Teaching About Women, Gender,
and American Catholicism
KATHLEEN SPROWS CUMMINGS
On the first day of my “Women and American Catholicism” class one year, a student announced that she had enrolled in the course simply out of curiosity: “I am dying to know,” she said, “how a course on Women and Catholicism can last any longer than two weeks.” Given women’s exclusion from leadership structures within the Roman Catholic Church, she wondered, what could we possibly find to talk about for an entire semester? These and other similar comments reflect the widespread ambivalence that many contemporary young women have about their membership (or in some cases, their former membership) in a religious tradition that remains unapologetically dominated by men. As such they raise a vital question: How can we “pass on the faith” to the young Catholic women (and men) who are alienated both by women’s continued exclusion from the Church’s institutional power structures and by Catholic teaching on sexuality?
I cannot and do not claim that this course alone provides an answer to that difficult question. Still, I am convinced that for those of us teaching at the intersection of gender and Catholic Studies, our work in the classroom can have profound pastoral implications. Some of my most disenchanted students have often been astonished to discover, through historical exploration, that American Catholic women have always found sources of power, meaning, and dignity within a maledominated institution. The student who made the “two weeks” comment, for example, had attended Catholic schools all her life, including a secondary academy run by a prominent order of women religious. Yet she had no resources to comprehend the rich and complicated history of women in the Catholic tradition. I am delighted to report that when the two-week mark passed, this student was still showing up for class, and indeed by the end of the semester she was singing quite a different