Donna Steichen

How Trustworthy Is She?

by Elizabeth T. Knuth

June, 1995


During a discussion of Catholic feminism on the Free Catholic Mailing List (, some of the participants praised Donna Steichen's Ungodly Rage: The Hidden Face of Catholic Feminism (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991) as an accurate portrayal of feminism. I and one or two others contended that her scholarship was sloppy. Rather than let this disagreement descend to the level of "Yes, she is!" answered by "No, she isn't!", I investigated Steichen's documentation in the introduction and first chapter of her book.

Introduction of Donna Steichen's Ungodly Rage

On p. 19, Steichen says:

Male revolutionaries tend to retain in their rhetoric some semblance of Catholic doctrine. Even when they reject discipline and morality and distort doctrine to rationalize a personal agenda, they rarely discard the entire substance of the Faith as female revolutionaries are apt to do.

This is very entertaining. Historically, most heresies have been originated by males, usually ordained. Female initiators of heresies have been as scarce as hen's teeth. I dare anyone to name even ten heresies which are named after women. Whereas the comparable list for men is quite long indeed.

On p. 22, n. 3 ad fin, Steichen says, "The NCCB pastoral on women's concerns was to a great extent a gesture intended to placate feminists."


Again on p. 22, Steichen writes, "Feminist theoreticians . . . began to insist that non-marital sexual relations, contraception, abortion and homosexuality must be declared licit, even among women vowed to chastity."

Steichen gives no documentation at all for this ridiculous and inflammatory charge.

On p. 23, Steichen claims that "out of the human instinct to express faith in physical gestures, many of those who ceased to kneel for prayer began to substitute yoga postures, T'ai Chi, `New Age' spiritualism or circle dances, widdershins, around a smoking cauldron."

I guess Ms. Steichen has never heard of St. Dominic's "Nine Ways." There is nothing wrong with postures other than kneeling, or with movement, during prayer. I have been to several feminist prayer services and have never seen a "smoking cauldron."

Again on p. 23, Steichen charges, "The truth is that feminists don't like women".

This is preposterous.

And still on p. 23, Steichen alleges that "most [feminists], including the statistically significant proportion who are lesbians, disapprove of gender entirely."

Can you say, "lesbian-baiting"? What's to approve or disapprove? Sexual differentiation is a fact. We must live with that. Feminists (except for what Rosemary Radford Ruether terms "romantic feminists") do disapprove of gender roles. Biological sexuality is a given. Gender roles are maintained through social conditioning, and are not inscribed in human nature.

On p. 23, Steichen writes, "Probably because few of them [i.e., "religious" feminists] are tied to the concrete necessities of family life, they exceed secular feminists in ideological zeal and perseverance and exceed Prometheus in presumption."

What, did she take a survey? Does Steichen know of some sociological study which contrasts feminists who espouse some faith with those who do not? And look who's going in for pagan myths here!

On p. 24, Steichen asserts, "Chesterton's prediction `that Jones shall worship the god within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones', is as true of Catholic feminists as of other gnostics."

Steichen gives no citation for this bit of Chesterton, by the way. Catholic feminists are Gnostics? No way. For one thing, Gnosticism is radically dualistic. Almost always this means a denigration of the physical, the emotional, and the feminine. Ruether and Elizabeth Johnson have spilled a lot of ink pointing out the evils of dualism. One can hardly be a feminist and a dualist. For that matter, one cannot be a Catholic and a dualist, because Christianity is the incarnational religion par excellence.

Also on p. 24, Steichen claims, "Feminist ritual is not intended as worship but as psychological manipulation and political theater."

Bull. Steichen offers no documentation whatsoever of this slanderous charge.

Steichen writes on p. 24, "As Brigitte Berger has observed, feminism has become a new imperialism."

No citation is given.

On p. 24, in n. 4, Steichen says:

At that time Dr. Ruether also provided an early glimpse of the ethics of religious feminism when, to reporters, she vehemently denied any connection with Catholics for a Free Choice, while a CFCC spokeswoman, contacted by telephone, readily admitted that Ruether chaired one of its committees.

No name is given for this "spokeswoman," no date, no name of the person to whom this was allegedly told.

Here's a fun one. On p. 25, Steichen writes:

Adult Catholics, empowered by the sacrament of Confirmation, are obliged by faith and honor to defend [the Church]. They must be armed against prevalent error, so that they can recognize it and the sources from which it proceeds, and must insist on the authentic teaching that canon law guarantees as their right.[5]

    5 See canons 212, no. 2, no. 3; 213; 226, no. 2; 229, no. 1; 217.

C212, 2 says we can make known our needs to our pastors.

C212, 3 says:

In accord with the knowledge, competence and preeminence which they possess, they have the right and even at times a duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church, and they have a right to make their opinions known to the other Christian faithful, with due regard for the integrity of faith and morals and reverence toward their pastors, and with consideration for the common good and dignity of persons.

C213 affirms a right to receive sacraments from pastors.

C226, 2 is irrelevant. It is about the parental duty to provide Christian education for their children.

C229, 1 states:

Lay persons are bound by the obligation and possess the right to acquire a knowledge of Christian doctrine adapted to their capacity and condition so that they can live in accord with that doctrine, announce it, defend it when necessary, and be enabled to assume their role in exercising the apostolate.

Hmm, I wonder why Steichen doesn't go on to numbers 2 and 3, which speak of lay persons obtaining academic degrees in theology and "receiving from legitimate ecclesiastical authority a mandate to teach the sacred sciences."

C217 says the faithful have a right to "a Christian education."

By the way, none of these canons so much as mention the sacrament of Confirmation.

On p. 25, in the sentence immediately following that just discussed, Steichen says, "Most of a generation of young Catholics have been lost to the Faith because their trusting parents sacrificed to send them to Catholic catechetical programs, schools and colleges." [emphasis in original]

There is no documentation provided. If Steichen has proof that Catholic schools cause more than 50% of young baptized Catholics to defect from Christianity, this is something we ought to know about.

Steichen writes on p. 26, "They [female "religious feminists"] are tenaciously committed to their careers, frequently unqualified for secular employment of equal prestige, usually unmarried and often unattracted to marriage and intent on building a new feminist religion in the ruins of the Church."

I'd say there's a glaring contradiction right in the first two descriptive clauses. Again, no documentation is furnished. Not even anecdotal evidence. How does Steichen presume to know the marital status--or desires--of most feminists?

On p. 27, Steichen declares, "Full-blown feminism . . . . is not a schism, for schism retains the Church's doctrine while denying her authority. It is not a heresy, for heresy discards only a part of the truth. It is an apostasy to an alien religion."

Those pesky feminists won't go away. I guess we can't believe them even if they stand up and recite the creed.

So much for the introduction. So far I am not particularly impressed by Steichen's objectivity, journalism, scholarship, or documentation.

Donna Steichen's Ungodly Rage, Chapter One

On to chapter one. I found myself warming up for a good argument more and more. But I tried to stay focused, and only deal with Steichen's documentation, or lack thereof.

Steichen begins chapter one, which she titles "From Convent to Coven," with a description of a conference on women and spirituality held at Mankato State University (Minnesota) in 1985. Although there "appeared to be" a strong Catholic presence (Steichen 31), please note that this event was sponsored by a state university, and was not dedicated to strictly Christian concepts of "spirituality".

Seatbelts on? Okay, here goes.

On p. 32, Steichen says that Rosemary Ruether

rejected Catholic belief at the outset of her academic career. According to an autobiographical essay published in 1975,[2] she discarded "the doctrine of the immortality of the soul . . . the very nub upon which all discipline and doctrine are hinged", during her freshman year at Scripps College. Having "crossed over" to "autonomous selfhood", she came to view dogmas not as statements of ontological truth but as useful symbols, and the Church "not as a repository of truth . . . but as a terrible example of what we all are". In that new light, Ruether found paganism more attractive than Catholicism. "A lot of evil had been done in the name of Christ", she wrote, but "no crusades or pogroms had been sent in the name of Ba'al, Isis or Apollo." Over the years she has from time to time recommended the worship of pagan goddesses as more beneficial for women than Christianity. [ellipses as in Steichen 32]

    2 Rosemary Radford Ruether, "Beginnings: An Intellectual Autobiography", in Journeys: The Impact of Personal Experience on Religious Thought, ed. Gregory Baum (New York: Paulist Press, 1975) 34.

Ruether says none of this on p. 34 of Journeys. P. 34 of that book talks solely about her maternal ancestors, their family pride, their Catholic faith. What Ruether discarded was not the Catholic faith but the popular and erroneous notion of "angelic souls flying off to heaven" (Ruether, "Beginnings" 39). Ruether could no longer accept the idea of "the personal immortality of the soul" (39). Here is the longer sentence from which Steichen snatches bits out of context: "Such a critical discarding of the central doctrine of Catholic popular faith, the very nub upon which all discipline and doctrine are hinged, could only mean that, in an irrevocable sense, I had crossed over from heteronomous to autonomous selfhood" (39).

Those who have been on the Free Catholic Mailing List for awhile will recognize this. Remember the arguments about the immortality of the soul? I still contend that a belief in the inherent immortality of the human soul is not essential to Christian orthodoxy. And as I said last time we had this discussion, about six months ago, it seems to me that what Ruether is describing here is a rather common phenomenon. Young adults do often question what they have been told. Part of growing up is making decisions and taking responsibility for them. In matters of faith, too, a great many people find it is not enough to have a second-hand faith, and so they must determine what they really do believe themselves, for what they hope, to what they can be committed, on what they will stake their lives.

Ruether does not say that she came to regard "dogmas not as statements of ontological truth but as useful symbols" (Steichen 32). What Ruether does say is, "I discovered the meaning of religious symbols, not as extrinsic doctrines, but as living metaphors of human existence" (Ruether, "Beginnings" 41). There is a difference. We are not talking about dogma, or even necessarily about Christian doctrine, but about symbolism and myth. And Ruether says she discovered that such things were not abstract propositions but, rather, meaningful, experiential, inspiring, expressions of the deepest human longings. She's not saying that dogmas are "only symbols"; she's saying that symbols are infinitely rich and vibrant.

The same sort of thing may be going on when Ruether writes,

Catholicism, for me, is my paradigm for the human dilemma. I relate to it, not as a repository of truth by which to make a fixed identity, but as a terrible example of what we all are. . . . It is impossible for me to do otherwise. This is my history, my people. It might be more pleasant to be a Quaker . . . , with less time, less opportunity, less power for evil, but perhaps also more dull. (Ruether, "Beginnings" 55, ellipses mine)

This is her response when "intellectuals" and some feminists ask how and why she would stay firmly within the Catholic Church and its tradition. She stays Catholic because that is who she is, and because she sees Catholicism as profoundly true in its analysis of the human condition.

Ruether does not say that she "found paganism more attractive than Christianity" (Steichen 32). What Ruether says is that she was often "suspicious of an idea that appeared to be one side of a dualism" (Ruether, "Beginnings" 44), and therefore would try to understand on its own terms the thing being repressed. At this time she was immersed in Protestant biblical scholarship. Neither Christianity nor other religions were perfect in practice (Ruether 43): this is the point of her reference to evil done in the name of religion. Her revulsion against violence is hardly unique to her. This reference to ancient religions is actually parenthetical; the whole burden of this section of the essay is Ruether's casting her lot with Christianity, and doing so through scholarship.

Steichen offers no citations at all for her charge that "over the years [Ruether] has from time to time recommended the worship of pagan goddesses as more beneficial for women than Christianity" (Steichen 32). And actually, this seems to be the ploy of hurling the "least likely accusation" at an opponent. It is as if someone said that the problem with Gandhi was that he was too bloodthirsty. The listener may think, "No one could be that stupid! Unless . . . maybe he knows something I don't. Maybe he has uncovered something." Ruether has paid considerable attention to goddess worship, but she most certainly does not portray it as superior to Christianity. If anything, Ruether overestimates the attraction of Wicca, and goes out of her way to compare it unfavorably with Christianity.

On p. 35, Steichen accurately summarizes many of the most important points of Ruether's "Goddesses and Witches: Liberation and Counter-Cultural Feminism," The Christian Century, Sept. 10-17, 1980, pp. 842-47. Although Steichen's footnote refers only to p. 842, she lifts quotations from other pages of the article as well. I recommend this thoughtful article, in which, by the way, Ruether points out several problems in Wicca and in goddess worship.

Steichen believes that Ruether's "attitude toward goddess feminism had softened" between 1980 and 1985 (Steichen 35). Steichen says that Ruether wrote the following about "feminist witchcraft" (Steichen 35) in a 1981 essay: "It is possible that we are witnessing in this movement the first stirrings of what may become a new stage of human religious consciousness." The reference given is "The Female Nature of God: A Problem in Contemporary Religious Life," Concilium 143 (Mar. 1981), ed. Johannes-Baptist Metz and Edward Schillebeeckx, p. 64. I was unable to verify this citation.

Steichen says:

In Women-Church: Theology and Practice, the book she announced at Mankato, [Ruether] communicates the gnostic view that contemporary feminists constitute a radical "spirit-filled" millenialist community in direct encounter with the divine, prophetically empowered to construct "a church liberated from patriarchy". It must be "open to authentic spirit wherever it is found", even among those who "legitimately seek new religions generated from hints of ancient times and their own experience". (Steichen 35-36)

The citation provided is to Women-Church 21-23, 31-40, 61. By the way, Steichen has got the subtitle of Ruether's book wrong here. Again, some of this will be familiar ground for those list members who were here the last time someone picked a fight with me over Ruether's alleged promotion of Wicca, paganism, etc.

I believe that in my courses on logic this would have been called a complex question. This sort of insinuation is similar to asking, "When did you stop beating your wife?"

"Spirit-filled": on pp. 11ff., Ruether points out that "the history of Christianity is a history of continual tension and conflict between two models of church: church as spirit-filled community and church as historical institution" (Ruether, Women-Church 11). This assessment is hardly unique to Ruether. Others have sometimes used the word "charismatic" in place of "spirit-filled". Ruether points out that church as institution tends to be conservative and to "sacralize the established social order" (22). Church as spirit-filled tends to be revolutionary, set against the established social order, and often radically egalitarian (22). The Spirit is not confined to institutional procedures. But Ruether goes on to say that neither of these models is adequate by itself. The answer is not to tear down the institution, nor to stifle the Spirit, for that matter (32). Those who want reform, even if they believe themselves to be Spirit-led, must reckon with "ongoing unredeemed human history" (22) and sin. Church as institution may be tempted to see itself as "itself the cause of grace and the means of dispensing the Spirit, rather than simply being the occasion and context where these may take place" (32). On the other hand, "the spirit-filled community deludes itself by imagining that it can live without any historical structure at all" (33). We must test the spirits (35). So it is not that only feminists are spirit-filled, nor is it the case that spirit-filled people must destroy all institutions.

Ruether mentions millenialist movements and speaks of "the millennial community" (23), but she does not identify either of these terms with feminism.

The phrase "a church liberated from patriarchy" does not appear anywhere in the pages cited, as far as I can tell. To cobble together such a phrase with ellipses, one would have to jump from p. 49 (a . . . ) to p. 50 (church . . . ) to p. 61 (liberated from patriarchy).

"Open to authentic spirit wherever it is found": Steichen lifts from this longer paragraph in Ruether 39-40:

Jewish and Christian feminists are also in dialogue with secular feminism, which has given up on or become ignorant of religion, but which provides valuable work on history or sociology or psychology. Thus the feminism we envision is one that is able constantly to build an integral vision of a new humanizing culture beyond patriarchy without becoming closed or sectarian toward any living cultural option or human community. It remains open to authentic spirit wherever it is found, and it extends to all the invitation to join a new dance of life without which life itself may not survive.

As for "legitimately seek[ing] new religions generated from hints of ancient times and their own experience," this manifestly does not describe Christian feminism. It has quite a different sense in the original context in Ruether 38-39:

Feminism . . . is dependent upon patterns of thought transmitted through Judaism and Christianity as well as Western culture. Even its idea of a radical return to original human possibilities lost at the dawn of history is a thoroughly Christian myth, reformulated in feminist terms. This does not mean that some feminists cannot legitimately seek new religions generated from hints of ancient times and their own experience. But . . . . [a]s long as feminist thinkers do not become total separatists, there remain Christian groups who continue to invite them and seek to hear them. Thus it is by no means appropriate to claim that all possibility of creative dialectic is futile.

Thus Ruether is urging feminists to think twice before rejecting the Church entirely. She admits that some may feel compelled to look elsewhere, but insists that Jewish and Christian feminists can find spiritual nourishment in their own religious heritage.

Now, one might ask, how can Steichen describe this as "gnostic"? There is no secret knowledge. It is not elitist. It is not dualistic. It does not deny Church authority.

So far we have one citation that is accurate, two of unknown accuracy, and two in which Steichen lifts phrases out of context to make her point, which is something quite different from what Ruether was actually arguing.

On p. 36, Steichen says,

In a 1980 essay, [Ruether] called for "the equivalent of a French revolution" to overthrow the authority of the hierarchy, so that "the academy" could become "the teaching magisterium of the Church". To achieve that end, she said, it would be essential for the "liberal wing" of Catholicism to retain both "autonomy" and the appearance of legitimate "Catholicity" in its "institutional power bases".[7]

    7 Ruether, Journal of Ecumenical Studies (Winter 1980): 65-67.

Nope. Ruether actually says:

A new consensus could only come about if this traditional power could be deposed and the Church restructured on conciliar, democratic lines accountable to the people. Then the theological consensus of the academy could serve as a guide for the pastoral teaching of the Church. This is really what Küng is calling for: that the academy replace the hierarchy as the teaching magisterium of the Church. This cannot be accomplished by the academy itself. It entails the equivalent of the French Revolution in the Church. . . . (Ruether 65)

So this is Küng's wish, not Ruether's, and Ruether thinks it is "difficult to imagine" (65) and is not going to happen anytime soon (65-66) and is nothing we should attempt (65-66).

As for the latter half of Steichen's charge, Ruether thinks that rather than a radically different Church structure, the best we can hope for is respect for pluralism, that there is not one and only one right way to look at every issue (66). She predicted a move on the part of the Vatican to either manipulate or discredit Catholic movements, organizations, and institutions not already under direct hierarchical control (66). The targeted groups include religious orders, lay movements, retreat centers, media, universities, clinics, etc. (66). Therefore Ruether says, "If, as I contend, the lack of consensus in theology is rooted in power struggle, then the liberal wing of this dissension must defend the autonomy and Catholicity of its institutional power bases, if it hopes to survive as an option for the future" (67). The Vatican must not be allowed to stifle academic freedom, but neither must the academy be permitted to squash other approaches to theology (68).

So in this instance, Steichen quotes Ruether's assessment of Küng as if it were Ruether's own opinion, and rips other phrases out of context, thus imparting a decidedly different--and more sinister--meaning to Ruether's words.

On pp. 69-70, Steichen says,

In her noteworthy book The Changing of the Gods, Naomi Goldenberg, a feminist who teaches the psychology of religion at the University of Ottawa, mentions "the expression of sexuality in the ritual" without elaboration,[29] adding later that "witchcraft lets sex follow its own laws to a very large degree".[30]

    29 Naomi Goldenberg, The Changing of the Gods: Feminism and the End of Traditional Religions (Boston: Beacon Press, 1979), 88.

    30 Goldenberg, Changing of the Gods, 114.

The first of Steichen's assertions here is just plain wrong. Goldenberg writes:

The feminist scholar . . . . might speculate on whether the prominence of a female divinity has any relation to Starhawk's high position in the group. The expression of sexuality in the ritual might then become interesting to her. Even though the ritual is highly charged with sexual energy by the nudity of the coven members and by the lyrics of their chants, there is no hint of mockery or debasement of women. Fat women and old women seem as comfortable worshiping in the nude as do the thinner and younger women. (88)

Are there actions of a sexual nature? Goldenberg, one page earlier, had mentioned only a light kiss on the lips. Steichen's second quote from Goldenberg is accurate enough, but in Goldenberg it is not in the context of ritual or worship. Steichen makes it sound as if all feminist Wicca ritual worship is characterized by unbridled orgies, but she is misusing Goldenberg to make her point.

Steichen writes on p. 71:

"A remembered fact and an invented fantasy have identical psychological value", writes Naomi Goldenberg. "Thus matriarchies are functioning in modern covens and in modern witches' dreams whether or not societies ruled by females ever existed in past history. . . . Modern witches are using religion and ritual as psychological tools. . . . In a very practical sense they have turned religion into psychology".[34] [ellipses are Steichen's]

    34 Goldenberg, Changing of the Gods, 3, 25, 89.

I do not know why Steichen cites pp. 3 and 25. None of the words quoted are taken from those pages of Goldenberg.

Goldenberg writes:

My own respect for feminist witchcraft has grown over a two-year period of association with contemporary witches. I have come to understand that modern witches are using religion and ritual as psychological tools to build individual strengths. They practice a religion that places divinity or supernatural power within the person. In a very practical sense they have turned religion into psychology. (89)

And half a paragraph later:

Witches consider any thought or fantasy real to the degree that it influences actions in the present. In this sense a remembered fact and an invented fantasy have identical psychological value. The matriarchies, i.e., the times when no woman was a slave of any man, create visions of the pride and power women are working to have in their present lives. Thus matriarchies are functioning in modern covens and in modern witches' dreams whether or not societies ruled by females ever existed in past history. (89 ad fin.)

Whatever we may think of this psychologically and ethically, it does put a rather different spin on it than the one Steichen suggests. Where Steichen sees shameless manipulation, Goldenberg sees a valuable technique or attitude for the purpose of bolstering a strong, dignified self-image in women.

So much for chapter one. I believe this rather tedious exercise has demonstrated that Steichen's use of her sources is suspect. Whether citing Christian or pagan feminists, Steichen lifts quotes out of context, rearranges them, sometimes appears to cobble them together, sometimes wrongly attributes an opinion which rightly pertains to a third party. The page numbers provided are often wrong. The book titles are sometimes inaccurate. And in general, Steichen puts the worst possible interpretation on the words of those she is criticizing, even if she must misrepresent them to do so.

Steichen's scholarship (or journalism--take your pick) is sloppy. She is not objective, nor is she accurate.

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