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By Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen

The Feminist Question

"The Feminist Question: Feminist Theology in Light of Christian Tradition," by Francis Martin. Eerdmans, 461 pp.; $29.95, paper

"Sex, Priests, and Power; Anatomy of a Crisis," by A. W. Richard Sipe. Brunner/Mazel. 220 pp.; $24.95

In the preview edition of Books & Culture, William H. Willimon observed, "At its best, feminism is a critique of the ways in which our marriages with the culture have hurt us. At its worst, feminist theology is yet another chapter in the long story of how [the churches have] embodied American liberalism's exaltation of the self" (Christianity Today, July 17, 1995, p. 35). Between them, these two books by Catholic priests--the first a Dominican biblical scholar, the second a retired parish priest and practicing psychotherapist--attempt to deal with both aspects of Willimon's assessment. Francis Martin's book regards church tradition with more trust than suspicion and tends to damn feminist theology with faint praise, while Richard Sipe--writing about the hypocrisy and corruption of Catholicism's "sexual/celibate system"--leans toward the reverse approach, even though he does not invoke feminist theory or theology directly.

To Martin, the feminist question--namely, "How are women to move towards a more adequate expression of their dignity and rights within the Christian community?"--is a specialized expression of the modern concern for individual rights, which derives in turn from Judeo-Christian teaching on the dignity of the person. But he maintains that feminism in general, and feminist theology in particular, while presenting valid criticisms of contemporary culture, suffer from an emphasis on the individual over the relational (particularly, in his view, the relationship of "essential" masculine instrumentality to equally essential feminine receptivity), and on experience and reason over revelation and church tradition.

Martin's book is a scholarly tour de force that will remind Protestant readers just how much is missed by assuming that most of the important events of church history began with the Reformation. He documents the vital role of women in the early church and their steadily increasing legal, economic, and social power up through the eleventh century. He considers the problematic decline of women's influence thereafter within the framework of historical and ecclesiastical forces: among the former, the rise of feudalism, patrilineage, the dowry system, and the nuclearization and privatization of family life; among the latter, the replacement of monastic pluralism by rigid hierarchical oversight, the isolation of theological reflection from the liturgy and piety of ordinary women and men, and the exclusion of women from the emerging universities because of the latter's mandate to train male clergy.

During the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, the gendering of the public/domestic dichotomy solidified further, as biblically based notions of gender equality were eclipsed by classically based concepts of women's inferiority. Not coincidentally, this also correlated with the re-emergence of slavery and a valorizing of instrumental reason over Christian (and stereotypically feminine) ideals of receptive, faith-based obedience and servanthood, all of which Martin sincerely deplores, and for which he realizes the rise of modern feminism was intended to be a remedy.

With its copious footnotes and 40-page bibliography, Martin's book amounts to a detailed historical survey of gender relations in church and society, and it is encouraging to see a Catholic priest-scholar give such issues the attention they deserve. But problems remain, for in this book the Devil is not so much in the details, which are assembled with great erudition, as in the author's assumptions about theological method, about the locus of religious authority, and about lack of diversity in feminist thought.

To begin with, Martin's assumption that most feminist theorists accept Enlightenment rationalism and individualism, and endorse the myth of women's total subjection prior to that era, is simply wrong. Various feminist historians have pointed out that European women had, in effect, neither a Renaissance nor an Enlightenment, losing rather than gaining mobility and influence in both periods. Indeed, Anne Carr, one of the Catholic feminist theologians Martin takes to task, has coedited a book with historical chapters detailing this very process. Other chapters in the same volume (Faith, Feminism, and Families, Westminster John Knox, in press) support both "family-friendly" feminism and the lodging of individual and family within a primary loyalty to the larger kingdom community.

In the second place (and here my Protestant bias shows itself), Martin places too much confidence in the norm of "obedient listening" to Scripture in the process of "indwelling the authoritative church tradition," which he contrasts to the supposed feminist theological sellout to human standards of reason and experience. While freely conceding that feminist theology is as vulnerable as any other kind in its temptation to reduce theology to anthropology, I note that the Wesleyan quadrilateral calls for a dialogue among all four authorities--Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience--even as the Reformed tradition elevates Scripture above the other three. (In this context, it also bears noting that Martin appears to know nothing about contemporary Reformed and evangelical expressions of feminism.) Moreover, while quick to decry the "reason-based" and "individualistic" approaches of his feminist targets, Martin himself borrows selectively from various authorities (e.g., Aquinas, Eliade, Ricoeur, Rahner) to craft a "theory of analogy" for the interpretation of scriptural imagery, not questioning whether his own resulting method constitutes anything other than an obedient listening to revelation, free of rationalist and individualist taint.

Finally, while decrying the advocacy stance of feminist theologians, Martin appears to have his own vested interest in preserving a male-led Catholic church, albeit in a kinder, gentler form. For while he clearly deplores the past marginalization and oppression of women, he distinguishes in great detail between Christian "charisms, ministries, and offices," and invokes a relational anthropology grounded in presumed gender essentialism to defend the continued exclusion of women from church office. Thus, the issue is not so much orthodox Christian respect for relationality versus feminist individualism, but rather whether relational theology points to the inclusion or exclusion of women from certain avenues of Christian service.

The institution that Martin implicitly upholds as God-ordained and unchangeable--namely, a celibate, Catholic, male church hierarchy--is what Richard Sipe takes so bluntly to task in Sex, Priests, and Power. Motivated by the now-public crisis of priestly sexual abuse, Sipe's book follows on an earlier study of religious celibacy, which he defends as a personalized calling and quest but rejects in the overly institutionalized and politicized form it takes within Catholicism. (See Sipe's A Secret World: Sexuality and the Search for Celibacy, Brunner/Mazel, 1990.) Originally intended as a vehicle of self-knowledge and freedom for service, priestly celibacy in Sipe's view has become so intertwined with nature-grace dualism, with the power to regulate sexual expression among the faithful, and with alternating attitudes of idealization and denigration of women, that systematic (and systematically denied) sexual abuse has become almost inevitable.

By Sipe's estimates, based on 25 years of international, team-based research (and conceding the difficulty of gathering accurate statistics in the light of institutional reluctance to do comprehensive, random-sample studies), half of all priests at any given time are more or less successfully celibate. This includes half of the 30 percent of all priests estimated to be of homosexual orientation. Of the rest, 20 percent are in ongoing relationships with women, about 10 percent are sexually experimenting or involved in ongoing homosexual behavior, and the remainder, in descending order, engage in "problematic" masturbation, sex with adolescents or children, or transvestism.

Because others have documented the crisis in priestly child abuse so well (e.g., journalist Jason Berry's Lead Us Not into Temptation, Doubleday, 1992), the most powerful part of Sipe's work may be that which documents the continuing extent of, and hypocrisy surrounding, priestly abuse of women. Steeped in the belief that since Jesus was a male celibate, male celibates are a breed superior to everyone else and especially to women, much of the Catholic hierarchy covertly tolerates the sexual exploitation of women to help priests prove their masculinity, to relieve their loneliness and sexual tension, and to support the fiction that it will help them understand married people better. If exposed, the priest is routinely forgiven as "only human" and continues up the ecclesiastical career ladder. The woman, by contrast, is paradoxically both blamed for the priest's lapse and implicitly told that she should be "grateful and silent for the privilege of such selection or closeness," mindful of the fact that "it is the special grace and gift of a woman to be able to save a priest by her love." It is not uncommon for women who have been impregnated by priests (Sipe mentions a group of 50 who have compared notes with one another) to have undergone abortions at the insistence of their lovers, sometimes with financial settlements that required their silence. Understandably, "it is especially galling … to witness the promotion and advancement of the priest abortionist … while the women struggle to work out the pain of loss, abandonment, and confusion of the scarlet 'A' emblazoned on their memory and soul."

Sipe asserts that many straight and gay priests distinguish, often without the least sense of guilt or hypocrisy, between celibacy (giving up marriage) and chastity (refraining from sexual activity altogether). He does not see seminaries as homosexual subcultures, despite evidence of increasing homosexual activity in such settings; but seminaries are "homosocial" in that men are central to their organizational definition, men alone occupy the power hierarchy, and women are "adjunct and dispensable." Thus, whether seminaries attract men of homosexual inclination, or their homosocial organization fosters homosexual involvement (Sipe believes both are true), they lack the human and spiritual wholeness "that can come only from a system wherein men and women are tied together in an interdependent system of reciprocity." Especially disturbing are accounts of a novice master drawing young seminarians into simultaneous or sequential sexual relationships, each hidden from the others until the priests themselves compared notes years later, and of a superior pressing an unwilling junior priest into a sexual relationship with a powerful bishop by reminding him, "If you want to progress in this organization, you are going to need friends."

Because Sipe's book claims only to be the "anatomy of a crisis," he does not spell out solutions in any detail. But it is clear that he supports optional celibacy and the equality of women with men at all levels of the church. Somewhat disturbing is his theoretical allegiance to a combination of Wilsonian sociobiology and the optimistic evolutionism of Teilhard de Chardin, along with a certainty that "scientific materialism" is the tool of choice for purging religion of magic and superstition. Moreover, despite his documentation and indictment of clerical sexual abuse, he seems naively confident that just by getting rid of mind/body dualism and accepting sex as a healthy, creational good, the "crisis" will be solved. Many Protestants, surveying the wreckage of the sexual revolution in their own ranks, could tell him otherwise.

As a Protestant trying to evaluate works by and about Catholics, I often feel like Oliver Sacks's anthropologist on Mars, anxious to understand the mindset of the subculture--or, in this case, the competing mindsets within it--while still maintaining some critical distance. I believe quite strongly that by eliminating, rather than reforming, the monastic system, Protestants lost a valuable institution, and I agree with priest/sociologist Andrew Greeley (Confessions of a Parish Priest, Pocket Books, 1987) that what is needed is something like a "priest corps," equally open to men and women, who take short-term vows of celibacy (for example, five to seven years) that they can either renew or renounce with a completely honorable discharge in order to marry and/or take up other callings. In this way, perhaps the church could harness the communal energies of well-trained celibates, equally honor both marriage and singleness, and greatly reduce the misogyny that both Martin and Sipe rightly deplore.

Copyright (c) 1995 Christianity Today, Inc./BOOKS AND CULTURE Review


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