The Washington Post ran a piece this week on “What Catholic Women Want”, in light of Pope Francis’ assertion that the Church needs a “deeper theology of women”. I was very intrigued by Francis’ claim that our theology regarding women is insufficient, because I have often thought the same thing. Though I’m made nervous by most items that present Catholics, or women, or Catholic women, as a monolith, I found myself agreeing with much of the article. Today I humbly add my seven particulars.
The benefit of the doubt
Behold! Now approaches the Catholic Feminist! She’s disrespectful! She hates tradition! She glorifies dissent! She wants to wipe out the College of Cardinals and replace it with a matriarchal coven of womynpriests!!
If that’s what you’re thinking, just take a breath, OK? Instead of assuming that those of us who want to analyze gender issues in the Catholic Church are heretical harpies, try assuming the best of us.
I consider myself faithful to the community and the Magisterium, I have devoted my life to studying and serving the Church, and I am deeply in love with Catholicism. In addition, I cultivate a relationship with God through prayer, and try to let my discernment of God’s will guide my actions.
Too often, when people disagree with me, it’s not my actual argument they disagree with, but what their imagination tells them that people who ask questions are like. I wish people could assume I’m goodhearted before they start their rebuttal. And I do my best to do the same thing.
(On the flipside, I wouldn’t mind the benefit of the doubt in secular circles either. Don’t project on me your issues with what “all Christians are like”. I’m looking at you, person who told me I must have Stockholm Syndrome to stay in the Church.)
A t shirt with my credentials on it
Another assumption with which I am often confronted is that I don’t know anything (see: mansplaining). This most often happens on the internet, so I’m not quite sure that a t-shirt that reads “I have two degrees in theology and more than a decade of experience in the field” would help.
Additionally, I have a rule that I don’t get in fights on the internet, so I can’t respond to a condescending comment or tweet with a sarcastic “Oh really? A cantor’s role is to lead congregational singing? They didn’t cover that when I got a master’s in liturgy!! Thanks so much for letting me know!”
Because I try not to write rants about people, I have never documented the times when priests have been dismissive of me when we’ve been working on liturgies together. Perhaps it was just in the nature of the individuals I was working with, but I can’t help but feel that their rudeness was because I am a young woman.
It’s likely that all of those people who begin their sentences with “Actually…” would do that to anyone, but would they assume that I was so ignorant or worthless if I were a man?
Some perspective on Theology of the Body
At the risk of kicking the hornets’ nest, I’m going to admit that Theology of the Body doesn’t do it for me. Much of what John Paul II said was lovely and affirming, but when they are all strung together into a theology they have at their core an emphasis on gender roles that rubs me the wrong way.
The reason I hesitate to write that is because so many of its proponents act like it dropped fully formed from the sky alongside Moses’ stone tablets and King James Version. It is theology, but it’s neither dogma nor scripture.
The themes that it touches on – embodiment, sexuality, relationships, and more – all of these need to be explored more deeply by people of faith. In fact, I think they contain the fundamental questions of life. If my prayer and conscience make it so that Theology of the Body doesn’t resonate with me, I don’t think I should be anathematized.
Permission to talk about things
Since I brought up embodiment, sexuality and relationships, I should double check: am I allowed to talk about those things? Or do they contain too many subtopics on which “the door is closed”?
I have been fortunate to have been a part of many communities where there was a spirit of academic and intellectual freedom, and I have not found them to be bastions of dissent. Rather they have been communities of great faith, where an honest exploration of difficult topics forced us to examine our convictions and pray about them.
What I’ve learned, though, is that if you are going to do that you better keep your head down. Theologians who don’t come to the “right” conclusions are told to shut up. Even on this small platform I can’t tell you how many blog posts I’ve started and then scrapped because I was scared that it would get the “thought-police” after me and endanger my roles as religion teacher and aspiring Catholic pundit.
I am ashamed that fear has kept me silent. That it is still keeping me silent.
Positive, expansive understandings of sexuality
Repeat after me: our sexuality does not equal our genitals.
Way too much of our religious conversation about sexuality is focused on mechanics, when in truth our sexuality encompasses much more than that. Our affections, our physicality, our creativity and our passions are all part of our sexuality.
These are good things, yes?
I know it’s an uphill battle, and one that we are fighting on both sides (see: porn culture), but I wish we could stop viewing sexuality writ large as a solely a pathway to sin. And we can do better than “sex is good! But do it wrong and you’ll go to hell!”
This is where you keep giving me the benefit of the doubt. Because I’m not saying that we throw out Catholic sexual ethics. What I’m saying is that there has to be a way to frame them that leads people to see these moral choices as the most life-giving option for their physical and spiritual life.
An end to the “power-hungry” accusations
As soon as someone asserts that women should have more leadership positions in the Church, a well-meaning (?) challenge is laid down: why don’t these women pray that they’ll be more humble instead of being so power-hungry?
I am fortunate that I am a leader in the Church through various ministries. I sought this leadership and this authority not because I am power-hungry but because I am a born leader. God has called me to lead.
When qualified women are denied leadership positions that means they are being denied an opportunity to fully express what God created them to be.
And when we are leaders, we need to be allowed to exercise that leadership. There is nothing worse than spending months on a project or a program, knowing it inside and out, having exhaustively researched and collaborated and planned, and then to have someone (usually a member of the clergy) sweep in and say “we’re doing this instead”. I have been there, and it is devastating.
To just be a person
To be anything other than a straight white non-poor male means that you walk around with a bunch of labels stamped on your forehead. In most of my relationships, personal and professional, the people around me don’t see the label and just see the person. That’s why it is even more striking when I walk into a sacristy and I can tell by the way I’m treated that they see me as “girl” rather than as “Margaret” (which, after all, is how I introduced myself).
None of these problems are unique to the Church. They are part of the wider culture. There are have been times in history when the Church has gotten out in front of the culture on issues of poverty, peacemaking, care for God’s creation, and justice for all people. They – we – have been daring in their willingness to strike back against the forces of dehumanization. In the end, that’s all I really want.
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Fran Rossi Szpylczyn says
Oh Margaret, Margaret – I hang on your every word and agree. Thank you for writing this!
And thank YOU for sharing it! I’m glad you liked it.
William Ockham says
Simply outstanding. I especially like your conclusion:
“None of these problems are unique to the Church. They are part of the wider culture. There are have been times in history when the Church has gotten out in front of the culture on issues of poverty, peacemaking, care for God’s creation, and justice for all people. They – we – have been daring in their willingness to strike back against the forces of dehumanization. In the end, that’s all I really want.”
The Church really has an opportunity to be an especially bright beacon of hope in a culture of materialism but sometimes it just trips over itself. The implementation of your seven ideas (and a couple more that should be done but are officially “off the table” :-), would go a long ways towards Building the Kingdom. I am impatient by nature which is why I have the patience prayer by Teilhard de Chardin on my bedroom nightstand:
“Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay. We should like to skip the intermediate stages. We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability—and that it may take a very long time.
And so I think it is with you; your ideas mature gradually—let them grow, let them shape themselves, without undue haste. Don’t try to force them on, as though you could be today what time (that is to say, grace and circumstances acting on your own good will) will make of you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new spirit gradually forming within you will be. Give Our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.”
Thank you! I have the patience prayer on the fridge – heaven knows I need it too!
This is beautiful, thank you! Prayers and best wishes in your courageous and loving service of the Catholic community.
I was so sad that Pope Francis did not mention the fully orthodox possibility of restoring the female diaconate in his response to that question. Phyllis Zagano, in particular, has demonstrated this to be scriptural,Traditional, and a great way to increase women’s recognized leadership in the church and solve some of the problems you identify here. I am also sad when conservative RC bloggers claim that advocates of this possibility are heretical, along with feminine divine images and mutual subordination in marriage rather than evangelical male “headship”–both of which were defended by JPII in Mulieris Dignitatem. If feminist theologians like it, it must be demonic…thus they actually defy magisterial teaching while claiming to support it!
Thanks for your comment. If I remember correctly the original WaPo piece addresses female deacons. I would not be shocked if that’s something we see in the near future (granted, in the Church the near future means the next 150 years!)
Sadly, the ban against female deacons and even female teachers is much wider than the Roman Catholic Church. I am one of very, very, very, very, very few people among my very, very, very, very, very, few churchgoing relatives who is not some kind of conservative complementarian. I cite this as an example as a hypothetical only on the basis that practicing homosexuality is such a major hot button issue ecumenically accross the church universal, but? It would be easier (and far more forgivable) to [theoretically] come out as homosexual (which I am not, this is a supposal) than it was/is/will be to discuss the idea that my terminal career path ends with ordination as………a pastor.
There are many people “praying for me” (especially for my shocking choice of a Jesuit school, no doubt) in a way that actually amounts to praying against me. I “get” that the Holy Spirit sorts these things out, but can I just say that dealing with this garbage from peopke who are supposed to love and support…sucks.
I also often wear my hair braided to church, further proof that I am an unrepentant heretic.
At one point in time I was one of the brightest mathematical minds on campus at my junior college — I could’ve “gone places” as a mathematician. All disciplines requiring advanced mathematics (Mathematics, Physics, Engineering, and Computer Science) are still kind of an ego-driven boy’s club, but no one lobs fire and brimstone at you if you’re gifted at math. Theology is a whole different deal.
Wow – wonderfully said – thank you!
Christine Falk Dalessio says
You have a finger on the pulse, here, I think and it is because of this that I do believe Pope Francis did too when he spoke about that theology of women. I think many of these attitudes stem from fear, and from a perhaps singular (real or imagined) encounter with a woman who may have been speaking or acting from a wounded, rather than a well thought or intellectual place, which is not to say mercy isn’t necessary, but perception goes a long way – and you are absolutely right to want this narrow view of “heretical harpies” to be over and done with…yes, I agree.
I can’t help but say I disagree with you about the Theology of the Body, but not because it doesn’t “work” for you – that’s up to you, of course. I think John Paul II’s work is a critical lens through which the full teaching of the Church makes sense… and I further think it needs some critical analysis yet to make it really workable for most of us, especially women – there’s a missing bit, the voice of a woman’s genius – and I think there’s still room for that piece. Which is why I will be working on a doctoral dissertation to that effect 🙂
Keep writing. We need women who love the Church and can bring their voice and hearts and intellects to bear on the body of Christ.
I can’t tell you how touched I am by your encouragement! I look forward to reading that dissertation someday. In the meantime, if you have anything published (blog posts, articles, etc) that deal with that topic I’d be eager to read! Post links if you have any.
Susan Windley-Daoust says
I’m with Christine on this (hi, Christine!). I’m not sure I agree with everything here (because women can disagree on interpretation and all–yeah, you should have added that we’re not one monolith. That’s my pet peeve.), esp. on Theology of the Body–I’m writing on it too! But the presumptions, fear, and stereotyping need to be named and, for the most part, banished. There is beauty and nuance in the tradition, and I’d say there is beauty in the magisterial documents on women. But there is a lot out there is provincial dreck.
We keep thinking, writing, loving, listening, praying. I have a lot of hope for the future myself. But we live in interesting times.
p.s. thanks to Fran for getting me here!
Christine, Margaret, you both make excellent points.
As far as Theology of the Body goes, I see it more as a starting point than as the final word. It does need some “feminine genius”, St. Edith Stein’s influence notwithstanding.
More broadly, Catholic teaching on sexuality has been very male-centric and very technically oriented. The focus of Catholic sexual teaching is to control male lust, with women as sexual agents largely being an afterthought. Women’s sexuality has been viewed primarily in relation to men’s sexuality, which is the wrong way to go about it. I believe TOB proposes even more questions than it answers. You’re not the only person questioning and not the only person looking for something more.
Oh, and a lot of the pop “Theology of the Body (TM)” that is out there is pretty bad.
Yeah…and I would definitely not go to Augustine for marriage counseling!!!!!
While not a proponant of throwing out the Church Doctors with the Holy Water (says the former-Catholic-now-Protestant who is passionate about historical theology), there are definitely some hold-overs of official positions that trace back to decisions made in church councils or written by theologians in ways supplemental to scripture that trace back to some pretty archaic societal norms. An honest and thoughtful examination of everything would be most useful.
Former Bostonian says
I came here from a friend’s recommendation on Facebook. I gave you the benefit of the doubt. Then I clicked on your link celebrating a nun who was reprimanded by the Vatican for expressly and proudly advocating things that the unanimous Christian tradition has condemned–and no saint has ever celebrated–masturbation, homosexuality, the usual stuff. Are you ashamed that you don’t advocate that, that you don’t preach it to the teenage boys entrusted to your care?
Gosh, I hope not. You are a woman blessed with abundant intelligence and beauty. For good or for bad, you have a disproportionate influence on your students–perhaps more than you know (speaking as a former teenage boy). I’m sure you COULD have enormous influence in suggesting to those boys the goodness, nobility, and beauty of Christian chastity, or to the contrary to lead them to sexual immorality.
Please think. Please pray. And if you’re gonna fear anything, fear God Almighty: millstone, neck, etc.
Yep. Completely agree.
Good idea to avoid fights on the internet. I think some of the reason why discussions get out of hand on the internet is because writing does not convey tone in a way that conversation does. It’s easy to put in a negative tone to an internet comment which may not have been intended by the writer. Plus, what is written on the internet is written in bursts and rarely edited for ambiguities and poor phrasing.
I’m glad Pope Francis has started the conversation about women in the Church, and there are no shortage of different perspectives. Having two daughters and a wife who does not fit into traditional gender roles, this has been a stumbling block in our family. Too often the the discussion is descends into (1) the Church is full of sexist old men who are oppressing women and (2) your choices, ladies, are either nun or homeschooling-mom-of-10.
You forgot Choice #3 — unrepentant heretic
Again you knock it out of the park, Meg. Thanks.
Felice, thanks for pointing out that reference to female diaconate in the WaPo article, which I have now read with great interest (didn’t have time this morning when I read your post). It’s unfortunate they didn’t linterview Phyllis Zagano with the other great examples of liberal, conservative, and moderate Catholic women thinkers, or link to her article– but great that they linked to a male bishop who is advocating real discussion of the possibility!
Former Bostonian, my heart breaks to see you engaging in the same a priori guilt by association which Felice so eloquently protests in her post. Linking to an article which quotes both liberal and conservative women–like Janet Smith–does not imply approval of all their views on her part.
Frankly, if teen boys and young adult men were taught to meet their own sexual needs appropriately (with prayer, without porn or abusive fantasies)– and young women weren’t shamed and made responsible for men’s desires and behavior with excessive and shaming modesty lectures–it might decease the current epidemic of both date rapes and crisis pregnancies which often end in abortion. And if married men were taught the same I would never have heard a plaintive lament on this topic from a woman with repeated horrific pregnancies taught to “render the debt” despite her own needs, desires and discernment–essentially serving as a sex toy for masturbatory sex by her ultraorthodox, thought-he-was-being chaste spouse. Women’s experience and wisdom–as well as formal study in many cases– is a crucial part of theology of the body and one too often neglected, as other commenters have pointed out. If it were included, “don’t rape” and what actual consent looks like, would be a key part of chastity education along with “wait till marriage.”
Tracey O'Farrell says
Isabella R. Moyer says
Brilliantly written, Margaret…and so spot on! This Catholic woman’s head was excitedly nodding in agreement with each reading. Yes, it was worth reading and re-reading. Thank you!
Kevin Faulkner says
Thank you for saying that one can think thoughtfully and critically reflect without being a “heretical harpie.” The cliches are difficult to overcome, but you have articulated them as real and that is the first place to start. Posts like this will begin to change the picture of a “good Catholic woman.” We need you and as a man, I can say joyfully that your place in the Church is just as important as mine. I just wish more folks felt that way. Sadly ,all we have in my world are cliches of bra-burning nuns who threw away their habit and meek “good ” women who homeschool and pray, pay and obey. Procedamus in pace…..
I had the craziest encounter after visiting a Roman Catholic church far from home on Monday morning last week. I was one of six souls in that room — a resolute Protestant, formerly Roman Catholic who is one Confirmation class and one VERY long confession away from being the perfect/model Catholic. I know the liturgy of the mass, am “legal” for communion — I showed up to consecrate my day and to pray.
I preface this with the idea that I make it a policy not to argue with stubborn 80-ish Irish American Roman Catholics about…really…anything.
She was nosy/friendly after the regulars finished the rosary (I opted out of Hail Marys), and was trying to both hard-sell and nail me to the wall with historical theology and doctrine (she thought for sure she was going in for the kill on the issue of communion, the look on her face at the disappointment was priceless). I was sitting in a room surrounded by a gallery of amazing saints, and her constant refrain was:
“Be who you are.”
What she meant was: “Be who I have been taught it is acceptable for you to be.”
There was no way for me to argue with her, and I didn’t really have the energy as it was a retreat/pilgrim day for me that day. But I sat there trying to quietly take what she was saying into my head and not argue back, I just thought about St. Teresa of Àvila (saint and Doctor of the Church) over my right shoulder, St. Joan if Arc (saint and martyr) behind me, and St. Hildegard von Bingen (saint and Doctor of the Church) over my left shoulder.
“Be who you are.”
They were, and the world is a much richer place for it.
Haven’t had a chance to write on this, but plan to.
Be who you are, be who God has called you to be.
#6 is where I live, my uphill battle…every…single…day.
And one thing I wish to add is the larger ecumenical ban on unmarried Christian women being allowed to actually talk about (or be perceived to think about) human sexuality. Why does a commitment to chastity in singleness, fidelity in marriage somehow translate to the idea that sexuality is somehow evil and corrupting? I am not “supposed” to think about these things, therefore I am obligated to live my spiritual and intellectual life apart from my physical self. How quaintly (and oppressively) Helenistic.
Mark Allman says
I am not Catholic but am Christian and I appreciate the things you write. I read a lot of blogs and in my opinion women write much better than men and I learn much more from them because they allow themselves to be vulnerable. They face those fears we all have and allow the lessons of this hard life to bleed into their writing. Truth is truth no matter who presents it and should be judged accordingly. I think women in the protestant church face similar discrimination and really overall in all areas of life and I pray I never do anything that plays into that. It is hard to make people think if you don’t make them squirm somewhat.
Thank you so much for the encouragement!