In the church, on their own terms

From obedience to protest Catholic women construct highly individual roles for themselves.

April 10, 2005|By Abigail Tucker and Stephen Kiehl | Abigail Tucker and Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

As a child, Janet Houlihan Kain never envied her altar-boy brothers. She accepted what she learned about the role of women as wives and mothers while attending nearly two decades of Catholic school. When it came time to have children of her own - seven of them - she didn't consider artificial birth control and never breathed a word about it to her daughters as they were growing up.

Now, though, when she recites the Lord's Prayer with her grandchildren, the 77-year-old Crofton resident alters the ancient litany: Our Holy Mother, who art in heaven,

Hallowed be thy name.

The retired kindergarten teacher started praying to a female God in the mid-1990s, part of her attempt to bridge the rift between the male-governed church and her identity as a modern American woman.

"I don't question the basic truths of my faith," said Houlihan Kain, who attends Mass every Sunday at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Crofton. "I question the approach. I question strongly the fact that a woman's voice is not heard the way it should be heard." Throughout the 26-year reign of Pope John Paul II, Catholic women across the country tried to reconcile the Vatican's vision of female piety with their own sense of spiritual potential, as well as with the daily realities of an increasingly egalitarian, and sexually permissive, American culture.

Their responses to the church's conservative views ranged from absolute obedience to overt protest, but, as the church prepares to name a new pope, many Catholic women say they are at peace with a mass religion they have learned to practice as individuals.

The past few decades have left many Catholic women feeling conflicted about their place in the church. Pope John Paul came to Rome after the sweeping reforms of the second Vatican Council, which allowed women on the altar for the first time, amid the feminist movement in America, the fruits of which some women were beginning to take for granted.

He took a hard line against abortion, contraception and divorce, although a large percentage of Catholic women clearly accepts those practices. They have abortions at the same or slightly higher rates than women of other faiths, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, which tracks reproductive statistics.

Nearly 90 percent say they have used some form of birth control, and almost half think divorce laws should stay the same or grow more lenient.

In recent years, the church has closed down discussions of the ordination of women, as the number of men interested in joining the priesthood continues to dwindle.

Still, some women considered Pope John Paul their champion. Helen Alvare, a law professor at Catholic University who has written extensively on the pope's views of women's role, said he advocated for women's education and their role in the workplace.

The pope's protective attitude toward women, she said, was a sign of respect.

"I think he was a true feminist," she said.

Frances Kissling, head of Catholics for a Free Choice, a reproductive rights group, sees "a disconnect between what Catholic officials, including the pope, teach about women's lives and what women do."

Some women feel daily the difference between the power they have in their professional lives and the seemingly limited authority the church grants them, a disenfranchisement apparent in the way the new pope will be selected, by an all-male conclave.

"Just realize that there is not one woman out of a billion who has any say in what comes next," said Mary Hunt, a Catholic Silver Spring resident who co-directs the Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual. "There will be no women in that conclave except the ones who serve coffee and then have to get out."

Diane Caplin, a Catholic who is co-director of Baltimore's Mount Saint Agnes Theological Center for Women, said, "There is no woman in the Roman Catholic Church who has any power over any ordained man. They could have a church all by themselves. They only need women to give birth to the next generation."

Yet perhaps never in its history has the Catholic church in America leaned so heavily on its women. Not only do women attend Mass more regularly - 32 percent of Catholic women go once a week or more, compared with 22 percent of men - but they also are shouldering more organizational roles. Women make up about 80 percent of the people employed by the church in lay jobs, according to Janet E. Smith, an ethics professor at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.

And - in part because of the priest shortage - women's spiritual influence is growing, too. More women than men are enrolled in graduate Catholic theology programs, Alvare said. In the Baltimore archdiocese alone, five churches are now run by women, who as pastoral life directors oversee parish life without administering the sacraments.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.