On a fall New England morning in 1971, Mary Daly became the first woman to preach at Harvard Memorial Church. Daly stood at the pulpit and launched a scathing critique at Christianity for its complicity in the subordination of women. In the sermon, she condemned the Roman Catholic Church for supporting a “world-wide phenomenon of sexual caste,” and she criticized Christians for legitimating and reinforcing this oppression by virtue of their affiliation with the institutional church.
At the end of her sermon, aptly titled “The Death of God the Father,” Daly implored the congregation – women in particular – to acknowledge that they “cannot really belong to institutional religion” for “[t]he crushing weight of this tradition, of this power structure, tells us that we do not even exist.”
With that, she urged her “sisters and other esteemed members of the congregation” to “leave behind centuries of silence and darkness,” join her in a mass “exodus from centuries of darkness,” and remove themselves from all patriarchal religion. Daly stepped down from the pulpit and exited the church through the center aisle with half of the women in the congregation, and some men, following behind her.
In addition to her seminal works The Church and the Second Sex and Beyond God the Father, Mary Daly is perhaps most well-known for this sermon. In it, the woman often considered to be first Catholic feminist theologian left the institutional Roman Catholic Church. And she did so in a blaze of glory: a dramatic moment infused with fury and passion.
This sermon came to represent so much more than Daly’s personal and intellectual journey with Catholicism; it was a direct confrontation with the insidiousness of patriarchal domination. Importantly, it was the first time Daly articulated her haunting proposition that the Catholic Church (the magisterium and the hierarchy) intentionally edges certain people to the margins so that there will be no room left for them in the Church. Within the Catholic Church, Daly concluded, the task of inclusion is futile when oppression is deliberate.
What led Daly to formally stop affiliating with the Catholic Church has remained largely opaque. In her later writings, Daly casually remarks that leaving the Catholic Church was simply the next logical step in her intellectual and personal journey. It was a sort of graduation: she had taken the knowledge she needed, and there was no more room left for her growth and development.
Yet, in her autobiography, Daly writes that the years leading up to the infamous “walkout of patriarchal religion” were filled with “drastic changes,” and were a “trying time of transition” (101). Despite these admissions, Daly never reflected at length about her process of leaving the Roman Catholic Church – a decision which was likely painful for this person who had long hoped to bring about changes in the Church.
Daly’s dedication to reforming the Catholic Church often gets overshadowed by her later conviction that institutional Christianity is irredeemably patriarchal. In other words, Daly has become well known for setting fire to patriarchal institutions but is less known for her vision of hope amidst the wreckage and ashes.
Daly’s hope was evident early in her career as a doctoral student at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. During this time, while studying under the tutelage of Dominican Friars, Daly fell in love with the thought of Thomas Aquinas. In her autobiography, Daly wrote that she “thrived on” and “soared with” the “arduousness of the intellectual life of a Thomist scholar” (60).
During this time, Daly became convinced that Thomas’ theology was far more dynamic than what had been evinced in Thomistic scholarship of the day. For Daly, Thomas was not merely a theological relic of the past. She felt that his work could inform a way of doing theology that ushered individuals deeper into the mystery of the Divine. If Thomas’ theology could be unshackled from its usage in patriarchal theology, it could become a gateway to a transformed church.
While her love for Thomas Aquinas was taking flight during her time as a doctoral student, Daly traveled to Rome to conduct her own “personal investigation of the Second Vatican Council” (78). She somehow acquired a journalist’s press pass and snuck into a session just a few months before the Council concluded. Daly had come to Rome with an impassioned belief in the possibility of change. However, bearing witness to the rampant misogyny at the global, institutional level of the church’s hierarchy made the knowledge of sexism an ever more deeply embodied reality.
The memory of the Council, she reflected nearly a decade later, “burned its way deep into her consciousness”:
The contrast between the arrogant bearing and colorful attire of the “princes of the church” and the humble, self-deprecating manner and somber clothing of the very few women was appalling. Watching the veiled nuns shuffle to the altar rail to receive Holy Communion from the hands of a priest was like observing a string of lowly ants at some bizarre picnic.The Church and the Second Sex, 10.
Daly came to Rome with hope in renewal and transformation but was struck by the complacency of a patriarchal church.
Still, bearing witness to the sexism of the Council infused Daly’s early commitment to bringing about change in the church with more vigor and vitality. In the mid-late 1960s, Daly started to center her intellectual quest on the practice of delving back into history to “decode . . . theological and philosophical texts” and “expose their hidden messages” (69).
Daly began to use her theological training in order to “go to the heart of the problem, to make connections logically, to trust [her] own intuitions while demonstrating their implications rigorously, and to articulate [her] arguments in a way that . . . [sought] the truth” (75). “To put all of this in a somewhat oversimplified way,” Daly writes, “I had to learn the rules extremely well in order to break them with precision” (75).
In Daly’s methodology, she writes that Thomas Aquinas became her “Labrys.” In Daly’s thought, this double-sided axe is a metaphor for a woman’s ability to detect the insidious evil of the patriarchy. She writes, “My training as a Thomist theologian and philosopher became my Labrys, enabling me to cut through man-made delusions to the core of the problems.” It may seem paradoxical, she continues, “that I went to learn from the medieval masters and their disciples and later came to the point of Realizing the necessity for overthrowing [patriarchy]” (75).
Daly insists her training as a Thomistic theologian became essential to the path that she went on to take. Yet, she continues, “It is important to stress that this study of medieval theology and philosophy was by no means the acquiring of a mere instrument of destruction. For me it has been a way of positively reclaiming what was deep and valuable in the tradition” (xxvi).
Even though Daly “graduated” from the Roman Catholic Church, her commitment to Thomas and to “reclaiming what was deep and valuable in the tradition” remained. For example, when writing her autobiography, years after her official departure from all patriarchal religion, Daly intentionally does not capitalize anything having to do with Christianity or Catholicism – except for the name of Saint Thomas Aquinas. In addition, on nearly every cover of a book published by Mary Daly there is a Labrys, perhaps symbolizing her training as a Thomistic theologian and philosopher, a representation of the heritage that continued to drive her forward.
In a 1969 Commonweal article, written less than two years before her infamous “walk out of patriarchal religion,” Daly writes:
It may happen, of course, that one may come to decide that the existing structures of Catholicism are so alienating and dysfunctional that the social reality called “the Catholic church” must be rejected . . . For my part I am still willing to work in my own way . . . at a mutually transforming confrontation with my own heritage, still being naïve enough to think that in some sense I can win.
Mary Daly indeed left the Catholic Church, but the “mutually transforming confrontation” with her own heritage did not end when she walked out the doors of Harvard Memorial Church. Daly’s life and scholarship after may best be understood as what she calls “boundary living.”
Daly refers to “boundary living” throughout her corpus, but the best description can be found in her 1978 book Gyn/Ecology. While addressing critics who claimed that her work is “separatist,” Daly offers her own definition of separatism. The dictionary reports, Daly writes, that the term separate is etymologically derived from the Latin se (meaning apart) and parare meaning to get ready, set. “It is still possible to look at the word another way, to see in it the Latin word se, meaning self, and to see also that the Latin parare is the root of the verb to pare.” Thus, when we speak of separatism, Daly continues, “the deep questions that are being asked concern the problem of paring away the Self from all that is alienating and confining” (381).
When Daly referred to “boundary living” she meant, quite literally, existing on the boundary of patriarchal institutions in order to create a space where women’s experience may be at the center of theological, philosophical, and political reflection. Yet, for Daly, boundary living also demanded a continual, intentional practice of “paring away the Self from all that is alienating and confining.” “Boundary living,” Daly writes in Beyond God the Father, “is a way of being in and out of ‘the system.’ It entails a refusal of false clarity” (43). Real boundary living is not “merely a negative withdrawal but creative existence” (55).
It is important to remember here that Daly – the first major Catholic feminist theologian – was not only intellectually reflecting on what it means to be a woman in a patriarchal church but was also attending to the reality of being a lesbian in a church that sees same-sex attraction as intrinsically disordered.
As a lesbian and as a woman, Daly experienced the “crushing weight” of a Church that told her she “did not exist” (as she preached in her Harvard sermon). Even in light of her conclusion that the church intentionally seeks to disenfranchise women so that they will either leave or be lured into a state of enduring complicity, Daly stayed on the boundary of the church.
Daly continued to develop the tradition in which she was formed. Even though Daly condemned the patriarchy of churches she still drew on Thomas Aquinas – the towering figure in the moral methodology of the Catholic Church – to construct her vision of hope.
Daly held onto the truth that there was value in the tradition which formed her even as she discarded elements of Catholic teaching that were destructive and harmful. By continuing to rid herself of those “alienating and confining elements” of church teaching that separated her from her truest capital-S Self, Daly created a new space on the boundary of the church. In so doing, Daly continued to participate in the process of developing the Catholic tradition, radically transforming the institution from outside its walls.