Feminists, McFarland Square Off

Times Staff Writer

Catholic feminists, aware that Bishop Norman F. McFarland publicly opposed the Equal Rights Amendment, have picketed the bishop’s events in Orange County since he was ordained in 1987.

“In my opinion, there’s no equality for women and not a lot of dialogue in this diocese, and a lot of it goes directly to Norman,” said Claudia Scanlon of Orange, a feminist activist and member of WomenChurch, a group of women meeting unofficially to practice alternative liturgies.

Among their complaints are that he banned altar girls from a Fountain Valley parish without dialogue; that he has not encouraged dialogue with women on the National Conference of Catholic Bishops draft pastoral, which condemned sexism as a sin last spring; and that his article titled “Woman,” published in the May issue of the Diocese of Orange Bulletin, was distant, unrealistic and inflammatory.

“I don’t think women are inferior or should be treated as inferior,” McFarland said. “Women can do anything they want to, include play professional football, God bless them. . . . I want them to know that woman is something special, no matter what she can become.”


But echoing Pope John Paul II’s recent statement on women in the Catholic Church, McFarland said he cannot envision women ever becoming priests.

Those who seek change in the traditions of their church say McFarland’s stance on women’s issues is perhaps their biggest disappointment. His predecessors, Bishop William Johnson and then acting Bishop John T. Steinbock, while not considered liberal, were known to women as supportive listeners.

In the controversial article, McFarland wrote that “to hazard a comment in today’s climate of militant feminism must seem the height of folly.” He went on to assert that the “grandest fact of all about woman” is that “she is a unique fount and nursery of love, the heart of the human family.” He referred to a “particular coterie of feminists” who deny that is what distinguishes women from men.

“By using the adjective militant , he takes an adversary position in regard to sincere Catholic men and women who are feminists,” said Eileen O’Brien Merchant of Laguna Beach, who holds a master’s degree in feminist spirituality from Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles.


“I, myself, would like to say to him, can she be a doctor, a lawyer, a firefighter and still be of a loving disposition?” Merchant said. “And what of men? Is not love the great calling of men as well? What example did Jesus set for males?”

Merchant said that “the point of the letter to women is: Don’t rock the boat.”

McFarland said he favors women’s rights but added: “I find some--and I underline some--feminists turn me off completely. They’re hard, they’re harsh. They’re mad at not being a man. . . . Anything you can do, I can do better. They’re not comfortable with their sexuality.”

His article also referred to the draft bishops’ pastoral, issued in April, without mentioning any upcoming meetings that the bishops’ conference invited bishops to hold as one of the broadest consultations ever organized by the Catholic Church in the United States.

Responses from the nation’s dioceses are due Dec. 1. A final draft of the pastoral will be issued in November, 1989.

In Orange County, the matter was delegated through the hierarchy to the Orange Diocesan Council of Catholic Women. Meetings began in September and have been held so far in about one-third of the parishes, said Harriet Hizon, council president.

Hizon said that McFarland is supportive on the matter of meetings but that he may be unfamiliar with women’s issues in general because the Diocese of Reno-Las Vegas did not have a Council of Catholic Women.

McFarland said all elements of women’s concerns are open to discussion. But dialogue is dialogue, he said. “We’re not going to take votes or anything like that.”