Donna Steichen, age 81, is a prominent Catholic author and journalist. Originally from St. Cloud, Minnesota, today she lives in Ojai, California. She married her husband Roy 60 years ago, and the couple has four children as well as 29 grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
In the 1970s, Steichen began working as a Catholic journalist, writing for her diocesan newspaper. She was also active in the pro-life movement, the Catholic League and religious education.
Long an avid reader of Catholic publications, in the 1980s Steichen became increasing concerned about the effect of feminism on American Catholicism. She wrote a number of articles on the topic, and, at the request of Father Joseph Fessio, SJ, founder of Ignatius Press and publisher of CWR, agreed to turn her articles into a book. In 1991, her book Ungodly Rage: The Hidden Face of Catholic Feminism, was published. The book was a surprise hit for a first-time author, selling 50,000 copies and garnering her speaking engagements in North America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and the Philippines.
Donna Steichen spoke to CWR on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of her groundbreaking book.
What is feminism and how does it operate in our society?
Donna Steichen: That’s a good place to start, because if you notice, feminism is rarely defined. In particular, the feminists don’t define it. It is to their advantage not to define it, because most people interpret it as meaning that you’re for women, or that you believe women have a right to be educated or are just as smart as men.
But that’s not what it is about at all. Feminism is about overthrowing the structure of the family and society. It rose out of the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels [authors of The Communist Manifesto]. They saw that the family was at odds with their vision of society. Owning the factories is not enough; you can’t change society unless you get rid of the family. When you attack the family, you attack society itself, including its institutions, authority, and traditions, as well as the Ten Commandments and God. Religious feminists, and even secular feminists, want to overthrow God. The religious feminists have set about replacing the Trinitarian God with a mishmash of New Age spirituality, paganism, psychology, and anything that is not structured, that is not traditional, that is not Christianity.
Our society is in dire straits, and the past 50 years have been a terribly difficult period in history. Feminism has played a leading role in destroying our civilization. It corrupts a woman by creating contempt within her for her natural role. The major secular feminists believe that women should not be allowed to stay home and raise their children. The general tone is that having children and raising them is really a waste of a woman’s talents and education. Feminist philosophy has saturated our society. For example, take the fact that relatively few families have a mother at home raising the children full-time with a father working to support them. Women are expected to be employed outside the home and take care of their children in their spare time. And forget about having a large family. Since women are career-centered, they simply don’t have time to take care of eight or 10 children.
And the few children they do have suffer?
Steichen: Of course, that’s the real tragedy. Go back in history and observe what happened when immigrant groups arrived in America. When they began they were often poor and living in slums. But, with two parents and the mother full-time in the home, the children got an education and assimilated into society. That’s because they had their parents there to direct them.
But in single-parent homes or two-parent homes where the mother is often absent at work, the parents aren’t there to provide direction. So, the kids look elsewhere for the guidance they should be getting at home. This could be an inner-city gang, or a group of friends at the mall. Or, kids are left for hours in front of the television set, absorbing vile forms of entertainment. The TV set should be turned off and the parents ought to interacting with them.
Feminism is bad for women, bad for men, bad for children and bad for the family. It will never cease to be a mystery to me that so many people fall for it. I suppose it does prove what the Catholic Church has always maintained—we’re creatures flawed by Original Sin and prone to sin and foolishness.
But I like to remember that our side wins in the long run. We knew that from the beginning. God has promised he would not abandon us.
And, of course, the feminist movement has long promoted the use of artificial contraception and abortion.
Steichen: Oh, yes. Abortion is the sacrament of the feminist movement. They don’t believe in capital punishment for anyone except unborn babies.
What led you to write Ungodly Rage, and what reaction did you receive?
Steichen: I’ve always read many Catholic and secular publications, and in the 60s and 70s, I couldn’t figure what was going on with many of our nuns and priests, as well as people working in Catholic catechesis. Many of our religious were walking away from their vocations, and heterodox Catholic teachings seemed to be everywhere. I’ve always had an interest in the Church and doctrine, so I began to look into it.
I spent the 1980s going to the religious feminist conferences, usually undercover, and I wrote about my experiences for magazine articles. Father Fessio liked my work, and asked me to write a book. So, I did.
It received a favorable reaction from orthodox Catholics. In fact, neither I nor Ignatius Press thought it would sell so well. It turned out that a lot of people like me were looking for an explanation of what was going on.
Cardinal John O’Connor [the archbishop of New York from 1984-2000] talked about the book from the pulpit in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. That prompted a call to me from a New York Daily News reporter to find out what the book was about. When he found out that I was not a feminist, he lost interest in doing a story.
Although Cardinal O’Connor liked it, a great many bishops did not. The Church bureaucracy as a whole didn’t either. And the feminists hated it with a passion. These were people involved with organizations like Call to Action, the Woman’s Ordination Conference, and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, as well as writers for publications like the National Catholic Reporter.
Do you remember any specific criticisms?
Steichen: Ruth Fitzpatrick, the head of Women’s Ordination Conference for nearly 20 years, wrote in one of their publications, “How dare this woman quote us without our permission?” But I quoted public statements in published works.
Others declared publicly that what I was saying was not true, but nobody ever challenged me personally because the book is documented with over 500 footnotes.
The reality is that women religious—those on the Left, not the orthodox ones—hate the Church. They want to overthrow it. Listen to what they’re saying. They don’t say we’re faithful daughters of the Church, but we’ll be whatever we want to be and don’t you dare criticize us. They may have impressive academic credentials and a long history of service to the Church, but that doesn’t mean they can’t fall away. We’ve seen it happen again and again.
If feminist women religious hate the Church, why don’t they leave?
Steichen: For one reason, they’re much more effective—effectively destructive, effectively subversive—if they don’t leave.
Take the example of Sister Joan Chittister, a regular columnist for the National Catholic Reporter. She’s as much a feminist as anyone. Everything in the world—the temperature, the sunshine, the rain, dinner, the news—everything reminds her that women are persecuted by the Church. The universe is unjust to women. She’s just upset.
But, she remains a nominal Benedictine nun and has created publishing houses and organizations of which she can be the star. She speaks everywhere. She not only criticizes the Church, but declares that she has moved from that old notion of the God of the Scriptures, the Trinitarian God, to this new sense of that God is a unifying spirit, a process God. To her, reality is god and we’re changing it. It’s the ultimate in anthropomorphism: we make god.
What do you think of the recent apostolic visitation of women’s religious communities in the United States?
Steichen: It is 40 years late. Honestly, I don’t know why they waited so long to do it, except that the Church does move slowly. It provides us with an interesting example of how the Left, the modernists, the rebels in the Church, are a dog and pony show.
Investigating what these people are up to is perfectly valid. But the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, Call to Action, the National Catholic Reporter, and the stars of the feminist movement like Sister Sandra Schneiders [of the Catholic Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, California] are echoing each other in saying what an outrage it is that anyone would dare to criticize them or investigate them.
The secular press picked up the controversy, and it appeared that many people were upset about the visitation. But I don’t know of anyone who was upset about it other than these groups on the Left. And their numbers are dwindling. They’re aging and dying out. Soon the feminists are going to be the very thing they don’t want to be, a footnote in history.
The problem will take care of itself in 20 years?
Steichen: Yes, it will. I believe it. But, meanwhile, the damage they’ve done is incalculable. As a mother, a grandmother, and a great-grandmother, I can’t stop feeling anguished for all the souls that have been lost because they were never taught or supported in the true faith. I’m not their judge, God is. And I certainly hope everyone goes to heaven. But Catholicism has been under attack and the faith has been destroyed in many places.
Central Minnesota, for example, where I grew up, used to be very Catholic. It’s not any longer. The city where I used to live only has three pastors, each of whom now serves three parishes. We’ve lost so many vocations. Many religious communities are not getting any new members. And why would they? Who is going to join a movement of people who hate what they profess to believe?
Not all the nuns in these communities accepted feminism. What happened to these faithful nuns?
Steichen: I asked a good nun in Minnesota this question. She said they were trained to obey their superiors. Obedience is a virtue in religious life. Radicals would take over positions of authority in communities, by cheating if necessary. Then they would issue edicts their communities were expected to obey.
Many otherwise faithful nuns were the victims of organized brainwashing, too, which I discuss in Ungodly Rage.
I’m sure you’re excited to see women joining traditional women’s religious orders.
Steichen: Absolutely. There are many wonderful communities like the Nashville Dominicans, the Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist and the Alhambra Carmelites that are flooded with candidates. Young women are flocking to them.
You also have a background in Catholic education, and you’ve expressed concern about the decline of Catholic education in the United States.
Steichen: During World War II, Msgr. Ronald Knox, the famous British cleric, said young American Catholics were the best instructed Catholics he had ever encountered. But today, nobody knows anything. We see evidence of this all the time.
The former House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, is a prime example. She was educated by the School Sisters of Notre Dame in Baltimore and graduated from Trinity College in Washington, DC. She declares she is a believing Catholic, but says erroneous things about the faith all the time. She may really believe what she is saying for all I know, but she is wrong. She thinks her opinions are as good as the pope’s, or as God’s, for that matter.
We need a completely new catechesis, and I’m happy to see that Pope Benedict thinks so, too. He recently established a new Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization. Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York is a member, and so is Australian Cardinal George Pell of Sydney. It looks promising.
Here in the United States, some fine new centers of catechesis have been established, like Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. I’m happy to see that many bishops are hiring Steubenville graduates to be their directors of religious education. The Augustine Institute in Denver is doing wonderful work, too. There are many young people who want to know the faith, and many who want to serve as catechists.
Who are some of the priests and religious you admire for remaining faithful over the last few generations, when others did not?
Steichen: I think when people look back on our troubled times, they’ll see that there have been some really extraordinary people in the Church. Father John Hardon, SJ was a wonderful man. He was soft-spoken and gentle, but taught the truth totally and faithfully as the Church teaches it. The fact that many of his colleagues didn’t care for him never made a bit of difference.
Father Paul Marx, founder of Human Life International, was an extraordinary man. He spoke the truth, and was a brilliant organizer and strategist. He knew how movements work and how to organize them. He spread the pro-life message throughout the world.
Mother Angelica is a marvel. She is not an academic, but a genuine, believing Catholic. She was able to accomplish what the bishops could not. They tried to establish their inoffensive little television network and could never get it off the ground. With her sisters she launched EWTN, which has been a huge success.
I also admire Mother Assumpta Long, OP, foundress of the Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist; Mother Teresa, foundress of the Missionaries of Charity; Sister Jeanne Therese Condon, OSB, foundress of Minnesota’s LifeCare Centers, a chain of storefront pregnancy clinics; and Sister Michaela Fuchs, OSB, a French teacher from Cathedral High School in St. Cloud, Minnesota. Sister Michaela never gave up her habit, or her orthodoxy, but simply lived all her life as the faithful, Catholic nun she was when she began.