A Q&A with Faculty Fellow Kathleen Sprows Cummings

Author: Josh Stowe

Kathy Cummings


Kathleen Sprows Cummings is the William W. and Anna Jean Cushwa Director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame. In addition, she is professor of American studies and history at Notre Dame and serves as a faculty fellow for the Ansari Institute, as well as an affiliated faculty member in Gender Studies, Italian Studies, and the Nanovic Institute for European Studies. Her work is familiar to many beyond the academy, as she frequently serves as a media commentator on contemporary events in the Catholic Church.

In this conversation, Cummings explores the importance of a global perspective in her work with the Cushwa Center, as well as her efforts as a historian to elevate stories of women and people of color. She also shares some recent highlights from her teaching experience at Notre Dame, and considers the opportunity President Joe Biden has to articulate a vision for the United States that draws from his Catholic faith.

Q: Can you talk about your academic background and scholarly interests?

A: I’m trained as a historian of the United States, and specifically of religion and women in the United States. My interests have evolved since my days in graduate school and extend beyond that—you can’t understand what’s happening in the United States and particularly within Catholicism without taking a global approach. And that’s why I’m so happy to be a faculty fellow of the Ansari Institute for Global Engagement with Religion, because the Catholic Church is a universal religion that’s centered in Rome but that takes root in local cultures. As part of my work, I conduct and support a lot of research in Rome, both at the Vatican Archives and at other archival repositories in Rome.

Q: In recent years, you’ve taught a course called “Faith and Feminism” at Notre Dame. What are some of the highlights from that?

A: I define faith very broadly. It is not just about Catholicism, though many of the students who enroll are Catholic. It’s about the way that faith and feminism have intersected. I start in the 1890s with Elizabeth Cady Stanton who edited The Woman’s Bible.

Stanton was a suffragist leader. And that’s something that a lot of people don’t know—that the early feminists cared very much about religion. I think there’s this dichotomy now: If you’re a feminist, you can’t be a person of faith, and vice versa. In my class, we start with a question: What is feminism? What does it actually mean? We read a lot of definitions. And then we challenge assumptions. One question we engage is, is it possible to be a Catholic and a feminist, or a person of faith and a feminist? It is amazing. The conversations we have are so stimulating intellectually, and lead students to engage with their faith.

One of the things that makes me sad is that students will often say, “I had no idea that there was this rich tradition”—they don’t know that there’s feminist theology. They don’t know that Catholic sisters were doing amazing work in the public sphere long before women under secular auspices could do that. And so, some of them will say, “I’ve been a Catholic my whole life. I'm a senior. Why don’t I know that?”

The reason I decided to teach the course had a lot to do with the 2016 election, after the Access Hollywood tape became public. Because I'm a feminist. I'm a Catholic. And I, like many people, thought that Donald Trump, when that tape became public, was just going to lose, that there was no way that Christians could support him—and I was wrong. People who I love deeply and care about voted for him. So, my assumptions that Christianity is not inherently misogynistic, inherently patriarchal—I just thought, I’m not so sure this works anymore. So, what do you do when you want to understand something a little better? Teach a course on it.

Q: Let’s turn to your work at the Cushwa Center, which seems to have an increasingly global perspective. How has that evolved?

A: I’ve been the director since 2012, and internationalization has been one of my priorities. Nick Entrikin, who was Notre Dame's first vice president for internationalization, told me that when he would give talks, he’d say, “I never thought that the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism would be my biggest success story in terms of internationalization.” With his help, and with other initiatives, we really did expand beyond US borders.

I wasn’t the first person to do that. My predecessor at Cushwa was Tim Matovina, who is a theologian of the Latino experience, and is very attuned to Catholicism in the Americas more broadly. Scott Appleby was the director before him, and he certainly has a global approach. But the founding director of Cushwa was Jay Dolan, who was my dissertation director. Jay wrote a book called The American Catholic Experience, which was a landmark study of Catholics in America. He very much made the argument about Catholicism in America being exceptional in the sense that it was focused on what happened in the United States, and Rome was not seen as important to the story. And as Jay himself said in the introduction, each generation rewrites its story.

And so, for someone of my generation, living and working in a globalized world with a globalized papacy that has been shaped not just by Pope Francis, but also by Pope John Paul II, this perspective just makes sense.

“One of my priorities has been foreground the experience of women in the Catholic experience. I think that we have to explore the hidden histories of women’s work.”

Q: As director of the Cushwa Center, you’ve helped to elevate stories of women and people of color. Talk a bit about that.

A: One of my priorities has been foreground the experience of women in the Catholic experience, and that is not always easy to do. All women struggle with obscurity, and any historian of women has to grapple with obscurity and visibility.

I think that we have to explore the hidden histories of women’s work. And so, I run the separate Conference on the History of Women Religious, which I’m hoping to make a permanent part of the Cushwa Center. I’ve been doing fundraising for that. It’s a group of scholars that meets every three years and also allows participants to support each other’s research in various ways.

Another program we developed through the Cushwa Center was the Mother Theodore M. Guerin Research Travel Grants. Mother Theodore was a French missionary who arrived in Indiana in 1840, a year before Father Sorin and the brothers of the Holy Cross arrived in Indiana. And Mother Theodore and Father Sorin were friends and supporters of each other. And before he left to come up here (to what is now Notre Dame), she gave him two oxen and a cart to start his journey. I’ve been trying to brand her as Notre Dame’s first benefactor in America. The Mother Theodore Guerin Travel Grants awards funding to people who are studying the contribution of women—not just sisters, but Catholic women in general. And that’s been wonderful.

We also established the Cyprian Davis, O.S.B., Prize. Father Cyprian was a historian of the Black Catholic experience. And in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, one of the things we were able to do in conjunction with the American Catholic Historical Association was to provide grants to support work on the black Catholic experience, which is understudied and not well understood.

“To me, a Catholic vision is about allowing all humans to flourish as they truly are, and across a wide range of differences. That allows all of us to embrace our common humanity, but also to recognize and celebrate the diversity in that humanity. That’s part of what has made America exceptional.” 

Q: Joe Biden is the United States’ second Catholic president, and he has emphasized how important his faith is to him. What opportunities does he have to articulate a vision for America that draws from the Catholic tradition?

A: To me, a Catholic vision is about allowing all humans to flourish as they truly are, and across a wide range of differences. That allows all of us to embrace our common humanity, but also to recognize and celebrate the diversity in that humanity. That’s part of what has made America exceptional. And the United States’ vast diversity—all the people who have come here, as well as the indigenous people—means that we’re all (in theory, if not always in practice) included under this thing that we call America.

And that’s very consonant with Catholic teaching and about the dignity of each human person. So, one of my quotes—it’s little bit outdated now because of what we understand about the fluidity of gender—but it’s from Sister Joan Chittister, who says, feminism is not about turning men into women or women into men, it's about turning all people into human beings in the fullness of life. And so, I think that sentiment is, how do we all embrace our humanity and flourish in that humanity? I think that’s a Catholic vision and one that Biden can champion.

And he has—in terms of his support of refugees and immigration, and his really pointed recognition of the poverty and suffering so many people are experiencing right now. A lot of commentators talk about his religiosity as being so connected to the losses in his life. But it’s not just that. He was a religious person before that. I make my students listen to his address when he received the Laetare Medal from Notre Dame in 2016 He talks about growing up in Scranton, being taught by sisters and priests, and being instilled in his faith by his father. His faith was something that he was raised in and that has imbued him all along. So, I think he does have the potential to articulate a Catholic vision.