Drew Christiansen and Women’s Leadership

By: Carole Sargent

December 19, 2022

Carrying Forward Drew Christiansen’s Legacy

It may not sound like such a big deal in the 2020s, but Rev. Drew Christiansen, S.J., worked exceptionally well with women. For context, it helps to know that being a woman in Catholic circles can sometimes equal invisibility. Fr. Drew’s tremendous ability to engage women intellectually stood in vivid contrast. He was deeply comfortable with women’s input, but beyond this, he accepted women’s leadership. To illustrate the leadership angle, I have a great tidbit from his time at Yale University, but I’ll save it until the end as a surprise. First, some background.

Our story began in July 2017, when I consulted Fr. Drew about a book I was writing with an anti-nuclear activist, Sr. Megan Rice, SHCJ. I met her while living with sisters of the Society of the Sacred Heart (RSCJ) in a Washington, DC, peace community called Anne Montgomery House. Five years earlier, she and two Catholic Worker men engaged in what some call the largest breach in U.S. nuclear security history when they entered the Y-12 bomb-manufacturing facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee to pray. As part of a longer Plowshares tradition, they came armed only with candles, flowers, Bibles, and baby bottles of blood to pour at the site. They all went to prison for two years, and Megan was profiled by MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, the Washington Post’s Dan Zak, the New Yorker, and the New York Times, among scores of other outlets. Another community friend, Sr. Ardeth Platte, O.P., was in the book Orange is the New Black and inspired the Netflix series character. However, Megan's Y-12 action informed the show’s second season. I needed advice on how to write about this anti-nuclear movement and do it justice.

Katharine Marshall of the Berkley Center was my first stop. She sent me to Fr. Drew because of his work advising the Holy See on nuclear disarmament. I certainly knew of him, but I was nervous meeting him at Wolfington Hall that day in July 2017. He had a big reputation as the former editor-in-chief of the Jesuits’ America magazine and as a well-published intellectual. To my relief and delight, however, Fr. Drew seemed fascinated with my story of living with activist sisters and getting to know Megan so well.

He said, almost in passing, that he would soon attend an important conference that November at the Vatican, intended to frame Pope Francis’ historic condemnation of nuclear weapons. I don’t know whether what happened next was the Holy Spirit or just plain chutzpah, but I had conference funding, so I gulped and asked to come along. (At that moment I specifically remembered beloved self-help books such as Go for No! and The Aladdin Factor that taught readers to ask clearly and let the chips fall.) Although I expected him to say he’d have to think about it, and even braced for a flat-out “no,” he cocked his head slightly in a way I now know well, and said, “Sure. Why not?”

In Rome, I was able to witness his nuclear disarmament engagement firsthand, and it changed the trajectory of my writing career. He demonstrated his ability to work with women from the outset. He was quite close to Dr. Maryann Cusimano Love, a politics professor at the Catholic University of America who focuses on disarmament and who, with her husband Dr. Richard Love, was a key member of the Vatican team. He engaged with Susi Snyder, part of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning group International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). “Working with Fr. Drew always left me with a feeling of confidence, and encouragement,” Snyder recalled for this piece, “and never of needing to do ‘extra’ in any way to prove myself or demonstrate that I was of value... We did not always agree, but we always shared a great deal of respect and encouragement for each other’s approaches and energy.”

Back at Georgetown, Anne Koester, a lawyer, senior compliance specialist, and adjunct faculty member in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies, also saw this side of him. “He always took an interest in what I thought, what I was musing about in my own theological reflections (especially about liturgy), and in my pastoral work at Holy Trinity. Drew had a posture of learning, even though he knew so much!” She also noted that whenever they met in passing, he would stop and focus completely on her. “It’s as though he had a way of making time pause.”

Fr. Drew had been asked to produce a book to frame the testimonies we heard at the conference from Nobel Peace Prize laureates, religious leaders, diplomats, civil society activists, and a survivor of Hiroshima, and he invited me to work with him on it. I was honored to say yes (faculty book and article publishing is, after all, what I do for Georgetown), but I thought he simply needed an advisor and occasional document wrangler. Instead, however, he encouraged me to get involved with him in the editing.

Gradually the professional trust grew, and Fr. Drew actually let me override his previous relationship with a different press. I guided the book to Georgetown University Press via its visionary director, Al Bertrand. From an institutional perspective, I certainly thought we should keep this great story from the Holy See for ourselves, but I’m so used to being shot down or argued with that it was a refreshing surprise when Drew not only agreed, but also asked me to oversee it and negotiate the contract. And although I never would have presumed to be a co-editor (my chutzpah only extended to conference invitations), he offered the fuller role based on my devotion to the project, which I took on as a mission.

Now we get to the surprise about women’s leadership I promised you at the beginning. At his wake in April 2022, the Jesuits put Fr. Drew’s Yale dissertation on display, along with photographs documenting his 60 years in the Society of Jesus. I noticed that his dissertation director had been none other than Dr. Margaret Farley, R.S.M. She is the Gilbert L. Stark Professor of Christian Ethics at Yale University Divinity School (now emerita), a past president of the Catholic Theological Association of America, and the first woman to serve full-time on Yale’s board. I contacted her the following week to ask her about it. “His dissertation was really stunning,” she recalled. Farley framed him, as so many of us do, as “a great scholar and a fine person.” A Jesuit with a Catholic sister as his dissertation director? I loved this and was happy to include it in a Wikipedia page I later made in his honor.

When Rev. David Hollenbach, S.J., gave the keynote at the first Berkley Center symposium honoring Fr. Drew, he mentioned that 1982 Yale dissertation and its pastoral focus on aging. When he asked for audience comments, I told the quite surprised group that Sr. Farley had been the dissertation’s director, thus demonstrating his ability to not just work with, but also be led by, women. The audience response afterward was immediate and warm. People came up to say they hadn’t known about the dissertation! I hadn’t known when he was with us, and I wish we could have discussed it. But who knows how he would have responded? He’d probably just brush it aside in that modest way of his.

Perhaps he thought it was something that should go without saying.

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