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I'm 27 and single but I'm not really "dating." My new year's resolution is to try to "put myself out there." But my friends have terrible stories from dating apps and, to be honest, when I try them, the guys are either gross or it's just such a drag that I feel like I'm wasting my time. I don't really know how to get the ball rolling with guys in person. Help?
Single but unsure about mingling
Dear Shy Mingler,
First of all, let's get this straight: Life is too short to spend time doing things you don't like. I mean, some things (like showering, paying bills, and calling your mom), you do have to do. But in terms of free time? If you don't like spending your precious leisure time scrolling through an app, you don't have to - and you won't die alone if you refuse to do so.
One caveat: part of dating (the part Baby Boomers always talk about when they went on multiple dates with multiple men before "going steady") is just practicing dating. There's no harm in striking up a conversation and going out for a walk, a drink, a museum tour, etc. with someone on an app. In 2022, even if you find that most men assume that casual sex comes with casual dating, you can be the change you wish to see in the world! There's no reason those two things have to go together, and you can be the feminist all-star who challenges men on why they think they're entitled to an invitation to your bed after a night or two of chatting over dinner at a wine bar. (Let me know their answers! Genuinely curious.)
So if you feel like practicing flirting, how to handle paying for dinner, how to give people a chance, how to turn them down kindly, and how to talk about your faith, family, or future hopes and dreams with a stranger, there's nothing wrong with picking up your app and swiping right – or leaving your number on a napkin for the bartender. Part of living is embracing risk and the failures and rejections that come with that. Dating is a great way to practice the communication skills that are part of any friendship or relationship.
In 2022, let's let go of patriarchal ideas of initiating. There are ways you can signal interest in a guy that are super feminist: you can be coy, patient, or direct.
Invite your crush to grab coffee or to check out that immersive Van Gogh exhibit that seems to have popped up in every city in the United States. Don't know him well enough to invite him on his own or just feeling shy? Invite two mutual friends and make it a little group outing. Get to know your crush as a human and see what you think.
And enlist some friends! Telling a few trustworthy ride-or-die companions that you like someone can help you have support in setting up situations to get to know them. Friends can also be a helpful gauge of whether or not someone is interested in you when your own feelings blind your natural receptors.
After testing the waters as little or as much as you feel comfortable, you can always just tell someone you're interested and see how they respond. There are no more admirable or sexy qualities than honesty and courage.
Dear Edith: I Hate Dating Apps. How Can I Meet People?
My husband and I practice a fertility awareness-based method (FABM) to cooperatively plan our family. Because of our situation, it’s important that we postpone conception (though our hearts ache to welcome another child). Because of my cycles, we have limited opportunities for sex and sometimes need to abstain for several months.
I’m working with health professionals who have top credentials in my FABM and I’m open to other methods, but it’s been over a year, and progress in clarifying my cycles is real but slow. Meanwhile, it feels like sex is a rare exception to charting that generally indicates it’s not prudent to have sex, given our present need to avoid conception and my hard-to-diagnose cycles.
Praying is good — really good, even when it doesn’t feel good. I know that suffering is formative. We read Simcha Fisher’s book (The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning) and Holy Sex, and we treasure the works of St. John Paul II. Our choice to use NFP has led to incredible trust, healing, and delight in our marriage. I see that I have an unspeakably good gift: My husband labors to find ways for us to be close. He’s confused and disappointed, too.
Now that sex has become a rare exception to the norm, we’re a step beyond just needing a reminder about the good of self-control. It’s hard to live weeks on end with one’s spouse, sleeping in the same bed and knowing that sex would be (at this time) an unwise choice for us and unloving toward a potential child. Many normal forms of affection are too much when you know that you can’t have sex for a month.
I’d ditch my charts, but it wouldn’t help. I’m committed to cooperating with my fertility. I’ve asked professionals in the NFP world for resources for couples who need to abstain for really long periods. So far, no one has been able to make recommendations. We’re tired and sad. I’m angry and feel abandoned by the Church and the NFP world. Can you recommend resources for support?
Reading your letter, I feel for you. I cannot know your situation, but I want to affirm that there are good and holy reasons to avoid conceiving a child. This decision is for you and your husband to discern, with the light of the Holy Spirit, in your present circumstances.
I cannot know your situation, but I can share with you mine. It may not be what you need to hear or be a direct solution to your struggles. But it might make you feel less alone, to sit with my words as I share them with you as I would a friend. Please reach out if you’d like to talk more!
As I sit writing this, I am 37 weeks pregnant with our third child. Like you, we deeply desired to grow our family, but we had cause to reconsider those plans. During my last pregnancy, I developed bilateral pulmonary embolisms, life-threatening blood clots in my lungs, due to a genetic disorder. The preventative measures we took failed to protect me. Thankfully, it all turned out alright. Our second child, a son, was born healthy — the happiest baby I know.
But this health condition threw a wrench in our plans for our family. We wanted more children, but we hesitated. I felt guilty for these desires; how could I choose to put myself in danger when these little ones need me? Were these blessings not enough for me? We were stuck in a land of ambivalence, not sure what we should choose, postponing the decision because it was “too soon” to have another anyway.
We were stuck in a land of ambivalence, not sure what we should choose, postponing the decision because it was “too soon” to have another anyway.
And then the line turned pink.
For weeks, I reveled in the joy of the thought of another baby, the guilt of “choosing” to put myself in danger lifted. I had thought I was a bad mother for wanting another child, more children even. In response, God sent us a child, an affirmation that our desire to welcome new life was not selfish but born out of love.
I know the pain of being separated from your husband when you want to revel in that embrace. I know that sometimes, going without sex is something about which we don’t have a choice. We need resources that strengthen us for these times. You’re reading, you’re praying, and you are weathering this storm. Your willingness to embrace the suffering of this time is beautiful.
You’re reading, you’re praying, and you are weathering this storm. Your willingness to embrace the suffering of this time is beautiful.
I wish I could offer you more. Phrases like, “This won’t last forever” and, “God is doing something beautiful in this time” might be true, but they can also fall flat in the face of pain. And I know you already know these things.
I can share that God has used this time and the stories of other women to change my heart. Before this pregnancy, I felt trapped by the world’s paradigm that welcoming children into the world is a choice completely within my control. I felt that I had to responsibly discern, choose, and execute what was definitively right for our family. Although we, too, have experienced the beauty of exercising openness to life in our marriage, I felt like that openness was no longer a loving option given the risks.
God invited us into a different paradigm with the gift of this baby, our Noah. During this pregnancy, I’ve been privileged to read the stories of two other women, Danielle Bean and Jennifer Fulwiler. For both of them, God took their openness to life and used it to lead them beyond what they expected for themselves. Reading their words has led me deeper into trusting the plans the Lord has for us.
God invited us into a different paradigm with the gift of this baby, our Noah.
I don’t expect that God wants to shift your perspective or alter your decision to avoid pregnancy. I couldn’t possibly know what the situation is for your family. But I do know that fear is not of God. The illusion that we can control our lives to the degree the world tells us is a lie. Holding onto these things put me in a trap of my own making. As I learn to let go, I am filled with joy and gratitude. I hope and pray that through this trial, God brings you to greater freedom and deeper love.
Fear is not of God. The illusion that we can control our lives to the degree the world tells us is a lie.
For further reading, the books I referenced here are Giving Thanks and Letting Go by Danielle Bean and One Beautiful Dream by Jennifer Fulwiler.
First, I want to offer some solidarity in what you’re going through. Sometimes, especially in the Catholic-sphere, NFP is portrayed as some magical panacea with only brief windows of abstinence. Perhaps there are some lucky couples out there who have only had easy-breezy cycles and brief windows of abstinence — but if they exist, I’ve certainly never met them.
My husband and I very quickly jumped into what I call “the deep end” of NFP. After a year of charting beautiful, perfect 28-day cycles with clear fertile windows, we were confident that the time we had put into learning NFP while engaged would make the transition to marriage so much easier.
Oh, how unprepared we were. The month we got married, my cycles went haywire. First, our wedding night was no longer a “green” day (I cried when I did the math), and then each subsequent cycle only became more confusing. Our first six to 12 months of marriage were spent with endless fertile days interspersed with the occasional week when intimacy was possible. We saw posts about NFP online touting the “Only seven days of abstinence a month!” claims and roll our eyes — we had seven days of intimacy every other month, if we were lucky. Sex, as you share in your post, became a “rare exception” for us for weeks and months at a time.
I can share the few things that have helped us weather long periods of abstinence; you may be doing most of these things already.
1. Make an “Exit” Plan
We had discerned the need to postpone pregnancy for the first two years of marriage as my husband finished a graduate degree and I worked as the primary breadwinner. It was discouraging to see the months stretch out ahead of us when we were stuck in a pattern of strictly “trying to avoid.” Especially as my cycles became more frustrating, I found myself overwhelmed at the idea of doing this for another two full years.
I ended up making a calendar of the next 20 months and sat down with my husband to plan out which months we needed to “strictly” avoid pregnancy and which months we may be able to lean more toward “trying to whatever.” For example, it seemed important that I not go into labor during his dissertation defense, so we were strict in our practice of NFP about nine months before that date. However, we could make things work if a child came along the summer after his graduation (although it wouldn’t be ideal), so we agreed to be less exacting in our charting that month.
Doing this let me breathe a sigh of relief that frequent abstinence wouldn’t last forever. It was just a season in our long lives together and would eventually come to an end.
Frequent abstinence wouldn’t last forever. It was just a season in our long lives together and would eventually come to an end.
I’m not sure what your “exit plan” might look like. Maybe it’s calendar-based, as ours was, with a clear timeline of when you can switch to trying to conceive. Perhaps your plan is more goals-based, with a list of concrete obstacles you need to clear out of the way. Either way, I recommend writing it down somewhere so you can check it often and remember that this season of avoiding pregnancy isn’t forever.
2. Treat Yo’ Self
When I’m trying to get myself out the door for a run, I have a special podcast or audiobook that I’m only “allowed” to listen to while running. It doesn’t completely remove the fact that running is awful, but it does make it bearable, because I get to listen to the next episode of Armchair Expert or find out what happens next in The Name of the Wind.
My husband and I have adopted a similar strategy for long stretches of abstinence: We pick something special or new to treat ourselves to and only allow ourselves to enjoy it during Phase 2. We might choose a new book to read out loud to each other, buy a new video game to play, or choose a new kind of cuisine to perfect.
Of course, no book or treat will come close to comparing with sex with your spouse. However, it gives us something to do while we wait and a way to connect when we can’t be together physically.
Of course, no book or treat will come close to comparing with sex with your spouse. However, it gives us something to do while we wait and a way to connect when we can’t be together physically.
3. Find Your Village
I am unspeakably lucky to know women who are in the same stage of life as I am and with whom I can talk openly and honestly about practicing NFP in our marriages. They are my lifeline and a constant reminder that we are not the only couple bearing difficult crosses.
You mention feeling abandoned by the Church and NFP world; do you have other couples you can lean on for support? If not, I encourage you to start those conversations with other wives at your parish. We have a married couples’ group that has been life-giving to us as we navigate the realities of marriage. If your church doesn’t have such a group, consider starting one! I think you would be surprised to find how many other couples also struggle with NFP (although perhaps not to the degree that you and your husband are) but who don’t know how to talk about it.
I think you would be surprised to find how many other couples also struggle with NFP but who don’t know how to talk about it.
There are also Facebook groups for all sorts of NFP situations; some groups are more helpful than others, so your mileage may vary, but they can be a good starting point for finding like-minded Catholics.
4. Get Physical
I agree that lots of physical affection can be too much to handle when you have weeks of abstinence ahead of you, but I’ve found it essential to continue being flirty and affectionate even when we can’t have sex.
Of course, only you and your husband know where you need to draw the line in order for things to not get carried away. Abstaining is so much harder when it feels like you’re just roommates, existing in the same home without any of the romance and intimacy that are vital in a marriage.
Abstaining is so much harder when it feels like you’re just roommates, existing in the same home without any of the romance and intimacy that are vital in a marriage.
So, we make eyes at each other like the cheesiest of lovebirds and let ourselves get a little carried away on occasion (without violating Church teaching, of course). We steal passionate kisses that leave us breathless and cursing our luck that we can’t go further. We make out like teenagers until one of us has to leave the room to take a cold shower. And we laugh a lot at the absurdity of being so in love and so very sexually frustrated.
5. Embrace the Cross
Finally: There’s no getting around the fact that this is a cross, plain and simple. There are things you can do to make it seem a bit more bearable, but at the end of the day, the need to abstain for long periods at a time is sacrificial. It is an encounter with suffering.
I don’t say that to discourage you but, rather, to affirm that your struggles are real. And, unfortunately, your lament at a lack of resources is partly because there is not much to be done about this kind of suffering except to just bear it. It’s not dramatically different from suffering the loss of a loved one, the decline of old age, or the suffocating fears of a global pandemic: There are no easy fixes or quick cures.
Unfortunately, your lament at a lack of resources is partly because there is not much to be done about this kind of suffering except to just bear it.
Allow yourself to be sad and angry. Shake your fist at the heavens, if you need to. It’s OK to find this season challenging.
This author would like to remain anonymous.
When you wrote in with your Dear Edith question, you began by stating your desire to welcome another child while still needing to TTA. You shared how you are working with top medical professionals to remedy your health issues. You suggested that you already know the goodness of NFP, prayer, and the other things people recommend when NFP gets hard.
In short: You already know that you are in a hard place, and you’ve tried everything. I get that, and I commend you for being open and vulnerable with us. You already know “the answers,” and they just aren't enough right now. That’s OK. Before I continue, please allow me to validate the difficulties you might be facing.
Right now, life is hard. Specifically, sex is rare, and your NFP charts tell you that having sex with your husband could result in a pregnancy, which is not prudent in your life at this moment. All of this hurts a great deal, as should be expected from such a difficult circumstance. Not only that, but switching to TTC may lead to its own set of problems. Talk about a rock and a hard place.
It’s OK to say all of this out loud to God, to yourself, and even to your husband in the spirit of camaraderie. Life shouldn’t suck all of the time, and when it feels like it does, it takes more out of us than we may be able to handle.
It’s OK to say all of this out loud to God, to yourself, and even to your husband in the spirit of camaraderie.
If you are still searching for a way to “fix” the problem of prolonged abstinence, I am happy to share some ideas (take it from someone who learned NFP while breastfeeding postpartum with an undiagnosed mental illness). Medical help is great, but sometimes, it needs support from holistic lifestyle changes, which allow the medicine to work at its fullest potential and give you the most benefits possible. One client of mine implemented light elimination therapy at my suggestion (sleeping in natural darkness, with no artificial light coming into the sleeping environment), and her hundreds-day-long cycles shortened to where they were still long-ish but much easier to chart. This is just one example of a simple, inexpensive change to make in a difficult circumstance.
Medical help is great, but sometimes, it needs support from holistic lifestyle changes.
If you are not looking to add more to your health regimen, perhaps this idea can ease the pain just a little: When awaiting those rare nights of lovemaking, you and your husband can have a jar to fill with your anticipations, hopes, and ideas concerning your love and sex life. Perhaps a few of them are prayers for yourself and your husband — or even stupid jokes! Whatever you wish. Add at least one note a day, but write as much as you and your husband like. If you ever need a pick-me-up, reach into the jar and enjoy a glimmer of positivity, intimacy, and silliness to get through that day.
My response alone can not guarantee that your situation improves. I also won't pretend that my suggestions will help right away — or at all. Even so, I pray that this season will end for you sooner rather than later. May it become a distant memory that forms your marriage into something wonderful.
Dear Edith: My Crazy Cycles are Making NFP a Nightmare
A few of my friends have recently gotten involved in Opus Dei. I love the idea of Opus Dei; I find the idea of sanctifying everyday life to be compelling and obviously what our Catholic faith calls us to. At the same time, I’ve been hesitant to get more involved, because I have some concerns about how the organization views women.
For example, I know that at the men’s house, they hired a completely female staff to cook, clean, and do laundry for them. I heard that the men are instructed not to engage with the staff at all and are not even allowed to speak to them. This is problematic to me for a number of reasons but, at its core, it seems dehumanizing of women.
Another area of concern for me stems from this quote by the founder of Opus Dei, St. Josemaría: “That is why I am not afraid to say that women are responsible for eighty percent of the infidelities of their husbands because they do not know how to win them each day and take loving and considerate care of them” (Escrivá de Balaguer 164). Blaming women for their husbands’ infidelity is not something that a Catholic should endorse or encourage.
I worry that these attitudes and sentiments are steeped into the culture of Opus Dei. I was hoping some of your readers have insights that they can share, especially if they have had personal experiences in Opus Dei. Are Opus Dei and feminism incompatible?
Many thanks for the question! I’ll work backward in responding to you.
The short answer to your question is yes: Feminism and Opus Dei are definitely compatible. I’m in Opus Dei, and some of the fiercest feminists I’ve ever met are other Opus Dei members. Opus Dei members don’t actually agree among themselves about much. I think the only thing we agree on is that everyone is called to holiness and the basics of the creed. And that's about it.
Opus Dei members don’t actually agree among themselves about much. I think the only thing we agree on is that everyone is called to holiness and the basics of the creed.
I think people mean pretty different things when they use the word “feminism,” and I think it has evolved a lot over time. Although I agree with many feminist ideals and believe that women often do get unjustly discriminated against, I find that some feminist attitudes and approaches do not always provide the most adequate frame for understanding complex problems and, as a result, can do more harm than good for women. But I certainly like this blog’s version of feminism based on what I’ve read so far.
To focus on your question though, I think you would find like-minded feminists among Opus Dei members if you actually spent time becoming their friends. It would be unfair for me, however, to speak on behalf of everyone, or to say that Opus Dei as such is “pro-feminism” or “anti-feminism.” Everyone has their own opinion.
If that doesn’t answer your question, here’s a different take on it:
In the formation that Opus Dei has given me, I have been encouraged to pursue my professional ambitions and, at the same time, to consider why family should be a priority; to realize that both spheres of life require work (it’s no small thing to raise children, care for a home, and make a family happen); and that all work, whether it enjoys social prestige or not, can be a path to holiness, imbued with the Gospel values of Jesus’ silent work as a carpenter for the majority of his life and with Mary’s work at home.
On this last point, you could say that St. Josemaria’s spirituality has led many women — but also many men — to view the work that goes into family and home in a new light, finding real fulfillment in something others consider trivial or lacking impact. The fact that many work environments implicitly force women to choose between the two spheres is another matter, and probably a more threatening problem. But as far as advancement of women is concerned, Opus Dei is all for it, and so was its founder, maintaining this principle for both sexes. In short, you will find many married women in Opus Dei who are moms and work full-time outside of the home, but you will also find many full-time moms. So, take your pick.
St. Josemaria’s spirituality has led many women — but also many men — to view the work that goes into family and home in a new light
As for that particular quote from St. Josemaria, it might not be one of my favorites. In my own experience, though, growing up in a family where both parents were members of Opus Dei, my impression is that he says pretty much the same thing to men, telling them that they have to “win over” their wives daily, serve them, and put them first — including above their children. In addition, he definitely did not see educating children as primarily a women’s job, telling men to view their family as their “most important business,” to be actively involved in raising their children and creating the family dynamic. At least, that’s what I saw happening in my own house growing up, and I’m pretty sure this is where my Dad gets his personal conviction that his “true greatness” lies in the kind of spouse and father he is.
I don’t think it’s fair to paint a picture of St. Josemaria as someone who viewed women primarily as home-makers. He insisted that women receive the same academic training as men and that they pursue all fields. In any case, St. Josemaria was definitely a man of his time, and some of his language does not sit well today. I think this is ultimately true of everyone, though, sooner or later.
St. Josemaria insisted that women receive the same academic training as men and that they pursue all fields.
As for the first point about the men’s center, I agree with you that it looks odd, but I imagine the motive behind them not seeking to engage in personal relationships with the staff has more to do with respect and courtesy: It would not be appropriate for the men living at the center to ask for personal services from the staff.
Also, you might be interested to know that last May, the Church beatified the first layperson in Opus Dei: Guadalupe Ortiz de Landázuri, a woman who was one of the first female chemists in Spain in the 1950s.
Last May, the Church beatified the first layperson in Opus Dei: Guadalupe Ortiz de Landázuri, a woman who was one of the first female chemists in Spain.
Finally, you might enjoy this interview with the woman who leads Opus Dei's central advisory, which works directly with Opus Dei's prelate in Rome.
In closing, I just want to say that I think this website is a fantastic, much-needed initiative and a great forum for dialogue. Thanks a lot!
Dear Sister in Christ,
I understand your concerns. I have lived in an Opus Dei student center for three years and my husband for five. He is also from The Work, a supernumerary, and I am not. That being said, I would say I am a little bit of an “insider.” I share your concern regarding how this organization views woman. In my personal experience, however, I do not find their teachings offensive.
It is true that the men in an Opus Dei center are not allowed to have contact with the female staff. When I first heard about this rule, I was shocked and found it ridiculous. However, now that I have heard multiple explanations of why this rule exists, I understand it more. It helps the male and female numeraire members of Opus Dei to live chastely. Since they live a life of celibacy, it may be hard to encounter women every day in your living room, study room, bedroom, etc. Opus Dei is very careful with mixing sexes in this regard, and I can't say I blame them, with all the scandals from sexual abuse within the church.
This doesn't mean that numeraries completely avoid contact with the opposite sex. They are meant to sanctify their work, and there are both males and females on the workfloor. They just keep an appropriate distance, and Opus Dei draws a fairly strict line for in-house contact. I view this as part of Opus Dei’s charism, one that can help some people grow closer to God and fulfill their vocation. Also, I have heard (though I’m not certain!) that they are experimenting with student houses in Spain where there is little to no female staff in the male houses. If this is the case, I think they are considering a more modern approach to household chores.
Opus Dei’s charism can help some people grow closer to God and fulfill their vocation.
I would also like to comment on the quote of the founder that you had concerns about. I share your view on that particular statement. Before commenting, I would like to quote the entire two paragraphs where this is written to provide some context:
“Another important thing is personal appearance. And I would say that any priest who says the contrary is a bad adviser. As the years go by a woman who lives in the world has to take more care not only of her interior life, but also of her looks. Her interior life itself requires her to be careful about her personal appearance; naturally this should always be in keeping with her age and circumstances. I often say jokingly that older facades need more restoration. It is the advice of a priest. An old Spanish saying goes: ‘A well-groomed woman keeps her husband away from other doors.’
That is why I am not afraid to say that women are responsible for eighty percent of the infidelities of their husbands because they do not know how to win them each day and take loving and considerate care of them. A married woman’s attention should be centered on her husband and children as a married man’s attention should be centered on his wife and children. Much time and effort is required to succeed in this, and anything which militates against it is bad and should not be tolerated.”
I think the point St. Josemaría tries to make is that it is important for both husband and wife to take good care of themselves. Personally, I think it is very good for men and women to be encouraged to look put together. At the same time, a good marriage is not built on physical appearances (though it can help).
To answer the last question, “Are Opus Dei and feminism incompatible?”: personally, I don’t think so. Participating in Opus Dei can be very empowering — especially to women! Both sexes are called to sanctify their ordinary lives. Whether that means being a stay-at-home mom or a businesswoman, we are called to work hard, do good, and become Saints while being present in the world. As the wife of a supernumerary, I often hear my husband talk about how he is called to take very good care of me by working hard but also by helping me with the kids and household duties. He will not become holy by letting me do all the work while he does his daily prayer. Instead, he is encouraged to pray while changing diapers, folding laundry, or cooking. And I think that’s wonderful.
Both sexes are called to sanctify their ordinary lives.
You asked whether Opus Dei and feminism are incompatible. It may seem so, when reading the following statement by Opus Dei's founder, St. Josemaría Escrivá:
“Women are responsible for eighty percent of the infidelities of their husbands because they do not know how to win them each day and take loving and considerate care of them” (Conversations with Monsignor Escrivá de Balaguer, number 107).
And yet, even as someone with little patience for men who blame women, it's worth looking more closely at St. Josemaría and Opus Dei.
This quote, said in the late 1960s, was not spoken unprompted to a general audience. St. Josemaría offered his seemingly hyperbolic perspective to an audience of women, responding to a question asked by women: “What would you advise married women to do to ensure their marriages continue to be happy with the passing of the years and that they do not give way to monotony?” (Conversations, number 107).
It is a familiar question for any sex or marriage therapist: What do I do when my relationship becomes boring? It would be terribly unhelpful for St. Josemaría, or any marriage counselor, to respond to this group of wives, “You can't do anything when marriage gets boring; it's completely up to your husband to keep himself happy.”
Instead, Josemaría offers workable advice to the women who asked the question: to try, every day, to win their husbands’ hearts. He reassures them that marriage does not inevitably “give way to monotony.”
Notably, when asked a similar question by a man several years later in Argentina, Josemaría responds quite differently, with no hint of blaming women. The man expresses concern about sexual “filth” in contemporary society: adultery, pornography, and fornication. Rather than applaud this man’s holiness for calling out the sins of others around him, and rather than suggest that the man laments a problem he has no power to fix, St. Josemaría once again gives workable advice to the person asking the question:
“First, be a good husband to your wife, and a good father to your daughters. Take care of your interior life. Do that first, and think of these other things later” (John Allen, Opus Dei 70).
When asked a similar question by a man several years later in Argentina, Josemaría responds quite differently, with no hint of blaming women.
While I can excuse St. Josemaría’s women-blaming language when viewed in the fuller context of the conversation, the audience, and his additional writings, it is always relevant to recall that every saint is fully human and fully fallible.
To further challenge the suggestion that Josemaría might err toward misogyny — and similarly taint the entire mission of the organization he founded — consider his encouragement that men fully embrace emotions of sadness or regret:
“You are crying? Don't be ashamed of it. Yes, cry: men also cry like you, when they are alone and before God. Each night, says King David, I soak my bed with tears. With those tears, those burning, manly tears, you can purify your past and supernaturalize your present life” (Josemaría Escrivá, The Way, chapter 7, number 216).
Intersectional feminism echoes Josemaría's advocacy that emotional intelligence among men needs strengthening as a cultural norm.
Josemaría also advocated for women’s leadership in politics. In acknowledging that the greater physical responsibility of childbearing falls to women, he recognized that women are more likely than men to draft quality legislation in support of children and families:
“The presence of women in the whole range of social life is a logical and entirely positive phenomenon ... A modern democratic society has to recognise women’s right to take an active part in political life and it has to create conditions favourable for everyone who wants to exercise this right ... Her specific contribution will often ... lead to the discovery of completely new approaches. By virtue of their special gifts, women greatly enrich civil life. This is very obvious, for example, in the sphere of family or social legislation. Feminine qualities offer the best guarantee that genuine human and Christian values will be respected when it comes to taking measures that affect family life, education, and the future of youth” (Conversations, number 90, emphasis added).
Josemaría advocated for women’s leadership in politics.
I’ll stop short of declaring Josemaría’s inevitable endorsement of Catholic feminism out of respect for his repeated refusal to connect Opus Dei to any social or political movement on the chance it would detract from his one central focus, Jesus Christ:
“For more than thirty years I have said and written in thousands of different ways that Opus Dei does not seek any worldly or political aims, that it only and exclusively seeks to foster — among all races, all social conditions, all countries — the knowledge and practice of the saving teachings of Christ. … But there will always be a partisan minority who are ignorant of what I and so many of us love. They would like us to explain Opus Dei in their terms, which are exclusively political, foreign to supernatural realities, attuned only to power plays and pressure groups” (Josemaría Escrivá, Christ Is Passing By 70).
From this uncompromising conviction, Josemaría protected Opus Dei’s primary mission — “the saving teachings of Christ” — by refusing to entangle his organization in any political alliance, liberal or conservative, even when those politics claimed Catholic foundations. When Monsignor Giovanni Benelli, a high-ranking Vatican official, attempted to create a Catholic political party in Spain, Escrivá firmly refused any support from Opus Dei. He condemned what he called the “pseudo-spiritual one-party mentality,” insisting that “Opus Dei can never be, in the political life of a country, a kind of political party: there is and always will be room within Opus Dei for all outlooks and approaches allowed by a Christian conscience” (Allen 105).
Still, this prioritization of Opus Dei's Christ-based mission, preserved by members’ conscientious political freedom, does not preclude the organization from social justice activism. Perceptibly, Opus Dei’s advocacy for marginalized people around the world develops as a natural fruit of its inclusive, work-based spirituality rather than as a comprehensive endpoint objective. Opus Dei has youth centers in inner cities to resource young people out of poverty. Through professional training programs, Opus Dei gives women in third-world countries the means to become financially independent. And, Opus Dei opened the first racially integrated university in East Africa (Allen 127, 201).
Opus Dei’s advocacy for marginalized people around the world develops as a natural fruit of its inclusive, work-based spirituality.
Regarding Opus Dei’s stringent organizational divide between men and women, it might be likened to similar divisions in other Catholic groups, such as the Dominicans and Franciscans. Importantly, this separation by sex within Opus Dei does not seem inherently unequal. The women’s side of Opus Dei — its many departments, schools, centers, events, issues, studies, and the problem-solving all of them requires — is run entirely by women, independent from the men’s branch.
Numeraries, the most dedicated members of Opus Dei, are men and women lay members who take vows of celibacy and live in community, often working professional jobs in the world while volunteering extensively within Opus Dei centers. Men and women numeraries receive the same doctrinal and theological formation.
A common concern with regard to potential sexism within Opus Dei is the role of numerary assistants, a subset of women numeraries whose consecrated work is solely dedicated to the care of Opus Dei centers. Often described as the “mothers” of Opus Dei, numerary assistants’ primary work is housework and cooking. This perceived endorsement of domestic labor as exclusively “women’s work” raises valid questions. Are mundane tasks of cleaning or food preparation truly outside of a man’s capability or responsibility?
It is worth noting that in some men’s Opus Dei centers, men do the housework and cooking. Nonetheless, they do so in their capacity as numeraries, since the role of numerary assistant is reserved only to women.
Relevant to any discussion around numerary assistants is Opus Dei’s innate incompatibility with hierarchies of labor; in the spirituality of St. Josemaría Escrivá, all work is holy. Every job, regardless of wage — even, and especially, the wageless job of “homemaker” — is considered professional work, because every person is pursuing excellence. In this light, numerary assistants might be better contextualized as interior designers, catering managers, event planners, or professional domestic specialists rather than viewed through a secular lens, which often dismisses housekeepers or servers as second-class citizens. In affirmation of the professionalism associated with their position, numerary assistants receive pensions and insurance for their work in Opus Dei.
In the spirituality of St. Josemaría Escrivá, all work is holy.
Finally, consider the indispensable personal connection between vocation and charism within the Church. Someone who enjoys teaching might join the Dominicans. Social work? The Vincentians. Prayer? The Carmelites. Youth outreach? The Salesians. Health care? The Alexian Brothers. Hospitality, homemaking, event planning, and cooking? Opus Dei's numerary assistants. And why not? If all work is equally holy, then why not have a religious vocation dedicated to every form of it? Many numerary assistants report they would be doing similar work in the secular world, and they appreciate the opportunity to do this work within a religious commitment (Allen 184).
People who identify as feminist within Opus Dei tend to align with the feminist ideals embraced by FemCatholic: that there are discernible differences between the sexes and, in bringing women more fully into the public sphere, we do not seek to increase the size of an androgynous workforce but, rather, to incorporate the valuable perspectives women have to offer.
Marta Manzi, a member of Opus Dei and spokesperson for the organizing committee of Josemaría's canonization, repeats St. Josemaría's fundamental approach to women in the public sphere: Women’s work is not simply repetitious or replaceable to men’s work. The insights women bring to business, politics, governance, communication, and every sector of society are done “in a surprisingly different way and not as a clone of man” (Allen 194-195).
While some describe Opus Dei as a somewhat exclusive organization, attractive only to a minor subset of Catholics, collaboration within Opus Dei is quite diverse. The spirituality of Opus Dei is open to non-Catholics of any religious background, including atheists. Remarkably, Opus Dei was the first Catholic institution to receive permission from the Holy See to include non-Catholics in its enrollment.
Not unlike FemCatholic, Opus Dei discerns its mission with both broad inclusivity and a Christ-centered singular focus, which makes it an easy target for misunderstanding and dismissive generalizations. From my reading of St. Josemaría Escrivá and the contemporary work of his organization, Opus Dei is wholly compatible with Catholic feminism.
Not unlike FemCatholic, Opus Dei discerns its mission with both broad inclusivity and a Christ-centered singular focus, which makes it an easy target for misunderstanding and dismissive generalizations.
I write as a former numerary (celibate) member of Opus Dei. I was recruited to “the Work” (as it is called by those familiar with it) when I was 14 years old. I left seven years later, before making a permanent commitment.
I want to be completely up front: after those seven years of living in the organization, I had to spend several years processing the spiritual and mental abuse I experienced during that time. I realize that is a controversial claim, and I know I may sound like a conspiracy theorist. I also know that some will write off my response as just the ravings of a bitter ex-member, which is untrue. In fact, I’m still friends with many current and former members of the group.
Since we’re internet strangers, I won’t ask you to trust me. I will simply encourage you to trust your gut. Your intuition that Opus Dei might be incompatible with feminism is not wrong. It is also a good idea to seek information about Opus Dei from an outside source. I want to briefly address this before I move on to the topic of feminism: one of the difficulties of learning more about Opus Dei is that it is purposely discrete about its practices around recruitment, its governance, and its finances. This secretiveness is not always easy to discover. Some members say they are an open book, and they will answer your questions. If you don’t know what to ask, however, they won’t offer further information. The effect is that you feel like you’re always peeling back layers of the onion, but you never quite get to the center. Even after seven years living within the organization, I still don’t feel like I have a full grasp of what was happening at higher levels of governance where decisions are made. The longer I spent in the organization, the more I felt I wasn’t allowed to ask.
With all of that in mind, let’s move on to your concerns regarding Opus Dei’s compatibility with feminism. You’ll need a bit of background information to understand that this concern about misogyny is relevant to not just a few members’ personal opinions or the practices at just one center, or even in just one country. Rather, this concern is relevant to Opus Dei’s organizational structure. St. Josemaría organized Opus Dei so that the men’s and women’s branches are completely separate, in large part to avoid temptation for celibate members of the opposite sex. The lay men and women run separate apostolates and their governance is largely separate. There are only two places of overlap: the priests who give spiritual direction to all members and what is called the Administration: the women who cook, clean, and care for domestic matters in Opus Dei men’s centers, student residences, and conference centers.
In terms of governance, both the men’s and women’s sides are run by boards of numeraries. I don’t know whether this is still the case, but when I was in the Work, the differences in rules between the two sides, while sometimes minor, gave the impression that the women were more strictly controlled. For instance, male numeraries could smoke, but not women because it wasn’t ladylike. If a potential recruit smoked, she was encouraged to quit. If she couldn’t quit, she was allowed to join Opus Dei only as a supernumerary (who can be married or single and dating). Additionally, female numeraries’ clothing and appearance were much more strictly policed. Even the priests were watchful of the women’s appearances. A numerary who had just returned from the headquarters in Rome once told me a story about the Prelate publicly chastising a woman for not waxing her facial hair and then chastising the other female members present for their lack of charity in not telling her to wax before he had to do so.
Returning to the Administration: it is run by female numeraries, and the majority of the women in it are numerary assistants. This is a special vocation for women only: a celibate life dedicated to caring for matters of the home (cooking, cleaning, laundry, chapel linens, etc.) at Opus Dei centers.
In women’s centers, the female numeraries are in charge of all decision-making, job assignments, and spiritual direction for numerary assistants. Unfortunately, this could leave numerary assistants more vulnerable to exploitation than the average Opus Dei member. The female numeraries eat separately from the numerary assistants who wait upon them.
In men’s centers, due to the need for separation, there are certain times when the men must stay out of their sleeping quarters and dining rooms, and they are never allowed to enter the kitchen while women are present. The doors are locked from both sides to prevent any interaction between men and women, and there are strict protocols for communicating with the Administration: all notes are read by two people, phone calls are brief, and another numerary or numerary assistant is required to be present when a call is placed or received to the other side.
I can see the wisdom in practicing prudence through separation of the sexes. And thus far, Opus Dei has avoided even the appearance of sexual scandal by virtue of these practices. However, the locks and elaborate protocols of separation would be unnecessary if Opus Dei trained its male members to clean and cook for themselves, or if it opened up the vocation of numerary assistant to men. St. Josemaría believed interaction between celibate men and women to be a huge risk, but he felt it was worth the risk to preserve the luxury of men not having to cook or clean for themselves. By creating a vocation for only women only to do these chores, St. Josemaría clearly communicated what is expected of a man in Opus Dei versus what is expected of a woman.
Regarding your quote from St. Josemaría about a woman’s responsibility for her husband’s infidelity: Most in Opus Dei would defend this quote, perhaps not on its merits, but on the basis of historical context. They’d say that St. Josemaría is a product of his time and place, and turn-of-the-century Spain wasn’t exactly progressive. Be that as it may, as I’ve shown here, concerns about misogyny are relevant to more than one man’s writing and his historical context; they are relevant to Opus Dei’s very structure and expectations for its members.
I still believe that the ideals and some practices of Opus Dei are good: answering the call to universal holiness as a layperson, sanctifying one’s work, frequenting the sacraments, and developing a strong relationship with God our Father. At the same time, Opus Dei doesn’t have a monopoly on these ideals and practices, nor do they hold some secret to living them. They are available to all Catholics.
Dear Edith: This Catholic group Opus Dei - are they sexist?
I grew up Catholic, though not always practicing. I am practicing now and, as I’ve really dived into the Faith, I’ve learned so much about the saints, the body, mind, and soul, and how it all connects back to God. I’ve learned what the teachings mean and why they exist.
With that being said, I have a couple questions on sex. Here are my questions, with backstory added as needed:
First, I currently have a boyfriend. We love each other so much, and we had sex in the past before I started practicing, but I did end our sexual relationship. He said he was OK with that, but as the months keep going, I feel like he isn’t really OK with it. I say this because he will still make sexual jokes or try to touch me sexually, saying “I’m just joking,” or “I’m trying to tempt you.”
I started thinking to myself: If he really loves me, why does he want to tempt me? He isn’t Catholic and is faithless. I understand that this change is difficult for him because of the past and because he doesn’t understand my Faith. I have tried explaining it in different ways, but he responds by telling me that he feels like I don’t love him anymore or by saying he won’t touch me at all (such as holding hands). I love my Faith, but I am unsure of how to cope with him and his way of thinking. I’m at a loss and I don’t know how to handle this situation — any advice?
Second, my two best friends are highly sexual and, when we get together, they talk about how they don’t owe their body to anyone, how they have lots of sex and sexual freedom, and things of that nature. I don’t know how to respond to these topics anymore. I don’t want my friends to stop trusting me, see me as judgmental, or think I’m old-school. I try to teach them what I know, but I feel like they don’t care. I need advice for what to do when these topics come up in conversation.
I relate to much of what you shared. I was also raised Catholic, though “pick-and-choose Catholic.” I thought that the Church’s teachings about chastity were antiquated and I was raised to believe that, so long as you and your partner were in love and generally respectful, there was a good enough foundation for sex. In my first sexual relationship, I was dating a fellow Catholic. While he and I shared our virginity with each other, he was the one who felt convicted to start practicing chastity and he wanted us to stop having sex. I recall having a similar reaction to that of your boyfriend: I thought that my partner not wanting to have sex with me anymore meant that I wasn’t desirable enough and that he no longer loved me. He explained to me that he was trying to do the right thing, to glorify God, and to love me better, but I just couldn’t understand it at the time. My heart and mind weren’t open to chastity.
I commend your courage and willingness to embrace chastity and practice it in your relationship with your boyfriend, to seek to love him more deeply. That’s really beautiful and really hard, especially if your partner doesn’t understand your reasoning. Perhaps you could take additional measures to verbally communicate that your love for him is just as present as it was before. Ask if he has any insecurities that he wants to share. Find other “love languages” to show your care for him. Ask him what makes him feel loved aside from sexual expressions of intimacy.
At the same time, mutual respect is essential to the integrity of any lasting relationship, and it is important that you articulate how you feel when your boundaries are crossed or belittled. I encourage you to communicate what active love means to you and how his actions (don’t) reflect genuine love, to give him the opportunity to love you in more authentic ways. The best advice I can give is to take this to prayer. God gave you the grace to develop the convictions you now have about chastity and He will guide you through these challenges.
In the end, my boyfriend and I broke up; he told me that he was discerning religious life. It wasn’t until a few years later that I had my own change of heart about chastity. He wrote me a letter telling me that, though he had decided to enter seminary, he would always love me, just in a different way. He asked me to pray for him and told me that he still wanted my friendship in his life. He showed me a new definition of love, one that isn’t about performing to earn affection, but rather about desiring and working for the good of the other.
A few years after that, I was in a relationship with a different guy and we weren’t very chaste. I began to hear God saying, “This isn’t good for him,” even when we were right in the middle of things (inconveniently!). I eventually told this guy that I wanted to start practicing chastity, but he wasn’t open to it. Though painful, it was only after that experience that I understood how my former boyfriend was trying to love me better through his own recommitment to chastity. An appreciation for chastity finally took root in my heart.
We can neither change nor fix others, and we can’t force them to see things the way we do. This applies to friendships, as well as to romantic relationships. If your friends aren’t open to trying to understand your perspective, then making your case can feel like beating a dead horse, despite sound reasoning. Even if we come into possession of a great truth and life-giving wisdom that we want to share, we can’t force someone to be receptive to it. If your friends sharing about their sexual relationships makes you uncomfortable, you have every right to communicate that and set a boundary for yourself.
I’ve also been through this with close friends. It used to bother me when I heard about my friends’ sex lives and, for a while after I decided to embrace chastity, I felt distant from some of them. Now, I’m in a place where if my sexually active friends share about that part of their lives, I don’t bother with trying to change their point of view. I feel comfortable and confident with my choice to strive for chastity. They respect where I am and I respect where they are, even if we disagree. I just try to listen to my friends and ask questions: How does it make you feel holistically? Do you feel fully alive? Do you feel like you can be yourself with your partner? I also ask if they’re expressing love as fully as they can. If not, what gets in the way of that? What makes it hard to desire the good of the other? What makes vulnerability challenging? What makes you feel unprepared for life-long commitment? While chastity is an essential virtue, it may be hard to lead with that in a conversation.
All we can expect or ask of others is to have open communication and show mutual respect for who we are, even if we don’t agree. We decide for ourselves which needs in a relationship are non-negotiable. It is important in any relationship that both people have their needs met and can be their full selves, without having to compromise truth or violate their conscience.
Finally, stay close to the Sacraments and the faith practices that give you a sense of consolation and closeness with God. They will give you strength and grace, even in difficult circumstances. Remember that you were created out of love, to receive and to be a bearer of God’s love. Take comfort in that as your primary vocation. Trust in the slow, unfolding work of God, that in all things God desires your greatest good and loves you deeply, personally, and unconditionally.
I’ll be praying for you, my sister in Christ,
Dear Edith: I Have No Support System for Trying to Save Sex for Marriage
I'm 24 years old and was raised in a deeply Catholic family. I felt myself getting away from the Church as I went through college. Now, I'm trying to find my way back.
I have trouble balancing my feminism with Catholic teaching. I was browsing a Catholic page the other day and found something that made my whole being tremble with anger: a post about how a woman must act when she's with a priest.
I won't translate the whole thing but I'll give you a few highlights:
"Dear madam and lady: You have to keep your composure when you're with a priest. Don't hug him, keep your distance. Otherwise, you can become a temptation. . . We want celibate priests, right? Therefore, let's not tempt them or hurt them with those attitudes that risk their holy lives. . . Lastly: Wear decent clothing! Skip low necklines and that red lipstick."
Yes, you read that correctly: red lipstick.
Apparently, it’s not the priest who's responsible for his actions. He's not the one who has to be careful not to break his sacred vow. Women have to be careful not to make him sin because men can't control themselves. Boys will be boys, right?
The worst part of it was the comment section. When a woman said how sexist and unfair the post was, others attacked her and badmouthed feminism.
How can I deal with these kinds of situations? How can I believe that the Church is feminist when things like this keep happening around me? I'm lost, angry, and tired.
Sincere thanks for your question. The tendency for people to place the responsibility for the chastity of our priests, and all too often of our lay men as well, on the women in their proximity is a troubling problem in our Church communities, especially when it results in blaming a victim of sexual assault for what happened to them. I’ve been on the receiving end of that sort of blame, so I know how much harm it can do.
Often, there is a misplaced emphasis on the virtue of modesty in these conversations. It is important to teach ourselves how to keep appropriate boundaries with other people, and it is true that being ordained doesn’t render men sexless angels who can never be tempted. But the boundaries that need to be put in place are no different than the common-sense boundaries a woman ought to keep with any guy she isn’t married to or any professional counselor or doctor she sees regularly.
What often is lost in these conversations is that the priest is every bit as responsible for keeping these boundaries. In fact, he may have more of a responsibility, because often, he has a certain amount of influence or power imbalance over these women just by his position as her pastor or as a leader in her church community. My husband was a seminarian for four years, and he has told me that priests are trained precisely to keep this responsibility in mind. They are responsible not only for avoiding situations that may breed scandal but also for avoiding situations that may foster even the appearance of scandal. Because they tend to have an imbalance of power in the majority of their relationships with the laity, priests have a unique responsibility to protect both themselves and those they minister to by the boundaries that they keep.
What isn’t commonly understood is that priests who are sexual predators often groom precisely by actively seeking to break down these boundaries themselves. They usually only break their vows after weeks, months, or even years of pushing and breaking down professional distance and after integrating themselves ever more intimately and influentially with their victim’s lives. It doesn’t just happen one day because their victim decided to wear a low-cut shirt and lipstick. In my experience, it can happen when you’re wearing a baggy T-shirt and jeans, too.
My sexual assault by a priest only happened after I had been seeing him for spiritual direction for months. He was the chaplain at the small Christian college I attended. He had an enormous amount of influence not only over me but over all of my friends and had a good reputation with the diocese. He went out of his way to make his office the place where my social group hung out most of the time, frequently spent time with us socially, and positioned himself to be the person we all saw for confession and spiritual direction. He started inviting me into his office and shutting the door, and he pushed back the confessional screen when I went in for confession. He asked for detailed descriptions when I mentioned struggling with sexual thoughts. He broke down those boundaries slowly, carefully, over a long period of time. Before the assault happened, he already controlled a huge amount of my life.
I wasn’t the only woman that this priest assaulted. When two of his other victims came forward with a lawsuit against the university for ignoring their complaints against him, they were largely decried by the university community for being “mentally ill” and “immodest.” When I’ve shared my story with others, I’ve had people imply that I must have had a crush on him or that it was my fault for ignoring some “gut instinct” that I must have had, or that I must have tempted him by having inappropriate physical boundaries.
People don’t want to believe that their pastors and priests might be intentionally breaking down boundaries and victimizing people. If that’s the case, then it could happen to them as well. It’s much less scary to believe that the victims did it to themselves somehow, that there was some action or piece of clothing or way of behaving that made the priest assault them. Because if it was because of something that the victim did, that means that all I have to do is avoid that behavior, and I’ll be safe. When people victim-blame, it’s because they’re afraid it could happen to them, too.
Unfortunately, their fear is obscuring the problem and causing even more harm to the victims. Because they choose to give the priests a pass for their behavior, the cycle has perpetuated itself for far, far too long. We need to hold the people who have broken their vows and preyed on their flock accountable.
The reason that I’m choosing to stay with the Church despite the fearful, sexist reaction of much of her community is because what she teaches is true. I have never found a more beautiful or complete support of the unique gifts and value of women than in the teachings of the Church (“Mulieris Dignitatem” by St. John Paul II is a great place to start if you want an example). Her teachings on the innate human dignity of every human being are consistent. And I believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
And, thank God, there are good people in the Church fighting to support victims and to implement what the Church actually teaches. They may sometimes seem to be few, but they are there, and they are fighting. In the face of sexism and victim blaming, I’m choosing to do what I can to change the culture in the Church to one that affirms the dignity of women and to help make sure that what happened to me doesn’tf happen to anyone else.
We as a Church community have a long way to go; you’re absolutely right. We could really use your help if you’re up for it.
Emily Hess is a twenty-something stay-at-home mom. She lives in South Texas, where the tacos are delicious and it pretty much never snows. She blogs about all sorts of things both silly and serious at tejanagringa.blogspot.com.
The Church is very big and very diverse. There are feminist and sexist Catholics, and probably any other opinion of any kind is held by some Catholics, somewhere.
There are several ways to describe the attitude of “the Church.” Some Catholics would say that only the Pope and his Curial offices can define the Church’s opinion. Others would disagree.
In another sense, all the bishops of the world are the teaching voice of the Church. And in yet another, very real sense, all Catholics of the world are the Church, and the Church is of a divided mind on many matters. Some things are simply contrary to the true teaching of Christ and His body (even if some of His members hold to them), and others are just matters of judgment and opinion.
The Church is feminist in her formal doctrine that we teach the equal dignity of women, the requirement to respect women without sexist prejudice, the right of parents to choose to work or not, the right of women to marry whomever they choose (or no one at all), the need for our voice to be heard in every level of society and all fields of knowledge and work. You can find all of those teachings in official documents of Rome. As far as I know, most Catholic men and women in the United States hold these beliefs, too.
I encourage you to get to know some Catholics around you and see for yourself what they think and how they act. You’ll find all kinds, of course, but if your sample is representative, I think you’ll feel mostly comfortable regarding major feminist ideas.
If we want to feel at home in the Church, we need to find our Catholic people. You’ll find a lot of like-minded women here at FemCatholic, for example! If you want to get to know the Church, you need to get to know many Catholic people. If you want to accept the Church, you need to accept all the Catholic people like Christ does, with open arms, striving and fallen, enlightened and confused.
Rachel Meyer is a homeschooling mother of three boys, a lay Dominican, and a Notre Dame engineering alum.
Dear Edith: When the Church Doesn't Look Feminist
I have a question that I would like to propose to anyone at FemCatholic.
Basically it comes down to this: we are persons with strong desires to procreate. Women like to date men with jobs. Men could care less about the job, they tend to date women who can bear children. That would be fine, except for the fact that we are persons, human subjects who must also love.
Given that there is a real need to procreate and at the same time to enter into a true partnership of love, how much stock should a woman put into ensuring that her boyfriend or fiancé doesn't masturbate, doesn’t watch porn, has had a number of sexual partners, etc.? How does one draw a line, and when?
The reason I ask this is that I find many women who have a strong desire for children, and fewer and fewer men who arrive to adulthood without baggage from the deranged culture we live in.
As a priest, what advice should I give to young women looking to marry? I do have some ideas about this, but they are only my ideas. I have yet to come across anyone else's ideas, which is very dangerous position. What would you say?
Fr. Eric Nielsen
Fr. Eric Nielsen is the Pastor of the St. Paul Catholic Student Center.
Dear Fr. Nielsen,
This is a tricky subject. Sadly, because of the culture we live in, many women will encounter this situation. I'm getting married this summer to the man who consistently draws me closer to Christ. On our first date, he confessed a lot of his past, not to scare me but to give me a heads-up. At first, I was hurt because I desired for him to wait. However, I was humbled and honored that he shared that with me so honestly.
With that story came a better one: the story of how he realized that Jesus conquered the very sins he struggled with. The spiritual death he encountered after those sins transformed into a moment of hearing Our Lord calling him to be a better man. When I ask him whether he's ever ashamed by his past of sexual sin, he says, “Sometimes.” He promises me that grace wins. He says after four and a half years of dating me and practicing chastity, he wishes he didn't do what he did before. At the same time, he says those moments of sin and suffering give way to a beautiful conversion story and a way to connect with men who struggle like he did. God calls him to minister to men caught in the same sins that ensnared him.
These moments of my fiancé’s past came up in marriage preparation. They are crosses he bears, but he does not bear them alone.
I told you my fiancé’s story because his testimony informs my answer. We cannot hold someone's past against them, especially if they have confessed their sins and changed.
I love the Scripture passage of the woman caught in adultery. After Jesus says that He does not condemn her, He tells her to go and sin no more (John 8:11). A woman's job is not to heal a man or convert a man who is ensnared in sin. Women have a unique job in calling men to holiness, but it is God alone who heals the man.
If a Catholic woman is dating a man who continues to commit sexual sin, I recommend that she urge the man to go to Confession, talk to a priest, and work to forgive him. At the same time, he needs to change. Our Lord forgives us, constantly and unceasingly, when we truly repent - and He constantly calls us to conversion.
Therefore, if the man does not change by his own will, it's not ours to do. We are not called to be the instrument of change for each person; we are called to love them and, when a person is resistant to change, we must know when our time in someone's story comes to an end. We can be guiding lights on the way to conversion, but sometimes we are not the final one.
If a man is upfront and honest with his past and actively seeks our Lord through conversion, encourage the woman to exercise prudence. She could invite him to Confession, Adoration, and Mass. She should set her boundaries and keep to them. Depending on the nature of their relationship, she could suggest that he speak with a counselor or a man he trusts to keep him accountable.
Emily grew up as a cradle Catholic, but did not see the beauty of her faith until college. Emily is a special education teacher and she and her sweet fiancé get married this August. Her favorite saints are St. Mary Magdalene and St. Rose of Lima.
Dear Fr. Nielsen,
Thank you for striving to provide authentic advice to women in your community. As a young, single, Catholic woman navigating the dating world, I wish I had more opportunities to engage in conversations with clergy. I will answer your question the best I can, but my view is just one among many, so I hope the conversation will continue.
Here is the question as you put it: “...how much stock should a woman put into ensuring that her boyfriend or fiancé doesn’t masturbate, doesn’t watch porn, has had a number of sexual partners, etc.? How does one draw a line, and when?”
There are certain values I look for in a partner: compassion, integrity, and humility, to name a few. Chastity is also one of these values, which relates to some of the acts you describe, such as pornography use and masturbation. The “stock” put into these values is different for each person, so perhaps your conversation could begin with asking the woman to consider what’s important to her in a partner. Chastity is an important virtue for Catholics, but the expectations or standards each woman has are different and require discernment. For example, I am currently dating a man who does watch porn on occasion, but earnestly shares this struggle with God and seeks reconciliation. Additionally, I would gladly date someone with a history of sexual partners if they were now committed to pursuing chastity, but this might not be the case for everyone.
In summary, I believe we should pursue relationships in which each person can grow in holiness, so I draw the line at whether or not my partner has a willingness to grow in virtue, and this includes chastity.
Before concluding, I’d like to return to your initial comments. You mention that the reason you asked this question is because you have met “fewer and fewer men who arrive to adulthood without baggage from the deranged culture we live in.” While this may be true, please know that women also carry “baggage” and struggle with the pursuit of chastity. “How much stock should a man put into ensuring that his girlfriend/fiancée doesn’t masturbate, doesn’t watch porn, has had a number of sexual partners, etc.? How does one draw a line, and when?” This is an equally important question.
This author would like to remain anonymous.
Dear Fr. Nielsen,
I agree with you that it’s hard to find virtuous men in today’s culture. With the current normalization of pornography and masturbation, it’s even harder to find a guy who hasn’t struggled with some kind of sexual sin in his past. With the grace of God, however, we don’t need to find someone who doesn’t have a past. I think we should put more stock into how a prospective partner lives his present life.
In determining who to marry, we cannot make lack of sexual experience the sole benchmark of who to date. There’s a difference between virginity and chastity. Virginity is not in itself a virtue, but chastity is.
The Catechism defines chastity as,
“the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being. Sexuality . . . becomes personal and truly human when it is integrated into the relationship of one person to another, in the complete and lifelong mutual gift of a man and a woman. The virtue of chastity therefore involves the integrity of the person and the integrality of the gift” (CCC 2337).
There is no mention of chastity requiring a lack of “sexual baggage” and, furthermore, there are many currently chaste people with past sexual experience.
The fact that a man lacks sexual experience doesn’t automatically mean that he’s ready for the demands of marriage. I have dated plenty of Christian guys who “followed the rules,” but felt morally superior as a result. They did not know how to make a sincere gift of self or how to respect me as a person with feelings and inherent dignity.
As you strive to help these young women discern who to marry, encourage them to ask the man they’re seeing about pornography, masturbation, and sexual experience. At the same time, they shouldn’t let the conversation end with, “Did you, or didn’t you?” Most likely, he did at some point. It’s a fallen world, and men and women alike struggle with sexual sin, especially as we experience increased loneliness. We should ask how their experience shaped who they are today, what their current struggles are, and what they learned from it. Some people have exposure to that lifestyle and find it so unfulfilling that they never want to go back. Others struggle with ongoing addictions and don’t see it as a problem. Others might lapse occasionally and go to Confession every time. If they’re in the last category, we should ask them to consider therapy or an accountability partner, but we should not shame them for the actions that God has forgiven through the sacrament.
It’s also important to emphasize that this is a two-way street. Tell the women you work with that, if they want to marry a virtuous man, they have to work on cultivating virtue themselves. Pornography and masturbation are not exclusively “men’s issues.” If women have a history of sexual sin, don’t let them give up on themselves. They are still worthy of love, respect, and lifelong commitment. Ask them to consider how their experiences shaped them and to examine what led them to make those choices. Recommend attending therapy if they are working through past trauma and grief, especially if they realize their problems prevent them from expressing their emotional needs from a place of trust and vulnerability.
We should not define ourselves or others by past mistakes. For anyone who struggles with scrupulosity, believes that they have to earn God's love in order to find a good spouse, or worries that their mistakes make them unlovable, I recommend looking into the history of devotion to the Sacred Heart.
In the 17th century, Jesus appeared to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque. It was during the time of the Jansenist heresy, which claimed that God should be feared - not loved - and that we need to make atonement for our great sins because His love is conditional and reserved only for the righteous. Jesus Himself responded by literally opening his Sacred Heart to a French nun and telling her how He longs to pour out His love upon us, that He made the atonement, and that there are no conditions because He died for all of us. St. Margaret sought the counsel of a spiritual director, St. Claude de la Colombière. He was skeptical that it was really Jesus who appeared, and so he asked for a sign. He instructed St. Margaret to ask Jesus what the last mortal sin was that Fr. Claude had confessed was, the next time He appeared. The next time Jesus appeared, St. Margaret asked Him, “What was the last mortal sin that Fr. Claude confessed?” Jesus looked at her and said, “I don’t remember.” That’s how Fr. Claude knew it was really Him. Jesus is fully God, so of course He knows everything we have ever done - but He doesn’t bring up. If it had been a demon appearing, they would have had no problem recalling the sin and wanting us to dwell on it. But God doesn’t dwell on our past mistakes. He loves us, transforms us, and leads us into deeper vulnerability and healing.
Counsel the women you work with to look at the heart of Jesus and ask Him to lead them to a man who models his heart after Jesus’ own: someone who doesn’t fixate on past baggage and who, instead, offers himself and pours out his heart in love and humility. That’s where they should draw the line - and they shouldn’t settle for anything less.
Kathryn Claahsen is a swing dancer, artist, paralegal, church musician, and former youth minister. She is currently part of the advisory team at Theology of Dance, which explains Pope St. John Paul II's Theology of the Body through the lens of ballroom dancing.
Dear Fr. Nielsen,
My first piece of advice is this: in all likelihood, a woman who comes to you seeking advice about dating and relationships already knows the answer to her question. At the same time, she might be overwhelmed by fear, anxiety, and doubt, which can complicate her decision-making. What she probably needs from you most is to be reassured that her feelings are valid, and that everything will be okay - however this particular relationship turns out. In addition to counseling her yourself, it would be helpful to connect her to single and married women of faith who can relate to her and provide guidance.
I approach my response assuming that we are addressing women of faith who believe that the teachings of the Church are true and good. The woman in question is already convinced that masturbation, pornography, and casual sex are harmful to the human person and to relationships. However, she might struggle with rejecting a potential life-partner because he engages in one of those things.
Let’s pretend that a woman meets a man and, in all other regards, he seems like a great match; but this issue is his “red flag.” As with all other red flags, the woman is concerned that this issue will cause significant strife and could be disastrous if she pursues the relationship. The vital question concerning red flags is the man’s attitude towards the issue: is he nonchalant about it or does he defend it as something good?
In guiding the women who seek your advice, encourage them to keep four things in mind:
1. You cannot expect a man you are dating to change for you.
Unless a man wants to change on his own, he likely won’t, and the situation will end in heartbreak. A man should not be a woman's project and, if you are going to marry someone, you should love them as they are instead of wishing a major part of them were different.
What if you aren’t concerned with changing him and plan to just “deal” with the sin or bad habit he is unwilling to change? You might be like Servant of God Élisabeth Leseur and love him through his sinful ways until he miraculously has a conversion of heart. Perhaps this will work out for you, but keep in mind:
2. Sin is destructive; it causes harm and sexual sins, especially, attack marriages.
A recent study that surveyed 2,000 couples about their relationship satisfaction and use of sexually explicit media found that American couples who began using pornography were roughly twice as likely to get a divorce . Furthermore, these issues will impact both you and your future children. They deserve to have the best father that you can find for them - and you deserve to have the best husband that you can find.
However, if the man agrees that masturbation, pornography, and casual sex are harmful and sinful, but he still struggles with them, this is a different situation.
3. Selection or rejection of a potential spouse must be based on his character, core moral belief system, and faith.
We are all sinners, grappling with sinful habits or actions that hurt us and those around us. However, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin. So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help” (Hebrews 4:15-16). If we reject sin and turn to the sacraments and prayer to overcome it, then we shall be victorious, “for whoever is begotten by God conquers the world. And the victory that conquers the world is our faith" (1 John 5:4).
Finally, we must remember that, although we might desire to be married and have a family, if we settle for the wrong man, it won’t end in the life-giving joy we seek.
4. Above all else, trust in the Lord.
Even when the Lord places a desire for marriage and a family in our hearts, He does not call us to be bull-headed and take what we believe to be ours. He calls us to come to Him, to let Him satisfy all of our needs and desires, and to receive His love and gifts according to His plans, not ours. And no matter how challenging or incomprehensible they seem, His plans and His ways will bring us so much more joy and fulfillment than anything we could achieve on our own.
 Perry, S. L., & Schleifer, C. (2018). Till Porn Do Us Part? A Longitudinal Examination of Pornography Use and Divorce. The Journal of Sex Research, 55(3), 284-296. doi:10.1080/00224499.2017.1317709
This author would like to remain anonymous.
Dear Edith: How Much Should Women Care About "Sexual Baggage" in Dating?
In July of last year, a post on Facebook shared a link to the website OMGYes. OMGYes is advertised as an educational website that “takes an honest look at the specific ways women actually find pleasure.” The person who posted it asked, “How can we talk about female sexuality more openly, but in a way that honors the Church's sexual ethics?”
As a convert, I was drawn to this discussion because I have always been passionate about framing sex and sexuality within a feminist perspective. Before I was Catholic, that perspective was from a secular feminist ideology. In fact, I came across this website during my college years, when I was knee-deep in my own research about female sexual politics. I loved that such a website existed, but I eventually forgot about it. When it came up in my newfound Catholic feminist sphere, I felt my past and present self collide.
In the discussion, I don’t know if we ever found an answer to the question. Unfortunately for my like-to-have-all-the-answers self, I don’t know if we can really get a solid answer. However, I do think we can get a lot closer to an answer than we did, so I want to revisit the question.
A personal confession that is relevant to this topic: I struggle somewhat with the Church’s teaching on masturbation, and mostly because a lot of women don’t even know how to derive pleasure from sex (it’s just not as intuitive or automatic as it is for men). There are so many different physiological, psychological, and social aspects involved in female sexual pleasure.
John Paul II’s Theology of the Body tells us that physical intimacy through sex is meant to express an even more profound personal intimacy. In my mind, aiming to ensure that both parties experience sexual pleasure can reflect such a deeper personal union. This is not meant to say that peak pleasure is the ultimate goal of sex. Rather, sex is reflective of communion with Christ; there are ebbs and flows, and the short-term goals sometimes change, but the ultimate goal is always love and self-gift. At the same time, I think a husband and wife can strive for pleasure, together, in the process of self-gift during sex.
One of the criticisms of OMGYes was that it is “pornography disguised as education.” In some ways, I agree. The Catechism states that pornography “consists in removing real or simulated sexual acts from the intimacy of the partners, in order to display them deliberately to third parties” (CCC 2354). The website has videos of self-stimulation, which means that it removes a real sexual act from the intimacy of two partners. (Not to mention that the purpose of these videos is to show them to other people - and for money.) And yet, as someone noted in our Facebook discussion, there are no practical, how-to sex manuals from a Catholic perspective. Some people therefore turn to secular sources like OMGYes and then are shamed for doing so.
My overall question is this: are female sexual pleasure and ethical Catholic sex really at opposite ends of the spectrum, or can we aim for a both/and situation? Can we strive to increase our pleasure with our husband while recognizing that physical intimacy reflects a deeper spiritual union?
Female pleasure and Catholic ethics are not opposed! Female (well, mutual, but guess what’s more likely to be neglected?) pleasure is important precisely because “physical intimacy reflects a deeper spiritual union,” but misapplications and misunderstandings of Catholic teaching have made it hard for us to live out that teaching fully and authentically.
Too often, the most explicit thing Catholics are willing to say about sex is that the husband has to ejaculate in his wife’s vagina. (In fact, the people running my husband’s and my engagement retreat didn’t even go that far - the only thing they told us about sex was that we shouldn’t be having any yet.) This is true, but it focuses on procreation at the expense of the equally important and inseparable unitive aspect of sex. When Catholic sex education stops at “this has to happen in there,” it puts all of the couple’s attention on the husband’s pleasure in a way that contributes relatively little to the wife’s pleasure. (Women tend to get the most enjoyment from clitoral, not vaginal, stimulation, which can be hard to achieve during intercourse unless the distance between your clitoris and vagina is relatively short. Only about 30% of women regularly orgasm from penetration.)
This matters because what’s unifying about sex is not just close physical contact or the functional joining of reproductive systems; it’s also the joint experience of intense joy, pleasure, and even ecstasy. Human beings are body-soul composites, physical and spiritual together. John Paul II says in Familiaris Consortio, “[a]s an incarnate spirit, that is a soul which expresses itself in a body and a body informed by an immortal spirit, man is called to love in his unified totality. Love includes the human body, and the body is made a sharer in spiritual love” (11). Just as physical rituals and objects nurture our faith, we can’t attain the spiritual goods of sexual union without the physical goods, including pleasure.
This means that Catholic teaching demands that we pay attention to and value women’s pleasure, not just men’s. Unfulfilling sex is a bummer, of course, but a “pleasure gap” also corrodes marital intimacy. Realizing that what your husband enjoys leaves you feeling bored, uncomfortable, or in pain is a profoundly isolating experience. It might make you feel used or it might just make you feel lonely; in any case, it’s the exact opposite of what the Church tells us sex should be for a husband and wife. Bottom line: anyone who doesn’t think women’s sexual pleasure is important doesn’t care about the unitive aspect of sex.
Good sex doesn’t happen on its own, of course, so if we’re going to live out this teaching, Catholics need to be able to speak frankly about sex, as FemCatholic has written about before. But more fundamentally, we need to believe that we have a right to, that it’s not selfish or lewd for women to seek pleasure. Every Catholic wife should believe - not just assent to abstractly but really believe - that God wants her to enjoy sex with her husband. She should feel free to be open, honest, and assertive with her husband, to say “I like it when you touch me like this” and “That doesn’t feel good” and “I want to try such-and-such with you.” Every Catholic couple should know that their relationship should be fun, playful, and pleasurable for both of them, that it should bring them closer by bringing them joy.
Pope Pius XII said in a 1951 address that God has “decreed that in this function [sex] the parties should experience pleasure and happiness of body and spirit. Husband and wife, therefore, by seeking and enjoying this pleasure do no wrong whatever. They accept what the Creator has destined for them.” Why don’t we talk about that in pre-Cana?
Thank you for your open and vulnerable question. More than ever, we need honest dialogue in the Church about sex and sexuality, and this can only begin with inquiries like yours.
I want to begin with a quote from the very man you reference, Pope St. John Paul II. In Love and Responsibility, he addresses the differences between a man and a woman’s sexual climax:
“It must be taken into account that it is naturally difficult for the woman to adapt herself to the man in the sexual relationship, that there is a natural unevenness of the physical and psychological rhythms, so that there is a need for harmonization, which is impossible without goodwill, especially on the part of the man, who must carefully observe the reactions of the woman. If a woman does not obtain natural gratification from the sexual act there is a danger that her experience of it will be qualitatively inferior, will not involve her fully as a person” (273, emphasis added).
Here, John Paul II addresses the reality that women have more difficulty reaching climax and explains that, because of this, a rightly ordered and loving marriage should strive to bring the woman to climax during sex. This is not a selfish inclination; it is a good desire to give of oneself fully and to experience the totality of spousal union. The pope even warns that if a woman doesn’t obtain climax, then there is an under involvement of her person during sex and (potentially) a lack of good will from the man.
This is the primary point: in order to find the balance between gratifying female sexual pleasure and preserving the profound union of sex, there must be an attitude of self-gift between the man and woman. This is the need for harmonization that the John Paul II spoke of. Finding harmonization requires communication from the woman as well as a determination from the man to pursue her climax during sex; both of these things require vulnerability, patience, and selflessness.
Our sexual curve is much different than that of men and assisting our husbands in learning the rhythm of our body fosters more authentic love between one another. Unlike masturbation, this view of sexuality actually removes isolation and encourages authentic communion. Seeking the woman’s pleasure as well as the man’s fosters communication, trust, and life-giving love between spouses. And what better way to experience climax than with your husband?
To achieve this, a husband must acknowledge the physiological and psychological aspects you speak of. John Paul II writes in Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body that “the husband is above all the one who loves and the wife by contrast is the one who is loved” (485). An important facet of marriage is that the husband remains in pursuit of his wife; this is as important in the bedroom as anywhere else. This means that a husband must seek to know better a woman’s heart, mind, and body, in order that he may better love her. John Paul II continues to say that. “[i]n union through love, the body of ‘the other’ becomes ‘one’s own’ in the sense that one is moved by concern for the good of the body of the other as for one’s own” (486, emphasis added).
In intimacy, an awareness of the other’s sexual needs should stem from love for the other. The one person you both became in the sacrament of marriage should point you towards concern for the other, including the desires of your body (within reason).
You referenced a comment from a Forum member who said that there are no Catholic how-to sex manuals, but there is one that I would like to share with you. After my husband and I got married we received a copy of Holy Sex! by Gregory Popcak, which I found to be helpful as it focused on the logistics and how-to of sex. Others have also recommended The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning by Simcha Fisher, which presents an honest and humorous approach to sex and NFP.
At the end of the day, sex should be oriented towards loving one another, not just pleasure. There will be times when circumstances, fatigue, distraction, etc., make it difficult to climax and that’s okay. We should be patient with ourselves, remembering that it takes time to learn harmonization. Sex isn’t always perfect, so we should allow ourselves to make mistakes and laugh along the way. Getting the woman to climax should be a welcomed goal for both spouses as often as possible, while remembering that the ultimate end of sex is always spousal union and openness to life.
I love your questions!
My disclaimer: I am not a theologian, nor am I trained in canon law. I have only read parts of The Theology of the Body. I’m not even a “sexpert” (although I have a bit of street cred, training, and experience in this world as a Marriage & Family therapist specializing in sex therapy). Instead of giving a cut and dry answer, I’d like to walk you through a conversation and share what I have come to use as my own personal template, as a Catholic convert who is passionate about healthy sexuality. I’d also like to note that, as this is a conversation between us, it’s a bit different from how I would approach this matter if we had this conversation in my therapy office.
Let’s first consider a handful of biological aspects, starting with how our hormones change both during individual cycles and different stages. “Normal” would have us peak with hormones during our childbearing years, ebbing and flowing with heightened libidos during ovulation. Next, take into account what happens when there are natural shifts (e.g. perimenopause/menopause, perinatal, and postpartum) or manipulations (hormone injections, medications, oral contraceptives, diets, etc.), and then add in anomalies such as PMDD, low/no progesterone, endometriosis, fibroids, cysts, etc. At this point, we haven’t even addressed anatomy, such as a tilted cervix, vulvodynia, vaginal atrophy, clitorodynia, or vaginismus. Given all of this, it’s amazing that women ever have sex to begin with.
Next, we face the complexity of figuring out exactly how a woman orgasms. Thanks to the inconsistent research available, anecdotally speaking 30 - 40% of women are capable of climax during intercourse with a partner, a stat that is lower (average < 20%) when manual clitoral stimulation is removed and higher when it is included (average > 50%). I would say that this seems fairly accurate, based on my conversations with clients, friends, and other people who pry into sex lives for a living. It hasn’t been until the past 30 or so years that we have even had specific anatomical imagery to understand the clitoris and the complexities of this organ, beyond what we see or feel on the surface (kudos to Australian urologist, Dr. Helen O’Connell). Ladies: our nether regions truly are fearfully and wonderfully made!
Now that we have some semantics, onto the matter of your questions: “My overall question is this: are female sexual pleasure and ethical Catholic sex really at opposite ends of the spectrum, or can we aim for a both/and situation? Can we strive to increase our pleasure with our husband while recognizing that physical intimacy reflects a deeper spiritual union?”
In short answer, my opinion is this: no, yes, and yes!
“Discipline” and “pleasure” are crucial words in this conversation. We know that there is a negative consequence of eating all of the cake, candy, tamales, or anything else that our consumption vice consists of. Disorderedness occurs when we breach boundaries, whatever they may be respective to our vocation. Children don’t know boundaries, so we teach them not just by telling them a million times over, but also by helping them put those boundaries into practice and by demonstrating them in our own lives. While it’s important to speak about chastity and the other virtues, I think it’s equally important to remember that discipline is the process by which we grow in these virtues. Though this, we don’t preach a complete absence of pleasure, but rather we focus on the appropriate boundaries around pleasure.
“Discipline” and “pleasure” are crucial words in this conversation.
As for understanding pleasure, having a young daughter taught me how critical it is to tread with care around young minds and tender hearts. It would be so convenient for me to quickly and rashly respond in ways to make myself and others around me more comfortable. It would be so easy to respond in ways that kill her curiosity, innocence, openness, and playfulness meanwhile instilling shame, defiance, fear, and anger.
Those latter feelings are often deeply imbedded in us such that, when we arrive at the intersection of discipline and pleasure, they are so terribly distorted that it seems like they can’t coexist. But if we are able to be nurtured and refined by holiness, we will find that sexuality, healthy boundaries, and dignity join together. It is especially important to note that discipline and chastity should still be practiced once you are married.
[I]f we are able to be nurtured and refined by holiness, we will find that sexuality, healthy boundaries, and dignity join together.
I co-lead some breakout groups at a singles and sexuality conference led by one of my early mentors and supervisors, Dr. Doug Rosenau (essentially the original Christian sex therapist). Masturbation was frequently discussed as people asked whether or not it was okay. Meanwhile, I would ask whether you could orgasm while in prayer. When it comes to intimacy with our spouse, are we praying for (and even during) sex to foster unity, mutual self-gift, and the “pleasure and enjoyment of body and spirit” (CCC 2362)? It’s dastardly that secularism has painted sexual pleasure into being not just a personal responsibility, but a right. Given this, it’s no wonder that the lack of fostering intimacy trickles down from our relationship with God and into our relationship with our spouse: fend for yourself, kid.
I wish that I had a manual for you that says “do this,” “do that,” or “don’t try this at home.” At the same time, the beauty of not having a manual is the opportunity for each couple to be both teacher and student of one another, to humbly and selflessly commit to growing in the discipline of healthy, holy, pleasurable sexuality together.
The question you ask is a valuable one. Culturally, it seems we at once expect and misperceive a gender gap in satisfaction, not only with sexual encounter in general, but with orgasm in particular. An insight from Karol Wojtyła in his Love and Responsibility presents a stark contrast with the cultural norm that settles for less than full involvement from both spouses:
"From the viewpoint of loving another person, from the position of altruism, it must be required that the conjugal act should serve not merely to reach the climax of sexual arousal on one side, i.e., that of a man, but happen in harmony, not at the other person’s expense but with the other person’s involvement." (257)
Wojtyla’s words have been a surprisingly transformative contribution to my own experience and marriage because he reminds us that we are both persons who desire and deserve love. Sex is never intended merely for one spouse’s satisfaction.
Caring for woman’s sexual experience increases mutual pleasure and involvement. It includes attention to what you describe as the “many different physiological, psychological, and social aspects involved in female sexual pleasure.” It involves building trust and communication. It means understanding the sexual harm that is common to persons, and especially to women, in our sexually violent society. (I recommend Healing the Wounded Heart and The Body Keeps the Score as helpful resources for healing.)
Care for a woman’s experience requires us to probe cultural narratives about male dominance and treating women as objects for pleasure rather than as equal persons who participate in the trials, foibles, and ecstasies of sexual relationship. It requires understanding the ways in which we have developed a pornographic vision of sex, and learning to treat one another with reverence. For many, it entails re-evaluating purity culture and working through an inculcated aversion to sexual pleasure.
Care for woman’s sexual pleasure necessitates good communication about your shared intentions in trying to conceive or trying to avoid pregnancy. It requires tenderness between spouses when fertility or monitoring fertility makes sex less frequent or more stressful than you want it to be. It involves better understanding women’s bodies and their capacities for pregnancy.
Care for woman’s pleasure includes improving our sexual literacy in general, and especially before one’s wedding night. Where is the clitoris? Or the G-spot? What are other places of arousal for women? What kinds and combinations of stimulation are most pleasing to women? Attention to woman’s pleasure also includes each specific couple’s sexual literacy: asking all of these questions about a particular woman, as well as learning to read, understand, and act toward one another in light of each person’s story. Also beneficial here is attention from husbands who remain present to help their wives to completion.
There are other practical things that might improve care for woman’s sexual pleasure, such as accommodating the time it takes a woman to move from the concerns of the day into the intimacy of sexual encounter, and honoring that transition. Some practical ways to attend to a woman’s experience include communication, as well as breathing and vocalizing. Or, a wife may wish to guide her husband through clitoral massage. It might help to dedicate some time to the sole goal of exploring what brings a woman pleasure. This work requires tenderness from both spouses, close attention from the husbands, and the wife’s willingness to give direction. Therapy helps, too. Finally, a dose of good humor goes a long way, as do good lube and kind lighting.
Dear Edith: Do Catholics think female sexual pleasure is wrong?
I find Ruth Bader Ginsburg's story as a lawyer seeking women's rights to be extremely compelling, dare I say even inspiring. I also disagree with her position on abortion issues and contraception.
Yet, I often receive flack from Catholics (men and women) who claim that you can't separate out the two "lives" that she has had. In effect, they seem to suggest that I cannot just say, "I admire and respect the work that RBG did for women's legal rights in her early years as a lawyer fighting discrimination." Even when I bring up her friendship with Justice Scalia, a Catholic Supreme Court Justice, I am still discouraged from praising her too loudly.
Do you have any advice about how to commend that work that she did without sounding like you are pro-choice?
Rachel lives and works in both Baltimore and Dallas. She is a PhD student in art history. Find Rachel on Instagram or on her blog, The Itinerant Wife.
Reading your submission on Ruth Bader Ginsburg struck a chord within me, as it was a question I too had been struggling with. As a recent law school graduate and new lawyer, I spent the last three years surrounded by women (and men) who praised “The Notorious RBG.” The message which resonated was the following: to be a feminist lawyer, you have to wholeheartedly endorse RBG’s ideologies, including abortion and contraception.
There is plenty to be admired about Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She attended both Harvard Law and Columbia Law. When her husband was diagnosed with testicular cancer, she attended classes for both of them, all while raising her infant daughter. She ended up graduating from Columbia Law first in her class, only to be refused a job at every turn. She was even, ironically, denied a Supreme Court clerkship for which she was preeminently qualified. Her dedication to gender equality in the workplace and in education was tremendous and opened doors previously closed to women. And to top it all off, she was married to her husband for 56 years.
As Sue Ellen Browder points out in Subverted, the feminist movement and abortion became mysteriously intertwined in the 1960s. And to many, they have been inseparable since. Ruth Bader Ginsburg espouses this belief; but it is possible to admire her while disagreeing, even vehemently, with her beliefs.
The temptation in our modern culture is to view people as solely their ideologies. Many people wear them proudly and often succumb to the false belief that they are their ideologies. But, as we know, we are all sons and daughters of God, born with inherent dignity and who are made for eternal salvation. Dignity is permanent, while ideologies are fleeting.
As I see dialogue around these issues today, the pro-life and pro-choice movements are two banks of an ideological river. Each of us stands on our own side, digging our heels in and insisting that we espouse the true belief. But rivers have bridges for a reason, and those secure in their beliefs should not be afraid to venture to the other side.
This is a difficult question for pro-life feminists.
As much as we pursue common ground with pro-choice friends and seek ways to collaborate toward good ends - namely, life for unborn children, often achieved through empowering mothers and stabilizing families - does it diminish our pro-life advocacy when we express admiration for a person who is candidly pro-choice?
The roots of Ruth Bader Ginsburg's pro-choice beliefs can be traced through her early family, academic, and professional experiences.
Her mother was an incredibly bright student but couldn't pursue academics beyond high school, and instead worked in the garment district to send her brother to college. Ginsburg married her college sweetheart one month after graduating from Cornell, followed her husband's job to Oklahoma, and was demoted in her first job at the Social Security Administration as soon as they learned she was pregnant. (She hid her second pregnancy many years later to avoid the same fate.) Ginsburg then attended classes at Harvard as a new mother and typed notes for both herself and her husband, who was fighting cancer in his final year of law school. Graduating first in her class with exemplary recommendations from her professors, as well as the unique prestige of having served on editorial boards for both the Harvard Law Review and Columbia Law Review, Ginsburg couldn't get a job because judges didn't want female law clerks. Once established as a professor at Rutgers, administrators paid her a lower salary than her male colleagues, expressly because her husband had a good job elsewhere.
Ginsburg . . . was demoted in her first job at the Social Security Administration as soon as they learned she was pregnant.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg's early life reads like a textbook of prejudice against women - in education, employment, advancement, legislation, and wages - and having a child only complicates things more.
As Ginsburg herself said, "In the fifties, the traditional law firms were just beginning to turn around on hiring Jews. But to be a woman, a Jew, and a mother to boot - that combination was a bit too much."
Contemporary pro-life feminists advocate for the system to change and accommodate motherhood as an integral part of womanhood, with a place for mothers in every sector of society (as a place for fathers is granted without question).
Pro-choice feminists - especially those with personal discrimination experiences like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who had no legal recourse for equality - might see that kind of comprehensive system change as an ideological pipe dream. Instead, they might assume that women need to biologically change to function more like men (avoiding surprise pregnancies and having meticulously-planned children), continuing a male-centric system at the expense of our own bodies.
So, yes, Justice Ginsburg is pro-choice (a position that I believe she comes by honestly with good intentions) and I disagree with her. From my perspective, ending a child's life in utero perpetuates injustice against an innocent person instead of seeking equal rights for everyone involved (including the unborn child), and even more so if the decision is made under the duress of discriminatory circumstances such as an inability for a mother to finish her education, keep her job, support her children, or access healthcare.
At the same time, before writing off Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a worthy role model, we should consider her judicial legacy.
In 1972, Ginsburg prepared a brief for the Supreme Court, ready to defend a pregnant Air Force woman's right to birth her baby, place the child up for adoption, and keep her job. At that time, a pregnant soldier could either get an abortion or be forced to leave the military. A pregnant woman in the private sector could lose her job without recourse. Ginsburg worked to change this, and as a result, the Air Force changed its policy, allowing the soldier to both have her baby and remain in the military.
In 1972, Ginsburg prepared a brief for the Supreme Court, ready to defend a pregnant Air Force woman's right to birth her baby . . . and keep her job.
Justice Ginsburg's dear friend and colleague, conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, praised her as "the leading (and very successful) litigator on behalf of women's rights - the Thurgood Marshall of that cause, so to speak." Yet her advocacy was not limited to just women.
Ginsburg has defended women's rights to have babies (Struck v. Secretary of Defense), men's rights as husbands (Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld) and caregivers (Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue), the rights of those with disabilities (Olmstead v. L.C.), equal military spousal support for military husbands (Frontiero v. Richardson), and equal pay for women (Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.), among countless other cases.
Regarding equal pay for women, Lilly Ledbetter's Supreme Court discrimination case ruled in favor of her employer on a technicality. Yes, Goodyear had paid Ledbetter's male colleagues up to 40% higher wages for decades, but the 180-day statute of limitations to file a claim expired before Ledbetter was aware of the pay discrimination, so she lost the case. In response, Justice Ginsburg's dissent from the bench appealed to Congress, requesting legislation to correct this injustice for future plaintiffs. As a result, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act closed the statute of limitations loophole for employers and was signed into law in 2009.
Surprisingly, Justice Ginsburg has been criticized for her lack of support for Roe v. Wade. She felt it was doctor-centered instead of women-centered. Furthermore, she believes that abortion law should be legislated at the state level, not declared unilaterally from the bench. (As opposed to pro-life advocates who also want to return abortion legislation to the states by overturning Roe v. Wade, Ginsburg believes state legislation will strengthen pro-choice positions.)
In defiance of a 1974 Supreme Court ruling that discrimination against a pregnant woman was not a form of sex discrimination because a woman could choose whether to become pregnant, Ginsburg helped draft the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, which required pregnancy to be treated like any other short-term disability. Prior to this legislation, an employer could demote or fire a woman simply for becoming pregnant, consequences that Ruth Bader Ginsburg experienced personally in her own pregnancies. (And as any pro-life advocate recognizes, the last thing a pregnant woman needs is to lose a source of income and health insurance.)
Ginsburg helped draft the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978. . . Prior to this legislation, an employer could demote or fire a woman simply for becoming pregnant, consequences that Ruth Bader Ginsburg experienced personally
While pregnancy discrimination continues today, as in the case of Walmart restricting pregnant women from applying for its established light-duty work program, women now have recourse to keep their jobs and receive back pay through the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.
To be clear, Justice Ginsburg's official position is not pro-life. And yet, a closer review of her work reveals pro-life fruit with which we can ally. Thanks to Ginsburg's ability to turn her own experiences of discrimination as a woman and mother into a lifelong mission toward equality for others, we now live in a world that better protects the rights and opportunities of mothers and fathers alike to have and raise children in America.
In conclusion, yes, we can absolutely disagree with Ruth Bader Ginsburg's pro-choice position, but writing her off entirely is reductive and overlooks the legitimate pro-life benefits her legal and judicial career have accomplished through protections for mothers to keep and provide for their babies.
As pro-life Catholic feminists, we ought to find common ground anywhere we can and work toward common goals with anyone who will collaborate with us. The “Notorious RBG” is no exception.
I wonder if we can see a bit of ourselves in her story: continuing daily to make the world a better place for women and mothers, particularly in response to whatever adversity we have personally experienced.
Dear Edith: Is It Okay to Admire Ruth Bader Ginsburg?
This question comes in light of the recent abuse scandal coming to light.
How do I let my daughter (and, God willing, other future children) get involved in the life of the Church while still feeling safe?
I don't want to limit our involvement in the parish to Sunday Mass attendance. I loved going to Catholic school, altar serving, and being involved in the youth group at my parish growing up. I want my kids to have the same positive experience of growing up in the faith.
At the same time, I'm concerned for their safety, and would be apprehensive of my child being alone with a priest right now. Hearing stories of extensive grooming makes me doubt my own instincts and judgment of character.
Do I just trust that in the next 5-10 years (we only have a baby right now) things will be better? How can I better evaluate and manage the risks inherent in this situation?
Christina is a corporate real estate attorney in Chicagoland. She is married to her college sweetheart and mother of a cute little Catholic feminist.
I write this response as both a Safe Environment Facilitator for the Archdiocese of Denver and as a Youth Minister. The revelations about the abuse crisis sicken me and as I look at the children I’m in charge of, I am full of worry, but also full of hope.
In my opinion, the best way to raise our children in a post-crisis Church is the way we have taught through Safe Environment Training (SET) since 2002: by being informed and aware. Here are a few ways we can do that:
1. Even if you aren’t training to volunteer in the Church, take a Protecting God's Children course.
These courses are designed to help you spot grooming behaviors that may be exhibited by the adults around you.
2. Set boundaries with all of the adults in your child’s life.
When training volunteers, I tell them that when I accept a role of authority in a child's life, I also accept the responsibility of teaching them how all adults should treat them. I might trust myself to give them long hugs, to share my personal social media accounts with them, or to be in a closed room with them – but will they learn more by my saying “no” to these things? Will saying “no” teach them to question when adults with dubious intentions ask for their Snapchat, want to be alone with them, or want keep secrets? Even with my own niece and nephew, I model the kind of behavior I expect from other adults in their lives, and they know by my example what they should expect.
3. If you haven’t already, teach your children the names of their body parts and teach them the importance of consent in every interaction.
For example, when we teach them that consent is required for a hug, it is easier for them to understand that consent would be doubly required for “new” interactions of any kind.
4. Teach your children that they can always come to you with their struggles.
Be attentive to how you discuss the virtues of chastity and modesty. We should speak of these virtues primarily in terms of the good they bring instead of hyper-focusing on what happens when we fail to live up to these values. This approach creates an environment where an abuser cannot use the excuses of “your parents will hate you” or “you also committed a sin that you can't talk about” in order to keep children quiet if abuse begins.
5. Know the adults that are in your children’s lives.
Feel free to be nosy. I allow all of the parents in my ministry to friend me on social media so that they can “monitor” my behavior if they so desire. You deserve to have trust built between you and those adults; trust does not need to be immediate or implicit just because of someone’s position. While you don’t need to be suspicious of every adult in your child's life (that would be exhausting), you can hold every adult in your child’s life to a high standard of behavior.
6. Teach your child about the Church as a community.
Model behavior of getting to know fellow parishioners, staying after Mass to chat, and volunteering. One of the most important things we teach in SET is that the more you know your child’s routines, the better you can notice when something is off. The same goes for the community at large: don't mind your own business. Get (or stay) involved and share whatever gifts, time, or talent you have. Be actively present.
7. Contact your parish office to learn who your SET facilitators are and who is SET trained.
All priests, catechists, and youth ministry volunteers (among others) are required to be trained. Get to know the person to whom you would report any suspicious behavior.
This response includes several recommendations, but that is precisely my point: there is a lot we can do in a post-crisis Church. I emphasize in every one of my classes that while horrible things might make us feel helpless, we are far from it. We can keep our children safe. We can cleanse the temple. We can be our brothers’ and our sisters’ keepers – and there is hope.
Amber McCulloch is the Director of Youth Ministry at St. Michael the Archangel parish in Aurora, Colorado.
“When we’re threatened, we do one of two things: we fight or we flee.”
I’ll never forget the first time I heard those words in my 11th grade AP Psychology class. Often known as the “fight or flight” response, when faced with peril, we tend to either run toward safety or plant our feet firmly and defend our ground.
Since the abuse crisis again reared its ugly head, I’ve consistently asked myself, “In these moments of threat in the Church, will I run or will I fight?”
We’re not discussing hypotheticals here: there are reports of extensive abuse perpetrated by hundreds of priests against thousands of children over dozens of years, and then much of that abuse was systematically covered up by bishops, the very men who carry a crozier to signify the shepherd’s crook, designed to pull the sheep to safety, not push them toward the wolf. Reading these reports, hearing these stories, and witnessing more information come out each day, my gut instinct is to run away, to go off and hide, to leave the Church – because I feel threatened.
I’ve asked myself dozens of times, “Does every priest I know have some deep, dark secret? Have they seen or heard about abuse? Are they an abuser themselves?” I hate thinking this about men I’ve known for years, have trusted for a lifetime, and whose guidance I sought. Nevertheless, the questions have crossed my mind, and that’s okay. It is only when we ask hard questions and confront the realities facing us that we’ll be able to heal, move forward, and ensure this never happens again.
During this time, while many of us doubt and question a Church we’ve trusted and priests we’ve relied on, the desire to walk away is great; we want to run. It’s okay to be confused. It’s acceptable to be scared. It’s not uncommon to fear for your or your child’s safety. We learned about awful things that happened, and repeatedly so. For those of us who are parents, we would die to ensure it never happens to our own children. It’s normal to think that if there’s a place with repeated instances of abuse, then we would never want our child to go to that place.
At the same time, this is equally important to remember: there are still many good, holy priests who have not abused children, who still bring us the gifts of the sacraments with humility and good faith, and who can be trusted. The priests that have abused children and the bishops who covered up the problem are not the Church themselves. We are the Church. All of us. Not just those men with authority or collars, and not just those who committed various kinds of abuse. We are the Church and we have every right to be here, to remain, and to live and act as the Body of Christ - and we’re not going anywhere.
When our children become involved in the life of the Church, we must do our due diligence as parents: ask lots of questions, ensure diocesan safe environment protocols are up to par, become involved in the ministries our children engage with. Furthermore, if something seems off or doesn’t feel right, it is our duty to speak up. Whatever challenges and fears you face, I ask you this: please don’t leave the Church because of the sins of those who betrayed us. Please remain in the Church – because the Church needs you now more than ever.
Katie Prejean McGrady is an international speaker, educator, and author. She has spoken at events large and small, and has appeared on EWTN, Catholic TV, Radio Maria, and shows on The Catholic Channel on Sirius XM. She is married to Tommy McGrady and lives in Louisiana with their daughter, Rose, and dog, Barney. You can learn more about her here.
Dear Edith: How do I raise my kids in the Church post this crisis?
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Dear Edith: Do I have a place in the Catholic Church?
I recently re-verted to my faith, and am struggling because I feel like every single thing I read about women in Catholicism has to do with motherhood.
I love my mom friends, and they are awesome, but I'm single right now, and not sure I even ever want to have kids.
Honestly, I'm just not very maternal. A lot of my friends just love babies, and are great with them. I think babies are cute, but personally, I just don't have this longing to be a mom that some of my friends have.
Which is good, because I really don't know if I'm patient enough to deal with little kids day in and day out.I've not one of these girls that daydreams about decorating a nursery or being pregnant.
I have a Masters and a job I love and I feel like the Church should focus more on all the things women can do in the world, and how they can be leaders.
And isn't that what feminism is supposed to be about, anyway? Celebrating women for more than just making babies?
Dear I'm Not Maternal,
Regarding the lack of maternal feelings . . . I used to want to be a nun.
In fact, I'd often remark that I found the idea of sex repulsive, and childbirth? Forget it. "Take my womb; I don't need it!"
Then, I had what could only be described as a divine dream. It helped me realize that the path toward the convent was not what God wanted for me; this shook my sense of self, because I felt that a woman's identity in the Church seemed to be built around holy virginity or mothering as many children as possible. I really struggled with God's will for a long time, and it took therapy for me to discover that a large portion of my desire for the convent was my fear of intimacy and my unwillingness to surrender control. . .
I felt that a woman's identity in the Church seemed to be built around holy virginity or mothering as many children as possible.
Then I met THE ONE. It was like a light bulb went off and I realized why I wasn't meant for the convent after all. I still wasn't keen on the idea of children, though. I was a strong, independent woman who resented the box that society tries to put women in.
Now, I didn't mind other people's kids. Heck, I was a teacher! But surely I was too impatient/selfish/unfit for motherhood. I had more to offer life than another human on an already crowded planet.
And then the yearning happened. It took me quite by surprise one day when my husband and I were watching a commercial and I found myself crying during a family-themed commercial. I was suddenly aware of this dull emptiness that I had never noticed before. My husband and I talked about it and wrote it off as my biological clock ticking a little louder than usual.
As the months passed, I felt a subtle pull and God began putting signs in my life. I felt a stronger connection to Mary in the nativity story. St. Anne was randomly chosen as my "saint of the year." I missed a period when it was statistically impossible for me to conceive (stress-related) and found myself surprisingly sad when it finally came. Before I knew it, my heart was so desperate for a child (biological, foster, adoption) that I could barely go to Mass without crying at the sight of a family.
It was a very gradual conversion/softening of the heart, and -- long story short -- I'm currently bouncing my nearly 5-month-old daughter on my knee. Within a few years, I had gone from never wanting offspring to being open to the possibility of life to desiring it more than anything else in the world.
Childbirth nearly killed us both, and I legitimately hated being pregnant, but I love my daughter and I'm constantly surprised by the graces and patience God has given me. In God's time, perhaps we'll even have another.
I don't quite fit into the mom crowd because I never "performed" pregnancy or did all the things moms are "supposed" to do to prove that they're happy. I didn't plan the nursery. I didn't pour through baby name books. I didn't do a maternity photo shoot (heck, I didn't even buy maternity clothes) or inundate my Facebook page with ultrasounds and baby pictures.
I never felt like a proper pregnant woman or a proper mother, but I am one and I have a sense of peace now.
I never felt like a proper pregnant woman or a proper mother, but I am one and I have a sense of peace now. It's like a scratched an itch I wasn't aware of previously, but I don't define myself as ONLY a mom. That's only one aspect of the dynamic Catholic woman that I am, just like being single was one aspect.
This author would like to remain anonymous.
One of the beautiful revelations for me of reading St. John Paul II’s Letter to Women, was discovering the Catholic church upheld women working. Up unto then, I thought the only way to be a true woman was to be a SAHM. Being present in the workplace as a woman balances the workplace environment.
God perhaps has withheld imparting the desire for biological maternity to spare you the agony of wanting something that is not yet attainable in your life because you are single. You can live what is called spiritual motherhood.
Spiritual motherhood is a beautiful gift. I witnessed this in a profound way on a mission trip to Haiti. I was with a group of college students, priests, and consecrated women. We were ministering in the wound clinic. The wounds were severe and very painful. A consecrated woman knelt down at the feet of a woman with a severe toe wound. Very lovingly, gently and so Christ like she soothed the women as the consecrated debrided her foot – without pain meds. This consecrated woman was ministering Christ present in the Haitian woman. Such a profound beauty of spiritual motherhood. Also on the trip, I witnessed these consecrated women rock babies, feed babies, and lovingly hold them. Again, another way to care for others in our femininity in lieu of biological motherhood.
I was moved to tears as I was seeing my heart being stretched to love in a greater expansion. And this witness was from a woman who has never bore children that compelled me, a mother of four, to examine my own heart.
this witness was from a woman who has never bore children that compelled me, a mother of four, to examine my own heart.
"A woman’s dignity is closely connected with the love which she receives by the very reason of her femininity. Woman can only find herself by giving love to others.” - Mulieris Dignitatem
Spiritual motherhood comes to us primarily through the door of our generosity to love others. – Our hearts are created with a unique magnanimity to love others. God calls some to live a life of singleness. Through this vocation, you can do great things for God.
I am now a mom who is about to send my last one off to college. My friends who have been called to single life (and are not religious), are able to fulfill serving the Lord for his Kingdom in ways I cannot. What a magnificent tapestry of humanity God weaves for all of us in our varied vocations to serve the greater Church family. Perhaps God is calling you to greater way to love through singleness at this time in your life.
Julie is a wife and mom to four children. She is about to send her last one to college (accepting wine, chocolate, and prayers). As a young mom, Julie’s faith took a big leap when she was invited by a friend to gather with other women to learn the beauty of our vocation of living authentic feminism. This study sparked a joy in Julie and she has been active ever since in helping women discover their unique gifts imbued by God. Julie has walked with many women in this journey. She is a self proclaimed “women’s study groupie”. Loving God’s sense of humor, Julie is a former nurse who now is Co-Host of Catholic Women Now weekly radio program heard on Iowa Catholic Radio. Julie can be contacted at email@example.com.
I resonate with you.
While I will admit that I personally love babies and hope to be married and a mom one day - I, too, get irked by the overwhelming abundance of Catholic wife and mommy blogs and the unspoken yet pervasive sense that “mommy-hood” is what it means to be a fully realized Catholic woman.
I have other passions, abilities, and callings in life too besides pushing out babies. Ultimately, what it means to be a holy Catholic woman today is to follow Christ to the best of my ability, strengthened by the grace of God. I want to live out my apostolate, my call to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world, now, today, each day. God has not yet allowed me to become a wife or a mother, and for all I know, that might never happen for me. So in the meantime, what does it mean to live out my vocation in my current state of life?
While you say “I’m not maternal”, I would ask - what does the word "maternal" mean anyway?
What does it mean to be a mother? We often think that being maternal means reacting like the dog from the movie “Up” when he sees a squirrel every time we see a baby, or that it means fantasizing about our future children and “decorating a nursery”, or lamenting the increasingly audible sound of our biological clocks. But is that all it means to be maternal?
I want to suggest that what Pope St. John Paul II expresses in his teachings on the transmission of life - that you and I and all women are called to be mothers, and all men called to be fathers, all people are called to be parents - is true.
“Man and woman carry on in the language of the body that dialogue which, according to Genesis 2:24,25, had its beginning on the day of creation. This language of the body is something more than mere sexual reaction…Man and woman express themselves in the measure of the whole truth of the human person.”
We cannot separate our sexuality from our humanity. It is written in the “language of our bodies”. Parenthood and sexuality also cannot be separated. While we all have sexuality, we don’t all have a desire, or even a call, to bear and raise children. Pope Francis, in a message to formators of consecrated religious men and women said:
"You are not only friends and companions of the consecrated life of those who are entrusted to you, but true fathers, true mothers, capable of asking and of giving them the most: to generate a life... And this is possible only through love, the love of fathers and mothers."
If Pope Francis is calling these celibate men and women to be mothers and fathers, people who will not be married or having sex, we have to reexamine what “mother” even means aside from giving birth to and/or raising babies.
While a basic definition of “mother” is “female parent”, the word “parent” comes from the Latin, “to bring forth”. Another definition of “mother” as a verb, is “to care for or to take care of”. In our lives as Christians, who are following the example of Jesus Christ (who, himself, was never a biological father, and was a celibate man), we are all called to “bring forth”, to “bear fruit”, and to “care for others”, just as he did.
The call to create, to bear, to give, to care, to love is universal. Regardless of age, of marital status, of ability, or sex, we are each brimming with an abundance of energy and creativity that cannot remain within us, but must be poured out. This energy is connected with, but transcends our sexuality or our procreative potency - it’s our generativity, our call to love.
Fr. Ronald Rolheiser explores these ideas in much of his writing. In one of his essays on sexuality he writes:
As a Catholic priest, I am seldom taken seriously when I speak or write about sex. Invariably the reaction is: “What can you know about it, you don’t have sex!” I welcome that comment because it betrays the very attitude towards sex that I want to challenge, namely, it identifies sexuality with having sex. That is dangerously false and few things are as bad for us emotionally as that idea….In brief, it has made us believe that we cannot be whole without sex.... Because of this we suffer emotionally. When sexuality is synonymous with having sex, then, save but for brief moments, we live in much frustration and restless dissatisfaction… Yet our deepest hungers and longings are for heterosexual relations beyond having sex. The ache is for men and women to come together as more than lovers...
Sexuality is a huge thing... Our aches are multifarious. The word sex comes from the Latin secare, a word which literally means to cut off or divide from. We experience ourselves, at all levels, precisely as sexed, as cut off, divided from, as unwhole. We ache for consummation, for a reuniting with some wholeness. For this reason sexuality is always more than simply having sex. It is a dimension of our self-awareness. It is our eros, that irrepressible demand within us that we love and that energy within us that enables us to love... Through it we seek contact, communication, wholeness, community, and creativity. Through sexuality we are driven and drawn beyond ourselves...
So, if each one of us, created in God’s image, experiences our sexuality, this “irrepressible” longing for wholeness, that drives us beyond ourselves, I would suggest that this is what the call to motherhood means for each woman, what the call to fatherhood means for each man, what the call to parenthood means for each person. It is the call to go beyond ourselves. To bring about communion and union, to create. And if that is a new working definition for “maternal”, then I would venture to guess that you are definitely maternal. And it would be good for the Church to recognize more examples of maternity outside the typical images of quintessential, idealized Catholic mommies.
As for how women can be leaders in the Church, I also resonate. The Church has definitely had a tendency to recognize the leadership skills and feats of men more often than women, and typically recognizes clergy and religious above lay people as leaders. While we may have just as many female Saints as there are male Saints, only four of the Doctors of the Church are women. I find this disparity in representation frustrating. But ultimately, when I lift it up to God, since it is bigger than I alone can deal with, I ask God, “How are you calling me to respond? What can I do? How are you calling me - uniquely - to lead?”
Again, I want to examine the language we use. The word “leader” means “to guide”, “to go in the first place”. Our primary example of a leader, as followers of Christ, said “the first shall be last”, and he led by servant leadership, by always responding to the invitation of the Father. Jesus’ mother, Mary, led Jesus, and was his example, and she also serves as an example of leadership for us all, but not just because she gave birth to Jesus physically. What made Mary such a great example and leader, was that she said “yes” to God, no matter what. The best leaders are those who know when to lead and when to follow. Mary led and demonstrated maternity by giving of herself in all things. By decreasing, so that God-in-her could increase.
Mary led and demonstrated maternity by giving of herself in all things. By decreasing, so that God-in-her could increase.
We are all called to follow Mary’s example to be Christ-bearers. Mary, who we revere as Virgin Mother, was probably the most sexual woman who ever lived. She experienced the “irrepressible demand within” to create, to give, to pour out, to seek oneness to such a degree that she brought God-with-us, Emmanuel, into this world. She said “yes” to God and allowed God to guide her sexuality, her generativity so that she would become the greatest female leader the world has ever known.
Ultimately, the end which we all seek in living out our faith, is union with God - true joy, peace, wholeness, satisfaction. If we look to Mary as an example of leadership to this end, the path to wholeness and holiness is one of detachment from our biases and agendas, from our fears and insecurities, and of full willingness to dive into the Divine Will, that God has devised for each of us uniquely, with trust. That means willingness to break out of the boxes society might try to put us in, as much as it means willingness to examine our own attachments and offer them up to God.
Lastly, if you are called one day to be a biological or adoptive mother, to bear and/or raise children, God will a) provide the patience to “deal with little kids day in and day out”, and b) allow that life to fill your heart. And if that’s not your calling, God will lead you in how to best live our your call to true maternal, self-giving, creative, generative love and leadership.
Your sister in Christ, through Mary,
Jessica Gerhardt is a FemCatholic Contributor. She is a Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter-ukuleleist and youth minister, with a hobbies in amateur astronomy, sky appreciation, Ignatian spirituality, painting, drawing, blowing bubbles, and making rosaries and paper cranes. She is an alumna of Reed College where she wrote her undergraduate thesis in Psychology on ambivalent sexism and the importance of allies in confronting prejudice. To check out her music, go to www.jessicagerhardtmusic.com and stay tuned for a release in 2018 under her artist name, Feronia.
Dear Edith: I'm not maternal
I have a question and a prayer request.
I just recently stopped working (was let go from a small nonprofit because I missed work during my first trimester with extreme morning sickness) and now I'm at home and I'm struggling with what to do. The first couple of weeks weren't bad, but now I'm alone during the day, pregnant with our first baby, and trying to understand where God wants me to be.
I've always wanted to be a stay at home mom, but this "before baby" has me wondering what to do with my time. I'm starting to get depressed because I have skills and talents but instead of using them, I feel like there is not much I can do at home. I don't have a lot of joy right now. I do attend daily Mass, which helps me a lot.
My question is: what do stay at home wives do? What can I do that might make me feel worthy of staying at home right now?
My prayer request is to pray that I can see God's blessing in all of this.- Annamarie
I totally understand how you feel.
I always saw myself as the "working woman" and figured I'd follow in my mom's footsteps. She worked full time my whole life, attended all the school things, and was/is a great mother. I never felt as if she didn't love me or my siblings.
When my first baby came along, I was fresh out of college and I felt my talents and gifts were wasting away. I struggled so much with staying home, yet I felt guilty for feeling that way.
After my baby's first birthday, I worked and then I felt guilty for working and being away from her. I was an emotional mess.
The truth is, I envy men. They don't have this war in their hearts like women do.
One thing is that our culture tells women that you aren't valuable or doing anything productive if you aren't working outside the home. This is simply not true and destructive to a woman's self-esteem. Paid work, volunteer work, and unpaid work in the home are ALL valuable and important.
You must realize that you are starting on a new chapter in your life and it's going to take some time to feel comfortable in it. For me, the decision was to stay home with my babies their first year and then evaluate whether I wanted to work or not.
Thankfully, I have that option. I realize that some families need a two parent income.
Something else to consider, is that we pay people to watch our children, so there is value in taking care of kids. We don't see daycare workers are not doing anything with their time. They are and it takes a lot of patience, skill, and talent to do that kind of work.
we pay people to watch our children, so there is value in taking care of kids. We don't see daycare workers are not doing anything with their time. They are and it takes a lot of patience, skill, and talent to do that kind of work.
I would sit down one day and write out your goals. Write out your fears, too.
What are you afraid of happening if you stay home? Boredom? Being unimportant? What are your goals? I wrote a book while my kids were little and home with me. It was something I always wanted to do. I also got into learning how to cook and cook well.
Here are some suggestions for you: Write out your goals. Write out your fears. Get up every morning and get ready. You don't have to look like a million bucks, but take a shower (babies love to be in the shower with you) and get dressed, put on a little make-up if you wear it, and do your hair nicely. You'll feel better. Take a walk. Join a gym. Make some fitness goals.
Realize that all the work you do in the home during the week frees you up to enjoy the weekend with your husband when he is home. When I was working, our weekends were packed with errands. They aren't anymore and we can get out and enjoy.
Commit yourself to reading something news worthy or interesting each day. It doesn't have to be pages long, but it will keep your mind fresh and give you something to talk about with your husband when he comes home.
Look to volunteer. I know that many pregnancy resource centers don't mind if baby is in tow. You can sort donations and do all kinds of things there.
Get into a hobby such as cooking, reading, etc.But, most importantly, relish in this time with your baby. It will go by so fast. I know everyone says that, but you don't have to be working to do something important. Being their for your baby is just what she/he needs. Give yourself time to adjust to this new role and in time evaluate whether you'd like to work again. Either way, you are doing something important.
Amy Thomas is the founder of Passionate Purpose. She is an Air force wife, married almost 16 years, with three kiddos. She has homeschooled her children for eight years. In 2009, she converted to Catholicism and considers it one of the greatest blessings of her life. You can check her out at www.passionatepurpose.org.
I, too, experienced health complications as a young wife and mother to be. Due to my health, I could no longer fulfill my duties at work. I remember going through a stage of trying to be the Proverbs 31 woman and the perfect housewife.
I soon found, however, that I was very bored. And anxious. And ashamed of myself for being "just a housewife."
One day I was driving home from an appointment when I decided to take a different route home. I noticed an old home with a sign that intrigued me. "Free pregnancy tests."
For some reason, I walked in and asked if they needed volunteers. That afternoon I spoke with the center director and started volunteer training at a local pregnancy resource center. I volunteered 4 days a week, keeping me busy, serving others, and establishing lasting friendships.
This time does not have to be a waiting period.
This time does not have to be a waiting period. This can be time to develop your faith and to serve others, even if it may be a bit uncomfortable at times. A great place to start is to call your parish. Many churches have pro-life committees, groups whom provide meals for the sick or bereaved, choirs, food pantries, etc. If there is no immediate need at your parish, offer to lead a Rosary circle or even to transport elderly parishioners to and from daily Mass.
Serving others can fulfill the desire to be useful and help you grow in your blossoming maternal role.
Prayers and blessings,
A mom who remembers
This author would like to remain anonymous.
I felt a little envious when I first read of your plight to be quite honest.
Studying and working, newly married (TEN months before baby born), sick as a dog and incredibly busy, I was in denial about the realities for a good part of my first pregnancy. I winged it completely, cried at the birthing classes, couldn't do the breathing, ran out of the birth video in horror.
With the hindsight of 25 years and 5 children, what would I do differently?I sensed in your apparent feeling of guilt at being home that you perhaps felt guilty at not 'contributing' equally by earning money alongside your husband. This is not how it works, but it is understandable that you feel that way, especially having just left paid employment for the first time. We do tend to identify ourselves closely with our professions, and this is going to be a big adjustment for you, as it is for any first time parent.
God has already told you what he wants you to be - a mother - by blessing you both with a baby. So use the pre-birth time to begin to learn how.
The time you have now is a gift for both you and your husband to use to establish patterns for your new life as parents.
The time you have now is a gift for both you and your husband to use to establish patterns for your new life as parents.
Daily mass and prayer are terrific and are not just for you but for your family. Make sure you take your husband with you in your heart.
Take on board the many intensely practical lessons in our faith about love and service and motivations and humility.
Always pray for your practical needs and for your husband and child/ren. You won't always be able to go to daily Mass, but you can pray anywhere, anytime.
Also read, relax and look after yourself at this time.
I would introduce your husband gently (if he is not already familiar with these ideas) to the concepts of doing the shopping, tidying up, cleaning, laundry, etc, and generally doing stuff round the house that needs to be done. Avoid letting him assume that these are 'your' jobs because you are at home.
Not only is this a pernicious untruth (you are not the help, you are an equal partner), but after the baby is born you will be shell-shocked for a while, and so busy and tired that you won't have a lot of resources to devote to keeping a spotless home and waiting on another adult.
Help him establish habits and awareness of a mature adult that will free you up for baby duty without feeling that you are 'neglecting' him or need to organize him as well.
That being said, also put some (or lots of) time in now to organizing your home to function well with minimal effort. Plan, or learn to plan, a budget. Learn to cook quick and healthy meals, to plan your food shopping, get your kitchen organised for ease of use and of cleaning up after. Plan a four week cycle of easy and quick menus, with shopping lists ready to grab and hand to your husband. If you don't have one, get a dishwasher.
Organize your home so it is easy to keep clean and tidy, ditto your nursery. Learn some cleaning hacks. Get in a large stock of newborn disposable diapers. If people ask what you need for the baby, have a list ready and tick it off as you request things, or have a registry.
Go to prenatal classes and try and make some friends with other pregnant ladies so you will have a bit of a support network afterwards. Check out local playgroups. Engage more with your extended family members as part of your support network.
make some friends with other pregnant ladies so you will have a bit of a support network afterwards.
Get some tops NOW that will make breastfeeding easy and tactful.
Prepare for the unexpected - birth may not go to plan and it is an arduous and messy physical process. Make a healthy baby your sole priority in your birth plan. AND you've got less than nine months to do all this, sister!
Do as much groundwork as you can now because you sure as heck won't have time to do it afterwards. Being a SAHM is the most wonderful thing, but the rewards are unquantifiable and unexplainable and often reveal a certain wry humor in our Creator. You'll find out.
Best of luck.
Catherine is a nother of five young adults 14-24. All gainfully employed and/or studying hard to become so. Married once, for 25 years, separated for six months. Working full time.