- Engendering Faith: American Catholics and Gender History
Victims’ anguished testimonies and a virtual mountain of court documents concerning sexual abuse by priests have revealed in recent years a great deal about the Roman Catholic Church’s inner workings. But at least as clearly as anything else, the exposure of this furtive past has suggested the profound significance of gender within the American Catholic community. As if on cue, several historians have recently made enormous strides to fill out the American Catholic story with substantial new contributions highlighting the significance [End Page 977] of gender. Together, their research demonstrates how accounting for gender’s place in the past can transform accepted accounts in both religious history and, for lack of a better term, secular history. At the same time, they clearly indicate that, despite its inevitable particularities, the American Catholic story can be more fully integrated into the broader American history narrative. Less than a generation ago, as historian Leslie Woodcock Tentler once observed in this journal, Catholics stood “on the margins” of the literature of American history.1 Yet this new wave of research places them clearly within the ebb and flow of American life, even as it reveals the intriguing complexity of Catholics’ engagement with gender.
A brief glance at two noteworthy volumes from the past decade demonstrates both the availability of rich resources and the illumination of new horizons of understanding. Gender Identities in American Catholicism, a collection of 120 primary source documents drawn from the two centuries after 1800, includes an 1863 account of religious sisters ministering as “Angels of Mercy” on a Civil War battlefield, a 1915 admonition on the topic of “sowing wild oats,” a 1977 entry highlighting the “femininity of God,” and a 1982 Ms. magazine interview with Catholic antifeminist Phyllis Schlafly.2 Documents fall into sections titled by subject, such as “Gender Role Models,” “Making a Living: The Gendering of Work,” “Alternate Gender Identities,” and “Strategies of Resistance and Reaction.” As Paula Kane notes in her introduction, the editors intended to “achieve a broader and deeper understanding of how religion structures, maintains, and debates notions of gender” (xxvii), and consequently, the volume includes sources of potential value in the related fields of women’s studies, men’s studies, queer theory, and the history of sexuality. Readers of this volume will encounter a range of gender models and ideologies shaped by multiple variables, including ethnic identity, economic status, and relationship to the broader American culture. Though it may strike some readers as surprising, documents also confirm that Catholics were spread across a broad ideological spectrum. Employing a wide angle of vision and establishing the historical pervasiveness of gender concerns among generations of religious believers, this impressive collection has no peer in the literature on American religion. It suggests, along with the works to be explored below, that scholars of Catholicism have claimed a lead position in the area of American religion and gender studies.
Another work, Leslie Tentler’s 2004 Catholics and Contraception: An American History, has definitively altered how scholars should understand the...