A Complicated Catholicism

March 18, 2021 at 10:19 am | Posted in American Catholicism, feminism, racism, | 4 Comments

I am given to describing myself as an Irish-Catholic from Philadelphia, but that is only three-quarters true. My father’s people were Irish Catholics through and through, but on my mother’s side, Catholics had married Protestants for three generations. It should be no surprise, then, that I am married to an American Baptist minister.

Part of the story begins when my mother’s maternal grandmother, Hannah Kelly, an Irish domestic, married her employer, John Turner. I read somewhere that Irish immigrant women preferred to marry white Anglo-Saxon Protestant men because they didn’t go off to build bridges or dig canals, get killed, and never be heard from again. On Sunday mornings, while John Turner, who was, I believe, the superintendent of a factory—an iron mill, perhaps—took the kids to the Episcopal church with him, great-grandmother Hannah would sit in her rocking chair and say the rosary. I have the rocker in my living room. Eventually John Turner took to coming home from work drunk on Saturday afternoons and beating her, claiming she had “the brains of an oyster.”

But to complicate the story further, their eldest child, Jane, eventually married a Catholic and “converted back,” as I am given to saying; one of the many baffling aspects of my religious identity was that I had Catholic cousins on the Protestant side of the family.

One of Hannah’s younger daughters, Elizabeth, my maternal grandmother, married an ostensibly Protestant if very Irish-looking young man named Jim Dodds who was himself the product of a Catholic-Protestant union. One story was that, as a kid, his father would pay him to go to Mass, and then his mother’s sisters would pay him to go to the Protestant church, and he would pocket all the money and go neither place. Neither he nor my grandmother were very much church-goers; my mother and her sister grew up titular Methodists, but my mother became an Episcopalian as a young woman.

That younger sister, the aunt after whom I am named, got married when she was quite young to a British-Catholic immigrant and became a Catholic herself. My mother subsequently became engaged to an Irish Catholic, my father, Joe Ronan, and planned to convert, but the Franciscan sister who gave her catechetical instructions announced that all Protestants go to hell. This put my mother off since most of her family—well, a lot of them—were Protestants. When she and my father subsequently got married in the rectory office, the priest refused to include the flowers that had been delivered because theirs was a “mixed marriage.” 

I often think about these several generations of cross-denominational entanglements in my family when writers argue that white ethnic Catholics lived in “ghettoes” before the Second Vatican Council. In my experience, this was not exactly the case.

My mother did promise to raise the children Catholic, however, and to send them to Catholic schools, a promise she kept, though I never quite understood why; she was never a particularly obedient person. In any case, as I result, I landed in one of the first grade classes at St. Joseph’s parochial school, in Collingdale, a working-class Philadelphia suburb, in 1953. 

Now I was born in 1947, and the years 1946-1947 saw the largest US population increase in the 20thcentury; men came home from the war in ’45, got married, and had their first kid. As a result there were three first-grade classes at St. Joe’s in 1953, each with over a hundred children enrolled. People talk about how violent the Catholic sisters who taught those classes were. Myself, I have never understood how they avoided killing some of us.

The 1950s were not the most theologically liberal years for American Catholicism, either.  Basically, the same absolutist, anti-Protestant teachings that alienated my mother during World War II got preached regularly from the pulpit. Now given the disciplinary rigor of the post-war church, I most certainly did not put my hand up and disagree when the priest announced that all Protestant were going to hell. But you may be quite sure that the announcement raised a few questions in my mind, since my Protestant grandmother, who had lived with us since my grandfather’s death, was home baking me cookies at that very moment.

The culture of my family complicated my identity in other ways as well. My father eventually because the president of his union local—albeit, one of the most racist unions in the country, the IBEW—and was emphatically pro-labor. He would sit at the dinner table and say, “If you ever vote Republican or cross a picket line, you will go to hell.” I am given to saying that this was the beginning of my theological education. And my father was proclaiming this in a Republican-dominated county where most people, including my father, believed they had to register Republican or risk losing their jobs. 

Nor was my father a particularly pious Catholic. I hardly remember him saying anything religious at all. We certainly didn’t say grace before meals in our “mixed” household. And when Daddy came home from working the night shift at the Philadelphia Electric generating station, he was given to saying, “What do you say we go to the 8 (AM Mass) and get it over with?” But he was a “practicing” Catholic: went to Mass every Sunday, sold chances door to door to support the parish, and sang in the parish choir after his retirement from PE. And when I came home and announced that I just eloped with my previously-divorced American Baptist minister husband, he asked, “Are you still a Harp?” (“Harp” is a 19th century derogatory term for the Irish, which they used for themselves as some African Americans use the term “nigger.”). For him, our Catholicism was as much an ethnic identity as a religious one. “Yes, Daddy. I’m still a Harp,” I replied.

I was wildly enthusiastic about the Second Vatican Council in part because of the steps taken there toward Protestant-Catholic reconciliation. I was also drawn to what I perceived to be the extraordinary beauty of the liturgical movement which influenced the Council and shaped the liturgical renewal that the Council initiated. During the last year of the Council I became involved in the Grail, an international Catholic laywomen’s movement that had played a significant role in the liturgical movement, and whose liturgies and Divine Office chapel services at the Grail’s US city centers spoke to me very deeply.

As I began spending more time at Grailville, the Grail’s organic farm and national center in rural southwest Ohio, this plot began to thicken. In 1972 and 1973, in response to increasing numbers of women enrolling in divinity schools, the US Grail joined with the liberal Protestant organization, Church Women United, to sponsor two week-long summer programs at Grailville, “Women Exploring Theology.” The two events comprised one of the first in-depth free-standing explorations of a possible Christian feminist theology. (The soon-to-be- influential feminist theologian, Elisabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza, a participant in one of the programs, said doing so was the first time it ever occurred to her that theology wasn’t the purview of dead white men). 

The programs germinated into a six-week, credit-bearing course for women, “Seminary Quarter at Grailville,” where women from seminaries all over the country gathered to study with some of the earliest feminist theologians. Some of the leading Christian-feminist leaders of the future in the US—pastors, theologians, organizers—launched their trajectories at “SQAG.”

It might seem that such events would have melded very well with the marginal, union-based Catholicism of my upbringing, but that would be an optimistic reading. As is unfortunately the case, many revolutionary movements draw on a somewhat—or very—inflexible ideology to drive them, and Christian feminism, especially in its early years, was no exception to this. Regarding pioneering feminist theologian, Mary Daly, the Christian feminist ethicist Beverly Harrison argued compellingly that Daly’s Catholic, and then ex-Catholic, feminist theology was for the most part the reversal of the hierarchical neo-Thomism Daly had learned in her first Ph.D., at the School of Sacred Theology at St. Mary’s in Indiana. In neo-Thomism, men were on the top and women were on the bottom; in Daly’s feminist theology, women were on the top and men on the bottom. More complicated analyses were unpolitical.

I began encountering this sort of thing at Grailville in the mid-1970s, when Seminary Quarter was underway. A Sister of Loretto, whose name I have mercifully forgotten, had given a presentation on feminist theology, and some of us were discussing it with her afterwards, over lunch in the dining room. Whatever I said, the sister responded, “You know, you’re not a real feminist.” 

And that has been true for the rest of my life, as I have for example, raised questions about the racial problems confronting the Catholic women’s ordination movement, even as I served as the president of the Women’s Ordination Conference board. When, as WOC board president, I spoke with the heads of several Black Catholic women’s movements, they assured me that women’s ordination was not an issue for them; what they were concerned about was racism. *

And of course, I raised questions about class as well. I had earned a Master of Divinity degree in the 1980s at a majority African American school, New York Theological Seminary. I did this In large part because of my discomfort with the economic privilege at the uptown Union Theological Seminary, where I had taken a few courses. But I also did so also because the tuition was low and classes at NYTS were at night and I needed to work in the daytime to support myself.  I thus resonated particularly with a speaker—Professor Sheila Briggs, I believe—at a conference in Milwaukee in 2000 celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Women’s Ordination Conference. who asked, “When are we going to start ordaining poor women?” Ordination, as it is currently understood, requires graduate education. Recently I have been greatly taken by Marxist-feminist Nancy Fraser’s argument that Second Wave feminism basically sold out to neoliberal economics, “lean-in feminism,” so to speak. 

I trace my tendency to “make everything so complicated,” a failing of which I have been accused many times, back to my Catholic-Protestant-union identity, though my doctoral work in poststructuralist feminist religious studies probably didn’t help. In recent years, this interpretive “hermeneutics of mess”, as my doctoral advisor Laura Levitt would say, has come to inform, in particular, my preoccupation with the climate catastrophe and nuclear war, the pressing crises of our time. In April 2019 I gave a talk as part of a panel following the annual meeting of Women Church Convergence, a national coalition of progressive Catholic and Catholic-rooted groups, addressing the question, “How can equality flourish in the Catholic Church?” 

I titled my talk “In Some Ways We Are All Equal” and began by stating that I very much support the ordination of women and the rooting-out of sex abuse in the Catholic Church, two of the most pressing issues for very many progressive US Catholics. But I argued that if we achieve both of these goals, and then civilization is wiped out by environmental catastrophe or nuclear war, neither of the other achievements is going to make much difference. In the question and comment session after the panel, the audience, made up primarily of older, white women, made no reference whatever to my argument. They focused instead on racism in the Catholic Church, also an important issue, but similarly secondary to planetary survival. The talk was later published by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference and read and discussed at the meeting of the Grail’s International Council in Tanzania in summer of 2019, so it was by no means totally ignored. Still, the panel made me think, once again, that many of us would prefer to avoid complicated issues.**

In recent years, my complicated Catholicism even seems to be generating a feed-back loop. Given my profound concern about climate change, I was an enthusiastic supporter of Pope Francis’s 2015 environmental encyclical, Laudato Si’. Now let me be clear: as a Catholic feminist, I have spent many decades criticizing the centralized, monarchical governance structure of the Catholic Church. Never would I have imagined giving talks about a papal encyclical, much less to several socialist groups, as I did after Laudato Si’ was published. A number of my Catholic feminist colleagues—the National Catholic Reporter’s Jamie Manson, for example– spoke out against the encyclical because it failed to affirm contraception as a remedy for the environmental harm done by the increasing global population. But experts assure us that population is not the problem; if the poorest three billion people disappeared from the planet, carbon emissions would not be reduced at all. It’s consumption and profit-making that are the problem, as Francis argues convincingly.  But the freedom of European and American women to use contraceptives is apparently more important than planetary survival.

In the years since Laudato Si’ was published, I have grown increasingly convinced, as the Bengali writer Amitav Ghosh argues in The Great Derangement, that the world religions will play a pivotal role in the fight against climate change, because they already exist, and are organized. This is particularly the case with the Roman Catholic Church because it is the largest organization in the world, with 1.3 billion members, and has an internationally recognized figurehead leader. Maybe organizational centralization isn’t entirely bad after all.

As I engage with this “complicated Catholic” reading of the current world crises, I feel myself surrounded by my Catholic/Protestant/union forebears, as well as the rigid white-ethnic priests and nuns and feminist theologians like Mary Daly,  who partly shaped my younger self,  feminist theorists like Judith Butler and Donna Haraway whose work underpins my current world-view, and armies of environmental thinkers and activists from Rachel Carson to Pope Francis to Greta Thunberg. Surrounded by such a large—and complicated—cloud of witnesses, who knows how my thinking will evolve in the years to come?

This article appeared in the March-June 2021 issue of EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southestern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference, pp.6-8.

      *https://www.academia.edu/22455039/Marian_Ronan_-_Ethical_Challenges_Confronting_the_Roman_Catholic_Womens_Ordination_Movement_in_the_Twenty-First_Century_-_Journal_of_Feminist_Studies_in_Religion_23_2  2007

** https://marianronan.wordpress.com/2019/08/20/in-some-ways-we-are-all-equal/


White Feminism

March 7, 2021 at 6:08 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The following is a review that appeared in the March issue of Gumbo, the newsletter of the Grail in the US, part of the International Grail Movement.

White Feminism: From the Suffragettes to Influencers and Who They Leave Behind. By Koa Beck. 240 pp. Atria Books/Simon and Schuster. 2021. Hardback. $27. 

It’s hard to imagine a more timely publication, just after Black History Month and during ongoing protests against racism, than Koa Beck’s White Feminism. Beck is a woman of color, a lesbian,  a widely published journalist, former editor of Jezebel and Vogue magazines, and a Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

I anticipated that Beck would situate the history of feminism in the racist positions held by early suffragettes like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, and indeed she does. But she goes on to lay out in detail the exclusion of women of color during many subsequent stages of the women’s rights movement after Stanton and Anthony. When the much-adulated Quaker suffragette Alice Paul organized the 1913 Washington Woman Suffrage Procession, for example, she excluded any mention of the “negro question” from publicity, for fear of alienating Southern suffragettes. Then, when Black women’s groups showed up, she ordered them to the back of the march. And indeed, after the Nineteenth Amendment passed, women of color were excluded from voting under Jim Crow. And throughout the rest of Paul’s career, working for the Equal Rights Amendment,  she tried to exclude all reference to race and class, for fear it would dilute the strength of the gender equality message.

From Paul, the author continues the history white feminism by detailing how Betty Friedan and the National Organization for Women, beginning in the 1960s, focused on women working outside the home, with no recognition at all of women in poverty and how their domestic service enabled such women to get professional  jobs. From there, Beck launches into an analysis of how feminism became branded and the Sheryl Sandberg “Lean-in” feminism—white women in corporate leadership—became the central focus of feminism. 

But White Feminism is by no means only a history how white feminism excluded women of color and poor women from the movement. It is also a sort of memoir of Beck’s own experience as a journalist, how she, and the subjects she kept proposing to write about, were so often rendered invisible by the very often white editors of the women’s publications for which she worked. And those kept out included not only women of color, but also poor women, transgender persons, immigrants—the most excluded. I personally learned a lot, In particular, from Beck’s discussion of discrimination against non-cis-gendered people. I had thought that cis-gender actually meant heterosexual, when, in fact,  gay cis-gender men sometimes worked to exclude transgender women from recognition.

The book really does a fine job of showing the primary reason for the exclusion of so many “others” from white feminism, beyond a commitment to white superiority: the turn to individualism, feminism as a self-empowerment strategy. And in the third section of the book, Beck lays out a number of ways to return to the solidarity, the collectivism of the pre-feminist women’s labor movements and Black struggles.

I have one concern about the book, however: the use of the term “white feminism.” Now let me acknowledge that in my experience, publishers often mandate a book’s title , explaining that something like “White Feminism” is much more likely to sell than a more complex, accurate title. But what Beck is critiquing is much more an ideology than a racial group. And in some ways, “white feminism” is at least as much the “neo-liberal feminism,” the massive turn from post-war economics that Nancy Fraser identifies with the end of second wave  feminism during the Reagan/May era, than with whiteness per se.

And Beck acknowledges this in a number of places. The title of Part II is “White Feminism™”— “white feminism” as a brand. And she regularly claims that a change in ideology, not just is personal behavior, is what’s called for. She likewise refers on a number of occasions to “white feminists and those who aspire to whiteness,” which is not exactly a racial category. And one of the most striking illustrations of her critique of “feminist” CEOs—“Girl Bosses”—is the story of Miki Agrawal, the half-Japanese, half sub-continental Indian woman founder of Thinx underwear, who worked forcefully for the commodification of feminism.

But in many other places, Beck refers to white feminists without any quotation marks. I guess all us white feminist are commodified, buying expensive memberships in exclusive women’s clubs and wearing high-end “Feminist” t-shirts. Then again, maybe a little more nuance in Beck’s analysis might advance the collective action against racism, sexual oppression, and poverty that White Feminism is calling for.

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