Adult Feminists in Charge of Things Catholic


By Mary E. Hunt

Posted originally on Feminist Studies in Religion.

One election is not definitive, but the trajectory that led to the results of the 2012 voting was only confirmed by the data. As predicted, white, mostly male, Catholics of a certain age voted one way; Hispanic, young, LGBTIQ, women, and others voted another. That President Obama, same-sex marriage, reproductive choice, and immigration reform all came out on top is welcome news and serious responsibility. Progressives, especially feminists, are the new adults in the U.S. Catholic community. How are we going to act now that we are in the driver’s seat?

I have written often about the demise of the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops. I have no need to rub their collective noses in their massive defeat. However, no one can ignore the enormous amounts of church money (both from parish collections and the Knights of Columbus) they poured into one losing proposition after another. Perhaps this experience will chasten them. I doubt it.

Their bravado a week later is telling. They claim that they will continue to be the guardians of hetero-only marriage and persist in their health care quibbles. But the frank fact of the matter is that just as pollsters won over pundits in the election, so too did Catholic progressives win over the bishops. Elections matter and the momentum has shifted definitively in our direction.

As a feminist, I welcome this new post-election clarity. When confronted with the notion that Catholics are expected to pray, pay, and obey, I have only to point to the 2012 results as proof that most don’t. There is every indication in the trends that the new Catholic majority, especially Hispanics and young people, is growing. I am concerned about this because the Catholic community as one fourth of the U.S. electorate still makes a difference. With the bishops in disgrace—unable to pass a simple letter on the economy four years into a damaging recession—the mantle of leadership has passed to the rest of the community where it belongs.

Now the real work begins to establish what it means to be a Catholic feminist in the 21st century. At a minimum, it means transforming a kyriarchal tradition into an egalitarian one. It means finding ways to live with differences of opinion, with diversity without requiring conformity. Yes, that is Catholic. Mostly, it means letting the needs of the world, not the failings of an outmoded institution, drive the agenda. Most importantly, it means making the values of love and justice manifest in a world in which hatred, greed, and violence are normative. This work can only be made easier by strong coalitions, smart, committed leaders, and participatory models of operating, all of which feminists value. It also requires the careful scholarship that feminists provide that in quantity.

One place to start learning is a recently released video by Catholics for Choice entitled “The Secret History of Sex, Choice and Catholics”. Full disclosure: I am in the video. So are Rosemary Radford Ruether, Kate Ott, Sheila Briggs, and Daniel C. Maguire among others. Since sex and reproductive justice are so much a part of what the bishops don’t get and what most people identify as Catholic issues, this is a useful resource for opening conversation.

The video is well suited for classes and study groups. Catholic theologians who know the tradition and respect today’s reality explore conscience, abortion, contraception, frame HIV/AIDS and other topics. Our work is to lay out the historical complexity of these issues, to challenge Catholic teaching that is one-sided, and present equally Catholic alternatives. We say in straightforward, concise terms that people, including Catholics, have the right to make up their own minds about moral issues, the duty to choose contraception and abortion when necessary, and the responsibility to use condoms for the safety of all. It is not a new orthodoxy, but a new invitation to be feminist adults about our faith-based commitments. It is a new, necessary start.