Wisconsin bishop pressures St. Norbert College to disinvite Gloria Steinem

No week is ever a good week for women’s equality in the Roman Catholic church. But last week was particularly grim.

It all began on Jan. 5 with a cringeworthy interview that Cardinal Raymond Burke gave to a website that boasts perhaps the most cringeworthy pun in cyberspace, The New Emangelization. Much digital ink was spilled in responding to Burke’s misogynistic claims that, essentially, women were killing the church and its priesthood through their abundant and “feminizing” presence.

While it is true that Burke is an extremist in both liturgical style and ideological substance, his interview writ large a truth that is pervasive among the hierarchy: There is within the Catholic church a deep and abiding fear of women’s equality and women’s power.

This fear of women’s power (or “gynophobia,” as some in the academic community call it) reared its head again just days after the Burke interview when, over in Wisconsin, Bishop David Ricken of the diocese of Green Bay called upon St. Norbert College to disinvite Gloria Steinem from a event to be held in April.

In a statement published in The Compass, the official newspaper of the Green Bay diocese, Ricken argued that Steinem should not be permitted to speak at St. Norbert because she is a highly vocal, longtime pro-choice advocate.

The problem is, she won’t be talking about abortion, but rather, about domestic violence and its escalating rate over the past four decades.

Ricken insists that anyone who supports abortion has no place speaking out against the horrors of domestic violence. The two positions, he says, are contradictory and, “therefore, the good she might be doing is seriously compromised by her own positions and actions.”

One wonders if Ricken would make a similar pronouncement about one of the many conservative Catholics who is anti-abortion and pro-war.

Ricken admits he wasn’t aware that Steinem had been invited to St. Norbert. If Internet research is to be trusted, it would seem he learned about the event from the Cardinal Newman Society, that well-oiled, self-anointed “defender of faithful Catholic education.” They’ve been calling for the cancellation of the Steinem speech since October.  

What seems to have eluded both Ricken and the Cardinal Newman Society is that the event will include a conversation between Steinem and bell hooks, a scholar who is offering a weeklong residency at St. Norbert. Though perhaps lesser known than Steinem, hooks has made groundbreaking contributions to feminist thought, racial justice, and community building, as well as the theology of love and radical hospitality. Like Steinem, hooks is a defender of a woman’s right to choose.

Ricken acknowledges that Steinem has spoken at numerous Catholic colleges and universities, seemingly without incident. What he doesn’t acknowledge is that Steinem is surely not the first invited speaker at St. Norbert College who disagrees with the official Catholic teaching on abortion -- or any other church doctrine on sexuality for that matter.

So why single out Steinem? Given the opposition to women’s equality that runs throughout every office of the Vatican, it would seem more likely that St. Norbert is facing backlash not so much because of Steinem’s position on abortion, but because she is the most high-profile representative of women’s equality and the feminist movement in the United States today.

[Jamie L. Manson is NCR books editor. She received her Master of Divinity degree from Yale Divinity School, where she studied Catholic theology and sexual ethics. Her email address is jmanson@ncronline.org.]

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