Morphing Catholicism into Eco-feminism

Authored By: Donna Steichen

Morphing Catholicism into Eco-feminism

by Donna Steichen

Religion is the heart of the Catholic school curriculum. But in today's Catholic schools, it may not be the Catholic religion. Feminist spirituality-the religion of WomenChurch-is pushing Catholicism out of the heart of the parochial curriculum in many places. Its identifying characteristics are the gradual displacement of traditional Catholic doctrine, culture and practices with a subtle but relentless infusion of feminist theology, steady but stealthy movement toward the worship of a female deity in feminist rituals, inappropriate if not obsessive focus on sex education, and fanatic environmentalism. Some south Florida parents believe that is happening at St. Andrew's parish school in Cape Coral.

St. Andrew's is a thriving parish in suburban Fort Myers, on Florida's Gulf Coast. The church building is a cruciform structure built in 1980s Florida-contemporary style, like four barns pushed together, with an open sanctuary where its arms intersect, oversized in scale to accommodate a large and growing body of parishioners. St. Andrew's School, in operation for just seven years, has grown steadily to its current enrollment of some 500 students in eight grades, and there are more names on a waiting list. Among the parents of current students are some so deeply convinced of the value of Catholic education that they campaigned and solicited pledges for the school before it was built. But despite the school's good academic reputation, an increasing number of committed Catholic parents are worried about the changing emphasis at St. Andrew's, disturbed by what they see as flaws, inadequacies, and false notes in the curriculum.

Sex education, for example, begins at grade one, with texts from the explicit and highly controversial New Creation series. To supplement this graphic material, a local physician comes in to talk to children as young as those at the fourth-grade level about such matters as masturbation and wet dreams. No teachers are present for his sessions.

In the religion program, lower-grade teachers use the Silver Burdett Ginn series. The upper grades use Living Waters, a brightly packaged series of recent vintage from Tabor Publishing Company, often criticized as a catechetical expression of the spurious "Spirit of Vatican II" that has so vitiated Catholic institutions.

A feminist tradition

Sister Elizabeth Dunn, the founding principal, skill heads the school's administration. Like the six other religious on staff, she is a Dominican from a community headquartered in Sinsinawa, Wisconsin. From June 1985 to June 1995, the provincial general of the Sinsinawa Dominicans was Sister Kaye Ashe, a committed feminist who served as moderator at the 1986 conference of the National Assembly of Religious Women, an organization of militant feminist extremists. At that meeting-held at the Sinsinawa Dominicans' own Rosary College in Chicago-feminist Rosalie Muschal-Reinhardt explained why sacramental baptism is unnecessary, feminist scholar Mary Jo Weaver explained that feminist rage is rooted in the "overwhelming evil" of patriarchy, and feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether defined WomenChurch as "the feminist expression of the basic Christian community of liberation theology." In 1987, Sister Ashe was named to the founding board of Mary's Pence, a feminist fund designed to divert donations away from the annual Peter's Pence collection for the Pope into feminist projects. Today, Ashe lives at "Sophia House" in San Francisco.

It seemed consistent with the views of their leaders, then, that the puzzling and unwelcome changes at St. Andrew's School were apparently instigated by some of the Sinsinawa nuns, as troubled young parents believe to be the case. Most critics see the seventh grade teacher, Sister Mary Jo Trapani, as the one chiefly responsible. The youngest of the nuns, she joined the faculty for the 1993-1994 academic year. During her second year she proposed that teachers join her for prayers in the faculty room before school. "I thought that was OK at first, and she started praying the Lord's Prayer as 'Our Father-Our Mother,'" said kindergarten teacher Joan McLeod, who is retiring this spring. "Then when I heard her praying to Sophia, I stopped going."

"I had a discussion with Sister Mary Jo about why she told her pupils that the stories of Adam and Eve, Noah and the Ark, and Jonah were just fables," said another mother, pseudonymously named Betsy Banken. She elaborated:

She said scholars have begun using what she called "critical" methods of Scripture study, and they say those events never happened. I said the new teaches that Adam and Eve were real, and that is what I learned in Catholic school when I was a child, and that's what I believe. She said they told her in graduate theology school that it was going to be very hard to break the foundation of the old Catholics. I asked 'Why would you want to break the foundation that I was taught in Catholic school, teaching that has been around for thousands of years?" And she said, 'We need to bring the Church into the new modern era."

"Sister also denied the reality of the miracle of the loaves and the fishes," Betsy continued. "She said people at that time carried extra food with them, and what happened wasn't a miracle but a wonderful sharing as the community came together."

"Metaphorical theology"

Apparently an ardent fan of the United Nations, Sister Mary Jo taught her students a "UN Environmental Sabbath" pledge, and arranged for one of St. Andrew's associate pastors, Father Jerome Kaywell, to videotape her class as they recited it: "We join with the earth and with each other . . . for the healing of the earth and the renewal of all life."

Some parents took exception when Sister taught a sixth-grade lesson from a book by UN career bureaucrat Robert Muller, . Muller is the author of a full-blown New Age "World Core" curriculum that sees the UN as a religious force with the potential to unify the world. In Sister Mary Jo's assignment, students were to assume the voice of God and describe how they could have done a better job of creation.

"Centering" and "guided mediation" have been taught in class, parents complain. Jennifer Boulton, a Protestant from Fort Myers who enrolled her children at St. Andrew's school in the hope that they would get a superior Christian education there, asked Sister Mary Jo why she was telling the children to consult with the "Mother God" and "Grandmother God" hidden in their hearts. In explanation, Sister Mary Jo loaned her , a recent book written by Sister Bridget Mary Meehan to introduce children to the idea of a Mother God.

Jennifer reported:

I went to the rectory twenty times, trying to show the book to the pastor, Father Timothy Murphy. He absolutely would not see me. So finally I left it for him. When I got it back, it was in a brown manila envelope with a little yellow sticker on it that didn't even say "Dear Mrs. Boulton." All it said was this book has been approved by our D.R.E.

The parish director of religious education is Carman Macedonio, a former Franciscan seminarian. Jennifer was not impressed. Her children will not return to St. Andrew's next year.

When fellow teacher Joan McLeod asked her about the sources of her unfamiliar ideas, Sister Mary Jo told her she was "using metaphorical theology."

Sister reportedly told another mother that she is "bringing out all these riches that have been hidden in the closet."

The goddess Sophia

Nevertheless it was the school principal, Sister Elizabeth Dunn, who did most to reveal how deeply alien feminist theology had penetrated into St. Andrew's when, for Christmas in 1994, she gave each school staff member a copy of Sister Joyce Rupp's little book of self-centered feminist mediation, , . Rupp's bibliography cites notorious feminist authors from Merlin Stone () through New Age pioneer Jean Houston to Rianne Eisler () and Elizabeth Dodson Gray, keynote speaker at the annual Massachusetts WomenChurch meeting a few years ago.

Like many current feminist writers, Rupp personifies the figure of Divine Wisdom in the Old Testament Wisdom books as "Sophia," a name used because it is the Greek word for wisdom. Rupp echoes standard feminist rhetoric when she says:

. . . it seems evident that Sophia is the feminine face of God. This aspect was eventually lost due to a highly male-dominated culture and a church that was very fearful of the goddess traditions of the past.

That feminists seek to make a goddess of Divine Wisdom is ironic, since they have so noticeably failed to acquire even mere human wisdom, for which their need is clearly desperate. Surely some feminist scholars must know that the use of the feminine pronoun in Scriptural references to Wisdom is a matter of grammatical gender; in Hebrew and Greek, all abstract nouns are feminine. Divine Wisdom is not a Person but a perfection of the Holy Trinity, traditionally attributed to the Son because He is the Word of God. Like most of feminist theology, this exercise is simply a propaganda campaign, exhibiting less intellectual honesty and scholarly objectivity than one might find in a public- relations campaign by the advertising council.

The rising tide of feminist spirituality at St. Andrew's crested with an Earth Week observance in late April. All-school events are not routine at St. Andrew's. No services were held during Holy Week, for example, nor after Easter in celebration of the Resurrection.

There was no all-school May crowning of the statue of the Blessed Virgin. The school does not assemble for May rosary devotions. Yet the faculty pulled out all the stops for Earth Week, a purely secular media event invented by members of the 1960s counter- culture to draw attention to their environmental concerns. Classroom teachers were urged to implement specific activities for each day of the week, and two major all-school "prayer services" were scheduled.

According to a notice sent to parents, the first of the ceremonies to "celebrate our love & care for the earth" was to be held in the parish church on Monday, April 22. The second, a celebration of "our Unity and Oneness with God and with each other and as citizens of the Earth and as family in St. Andrew School" would be held on the school soccer field on Friday, April 26. Students were told to wear blue or green tee shirts or the environmentally correct Human-i-tee shirts that help fund groups like Sierra Student Coalition, YMCA Youth Service Corps and Youth for Environmental Sanity.

The Earth Day service

Opening Monday's Earth Day Prayer Service, Sister Martha Rohde, assistant principal, perhaps inspired by the increasing volume of parental complaints, solemnly emphasized the compatibility of Earth Day activities with Christian belief. As she explained:

We take our weather and our land for granted at times. The message of Earth Day, begun 26 years ago, is that we should never take the gifts of the earth and creation for granted because if we do, they may not last for us . . . As Christians, we realize that we may never take each other for granted but realize that we have all been made by God and saved by the death and resurrection of Jesus and that we are also holy. So we will begin our prayer service with words of Chief Seattle.

Four older girls in tee shirts, shorts, vex, and sneakers knelt in the sanctuary with foreheads pressed against the floor, their feet toward the tabernacle, heads toward the congregation, as a male voice read passages from the words of Chief Seattle, declaring that "the earth is our mother." (This was described on the program as "Liturgical Prayer.") A record began to play, "Song at the Center," Marty Haugen's contribution to the faux native-ritual fad, and the young dancers raised their heads and began to sway, moving their hands in rhythm with the music while they rose to their feet. As each verse began, one of the dancers spun away in the specified direction and returned leading a line of smaller dancers in colored vests signifying their direction of origin (yellow for east, blue for south, green for north, red for west). The dance was intended "to represent that all people need to praise God for what has been made or fashioned by God's hand," Sister Martha stressed.

"Please join in singing the refrain of the song," she continued. "Like St. Francis, the song, written in the Native American tradition, calls the earth our mother, the sky our father, the wind our brother and the water our sister . . ." (St. Francis' "Canticle of the Sun," printed on the Earth Week program, in fact makes no reference to "Father Sky," though the earth is indeed described as "our mother." Francis says of the sun, "O Lord, he signifies you to us," yet it is not described as "our father" but as "our brother." All references are to "brothers" and "sisters," implying common creaturehood under the Fatherhood of God.) The children danced through the sanctuary, and when the song was finished, sat on the floor there. Individual children rose to offer suggestions for renewing the earth ("recycle cans," "don't waste electricity," "turn off the water when we brush our teeth.") After the reading of some passages from Scripture, four children lined up in front of the altar to recite, alternately, lines from a pledge to care for "this garden earth," while Sister Martha lighted a candle before a "Creation Banner" to solemnize the promise. She poured water and pronounced a water blessing. The ceremony ended with a rousing recorded rendition of the peace-and- justice song, "On Holy Ground."

Remnants of a tradition

Catholic phrases, songs, and prayers were also stirred into the otherwise banal prose enunciated at Friday's soccer field ceremony. Students and teachers paraded onto the field in single file from two directions, met in one large circle, and joined in a jazzy version of "Save the Earth," a song of apology for "the ways we have hurt the earth and our planet and our need to protect the earth for future generations." Then the single file of students paraded toward the right, with the youngest children in the lead until they formed a small circle in the center of the field. Following them, the rest of the line coiled around the center in order of ascending size, until the entire school, students, staff, and faculty, had formed a spiral ring.

According to advance instructions, the marchers were to have chanted a theme chosen at the faculty planning session, but whether for reasons of prudence or something else, no chanting was done. Once in place, "standing together and standing on the earth," the school population sang a song called "Sacred Creation," prayed the "Our Father" together, and finally dispersed, singing "America the Beautiful."

Not all faculty members were enthusiastic about the Earth Week activities, but only Joan McLeod tried to prevent her class from participating. When they were summoned anyway, Joan stood alone at the end of the soccer field, praying her rosary as she watched the school shuffle past in a spiral. Mrs. McLeod, who is retiring in June after six years teaching kindergarten at St. Andrews, was the only one of nineteen lay faculty members willing to be interviewed for attribution. Some half-dozen others shared her distress, McLeod said, but feared for their jobs if their names were associated with public criticism.

If parents found relatively little to protest in the actual words used at the Earth Week ceremonies, many were alarmed because the ceremonial form strongly suggested the "spiral dance" of contemporary "Wicca" or witchcraft, a phenomenon of neo-pagan nature-worship that has provoked controversy and attracted media attention in southwest Florida communities and public high schools during the past year.

This approach appears to offer little hope of success as either religious or environmental education. The sheepish awkwardness of the older boys pressed into service as dancers and marchers suggests that they recognize its absurdity and if they believe it constitutes Catholicism, they will escape from the Church at their earliest opportunity, probably littering as they go.

Parents rebuffed

More wanted to attend, but on Monday, April 29, just two representatives of the concerned parents' group were granted a meeting with the associate pastor, Father Arnold Zebrowski, and Carman Macedonio, the religious education director. They presented an outline of their grievances, along with exhaustive documentation, and asked for evidence that what is being taught at St. Andrew's is consistent with Catholic doctrine. Father Arnold and Macedonio did not engage them in discussion, but said they would invest/gate the charges and respond later. At this writing, there has been no response.

In an era of vocal concern for "inculturation" of the faith, so that people everywhere can express its essential elements in forms of their own culture, American parents are justifiably alarmed that their children are being denied expression of their own Catholic culture in Catholic programs and institutions. Why, they demand to know, are those children being initiated into New Age feminist spirituality instead? Even if the intentions of the innovators were orthodox-which seems unlikely-the parents see such bizarre activities as exploitation of their children to serve someone else's agenda.

Most of the parents in the protest group are unwilling to be identified by name. Some, fearful that public schools are even worse, and doubtful of their ability to home school, intend to send their children back to St. Andrew's school next year. They worry that children might be persecuted if their parents were publicly identified as critics. Others are unwilling to give up on St. Andrew's, skill hopeful that the pastor, religious education director and school board will respond to their list of grievances by removing the most offensive materials and replacing the chief faculty agents of feminist influence. Far from being cantankerous troublemakers, they are, like most lay Catholics, deeply respectful of Church authority figures, uncertain of their right to challenge them, eager to avoid confrontation, and perhaps naively optimistic.

"It's a theological and cultural outrage that children in Catholic schools are being indoctrinated with all that environmental- feminist-New Age propaganda, and the fact that a few Catholic prayers have been sprinkled on it doesn't detoxify it. It actually makes it worse, because it looks to the children as though everything is on the same level of truth," said Laura Berquist, veteran home schooler and author of . "But parents are making a mistake if they think their children can wait for some future reform. They can't wait while their children's faith is being destroyed. Home schooling is the only way parents today can raise their children in a Catholic culture, so they can grow up strong and confident of the truth. And anyone can do it!"

Donna Steichen is the author of Ungodly Rage: The Hidden Face of Catholic Feminism.

This article appeared in the June 1996 issue of "The Catholic World Report," P.O. Box 6718, Syracuse, NY 13217-7912, 800-825- 0061. Published monthly except bimonthly August/September at $39.95 per year.


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