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
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."
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.
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
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
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
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"
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
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.
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
"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
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.