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Ungodly Rage: The Hidden Face of Catholic Feminism.

A small but fanatic group of right-wing Catholics is trying to promote a witch-hunt against Catholic feminists in Catholic institutions. The self-appointed leader and spokesman of the group is Donna Steichen, author of Ungodly Rage: The Hidden Face of Catholic Feminism, published by the ultraconservative Ignatian Press. Steichen's lecture tours have been underwritten by The Wanderer and the St. Joseph's Foundation of San Antonio, Texas.

Steichen draws an inflammatory picture of Catholic feminists as a "demonic conspiracy" against the Catholic church. She not only employs stock diatribes against feminists as "lesbians," "antifamily" and "antilife" but also as "witches" in league with the devil. Using the technique of guilt by association, Steichen draws a fallacious picture of post-Christian wicca feminists as pagan devil-worshipers and then claims that all Catholic feminists are in league with these "witches" as secret promoters of an anti-Catholic worldview.

For Steichen the promoters of this demonic conspiracy include not only prominent feminist theologians and activists, such as me, Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Madonna Kolbenschlag, Mary Jo Weaver and Ruth Fitzpatrick, but virtually every nun and laywoman of even moderate feminist leanings operating in Catholic parishes, schools and diocesan offices -- and some males, such such as Richard O'Brien of Notre Dame.

As Steichen said in a talk at St. Lawrence Church in northern Virginia in early October, the entire middle management of the church, priests, nuns and laymen and laywomen, are made up of these "secret apostolates."

In her book and lectures, Steichen provokes paranoia by citing a long stream of books, conferences and organizations in which progressive Catholics are involved, quoting statements falsely or out of context. Thus in her lecture at St. Lawrence, Steichen quotes me (from no source that I know) as saying, "Women must emancipate themselves from Jesus as redeemer" and quotes Kolbenschlag as saying that "a woman has no choice but to be an atheist."

Steichen not only organizes supporters, who distribute her book to priests, Catholic teachers and parish leaders, but once this group is in place, its members typically try to censor feminist speakers or readings. Last winter, such a group organized in the western suburbs of Chicago and besieged the pastor and religious educators of a Catholic parish in the area to cancel a talk I was scheduled to give to their women's theology group. A more serious effort was organized in Omaha, Neb., last spring. There, Steichen herself came to town to organize a drive to block a conference on Christology and feminism at Creighton University at which I and several other leading feminist theologians were to speak.

In both cases the efforts were thwarted by the sponsors and leaders of the events, who stood firm in favor of an open forum. Steichen's supporters were welcomed to participate as individuals but not to disrupt the proceedings. In Chicago, the threatened protesters did not materialize. About five Steichen supporters showed up and asked questions, compared with a record turnout of about 90 women and men open to the topic.

The Omaha papers carried the objections to the Creighton conference by Steichen's followers for weeks before the conference. In spite of that, only a handful of picketers showed up at the entrance to the conference on its first evening, and a visible presence of campus police seemed to have deterred several registrants who planned to disrupt talks.

While well-known academicians, such as myself, may be somewhat protected from such attacks, much more vulnerable are Catholic parish workers, seeking to open feminist issues for discussion in their local settings.

The experience of Nancy Stephani of Findlay, Ohio, is a case in point. Stephani grew up in the Catholic parish of Findlay. After returning to the area with her husband and children in 1980, she became actively involved in th parish, serving as vice president and then president of the parish council and chairwoman of adult education. She also served on the parish core committee for a two-year process of strategic planning, in which she helped write the prayer and study materials for the 300 participating parishioners.

A woman of the parish vehemently objected to the inclusive language being used in those prayers. She and her supporters were invited to recite some alternative prayers to be offered alongside the inclusive ones. This woman then came across the Steichen book and distributed 50 copies to parish leaders and school staff. Subsequently, Stephani and her family were harassed, receiving many phone calls each week in which she was called a "witch." Her children also were targeted in the parochial school.

When Stephani graduated cum laude with a degree in psychology and religious studies and was offered a job teaching in lay ministry in a neighboring parish, the Steichen supporters harassed the pastor with a barrage of complainst until the offer was withdrawn.

The most recent harassment occurred during a brief prayer service at the parish. Stephani and others included a Christianized version of a Native American prayer of the four directions in a commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the "discovery" of America. The Steichen supporters arrived and prayed the Hail Mary and Our Father more and more loudly, drowning out the words of the service.

When Steichen's book was first published in 1990, most of the feminists caricatured in it were reluctant to reply, feeling that the charges were so ridiculous they would refute themselves, and any public reply would simply lend credibility and circulation to this publication. However, it seems evident that such a "silent" approach allows the Steichen supporters simply to move into the vacuum and appear credible to many confused and fearful Catholics.

The strategy of right-wing Catholics is clearly to target the grass-roots Catholic institutions, parish religious education and parochial school boards. In that, they are not unlike U.S. right-wing Christians generally, who, although they lost national and state elections, have elected many "stealth candidates" to local town councils and school boards. Catholic feminists often are distant from local Catholic institutions, gathering in alternative house churches or university chaplaincies for spiritual nurture.

Such alternative support groups are good, but Catholic feminists now must recognize the danger of surrendering the center, the parishes and Catholic schools. Many more alliances and coalitions must be built between the Catholic academic community and progressive Catholics who want to provide leadership in these local Catholic institutions.

Most Catholics are not of such a right-wing disposition. My own experience suggests that when the threats are resisted and church leaders insist on civility, the Steichen supporters do not command great numbers. But if the center remains empty, right-wing Catholics are poised to take over and use every kind of tactic to try to shut down the Catholic mind.

The National Assembly of Religious Women organized a formal statement repudiating Steichen's book, signed by many of the Catholic women theologians and leaders of religious orders the book targets. This statement was sent to all Catholic bishops before their November meeting.
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Author:Ruether, Rosemary Radford
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 11, 1992
Words:1152
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