Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

The Feminist Front in the War on the Church

by Anne Hendershott, Ph.D.


Anne Hendershott examines the strategies of "Catholic" feminist theologians to undermine and overthrow the authority of Church's teachings on the divinity of Christ, the Resurrection, the Real Presence, abortion, homosexuality, and the ordination of women.

Larger Work

The Wanderer



Publisher & Date

Wanderer Printing Co., St. Paul, MN, August 21, 2008

The appointment of Rosemary Radford Ruether as the Msgr. John R. Portman Chair in Roman Catholic Theology at the University of San Diego continues a practice at many Catholic colleges and universities of honoring dissident Catholic theologians. The Portman Chair was created to provide a "strong and palpable symbol of the depth of the university's commitment to Catholic theology as an academic discipline." And, although pressure from parents, alumni, and donors moved the university to withdraw the Ruether appointment only a few weeks after its announcement, it remains unclear how the San Diego administration found Ruether, a longtime member of the board of directors of Catholics for a Free Choice (now known as Catholics for Choice), and founder of Women-Church, a suitable recipient of the honor.

Ruether rejects the most fundamental beliefs of the Catholic Church, including the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the need for redemption, and the immortality of the soul. Indeed, Ruether's theme of a misogynistic Church designed to oppress women is a consistent one that has been adopted by most left-leaning theologians on Catholic campuses. And while Ruether has been influential for today's Catholic feminists, the reality remains that religious feminism is, at its heart, a spin-off from liberation theology — a form of theology which called upon the Church to identify more with the poor and oppressed and to struggle with them for their total liberation.

The rhetoric of liberation theology is at the forefront in the reproductive rights movement among feminists on Catholic campuses. Feminist faculty hostility to the structure of the Catholic Church, papal authority, and Church teachings on sexual morality and reproductive rights is best summarized in an interview published in 2005 in the National Catholic Reporter with tenured University of San Diego theology professor Pilar Aquino.

Entitled "No Time for Glorifying and Exalting" and released during the weeks after the death of Pope John Paul II, Aquino responded bitterly to the Pontiff's passing by dismissing any contributions he made throughout his tenure as Pope, and complaining that "large numbers of Catholic scholars and intellectuals show a clear rejection of the outdated, imposed, and one-sided thought patterns of the Roman Curia and the Vatican as a whole . . .

"We feminist Catholic theologians profoundly disagree with the intractable position of official Roman Catholicism regarding reproductive rights and women's human rights."

A longtime and public critic of Pope John Paul II, Aquino declared that his pontificate exhibited "strong signs of theological intolerance and of rigidity in the exercise of power . . . the mode of Church promoted by John Paul II was widely characterized by authoritarianism, centralism, conservatism, imperialism, and by monoculturalism, and is consistent with the patterns of dominant male-centered Western European Christianity."

In the rhetoric of liberation theology, Aquino charged that the Pope had "fashioned a non-participative Church where the clerical structure and sexist hierarchy had primacy." And, she appears to long for the day when the current structure of the Catholic Church is gone: "This Church will survive as a whole only if it has the vision and strength to become a discipleship of equals."

For the past four decades, the feminist front on Catholic college campuses has focused primarily on the Church's condemnation of contraception and abortion, and its unwillingness to ordain women as priests. In 1970, in an attempt to begin to address this "Catholic obstacle" to reproductive choice and population control, the organization Catholics for a Free Choice originated under the name Catholics for the Elimination of All Restrictive Abortion and Contraceptive Laws. Fr. Joseph O'Rourke, SJ, a Jesuit who left the priesthood in 1974, served as the first president of the pro- abortion organization, yet it was not until Frances Kissling assumed control that the pro-abortion organization gained visibility — and funding from prominent population control organizations. Raised in Flushing, N.Y., Kissling spent six months as a postulant at the convent of the Sisters of St. Joseph, after having spent two years as a student at St. John's University. When she left the convent, Kissling claimed to have left her faith behind as well. Yet, she continues to call herself "Catholic," claiming that (contrary to Church teachings) "membership is not based simply upon following a certain set of rules and regulations." Following the example of Leonardo Boff and the major liberation theologians, Kissling maintains, "The Catholic Church is a Church of the people. My faith is a contract and a covenant that I have with God personally."

Yet, Kissling's own words betray her real intentions in the feminist war on the Church. In a 1989 interview published in Mother Jones magazine, Kissling remarked, "I spent 20 years looking for a government to overthrow without being thrown in jail — I finally found one in the Catholic Church."

As an important part of her strategy, until her recent retirement from Catholics for a Free Choice, Kissling enlisted prominent Catholic feminists — many of them teaching on Catholic campuses — to build a major media presence in an effort to convince the world that Catholics support abortion. With no actual membership (critics routinely refer to the organization as a "well-funded letterhead"), Catholics for a Free Choice was created by philanthropic institutions with a pro-abortion bias. Foundations like the Turner Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the David and Lucille Packard Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation, as well as Hugh Hefner's Playboy Foundation have all given financial support to the pro-abortion "Catholic" organization.

In an effort to convince even more Catholics that abortion can be a moral decision, Kissling has spent millions of foundation-donated dollars advertising her cause — creating the illusion that she had a constituency among grass-roots Catholics as well as among "pro-choice" foundations. Catholic college faculty members and administrators played an especially important role on October 7, 1984 when Kissling placed a full-page advertisement in The New York Times asserting that "there is more than one theologically and ethically defensible viewpoint on abortion within Catholicism," and calling for a dialogue among Catholics to acknowledge this "situation of pluralism" in the Church.

The ad explicitly asked for the cessation of institutional sanctions against those with dissenting positions on abortion. Ninety-seven Catholic scholars, religious and social activists, including 24 women religious, four priests and brothers, and a large number of lay professors working at Catholic colleges and universities signed the Times ad.

Among the signers of the ad from academia were Rosemary Ruether; Joseph Fahey, a professor at Manhattan College; Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, then a theology professor at the University of Notre Dame now teaching at Harvard; Daniel Maguire of Marquette, and his wife Marjorie, who was then working as a fellow in ethics and theology at Catholics for a Free Choice. Other signers included Michael Barnes, a professor at the University of Dayton; Mary Buckley, a professor at St. John's University; Mary Byles, a professor at Maryville College; Daniel DiDominzo, a professor at Marian College; Christine Gudorf, a professor at Xavier University; Paul Knitter, also a professor at Xavier University; Joe Mellon, a professor at the University of Notre Dame; Gerald Pire, a professor at Seton Hall University; Mary Savage, a professor at Albertus Magnus College; Ellen Shanahan, a professor at Rosary College; Jane Via, a professor at the University of San Diego; Arthur Zannoni, a professor at the University of Notre Dame.

A second ad in The New York Times, published on March 2, 1986, was, in effect, a show of support for those who had signed the October 1984 ad, and featured more than 1,000 signatures, "representing a large percentage of the Catholic feminist constituency," and including hundreds of Catholic feminists teaching on Catholic campuses.

One of those who signed the original pro-abortion ad, Notre Dame theologian Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, is still an honored guest lecturer on Catholic campuses, including most recently at the University of San Diego, Seton Hall, and St. Louis University. She has moved on from her early days with Catholics for a Free Choice to help unite many of the feminist groups into a coalition called the Women-Church Convergence, "a movement of self- identified women and women-identified men from all denominations whose common goal is to reinterpret the Gospel from the perspective of women's liberation."

Led by Rosemary Ruether, women in the group have created their own life-cycle ceremonies, including rituals to mark an abortion or the union of lesbian couples. In her presentations on Catholic college campuses, Schussler Fiorenza cites her own brand of feminist theology to argue that the Catholic Church has always been "pluralist" when it comes to abortion. According to research conducted by Human Life International, she also claims that she rejects the divinity of Jesus and the doctrine of the Trinity, among other fundamental beliefs of the Catholic Church.

Schussler Fiorenza, Ruether, and Kissling are aware that because they call themselves Catholic, they can say things about the Church that the personnel of national abortion organizations like Planned Parenthood cannot. Most recently, Kissling appropriated a popular devotional image to promote abortion among Hispanic Catholics. In a prayer card asking Our Lady of Guadalupe to "keep abortion legal," Kissling uses the figure of the Guadalupe, revered by Hispanics, in an attempt to convince them that abortion can be a sacred choice.

Liberation Theology And Women's Ordination

Reviewing the history of the feminist battles over reproductive rights reveals that many of those fighting the abortion wars have also enlisted in the battle over women's ordination. As early as 1970, National Organization for Women members publicly burned a copy of the Roman Missal that prohibited women from serving as lectors in the Catholic Church. And, in 1974, Patricia Fogarty McQuillan, one of the founders of Catholics for a Free Choice, crowned herself "pope" on the steps of St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York on the first anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision.

Some of the most visible feminist theologians allied with Catholics for Free Choice, including Catholic theology professors Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza and Rosemary Ruether, have also been on the front lines protesting Catholic teachings on the priesthood.

Rosemary Ruether, a board member of the Catholics for a Free Choice since 1985, has been one of the harshest critics of the Catholic Church's stand on women's ordination. Drawing upon pagan themes in many of her books, Ruether is the author of Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing. Denying most of the teachings of the Catholic Church, Ruether, like Daniel Maguire and Schussler Fiorenza, has developed her own theology. According to Human Life International's research: "Taken as a whole, Ruether's work is a thorough and complete rejection of Catholicism. . . . Ruether rejects practically every dogmatic teaching of the Church. She does not believe in the transubstantiation of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ in the Mass, and she rejects the entire Catholic theology of the priesthood. She even rejects the Church's fundamental contention regarding the immortality of the individual soul — the touchstone on which all forms of Christianity are based."

In the spring 1997 issue of Conscience, the publication of Catholics for a Free Choice, Ruether wrote that since there is no individual soul, redemption cannot have the classical significance it has always possessed. She believes that feminist theologians, such as herself, reject the classical notion that the human soul is radically fallen, alienated from God, and unable to reconcile itself with God, in need of an outside mediator. The role of Jesus and His sacrifice for our sins becomes quite differently defined in feminist theology as Ruether believes that no one person can become the collective human whose actions accomplish a salvation which is then passively applied to everyone else.

Since the story of redemption, or the Christian belief that Jesus suffered and died for our sins, is the basis of all Christianity, it is difficult to understand how she can continue to remain employed as a "Catholic" theologian — or how she was invited to hold the esteemed Portman Chair at the University of San Diego.

For Ruether, feminist Christianity, rather than the Bible, is the true gospel of Jesus because it involves the dismantling of the patterns of patriarchal Christianity, and the reconstruction of a radically different understanding of the key touchstones of Christian theology. She writes: "What happens to Christian feminist theology when Christian symbols are one resource among others, along with Shamanism and Buddhism. . . . Multi-religious solidarity and syncretism are not only allowable, they are required."

The Catholic Church has never allowed syncretism, yet, this has not stopped Catholic campuses from offering courses and spirituality workshops which blend syncretistic mixtures of elements from various sources including Kabbalah, astrology, as well as Sufi mysticism, Yoga, Buddhism, and numerology.

In addition to syncretism, polytheism is often an integral part of feminist theology. For Ruether, ordaining women would constitute "an essential first step" in implementing her radical changes in Catholic theology, including a rejection of monotheism, a rejection of the notion of sin and the need for redemption, and a rejection of the central role of Christ as a sacrifice for humanity.

Like Ruether, Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza teamed with Pilar Aquino in 2000 to edit In the Power of Wisdom, a published collection of writings by feminist theologians who "inquire into the links between feminist spiritualities and diverse feminist struggles on the one hand and the importance of human or divine Chokma / Sophia / Wisdom as their hermeneutical horizon." Filled with jargon and New Age syncretistic mixtures, the edited collections focus on religious resources for spirituality and "articulate a spiritual vision that not only expresses women's struggles to survive and transform relations of domination but also critically identifies religious traditions and resources for such a discernment of the Spirit-Shekhina-Sophia's working in different global contexts."

Schussler Fiorenza concludes that the contributors to her most recent edited collection of feminist writings function as "ministers of Divine Wisdom that have been sent out to the public places of the global village . . . and invite all of us to eat the bread of Wisdom-Sophia, drink of her wine, and walk in her ways of creative justice."

A "Hermeneutic Of Suspicion"

To support their feminist contentions about a Sophia / Wisdom spirituality — and to help undermine the historical validity of the New Testament and the divinity of Christ — many feminist scholars and theologians draw upon the "hidden gospels." In his research on the ways in which feminists have been "ambitious in using the newly found gospels to reconstruct the early churches in their own image," Pennsylvania State University historian Philip Jenkins writes in The New Anti-Catholicism that for feminists, the "hidden gospels" reveal an early Christianity headed by a radically egalitarian Jesus who welcomed a proto-feminist movement which venerated female leaders like Mary Magdalene.

Many feminists believe that the privileged role of women in the early Church was annexed by sinister figures like St. Paul — often described by feminists as a "misogynist and homophobe, who imposed his dark, repressive vision on the emerging Church." And, as Christian theology became more complex, these same feminists believe that "the mechanisms of the Church became hierarchical, bureaucratic, and oppressive." For many feminists, the main victims of this transformation were women who lost their positions and prestige within the Church.

The "hidden gospels" are cited by modern feminist theologians like Rosemary Ruether who has included "the evidence" of female priests in her collection of readings supporting a feminist theology, or an alternative feminist canon. Likewise, Schussler Fiorenza draws upon the material in the hidden gospels to advocate a whole new range of approaches that should be applied in feminist research. Characteristic of these approaches is what they call a "hermeneutic of suspicion," based on the presumption that patriarchal texts — including most of the New Testament — would unnecessarily exclude or demean women and the feminine, and cannot be trusted.

Yet, as Philip Jenkins points out, the "hidden gospels" are themselves contested terrain. In his book, Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way, Jenkins argues that far from being "revolutionary," such attempts to find an alternative Christianity date back at least to the Enlightenment. By employing scholarly and historical methodologies, Jenkins demonstrates that the hidden texts purported to represent pristine Christianity were in fact composed long after the canonical Gospels found in the New Testament:

"Produced by obscure heretical movements, these texts offer no reliable new information about Jesus or the early church. They have attracted so much media attention chiefly because they seem to support radical, feminist, and post-modern positions in the modern church."

The continued reliance on the core philosophy of liberation theology on Catholic college campuses like the University of San Diego remains strong. In 2006, Gustavo Gutierrez, known as the "father of liberation theology," was an honored guest speaker at the first Annual Lecture of the University of San Diego's Center for the Study of Latino / a Catholicism. Gutierrez, a Peruvian priest, became the earliest spokesman for the movement when he wrote the most notable text for liberation studies, A Theology of Liberation — a text that continues to be assigned to hundreds of undergraduate theology students on Catholic campuses each year.

Unfortunately, many feminist liberation theologians have redefined the theology by intertwining biblical concepts with Gnostic myths and Marxist ideology in an effort to empower the people of God as equals in the teachings and activities of the Catholic Church — opening ordination to women.

It was especially appropriate that Fr. Gutierrez visited the San Diego campus in 2006 because just a few months before his visit, Jane Via, a longtime theology professor at the University of San Diego, was illicitly ordained as a Catholic priest on June 24, 2006 aboard a riverboat in Switzerland. In a ceremony that was described by Patricia Fresson, one of three female Catholic bishops who claim to have been secretly ordained by active Roman Catholic bishops, as "both a political and a sacramental action," Via became one of a growing number of American women who have received ordination to the priesthood in recent illicit ceremonies through Roman Catholic Womenpriests.

Womenpriests is a reform movement that claims to have ordained dozens of women priests and deacons. Via, like most feminist theologians, has been a longtime critic of Church teachings on reproductive rights and a woman's right to ordination in the Church. One of the original signers of the 1984 Catholics for a Free Choice New York Times ad protesting the Church's stand on abortion, Via enjoyed more than two decades of job security at the University of San Diego where she has served as an adjunct professor of theology until her "ordination."

Since she left the university, she has co-founded a new Catholic congregation in San Diego and called it the independent Mary Magdalene the Apostle Catholic Community.

The feminist front on Catholic campuses continues to damage not just the Catholic Church as an institution, it has damaged the very understanding of Christianity. By dismissing natural law and the authority of Scripture and what they call the "patriarchal" authority structure of the Church, dissidents on Catholic campuses create confusion over some of the most important teachings of the Church, including the divinity of Christ, the Resurrection, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, as well as, of course, abortion, homosexuality, and women's ordination.

Philip Rieff writes in his Life Among the Deathworks, "The Death of God the Father will not lead to the birth of God the mother, nor to another twelve or more sacred messengers. . . . The mother-as-god movement will be smothered in its own feminist animus." The syncretism of the New Age / Wisdom feminist spirituality, and the growing strength of the Marxist liberationist theology and its feminist and gay successors, has constructed what Rieff calls a "psychosis" about the established commanding truths in sacred order. And he warns that "commanding truths will not be mocked, except to the destruction of everything sacred."

Sadly, on many Catholic campuses, the search for truth has ended, as a desire for a feminist utopia that can never come has driven sacred and social order further and further apart.

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(Anne Hendershott has spent the past 15 years at the University of San Diego where she served as chair of the Department of Sociology and director of Urban Studies. She recently moved to King's College in New York City.)

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