Who are the “Begats”?: Or Women Theologians Shaping Women Theologians
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Who are the “Begats”?
Or Women Theologians Shaping Women Theologians

In 2004, I was invited to give the twentieth Madeleva Lecture at Saint Mary’s College. I chose to speak on “Women Shaping Theology” because, after teaching undergraduates and graduates for almost twenty years (I finished my doctorate in 1984), I began to realize that the students I was then teaching had no idea there was once a time when Catholic women neither taught nor wrote about theology.1 So, I decided I’d like to “tell the story” of how Catholic women became theologians.2 As I mulled it over, I realized that in many ways, the story of how and when Catholic women entered the academic theological world paralleled my own story, so I made it personal and told my own story as well.

My high-school years paralleled the Second Vatican Council (1962–65). I graduated in 1965 from a very theologically progressive Catholic girls’ high school in suburban Chicago staffed by the best and brightest members of the religious order I eventually joined.3 Just to give you an idea: my freshman religion teacher had just received her MA in theology from Marquette University, where she worked with Bernard Cooke, a Jesuit who began the PhD program there that admitted laypersons; during my sophomore year, a Sister John Gregory had just finished her MA in philosophy from Saint Louis University and joined the faculty (after Vatican II she would return to her baptismal name, Sandra Schneiders); in my junior year “Schema 13,” the draft of what would become Gaudium et spes (“The Pastoral Constitution on the [End Page 91] Church in the Modern World”) served as our religion text and we also had a class subscription to a fledgling Catholic newspaper, the National Catholic Reporter, which we read for class on Fridays. In senior year, a German lay theologian, Mr. Breidenbach, was our religion teacher.

During the council, we were encouraged to go downtown to hear some of the European theologians who assisted the bishops at Vatican II and were giving lecture tours in the United States between the council sessions. I went to hear Hans Küng at the old McCormick Place (I admit I was probably more interested in the extra credit we were promised than hearing him). He had a strong, Swiss German accent, and I can only recall the title of his lecture, which was the same as his book that had just been translated into English: The Council: Reform or Reunion?4

I wrote much of my Madeleva Lecture while I was on sabbatical in 2004 at the University of Dayton. It so happened that a colleague of mine from graduate school days at Saint Michael’s in Toronto was teaching there. When I told him about my idea for the lecture, he asked, “Isn’t that kind of self-indulgent?” This comment caused me a fair bit of disquiet and worry. Very conscious of my own social location as a white, North American, vowed woman religious, I had a fair bit of anxiety: who was I to tell the story of “women shaping theology”? Even just forty years after Vatican II, Catholic theology had become quite pluralistic and interdisciplinary and was being approached from multiple contexts. In the end, I did decide to use my own story, though I tried to be clear, that it was just one angle of vision from the Euroamerican, Catholic context.

As I began to think about how to tell the stories of “women shaping theology,” I realized I needed to tell the “backstory” of my own story. I felt some elements had been overlooked in Catholic feminist narratives; namely, the leadership that women religious5 had given to Catholic education, the influence of the Sister Formation Movement, and the founding of Catholic women’s colleges where women ran everything.6 The social movements of the 1960s and 1970s—the civil rights, antiwar, and women’s movements—also interacted with the first heady days after Vatican II. Even the pre–Vatican II “Catholic Action” organizations such as YCS (Young Christian Students), the Sodality (with its “Summer Schools of Catholic Action”), weekend...