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Faith, feminism fuse at SMC

Justin Tardiff | Friday, November 18, 2005

Editor’s Note: This is the third in a three-part series examining the perception of feminism within the Saint Mary’s community.

Some students at Saint Mary’s College find it difficult to incorporate feminist ideals into their Catholic lifestyles because the two sometimes have different stances on social issues – finding a balance can be tricky, they said.

But many students at the College claim feminism can indeed coexist with a Catholic environment.

One of the conflicts students encounter when questioning the relationship between Catholicism and feminism is the Church’s stance on women’s issues.

“I think it’s difficult for the Saint Mary’s community to categorize itself as a feminist community while also being a Catholic college, as the ideals of both categories, while great in thought, often conflict in practice,” junior Molly McGuire said.

Senior Meghan Daley said because it is a Catholic institution, Saint Mary’s should not encourage feminist values that disregard Catholic teaching.

“I believe that as a Catholic college, Saint Mary’s has a responsibility to foster only those ‘feminist’ ideals that are in keeping with Church teaching,” she said. “Those sectors of the feminist movement which advocate abortion rights and the redefinition of the institution of marriage should not be encouraged at Saint Mary’s.”

Some students on campus, however, said feminist values can be incorporated into Catholic life.

“Feminism is so deeply connected to our mission as a college in terms of empowering women and creating women leaders,” said Astrid Henry, director of the Women’s Studies Program. “I think students can see there is a connection between the two things and they are not in contradiction, even though some people feel like feminism is in contradiction to a Catholic women’s college.”

Director of Spirituality Sister Kathleen Dolphin shares this view.

“If you really explore what Catholic teaching has to say about the dignity of the human person, and what the Catholic Church has had to say about integrating human reason and faith, you’ve got a very strong background to foster the rights of women,” she said.

In her five years at Saint Mary’s, Dolphin said she has noticed a progression toward a better understanding of feminism at the College. This progression is a result of students’ willingness to question and explore the Church’s teaching, she said.

“It’s okay to ask questions because of the Catholic understanding of the use of human reasoning and faith,” she said. “As thinking human beings, we have a moral obligation to ask questions – and ask hard questions.”

Senior Jennifer Robbins, peer minister and Mission Commissioner, said Catholics should question the Church’s teaching about women’s rights.

“As an institution committed to educating Catholic women … we don’t hide from reason, we absolutely seek out challenges to our faith,” Robbins said. “We don’t hide from things we’re afraid might contradict what we already know.”

Director of Campus Ministry Judith Fean said as an institution of higher education, Saint Mary’s is a place for women to be critical and ask questions. The question of balancing feminism and Catholicism is a common one, and Saint Mary’s is a place for students to seek a better understanding of the issue, she said.

“Feminism is about a dialogue, and Saint Mary’s fosters that,” Fean said.

Fean said she supports the College’s allowance for groups like Feminist United, the Straight and Gay Alliance (SAGA) and the Women’s Studies program.

“Groups like SAGA are here to ask questions,” she said. “They wouldn’t be here if there wasn’t a value of why they are here.”

Robbins also supports the allowance of such clubs, and said it is the College’s duty as a Catholic institution to support the open inquiry of its students.

“Good for Saint Mary’s for recognizing the beautiful diversity we have on our campus, and for really wanting to genuinely learn how to overcome what separates us and how to embrace each other,” she said. “That’s the Catholic call.”

Dolphin said once students question how to incorporate feminism into Catholic life, they will find answers to allow them to accommodate both.

Senior Women’s Studies minor Maryann Senesac has found this balance. She said the key in balancing both value systems is to create a definition of feminism that bends to one’s personal and religious beliefs.

“Just like you can be conservative and liberal politically, you can be a liberal or conservative feminist,” she said. “For example, I would never have an abortion but I believe women have the right to choose.”

Dolphin advises students that in order to make educated decisions, they must consider both the Church’s tradition and their experiences as women.

“I always caution my students, don’t just stand out there in the middle ground and be a fence-sitter. Know what you are talking about,” she said.

Dolphin said finding a middle ground between feminism and Catholicism is difficult, but there are plenty of resources on campus that can help students with difficult questions.

“Take advantage of the opportunities at Saint Mary’s,” she said. “Talk to professors, because you’ve got [many] here who are … willing to talk to students about these issues on a one-to-one basis. Now is your chance. You’ve got all these chances to do all this exploring.”

Robbins said use of these resources is a good idea but doubts how often students take advantage of the opportunity.

“Saint Mary’s could be such a powerful place,” she said. “We have all the resources that the Church can give us, and we have all the resources for women. This is the cross-section; this is where we meet. Are we living to the best of our ability as Cath- olic women?”

Looking to the future, Dolphin questions whether Saint Mary’s women will attempt to bridge the gap between feminism and Catholicism. Although she is confident about the recent revival of feminist discussion, she worries about the topic becoming stagnant in the future.

“At Saint Mary’s College, where is our courage, and where is our imagination?” she said. “If it can’t be done at Saint Mary’s, where can it be done?”

Dolphin said Saint Mary’s mix of feminist and Catholic values is a powerful force.

“We are very Catholic and we are educating the next generation of women leaders,” she said. “They are competent, faith-filled, and they are women of integrity – and that is what real feminism is about.”