Reclaiming Eve
Toward a Pro-choice Ethic for Catholic Women

By Melissa MacCrae, Brewer, Maine

Catholic church theology has a negative impact on the welfare of women. 

 I approach this study as a feminist and former Catholic, who recalls nothing of the positive attributes some other women claim for their affiliation with the church and its long-held traditions. From my birth in 1958, I remember living by the church's prohibition against eating meat on Friday. And its rule that women and girls cover their heads when inside God's house. Bishops serving in the United States in the early 1980s received permission to relax those traditions. A 1983 revision of canon law literally lifted the veil from women that had been a visible sign of an invisible order established by God, according to Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians. And while universal Catholic law required abstinence from meat on all Fridays, on Fridays outside of Lent, faithful Catholics could choose either not to eat meat, or perform some other act of penance by saying more prayers, or showing acts of mercy. During Lent, however, abstinence from meat remained the rule. Those who refused to abide by this rule, though, could be guilty of committing a sin of rebellion and pride. 
 Still, these shifts from church tradition offer hope in the church's own ethic to respond to and heal its troubled people, particularly liberty-seeking Americans. But the church not only stopped short its move to bend tradition toward modernity, it actually intensified its oversight of laws governing procreation, family planning and abortion that has had the deleterious potential to affect the lives and well-being of half of God's creation: women. In this time of scientific advances and greater understanding of human reproduction, the church lags woefully behind. The faithful face theological and social concerns that question the extent to which Scripture and church dogma can or should guide their lives. In the first centuries of the Christian era, women who had abortions were to do private penance for a sin against holy matrimony  (the same punishment prescribed for eating meat on Friday). Today, abortion is punishable by excommunication. 
 Current discussion of choosing a gay bishop to lead the Episcopal Church in New Hampshire and other shifting sands of religion force the faithful to rethink other church teachings, such as those of Jesus, that moved not to exclude but to embrace the disenfranchised. Women have led the ranks of the disenfranchised since Eve. Women of all faith traditions deserve an ethic of procreation that honors, not enslaves them. This study aims to delve into biblical, historical and theological elements of church doctrine that address women and how the church itself can learn from women. For guidance, I chose to follow the lead of Christian ethicist Beverly Wildung Harrison, who in 1986, also felt so compelled to give voice to "women's right to the condition for procreative choice," (emphasis in original) ... to present "a forceful caveat against much that passes as unquestioned wisdom in Christian tradition and teaching -- on women's nature, on procreation and on abortion." (1986, Harrison ix). "The devaluation of women as full, morally competent members of the human species is a moral ill that afflicts both men and women. The question properly framed for women within the context of social reality asks: How do I manage this power of procreation that is mine by virtue of having been born female? (Ibid., 8-9) 
 Among other elements,  a pro-choice ethic must: 

 -- Champion the legal right and moral responsibility of women and their partners to decide whether and when to have a child; 

 -- Eschew coercion.

 -- Value women as morally competent members of church and secular society.

 -- Acknowledge and respect women's life experience. 

 -- Support the view that reproductive freedom is a matter of faith and morals; 

 -- Clarify and support all options open to women who experience an unintended pregnancy, including childbirth, adoption and abortion. 

 -- Challenge whatever causes suffering.

 -- Embrace and celebrate sexuality as a God-given gift. 

 -- Seek and promote justice and mercy.

 -- Challenge religious teachings that diminish the lives of women. 

 -- Hold the church accountable for its teachings about reproductive health that jeopardize women's lives.

 -- Inject language and customs of secular culture into the teachings and practices of Catholic and other faith communities.

 This discussion arises during a time when talk of sex dominates the pulpit. This time of significant church turmoil surrounding what has been revealed to be widespread and long-term abuse of children by Catholic priests has been painful for some and cathartic for others who for so long were buried beneath a truth that couldn't be told. Leaders of other faith traditions including Southern Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Evangelical Lutherans, and conservative Judaism are wrestling with the push by gay men and lesbians who want to live openly and become more involved in their communities of faith. By replaying the glacial shifts in some faith traditions beside the snowball-like response to current events, the faithful actually can find peace in accepting the inevitability of change, and get behind religious movers who are working for that change. 
 While Roman Catholicism is not alone among religions that aim to insinuate themselves into what should be the private procreative lives of their parishioners, the focus of this study is Catholic women. This paper aims to critique the church's misogynistic bias, the biblical, historical and 
theological elements of church doctrine that address women and how the church itself can and should learn from women. 


 Religion. It's a powerful institution -- with both life-affirming and detrimental implications. In most religions practiced worldwide, including Christianity, women remain on the margins. And pronouncements about women's sexuality are made in some cases solely by men who can neither marry nor know what it's like to support a family. I envision a world where procreation is truly a choice. But now that science and technology have made pregnancy virtually avoidable, at least in theory for some women, others who insist on maintaining control of procreation use all the social, financial, political, and religious muscle at their disposal to maintain the status quo. While the world today bears little resemblance physically or spiritually to biblical times, the Bible still is used by those who oppose women's rights to illustrate the folly of those who would attempt to confound "nature." Many biblical  stories reveal a bent toward vilifying women, treating them not as equal partners with men, but as unclean beings that must be controlled. The stories of biblical mothers like Sarah, Leah, and Rachel, for example, are full of instances that play up instances depicting women's betrayal and legerdemain. In biblical times, the begetting of heirs had primacy over men's lives and that of the women whom they used to support their procreative ends. While the need to produce large families to guarantee a family or tribe's survival still may exist in Third World nations, the church's insistence on perpetuating God's order that Eve and Adam be fruitful and multiply has no place in more advanced societies in the twenty-first century. In fact, having too many babies is always dangerous to women. Those who would today rely on biblical passages to support references to males' supremacy in matters of procreation actually limit themselves and their partners to see that sex that is less than mutually fulfilling. Both parties, not just the man, have a right to good sex.


 Despite what we learned from elementary school through high school and into college, there's more than one side to history. We do know, though, that to the victor go the spoils; that means the vanquished lose their voice. That concept resounded loud and clear in a class I took last summer on the complete gospels. David Trobisch taught us how to read the canonical version of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John's tales of Jesus's life from birth to death to resurrection. He also let us in on a secret: we  learned about the Other gospels, those ragged, rejected attempts to record history on pottery jugs and other available surfaces. Shards of broken glass are all that remain of some of those records kept by groups known as Jewish Christians, who lived in the early years of the Christian era. What better way to deny the existence of competitive faiths than to destroy any and all record of their existence? Evidence of a Fifth Gospel also has been found. The first fragments of the Gospel of Thomas were discovered in 1898-1904 in Oxyrynchus, Egypt. A complete Coptic manuscript was unearthed in 1946 in Nag Hamadi, Egypt. According to our guest lecturer and expert on Thomas, Rick Hubbard, we know that Thomas' writing enjoyed some special status among a group who held Jesus in high esteem, exemplified by the prologue that states "Whoever finds the meaning of the hidden words of the ėliving Jesus' will not ėtaste death.'" The "sayings Gospel" also is noteworthy, because it was recorded in writing, it was carefully bound and the title is unique. 
 So why are these seemingly incongruous details important to writing a liberating pro-choice ethic for Catholic women?  Because connecting the dots between fragmentary details such as these reveals the existence of a heretofore untold story, a different view of scripture. These untidy shards of history are dangerous to those whose truths depend on preserving the status quo. Knowing these new stories could cause a rift in our belief systems, much like the shift that occurred with the birth of Christianity and the canonization of the New Testament. To further extend this argument, I think of how hard the church worked to pressure Galileo to recant his "truth" that the sun, not the earth, is the center of the universe. But science and a willingness to accept the truth eventually won the day, and the church survived what some feared would be a scripture-shattering event. The point is, God gave humans -- woman and man -- intelligence and the free will to use it. Yet, without hope and a future vision,  humanity surely will perish. So it is important when we attempt to rehash historical occurrences, and even papal pronouncements,  that we keep in mind the cultural conditions in play at the time of the writing, and not attempt to superimpose modern constructs on them.
 Alluding to historical discoveries helps us locate ourselves in the present while challenging us to remain open to new truths that claim part of the past. As in biblical times, men in the church hierarchy still are making policies that deeply affect women's lives. "Marginal communities have rediscovered that the biblical God is a God of liberation whose passion is for justice shared across all the earth. ... This liberating God, much to our amazement, delights in our sexuality and our dignity as splendid body-selves in community with other body-selves." (1996 Ellison, 63) Unlike American secular society, where women theoretically have a voice in politics, the Catholic church allows few women's utterances to intrude on its deliberations. Women remain on the margins of Catholic life. Our social institutions, religions, mores and customs have been "shaped inherently to control women's procreative power." (1983 Harrison, 2) Yet, "[n]o source is inherently authoritative, but is declared trustworthy by those who discover its value and draw upon its power. ... A liberation ethic assumes that no source for ethical insight ... stands alone or is exempt from moral scrutiny in terms of how it impacts the lives of women  ..." (Ellison, 63). Modern reproductive and contraceptive technologies can put women in charge of their fertility. If women can rethink their prescribed roles and reclaim their power as owners of the means of production, they could teach others of the joy of uncoerced sex and childbearing. More good sex. Catholic women, alongside other women on Earth, should enjoy the freedom to design their own destinies and truly follow their consciences. But, "the dominant Christian tradition leads people to believe that sexuality is a dangerous, alien force having greater significance than other aspects of human life. This will no longer do." (Ibid., 64) At least in Maine, many Jewish, Protestant, and Unitarian-Universalist  churches stand in communion with their female parishioners in matters of choice. Each church's stance on the most private of women's concerns speaks volumes about how that church generally values woman and considers her right to self-determination. We must reclaim what is authentic and life-affirming from these faith traditions. A pro-choice platform says less about accepting abortion as sometimes the least damaging choice for women than it does about treating women as responsible adults. A pro-choice agenda gives voice to woman, so long silenced in patriarchal halls of misogyny at the Vatican and beyond in the corridors of the U.S. Congress. Men who claim to love justice must, then, open their hearts and minds to the other half of God's creation, that part of God's plan that assures the perpetuation of humankind. 


 I thought I understood the church's position on abortion and reproductive choice until I considered the question carefully. On what grounds does the church's opposition to abortion and contraception stand? What are the underlying ethical, theological or other principles at work here? I understood that Catholics absolutely oppose abortion, and for that matter most methods of artificial contraception. I came across an article on the Internet by Pax Christi USA, a chapter of the international Catholic pacifist organization, that after a 1989 Supreme Court ruling on abortion, reaffirmed the "Seamless Garment" ethic it adopted in 1981 that "opposes not only abortion but also the death penalty, war, the nuclear arms race and anything that threatens life," while it also "reaffirms its goal to work for the full and equal participation of women in the church and society." (1989, Pax Christi) But women cannot fully participate in either the church or society unless their right to self-determination, including reproductive civil rights, is recognized and honored. Mary Hunt frames the issue in a theopolitical perspective "that incorporates both religious insight and claims about the divine [alongside] a concrete praxis for social change." She bases her thesis on a Catholic feminist framework for "just good sex" that should be "safe, pleasurable, community building, and conducive of justice." Hers is a "contribution to a global, interreligious conversation in which women's bodies, women ourselves, and women's sexuality are valued." (2001 Hunt, 158) 

A. Church Chronology in Brief

 Learning that the church hasn't always maintained a strict view on abortion offers hope for Catholic women and their male partners. Church debate on abortion began from the early days of Christianity, as it continues today. Still, since no pope has declared his prohibition of abortion to be infallible, Catholic theology opens the door for women and men to follow their personal conscience in moral matters, even when their conscience is in conflict with hierarchical views. The view that abortion is a sin akin to murder evolved within the last 150 or so years. Until then, accepted church doctrine allowed for early abortions, or before the point when the fetus becomes a human being, according to the non-medically trained churchmen. (1996, CFFC) 
 The church has remained anything but silent on the issue, and persists in developing doctrines on human procreation without seeking the wisdom of persons schooled in the science of reproduction. A brief synopsis of the ups and downs of church theology on abortion illuminates the importance of religious and lay people's efforts to continue the debate with open hearts and minds. (Ibid.) The following chronology details the Roman church's stance on abortion and is adapted from an article published by Catholics for a Free Choice in 1996: 

 -- In its infancy, Christianity fought to distinguish itself from pagan religions that calmly accepted contraception and abortion. Early leaders proposed ideas not only about contraception and abortion but also on marriage and procreation. They taught that "sex even for reproduction was bad and sex for pleasure heinous." 

 -- The debate on "hominization" or the point where a developing fetus becomes a human being, found its genesis around 100 C.E. 

 -- Later, St. Augustine, circa 354-430, condemned abortion, but held that the practice was not homicide. The consensus at this time was that abortion was a sin requiring penance if it was intended to conceal fornication and adultery.

 -- After the fall of Rome and the establishment of Byzantinism, or the doctrine that the state is supreme over the church in ecclesiastical matters, circa 675, illicit intercourse, or sexual intercourse not intended for procreation, was a greater sin than abortion in the western church.

 -- The eighth century saw signs of recognizing "women's circumstances," and the idea of delayed "hominization." "But it makes a great difference on whether a poor woman [has an abortion] on account of the difficulty of supporting [the child], or a harlot for the sake of concealing wickedness." 

 -- In 1140, the church accepted the Gratian code, which affirmed that "abortion was homicide only when the fetus was formed." 

 -- The influential Council of Vienne in 1312 stood behind St. Thomas Aquinas's confirmation of delayed hominization, though he opposed abortion "as a form of contraception and a sin against marriage." 

 -- In a 1588, reacting to prostitution in Rome, Pope Sixtus V's bull "Without Restraint," proclaimed that the penalty for those who used contraception or abortion would be excommunication. 

 -- A mere three years later in 1591, Gregory XIV, who succeeded Sixtus at his death, relaxed his predecessor's rules, which he felt were too harsh and "in conflict with penitential practices and theological views on ensoulment." That pronouncement lasted until 1869. The church was still teaching delayed hominization, sure only that hominization occurred sometime before birth." 

 -- Pope Pius IX in 1869, set aside previous church teachings and questions on hominization, ruling that abortion at any stage was homicide, and was first to endorse the doctrine of immediate hominization. 

 -- The new code of canon law adopted in 1917, enlarging the church's prohibition, and required excommunication for both a woman who aborts a pregnancy and for any health-care providers who participate in an abortion. 

 -- By 1930, Pope Pius XI issued his encyclical "Of Chaste Spouses" that condemned therapeutic abortion. 

 -- The Second Vatican Council in 1965,  declared "Life must be protected from the moment of conception. ..." Abortion now is condemned on the basis of protecting fetal life, not as concealment of sexual sin. 

 -- Later in 1974, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith stated that "one can never claim freedom of opinion as a pretext for attacking the rights of others, most especially the right to life." The church altered its position here asserting that the fetus is a human life from the moment of conception, if not necessarily a full human being. 

 Church hierarchy today prohibits abortion in any manner, even in cases of rape or for the purpose of saving a pregnant woman's life. 

B. Only God is infallible

 The following brief overview of writings on so-called papal infallibility is meant to underscore what I interpret as the level of fear, rather than faith, upon which the Catholic church bases its doctrines. Neither the pope nor the church is God. Infallibility may be understood as the "Church's inability to err theologically whenever it makes a definitive judgment about the Deposit of Faith or truths necessary to defend it ..." (1989 Kaufman,  2-3.) The very development of the so-called doctrine of papal infallibility was not born from justice-seeking men, but actually represented a desperate attempt to strengthen the papacy and to shore up a faltering church. The doctrine actually grew from a disagreement between two branches of the Franciscan order debating the proper understanding of St. Francis' teaching on poverty. A leading theologian of the time wrote that Nicholas had been "unerring in faith and morals." (Ibid.) The thread by which the church held on to its power during the time of Pope Nicholas was so fragile, he decreed that if any future pope tried to alter his teachings, he would be named a heretic, and thus revealed not to be the true pope. This autocratic ruling was "developed to limit ability of future popes to change teachings of their predecessors." (Ibid.) Of course, humans' need for power and control began to chip away at the foundation of the church. The church could do nothing more than to wait and watch the radical times of the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment. The mid-1860s ushered in a wave of politics as liberal Catholics pushed the church to be more responsive to and to meet the "challenges of the age," and "sought recognition of religious and civil liberties and separation of church and state." (Ibid., 3, 5) 
 At Vatican I, Pope Pius IX and his defenders in 1870 wrestled with opponents over a definition of infallibility. The result of the match was a reining in of papal power to define infallibility. "Not only must the pope make clear that he intends to define, but he can define only what is already contained in divine revelation or is essential to safeguard that revelation as such." (Ibid.) So I shouldn't have been shocked to learn that papal infallibility has been used but twice: Pius IX's definition of the Immaculate Conception in 1854 and in 1950, the Assumption of Pius XII. (Ibid.) It is noteworthy that neither definition was needed to mend the rents in the church fabric, but rather remain as "serious obstacles to reunion with the separated churches."(Ibid.) More recently, on July 25 1968, Pope Paul VI unveiled his encyclical letter, Humane Vitae "On the Regulation of Birth," in response to then current events that the church no longer could ignore. Rather than showing mercy on married couples wrestling with church doctrine on "the most serious duty of transmitting human life, accompanied by not a few difficulties and distress," he instead ladled on a heavy dose of guilt. He eschewed the logic employed by those who considered their use of artificial contraception to be the lesser of two evils. No good can follow a person "even when the intention is to safeguard or promote individual, family or social well-being." (Humane vitae. no. 14) My mother reminded me recently of another Catholic family who lived on our street. Ginny and "Doc" Smith were good Catholics, who brought forth a new baby nearly every year. Ginny experience severe difficulty in her last pregnancy, which ended in a miscarriage. Her doctor suggested that Ginny might consider becoming a Methodist. She had no idea what he meant. 
 To illustrate further how church doctrine can be harmful even to the most faithful, in 1986 a highly respected priest and teacher of moral theology at Catholic University was slapped down by Pope John Paul II, for his dissent against so-called moral teachings of the church that banned homosexual acts and artificial birth control, "even though that status had never been solemnly proclaimed." (Kaufman, 2) Father Charles Curran's dismissal for disagreeing on what he considered to have been noninfallible teachings spotlights the church's transparent intent to silence any who would question its authority. 

C. Catholicism goes to America

 It is ironic that scores of early American settlers who left their homelands in search of an idyllic locale where they were free to worship as they pleased, only to end up holding intolerant views of others' beliefs. Some had left nation-states governed as a theocracies, such as Rome that fomented some of the world's bloodiest battles waged by soldiers armed with both holy books and weapons. Indeed, the Bible itself may become a weapon in the hands of those who would invoke its wisdom to the detriment of others. For instance, rather than relish the gender equality bound in the first creation story found in Genesis 1, some traditions emphasize Genesis 2, and interpret Scripture to mean that woman was born of man merely to bear children and serve man. Alternatively, textual clues in Genesis 1:27 "allow freedom in the interpretation of male and female. The human creation  ... is not delineated by sexual relationships, roles, characteristics, attitudes, or emotions. ... the context itself identified two responsibilities for humankind, procreation (1:28a) and dominion over the earth (1:26. 28b), but it does not differentiate between the sexes ... The use of ėmale and female' in 1:27 does not itself signify the potential for human fertility but rather indicates ... the uniqueness of humankind in creation. (1978, Trible, 19) 
 But to less discerning readers of the Bible since the time of Eve, women have born the brunt of those who would use religion and the Bible to curtail the free will she earned at birth. Still, an ocean away from the Vatican, some American Catholic women's actions recall Eve as they rail against those who would bind them to their fecundity, on their journey toward learning and justice. Eve's memory inspires creativity and re-visions a Catholic church, in which women have a place beyond servitude. Eve stands for the Mother Church, whose doors are open to all whether Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim or Buddhist. Her experience teaches us that we, women and men, are all one. No longer is it necessary (even to perpetuate a family's lineage), given greater life expectancy and reduced rates of infant mortality, to be fruitful and multiply as God decreed in the beginning. Science and Charles Darwin gave humans a new way to consider their origins. I walk a tightrope here claiming that science and religion can co-exist within discussions of procreation. God gave humans free will and a conscience. Still, a new dawn broke for women with the advent of safe, reliable contraceptive drugs and devices in the 1960s. Meanwhile, no longer must many "barren" women remain childless or like Hannah or Sarah to rely on divine intervention to conceive thanks to new reproductive technologies. The church risks its credibility and authority, particularly over American Catholic women, who practice birth control. I am reminded by the oft-used quote by Lord Acton in a 1887 letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton. "Absolute power corrupts absolutely."
 The church puts itself in a big bind in its attempts to restrict the rights of women of reproductive age to choose when or whether to have children. The lack of unanimity among bishops at Vatican II and beyond on the question of birth control reveals a rent in the fabric of church hierarchy. (1998 Kaufman, 13) That lack of closure on broad moral issues of contraception and even abortion leaves faithful Catholics adrift. So where does an American Catholic woman turn to discover the moral options she has within the church? "Catholics have the right to know that no church teaching on moral issues has been defined and to know the options when genuine doubt exists about the binding character of any teaching." (Ibid., 17) The ancient ethicist and theologian Augustine of Hippo once said: "In faith, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, love." (Ibid.)
 Faithful American Catholic couples wrestle with the practical issue of birth control and their need to limit the size of their families. The words of Paul VI cloud their consciences: "Each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life." (Humanae Vitae, no. 14) 
 Still, dissent among growing numbers of high ranking church fathers gives hope that the issue won't easily be dismissed. (Ibid., 27) The church can no longer (if ever) ignore the damaging effects the church's stance on reproductive freedom has had on its own decline. 

"The faithful are reduced to living outside the law of the Church, far from the sacraments, in constant anguish, unable to find a working solution between two contradictory imperatives, conscience and normal conjugal life." -- Maximos IV Saigh at Vatican II (Ibid., 27)

 I submit that a woman can be pro-choice and still remain a faithful Catholic. Though I'm appalled by the church's disregard of women's perspective in the discussion and regulation of sex,  for some Catholic women, the argument goes far beyond and outside discussions of contraception and abortion. Catholic women just want to be heard. They want to be considered as much a part of their parishes as their fathers, husbands and sons are. They want their views known. They want to be ordained as priests. 


 In the beginning, humans were the shining stars of God's creation: male and female God created them. God called the creation of humankind very good. 
 But the Bible presents two distinct creation narratives: One story depicts woman and man as equals; in the other, woman is limited to being man's helpmate. The first couple's connectedness thus is shattered in the second story where Eve is sentenced to be ruled by Adam, her husband. The Catholic Church clearly invokes the teachings of Genesis 2, in stacking the divine deck against women and their precious gift of bearing children. "But the picture of Eve as temptress that has served sexism so well ... is an unkind one to men as well. If woman is by nature a calculating temptress who requires control, then man, who fell to her simpering wiles without a whimper, is, by nature apparently, an unsubstantial, unthinking, sniveling weakling who doesn't qualify to be in charge of anything." (1996 Chittister, 1)  Feminist theologians are called to re-vision biblical stories such as this that deny women's experience. Catholic women are right to reclaim their birthright as co-equals with men, particularly in discussions of sex and procreation, while they remain faithful to their church and God.
 Eve, as the first feminist, wasn't satisfied simply to accept what she was told, so she embarked on a search for wisdom and learning. Eve's name in Hebrew, Khawwah means mother of life. (1998 Lebowitz, 86) The biblical mother of us all has taken it on the chin for millennia, as the cause of the first couple's fall from God's grace. I tend to believe, though, that Eve's straying from the path of virtue was part of God's plan. "Eve is our sign of life in abundance. To both women and men alike Eve is the proof that life can go on, whatever its struggle, whatever its fragility. ... It is in Eve that the virtue of hope becomes real." (Chittister, 2) The genesis of human life necessarily began a chain reaction of wonder. All humans are individuals, each with their own DNA. A human tapestry began with the first parents and their offspring; and their offspring, we're told, were fruitful and multiplied. Threads became cloth, a human tapestry that covers the Earth. But God knew -- as human parents come to know -- that God's offspring were born to live beyond their parents. Even mother birds push their chicks from the nest when they're ready to fly. I believe God meant for humans to learn from life. From their success and failure. I read the creation story to mean that human sexuality evolved from tasting forbidden fruit. Some women, and especially mothers like Eve, are still blamed for their children's misdeeds. But if not for their mothers' curiosity and creativity, lots of kids would go hungry, particularly those outside the First World. 
 Breaking down long-held and religion-fostered stereotypes of womanhood into biological and social dimensions can help cut through the cloth of misunderstanding. "Eve is God's proof that God has plans for all of us that will not bow to the chains of those who have no plans for us at all." (Ibid., 2) I'm convinced that by experiencing Eve through their lives, women can learn more about themselves and grow closer to God. God's daughters are born to become nothing if not fully human, self-consciously sexual beings. But that sexuality must be cultivated as the fruits of the divine first garden were, not diminished by words written and spoken by men who fear women's procreative power. Sex is exploration. Sex is play. Sex is an important part of healthy relationships. Sex shouldn't be regulated and rationed to be invoked merely to make more mortals. We also must embrace loving relationships that extend beyond a so-called heterosexual norm. Juice from the fruit of divine wisdom flows through all humans' bodies. It inspires love and care for others that's certainly divinely inspired. 
 Cullen Murphy raises important questions about the place of women in the Bible and in our secular world. The development of the Bible as we know it occurred throughout three millennia, incorporating four distinct intellectual revolutions that have had "civilization-shaping consequence." (1998, Murphy, xi.) The first revolution, of course was in the hands of God's chosen Israelites; Christianity claims the second revolution, as it added stories called the New Testament, with distinct links to the Hebrew Bible. The third phase, the Reformation exalted Scripture and pushed its availability to believers in manifold languages through Western society. Scientific advances and the age of Reason sparked the fourth revolution, which began during the Enlightenment and continues today. The period is noteworthy in its bent to counter the Bible's authority "as an explanatory or descriptive text and therefore perhaps also its authority as a prescriptive one." (Ibid.) Feminists, then, may hold the keys to the fifth revolution. 
 Feminism, using its own distinctive hermeneutics of suspicion, questions the "truth" that women played no role in the development of the good book. They wonder whether parts of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament actually were penned by women. They seek to reclaim the silenced voices. Murphy invokes feminist biblical scholar Phyllis Trible's wisdom: "The Bible ... is an inscrutable and sometimes antagonistic visitor. Only wrestling with it offers hope of a blessing. And even then you may find yourself walking away with a limp." (1984, Trible, 4; in Ibid. xii)  In terms of women and the Bible, "the writing on the wall is there to be read. And more and more of it appears with every passing day." (Ibid., xiii) "The icon of Eve is stark and continuing proof that truth dies where women are subjected and dominated and oppressed and made invisible and struck dumb. Where women are not both seen and heard, God is only partial, insight is only partial, truth is only partial. ... Eve is an icon of strength and hope ... and she challenges each of us to be the same." (Chittister, 4)


 No paper pushing women's inclusion in the church could be complete without women's voices. I looked so forward to hearing Catholic women's views to complement my research. I imagined responding to them with ideas for some constructive change agenda they could adopt for their lives if they so chose. Having sought their wisdom reminds me that democracy and theologizing work best when many voices are heard. Catholic women, like women of other or no faith tradition, do not fit easily into a one-size-fits-all box. In fact, each woman may choose to maintain her Catholic connection quietly in an effort toward change; to bump noisily against the hierarchy as she works diligently to shift the church's theological underpinnings; or simply to disregard the parts of Catholicism that don't fit for her. The women who form part of this study incorporate their own ethic into their everyday lives. These "chosen" women, though, speak for themselves and not for the whole of womankind, who all deserve the respect they earned at their birth. Each woman who lives in poverty and clings to the church for her salvation, while she watches a succession of children die from malnutrition and diseases that have been eradicated in other parts of the globe deserves to be heard. Likewise, any woman who disagrees with the church's teaching that she must submit to her husband rather than follow her own heart has earned the right to force the church's accountability, force it to show mercy, not disdain. As long as the Catholic Church clings to its archaic hierarchal model that fails to incorporate women's voices, my work stands incomplete. Advances in modes of communication show the world continually being transformed without missing a beat, and women are at the helm of the newest means to share news. For instance, I talked to Dawn face to face on my back deck after lunch one summer day. And since Brenda moved to Boston to pursue her Ph.D., e-mail became the perfect medium for exchange.  As with communication, one discovery leads to the next. Religion became more accessible when the printing press came on line in the eighteenth century, churning out Bibles faster and faster. Western women particularly know too much to be fooled. They know when they're being manipulated. As the church's emissary, the man wearing the cassock must be accountable to his flock. The church risks its future when it turns a deaf ear to women's words.

Dawn Gagnon and Brenda Crudo enthusiastically support this study and gave their permission for their words to appear here.

 I met Dawn Gagnon, a reporter with the Bangor Daily News, several years ago. Within our conversation, I came to realize that the similarities between us are greater than our differences. I have a new appreciation of how different communities, cultures and religions deal with similar issues.  I'm grateful for Dawn's candor and her willingness to spare a few minutes to share her Catholic connection with me to further the ends of this project.

 "You must submit to your husband." The priest serving the church in St. Agatha spoke those words to then Dawn Daigle as she and her fiancee sought the church's blessing on their marriage. But Dawn also wanted to be free to pursue a career. 
 Dawn Gagnon, a 39-year-old wife and mother of two teenage boys, and reporter was born Catholic -- French Catholic from St. Agatha, in the heart of Maine's St. John Valley. Dawn and her family are descended from a remnant of Acadians who were scattered in the midst of their eviction from Nova Scotia by the British beginning in about 1755 for refusing to fight their French Canadian countrymen, the Quebecois.The French-speaking families were dispersed; their property reduced to ashes. News stories written in Portland newspapers in the late 1800s reported the group as being shiftless.  They were looked down upon for the size of their families, and how they clung together in close-knit extended family enclaves. (I think that's called survival.) Dawn's story brought me back to what I've learned in Seminary about biblical times. One of the more brutal things that could descend on a culture or race is to be separated -- scattered so they could not regain a foothold in society. It's no wonder that these dispossessed Acadians, who survived and made their way to the St. John Valley near what is now Madawaska, have remained close -- forever protecting and respecting their French language and their Roman Catholic religion. And it's no wonder that scant evidence exists of a pro-choice presence among Franco-Americans. Even when Dawn visits her old home in the County, she feels peer pressure and is not openly pro-choice. 
 Dawn's mom and dad met at Our Lady of Wisdom, a Catholic boarding school in the Maine town near the Canadian border where they still live. But later the couple briefly moved to Portland -- she studying with the Sisters of Mercy and he at Southern Maine Technical College. They married in 1963. "Mom had three children; only one sister is actively involved in the Church," Dawn said. Like a lot of "good" Catholic girls, Dawn "flirted" with becoming a nun. "I was in church all the time," she said. "Being in church made me feel peaceful." The church was like a siren, its sense of organization and sense of constancy kept drawing her back. "I'd always know what to expect," she said. 
 But eventually when she turned 18, she shifted gears and set her sights on becoming a journalist. Meanwhile, she fell in love with and was engaged to a man who was a Congregationalist. Her beau was willing to convert to Catholicism, but over time, they grew apart as they realized how little they had in common and how dissimilar their backgrounds and goals were. Dawn excelled in the University of Maine's rigorous journalism program that required her to live on the Orono campus, hours away from her home in Aroostook County. While on campus, she rarely if ever attended Mass. After college, she moved home and went to church "once in a while." Then she met Rick, her husband to be. "He had grown up Catholic; we had the same French Catholic background," she said. "It felt more normal."
 The couple didn't have a church wedding, because Dawn was pregnant. Instead, the couple  were married at Lakeview, an inn in St. Agatha, by a notary public who was her sister's father-in-law. Still, when Jacob was born, he was baptized in a Catholic church, not in St. Agatha, but in Van Buren. Her second son, Isaac was not baptized. "I need deadline pressure for everything! she laughed. "I never got into the habit of going to church with my children. I feel guilty, but my kids are not interested." Jacob is 14; Isaac is 13.
 "If the church wants to keep people, they have to change, she said. "The church can't ignore such huge social changes." Dawn sees change beginning in the way non-Catholic people are reacting to the priest abuse scandal; by bringing it out in the open. "There's enough victims to form another church," she said. 
 But whether change occurs depends on the successor to the current pope. So, what does the Catholic church need to do to survive? "We need Vatican III; they need to listen to women; and they must recognize the drastic changes in society." News of a new priest being transferred to nearby Hampden has Dawn thinking about the church again. "I'd like to go back to church," she said. "But I don't want to raise my kids in a church where women are to be seen and not heard."

 I first met Brenda, a lifelong Catholic until recently, in my first year at seminary in a class on systematic theology. From that time on, in other classes and in our private conversations, I've been impressed with her drive to understand her faith and accept God's call, wherever that leads.  That call has led her to put her questions about and problems with the Catholic church into action. This September, she will be ordained as an Episcopal priest, while she also begins a 7-year-long course of study in Counseling Psychology and Religion at Boston University that will lead her to a career as a professional counselor. Any attempt to paraphrase Brenda's passionate responses to my questions would have been for naught. 
The Q and A format best honors her words. 

 Q.  Describe your life as a Catholic woman.
 A. My life as a Catholic woman has been tumultuous. I have always felt a special relationship with God, ever since I was little.  I loved going to church.  I used to pray all the time, and feel that God truly heard me.  I went to a Catholic college, Boston College, because I felt God was calling me there.  Ironically, it was there that I learned about the atrocities and abuses committed by the Catholic church against women.  And it was then, junior year, that I left the Catholic church -- much influence from feminism.  But I also appreciated the way the Catholic church, as an organization, fought against social poverty and worked for the poor. 
       That is why after my senior year I volunteered with a Catholic agency, the Jesuit Volunteer Corps.  I thought that year would be my spiritual growth year, but it wasn't.  I think I went to church twice.  Although I met amazing men who were priests and I so enjoyed talking with them, I could not stand the blatant sexist language and how only men served at the altar. When I decided to initially go back to grad school in Berkeley at the Graduate Theological Union, I conscientiously chose the Jesuit School of Theology to be my school of affiliation.  Again, the Jesuits tend to be grounded in a strong theology of social justice and I wanted to study ethics.  Here, during my second year, I became involved in the school liturgy and was the student who prepared for the liturgy on Wednesdays at 12 for the students.  I loved preparing the altar and making the handouts.  It was fulfilling.  I enjoyed lecturing, but in my heart, I still only saw a man consecrating the host.  But they were basically good guys and the school was very liberal.  Once we [she and her husband Toma] moved to Maine, I could not find a church that fed me. In Bangor, I found them all to be conservative; we even went to Ellsworth and Orono to find a church.  We went to the Newman Center [on the University of Maine campus] for a little and then left after about four months.  Then we went nowhere.  It wasn't until I started at BTS that I realized just how "Catholic" I am, theologically and socially.  I think very differently than most Protestants that I met.  When I say differently, I don't mean better, I mean my way of thinking about God, who we are and how we are to live here on earth is much different than a lot of the folks I met.  It became most apparent in my Systematic Theology and Worship/Liturgy courses.  My belief in the saints, the power of miracles, the power in the unknown, emphasis on tradition, natural theology, death, etc.  I could go on.  It was during my mentored practice at the Newman Center that was the breaking point of me leaving the RC church.  I had been attending the Newman Center for mass for about a year, and I decided to do my campus ministry site there.  However, in February before the fall semester, I had met with Fr. Kevin at St. John's Anglican church about ordination and the Anglican church.  He gave me a book about RCs who left the RC church and felt more at home in the Anglican church.  However, I was not ready to make the switch.  I felt that my RCism ran deeper than my religious affiliation, but also was part of my Italian heritage. I felt I would be disloyal if I switched.  However, by the end of my semester at the Newman Center, I realized that there is no place for a married woman in the RC church. I will always be second fiddle.  Even though I have the skills, abilities and knowledge and faith, I would never be allowed to reach my full potential that I feel God is calling me to. 
       In essence, I realized that the RC church wants women to remain child-like. And you know what, I was not willing to do this any longer. I think where a lot of my strength came from was participating in therapy and getting to understand who I am and empowering myself in finding my own voice.   Once I found my own voice, I realized the dysfunctionality that exists within the church structure and within the relationships it expects you to maintain and I no longer felt I needed to be a part of this dysfunction.  That is why I left and will be received into the Anglican church in Old Town on the 21st of September.  Women are recognized as being called by God, just like any man, you don't need a penis to be called by God or to be an adult.

Q. Discuss how you reconciled the church's teaching on birth control and abortion with your own conscience.
A. I think the discernment process in the RC church is one of the most hidden theological ideologies that is kept from the ordinary lay community.  I think parishes tend to spew "rule based" theological ethics to its parishioners.  I bet they think the average lay person is unable to grasp this "radical" concept. NOT!!!  How I reconcile abortion and contraception is through an informed conscience which is done through the discernment process -- it is right in the Catechumate. It basically states that after you have informed yourself through reading experts, asking friends and family, praying to God, and really feel you have truly informed yourself as much as humanly possible, you have the ability to make a decision based upon your conscience even if it is against the church's official teaching.  The loophole is that if you have made a decision in "good" conscience you are not culpable of having committed a sin.  I do not say this flippantly.  I truly believe that any ethic choice takes time and much research (both pro and con), conversation with loved ones and prayer. 

Q.  What attributes does the church possess that hold women in its grasp, despite its teachings that may undermine their well-being?
A. For me, the Liturgy is the most important aspect of the church.  So many times during liturgy, I cry or have these epiphanies.  The standard RC mass, as well as the Episcopal, is so rich with tradition and beauty, smells and bells.  I am so moved by mass.  I think it is the continuity of the RC and Episcopal church that touches me.  It is knowing that all over the world, the liturgy is basically the same, we all say the same prayers and this has been over thousands of years.  I remember going to St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome and praying in the chapel and there were people of every nationality and color, and the one common thread is that we were all Catholic.  There is a universality with the Roman and Episcopal church that I find so much bigger than me or even the little church I go to every Sunday. There is a sense of belonging to something that's beyond individuality.  It is very socialistic and I like this.  I think before ordination became something that I felt God was calling me to, I could reconcile remaining with the RC church because I was very much fulfilled by the liturgy by being a parishioner. My relationship with God has become so strong that regardless of the patriarchy that exists, I was not going to let the patriarchs take my tradition and church away from me... it is my church just as much it is theirs.  God gives the church to all of us.  However, when I felt the stirrings of the spirit calling me to ordination, I knew that I would seriously need to look at leaving.  This, not coincidentally I believe, happened at the same time that I was having a not so good experience at the Newman Center, and so, I knew that when I walked out of my mentored practice placement, I knew I was also walking out of the RC church for good.  I  could no longer be who they wanted me to be; I needed to be myself -- the Catholic woman who believes in contraception, abortion rights, gay rights, and the ordination of women.  I need to be true to myself -- I had grown up. 

Q.  What first sparked your move to the Episcopal church?
A. Talking with other Anglicans at BTS sparked my interest.  I always thought I would have to start the Women's Roman Catholic church.  Little did I know that there was a church out there with an almost identical liturgy as RCism, but they respect and honor the dignity of women.  I went to a mass at the Friar's bakery and from then on, I was totally interested.  However, like I said above, it took me 11 months of discernment to make the final break.  And being received in the Episcopal church, took me about 4 more months to finally accept.  I am very excited now. 

Q. What are your thoughts on your forthcoming ordination as a priest?
A. God, God is the only reason I have thought about ordination.  I truly feel called.  It was confirmed when I saw  the ordination of Leslie and Jan to the deaconate at St. James in April and when the female bishop approached, I cried and cried.  It happened again when the bishop laid her hands upon them to bless them.  I am not much of a crier, but I am so moved during the liturgy that I know it is more than just my wants or needs.  The Spirit truly stirs in me. 

Q.  What wisdom do you care to share with Catholics or other women, who may be questioning their own faith?
A. Prayer is so important.  I did not realize this until one and a half years ago.  Developing my relationship with God helped me to hear God's call about what I needed to do.  I left the RC church so many times and then this last time, I thought I would stick it out and fight from within.  But then, as I developed a stronger faith and relationship with God, I truly believe God guided me elsewhere, to a place where I no longer have to bang my head against the wall and where I can be myself.  I do not believe God wants or calls us to suffer.  Our faith should bring us joy, happiness, praise and honor and comfort, not pain and anguish.  That is not to say there won't be pain, there will be, but we should be fed by our faith, we should find strength.  Therefore, for some Catholic women, staying within the church may feed them; it did me for a while.  But for some it may not and it is then that we really need to listen to God.  God is so awesome.  It was a long road getting here, but I know God was with me the whole way.  God is always here, we just need to listen and ask questions.  And we are smart enough to know what God is telling us. 


  This study began with an inquiry on how women can respond to the Catholic church's history of marginalizing them. It ends with a message of hope. Women themselves are locating creative and faithful ways to be liberated from the church's misogynistic legacy, while they embrace the church as a source for strength to resist oppression. For women, such as Dawn, Anne and Brenda, the very dearth of church tradition that captures women's positive attributes forces some to work within or to move beyond church teaching.  Mere words cannot express the joy I feel from having embarked on this project, which unwittingly became a journey into my own past. Even after hearing the words of a few women with Catholic connections, I remain at peace with my decision to have left the church. Still, with Dawn and Brenda's voices echoing in my ears and heart, I feel a confirmation for my plan to give voice to that which has been kept silent for so long. This work has questioned what I knew and what I thought I knew about what it means to be a Catholic woman. It challenged me recapture all that I know to be worthy and life-giving about women's work all around me that aims to respond to the misogyny they encounter in the church. They face the pain of their marginalization in profound ways, each woman representing a tiny bit of colored glass mirrored in God's love. By denying women their rightful place, the church reveals a hostility toward women. But the church also denies itself the value women can and do lend to the faith in kaleidoscopic proportions. Women aren't merely blue, they're periwinkle, they're azure. Women are not merely red; they're crimson; they're scarlet. Women are not merely yellow; they're lemon, they're champagne. But in the church's eye, women are equated with bad sex. The church sets a woeful place for women at God's table when it not only denies her, but it also wastes its power by resorting to sexual control over the private lives of its parishioners, and women in particular. Finally, the church errs in relying solely on the past and on male clerics to make declarations that affect modern women and men. The church's so-called ethic is flawed in its fixation on the negative aspects of sex. The church overlooks a bounty of women, who  are specially suited to advise it on matters of sex and procreation -- the very view the church has for so long ignored. But as Marvin Ellison suggests, the larger moral issue here is "not simply to add women ... into an otherwise unaltered tradition." (1996, 66). Radical change is called for. Brenda Crudo imagined herself as founding a Women's Catholic Church. Dawn Gagnon waits for a day, maybe Vatican III, when the church finally hears women's voices. 
 But other women's voices are heard today in Maine, where a new brand of Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, UCC Christianity, Anglicanism and Judaism have begun to bloom. They offer hope as they respond and adapt to and actually mitigate the influence mother churches born oceans away have on social policy that has a negative impact on the welfare of women. The plethora of female pastors leading Maine churches affirms their place in their respective denominations. From the seed of radical discontent with church teaching that marginalizes women grows the new face of religion. They serve as positive role models for their women parishioners. They lay claim to ground that before was the bastion of men only. They recall the radical roots from which all their traditions were born. They know that at one time, Christianity itself wobbled on infant legs to establish its credibility more than two thousand years ago. Life goes on in Maine, and religion always has played a big role. As the faithful here have witnessed, including women in their church traditions honors God's creation. I reject some traditions' requirement that women must forever submit to men, as the myth of Eve's "fall" was meant to portray. I believe Eve lives in all women everywhere on Earth. When women can reclaim Eve's gritty determination to seek wisdom and wholeness, a  wonderful world reveals itself. 

(This list includes all sources investigated for this study, but not necessarily cited within this paper) 

 Adams, Abigail. 1776. Letters to her husband John Adams. Women's Suffrage Timeline. Online source at Retrieved July 20, 2003.

 Atwood, Margaret. 1986. The Handmaid's Tale.  New York: Anchor Books.

 Cady Stanton, Elizabeth. 1895. The Woman's Bible. New York: European Publishing Company.

 Catholics for a Free Choice. 1996. Abortion and Catholic Thought: The Little-Told History. Summary of CFFC's publication "The History of Abortion in the Catholic Church." Reprinted in the Autumn 1996 issue of Conscience. Online article at Retrieved June 6, 2003. 

 Chittister, Joan. 1996. A Passion for Life: Fragments of the Face of God. New York: Orbis Books. 

 Conscience, publication of Catholics for a Free Choice. Autumn 1996. "Abortion and Catholic Thought: The Little-Told Story." Online article at Retrieved June 6, 2003. 

 Connery, John SJ. 1977. Abortion: The Development of the Roman Catholic Perspective. Chicago: Loyola University Press. 

 Cunneen, Sally. 1991. Mother Church: What the Experience of Women is Teaching Her.  Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press. 

 Diamant, Anita. 1997. The Red Tent. New York: Picador. 

 Ecofem. April 2, 2002. "Wake Up American Women and Link US Gender Balance to the World." Online article at Retrieved July 16, 2003. 

 Ellison, Marvin M. 1996. Erotic Justice: A Liberating Ethic of Sexuality.  Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press. 

 Frymer-Kensky, Tikva. 1992. In the Wake of the Goddesses: Women, Culture and the Biblical Transformation of Pagan Myth. New York: Fawcett Columbine.

 Harrison, Beverly Wildung. 1983. Our Right to Choose: Toward a New Ethic of Abortion. Boston: Beacon Press. 

 Hilgers, Thomas W., M.D. and Dennis J. Horan, Esq. 1972. Abortion and Social Justice. New York: Sheed & Ward. 

 Hunt, Mary E. 2001. Just Good Sex: Feminist Catholicism and Human Rights in Good Sex: Feminist Perspectives from the World's Religions. Piscataway, N.J.: Rutgers University Press. 

 Kaufman, Philip S., O.S.B. 1989. Why You Can Disagree and Remain a Faithful Catholic. Bloomington, Ill.: Meyer-Stone Books. 

 Lebowitz, Shoni. 1998. God, Sex and Women of the Bible: Discovering Our Sensual, Spiritual Selves.  New York: Simon & Schuster.

 Luker, Kristin. 1984. Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

 Murphy, Cullen. 1998. The Word According to Eve: Women and the Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own. New York: Houghton Mifflin. 

 Schussler Fiorenza, Elisabeth. 1984. In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins. New York: Crossroads.

 Schussler Fiorenza, Elisabeth. 1992. But She Said: Feminist Practices of Biblical Interpretation. Boston: Beacon. 

 Sullivan, Dennis. 2003. "The Conception View of Personhood: A Review," in Ethics & Medicine, 19:1. 11-33. 

 Sutton, Agneta. 2002 "Revisiting Reproductive Technology's Slippery Slope in the Light of the  Concepts of Imago Dei, Co-creation, and Stewardship," in Ethics & Medicine, 18:3. 145-154.

 Trible, Phyllis. 1978. God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality. Philadelphia: Fortress Press. 

 Trible, Phyllis. 1984. Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives. Philadelphia: Fortress Press. 

Back to Contents