By Roberts, Tom
National Catholic Reporter , Vol. 29, No. 35
The debate over the place of women in the Roman Catholic Church was pushed to a new level of visibility earlier this month when Pope John Paul II urged U.S. bishops to counteract Catholic feminists who engage in such practices as nature worship and other rituals that depart from traditional Christianity.
Catholic feminists in the United States agree that to venture into ancient goddess and nature worship departs from traditional Christianity. But many feel that they have been driven to explore such alternatives because the "patriarchal church" has denied them full participation.
Critics of this view, of course, say that Catholic is Catholic and to venture into pagan rituals is to leave Catholicism behind.
One of the most aggressive antifeminist activists is Donna Steichen of Ojai, Calif. She said she can't be certain that her campaign influenced the recent papal statement. But she knows, she said, that "the Holy Father has a copy of my book" because a friend "handed him a copy."
Her book, Ungodly Rage: The Hidden Face of Catholic Feminism, has been dismissed by Catholic feminists as "libelous, defamatory and an intentionally malicious misrepresentation of the persons, movements and writings which this book purports to describe."
How high up Steichen's influence runs is a matter of conjecture. But her conviction, that Catholic feminists are on a downward path toward paganism and even satanism, has certainly found an agreeable seedbed in the Roman curia.
More than one Vatican official has lashed out against "radical feminists" in the U.S. church and voiced concerns over rituals that invest credibility in the godesses of mythology or other religious traditions. And the pope, in his July 2 statement, made during an audience with two U.S. bishops, urged active opposition to "a feminism which polarizes along bitter, ideological lines."
While not naming any specific groups, the pope said some feminist groups go well beyond the debate on women's ordination. "In (feminism's) extreme form, it is the Christian faith itself which is in danger of being undermined."
Some feel that the pope was responding to reports of an April conference in Albuquerque, N.M., of Women-Church (NCR April 30), a rather diverse gathering with a heavy Catholic feminist emphasis that met for the third time since 1983.
But Ruth Fitzpatrick, head of the Women's Ordination Conference, a Catholic feminist group in Fairfax, Va., and an organizer of the Women-Church Conference, insists the pope was responding to Steichen's book.
The pope, she said, was a victim of "very bad disinformation." Fitzpatrick compared Steichen's campaign to the anticommunist witch-hunts of the 1950s. She is convinced, she said, that since the fall of communism, conservatives in the church have been looking for anew scape-goat and found it in feminism. …