Church

Dear Edith: Do I have a place in the Catholic Church?

March 18, 2018

Dear Edith,

When I first came upon this website, I was happy to see that there was a forum of women who were dedicated to supporting, deepening, and inspiring the lives of other women called to a life filled with Spirit. A feminist Catholic Blog? Yes! We need these spaces. After reading many of your posts, I am filled with both gratitude for this space, as well as ambivalence. It is from this complex place that I write to you today.

We need these spaces.

I've grown up Roman Catholic and have found a lot of comfort in the ritual and ceremony of my upbringing. I've always felt the immanence of the Saints, Mystics, Earth, and all of its beings; for it is all the creation of Divinity. Be that as it may, in those early years I have also found a lot of misogyny, incongruent actions from Church leaders around civil and human rights issues, and very rigid structure. I must add that I am a fervently independent woman. I have a partner of twenty years and children with whom I am very grateful to mother. However, I do not identify my spiritual divinity within my biological composition. In short, my maternity is not enough to fulfill my spiritual callings. While I honor maternity in its beautiful magic, I feel called for something in addition, as well.

I work with homeless populations within an urban setting among devout and faithful Catholics and it is through them that my curiosity has grown into a seeking of deeper relationship to the faith of my family lineage. In these beautiful beings I have the pleasure to work aside, I see the work of Christ as an embodied healer and activist alive within the hearts and the exchange of words and actions. I see the ministry of Jesus in each and every heart.

I am also a PhD student in Philosophy and Religion with an emphasis on Women's Spirituality. Having heard the call to seek out my Catholic lineage at this time has turned out to be a heart-wrenching experience, and as I write this in the vulnerability that I do, I hope that you feel the sincerity of my words. My feminism is intersectional, meaning I advocate for the autonomy in all living bodies in all expressions, and recognize the structures and systems that seek to re-enforce division, oppression, and racial inequality. Now, as I sit with feminist theologians, I am brought back to the faith of my youth. I am confused. I have so many questions.

I desperately want to find a place in the Church, but see no reflection of inclusivity within its walls and doctrine. I've tried. I always leave Catholic mass on the verge of tears, for what I experience as the perpetuation of a lack of voice. I would say that my divinity rests solely on my heart and action, not on my maternity/biology. Yet, this is the only aspect that I've seen presented. In the article explaining reasons for a lack of female priests, I found no solace. Again, maternity is the compliment to priesthood? That works only if you see things within a positivist/essentialist paradigm. No women apostles? Wasn't Mary Magdalene herself called "the apostle of the apostles?" There are so many assumptions regarding what a woman should be, most of which, do not come from the bodies of women. Can you be a feminist and a biblical literalist?

While it would be lovely to feel the support from the Priesthood on International Women's Day, I cannot help but feel that is a bit patronizing to women. Do we really need others to help us identify who we are? I understand, however, that honoring the ineffable amount of contributions made by women would be a lovely idea. In illuminating and placing such emphasis on maternity who do we leave out? What about LGBTQ community who offer the teaching that gender may not be as black and white/binary as has been constructed? I ask this, because I, too, identify as a woman who advocates for feminist ideas. I believe in women. I believe in the choice for women to decide how they express their divinity. What about the women being called to the priesthood? Would Jesus care as long as they were willing to love his flock? Are we not getting a bit too literal and rigid in doctrine?

Again, forgive me if I seem a bit fervent or accusatory. My intent is only to promote dialogue in search of understanding. I can only speak from my experience. My rekindled interest into the Catholic Church is through St. Mary Magdalene. I've prayed to her for years. Her image rests in my home in many places. I have felt her in meditations and I believe it is her push that I find myself writing this letter. In her example, we see another aspect of womanhood seldom celebrated.

Now knowing a bit about me and my story, do you think I have place in the Catholic Church?

Here is my question for you: Now knowing a bit about me and my story, do you think I have place in the Catholic Church? Knowing now the stirrings of my heart, am I to be condemned or patronized for my passionate need to be seen as an autonomous being outside who I birthed or my biology? This has got me in trouble before and was the reason I left the Church so many years ago. Do I have a place among you? Can our differences of femininity be witnessed and honored at the same table without trying to change the Truth of each others hearts?

I thank you for reading this far. I pray, with sincerity and love, for nuggets and insight.

God Bless you.

Jena

Jena is a Spiritual Feminist Scholar-in-Process searching for truth. She is earning a PhD in Philosophy and Religion with an emphasis on Women's Spirituality.

Do I have a place here? Response #1 - Anonymous

Dear Jena,

You ask, "Is there a place for me in the Catholic Church?" I think that it may be useful to think a bit about what kind of "place" you are seeking, and what kinds of places the Church offers to you, both in its ideals and its practice.

Most fundamentally, the place of everyone in the Church is a place at the Eucharistic table and at the feet of Christ - the place of a disciple, of a sinner approaching God for mercy. A place as one member in the body of Christ, a place of communion with everyone in the Church. The Church offers this place to anyone and everyone who seeks to know, love and serve Christ in union with his Church in good faith. You are more than welcome to join all of us at Mass - I hope that you feel welcomed to our celebration practically, as well as ideally. You are always welcome to receive the healing power of Christ in confession.

Every Christian also has a place in the mission of the Church. That mission is to "go forth and make disciples of all nations." "Love one another as I have loved you." To "offer a continuous sacrifice of praise." Like Jesus, we are "to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour." He tells all who would follow him, "when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind." As St. Paul so aptly put it, we are each a different part of the one body of Christ, and we each have a different role to fill in the mission of the Church, but each of us has a role. That certainly does not exclude you! It sounds like you are already serving the poor directly, a privileged and highly esteemed role in the Church. So there are the two most important places in the Church - the place of penitent disciple, hungry sheep, and the place of worker in the vineyard. If you would like to take those places, they're yours.

we are each a different part of the one body of Christ, and we each have a different role to fill in the mission of the Church, but each of us has a role.

Perhaps what you are also asking is whether there is a place for your ideas about femininity and spirituality in the Church. "Am I to be condemned or patronized for my passionate need to be seen as an autonomous being outside who I birthed or my biology?" Certainly not in the least. The Church has always celebrated the vocation to marriage and motherhood but has prized even more highly other vocations for women. In fact, if you look at the large number of women saints, few of them were canonized for being excellent wives or mothers. The Church holds them up as examples of fervent prayer, of service to the poor, teachers of the faith, founders of communities and missions, and for their witness of martyrdom. I have never had an experience in the Church of being "just a mother," or "just a woman." I have been a student, teacher, community member, community leader. Only a small fraction of homilies I've heard have involved motherhood, and even fewer femininity. Most of them are about the spiritual life, the Christian life, and the Gospels. "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

if you look at the large number of women saints, few of them were canonized for being excellent wives or mothers. The Church holds them up as examples of fervent prayer, of service to the poor, teachers of the faith, founders of communities and missions, and for their witness of martyrdom.

All of that being said, you have clearly had some negative experiences with the Church, both personally and institutionally. "I always leave Catholic mass on the verge of tears, for what I experience as the perpetuation of a lack of voice." I hear your deep pain, but would like to challenge you to rethink this a little bit. Whose voice are we supposed to hear at Mass? Not mine, or yours, or my husband's, but the voice, the Word, of God. Most of the words of the priest at Mass are not his words, but the words of Church. The priest or deacon does write his own homily, but a good homilist does not draw attention to himself, or to his unique ideas, but to Christ, to the Scriptures, in the way that the Church understands them. His goal should be to draw us to an encounter with God, who is reaching out to us, not to an interest in himself. Our voice at Mass is a common voice of prayer. This is why we have the ritual and ceremony that you've found so comforting - to remove our self-consciousness for a bit, so that we all blend harmoniously together in offering the sacrifice of praise, in our prayers for the world. It isn't about my voice or your voice or the priest's voice. It's about the voice of Christ and the voice of the Church, manifesting the echoes of an eternal conversation between a lover and his beloved. The Mass is a chance to step outside of and beyond social and political struggle and drama, not to fight over whose voice is loudest.

You can rightly be concerned about the institutional hierarchy of the Church ignoring the voices, experiences and missed potential contributions of women. I think that's valid. Can you find a place of influence at the level of the Vatican? Probably not. Would Jesus care if women wanted to be ordained? There is one thing I do know - Jesus does not care for grabbing for attention, power and influence. "To sit on my right or on my left is not mine to give, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared. Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant." The servant does not necessarily get to decide which service he or she performs. "What about women being called to the priesthood?" To put it bluntly, women aren't being called to the priesthood, because that calling is a two-way street. They may very much feel called to the priesthood. But am I being called by God to marry a man who does not want to marry me? Many men feel called to the priesthood, only to realize that their bishop does not feel the calling to ordain them, and that their vocation must lie elsewhere. In the Catholic Church, we believe that God speaks not only in the silence of our hearts, but also in the voices of other people and in the circumstances of our daily lives. Not only in the ancient text of the Scriptures, but also in the Church's living interpretation of them. We are asked to have the humility to accept that we are not the absolute arbiters of our own doctrine, and even to accept the idea, which seems crazy from a worldly perspective, that the Holy Spirit, God himself, guides the Church through imperfect people. That maybe, just maybe, what seems foolish to you is the wisdom of God.

Perhaps the only thing you can do for now is to lay your question at the feet of Jesus. You don't have to understand it. You don't even have to like it. For now, you would just have to be willing to accept a Church without female priests. Entering into any kind of relationship requires accepting some things we don't like, or aren't so sure about, doesn't it?

So I ask again, what kind of place do you seek in the Church? Do you wish to hear Christ and be transformed by his words and his grace, or do you wish to make yourself heard and to transform the Church according to your own ideas? Humility is not a natural virtue for me. Many times I have exclaimed in frustration, "Why won't everyone just listen to me and do things the right way?" It is not wrong to hope that the Church will make needed reforms, or even to seek to facilitate them if you find yourself in that position. "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all the these things shall be added unto you." I would encourage you to pray with St. Francis that you may "not so much seek to be understood as to understand" - not to understand the Curia, but to understand Christ, the one man who truly loves and understands all women, who honors all voices, those of the small more than the great, the one man with the power to perfect the world through us, if we let him. And the best place to understand him is the place he gave us - his Church, in its human brokenness and its feeble failings, which still offers us Christ, in word and in sacrament.

Pray with St. Francis that you may "not so much seek to be understood as to understand" - not to understand the Curia, but to understand Christ, the one man who truly loves and understands all women, who honors all voices, those of the small more than the great, the one man with the power to perfect the world through us, if we let him.

You ask, "Can our differences of femininity be witnessed and honored at the same table without trying to change the Truth of each others hearts?" Yes, I think that women can be feminine in many ways and that they can be honored. But for the latter point, I believe that the encounter with Christ through his Church is meant to change all of our hearts. The Lord knows my heart needs transformation.

This author would like to remain anonymous.

Do I have a place here? Response #2 - Kate

Dear Jena,

Thank you for your letter to FemCatholic. I am so appreciative of your vulnerability, your love for the saints, and your thoughtful questions. I love your desire to foster dialogue and putting yourself out there!

I wish I could answer all your questions. They are important ones, and they are ones I imagine you are not alone in asking. I wish I could give you the exact answers you need that would instantly draw you to the Church. While I could spend this letter writing answers to your questions or directing you to different resources or encouraging you to talk to this person or that person, I don’t think that is enough, nor am I qualified to do so. Instead want to answer what I view as your most important question: “Now knowing a bit about me and my story, do you think I have a place in the Catholic Church?

You are a daughter of God, and your place is in His Church.

You are a daughter of God, and your place is in His Church. Your place is sitting in the pews with us during the beautiful sacrifice of the Mass where we encounter the True Presence. Your place is in Bible studies, talking honestly about your struggles. Your place is in adult catechesis classes asking the hard questions. Your place is finding a ministry that celebrates your unique gifts. Your place is at the after-Mass social with me (a married woman who has no children and works full-time as an engineer) a woman with six kids who are her world, a mother who works full-time, a retired woman who loves teaching, and more all expressing femininity beautifully in their own unique way.

I know how hard it is to be in a Church when you have so many questions and even disagreements. I’ve been there, desperately seeking the truth. I ultimately found it in the Catholic Church. But you don’t need to wait until you have all the answers to be part of the Church. It is your right given to you by baptism to be here. No one in the pews has all the answers. No one is without questions. Every person has grappled with one teaching or another, grew frustrated with hypocrisy, has been hurt by the Church, or has experienced some other setback.

You don’t need to wait until you have all the answers to be part of the Church.

So Jena, to answer your question, yes, you absolutely have a place in the Catholic Church. It is right next to us, broken people hungering for the truth and seeking it through Christ and His Church.

St. Mary Magdalene, please pray for our sister Jena. Inspire us all to seek Christ as fervently as you did.

Christ’s blessings be with you!

Kate

Kate Hendrick is a FemCatholic Contributor. She lives in Wisconsin with her husband and works full-time as a process engineer. Though Kate is a “cradle Catholic” she didn’t fully embrace the Catholic faith until mid-college. She discusses the challenges she and other young adults face as they try to live authentically Catholic lives on her blog Stumbling Toward Sainthood. You can also find her on Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.

Do I have a place here? Response #3 - Emily

Dear Jena,

Yes! Yes, before I say anything else, yes. You have a place in the Catholic Church. Not only is there a place for you in the Catholic Church, there is a place that is and always will be yours. By which I mean, there is a place for you, and we don’t just need somebody to fill it – we need you.

Not only is there a place for you in the Catholic Church, there is a place that is and always will be yours.

You wrote, “Knowing now the stirrings of my heart, am I to be condemned or patronized for my passionate need to be seen as an autonomous being outside who I birthed or my biology?”

I don’t condemn you. (Of course, I have neither the authority nor the wisdom ever to pass such judgment, so it seems arrogant for me even to say this.) On the contrary, I admire you. And I hope my words don’t seem patronizing, because that is not at all how I intend them.

I admire you, and your letter was so humbling to read. I admit that I don’t have answers to many of your questions. And the questions that I think I might have “answers” to probably can’t be addressed in one response letter. I think even for me to talk about “answers” is perhaps a bit misleading, as though these questions can be put on the same level as math problems or multiple choice questions.

We need dynamic, back-and-forth conversations about these questions and topics – and then more conversations.

We need dynamic, back-and-forth conversations about these questions and topics – and then more conversations. I am so grateful for FemCatholic, but I am also constantly reminded of the limitations of social media. Blog posts can only do so much. I want to engage with you, to offer my thoughts in response to yours, and to hear your responses in turn. I would love to meet with you and discuss these things at length. I know I don’t have all the answers, and I’m beginning to wonder if that’s because we all have a little piece of the answer. But of course, the pieces won’t make sense if we keep them to ourselves, or if we think they stand alone.

You voice profound questions – questions that we haven’t all thought to ask, questions that we’re not all brave enough to ask – questions that are so crucial because they are so deeply tied to who we are and who God is. And I so admire you for asking them. I feel silly saying this, as though I could presume to give you any comfort in this, because it’s abundantly clear to me that you are much more intelligent than I am, wrestling with large questions (some of which have hardly occurred to me), and probably a better feminist than I am!

For these reasons, I’m hesitant to give you advice. I think I have far more to learn from you than you from me. I will tell you, from the bottom of my heart, what I wish someone had told me at times when I struggle(d) with my faith and feeling at home in the Church:

Your questions are a great gift to the Church. You are a great gift to the Church. You enrich the Church in ways that many people don’t even know we need.

Your questions are a great gift to the Church. You are a great gift to the Church. You enrich the Church in ways that many people don’t even know we need. There may be people (in fact, probably lots of people) who don’t see this, who may regard you with suspicion – or disregard you completely. They are wrong. They are so wrong, and I don’t know how to say this without sounding ridiculously sappy. We need you to teach us to meet God in the ways only you can, and I hope we can do the same for you.

God bless,

Emily

Emily Archer is a FemCatholic Contributor. She is a recent graduate of Baylor University, having written her undergraduate honors thesis on her three great loves: authentic feminism, faithful Catholicism, and traditional fairy tales.

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