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Feminism and Catholic fidelity

With how many newspaper editorial pages expressed outrage over the Vatican's paper on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, something tells me we'll be looking at the mainstream news pages' take on things for a while to come. I wanted to highlight what I thought was an extraordinary discussion hosted by PBS' Judy Woodruff. When hosting such a debate, it can be difficult to get good quality guests from "both sides" as it were. Particularly in this case. While reporters are definitely hearing on background from sisters displeased with the Vatican document, getting a televised discussion with one is another thing entirely.

Woodruff discussed the question of "Vatican Rebuke: Are U.S. Nuns Promoting 'Radical Feminist Themes?'" That's a slightly more narrow focus than the document as a whole and it served the segment nicely. For the discussion, viewers were introduced to Christendom College's Donna Bethell and Fordham University's Jeannine Hill Fletcher. Bethell supports the Vatican document while Fletcher opposes it. She identifies as a Catholic feminist theologian and is a laywoman. Given the constraints, I thought it was a good choice.

And even though both guests disagreed with each other, they were cordial, articulate, thoughtful and thought-provoking. Speaking as a non-Catholic who is interested in the issues, I found the discussion fascinating. I would enjoy an even longer debate between these two women.

So to whomever found such great guests, good work. And as for the debate, while it's clear that Woodruff isn't exactly fluent in the religious vocabulary in use for this debate, she actually did a great job. I found her questions to be friendly but challenging and it really brought out the best in each guest.

For this GetReligion analysis, I'd encourage you to watch the debate, but here's an edited snippet of the transcript as well:

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me start with you, Donna Bethell.

You agree with what the Vatican has done here. Why is what the Women Religious did offensive to the leadership of the church?

DONNA BETHELL: Well, I think to understand this correctly, you have to know that the church expects a great deal of people who are publicly consecrated in the church for its service, which is what Women Religious are.

And at the very beginning of the document, they quote Pope John Paul II to the effect that it's important that consecrated persons in the church be faithful to the teaching of the church and witness to it in their life and works.

The second point is that the Leadership Conference of Women Religious is an entity established by the Vatican, approved by the Vatican, its statutes approved by the Vatican for the purpose of supporting the Women Religious in their life and work. And so it's the responsibility of the Vatican to see that the conference is actually doing its job. And that's what it's done in this assessment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And the finding is that they strayed from Vatican teaching?

DONNA BETHELL: Yes, as you summarized, and in other areas, they found that they either put out materials that are troublesome, not presenting the full doctrine of the church. They supported speakers at their conferences who -- some of whom challenged the church or simply ignored its teaching in various aspects, and that they have not been a positive.

It's not -- it's one thing to actually contradict the church, but it wasn't just their job to avoid contradicting their church. It's their job to present the fullness of the Catholic faith and to help their members to understand it and to live it. And that's where they had been found short.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jeannine Fletcher, how does the Women Religious group see this? Do they acknowledge, in your understanding, that they've strayed from the doctrine?

JEANNINE HILL FLETCHER, Fordham University: Well, my work as a feminist theologian -- I am not religious. I'm not ordained. I'm a laywoman. So I don't have an insider's picture on this.

What I do have is a sense of the life and work of Women Religious in this country and around the globe as being people who very much carry on faithfully the Catholic tradition, especially in the work of social justice. So these are Women Religious who are at the U.N. defending -- defending human rights. They are in our colleges and our universities.

They are running our hospitals. And so from the perspective of being faithful to the church, they are -- in my understanding as a feminist theologian, as a Catholic feminist theologian, they are continuing the work of the church.

Now, at issue is the teaching, the doctrine of the church, the authoritative stance on issues. Now, the one element of the report seems to suggest that they'd like for the Women Religious to go back to the catechism more, present the catechism more, or take up the issues that the bishops have found important, the issues against women's reproductive rights or denouncing homosexuality...

DONNA BETHELL: Well, the Vatican in its document actually commended the kinds of activities, apostolic, social justice activities, that the sisters are carrying out. It recognizes those.

It says you must -- but that's not enough. That's not the fullness of the Catholic faith. We are also engaged in primary justice in the defense of life, for example, from conception to natural death in the issues of abortion and euthanasia. And the church expects its consecrated publicly -- public witnesses to be fully on board and to be advancing the Catholic view of the right to life.

So that's just one point, where it's not that they're being criticized for all the great work that they do. That's recognized. They're being asked to be fully in the church.

And it goes back and forth from there, even getting into doctrinal issues. I do want to point out that I believe that Hill Fletcher was saying she's not religious in the sense that she's not a woman religious. She later says "in my understanding as a feminist theologian, as a Catholic feminist theologian" and I think she means that she's a Catholic, she's a feminist and she's a theologian not that she studies the theology of feminism or of Catholic feminism.

Anyway, I wanted to highlight this excellent discussion that educated viewers about the conflicting visions over the future of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

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