by Derrick Clements
I was walking home from work today when my iPod’s podcast queue started playing this episode from Fresh Air. I saw that it was about a conflict between the Vatican and a group of Catholic nuns called The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, and I was about to skip it.
“I am neither someone who loses sleep over disagreement with the Pope, nor am I a nun,” I thought. But something stopped me. As a pattern-seeking human, a few things stopped me from skipping the episode: I do lose sleep over disagreement with the Prophet, and I am not a nun, but I am an active Mormon!
Mormon feminists do not exist in a vacuum. In fact, as we look around at the larger community of religious feminists, we actually find that we are the young ones at the table. Not only are there Catholic feminists, but there are Jewish feminists, Muslim feminists, and many others. These older siblings to Mormonism have already explored a lot of the internal questions we are only beginning to crack open ourselves. If Mormons are metaphorically Joseph, these religious feminists are our Alvin and Hyrum.
Other religions have had centuries more experience than we have at existing within secular societies, and many of them have become sophisticated enough to handle complicated perspectives without resorting to excommunicating the faithful on the fringe.
In recent years, the Church seems to me to be less vulnerable to the potential threat of its own fringes, showing signs as an institution of being able to keep its feminist thinkers in the body of the Church, instead of vomiting them out. This year, an LDS woman who had been excommunicated in the 1990s for feminist teachings made her way back to the Church, providing a nice illustration of the sea change.
The Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWF) provides another fantastic illustration. Here’s the skinny: The Vatican published a Doctrinal Assessment on this leading organization of nuns, and found “serious doctrinal problems” with its teachings, including LCWF positions (or lack thereof) on issues of homosexuality, birth control, and women’s ordination to the Priesthood. It also found what it saw to be LCWF members moving beyond the Church or beyond Christ, “a challenge not only to core Catholic beliefs; such a rejection of faith is also a serious source of scandal and is incompatible with religious life.”
It also accused the group of “radical feminism.”
When one is accused of heresy, it’s hard not enter into the mindset of the duel. When one has this mindset, one sees only two options: fall back in line with the mainstream, or cut ties entirely. In this paradigm, people are always either in agreement or opposed, with each other or against each other. It does not take both parties to enter into the duel; one can enter the mindset alone and then bring opponents in through accusation or attack.
Feminism has often been lured into this kind of duel. Patriarchal structures have distrusted feminists, and feminists have distrusted all men. Militant feminism is a term for a reason. But as I listened to the president of LCWF, Sister Pat Farrell talk about the story on Fresh Air, what struck me was how skillfully she disentangled herself and the organization she represents from that kind of duel with the Vatican.
GROSS: Do you know what the options are? I mean, it seems to me some of the options include agreeing to the terms of the Vatican, changing the positions of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, changing some of the language it uses, or risk being perhaps excommunicated or leaving the church. Are those all options?
FARRELL: No, not exactly. We’re not talking about the risk of excommunication or leaving the church. That’s not our intent. We’re talking about the Vatican’s dealing with a national organization, not with specific religious congregations or individual religious. So first of all, the one and only underlying option for us is to respond with integrity in however we proceed. That is our absolute bottom line in this. And some of the options I think would be to just comply with the mandate that’s been given to us or to, you know, to say we can’t comply with this and to see what the Vatican does with that or to remove ourselves, form a separate organization, or hopefully, in my mind, to see if we can somehow, in a spirit of nonviolent strategizing, look for some maybe third way that refuses to just define the mandate and the issues in such black and white terms. I don’t know to what degree that could be an option.
To not even acknowledge that excommunication or leaving are options on her end is to escape the clutches of the duel. By grounding her position in terms of integrity rather than in reference to the Vatican, she is absorbing the spirit of war and turning it into useful dialogue. In matters of faith, it does more harm than good to fight.
The LCWF are a wonderful example to Mormon feminists about how to be faithful feminists as well as respectful Church members as they promote dialogue and understanding within their own faith community. Again from Farrell:
[W]e have been, in good faith, raising concerns about some of the church’s teaching on sexuality, human sexuality, the problem being that the teaching and interpretation of the faith can’t remain static and really needs to be reformulated, rethought, in light of the world we live in and new questions, new realities as they arise.
And if those issues become points of conflict, it’s because Women Religious stand in very close proximity to people at the margins, to people with very painful, difficult situations in their lives. That is our gift to the church.
Our gift to the church is to be with those who have been made poorer, with those on the margins. And questions there are much less black and white because human realities are much less black and white. So that’s – that’s where we spend our days.
And let’s not forget the fact that they are primarily an organization that helps the poor and needy. Catholic women really are incredible.