In the church, on their own terms


As a child, Janet Houlihan Kain never envied her altar-boy brothers. She accepted what she learned about the role of women as wives and mothers while attending nearly two decades of Catholic school. When it came time to have children of her own - seven of them - she didn't consider artificial birth control and never breathed a word about it to her daughters as they were growing up.

Now, though, when she recites the Lord's Prayer with her grandchildren, the 77-year-old Crofton resident alters the ancient litany: Our Holy Mother, who art in heaven,

Hallowed be thy name.

The retired kindergarten teacher started praying to a female God in the mid-1990s, part of her attempt to bridge the rift between the male-governed church and her identity as a modern American woman.

"I don't question the basic truths of my faith," said Houlihan Kain, who attends Mass every Sunday at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Crofton. "I question the approach. I question strongly the fact that a woman's voice is not heard the way it should be heard." Throughout the 26-year reign of Pope John Paul II, Catholic women across the country tried to reconcile the Vatican's vision of female piety with their own sense of spiritual potential, as well as with the daily realities of an increasingly egalitarian, and sexually permissive, American culture.

Their responses to the church's conservative views ranged from absolute obedience to overt protest, but, as the church prepares to name a new pope, many Catholic women say they are at peace with a mass religion they have learned to practice as individuals.

The past few decades have left many Catholic women feeling conflicted about their place in the church. Pope John Paul came to Rome after the sweeping reforms of the second Vatican Council, which allowed women on the altar for the first time, amid the feminist movement in America, the fruits of which some women were beginning to take for granted.

He took a hard line against abortion, contraception and divorce, although a large percentage of Catholic women clearly accepts those practices. They have abortions at the same or slightly higher rates than women of other faiths, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, which tracks reproductive statistics.

Nearly 90 percent say they have used some form of birth control, and almost half think divorce laws should stay the same or grow more lenient.

In recent years, the church has closed down discussions of the ordination of women, as the number of men interested in joining the priesthood continues to dwindle.

Still, some women considered Pope John Paul their champion. Helen Alvare, a law professor at Catholic University who has written extensively on the pope's views of women's role, said he advocated for women's education and their role in the workplace.

The pope's protective attitude toward women, she said, was a sign of respect.

"I think he was a true feminist," she said.

Frances Kissling, head of Catholics for a Free Choice, a reproductive rights group, sees "a disconnect between what Catholic officials, including the pope, teach about women's lives and what women do."

Some women feel daily the difference between the power they have in their professional lives and the seemingly limited authority the church grants them, a disenfranchisement apparent in the way the new pope will be selected, by an all-male conclave.

"Just realize that there is not one woman out of a billion who has any say in what comes next," said Mary Hunt, a Catholic Silver Spring resident who co-directs the Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual. "There will be no women in that conclave except the ones who serve coffee and then have to get out."

Diane Caplin, a Catholic who is co-director of Baltimore's Mount Saint Agnes Theological Center for Women, said, "There is no woman in the Roman Catholic Church who has any power over any ordained man. They could have a church all by themselves. They only need women to give birth to the next generation."

Yet perhaps never in its history has the Catholic church in America leaned so heavily on its women. Not only do women attend Mass more regularly - 32 percent of Catholic women go once a week or more, compared with 22 percent of men - but they also are shouldering more organizational roles. Women make up about 80 percent of the people employed by the church in lay jobs, according to Janet E. Smith, an ethics professor at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.

And - in part because of the priest shortage - women's spiritual influence is growing, too. More women than men are enrolled in graduate Catholic theology programs, Alvare said. In the Baltimore archdiocese alone, five churches are now run by women, who as pastoral life directors oversee parish life without administering the sacraments.

For many of the 36 million or so Catholic women in America today, to practice religion is to meet the church on their own personal terms, through compliance, defiance or compromise. Here is how seven women consider their faith:

Dr. Sharon McCormack

A 45-year-old internist, hematologist and oncologist in private practice in Catonsville, McCormack attends St. Paul's Church in Ellicott City, where she lives.

"Our whole practice revolves around the whole aspect of life. We don't believe in or refer for abortion, and if the situation comes up where a young girl is pregnant, we'll usually suggest different centers that counsel the person on more than just abortion.

I don't prescribe birth control. The whole idea behind why it was professed as wrong in the original [papal] letters was that the sexual act is both a love-giving and life-giving act, and if you separate one from the other, if you pull back on one, it's not really the complete act. It lessens what it's really supposed to be. ...

That's what makes the Catholic Church what it is - the belief that the pope is infallible in matters of faith and morals. You feel the pope is divinely inspired to speak on those issues and kind of know something that maybe we don't. That's one thing John Paul did - stand up against what may be the popular opinion and courageously speak out.

I can see the aspect of women wanting to fully participate in the mystery of Mass, the changing of the Eucharist. Ultimately they may end up being [ordained]. But you look for the divine inspiration from the pope to speak on that issue.

I don't believe that the church knows everything about science. So, I wouldn't necessarily look to them as my guidance in those aspects. Now where science and morals meet, I think it becomes trickier."

Willa Bickham

The 62-year-old former nun is co-founder of Viva House, a soup kitchen and support center for the poor and homeless in West Baltimore, where she lives with her husband. She has one daughter and three grandchildren, and does not belong to a parish.

"I have great respect for the work of the pope, but the Vatican politics is abhorrent to me, just like American politics is abhorrent. The people that I work with here in the soup kitchen - the poor, the homeless, the evicted families we see - we do what we do regardless of what the church tells us to do.

Women have long practiced birth control and had no trouble going to communion. I think that the church is concentrated so much on sex, abortion, birth control, that it's time to get away from that and get to the issues that the pope has been talking about - the war in Iraq, executions, far more serious problems.

For six years we stood every Monday in front of the Supermax prison - death row - holding a vigil against executions in the state of Maryland, and no cardinal or bishop came to join us. Yet that's very much a part of the Catholic Church teaching and John Paul II was very clear on this.

His teachings have been excellent, and I respect him as a person.

It's very difficult for me to see over and over on the television that we have these 117 cardinals who will vote for a pope, and the only stipulation is that it has to be an unmarried man. Well, what are we? Chopped liver?

Why belong? Because the church that I'm part of is the church of the people, and part of the Catholic theology is the sensus fidelium, the sense of the people.

The primacy of conscience has always been the essence of the Catholic Church. We follow our conscience about abortion and birth control because of the teachings of the church. That's a much better, much healthier theology than having an authoritarian teaching, an infallible pope."

Deanna Jenkins

The Rosedale resident, 40, is a parishioner at St. Francis Xavier Church in East Baltimore and works in technical support at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. She and her husband, a city police officer, have two children, Craig, 19, and Dominique, 11.

"I was raised Catholic, but my mom and dad split up when I was 11, and that's when we stopped coming to church because she had to work on Sundays. My husband was shot in '93, and that's when we came back. My son was in Catholic school, and he asked why we didn't go to church.

I felt like God was using my son as a vessel to bring me back to the church. When I came here, I felt at home.

I guess ordination of women is something I never really thought about. But now my daughter's an altar server, and other young ladies do that too. She's very involved and wants to do everything, and I wouldn't want to deny anything to her. If they were going to ordain women, I would be in support of that.

I am trying to get my daughter to believe in abstinence before marriage. If the Vatican approved birth control, I think that's an OK to go and have sex, which I don't agree with.

The women run this church. I think the women in this church are a very strong force to get things done. And I really think young women are more involved here [than young men].

First I was coming here to get something. I was coming here expecting something to help me feel better about myself. But I realized it's not what I come to get, but what I come to give."

Mary Ruppert

A 21-year-old senior at Loyola College in Baltimore who grew up in Kensington.

"It doesn't make any sense to say there shouldn't be any women in the priesthood. There's not a woman to be found who is going to help choose the next pope, and I think there's something wrong with that. Maybe it's because I'm an American and have this sense of democracy very much ingrained in me.

My personal stance is that birth control is abortifacient. Anything that could cause the abortion of an embryo, like the morning-after pill, is wrong. I am in the middle of the process of discerning what I feel about things like condoms. At a very fundamental level, in my gut, I feel like there's something wrong there. This is why: Procreation is tied to sex. And you can't separate the two.

I was in Rome two years ago, and I had the luck to be in a papal audience. It was this big hall, and there were lots of people there, but there was something that really drew me to him [Pope John Paul].

I think he had some really beautiful documents he put out about family and sex and social justice. I think he had wonderful social teachings, just really, really great, and I admire the work he did in negotiating peace and in bringing about the fall of communism.

But on women's issues - he said we're not going to talk about women priests. And I don't appreciate that.

I'm not Catholic to exert my equality. I'm Catholic because I believe what Jesus has to say, and I believe what the Church has to say about what Jesus has to say.

"The most important thing, I think, for the next pope, is to be a voice for the poor and the vulnerable, to kind of shake people up, to help them figure out ways to apply Christianity to their everyday lives."

Mary Ann Leard

A 61-year-old accountant who lives in Northeast Baltimore and attends the Church of the Annunciation in Rosedale. She has one son and recently became a grandmother. She and her husband divorced in 1986, and she became president of the Catholic Single Again Council, a support group affiliated with the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

"I was a cradle Catholic, meaning our family went to Mass every weekend. I had three siblings, and at 7:15 we said the rosary every evening. I was really tuned into the Catholic religion, and I still am.

I came to realize a lot of the church's laws are man-made. When my divorce happened, I was torn. I would have stayed married because that's what I thought the church wanted. But you can't hog-tie your spouse to stay and, when he doesn't, say that's a sin on me. Part of my devastation was not feeling accepted by the church.

I felt I was becoming a stepchild. I somehow equated a divorced Catholic with being a failure. That went on for years until I met religious people who assured me I am still one of God's children. I am the church. I do have a right to say we're part of the church.

I don't think women should be priests so much as they should have a larger role in the church. There's a sensitivity women bring - it's just part of their nature - but by not having them involved as much as they should be, the church is missing out.

I really think the church has to look seriously at separated and divorced Catholics. When I go to church on Sunday, we have the bus trips for the elderly, activities for families with their 2.1 kids and youth activities. What about me? Where do I fit in to this church?"

Sister Mary Leonard

The 76-year-old Dominican nun has been teaching anatomy in Catholic schools for 56 years, currently at the all-girls Mount de Sales Academy in Catonsville.

"I always start off my classes by telling the girls, "Most teachers think what they teach is the most important thing, but I'm teaching you about the thing you love most in the world" - and their eyes get big as saucers - "I am teaching you about your body, what to do with it, and how to control it. Your body is a gift from God.

There's a sanctity of the body, and you don't treat it like a toy.

When a female dog or cat is in heat and the male walks by, they have a relationship. You don't have a relationship with every Tom, Dick and Harry who walks by. You slap the daylights out of him.

Christ was here on earth, and he never made a woman a priest. Women have a different role. Because men can't bear children, it's up to the women.

What if Mary had said, 'No thanks, I don't want this'? But she said, 'Behold, the handmaid of the Lord, be it done unto me according to your word.'

When the pope's encyclical came out, and he said how much good women do for the church, no one had ever said that, really.

You felt there was a real appreciation for the work of the sisters, particularly what they did in the field of education and in the hospitals. When the pope came to this country when they had the meeting of the Major Superiors of Women Religious, a Sister of Mercy got up on the stage and she as good as told him he was wrong not to ordain women.

Well, if you think that, you don't blurt it out in public. I could have crawled under a chair that she could say that.

He just sat there. He didn't raise his head. I would have thrown my shoe."

Mirian Zelaya

The 32-year-old Honduran native moved to Baltimore in 2002. She works in an Essex fish-processing plant. She and her husband have seven children, five of whom live with her mother in Honduras. She attends St. Michael's the Archangel on Wolfe Street every Sunday and sometimes gets food from the pantry there.

"When the pope came to Honduras, we walked two days and two nights to get to the place where he was. I was smiling so much. I was 7.

Children are a blessing from God, and I've never used any kind of birth control. I don't know much about it. Even though we're not well-off, I want a big family, just like my mother, who had 12.

Abortion, it's against God. If we have a life inside of us, we have to give it a chance, too.

The Bible tells us that the man is the head of the household and our role as women is to raise children, teach the children and do what little we can.

I have doubted God when my children are sick. One of my children lost the ability to walk, and I asked myself, 'Where is God now?'

It was a difficult time in my life. I was weak. But after a year, he got better. I think it was the work of God. I'm not taking communion right now. I feel so guilty being so far from my children that I don't take it.

Right now it's really hard. I like to read the Bible. It makes my mind feel better. I don't understand all the reforms that American women want. Some of them are OK, but not abortion.

It might be nice to have a female priest to go to so you could have someone to confide in. Like if something terrible happened to you and you can't tell a man. It crossed my mind to have an abortion once, but I didn't do it. It would have been nice to have a female priest to talk to."

Sun staff writer Rob Hiaasen contributed to this article.

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