new ways, exchanging dichotomies for dynamism.

I still read goddess materials with a touch of skepticism. However, that is a step up from my approach to much of the patriarchal theological literature which makes my eyes glaze over with its familiar repetitions. I find myself enchanted and intrigued by this literature, almost as if a whole new field is opening before me. I can start to read religion as if for the first time.
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Title Annotation:feminism and the Catholic Church
Author:Roberts, Tom
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Jul 30, 1993
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