National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  December 12, 1997

Feminist spirituality core of unique M.A.

NCR Staff

LOS ANGELES -- Mary Gilvarry approached Kathlyn Breazeale in October to apologize for arriving late at the fourth annual "Dance of Change," at a meeting of approximately 200 Los Angeles women of faith.

"I know I am a dibble," the Irish Catholic woman said. "I had car trouble."

Breazeale, a Methodist on the event's steering committee and professor of theology, smiled. "Mary," she said, "you don't owe me any confessions. This is not patriarchy."

Breazeale's response signals the "mustard seed" strength of this gathering and of the innovative institution supporting it -- the Immaculate Heart College Center in Los Angeles.

Founded in 1981, IHCC is the godchild of the continuing tension about renewal that heightened in the wak of Vatican II and that in 1970 prompted 455 sisters from the Immaculate Heart of Mary congregation to renounce thier vows and status with Rome and form a noncanonical, ecumenical community of women and men.

Much attention has been devoted to the heavy-handed response of Cardinal James McIntyre, then head of the Los Angeles archdiocese, to the community's call for renewal and the painful process that ensued (NCR, Sept 12). Less frequently has the lens focused, however, on how the vision of the women who left the congregation has not only survivied but today is attempting to provide new models for renewal for the faithful -- for Catholics and for those from other faith traditions, and especially for women.

Immaculate Heart College Center offers the only master's program in feminist spirituality in the United States, founded 18 years ago. Last year, with the phasing out of a small M.A. program in global studies, the feminist spirituality M.A., which continues to grow, became the main focus at IHCC. With four fulltime and six adjunct faculty, the IHCC feminist spirituality program is committed to the values of renewal that spurred the crisis between McIntyre and members ot the Immaculate Heart community 27 years ago.

Holy Names Sr. Susan Maloney, the program's chair, said that the hear of the program lies a "committment to women's religious experience as having authority." Full and adjunct faculty as well as students come from a sweep of faith traditions and ages.

IHCC is a successor to the Immaculate Heart College of Los Angeles, with closed when the changes in the religious community occurred. The goals of the four-year, 30-unit program in feminist spirituality include bringing "the insights of feminist scholarship to bear upon the exploration of one's faith experience as lived day to day" and fostering "the thoughtful formulation of women-centered beliefs and practices within the context of a scholarly critique of the role sexism plays in the distortion of religious experience."

The program weaves together feminist spirituality and social justice tenets: "Grounded in Christian feminism, the program incorporates a wide range of women's spiritual experiences. We also recognize that in our society, sexism interfaces with racial, economic and other forms of oppression. All of the program's activities take into account these multiple facets of patrarchy."

Sheila Briggs, associate professor of religion at the University of Southern California and an IHCC adjunct faculty member, described the significance of this type of program at this moment in the process of renewal of U.S. churches. "IHCC is providing insights into the sort of education women neede not only to get in touch with their own spirituality, but to become ministers in a renewed ministry and church. The impact is for new and long term, when the time for radical change arrives -- and that is a when, not an if ," said Briggs, who also directs USC's Center for Feminist Research.

Briggs said academic rigor at IHCC is impressive: "This is not just touchy-feely. The best students I've ever taught are in this program, and I've taught at USC and Harvard." Briggs said that beyond academic excellence, IHCC is unique because it is working to creat a new institutional model based on "the vision of the church of solidarity, justice and peace." Renewing the church, she said, "will depende very significantly on whether or not we can create new institutions."

The current institutional milieu of our churches, which is based on hierarchical and patrarchal patterns, is "weak and hollow, demoralizing for people, for women." Briggs said IHCC has been able to translate the key values of renewal into a working institutional form. "That's a very important model for the church," she said.

Founders and current IHCC staff, however, said creating this model is not easy task.

Faculty member Pat Reif, who holds a doctorate in philosophy from St. Louis University, siad that despite the feminist content of its programs, the center until recently, "has not been a feminist institution. It had a patriarchal structure." She said few models exist of truly "feminist" institutions. For years, despite the content of its courses, IHCC reflected the hierarchical organization of the churches it seeks to renew.

"In religious communities, things usually get done by hierarchy, which is more efficient, plus you have obedience -- that's a piece of cake," said Anita Caspary, an adjunct professor of theology and literature at IHCC who holds a doctorate from Stanford University. "Before, we had one vote, one person and we thought was democratic," she said.

Four years of study brought for a new model that the women have been implementing for the past 15 months. Reif, the first director of the feminist spirituality program, said the model is based on "cooperation and not competition for the goodies ... It's about shared leadership, no top dog, decision-making by consensus, no one person calling the shots."

Responsibilties are delegated collectively, not by right, pecking order or appointment, she said. Through a participatory nomination process, a leadership team is chosen. "By law, we have to name a president, secretary, treasurer, but we conduct communal decision-making," Reif said.

Creating and operating a structure of equality and equity is difficult, IHCC board member Pat Giermann said. "You have to tolerate ambiguity and conflict, for the moment, while stuff gets worked out. This is a sea change. The whole structure of the center is changing to walk the talk."

Conversations with students and faculty members attending the IHCC-sponsored "Dance of Change: Women Experiencing the Holy: Encounters in Prayer" Oct. 4 sparked a keen sense that this kind of nitty-gritty renewal can -- and will -- spread.

Substance abuse counselor Catherine Durgin, 55, moved from the East coast to attend IHCC, "breaking the mold of always being there geographically and emotionally" for her two adult sons.

"At my age, there is no time or patience to explain to the traditional theology schools who I am. I need an institution that affirms my personhood, my womanhood," she said. "I have decided I want to spend the reast of the years of my life working in a feminist community to bring about this new order of change, and it's an intellectual and spiritual challenge." Durgin's work with marginalized communities prodded her toward the conclusion that "hierarchy works no more for the poor and the oppressed than it does for the liberation of women."

She said women are creating the agendas for change in the church and in society. "I look at the way things have been not working -- there is more violence and hunger, pollution -- it's as thought Jesus Christ never came," Durgin said. While Catholics have reason to be proud of a tradition of social justice, pride "isn't enough anymore," she said.

Laity -- especially women -- must become empowered to keep the agenda of change going. "Feminist studies give you the room to do that. ...I think my vioce is important and I am not misbegotten," she said.

Aileen Fitzke, 34, came to IHCC concerned about the invisible relationship between the feminist movement in the church and "women in the pews." A cradle Catholic, Fitzke became excited about renewal as a parent raising two young boys. The M.A. program at IHCC, she said, is helping her answer questions like, "How do we bring a holistic God to our children and into the church?"

Fitzke sid she will probably be a Catholic "forever," but she "wants it to be different." IHCC is helping her make that happen. "I want to be part of the church, recreate it with more moral agency for people, not just for the hierarchy, for male authority," Fitzke said. "There is a dearth of people my age in my parish. The church I am in is life-draining." The vision she is gaining at IHCC "reinforces my faith," Fitzke said. "I wish all women knew about this program."

National Catholic Reporter, December 12, 1997

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