Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXIX, No. 2
30th Anniversary Issue
Women for Faith & Family - 1984-2009
Catholic Women Affirming the Faith for 25 Years
by Helen Hull Hitchcock
[Editors’s note 2014: I have done very little editing here, keeping most of it as it was in 2009. So some mentions of current activities, etc., are now out of date.]
It is now 25 years since the day in September 1984 when six St. Louis women gathered around a dining room table to discuss a response to the American bishops, who had asked to hear from Catholic women before writing a pastoral letter on “women’s concerns.”
We had concerns. We were deeply concerned about the impression given in the media that most Catholic women felt alienated from the Church and dissented from essential Catholic teachings — on issues ranging from abortion to ordination. We were also aware that feminist theology had influenced many Catholic leaders. So our concern was increased when well-known feminist theologians were appointed as consulters to the Bishops’ Committee on Women, and when the committee announced its intention to gather information through “listening sessions” to be held in all dioceses of the United States.
We were concerned that these “listening sessions” would not give the bishops an accurate picture of Catholic women — in part because only a small minority of Catholic women would be able to attend them. Also, questions posed at the sessions (such as “how do you feel marginalized and alienated by the Church?”) seemed designed to elicit disaffection and complaints, and to discourage participation from women who supported Church teaching or who were critical of any aspect of feminism.
What could we do? How could we convey to the bishops the real truth about Catholic women — that the vast majority of Catholic women in all states of life did not feel oppressed by the Church, but quite the opposite? In fact, the Church is the source of true human freedom — in particular through her constant teachings on the intrinsic value of all human life, on the unique role of women in forming future generations, on the central place of the family in society, and on the responsibility of all Catholics, women and men, to uphold and transmit this liberating truth of Jesus Christ embodied in the Catholic Church.
Several of us had been thinking about this since we first heard of the bishops’ proposed project.
The result of our discussion that September afternoon? We decided to circulate the Affirmation for Catholic Women, a statement of fidelity to Catholic teachings on marriage, family, abortion, ordination, and related issues. We wanted to make it possible for Catholic women who accept the teachings of the Catholic Church to give concrete testimony of their faith to the bishops.
In the beginning we envisioned this as simply an ad hoc effort to provide a means whereby the voices of ordinary Catholic women could be heard. However, the response to the Affirmation statement was so immediate and so strong that we soon realized that many women were depending on us for much more than this, and our work began to expand rapidly.
Perhaps Women for Faith & Family had appeared at a propitious time — as a brief review of the historical context may reveal.
What was going on, and why we needed to act
In the years following the Second Vatican Council, two events — Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, which reaffirmed the Catholic Church’s opposition to artificial birth control, and the US Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision on abortion — caused a great deal of attention to be focused on Catholics who rejected the Church’s teaching. Both secular and Catholic media publicized the dissent of influential Catholic theologians and academics from Church teachings that had always been regarded as essential to Catholicism.
The Catholic press was dominated by Catholic women theologians and journalists and feminist activists who were at odds with the Church over a wide spectrum of issues they regarded as oppressive to women. Church-sponsored workshops resembling feminist consciousness-raising sessions proliferated, and many women’s religious orders suffered radical identity crises and a heavy loss of membership.
That many of the most vocal women espousing these views held positions of influence within the Church’s official structure and on university and seminary faculties lent credibility to their claim that half of the Church — the female half — was bitterly angry at the “patriarchal” Church, deeply resentful of “oppressive” Catholic teachings, and in open rebellion.
With few exceptions, Catholic women who described themselves as “feminist” held opinions on social issues — including abortion — that were indistinguishable from those of secular feminists. Women who did not subscribe to this view were commonly stereotyped as ignorant collaborators in their own victimization, against equality for women, and as “anti-feminists.”
This was made dramatically clear in October 1984, when a full-page ad appeared in the New York Times sponsored by Catholics for a Free Choice, stating that the Church’s condemnation of the “direct termination of pre-natal life [is not] the only legitimate Catholic position,” that “a large number of Catholic theologians hold that even direct abortion, though tragic, can sometimes be a moral choice,” and that public dissent from the Church’s “hierarchal statements,” even by priests and religious, “should not be penalized by ... religious superiors, church employers or bishops.”
The ad was signed by 96 individuals, a majority of whom were women, including nuns and prominent theologians who described themselves as feminists.
The New York Times statement made it clear that there was a fundamental and irreconcilable chasm between Catholic belief and contemporary feminism’s advocacy of abortion “rights” for women. It was well known that thousands of Catholic women were leaders of a growing movement that opposed abortion; so it should have been obvious that most Catholic women were equally opposed to feminism’s vigorous support for abortion.
Yet feminist Catholic women continued to present their views as representing Catholic women collectively.
Several factors may have made their claim believable, among them: 1) the success of Protestant feminists in achieving their goals (e.g., the Episcopal Church had approved both ordination of women and “choice” on abortion in 1976); 2) the strong influence of feminists on the programs and policies of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops; and 3) the public support given by a few American bishops to feminist critics of the Catholic Church who demanded ordination and more decision-making power within the Church as a matter of justice to women.
It was apparent to many Catholic women that a new definition of feminism had emerged, one that was no longer compatible with their most deeply held beliefs. At the time that the US bishops began their work on the pastoral letter on women’s concerns, there had been no effective critique either of feminists’ charges against what they termed “the oppressive patriarchy” of the Church or of their claim to speak for all Catholic women. Indeed, the bishops’ decision to write a pastoral on women was the result of consultations of several bishops with feminist activists and theologians. One can easily see how the appearance of the New York Times ad (and a second one that followed a few months later) could have the effect of galvanizing many pro-life Catholic women into action in defense of their faith.
Catholic Church becomes countercultural
Women for Faith & Family thus came into being within a climate of cultural opposition to religious beliefs in general, and within the particular aura of highly publicized dissent within the Catholic Church — notably among those who held influential positions in Catholic institutions and in women’s religious orders — from even the most essential Catholic teachings. This situation remains largely unchanged a quarter-century later.
Because the conflict within the Church has so often revolved around women’s issues (from social issues such as “reproductive rights” to internal Church issues, including liturgical roles for women and so-called “inclusive language” in liturgical translation); and because it is women, especially religious professionals and sisters, who are often the Church’s most severe and vocal critics, Women for Faith & Family has continued its efforts to amplify the voices of women who affirm the truth of Catholic teaching and accept the Church’s authority, in the hope that this may support and encourage bishops and clergy as well as other Catholics. We also hope to assist and encourage Catholic women to accept their responsibility — as women and as Catholics — for the transmission of the faith.
In less confused and conflicted times, a “countercultural” effort such as this would have seemed puzzling indeed. Affirmation and acceptance of Catholic teaching would seem to be implicit in the very word Catholic; but we can no longer assume that Catholics do affirm Catholic teaching. People now employ modifiers such as conservative or liberal before the word Catholic, even though these are politically loaded terms that cannot accurately be applied to religious belief. Still, most Catholic “conservatives” would agree that there is much to conserve in the Catholic faith, that active conservation of even the most essential elements of Catholic belief and practice has become necessary in an atmosphere of hostility to any religion that claims to be objectively true — and to Catholic religious truth in particular.
The organization of Women for Faith & Family was established for the following purposes:
*To aid women in their continual efforts to deepen their understanding of the Catholic faith;
*To aid faithful Catholic women in their desire for fellowship with others who share their faith and commitment; and
*To serve as a channel through which questions from Catholic women seeking guidance or information can be directed.
Although our outreach is primarily to Catholic women, both lay and religious, we have always encouraged participation by men in our various efforts to address both religious and social issues involving women and the family.
Our concerns extend to the application of Catholic teaching in contemporary life, and thus to all aspects of the Catholic faith, including religious life, liturgy, and doctrine.
Thus our first project: the Affirmation for Catholic Women, intended as very simple, straightforward means for Catholic women to make their fidelity to the Church and its magisterium (teaching authority) visible and effective.
We had drafted the Affirmation during the summer of 1984. At the September meeting mentioned earlier, we decided to have a couple hundred copies printed, and we began to circulate it among friends and colleagues (many of whom we knew through their pro-life efforts), hoping to gather a few hundred signatures that could be sent to the bishops who were responsible for the “women’s pastoral.” We invited people to reproduce the Affirmation and send it to others, and asked that the signatures be returned to us, where they would be recorded.
The response was overwhelming. Women made photocopies of the Affirmation and sent them to friends. (Remember, this was in the pre-internet days when photocopying machines were usually found only in the local post office, and e-mail didn’t exist!)
Remarkably, in January 1985 our hastily rented post office box began to overflow — not only with signed Affirmations but with thousands and thousands of letters from Catholic women from all walks of life — single, married, mothers, teachers, religious. We began to receive our mail in bags. Why the amazing response at this time?
Only a few weeks after Women for Faith & Family began to circulate the Affirmation, on October 7, 1984, the infamous Catholics for a Free Choice–sponsored New York Times ad appeared. Several of the ad’s signers, women religious, appeared on the then-popular Phil Donahue television show. We sent a telegram to Donahue to tell him there is another point of view among Catholic women that should be heard. He invited us to appear on his show in January. We did, and were able to get several faithful sisters to appear with us and to be in the audience. These events evidently hit a nerve.
— By March 1985, we had received four thousand signatures to the Affirmation for Catholic Women, and we sent a copy together with a list of its signers to the Bishops’ Committee on Women.
— In June 1985 I presented a list of ten thousand names of Affirmation signers to Pope John Paul II in Rome — and also met with Cardinal Edouard Gagnon, then-president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, who strongly encouraged our efforts.
— In August Women for Faith & Family was invited give our testimony to the Bishops’ Committee on Women. We presented a list of about 17,000 Affirmation signatures to the bishops. Sherry Tyree and I gave a presentation based on thousands of letters we had received and answered questions from the bishops and their women consulters.
— In late 1985 the Affirmation project was extended by the spontaneous efforts of Catholic women in Canada, Australia, England, and the Netherlands.
— By October 1987, when the Vatican held a Synod on the Laity for the world’s bishops, we had received approximately 10,000 letters from women expressing their personal concerns about their faith and problems within the Church, so we decided to prepare testimony based on these letters for the bishop-delegates to the synod.
At a public press conference held during the synod, Cardinal Gagnon received, on behalf of Pope John Paul II, a copy of our printed testimony, along with a current list of Affirmation signers’ names. About 30,000 names from the US — plus Mother Teresa of Calcutta and all her Missionaries of Charity — were on this list. Nearly 10,000 additional names came from the Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand, England, and Canada. The story was featured in several daily newspapers in Rome. On October 24, 1987, it was on the front page of Avvenire, the Italian bishops’ conference newspaper, which every bishop at the synod received.
The Affirmation was soon translated into seven languages in addition to English (French, Spanish, Italian, Polish, German, Dutch, and Chinese) again, by spontaneous voluntary efforts.
An updated list was presented to Pope John Paul II in 1994, the International Year of the Family, and in 1999 then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger received a further updated list on behalf of the pope.
We continue to receive new signatures regularly. More than 50,000 Catholic women in the United States have expressed their fidelity to the Church in this way. About 10% of the Affirmation signers are women religious, many from troubled orders. Signers represent all ages, all states in life (single, married, mothers, religious), and all educational and economic levels. They include homemakers, professional women (doctors, nurses, lawyers, university professors, writers, teachers, etc.), women whose work is in their homes, and women with full- or part-time employment outside the home.
The response to the Affirmation for Catholic Women is evidently without precedent. No petition of dissent in the postconciliar era, including the highly publicized statement of dissent from Humanae Vitae in 1968, has attracted comparable response. This phenomenon becomes particularly significant in the light of the explicit nature of the Affirmation and the grassroots means of its circulation.
The expansion of WFF and the broadening of our apostolic activities
What began as a simple and direct way to show Catholic women’s support of Church teachings about women and family quickly grew beyond this relatively limited goal. Response to the needs of women led to a continually expanding set of initiatives. It soon became apparent that the original aim of Women for Faith & Family — to communicate information from Catholic women to the bishops — was only one means of serving the Church and women.
From 1985 until 1999, WFF sponsored annual conferences featuring bishops, priests, and men and women scholars. In 1994 Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo, president of the Pontifical Council on the Family, addressed the conference. Pope John Paul II sent a message and gave his apostolic blessing to each of these conferences. For several years, these conferences were held jointly with the Consortium Perfectae Caritatis, an organization of women religious, in the belief that closer ties between religious and lay women would be mutually encouraging and helpful (the Consortium dissolved in 1992 when the Conference of Major Superiors of Women Religious was formed.)
Our publication, Voices, began as a newsletter in 1985, as a means of communicating with Affirmation signers, other organizations, clergy, religious, and bishops. Since 1989, when we got our first computer, all production has been done in-house, except for final printing. In 2001 Voices became a quarterly journal with a new editorial board, and expanded its contents to cover a wide range of subjects — from bioethics to liturgy — that affect women, families, and others. Voices often features excerpts and summaries of papal encyclicals and apostolic letters, prayers and devotional material, and reports on the meetings of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which we have attended as press since 1987.
In addition to Voices, we also produce prayer cards and leaflets for devotions, such as the Novena for the Protection of the Unborn. In 1989 we published the first of two family sourcebooks, The Family Sourcebook for Advent and Christmas and Family Sourcebook for Lent and Easter. The books suggest ways of observing the Church’s liturgical year in the home, the “domestic church.”
WFF first launched our web site in 1999 — wf-f.org — and in the past 10 years it has expanded into a major resource for Church teaching and Catholic practice. During 2009 the website averaged 23,000 hits per day. In addition to an online version of Voices, there are many other useful resources on the WFF website. Expanding on our family sourcebooks idea is the Liturgical Calendar, featuring prayers and devotions for feasts and holy days throughout the Church year. This section is extremely popular, particular around major holidays. Issues of medical ethics comprise another section, “Medicine and Morality”; and a section on “Catholics and Politics” that includes relevant Church documents and statements of individual bishops has proved helpful to many.
Women for Faith & Family also issues occasional public statements and responses on matters of importance in the Church and in society. Such statements provide a useful means of communicating the concerns of women, and also serve an educative function vis-à-vis the media. One early example is the Statement on Feminism, Language and Liturgy, originally issued in 1989. Most recently, in April and May 2009, we issued statements on stem-cell research and on “conscience regulation” in health care reform. WFF’s current and past statements are all accessible on our website.
While a national presence to support the Church and the teaching efforts of our bishops continues, Women for Faith & Family is also committed to working effectively on the local level and encouraging other Catholic women to do so. In addition to working with other groups for common efforts (e.g., life issues), we are sensitive to the desire on the part of many Catholic women for a doctrinally reliable and spiritually nourishing source of companionship and mutual support that local groups might provide, and we have developed suggestions and resources for this. (See “Suggestions for Parish/Local Groups” at wf-f. org/Meeting-suggestions.html).
For the past two years WFF has held days of recollection in St. Louis, led by Bishop Robert Hermann, which focused on papal teaching — on Mulieris Dignitatem in 2008, and on the Gospel of Life, Evangelium Vitae, in 2009.
Need for action, evangelization continues...
As we observe the 25th anniversary of the founding of Women for Faith & Family it seems a good time to review where we’ve been and what comes next. What we originally thought would be a short-term effort has expanded into a movement of Catholic women with a multifaceted program and many responsibilities.
Many things have changed. The nine-year process surrounding the “women’s pastoral” ended in 1992, more or less in a whimper, when the effort to issue it as an official document of the US bishops was disbanded. Confident predictions in the 1980s that women would certainly be ordained as Catholic priests “by the end of the decade,” then “by the end of the century,” are now history. Efforts to push liturgical reform further toward a do-it-yourself form of worship have failed.
Yet much remains monotonously the same. It is still the case that some Catholic leaders and Catholic theologians and Catholic journalists are as vocal in their opposition to fundamental Catholic teachings as ever. Dissent from magisterial teachings of the Church persists — even deepens and hardens — despite repeated statements from bishops and popes reaffirming the unchangeable truth about the intrinsic value of all human life.
In spite of the continuing challenges, however, considerable luster has by now worn off the “revolution” of then-youthful dissenters and liturgical reformers of two or three decades ago. The former Young Turks are now either retired or approaching retirement from their influential positions within venerable Catholic institutions or religious orders. Orthodox Catholic movements, on the other hand, though often ignored and on the margins, have proliferated and their persistence in witness to the truth is continuing to reach many. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994-95) had a major energizing effect; and the new Missal and other recent reforms in the liturgy are sources of much encouragement and hope for the future.
Our duty — to witness
What has Women for Faith & Family achieved in its 25 years? Were we successful even in our initial modest goal? Yes and no. The controversial “women’s pastoral” was never issued as a pastoral letter of the US bishops, although some of its recommendations, such as advocating “nonsexist” language in the liturgy, remained.
The current Vatican investigation of US women’s religious orders — the “apostolic visitation” and doctrinal investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious — is a sign that the problems caused by radical feminism’s challenge of perennial Catholic teaching were never resolved.
An early example: during Pope John Paul II’s 1979 visit to the United States, he was publicly confronted on the matter of ordination of women by Sister Theresa Kane, the official representative of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.
Thirty years later, some women religious still regard the Catholic Church as “beyond patching” — the title of a 1991 book by Sister Sandra Schneiders, reprinted in 2004. (She explains: “the title, Beyond Patching, is deliberately ambiguous. By it I want to suggest, first of all, that the old garment is beyond repair and only a thoroughgoing reform of the church can respond adequately to the feminist critique”, p. 4.)
Sister Sandra, a member of Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and longtime professor of New Testament Studies and Christian Spirituality at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, California, has denounced the forthcoming visitation as “a grand-jury investigation,” and “an unwarranted surprise attack” by the Vatican (National Catholic Reporter, August 17, 2009.)
Some women religious who now consider themselves “post-Christian” continue to remain Catholics in good standing, and their jobs, whether as seminary professors or as Church bureaucrats, have remained secure.
One modest achievement with which Women for Faith & Family might be credited is that it is now impossible for dissenting feminists to claim convincingly to speak for all Catholic women. Too many voices contradict this. Our best continuing effort, however, may be our daily, unglamorous labor of helping Catholics to understand their faith better, in praying for them and encouraging them in prayer and study in order that they might equip themselves for the arduous job of transmitting their precious (and, especially for younger Catholics, unexpected) gift of faith to others — to their children and to their children’s children.
Ours will certainly continue to be difficult, exhausting work, as “women’s work” so often is. Nevertheless, as with many other things women do out of love, it is through this labor that we may hope to contribute things of irreplaceable value — to our own families and to the world. Furthermore, we must continue — even if we are unlikely to hear ourselves praised for our labors.
Because we believe that the liberating truth of Christ is embodied in the Catholic Church, it is our simple, basic duty as Catholics to witness to it, to defend it, and to transmit it as best we can — with God’s help.
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