The Introduction to "Prodigal Daughters: Catholic Women Come Home to the Church" | Donna Steichen | Ignatius InsightThe Introduction to Prodigal Daughters: Catholic Women Come Home to the Church | Donna Steichen

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From unrequited love, it is said, we learn how God must feel. The truth in that remark is that God is not abstract love, but a Lover, whose love is astonishingly singular; He offers it not only corporately, to His people, but individually, to each heart, as ardently as if He had never created another in the entire universe to love. All the stories in this book are recollections of His courtship.

In times when the Catholic world is healthy, God woos most of us through the institutional channels of family, Church and culture. But even today, when the family is fractured and the Church in turmoil, when little survives of traditional Catholic culture and the object of His love is apt to spurn Him for worldly pleasures, still His quest continues, until either He wins the heart of His beloved or death intervenes. When His courtship is successful and His love returned, He forgives past neglect and pours out His grace unstintingly; repentant sinners are as likely as anyone else to become saints. Blessed Josemaria Escriva, founder of Opus Dei, urging His followers to welcome a penitent, once advised "Remember that he may yet become an Augustine, while you remain mere mediocrities."

The Second Person of the Triune God demonstrated the depth of His love for us when He became incarnate as the man Jesus. The Church's Morning Prayer for Christmas Day says of His origin: "Your eternal Word leaped down from heaven in the silent watches of the night." [1] Almighty though He was, He did not come as an imperious king, or as some kind of angelic sorcerer, to stun the world with His power. Instead, He came as an ordinary mortal, subject to the pains and risks of the human condition. Surrendering all majesty and sovereignty, He entrusted His vulnerable infant body to human compassion, appealing for love first with His helplessness.

It was not only to teach us by example how to live that Jesus became man. He came as the Messiah, the long-promised Savior, to suffer and die in order that the scales of ontological order could perfectly balance mercy and justice in judging men. No merely human person could reconcile God's justice with His mercy, only Christ the Son, because He both embraces and surpasses all mankind. [2]

Some people are troubled to learn that God's perfection demands justice. They want to enjoy His mercy while denying His justice, because they think justice is cruel. But in fact, as Caryll Houselander wrote, justice is compassion:
... justice is a supreme example of His love ... Justice is the defense of the defenseless. It protects the weak, and restores to little ones those things of which they have been robbed by force. [3]
In so giving His life, Jesus revealed what kind of being God is: a Creator of perfect compassion, whose perfection requires justice but who so loves the persons He made that He sent His only Son to ransom them from the insuperable penalties due in justice for their sins. And He offers us this salvation by inviting each unique soul, individually, to live with Him forever in Heaven.

Christ's Resurrection is both a sign of fulfillment and a promise that even the repentant may attain it, a sign that His love has brought humanity into God's glory, [4] and a promise that all who live in faithfulness to His covenant can one day share in that glory. [5]

Jesus describes the purpose of His life in three related parables about the relationship between God and sinners. In the first, He compares God to a devoted shepherd who leaves the main body of His flock to search out a single lost sheep. In the second, He compares Him to a tenacious housewife who stops all other activities to search for one lost coin. Finally, in the third, He compares Him to a desolate father who watches without ceasing for the return of a wastrel son. [6]

This story of the Prodigal Son is the most fully developed of the parables. In it, he incorporates three familiar models of human behavior: the needy remorse of the bankrupt spendthrift, the jealous, unforgiving rectitude of the elder brother, and the endlessly faithful love of the father, solicitous not for himself but for his beloved lost child. Despite the title, the central character in the story is neither the prodigal son nor his sanctimonious brother, but the father with God's heart, who watches and yearns for the absent sinner with selfless love. When the son, hungry and degraded, turns homeward at last, his father rejoices without recrimination.

So poignantly does Jesus portray him that this father is universally recognized as an icon of God's tenderness toward the sinner. Even people whose perspective is otherwise entirely secular respond to the theme of pure mercy and forgiveness in this parable. If we live our faith well, we hope eventually to come to reflect the Father. In the meantime, whether sons or daughters, most of us can see ourselves in one or another of the characters from this parable at different times in our lives.

When we hear about prodigal sinners, however, we ordinarily expect them to be sons, like the figure in the parable. Throughout history, human societies have expected daughters to be more pious than sons, more constant in fulfilling the duties of their faith. Four hundred fifty years before the daughters of Jerusalem wept and prayed along the way of the Cross, Sophocles' Antigone witnesssed to the same expectation among pagan Greeks. Around the world and down the centuries, women have filled most of the pews at pre-dawn Masses, at Vespers, at Compline, at Rosaries and novenas.

During the past three decades, however, it became impossible to take feminine fidelity for granted. The 1960s were years of world-wide cultural revolution, and women, culture-bearers to the family, were significant both as instigators and as targets. In China, Mao's Red Guard tried to crush all traces of tradition and redefine female roles along communist party lines. Among the young in the United States, anti-war activism fused with sexual permissiveness and drug experimentation in an antinomian "peace movement" that was often contradictorily violent. Those upheavals in society, followed by the ascent of feminism and postconciliar disorders in the Church, combined to draw women into rebellion as never before in history.

Mutiny has raged like a typhoon through American Catholicism since the mid-1960s, as theological dissenters have tried to tear down the traditional, hierarchical Church and install in her place a bureaucracy shaped and dominated by the spirit of the age. The rebellion began in Rome, during the Second Vatican Council, when manipulative clerical change agents, their theology rooted in the nineteenth century Modernist heresy, put political "spin-doctoring" to ecclesiastical use. Citing ambiguous phrases from conciliar documents, they easily persuaded like-minded reporters that the Council Fathers were replacing the Church's ancient teachings with a sensational and permissive, "new theology."

Exposure to this procedure radicalized observers from the relatively unsophisticated United States, especially when they saw the spinners' spurious opinions embraced by the world's media as "the Spirit of Vatican II". As president of the Congregation of Major Superiors of Women (soon to evolve into the Leadership Conference of Women Religious), Sr. Mary Luke Tobin, SL, audited the council's final session. On returning to North America, she was one of the enthusiasts of change who helped weave that "new theology" into a deliberate rebellion against traditional Catholicism. In 1987, Sr. Tobin reminded an audience of Women-Church extremists how important strategic language had been to the campaign for change.

"'The Church Is Changing!' Wow, did we use that! " Sr Tobin chuckled. "People didn't know how to respond! They didn't ask why it was changing, or who was changing it. So we ran with the ball while we had it. You run with the ball while you have it, too, around the end or straight down the middle." [7]

Sr Tobin and other ideologues of change, in collaboration with avant-garde "feminist theologians" and strategists like Rosemary Radford Ruether, Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Sr. Theresa Kane, R.S.M., Sr Marjorie Tuite, OP, Mary Jo Weaver and Sr Joan Chittister, OSB, targeted women in a public relation campaign designed to foment rebellion against Church authority.

Among those swept off their feet by its wake were most of the women whose histories are included here. Propaganda slogans--such as "The People are the Church", "If It Feels Good, Do It", "A Woman's Right to Choose", and "It's All Relative"--moved some Catholic lay women to enlist in the mutiny because it seemed to promise liberation, autonomy, and empowerment.

One of the writers in this book, Constance Buck, tells of becoming an early member of the National Organization for Women, a thoroughly secular feminist, who for years looked to her consciousness-raising group as a substitute spiritual director. Juli Loesch Wiley describes how she lost her faith to the anti-war movement and found it again, ironically, in a religious community that was deteriorating into religious feminism.

Most of the other writers were affected by the prevailing climate of rebellion as well, though overt feminism was seldom the principal cause of their defections. Instead, the movement of these women away from the Church most often began in unexamined conformity to society's attitudes. For example, accepting her peers' opinion that relativism is the only absolute truth, Rosemary Hugo Fielding drifted across the globe with the currents of transient spiritual fashion. Referred by her insurance company to a center for "pain control" training, Moira Noonan became an adept in the occult arts of gnostic New Age spiritualism. Kathleen Howley scorned religion as a crutch, until she recognized that she herself was depending on a chemical crutch to "feel good". An unexpectedly large percentage were made religious refugees by their parents' loss of certitude, including Julie Baker Maguire, Maureen Cassidy Quackenbush and Deborah Beauman Harvey.

Liturgical change is a common ingredient in the accounts of apostasy. Contraception is another. One writer, Marcella Trujillo Melendez, found her immature faith inadequate to sustain her through her mother's early death and its tragic aftermath. Concluding that the God who allowed such suffering must be cruel, she shut Him out of her life for years. And as Leila Habra Miller indignantly reports, simple ignorance of Church doctrine has been a major contributing factor in the phenomenon of defection. Like the largest part of her generation, she was a victim of purportedly Catholic institutions that had shifted aim without notice.

Few of these writers recognized, at first, the revolutionary agenda and manipulative strategy of the mutineers. Like most women of the time, Zoe Romanowsky and Allyson Smith were unaware that what was underway was a culture war; they thought their lives were unfolding naturally. But all of them were wounded, and for various reasons, at various times, all stopped practicing the Catholic faith.

Their stories make it plain that when they left the barque of Peter, the authors were uprooted, scattered, disoriented. Most wandered into a desert, to vanish into the box canyons of social modernism or the alkali-flats of heterodox spirituality. A few, like Mary Epcke Kaiser, retreated to enclaves of the religious right; many allied themselves with the Pelagian idealism of the left. Debby Beauman Harvey and Diane Yelenosky Spinelli joined a flood of Catholics seeking reassurance in Christianity without the sacraments. Others, like Zoe Romanowsky, looked for ultimate meaning in nature, as Mary Partridge Pease did in the arts, Moira Noonan in New Age occultism, and Constance Buck in academic and professional achievement. But wherever they went, whether they wore laurels or scarlet letters, their Father never stopped seeking them.

Within their hearts, He continued to whisper and tug, and so they remained unsatisfied. Some of the narrators are among countless fortunate Catholics who recovered their bearings when they heard the prophets God has sent to the present age. A surprising number of the writers report that God reached out to them in extraordinary spiritual experiences. Others were led by His grace to the intellectual light that allowed them to recognize changeless truth.

All of these writers heard God murmur in the hollow of their hearts where He had once lived, and so they continued to hunger for almost forgotten meaning. He followed them, setting traps, catching their attention with whispers and echoes of memory, with sudden, powerful, waves of longing, with prophetic voices, until at last He caught them in snares of grace. Now, they are all at home again in the Catholic Church, grateful witnesses to His mercy, eager to tell about their encounter with the love that raised them back to life.

These women are representative of a vital movement in the Catholic Church today, a current running counter to the flood of contemporary corruption. A vigorous and growing stream of humble believers is seeking to join the Body of Christ in its fullness, despite shocking scandals, casual betrayals, and self-serving deceptions committed by some who should have been her heralds. Many prodigals are coming home, so many that they have been tagged with a categorical label, as "reverts."

So unexpected is this phenomenon that it makes God's initiative in their return indisputably evident. He appears to be filling up His wedding banquet with humble sinners who admit their sinfulness and praise the riches of his merciful love. Now, as mothers or in other apostolic work, they are engaged in restoring the Church from her foundations.

The repatriation of these prodigal daughters is a bitter disappointment to the graying insurgents. Their hope for an ecclesial coup d'etat has hinged on selling a new feminist religious paradigm to Catholic women. Over and over, they insist they have done so, though anyone attending weekday Masses, from 1965 up to this morning, knows that women still predominate among the worshippers.

"Women are leaving the Catholic church in droves," the rebels declare, averting their gaze from the reverts, and pointing instead to a recent Lilly Endowment study that claims young Catholics are not returning to traditional Catholicism in large numbers. Given the state of society and the prevalence of doctrinal illiteracy, we should not be surprised if "reverts" do not yet constitute a majority of the younger generation. Yet the writers in this book, and others like them, constitute a vital remnant, a yeast in the measure of flour that can eventually leaven the whole of society.

Here are their stories.

ENDNOTES:

[1] From Wis 18:14: "For while gentle silence enveloped all things, and the night in its swift course was not half gone, thy all-powerful word leaped from heaven, from the royal throne" (RSV).

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), 616.

[3] Caryll Houselander, Wood of the Cradle, Wood of the Cross (Sophia Institute Press, 1966), 123.

[4] CCC, 656.

[5] CCC, 655, 658.

[6] Lk 15.

[7] Donna Steichen, Ungodly Rage: The Hidden Face of Catholic Feminism (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 1991) 174.

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Warning: This Is a Dangerous Book | Lorraine V. Murray | Introduction to Confessions of an Ex-Feminist
From Catholicism to Radical Feminism and Back | An Interview with Lorraine V. Murray
Father, Son, and Spirit: So What's In A Name? | Deborah Belonick
A Religion the New York Times Can Love | Donna Steichen
Why God is Father and Not Mother | Mark Brumley



Donna Steichen, a wife and mother, is a Catholic journalist and teacher who has long been a leader in Catholic, pro-life, community and education organizations. Her numerous articles have appeared in many Catholic and secular publications. She is the author of Ungodly Rage: The Hidden Face of Catholic Feminism (Ignatius Press, 1991), and numerous articles. She lives in Ojai, California.



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