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American Sisters Aren’t 'Radical Feminists,' Notre Dame Scholar Says

Author: Michael O. Garvey

Kathleen Sprows Cummings

The board of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) has responded to a Vatican assessment reprimanding the organization for “serious doctrinal problems” and announcing plans to place it into a sort of “receivership” overseen by three American bishops.

According to Kathleen Sprows Cummings, associate director of the University of Notre Dame’s Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism, the response of the LCWR, which represents most of the nation’s Catholic nuns, “will surprise no one who is familiar with how sisters operate.

“Balanced and straightforward, the LCWR’s press release shows them to be unintimidated, committed to dialogue, and above all focused on working toward a more just society,” Cummings says.

“The sisters correctly point out that the assessment contained a number of unsubstantiated accusations against them. Perhaps the most baseless of these was the allegation that they have been unduly influenced by ‘radical feminism.’

“In advance of their June meeting with LCWR in Rome, its critics may want to brief themselves on the meaning of radical feminism. Locating the root cause of women’s oppression in patriarchal gender relations, radical feminists seek to abolish patriarchy through a radical reordering of society; specifically, they aim to dismantle all structures that shore up patriarchy, such as the Church or the family. Though many sisters may support a more equitable division of authority within the Church, very few of them are prepared to tear apart the institution to which they have dedicated their lives.”

According to Cummings, “the suggestion that sisters are against the family is similarly preposterous, considering all they do to build and maintain the familial, community, church- and state-sponsored structures that support mothers and fathers. The outpouring of support and gratitude for sisters over the last few weeks shows that the vast majority of American Catholics recognize, if Church officials do not, that sisters are among the staunchest pro-life advocates in the United States today.”

A historian of the Catholic Church in America and particularly of women in American religion, Cummings is the author of New Women of the Old Faith: Gender and American Catholicism in the Progressive Era and is at work on a new book, Citizen Saints: Catholics and Canonization in American Culture.

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