Anne E. Carr, a pioneering feminist theologian and advocate, and the first woman with a permanent faculty appointment to the University of Chicago’s renowned Divinity School, died at her home in Chicago on Monday, Feb. 11. She was 73.
A Roman Catholic nun and member of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM) for almost a half-century, Carr was a scholar of modern theology who specialized in Catholic thought and feminist theology for more than 30 years.
Carr’s scholarly interests and her contributions were broad — her research examined subjects from the theology of Karl Rahner to the spirituality of Thomas Merton to theological anthropology and the teaching of religion to undergraduates — but she is perhaps best known for her groundbreaking 1988 book Transforming Grace: Christian Tradition and Women’s Experience. In the book, a comprehensive survey of contemporary Christian feminism, which became internationally known among theologians, Carr wrote, “Christianity and feminism ... are integrally and firmly connected to the truth of the Christian vision.”
“Some people may have a tendency to think of her feminist theology as radical,” said longtime colleague Bernard McGinn, the Naomi Shenstone Donnelley Professor Emeritus in the Divinity School, “but it was an original and balanced approach. It was a very important new way of thinking and teaching theology.”
When Carr retired from the University in 2003, David Tracy, the Andrew Thomas Greeley and Grace McNichols Greeley Distinguished Service Professor in the Divinity School, praised his former student for her work as a Christian feminist theologian — calling her one of the founding mothers of the discipline. Of Transforming Grace, Tracy wrote, “In that amazing book, she never hesitated to expose the sexism of the Christian tradition, as well as to retrieve overlooked resources of the experience and theology of women.”
In addition to her groundbreaking scholarly work, Carr was also known as a pioneer for woman’s rights within the Church. In 1975, she spoke at the Catholic Women’s Ordination Conference, delivering an ethical and historical case for the ordination of women priests in the Roman Catholic Church. In 1984, Carr was among a group of 24 U.S. nuns who signed an advertisement, published in the New York Times, which stated that Roman Catholics had a “diversity of opinions regarding abortion.”
The statement, which ran during the 1984 presidential campaign, sparked great controversy.
“She signed the letter, which basically called for further dialogue, but what struck me was that she maintained such a peace and serenity through it all,” recalled M. Christine Athans, BVM, Professor Emerita at the School of Divinity of the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN, and a longtime friend. “She didn’t go into it seeking publicity. She wasn’t an attention seeker. She did what she did, because she believed in it.”
Born in Chicago on Nov. 11, 1934, Carr grew up on Chicago’s South Side, and received her A.B. from Mundelein College (which was later incorporated into the Loyola University of Chicago) in 1956. She taught in Chicago Public Schools for two years while doing graduate work in English literature at Loyola University of Chicago. In 1958, she joined the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, taking the religious name of Sr. Mary Anne David, BVM.
In 1962, Carr earned her M.A. in Theology from Marquette University and had begun teaching at Mundelein College, where she served as acting chair of the Theology Department from 1964 to 1966. In 1966 she began studying Christian Theology at the University, earning a second M.A. in 1969 and her Ph.D. in 1971. In 1975, after teaching at Mundelein College and Indiana University, Carr returned to the University, where she became Assistant Dean and Assistant Professor of Theology in the Divinity School.
At Chicago, her scholarly concentrations included the history of Christian thought, contemporary philosophical theology, the philosophy of religion and Roman Catholic studies.
She authored three books: The Theological Method of Karl Rahner; A Search for Wisdom and Spirit: Thomas Merton’s Theology of Self; and Transforming Grace: Christian Tradition and Women’s Experience. She co-edited six additional books, wrote essays for other collections, and published numerous articles in scholarly journals such as Horizons, for which she was associate editor, and The Journal of Religion, which she co-edited.
In 1997, she received the John Courtney Murray Award for Excellence in Theology from the Catholic Theological Society of America.
“She was known for her feminist theology,” said Athans, a scholar of historical theology, “but she went so far beyond feminism. What was really extraordinary about Anne was the breadth of her interests.”
Later in her career, Carr developed a great interest in Christian spirituality.
Of her book about Thomas Merton, the Catholic spiritual writer, McGinn said, “she did a wonderful job explaining why Merton is one of the most widely read and discussed authors of the 20th Century.”
Carr, who was active in the undergraduate program in religious studies at the University, was also widely regarded for her teaching and mentorship of students. “She was very well liked by everyone,” said McGinn. “She was very concerned about students. And she was an inspiration to them.”
A longtime member of St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Hyde Park, Carr, friends and family said, was a voracious reader who loved going to northern Wisconsin in the summer.
She was preceded in death by her parents, and is survived by sisters, Jeanne Horan, Indian Head Park, Ill., and Mary Patricia Zeiler, of LaGrange Park, Ill.
Memorials may be given to the Sisters of Charity, BVM Retirement Fund, 1100 Carmel Drive, Dubuque, IA 52003. The Divinity School is planning a memorial service for later this year.