When I talk with students in my Women as Healers classes about their time in Catholic high school compared to mine forty-five years earlier, we are shocked by how much our experiences diverge. Ironically, it is I rather than they who has the fond memories. In fact, the more I hear their distressing stories of hidebound, doctrinaire priests and nuns, the more I have come to appreciate my own teachers at the Academy of the Holy Angels in northeastern New Jersey, and to marvel at how sophisticated and open-minded they were, in contrast to the religious fundamentalism of many of today’s Catholic school teachers.
My nuns were Sisters of Notre Dame, an order not particularly known for progressive tendencies. Indeed, if the school or the order had had a liberal reputation, my conservative-leaning parents would never have sent me there. But I realize now (much more than I did at the time) that the nuns took a truly catholic (in the best sense of the word) approach to learning. We read Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and even Rolf Hochhuth’s The Deputy (1963). Performances of The Deputy — which portrayed Pope Pius XII as complicitous in the Nazi Holocaust — were being picketed by conservative Catholics, but the play was required reading in my high school English class. Our film study class included Woman in the Dunes, Roshomon, La Dolce Vita, Pather Panchali, and the Soviet classics Mother and Ballad of a Soldier. The religious observances on the first Friday of every month were only sometimes actual Catholic masses. As often as not the service was presided over by clerics of other denominations: Episcopalian and other Protestant ministers, Greek Orthodox priests, Jewish rabbis, Buddhist monks, even on one occasion a Muslim iman.
I attended my all-girls Catholic high school from 1965 to 1969, which was a vibrant time in the history of the Church. My nuns had fully embraced what was often called “the spirit of Vatican II” — the open, tolerant, progressive climate which was encouraged by Pope John XXIII and which continued for several years after his death in 1963. This was a time when many sensitive issues were discussed: female ordination, a possible softening of the Church stance on birth control and even abortion, a “preferential option for the poor” (that is, liberation theology as espoused by the Catholic bishops at the Medellín conference in 1968).
I remember once the father of one of my classmates, a gynecologist, was brought in to speak to the seniors. He told us that while he himself as a good Catholic could not prescribe contraceptives for his patients, he had no objection to referring them to colleagues who he knew would fulfill the women’s requests for birth control. His belief that he should not impose his religious convictions on his patients (and our nuns’ tacit approval of his position) stand in stark contrast to the stance of present-day officials of Wheaton College and other evangelical Protestants and Catholics who protest against the contraceptive provisions of the Affordable Care Act. The recent decision of the US Supreme Court granting Wheaton College the right to refuse even to give a referral to a student desiring contraception caused me to recall this Catholic doctor’s visit to our school and to think nostalgically of a time when religious fundamentalism and extremism were much less widespread and influential in the U.S. than they are now.