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Women-church: 'adrift' from Catholicism?

Diversity is issue, say meeting planners

KANSAS CITY, Mo.--The essential question posed was as simple as it was stark: Is there any place left for the man named Jesus at a gathering of Catholic feminists dedicated to ending the sins of male sexism and centuries of repressive patriarchy?

More broadly, the worry expressed was that Catholic identity was being thrown out by Catholic feminists with the dirty bathwater of age-old church sexism, with the result that the women were no longer interested in institutional Catholic reform.

Not so, came the response from the ranks of other Catholic feminists. Sensitivity to the issues of multiculturalism, justice and human sexuality -- on the rise in a multitude of Catholic women's groups -- in no way "de-Christianizes" Catholic identity. Indeed, many argued the contrary is true.

The issue of Catholic identity among feminists follows years of decisions by many to discard, disregard or make uneasy accommodations to well-documented sexist church traditions. The question now being asked: What is to remain? What, for Catholic feminists, is essential to their specifically Catholic identity?

From Mass to |rituals'

This question in recent months has laced discussions among those planning to attend a mostly Catholic feminist gathering, the third Women-Church Convergence Conference, set for April 16-18 in Albuquerque, N.M. About 1,500 women, most Catholic, are expected to attend.

The identity question, in its latest form, was triggered last November by School Sister of Notre Dame Jeannine Gramick in a newsletter of the National Coalition of American Nuns. The 25-year-old NCAN, based in Chicago, is a member of the Women-Church Convergence coalition, which is comprised of almost 40 Catholic groups.

"From the publicity for the Convergence and from planning reports, this (Women-Church Conference) does not appear to be a Catholic conference," wrote Gramick. "The conference brochure does not use the word Catholic. The word liturgy was changed to sacred events because the former word is too much associated with Catholic ritual."

Gramick, who spearheads her order's gay and lesbian ministry, continued: "With this conference, the leadership of the Women-Church Convergence seems to be moving away from a Catholic identity toward one which is ecumenical and interfaith."

While affirming the journeys of women exploring other spiritualities, Gramick asked whether NCAN should reevaluate its participation in the gathering.

"Does NCAN need to continue in this coalition but also join a network of Catholic women's groups" committed specifically to reforming the institutional church? she wrote.

What is essential?

In her statement, Gramick cited Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland's 1992 pastoral, in which he called upon his diocese to reflect on what it means to be Catholic. She said all who claim they are Catholic must engage in a similar reflection.

"Weakland cited numerous changes in the external manifestations of Catholicism in the last 30 years," Gramick wrote. "He noted essential beliefs, such as the Incarnation and redemption, which Catholics share with other Christians. He wrote about the centrality of the Eucharist and the importance of the othe sacraments, scripture and the communion of saints."

Gramick recently told NCR that conference planners are correct to set as their goal racial and ethnic diversity among leadership and participants. However, she expressed concern that in going a step further and emphasizing religious diversity, the conference was losing its Catholic focus.

She said she did not enjoy being a "voice of dissent" but had received numerous phone calls and letters of support following publication of her statement. "Somebody had to say it," she said.

School Sister of Notre Dame Margaret Traxler, editor of the NCAN newsletter, sais she sympathized with Gramick's concerns.

"We don't even mind that (conference planners) invite members of a coven," said Traxler, referring to those involved with Wicca, or witchcraft, traditions. "It's all God, after all. ... But just because we are women, we do not reject Jesus. In the planning, in some prayer services, the name of Jesus is rarely mentioned.

"I think the church is too precious. Yes, it is a patriarchal structure and they are unyielding -- the men are unyielding and that's immoral resistance. At the same time, we have to keep trying, because we want to retake our role in the church."

Catholic -- and more

Others disagree. One is theologian Mary Hunt, codirector of the Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual, based in Silver Spring, Md. According to Hunt, the majority of women involved with the conference are indeed Catholic.

The real issue for the conference -- and the Convergence as a whole -- centers, she said, on the struggle to achieve diversity. "Our concerns are how to be inclusive, not in a liberal or token way," she said. "If you look at the history of Women-Church Convergence -- with itss member groups such as Women's Ordination Conference, WATER, Loretto sisters, Catholics for a Free Choice ... (they) are groups whose history is essentially a history of white Euramerican women. The fact is all these groups are in the process of diversifying -- and, therefore, the movement.

Hunt emphasized the importance of distinguishing between the legal entity of Women-Church Convergence, the coalition that sponsors the conferences, and the larger Women-Church movement.

She described the movement as a "global ecumenical movement of feminist-based communities united in sacrament and solidarity."

Hunt said the conference's commitment ethnic diversity is reflected not only in its participants but also in the conference leadership, which includes, among other groups, a considerable percentage of Hispanics and American Indians. Furthermore, conference materials are bilingual (English-Spanish) as will be many sessions.

In critiquing the 1983 Chicago and 1987 Cincinnati conferences, participants acknowledged that "it was no longer adequate to have Women-Church conferences where women from ethnic groups were not included in a primary way in leadership and development."

Consequently, it should come as no surprise, said Hunt, that "ethic diversit will lead to spiritual diversity" in conference activities.

Citing examples, she said rituals would be led by, among others, Budhists, American Indians, Quakers and Jewish leaders -- as well as by Catholic nuns. Also participating will be Rose Vernell, a priest ordained by George Stallings of the breakaway Imani Temple, based in Washington, D.C.

She emphasized that the conference will also include a feminit Eucharist, liturgical dance and celebration of Biblical women.

Churchspeak and Jesus

Discomfort with traditional church language among conference participants -- even those committed to church reform -- is to be expected, Hunt said. "There is no question but that many women are not only dubious about Christocentric theology, but there are also many who are bored by it. I would not discount the boredom factor," she said.

"When you add to that the fact that the institutional Catholic church and many Protestant churches have not responded with any serious effort to grapple with the contradictions women experience in terms of Christocentric theology, it's not surprising women look elsewhere. But also, exploration of other traditions is a sign of spiritual maturity."

This spiritual maturity includes developing political and social critiques of not only the church but also society at large, said Hunt, adding that the conference will include major plenary sessions on issues such as economics, violence, racism and homophobia.

"They (participant) are not railing against patriarchy; they're being religious together," she said.

The future configuration of the Catholic-rooted conferencee as well as the larger Women-Church movement is anyone's guess, said Hunt. "Where you're rooted doesn't necessarily mean where you're going," she said.

The question of what forms of Catholicism would b at the Women-Church gathering aarose last December during a planning meeting. having a priest celebrate Catholic Mass a part of a Sunday liturgy was proposed, said the Reverend Kathleen Henry, a former Catholic ordained and installed by a Catholic-Unitarian community and a conference coordinator.

Henry who said she used to think Women-Church Convergence was "too Catholic," proposed bringing in a priest because she thought it might draw "mainstream" women who feel more comfortable in a traditional setting. Henry said she was backed by Jamie Phelps, an African-American theologian and nun.

The group of about a dozen conference planners voted in favor of Henry's proposal. But a month later, a larger group of conference leadership met and decided against the proposal.

Meeting women's needs

In their deliberations, the group talked about the discriminatory nature of the Mass, with its exclusion of women priests, and about the necessity of meeting the needs of women involved in a traditional way with the institution, Henry explained. So it was decided to make information available at the conference about traditional Masses and other religious services in the area that women could attend.

"It was very painful for me initially," said Henry of the decision.

"I've experienced Mass as discriminatory ... but I came to understand that, personally, I could hold both things (women's rituals and traditional Masses). I could have there be space for both things," a tension "women in the pews"8 experiene constantly, Henry said.

Nonetheless, Henry affirmed the wisdom of the final decision. "We need to be in dialogue about this. ... Perhaps where we're going is toward a hugely broad coalition -- the Goddess people, Methodist ministers, etc., with a Roman Catholic caucus."

The concern that the Convergence (the broader coalition of ome 40 groups) is "adrift" from Catholicism "makes it sound likee the Convergence should be tethered" rather than allowed to grow organically in needed directions, Henry said, adding that she appreciated the discussion Gramick has generated.

The debate about whether to allow a priest to say Mass for progressive women's groups is nothing new, said Ruth Fitzpatrick, national coordinator of the Women's Ordination Conference. But the value of conferencs such as Women-Church is that women can experience women-led Eucharists. "If women want to go churches, there are plenty of them," she said.

Fitzpatrick said concern about Catholic identity often comes at times of pressure from right-wing elements of the church. Concern that "we need to look Catholic" manifests in reactionary times -- particularly now, when there is a shift away from Eurocentrism by many women' groups, she said.

Fitspatrick said she is convinced the majority of Women-Church participants are committed to reforming church structures. "I can't imagine why they would bother to come," she said. She added that diversity "doesn't mean the Convergence (participant) have all gone off and become Goddess worshippers."

Part of this process of reform includes creative experimentation with ritual, much like what happened before Vatican II. "Women are doing what male priests aren't," said Fitzpatrick.

Where is church?

Still, however Catholic its identity, many women involved with the Convergence have, in fact, given up on trying to reform the institution, said Dominican Sister Donna Quinn. Quinn, who stressed that he is not speaking for her order, represents NCAN for the Convergence.

Quinn told NCR she estimates that about half of Convergene participants define church as what happens outside the official structures and that the other half equate church with the structures that they believe should be reformed.

Such a tension, which has always existed among Catholic feminists, is not fatal, said Quinn.

"Within that movement there's room for many, many different faiths, spiritualities, beliefs. ... We have to respect where people are."

Quinn added that she supported the final decision not to include a male priest. "A woman may need to sit in the back of the church and talk to Jesus," she said, "or she may need to go at a particular time to a eucharistic service, and all there is is a male-led one.

"But that's not the norm we're working toward. We don't invite males to speak at us since we've been listening to them for thousands of years."

Joanne Bray, another conference coordinator, said she welcomed the questions raised by Gramick. But there are no simple answers, she said.

"Speaking for myself, I don't think the goal of liberation can happen without transformation happening in both places (inside and outside church structures) simultaneously. ... There's a sense of reaching deeply into my Roman Catholic tradition for the liberating spirit, and that liberating spirit will survive. Other may move beyond that to a large, ecumenical sense of what church is all about.

"But that doesn't mean I have to dilute my own experience. I can enter into a different tradition, be move by it and maintain a sense of integrity in terms of my Roman Catholic identity."

The post-immigrant church

According to Sandra Schneider, a professor of New Testament spirituality at the Jesuit School of Theology and Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, the questions raised by Gramick are part of a larger questioning of identity in a post-immigrant church.

"When most religious entered religious life, there was no question at all about the agenda of the immigrant church," which included such things as education of children and a variety of social services, said Schneider, who belong to Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary congregation.

But since Vatican II -- and with more Catholics joining the middle class -- the church does not have "the samee self-evident link between the purposee of the immigrant church and religious life," she said.

Likewise, feminism and the call for ordination of women have changed the perceptions of women religious.

"The vast majority of women religious are Catholic, self-consciously committed to the church," Scchneider said. "But a lot of them would say they are committed to the people of God in the Catholic communion ... as opposed to 'agents' of the institution."
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Title Annotation:Women-Church Convergence Conference
Author:Martinez, Demetria
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Apr 16, 1993
Words:2220
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