Mary J. Henold: The Leadership Conference of Women Religious is the Scapegoat for Our Disobedience

The following guest post is from UNC Press Author Mary J. Henold, author of Catholic and Feminist: The Surprising History of the American Catholic Feminist Movement. In the book, Henold explores the movement from the 1960s through the early 1980s, showing that although Catholic feminists had much in common with their sisters in the larger American feminist movement, Catholic feminism was distinct and had not been simply imported from outside. She demonstrates that efforts to reconcile faith and feminism reveal both the complex nature of feminist consciousness and the creative potential of religious feminism.

In this gust post, Henold responds to the recent Vatican reprimand of a group of American nuns.


When I heard of the Catholic church’s recent crackdown against the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) and the imposition of male hierarchical oversight, my first response was unprintable here. But what followed was a wave of guilt, incredulity, and sorrow. It was enough to break my resolve never to write a blog post.

Let’s start with the guilt. I firmly believe that the LCWR now faces this crackdown because of laywomen like me. The bishops have lost our trust and our devotion; they have no idea how to look a modern woman in the eye and reestablish control.

There was a time in American Catholic history when priests and bishops still possessed the authority to control the laywomen of their congregations. Well into the 1960s, Catholic laywomen were taught to adhere to strict gender roles requiring women to surrender their will to God and husband for the good of the family, the Church, and indeed, all of humanity. They were to model their lives on an extraordinarily passive interpretation of the Virgin Mary. She may have risked all through her decision to bear the son of God, but the take-away for women was her passive/active “fiat”: Let it be done to me. As a result, laywomen were educated to give their priests and bishops ultimate authority over the most mundane to the most intimate decisions of their lives. But such times are long gone thanks to the Catholic women who used feminism to question this worldview in the 1960s.

So why should I feel guilty when I hear of this latest abuse of power by my own leaders? I believe, at the root of this assault on the sisters’ autonomy, is a bewilderment and anger at the hierarchy’s loss of power over laywomen. We make decisions about our reproductive lives without the input of our priests. We read the documents from the Magisterium, that is the teaching office of the church, but we reject them when our bishops use their power as a weapon to control and punish those who raise their voices for justice. We hide our faces in shame when yet another of our leaders is exposed for enabling child sex abuse.

I study the history of the American Catholic church, specifically the women who call this faith home. I myself am a cradle Catholic who, despite great provocation and a commitment to feminism, has never “fallen away.” The Mass continues to sustain me, my parish has my energy and support, but the bishops have failed time and again to earn my obedience. Their move to sanction the sisters, living witnesses to “the radical call of the gospel” as the sisters state on their website, only confirms what I have known for some time: the hierarchy places the need for doctrinal orthodoxy over pastoral leadership. They do not have ears to hear the pain of women who have learned only too well that they are less than, unholy, unworthy, and unwanted—unless they bend the knee of course, to the gods in red hats and lace trim. Many of us laywomen now refuse, or more commonly, simply ignore; the LCWR does not have this luxury, and so bears the pain for the rest of us.

My second response was an incredulous snort once I got into the details of the announcement.

When I read documents from the Vatican, it always surprises me how divorced they are from the world of scholarship. I’m an academic and a Catholic, and so it can be difficult to accept the pronouncements of the Magisterium when those who do the pronouncing have seemingly not cracked a book on the topic under discussion.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) has concluded that the LCWR is guilty of the high crime of “radical feminism.” I have studied the LCWR and its feminism. In fact, an analysis of the LCWR’s feminism in the period when it originated (circa 1973) forms a major part of my history of the American Catholic feminist movement, Catholic and Feminist. Nothing these women espoused then, or as far as I can see, since, places them in the category of radical feminism. Such a designation is reserved for feminists who espouse a very specific theoretical framework questioning the very foundations, and indeed the existence, of social structures like the church. The sisters of LCWR, on the other hand, generally represent a liberal feminist worldview, a reformist position that they attempt to harmonize with their Catholic faith on the grounds that both at their root call for service to and justice for the oppressed among us. The hierarchy seems incapable of understanding such subtleties, choosing to label any woman who rejects the religiously justified exclusion of women from the priesthood and other positions of authority a dangerous radical.

Finally, in my sorrow I can only say this: I stand in solidarity with my sisters in the LCWR, and indeed the women religious across the country who still await the hierarchy’s official decree on their orthodoxy. I offer them my prayerful support. I know that they suffer now because the vast majority of us have escaped the grasp of those who feel such an overwhelming need to dominate. Let us all stand with those who bear the punishment for our escape.

Mary J. Henold is associate professor of history at Roanoke College and author of Catholic and Feminist: The Surprising History of the American Catholic Feminist Movement.