All Hail the Feminist Hour!

By Hilaire Belloc

Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel!

May all my enemies go to hell!

IN MY day, people said what they thought, and thought what they said, but not today. Take Newsweek’s religion editor, a Catholic graduate of the University of Notre Dame, who, in proposing a toast, should really drink first to feminism, only second to the “male authorities” of Rome against whom, dead or alive, he has been kicking for twenty years. I, for one, do not begrudge a man his prejudices. What I dislike about this chap is that he doesn’t say, even to himself, what he is up to.

Read with me his long article of March 19, 1984, entitled “Vows of Defiance: The battle of the sexes reaches the Roman Catholic Church, triggering an identity crisis for American nuns.” Journalism I’d be proud of. Crackling quotes. Spiced with insidious detail.

We in heaven learn that since 1966, the number of American sisters has declined by 60,000; by the end of the century, experts predict, only 60,000 will be left.” Father Andrew Greeley (my favorite living writer) is cited: “No one really knows what went wrong … Maybe the sisters lost their distinctiveness when they abandoned distinctive clothes … in the long run, there will be no more orders of women in the United States.”

The computers of St. Peter being down, we did not know that of the 120,000 sisters still remaining, half are over sixty years old. And that, “though comparatively few are feminist ideologues, most of them are as angry, restless and frustrated as only neglected spouses can be.” How can this be? Are things not better for American nuns than twenty years ago? Our editor says, indeed, they are, since “life in traditional religious communities was often suffocating, too.” About 12,000 sisters still choose lives of cloistered prayer. Another 12,000 “pursue highly visible — and self-fulfilling — secular careers as lawyers, academics, administrators, social activists and even government officials.” The Sisters of Mercy are inventing a “new” ministry, “political ministries” — running for office, working for government. Are these not reasons for happiness and for contentment? Everything the world gives seems to have been offered nuns.

Our editor especially admires the National Assembly of Religious Women (NARW) and the National Coalition of American Nuns (NCAN), each representing 2000 sisters. I calculate that that is a total of three percent of American sisters. The very acronyms express dissent: NoCAN; NARW! “Women religious are the backup troops in the feminist battle,” one NARW leader says. “There’s a feeling that we are the church and that we will no longer let the hierarchical system define what is spiritual to us.”

Now that sounds to this gnarled historian like a noble declaration of departure from the Roman Catholic Church, a departure with time-honored precedent, a departure with class. The immediate past president of NCAN — a Dominican! — agrees with NARW: “The vows of poverty, chastity and obedience were designed by men … We should consider more feminist vows like hospitality and working for peace.” No one obliges sisters to remain upon the Barque of Peter. The Pope and the Curia, we may expect, will drive down to dockside and wave the sisters off as they sail into the sunset. And yet: farewells are sad. They have happened often before. Allegiance to Rome is the acceptance of a discipline. That is what religious vows say. They are taken only with free will and in total commitment, and as easily abandoned in the heart.

According to our editor, many currently “moderate” nuns will be “radicalized” — it is clearly his wish — by any “return to a more disciplined life-style, ruled by strong superiors.” Many have “bitter memories” of convent life pre-1966 (how many? has a survey been taken?). And “many” American sisters “will refuse all Vatican efforts to revive traditional convent life.” Will all? The executive director of the Leadership Council of Religious Women (LCRW), the organization of women superiors, announced to Rome that sisters in apostolic orders “are called to ministry, not community.” What does “apostolic” here mean? Sent by Christ, by the apostles, by the successor of Peter? Or sent by self?

The Americans, of course, lack the subtlety, not to say the deviousness, of the French. The French enjoy being clever bargainers, I like that about the French. But the Americans have never rid themselves of Puritan stolidity; even the Catholics have assimilated it. So the Americans see only two options (good and evil): Go back to the “suffocating” convent of pre -1966 or else race ahead into feminist Womanchurch. Surely, there are other alternatives. Excesses to “the right” excuse no excesses to “the left.” A little more care for community, discipline, orthodoxy, and respect for the commands of the Successor of St. Peter is certainly compatible with keeping such new experiments as have proven their worth. It is in the nature of experiments that some fail. Why not say so? Are “the progressives” in-fallible? Is there no heresy into which “progressives” can wander; are they protected in their innocence until the end of time? By no means!

Certainly, lay Christian women today do all the professional works of ministry which “progressive” sisters now do. Why become a sister? Father James Burtchaell of Notre Dame sounds a bit like the old Belloc, if I may say so, when he says: “For a lot of career-oriented sisters, their life is their work … But they have no home life, no time for rest, recreation or play together. If they were married women, they’d be divorced.” Common sense, worthy of Belloc! Sisters, without community? No wonder the numbers are declining.

“For the truly religious,” our editor rolls into his last paragraph, “a shared life of disciplined prayer is the mystical tie that binds.” A nice touch, that! But binds — to whom? Disciplined — by whom? To share in the mission given by Christ to the successor of St. Peter was once, long ago, the causa finalis of public, organized, approved religious vows. Like the feminists he quotes, our editor calls the successor of St. Peter one of many “male authorities,” one of the “men” who make rules, presumably without legitimation. From whom?

The straight premise of feminist talk is that sex involves serious differences. What is resisted, what causes anger, restlessness, and frustration, is not said to be particular disciplines but their originating sexual source. This is a hard teaching. “Womanchurch” — the feminist heretical version of the Catholic Church, a parody of the Catholic Church, like that practiced by freethinkers during the French Revolution, in which sourdough bread is broken in the name of women priests past “and yet to come,” in which (Newsweek tells us) a goblet of wine is held aloft by woman, offering her sisters a “chalice filled with the blood of those who have given birth and are giving birth today” — it is not the Christ who is remembered but woman.

In place of the sermon, a taped lecture of a woman theologian is read, ridiculing Rome’s declaration that only men can “image” Christ. This does not mean “that the priest should look Jewish,” the feminist theologian explains. “It means the priest should have b _ _ _ _.” I couldn’t have said it better. Belloc lives, I say again!

Now — to lapse into male logic — either sex is significant or it is not. If it is, Christ being male, Peter being male, the apostles and their successors being male, is a matter of significance. If sex is of significance, then Rome is correct, and Womanchurch heretical. If sex is not of significance, wherein lies the anger? Males and females being interchangeable, all males or all females or a mix of both is a matter of indifference.

I can understand complaints by women that priests and successors of Peter are not holy, not competent, not admirable human beings. That, by the way, has often been true. I cannot understand the complaint that they are male. Not, at least, when this complaint is based upon the premise that sex does, in fact, make a difference.

Perhaps feminists intend a different premise. Sex is of serious significance, they may say, only not the current “patriarchal” significance. Patriarchal values must be turned upside-down, either into matriarchal values or into sex-neutral values. The last alternative lands us back at “Sex is not significant, any more than looking Jewish or being tall.” But that is clearly not intended. For feminists want women priests. Having women in the priesthood is significant to them. So sex does make a difference. Therefore, each sex does “image” itself and not the other. This lands us back at “Sex is significant.”

I believe I can assent to this. Having an anatomical appendage of the sort described, with all its attendant miseries, does, most assuredly, make a difference. It got the church in a peck of trouble under Alexander VI, for example. It has often gotten the church — the whole human race — into very deep trouble. Would that men were angels. We would all like the church better that way. Maybe. In reality, alas, humans aren’t any angels. Men are different from women. No males, alas, give birth. Males shed no blood giving birth. That much is true. Men shed quite a lot of blood, however. When Sister Quinn says that “feminist vows” are likely to run toward “hospitality and working for peace,” there may be a residue of “the feminist mystique” in that, but there is some truth in it, too. By holy heaven, many a warrior has come home to a woman of peace, down the long slide of the centuries, to have his wounds bound and his spirit restored.

So which is it, now? Are women different from men, or not? If they are not different at all, why, then, the rule of angels should be the rule of the church. If, on the other hand, being sexed male or female does make a difference, then how deeply into the rule of the church should that difference run? And who should decide?

Ah! you say, “Not men. Not male authorities in the Vatican. Not male American bishops.” Who then? A plebiscite? Or, rather, the three percent of sisters of NARW and NCAN? That is, clearly, a novel idea of authority in the church. In fact, it signals the founding of a new church.

Let us call things by their names. One cannot have both a feminist church and the Roman Catholic Church. One must choose. Just as, in choosing in which sex to be incarnated, and to which sex to turn in choosing a Vicar, the Lord God himself, our Father who art in heaven, had to choose, and did choose. For His purposes — you can quarrel with His choice but He made it — the Lord God chose, not the most hospitable, most peace-loving sex, but the male sex, the patriarchal sex, the dominating sex, the warrior sex: and bade that sex to imitate the other in gentleness, meekness, hospitality, and peace. The Lord did indeed plan for the feminization of humanity. He did not do so through founding a feminist church, however, but through founding, and confounding, a masculinist church. To miss that irony, to bowdlerize that paradox, is to miss what is as plain, when we are naked, as the nose on a face.

Moreover, the males of the late twentieth century are desperately in need of the masculine ideal. Wimpiness is gaining everywhere. Males are being told that having an anatomical appendage is a deformation, that they ought to act like angels, that they ought to be sensitive, caring, tender, and supportive, while their female colleagues teach them anger, militance, dissent, and revolt in the name of hospitality and peace. Females are angry, males are told. Males should be meek, males are told. Now is the female hour. All bow down before our Mother, who art in heaven, God the Mother almighty. All hail the feminist hour.

Whoever speaks of the equality of the sexes tells a lie. But one thing I will concede. Men who have the anatomical appendage, but who act as if they do not, who act, that is, like wimps, deserve Womanchurch. They should proudly (or wanly) say that they cannot be Roman Catholics. A church ruled by men, they should say, is no church of theirs. For twenty centuries it has served men and women well; no more. It must become, now, other than it has been.

Was God unfair in making Christ a male? Could no male die for the sins of females? Can only a female savior redeem the female sex? God must have made a fundamental error. He should have sent a female Redeemer. Better, He should have sent an angel, sparing twentieth-century enthusiasts confusion about their sexual identities, anxieties, and ambitions.

As for religious sisters, what does Womanchurch offer them? One day, Womanchurch promises, they will be priests, bishops, cardinals, popes. And then what will happen? They will be obliged to preach, and to live, the Beatitudes. They will compete, not to be first, but to be last. They will feel privileged to be thought of as oppressed, lowly, and ignored. They will, in short, have to live as Christians, in communities of sisters bound by love, witness, service, prayer; Christians who are poor, chaste, and obedient; Christians sworn to loyalty and allegiance to the Successor of St. Peter. It will mark no revolution in the church if they do not so live. There is, in fact, a context within which being male and being female makes no difference whatever. It is the context of faith.

From where I sit in Heaven — Purgatory, I may warn you, is infinitely more painful than I can describe, though all things pass as in an instant — I already see the church of the earthly future. The days ahead are far darker than parochial Americans imagine. Pope John Paul II sees farther, by far, than the American enlightened class. I cannot, of course, expect any American to believe that. Let me leave you only with a warning.

Let us suppose that your fondest feminist dreams come true, and that the Roman Catholic Church shortly will capitulate to feminism. For a while, there will be women priests, bishops, cardinals, popes; then married women priests, bishops, cardinals, popes. Soon more than half the leadership of the church will be female. Rules for nepotism will be codified, no mother’s son preferred. According to your dream, women religious will no longer be angry, restless, or frustrated. They will enjoy upward mobility. Males and females will cooperate harmoniously, in relationships of mutual esteem, equality, and sharing. Mother Church will reverberate as one happy family. Women will do everything that men now do, and they will also (most of them) bear children. Machismo will have perished; feminism will have wilted away, a transitory cause in a victory won.

Like all such triumphs in history, a worm will eat at it. Male religious may then grow angry, restless, and frustrated. They may claim that females do not understand them, that females exclude them, repress them, and insist that they act like females, which like schoolboys males obediently try to do but fail. Males will appeal to the early church, to Scriptural traditions, to centuries of practice, and to rigorous logical (male) argument. They may become militant. They may begin to raise one another’s consciousness, to incite sexual envy, and to stimulate ambition. The spark of the warrior sex may ignite. They may treat civilization as a fraud, a sham, an instrument of their oppression. They may claim the Christian God has become effeminate. They may turn to pagan gods, to Thor, to Woden. They may drink the blood of animals and enemies. They may begin to sing my song:

Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel!

May all my enemies go to hell!

History may repeat its many cycles. The coming days, I say, may be darker than anyone imagines.


  • Hillaire Belloc

    This anonymous Crisis writer is pretending to be Joseph Hilaire Pierre René Belloc. Belloc was an Anglo-French writer and historian who became a naturalized British subject in 1902, but kept his French Citizenship. He was one of the most prolific writers in England during the early twentieth century.

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