Many women who grew up in the Catholic Church were told to emulate Mary, the Mother of God – a woman whose purity and lack of sin can make her difficult to relate to. She is often portrayed in paintings as a meek, pale lady holding the baby Jesus, appearing to be agreeable, polite, and nice: three words that psychologist Dr. Nicole LePera used to describe “Good Girl” conditioning. But was Mary really a “Good Girl”?
Who was Mary?
Mary was a young Jewish woman living in the Roman Empire. Based on our knowledge of Jewish customs at the time of Christ’s birth, the fact that she was betrothed when the angel Gabriel appeared to her suggests that she was around 14 years old (possibly younger).
Mary was not wealthy. In the Gospel of Luke, there is an account of Mary and Joseph’s presentation of Jesus in the temple which recounts that they offered a sacrifice of “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons,” which according to Mosaic law is only allowed if the woman is unable to afford a lamb to sacrifice (Luke 2:24).
By all accounts, Mary does not have much power in her society: her age, her gender, her religious affiliation, and her socioeconomic status all place her fairly low in the social hierarchy.
Catholic tradition also tells us that Mary was “immaculately conceived” in her mother’s womb, free from original sin, making her an appropriate vessel to one day bear Christ into the world. To be clear, I am not questioning this teaching of the Church. Rather, I am exploring whether Mary fits into the contemporary image of a “Good Girl,” as it is being popularly discussed by psychologists.
What is a “Good Girl”?
As psychologist Dr. Nicole LePera recently explained in a Twitter thread, “‘Good girl’ conditioning is messaging we receive beginning in childhood to be: agreeable, polite, and nice.” These seem like good traits that we should try to emulate. But the problem lies in how far women are asked to go in order to keep up this image. Namely, to the extent that they are asked to betray their own needs or values in order to win other people’s approval.
Dr. LePera gives the following example: “As a young girl you feel uncomfortable around your uncle. He drinks a lot and is loud and your intuition guides you to avoid him. Your (well-meaning) mother senses your discomfort. Rather than helping to guide you through those emotions, to validate you, and to teach you how to honor your own boundaries: she tells you that you have to give him a hug. It's polite. And, she tells you that you can't ‘look rude.’”
As a result, she explains, girls learn that “external appearance is more important than internal feelings.”
Later in life, this conditioning often shows its effects when we are constantly appeasing others and avoiding conflict. Some examples of this are given by Dr. LePera: when “you feel bad asking for a waitress to fix your order, when you over-explain that you can't attend an event, when you automatically defer to someone else's opinion.” Or, to use an example from my own life: when you always dread the interview question that asks for an example of how you handle conflict, because you don’t have any. You avoid it at all costs.
Mary’s Fiat: Empowering or Appeasing?
With those terms established, we can return to our original question: Was Mary a “Good Girl”?
To begin to answer this question, we need to look at the story of the Annunciation in the Gospel of Luke. When the angel Gabriel appears to Mary, she is “greatly troubled” (Luke 1:29). And she is not alone in this feeling. For all of the artwork we have of adorable cherubs, angels are actually very frightening creatures. When Gabriel visited Zechariah to announce that his wife, Elizabeth, was pregnant with John the Baptist, he was also “greatly troubled by what he saw” (Luke 1:12).
Most of us have heard the story that comes next: Gabriel tells Mary, “Do not be afraid,” before explaining to her that she is to give birth to a child named Jesus. Mary says, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” This last line is celebrated as Mary’s “fiat” – her “yes” to God which enabled the birth of Jesus to be possible.
This question of whether Mary was a “Good Girl” hinges on whether she really said “yes” freely, without coercion. The word “yes” doesn’t appear in the English translation of the Bible. And she was never actually asked a question: everything that the angel Gabriel said comes across as a command, or at least a statement of fact: “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus” (Luke 1:31) and “The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Luke 1:35).
It could seem like God sent Gabriel to tell Mary what she was expected to do, and she went along with it because there was a frightening, mysterious being in front of her who was literally sent by an all-powerful God. And, being immaculately conceived, does Mary even have the capacity to say “no” to God? Would that be considered a sin?
If Mary wasn’t actually presented with a choice – or even if she was, but she remained terrified and unable to make an uncoerced decision – then Mary failed to stand up for her own needs and went along with someone else’s plan, despite potential concerns about how it would change her life. This sounds like what Dr. LePera described: ignoring our own needs and desires to win approval from others (in this case, God). If those of us with “Good Girl” conditioning feel pressure to sacrifice our own needs to please mere humans in front of us, it is not too hard to imagine that a 14-year-old girl would feel pressure to please a divine being by going along with their plan.
Yet, after Gabriel’s assurance to “be not afraid,” Mary doesn’t act afraid. In fact, even before Gabriel said that, her reaction was different than that of Zechariah. Pope Benedict XVI writes about this in his book Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives. Zechariah was “greatly troubled” and afterwards, “fear fell upon him” (Luke 1:12). Mary too was “greatly troubled,” but afterwards she “pondered what sort of greeting this might be” (Luke 1:29). She was seeking to understand what was happening, rather than cowering in fear (Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, p.33).
Mary has enough courage to ask the question, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” (Luke 1:34). And at the end of their interaction, the fact that she felt the need to say “let it be done to me according to your will” suggests that she sensed that the angel was waiting for some sort of consent. When she went to visit her cousin Elizabeth shortly after the angel’s visit, both women joyfully celebrated their pregnancies, and Mary describes how God “has done great things for me” in the prayer that is called her “Magnificat” (Luke 1:46-50).
If that is the case, and she freely chose to become pregnant with Jesus, then Mary demonstrated incredible courage in the face of a daunting circumstance. She decided – without the permission of her father or her betrothed – to bear a child into the world in a way that would necessarily cause conflict and potential physical harm.
In becoming pregnant before she had gone to live with her betrothed, Mary was breaking a huge social norm. She would have known that her pregnancy would upset the majority of people around her. Until Joseph was visited by Gabriel himself, he would have thought that she had slept with another man, committing adultery. This was an offense that was punishable by stoning under Mosaic law, which is why Joseph had “decided to divorce her quietly” so as to not “expose her to shame” (Matthew 1:19). No one she encountered – other than those who had also interacted with the angel – would have understood that this baby was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and she remained a virgin.
Anyone with “Good Girl” conditioning would cringe at the thought of all of the conflict that could come from such a situation: all of the disapproving stares, demeaning words, and actual physical harm. Mary may have cringed too – but she did it anyway.
So, Which One Is It?
This question is hugely important, not just for our understanding of Mary, but also for our understanding of God. If God sent an angel to Mary with the intent of ordering her to bear a child into the world – a fully divine child – then God does not actually care about our free will. God would be a puppet master who orchestrates our lives at whim, and we would be mere puppets.
But if God sent an angel to Mary with the intent of appointing a more-approachable (though still initially frightening) mediator to bring God’s message and to await Mary’s response, then God is a loving parent who, though He knows what is best for us, allows us to make our own choices. God is a God who “lifts up the lowly” (Luke 1:52) rather than exploiting them like powerful human beings tend to do. God entrusts the “lowly” with large roles in the work of bringing about His kingdom, but He waits on them to choose to participate.
Theologians have explored these issues in depth – too much depth to fully go into here. But it is widely accepted among Catholic theologians of different persuasions that Mary did, in fact, have a fully free choice.
Pope Benedict XVI writes that the entire mission of Jesus is dependent on this freedom. Because humans first made the free choice to turn away from God, “the only way he can redeem man, who was created free, is by means of a free ‘yes’ to his will . . . His power is tied to the unenforceable ‘yes’ of a human being” (Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, p. 36).
To contemporary feminist theologians, this free choice of Mary demonstrates her strength.
In her book Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints, Elizabeth Johnson writes:
“This young peasant girl discerns the voice of God in her life, commissioning her to a momentous task. Exercising independent thought and action, she asks questions, takes counsel with her own soul. In a self-determining act of personal autonomy, she decides to go for it. This is her choice and it changes her life. A woman of Spirit, she embarks on the task of partnering God in the work of redemption.”
In her book Standing in the Shoes My Mother Made: A Womanist Theology, Diana Hayes writes:
“Black Catholics also speak a new and challenging word about Mary, the mother of God, rejecting the symbol of passivity for the courageous and outrageous authority of a young unwed mother who had the faith in herself and in her God to break through the limitations society placed upon her in order to say a powerful yes to God, standing alone yet empowered. Hers was not a yes to being used merely as a passive, empty vessel, but a yes to empowerment, challenging the status quo by her ability to overcome those who doubted and denied her and to nurture and bring forth her Son as a woman of faith and conviction.”
Mary was a courageous woman who chose to dive headlong into conflict in order to do what she believed was right. She broke social norms and didn’t let a desire to please other people stop her. She celebrated how God worked in the world, upsetting the status quo by throwing down rulers from their thrones, and believed that when she participated in that work of disruption, “all ages will call [her] blessed” (Luke 1:48).
So, no, Mary was not a “Good Girl.”
Taylor Swift’s “Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve” is the Catholic Guilt Anthem We Didn't Know We Needed
Please read with discretion, as this post has content related to intimate partner violence and sexual abuse.
Taylor Swift has a reputation for writing lyrics that pack a punch – they’re gorgeously poetic and yet heart-wrenchingly relatable. In a hidden gem vault track from Midnights (3 a.m. Edition), Swift (who is rumored to be a cradle Catholic) has proven herself even more relatable to her Catholic fans with a song that I would like to dub the unofficial Catholic guilt anthem: “Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve.”
The Story Behind “Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve”
In the song, Swift reflects on a relationship that she had more than a decade ago and the ways in which it has continued to affect her. Due to the specific details she includes, it is widely believed to reference her relationship with John Mayer, during which he was 32 and she was just 19.
In the immediate aftermath of their breakup, she wrote the angsty ballad, “Dear John,” calling Mayer out for his emotionally manipulative behavior and expressing her regret for not heeding her loved ones’ warnings to stay away from him. In that song, she concluded, “I should’ve known.” Fans speculate that re-recording “Dear John” for the upcoming Speak Now (Taylor’s Version) caused a resurgence of feelings, causing her to reflect on the relationship and what she would say to her younger self.
The title of her newer track, “Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve” (WCS) signifies her expanding understanding of the different layers of hurt that came along with their relationship and of the complicated guilt that goes further than a simple, “I should’ve known better.”
On the one hand, she does feel that she could have and should have stayed away from the relationship, which even at the time she knew went against her better judgment. She takes responsibility for her choice, noting that she believed she wanted it at the time and that “the pain was heaven.
On the other hand, though, she realizes that the guilt should not be entirely hers to bear. WCS is particularly poignant because Swift wrote it at the age Mayer was when the pair dated, giving her new insights into the ways she believes he took advantage of her youthful naïveté. She criticizes him for pursuing a relationship with her despite a large age difference and power imbalance. She admonishes him for “wash[ing his] hands” of any moral responsibility for entering into a predatory grooming relationship with her just because she was technically a legal adult: “And if I was a child, did it matter if you got to wash your hands?”
As in “Dear John,” she expresses indignation at the emotional manipulation that left her feeling hurt: “But, Lord, you made me feel important, and then you tried to erase us.” Her choice of diction throughout the song is extremely violent (“pain,” “wound,” “poison,” “weapon,” “hitting”), highlighting their unhealthy relationship dynamics. While she admits to her role in the dysfunction (“living for the thrill of hitting you where it hurts”), she makes it clear that she sees Mayer as the true villain, straight-up referring to their time together as a “dance with the Devil.” In her most gut-punching line, she skillfully makes herself sound like a teenager again as she demands that Mayer give back all he has taken from her: “Give me back my girlhood; it was mine first!”
But ultimately, the song is not about Mayer as much as it is about how the situation affected her relationship with herself, her heart, and her faith.
“Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve” and Faith
WCS is dense with religious imagery. Swift laments, “Ooh, all I used to do was pray,” and reflects that if she had known better, “I would’ve stayed on my knees, and I damn sure never would have danced with the Devil.” She mentions “heaven,” “stained glass windows,” and “the God’s honest truth,” and the official lyric video has background scenes of churches and candles.
There are all sorts of biblical allusions. She calls out Mayer for “wash[ing his] hands” of responsibility, à la Pontius Pilate. She reflects with remorse, “And now that I know, I wish you'd left me wondering,” which could be an allusion to Eve’s regret after eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. And the line, “The wound won't close, I keep on waiting for a sign,” is reminiscent of Doubting Thomas, who needed a sign that the resurrected Jesus was real, and the sign he was given was Christ’s open wound.
The religious imagery comes together to contribute to her thesis: “You’re a crisis of my faith.” That is, the guilt she felt from acting against her better judgment and the shame she felt as a result of the abuse she experienced ended up destroying her faith. The regret and shame she felt was not just a compartmentalized remorse over one bad decision; it permeated her whole sense of identity and self-worth, distancing her from the Church she had previously taken comfort in.
Part of this distance may have stemmed from a purity culture that made her feel irreparably damaged by certain sexual behaviors she might have engaged in (consensually or not). “If you never touched me, I would've gone along with the righteous. If I never blushed, then they could've never whispered about this,” she reflects. “If you never touched me” is in the passive voice, suggesting she may have not been entirely comfortable with the speed of their relationship. But “If I never blushed” is in the active voice, suggesting that she felt actively guilty about what they were doing together. In purity culture, girls are taught that straying from Church teachings makes them like a chewed up piece of gum or a “crumpled up piece of paper” (to make another Swift reference) – in other words, irreparably tarnished and unworthy.
Against her will, she feels like something has been taken from her. When she implores, “Give me back my girlhood!” there is so much pain there, and it is about more than just sex. By making sexual purity a proxy for all virtues, purity culture puts so much of a woman’s identity up for grabs as something that can be taken from her by a man. When Swift demands her girlhood back, it could be about virginity, but it could also be about herself – her trust in her own convictions, her sense of belonging in the Church, her hope of true love, her belief in her own goodness, her childlike relationship with God, or any number of other facets of girlhood. She feels that Mayer had the power to transform her from a girl into a woman, before she was ready and against her will – but no man ought to have the power to do that. This erroneous belief is the result of a grossly distorted purity culture.
As a consequence, she sees herself as irrevocably changed. She will never know who she would have been if she hadn’t been in this relationship. In fact, she uses the same “would’ve, could’ve, should’ve” language in another bonus track on the album, “Bigger Than the Whole Sky.” This track is often thought to be about mourning a miscarriage or another loss of a loved one, but an alternate interpretation bolstered by the lyrical parallelism is that Swift is mourning the woman she could have become if she didn't make the choices she regrets: “I’m never gonna meet what would’ve been, could’ve been, should’ve been you.”
Indeed, throughout WCS, Swift explicitly confesses, “I miss who I used to be,” and “I regret you all the time.” She wants to be past that chapter of her life, but more than a decade later, “the wound won’t close.” Even as she has moved on from Mayer, dated other guys, and is now in a committed and happy long-term relationship, something is impeding her healing process. She reflects, “If clarity’s in death then why won’t this die? Years of tearing down our banners, you and I.” A banner is like a flag, something that represents a cause you have allegiance to. She felt that she had to tear down the banner of her faith as she was no longer worthy to wave that flag. And yet, it doesn’t bring her the healing she hopes for; the pain won’t die.
“God rest my soul,” she begs repeatedly. As a result of her shame, she can no longer find peace in the Church the way she used to. But she can’t find that peace outside the Church either, and something in her heart keeps pulling her mind back: “stained glass windows in my mind.”
As she cycles through lamentations in the outro, sometimes she tellingly switches up “the wound won’t close” with “the tomb won’t close,” recalling the open tomb at Jesus’ resurrection. As hard as she tries to shut her faith out of her life – to close Jesus in the tomb – the tomb won’t close. Jesus refuses to let shame be the stone that closes off her relationship with Him.
Catharsis for our Catholic Guilt
Swift’s lyrics tend to be intensely personal, referencing hyper-specific details. And while we may not be able to identify with specific details, she has a magnificent power to make art that resonates with so many. In this case, I’m calling “Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve” a Catholic guilt anthem because it rings true with those who are grappling with Catholic guilt.
The guilt and regret that manifest in the song are palpable, but this guilt is not just a result of the narrator’s bad choices. There are several factors at play:
1) She made a choice that she knew at the time went against her parents’ and friends’ warnings and what she had been taught was right. She chose to do it anyway.
2) She was manipulated and/or taken advantage of in some way in the relationship. There was likely emotional or psychological abuse, and possibly some level of physical or sexual violence. By its nature as abuse, this is not her fault, and she is not morally culpable.
3) There is another layer of guilt and shame laid on her by our Puritanical religious culture that puts too much emphasis on sexual purity at the expense of a regard for the whole person: Swift’s lyrics suggest that she feels so damaged by her shame-filled experience from years ago that there is still deep pain in her relationship with God and the Church, which affects her to this day.
Each layer of the wound requires a different treatment: Confession, therapy, and reform, respectively.
Confession and Therapy: Remedies for Catholic Guilt
Sometimes, Catholic guilt is good. It’s a way that the Holy Spirit talks to us through our conscience, letting us know when we’ve missed the mark, and calling us to do better. We should feel guilty if we knowingly did something we shouldn’t have. In that case, we have the sacrament of Confession, in which we own up to our role in the wrongdoing and are graced with relief from guilt and a path to true healing.
However, there is a difference between guilt and shame. Guilt is a productive feeling meant to lead us back to God, whereas shame leaves us feeling isolated, empty, and alone. Guilt tells us that what we did is wrong. Shame tells us that who we are is wrong.
In WCS, Swift illuminates the complicated interplay between the two feelings, both the guilt she feels for her choices that led to the unhealthy relationship, but also the shame that grew within her as a result of the abusive dynamics.
Some priests – often those who have training as therapists or gifts of emotional intelligence – can sit with us in Confession and help us sort through which of our perceived sins are true sins and which are a result of our distorted perceptions. People who have experienced abusive relationships or have been coerced as a result of power imbalances often feel shame for things that they are not morally culpable for.
No matter how ashamed you feel, I am here to tell you that being abused is not – and can never be – a sin. Even if you didn't fight back, even if you didn't say no, even if you experienced mixed feelings at the time.
And while the Church’s stance on this is unequivocal, priests are imperfect, individual men, and not all of them do a great job of communicating this truth in the confessional, either because they’re short on time or poorly trained or just not exceptionally comfortable with these delicate topics. I wish all priests were trained as therapists, but they’re not. (In fact, there is a shortage of both.) Regardless of whether Confession makes you feel fully healed on the spiritual level, it’s also good to seek healing on the human level – and that is precisely what therapy is for.
In fact, one Swiftie described WCS as “‘Dear John’ after therapy.” In “Dear John,” Swift’s emotions are raw, full of anger and self-blaming. In WCS, however, she comes to an understanding that she was young back then, and a grown man was emotionally abusing her. With distance, she is able to reflect on how it affected her and look back more empathetically at her younger self. Her anger is not the fresh anger in the moment but rather the righteous, protective anger of someone who sees an injustice being done. She sees herself more tenderly, more like the beloved child God sees, a sign of therapy-induced growth.
“Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve” and Unhealed Religious Trauma
The religious imagery of WCS struck a chord in a similar way among different listeners who were raised Catholic, but who are no longer practicing for various reasons. The song has brought up the pain of feeling ostracized by or unsafe in a Church that was once so important in their lives.
On TikTok, many people are using sound from WCS to reflect on their religious trauma from experiences like coming out as queer, being slut-shamed, or experiencing an unwillingness to accommodate their needs as disabled or neurodivergent people.
In the Gospels, Jesus showed kindness toward women who worked as prostitutes and women who had committed adultery, and yet sexuality – especially women’s sexuality that is deemed deviant for one reason or another – has been made into this all-consuming, identity-definining thing. We have turned sexuality into a gatekeeper for our churches to keep out the very people that Jesus was making a concerted effort to reach.
Crucially, in our efforts to build bridges to welcome lapsed Catholics back, we need to recognize the trauma that has been inflicted on young, impressionable Catholic kids and teens by bad theology and particularly by bad sexual ethics education. We need to recognize that people in the Church have done things that have pushed others away from their relationship with God. As a Church, we need to recognize that harm, reach out with humility rather than judgment, and work to repair the relationship.
Holding Abusers Accountable, Inside and Outside the Church
And with this discussion of abuse, I would be remiss not to mention the ways in which the Church’s sex abuse crisis has led to a crisis of faith for so many of us. Swift’s line, “If I was some paint, did it splatter on a promising grown man” hits like a punch in the stomach, and it holds a damning mirror up to the abuse scandals and cover ups in the Church.
Swift uses this clever play on words to reference the trope of the college rapist who should not have to face consequences for his actions because he is such a “promising young man.” But in the case of her abuser, and so many of the abusive priests in our Church, he was a grown man who should have been held accountable for his actions but instead was protected and valued above the victim because of all his potential.
I can’t help but think of the case of a priest at Franciscan University that recently came to light. When the victim of abuse by Fr. David Morrier tried to disclose her abuse to another priest, Fr. Shawn Roberson, he cut her off and accused her of splattering paint on the promising Morrier’s reputation: “I’m sure if I go home tonight, and ask Fr. Morrier about this, which I intend to do, he will have a different story, so instead of sitting here gossiping, which is a sin, why don’t we focus on why we are here and that is you and your problems.”
Stories like these are enough to cause a crisis of faith for anyone. I wish the institutional Church would’ve, could’ve been better. It certainly should’ve.
It’s time for us to turn to the sacraments and therapy to seek healing for our Catholic guilt. We must be the hands and heart of the Church by reaching out to others to welcome them back and heal their religious trauma. And we must remind the Church that it should, can, and must do better to prevent and punish abuse, protect the vulnerable, and generally act more like Jesus.
Author’s Note: This piece is best described as a literary analysis through a close reading of Taylor Swift’s art. I don’t know Swift on a personal level. When I refer to Swift, I’m talking about her as the protagonist of the autobiographical song. As it is literary analysis, this involves a lot of speculation and reading between the lines, so any assumptions I make about the nature of her relationship with Mayer or with her faith are purely speculation. That’s between her and God, and I’m sure she’d like to keep it that way.
Julie Wyma is in her late thirties, has a full time job, and is recently separated. She spent the summer tracking her period and preparing for a series of hormone injections. “I started my period five minutes before singing a concert. I was like, alright, it’s go time, this is happening.” As soon as the concert ended, she began the carefully planned flight of hormone shots. Julie, like thousands of women across Europe and the United States, is freezing her eggs.
Why do Julie and so many other women make this choice?
A Desire for a Family, but No Partner to Make it Happen
Since the pandemic, egg retrieval has increased by 39%. Julie’s reasons for egg extraction and storage could come from any of the thousands of women seeking out the procedure: “I might still want to have children someday, but I can’t right now, and I want to keep the possibility open.”
The Mayo Clinic offers four reasons for why a woman might freeze her eggs: having a disease or an autoimmune disorder that threatens fertility, undergoing medical treatment that affects fertility (such as chemotherapy), preparing for in vitro fertilization, or “wish[ing] to preserve younger eggs now for future use.”
It’s this last reason that drives most women to seek out fertility preservation, but the impetus for it is not always their career.
When a study from NYU asked women going through egg preservation why they were choosing to pursue the procedure, “the overwhelming (88%) reason cited was lack of a partner.” Yes, careers and family planning factored in, but the primary reason why women in the study sought to preserve future fertility is because they had not found a partner with whom to start a family, and they wanted to keep that dream alive.
It’s Not Always Possible to Put a Career on Hold
In September 2022, the New York Times published an article about the less-than-desirable success rate of egg freezing. Aside from pointing out the skyrocketing interest in the past few years, the article’s comments section offers a glimpse into the lived experience many women have when offered the chance to preserve their eggs, delaying the opportunity to conceive children:
“I would have loved to have had my children 10 years earlier – but this was not accommodated at the time.”
“Both women and men should be able to step out of the rat race during their most fertile years and put some focus on establishing a family, without being punished. In fact, we should be providing financial assistance to help offset the cost, since it’s almost impossible to have a lucrative career by your mid 20’s.”
“Change the workplace and career expectations so that young people can have children without forever being sidelined into the ‘mommy’ or ‘daddy’ track and never allowed to resume their genuine careers again.”
“We inflict upon ourselves costly and often painful medical procedures with a mere hope of future family life, rather than building a humane society in which such choices are unnecessary.”
“I lay the blame at the feet of a society and government that has created a system where young people spend their youth stressed about repaying loans, where hookups are taking the place of relationships, where both partners need to work for their whole lives to be able to afford basic necessities, where we are brainwashed into thinking that we are aren't ‘successful’ unless we making lots of money, where a woman is told that she isn't liberated unless she is being ‘productive’ in the service of capitalism, and where everything traditional is dismissed as regressive.”
Peppered in between comments celebrating the technology that makes freezing possible lies an overwhelming sentiment of frustration that it’s needed at all. Those commenting are self-selecting, and yet the anger expressed in the wake of this article is indicative of the larger problem facing women today: couples often determine it’s just not possible, financially or professionally, to raise a child during your prime career-building years.
As the Stigma of Egg Freezing Recedes, Curiosity Rises
“It’s been interesting how many conversations I’ve had with women from all areas of my life – and some men, too – who are really interested in the subject of egg freezing and of fertility in general, and who have been eager to have conversations about it,” shared Julie. “It’s clearly something we’re all interested in talking more about, we just need someone to get the ball rolling.”
For someone like Julie, in her thirties and exiting a marriage, the opportunity to freeze her eggs is not something she looked into before her divorce. “Like many women, I was thrown off for a little bit when my life timeline didn’t take the same timeline of marriage and children as my mother’s did.”
What is the Church’s Response to Egg Freezing?
In 2008, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith built upon Donum Vitae (Instruction for Respect of Human Life) with Dignitas Personae, which directly addresses egg freezing. The document acknowledges that “in order avoid the serious ethical problems posed by the freezing of embryos, the freezing of oocytes has also been advanced in the area of techniques of in vitro fertilization,” which is to say that couples pursuing in vitro fertilization may choose to freeze eggs instead of embryos to avoid the ethical problem of what to do with fertilized embryos if they are no longer needed. “Once a sufficient number of oocytes has been obtained for a series of attempts at artificial procreation, only those which are to be transferred into the mother’s body are fertilized while the others are frozen for future fertilization and transfer should the initial attempts not succeed.”
“In this regard,” says the Vatican, “it needs to be stated that cryopreservation of oocytes for the purpose of being used in artificial procreation is to be considered morally unacceptable.” The chief concern for the Catholic Church is to avoid the destruction of embryos, which constitute a form of life deserving of protection.
However, the Vatican does not directly address the preservation of eggs without a specific plan and in hopes of future pregnancy.
The guidance to date from the USCCB, such as Reproductive Technology (Evaluation & Treatment of Infertility) Guidelines for Catholic Couples and Reproductive Technology Evaluation and Treatment of Infertility offer commentary on multiple forms of artificial fertility assistance, but do not explicitly address the choice to freeze eggs. The Catholic Education Resource Center is equally vague: “These are very real questions that we don't have answers to yet, but that need to be considered. We need to revalue the natural and to recognize that just because we can use technology to do an end run around nature does not mean that we are necessarily wise in doing so.”
FemCatholic has previously explored why the popular movement for employers to offer egg freezing as part of compensation might not be in the best interest of the employee. Analysis suggests that employers use the promise of egg freezing to encourage employees to put off children, thus remaining productive workers. It’s cheaper for a business to cover the procedure to freeze eggs than it is to cover the cost of birth, parental leave, and an additional dependent.
Paul Lauridzen’s 2010 paper on Technology and Wholeness: Oncofertility and Catholic Tradition sought to answer this question from a Catholic perspective as well, finding “the Catholic Church has not issued a specific directive about this technology, [however] the general teaching on assisted reproduction is sufficiently clear that we can reasonably extrapolate from prior teaching to predict the likely response of the Vatican to this technology.”
Julie sees no conflict. “We live in a time when we are blessed with scientific innovation,” she explained. “I trust in God and my doctors. Neither of those things diminishes the other.”
The Question of Egg Freezing is Woven With Several Others
As with most issues facing women today, the question of egg freezing is woven with multiple threads.
Why are women having children later? Why do professional women struggle to support families? Why is it so hard for women of child-bearing age to find a suitable partner?
What policies are needed to ensure fair wages and access to childcare? Is the opportunity to freeze eggs an employee benefit, or does it stigmatize employees who choose to have children? Is access to egg freezing a benefit to women or a societal excuse to avoid tackling bigger issues of female equality?
Does discourse surrounding Church teaching allow enough space for the nuance of a woman’s lived experience?
Julie is under no illusions about the future she may face, should she choose to become pregnant. “I am incredibly grateful that the state of scientific development allows me the gift of extending my body’s timeline. It is, however, a burden that there is so little social support in general that it is in many cases impossible or extremely difficult for a woman to have a child on her own, generally paying out of pocket for conception or adoption and then being the single caregiver and earner for her family,” she said. “I feel that in general, society doesn’t do women many favors.”
How to Embrace Advent (And Not Get Sick of Christmas Before December 25th)
The commercial Christmas season has been in full swing for nearly a month. A season that once began at Thanksgiving with mall displays, Christmas music, and holiday-themed ads now begins at Halloween (sometimes even earlier). It is no longer unusual to see skeletons and Santas side by side.
Three months of Christmas feels overwhelming, especially when the season has become synonymous with Instagram-worthy trees, picture-ready outfits, and the perfectly curated gift list. Don't get me wrong. Christmas is supposed to be a party, just not in November.
If you’re trying to not get sick of Christmas before it even starts, here are five ways to bring meaning to your Advent and reclaim the real Christmas season – all two weeks of it.
1. Let tasks linger on your to-do list.
Advent is a season of anticipation, yet filling the time leading up to Christmas with "doing" leaves little time for "waiting." Find meaning in the weeks before Christmas by giving yourself a different kind of gift: one of space and time.
Resist the temptation to get all of your Christmas preparations done by a specific date, or at all. Add in time to your calendar each day to pause for five minutes to stretch, walk outside, or pray. Trust that you'll get done each day what you were meant to and that all the rest can be saved for another time. Whatever strategy you choose, remember this: it's awfully hard to wait for something when time is a blur.
2. Prolong decorating.
Whether it's Fourth of July, Valentine's Day, or Christmas, decorations orient us to the season we're in. They’re an anchor to a specific place and moment in time.
But before you put up the Christmas tree this weekend, pause to consider what Advent décor would look like. How can the surroundings in your home symbolize a season of waiting?
In my house, Advent décor is, well, half-up Christmas décor. I let the anticipation of Christmas build by intentionally not creating the picture-perfect Christmas scene. Some years, our tree isn't fully decorated until the days before Christmas. Advent is a time of "in progress," a car ride of "not there yet." So let your decorations be in progress, too.
3. Save something for Christmas.
Decorations don't just represent a specific moment in time; they also represent the passing of time. As you take your time decorating, consider what in your home can mark the end of Advent and the start of Christmas. On Christmas Eve, how can you visually represent that the time of waiting has ended, and that it's now time to party?
In our house, we save our outdoor Christmas lights for – you guessed it – Christmas Eve. In fact, it has become a fun tradition. Just before Christmas Eve Mass, we gather outside, count down, and have our own lighting ceremony. As we drive off to Mass, we gaze at the blaze of lights and what they signify: the wait is over.
4. Linger in your new rituals.
Moving from routine to ritual and back again at lighting speed can take away the meaning of all of it. Allow yourself time to linger in the rituals you use to celebrate Advent or Christmas.
Maybe stay at Mass a few minutes longer each Sunday of Advent, sitting in the pew until your body feels the discomfort of waiting. (Imagine the discomfort Mary must have felt, too!) When lighting an Advent wreath or opening a door of an Advent calendar, pause for a prayer. Whatever your ritual, allow yourself some time for it to really sink in.
5. Leave the tree up (and keep the party going!).
When the season starts months ahead of time, it is no surprise that people are done with Christmas once the day is over. (Has anyone else noticed the number of Christmas trees that are out on the curb by December 26th?)
Before you toss that tree out, remember that Christmas Day is only the start of the Christmas season. It is meant to last nearly two weeks! Spend time during Advent to plan how you will celebrate each day of the Christmas season. Maybe it's dessert every night after dinner, or perhaps you save a gift or two from Christmas morning to open later. You can even use the 12+ days of Christmas to lighten your Advent to-do list. Consider sending your Christmas cards during this time or host that Christmas party you weren't able to earlier in the month. However you decide to do it, make the most of those days. They're meant to be a party!
In the Catholic Church, Christmas is a season all to itself, just not the same season that department stores and TV commercials would have you believe. This Advent, bring intention to how you move through the weeks before Christmas. Above all, recognize that this time is not yet Christmas. Those days are coming, but they are not yet here. And that's okay – all the best things are worth waiting for.
Please read with discretion, as this post has content related to sexual assault and gun violence.
“Sometimes I feel like a wind-up doll. Turn my key, and I’ll tell you exactly what you want to hear,” confesses Ani Fanelli (Mila Kunis), the protagonist of Luckiest Girl Alive. It’s a fitting descriptor for a woman whose entire persona has been carefully manufactured to manipulate others, elevate her status, and bury her trauma.
Her stream-of-consciousness narration is full of biting one-liners, but the wind-up doll analogy is the only one stated twice: once in her head and once out loud to her fiancé, Luke Harrisson (Finn Wittrock). The revelation that she has been lying to please him has the potential to shatter their tenuous relationship, but it’s a necessary first step in the long process of transforming an automaton into a human being.
Luckiest Girl Alive, directed by Mike Barker with a screenplay by Jessica Knoll (author of the novel by the same name), is a story about the impact of trauma, inelegantly wrapped up in the trappings of a whodunnit thriller. At its best, it’s a raw depiction of how untended pain tears apart our relationships and our sense of self. At its worst, it’s clunky, joyless, and exploitative.
Ultimately, it fails to satisfy as it substitutes career success and the ability to toss out a cutting zinger for genuine personal growth.
This review contains spoilers.
At the start of the film, Ani appears to be living a charmed life, writing for an elite women’s magazine and engaged to the wealthy and handsome Luke. However, those of us privy to her inner thoughts quickly become aware that not everything is as it seems. Within the first few minutes, Ani describes her romance as a “grift,” lies to Luke about eating a pizza, and experiences a shocking flashback to holding a bloody knife. She artfully covers her PTSD while continuing to browse for registry items at Williams-Sonoma.
Her lies extend to other areas of her life. Her mom, Dina (Connie Britton), drunk and obnoxious at her wedding dress fitting, points out that Ani’s modest gown was chosen to please the stuffy high-society snobs who will be her guests, rather than reflect her own tastes. While Dina’s manner of delivering this message is brutally unkind, Ani is most upset by the fact that she is right.
Ani embraces the grift at work as well, commandeering her boss’ corner office for meetings where she pretends to be an executive. This is a risky endeavor, considering this same boss has promised to bring Ani along with her to The New York Times Magazine. But Ani’s entire life is a carefully constructed charade built around a single goal: legitimacy.
To cut an extremely long and convoluted story short, Ani’s aim is to become high-status enough that people will finally believe her when she confronts her rapist.
Dean Barton (Alex Barone) is a respected author and gun control activist, having been confined to a wheelchair after living through the “deadliest private school shooting in American history.” He has also publicly accused Ani, who was a scholarship kid at the elite Brentley School, of having been involved in the attack. It’s his way of discrediting her accusations of rape, a strategy that has worked well thus far. As long as Ani writes sex columns and he’s in a wheelchair, she considers herself at a disadvantage. Maybe if she gets that job at the Times, she thinks, she’ll be ready. Then again, her heirloom engagement ring is a useful tool for manipulating emotions. “How dare anyone think I did any of that while wiping away a single tear wearing this ring?” she ponders.
There’s a lot happening in Ani’s backstory. As it slowly unfolds in flashback, we piece together a story that combines gang rape with a school shooting that culminates in Ani first being urged to shoot her rapist and then stabbing the shooter to death.
Any one of these traumas would be enough to motivate Ani’s emotional retreat. When combined, the impact of the individual events gets lost in a haze of pain. The intention seems to be that Ani’s trauma isn’t normal trauma, that she is in fact the unluckiest girl alive, but the effect is that everything is minimized. For many viewers, it must feel like a bit of an insult.
Little by little, Ani decides to open up about her past, but truth-telling doesn’t come easily for her. Her first attempt, motivated by a documentary filmmaker, is full of her standard obfuscations. Notably, she presents her mother as having supported her, when in fact Dina blamed her for jeopardizing her status and putting herself “at risk.” When Dean interrupts the filming, she walks out on the movie, determined to tell the story her own way. But her first attempt at a New York Times exposé falls flat.
Ani’s boss and mentor is the only person who sees through her act and encourages her to reveal the true source of her pain. “It’s a lot easier to be angry with the guy,” her mentor advises, “An approximation of honesty doesn’t make the cut at the paper of record. Write it like no one will ever read it.” It’s good advice, and we’re glad when Ani finally takes it. Her second draft is a searing indictment not only of Dean, but of everyone who failed her throughout her adolescence. For the fiancé Luke, it’s also a validation of what he’s always feared: that he’s nothing more than “another box you have to check off to convince yourself you’re doing okay.” The revelation could have been an opportunity for Luke and Ani to finally be vulnerable with one another. Instead, Luke gets angry at Ani for not being “fun” anymore and wishes she would deal with her emotions “in private.” It’s a waste of potential for growth, which bodes poorly for the rest of the movie.
It’s good that Ani tells the truth, not only for the sake of justice but for her own mental health. Unfortunately, Ani’s honesty doesn’t seem to prompt any actual healing. Instead, Ani gets a spot on the Today Show and, of course, the coveted New York Times job. Oh, and she gets to curse out a nasty lady on the street who criticizes her for outing Dean as a rapist. “I’ll always remember you as the woman I told to go f*** herself on Fifth Avenue.” Cha-ching! Victory!
It’s a pretty empty victory. A job at The New York Times and the ability to tell people off with confidence are both poor substitutes for what Ani really needs: love and support.
Most people who face their trauma head-on are not rewarded with a dream job. They’re not rewarded with anything other than the possibility of a more fulfilling life, a more honest life, and the ability to trust again. Ani doesn’t seem to get any of these, so the whole journey ends up feeling bleak and empty. The premise of the ending seems to be that it’s better to be alone with honesty than in relationships built on false pretenses. That’s inarguably true, but it’s also a false binary. By the end of the movie, we yearn to see something new replace the emptiness Ani has carried inside of her.
We yearn for Ani to experience hope. Hope is what keeps us moving through pain, rather than mired in it. Hope makes room in the soul for grace. Grace allows for healing and, eventually, genuine love. This is not the false price of love based on status, but a new love that is freely given and genuinely accepting. It doesn’t have to be romantic, it only has to be real. Love looks forward to life, not backward to death. Love creates, restores, and renews. And it’s what Ani has been missing all along.
I came back to the Catholic Church during my sophomore year of college. After encountering God during a retreat, I wanted to take my faith more seriously. I wanted to pray. I wanted to be a “good Catholic” – whatever that was. I plugged into my Catholic young adult (YA) community to try and understand what this whole Catholic thing was about, thinking that maybe I could figure out how to be a “good Catholic” there.
The Dangers of Preaching One Way of Being a "Good Catholic"
My YA group definitely had a “vibe.” Going to daily Mass was like a badge of honor. People talked about praying the Liturgy of the Hours or which Doctor of the Church they were reading. Lots of the women wore veils to Mass, and more than one man had a giant rosary wrapped around his belt. There was an underlying tone of, “This is what the good Catholics do.”
And so, over time, I did those things, too. I became a daily Mass-going, rosary-praying, veil-wearing, Bible study-attending Catholic, developing my own list of spiritual practices to live my faith and be the Catholic I thought I was supposed to be. I thought there was only one way to be a “good Catholic.”
The problem was, being this kind of Catholic didn’t give me any peace. As I tried to keep up with these rules, I became quickly overwhelmed and anxious. I started getting scared of missing daily Mass or not praying the rosary, worrying that God would be mad at me for letting Him down. The rosary gave me constant anxiety because I worried I hadn’t prayed it well enough. Trying to pray at all became increasingly uncomfortable and I didn’t know how to find rest in anything in my faith life.
I didn’t know it at the time, but in pursuing the one way to be a “good Catholic,” I had developed a mental health disorder around living my faith.
The relationship between faith and mental health is a long and storied one. Notable people throughout history have dealt with “religious scruples,” anxiety, and OCD, including the well-known Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. After going to therapy and starting to work through these experiences, I discovered that I too had developed scrupulosity, a sort of pathological anxiety and guilt about being a good Catholic and living out my faith. And my story is not the only one.
The Development of Faith-Related Mental Health Disorders
Dr. Ally Sequeira, a psychologist who earned her PhD in counseling psychology at Texas A&M, works with Catholics of all ages to overcome these mental health disorders, specializing in OCD and religious scrupulosity.
“I see a lot of individuals who have scrupulosity,” says Dr. Sequeira, “who will pray multiple times, over and over again until it's just right. It kind of stems from this belief that God is going to be upset with me if it's not perfect. Or, I've had some patients who really struggle with Confession, and so won't go to Confession because they're afraid that they won't say everything perfectly, or that they'll miss a sin and then would have to do it all over again. So, it's just an intense pressure to be the perfect Catholic, which kind of goes against our faith. We're not called to be perfect.”
Where do these disorders come from and how do they develop? To some degree, mental health conditions are genetic. Dr. Sequeira explained that for OCD, “ee don't know exactly what causes it. But we do know that there is a neurobiological component to it, so it's highly hereditary. So if somebody in your family has OCD, there's a huge chance that you might have it as well.” Other mental illnesses, such as anxiety, also have a hereditary component.
However, genetics and family history isn’t the whole story. Going from a genetic predisposition to developing an actual mental health disorder depends heavily on the influence of our culture. Dr. Sequeira says that “we’re heavily influenced by the people around us, and heavily influenced by social media. When we have a belief, we tend to get any evidence that supports these beliefs that we have about ourselves. So, if we believe that we're not a good Catholic, then we're going to look for accounts and stuff like that to be like, ‘See, I need to be working harder,’ and that can really reinforce a lot of fears and anxieties.”
These toxic influences can come from many places, ranging from Instagram or other social media platforms to one’s local community. Dr. Sequeira’s sister Victoria Mastrangelo, who works as a high school theology teacher and campus minister, remarked,
“As an educator and someone who works in ministry, I’ve seen how scrupulosity can be a real obstacle to faith… I do think that there are schools of catechesis or theological formation that have led to a more everyday scrupulosity that keeps people from being able to live their faith freely and authentically, and that is so heartbreaking to me. For example, I was talking with a mom at my kid’s school about how it was ingrained in her that not praying the rosary everyday could send her to hell, which is in no way actual Church teaching.”
Women Who Have Seen and Experienced the Struggle with Mental Health Disorders and Faith
For Maria Brown*, who has been healing from OCD and panic disorder since January 2022, it started within her own family.
“A big part of my family's identity involves it being important to be Catholic, and I'm super sensitive to other people's emotions. So I was always very aware of how non-Catholics were talked about in my family… It was like an ‘othering’ of other people. And I was so terrified of not being included, that I just, like, made sure I was included.”
This desire to be included in her family eventually developed into OCD.
“I prayed the same structure of prayer from the time I was probably like seven or eight until January [of 2022]. I never deviated from it. It was the same words, and if I didn't finish it when I was falling asleep, I would wake up in the middle of the night and finish it… And I'd keep going until I made sure I made the Sign of the Cross… I was like, ‘It has to be this way.’”
Whether it be obsessive behaviors, as in Maria’s case, or extreme anxiety and fear, as in my case, the end result of these unhealthy relationships to spiritual practices is the same: a feeling of distance from God and a lack of authentic relationship with Him and the Church.
Dr. Sequeira witnessed this struggle with the patients coming to her office:
“I think that when you're in the midst of really struggling with scrupulosity, it's really hard to have that authenticity, because you're focusing so much on, ‘How am I praying?’ versus, ‘What am I saying?’”
Victoria Mastrangelo has seen similar struggles:
“When the rules or guidelines are taught from a place of rigidity and absoluteness, then it places boundaries on people that trap them in a place of fear. And our relationship with God should never be rooted in fear – it’s in no way why He made us or what He wants. He loves us into existence and it’s His greatest hope that we are free to love Him in return, and that should be what frames our prayer lives. It also contradicts the teaching of our uniqueness in being made in God’s image to say that we all have to pray only one way to be able to reach Heaven.”
Healing from Faith-Related Mental Health Disorders
So, what’s the remedy for women like me and Maria who are struggling with their mental health and in their relationship with the Church? Naturally, the answer in part includes professional therapy. The particular therapeutic path taken depends on the individual person, but generally includes directly challenging related negative beliefs, thought patterns, and behaviors, to uncover the truth underneath them.
Dr. Sequeira explains, “[For OCD] we take a step back to say, ‘Well, what are we called to do as Catholics? What are our beliefs? What are the things that we're taught to do?’ Like, if you were to explain how someone's a good Catholic to an eight year old… Breaking it down, people are able to start realizing, ‘Oh, what I'm doing isn't what I'm supposed to be doing.’ Then, we would systematically go through different exposures that would help them realize – [we] put OCD to the test. Through that people can recognize that nothing bad happens. My discomfort goes away on its own and I actually feel closer to God when I break these rules.
“With anxiety, [because] we do get intrusive thoughts, but they feel like facts… The treatment for that is to help us identify more appropriate, more rational thoughts versus that irrational thought.”
For Maria, healing from OCD has included challenging her rigid prayer structure and focusing on her needs:
“Every morning, I'll be like, ‘What do I need right now? What do I want to do?’ I do think that understanding my relationship with God as a relationship, one in which I'm having a conversation, in which sometimes things are kind of dull, [and] sometimes I talk for a long time… It really feels way more fulfilling as prayer… The sort of antidote to my scrupulosity has been [saying], ‘Okay, let yourself kind of do what you want for a little bit and see what is or isn't working. And if something isn't working, you have a relationship with God and you will use that relationship to help manage it.’”
For women like us, this process of undoing irrational thoughts, fears, and practices can be both long and mentally, spiritually, and emotionally challenging. Mine has involved three years of therapy, intense prayer, and learning to lean into a healthy, supportive community. Maria’s journey is well underway. For others, the conflict between a genuine desire to live the faith and the feelings of pressure to do it perfectly is still ongoing. As we see from these stories, a toxic Catholic culture can teach us (wrongly) that there is only one way to be good.
Author’s Note: Some names and identifying information have been changed at the request of the interviewee.
New Report on the Maternal Mortality Rate Highlights our Maternal Health Crisis
For years, the United States has overlooked and under-prioritized the pressing national crisis presented by the exorbitant maternal mortality rate. What is the role of the Church and our society in alleviating this crisis and creating a civilization of love in which every woman can have a safe and dignified pregnancy, birth, and maternity?
The Latest Report on Maternal Mortality
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently issued a report summarizing the key findings of a study of pregnancy-related deaths, based on 2017 – 2019 data from 36 U.S. states.
According to the report, 4 in 5 pregnancy-related deaths in the U.S. are preventable.
In this study, a “pregnancy-related death” refers to a death during pregnancy or within one year of the end of pregnancy that results from a pregnancy complication, the chain of events initiated by pregnancy, or the aggravation of an unrelated condition by the physiologic effects of pregnancy. Likewise, the study defined “preventability” as a death in which there was at least some chance of the death being averted by one or more reasonable changes to patient, community, provider, facility, and/or system factors.
Leading Causes of Pregnancy-Related Deaths
The study concluded that mental health conditions – including deaths linked to suicides and substance use disorders – were the leading cause of pregnancy-related deaths among pregnant women and new mothers (23%). Hemorrhaging (14%) and heart conditions (13%) followed closely behind. Infections, thrombotic embolisms and heart diseases and disorders, such as cardiomyopathy and hypertension, also made the list.
It is worth noting that the leading cause of pregnancy-related death varied by race and ethnicity. Heart conditions were the most common cause of death in Black women, mental health conditions for Hispanic women, and hemorrhaging for Asian women.
While this study focused on data available in the years prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, recent reports suggest that maternal mortality rates have continued to climb since the pandemic’s beginning in 2020. This is attributed to the additional challenges the pandemic presented for access to health care.
The White House Response
In response to worsening maternal health outcomes, in June 2022 the White House launched a whole-of-government Blueprint for Addressing the Maternal Health Crisis. The plan has five key goals aimed at improving maternal health outcomes in the United States:
1. Increasing access to and coverage of comprehensive high-quality maternal health services.
2. Ensuring that women giving birth are heard and are decision-makers in accountable systems of care.
3. Advancing data collection, standardization, harmonization, transparency, and research.
4. Expanding and diversifying the perinatal workforce.
5. Strengthening economic and social support for women before, during, and after pregnancy.
As Vice President Kamala Harris stated in the letter introducing the White House’s action plan, the climbing pregnancy-related death rate suggests that, “far too many women experience pain, neglect, and loss during what should be one of the most joyous times of their lives.”
There is a pressing need for quality improvement initiatives not only at the federal level, but also across states, in hospitals, and within communities to ensure that pregnant women and new mothers are provided with the right care at the right time.
We Need to Build a Civilization of Love
The White House blueprint emphasizes that while the factors driving our maternal health crisis are undoubtedly complex and income is not always a protective factor, “it is much harder for pregnant women to stay healthy when they are hungry, experience violence, are without housing, feel unsafe, lack child care, lack parental leave, and/or lack a steady paycheck.”
This crisis cannot be solved by the healthcare system alone. We must also take into account the social and cultural factors related to pregnancy in the United States.
We must acknowledge that this work belongs to all of us as a society, and we must make an effort to understand the circumstances that contribute to every pregnancy-related death in order to redefine the ways in which we support new mothers.
In her mission to uphold the dignity, role and rights of women, the Church is poised to lead the cultural revolution needed to address our maternal health crisis. She must serve as a uniting force in assessing and tackling the structural and cultural forces affecting pregnant women and new mothers that will help us make headway in the fight against maternal mortality.
If we start by actively fighting against maternal mistreatment, bolstering the voice of women – especially those from communities of color – and advocating for culturally appropriate, respectful, and accountable medical care to pregnant mothers, we can begin to redesign the culture, systems, and processes that are currently failing new mothers.
We need to build a society in which every woman can have a safe and dignified pregnancy, birth, and maternity. In short, we need to build a civilization of love.
Sr. Thea Bowman was an African-American Franciscan sister whose cause for sainthood was recently opened. New Group Media produced a documentary on her life called Going Home Like a Shooting Star: Thea Bowman’s Journey to Sainthood, which began airing on ABC affiliates nationwide in October 2022.
The Inspiration Behind the Documentary on Sr. Thea Bowman
The film was written and produced by Sr. Judith Zelinski, a Franciscan sister who works for New Group Media. She spoke about the murder of George Floyd prompting her to create this documentary. She recalls watching the news coverage about George Floyd: “[It] really touched me. I am a writer, a story-teller. What can we do next? Thea Bowman came to the forefront.”
Sr. Judith Zelinski said, “I am hoping that people are touched by her message and can connect the dots to what is going on in our country today. We are so polarized and so fearful and so worried about people who are not ‘our tribe.’ I am hoping this [documentary] spurs some energy in the Church to speak out more about racism.”
Sr. Thea Bowman’s cause for canonization was opened in 2018 with Bishop Joseph R. Kopacz of Jackson, Mississippi, being the petitioner. The diocese of Jackson wrote a prayer so that people could ask for Sr. Thea’s intercession to further her cause for sainthood.
Part of this prayer states, “For in turbulent times of racial injustice, she sought equity, peace, and reconciliation. In times of intolerance and ignorance, she brought wisdom, awareness, unity, and charity. In times of pain, sickness, and suffering, she taught us how to live fully until called home to the land of promise.”
Inspired? We are, too. Here are four things you should know about this great Black Catholic woman:
1. Sr. Thea Bowman was a singer, story-teller, teacher, and advocate for social justice.
She wanted the Church to embrace the breadth and depth of African-American culture and spirituality. She combined all of her talents and gifts to teach others about the beauty of her heritage and how the Church was enriched by this heritage, as well.
2. She staged a hunger strike to convince her parents to let her become a religious sister.
When Thea Bowman was fifteen years old, she told her parents that she wanted to join the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. Her parents were skeptical (as the parents of most teenagers would be). Thea Bowman decided to stage a hunger strike to prove her commitment and devotion. Her parents relented and let her move to La Cross, Wisconsin to join this religious order.
3. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1984.
Following the deaths of her parents, Sr. Thea Bowman was diagnosed with breast cancer. She vowed to not let this stop her from fighting for racial justice and inclusion in the Church, continuing her speaking engagements and even appearing on 60 Minutes.
She ultimately died of breast cancer in 1990 and asked that her gravestone say, “She tried.” She wanted the world to know that despite the challenges she faced, she tried her best to love the Lord and His people.
4. She was the first African-American woman to speak to the United States Conference of Bishops.
In 1989, Sr. Thea Bowman was asked to address the entire USCCB on being Black and Catholic. Despite being weakened from cancer, bald from chemotherapy, and in a wheelchair, she felt called to deliver this address.
She spoke to them and said, “What does it mean to be Black and Catholic? It means that I come to my Church fully functioning. That doesn’t frighten you, does it? I come to my Church fully functioning. I bring myself; my Black self, all that I am, all that I have, all that I hope to become. I bring my whole history, my traditions, my experience, my culture, my African-American song and dance and gesture and movement and teaching and preaching and healing and responsibility – as gifts to the Church.” Archbishop Wilton, one of the USCCB members that was present for her address, is featured in the documentary.
Want to learn more? Watch Going Home Like a Shooting Star: Thea Bowman’s Journey to Sainthood, available (for free!) on the Franciscan sister’s website.
What Does Forgiveness Look Like for Survivors of Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church?
In March 2019, a group of Catholics living in Milwaukee began to gather and talk about the Church’s sexual abuse crisis. Grieved and infuriated by the leadership failures that protected abusers while abandoning victims, these people began to imagine what it would look like to work for change, healing, and most importantly, accountability.
These necessary conversations led to the creation of Awake Milwaukee, an organization that acknowledges the pain and trauma of abuse victims while being a committed voice working for change and accountability. Awake offers resources and support for survivors, as well as ways to be more informed and support their work.
Sara Larson, the Executive Director of Awake Milwaukee, was gracious enough to give an interview to FemCatholic discussing what forgiveness looks like when we talk about the painful reality of the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church.
When discussing what forgiveness looks like practically for abuse victims, you will hear the voice of a brave survivor, Esther Harber. It is critical to listen to the stories of survivors, and we feel so grateful to hear and receive Esther’s experience.
And if you or someone you know has experienced abuse in the Catholic Church, please know that Awake Milwaukee will hear you, support you, and walk alongside you in your healing journey.
For someone who has experienced sexual abuse by clergy, what does forgiveness look like? And more importantly, what does it not look like?
Sara Larson: Forgiveness is a beautiful gift, but in relation to those who have experienced abuse by a Catholic leader, it’s almost easier to say what forgiveness is not.
Forgiveness is not saying that what happened wasn’t a big deal, or letting an abuser off the hook. In fact, to truly forgive someone, you have to look at the depth of the harm and acknowledge how profoundly you have been hurt.
Forgiveness does not mean forgoing any pursuit of accountability or justice. You can forgive someone and still work to put them in jail or have them removed from ministry, for their own good and for the safety of others.
Forgiveness does not mean having warm feelings towards someone who hurt you deeply. Forgiveness is a choice, which may or may not be accompanied by a change in how you feel.
Forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation or restoring a relationship. A survivor can make an internal choice to forgive an abuser and have no intention of ever seeing them again. In fact, forgiveness can actually be a way for a survivor to break the ties that make them feel bound to the perpetrator.
Forgiveness is not forgetting what happened, or pretending there are no ongoing effects of the abuse. Healing from trauma is a lifelong journey, and forgiveness does not mean an end to that difficult work.
Forgiveness is so much more than a spiritual principle. What other parts of the human person come into play here?
Sara Larson: It’s important to recognize that humans are not simply spiritual beings. Catholic teaching tells us that our bodies matter, and we can’t simply brush away the physical realities of our existence. This is especially true when we think about the way that trauma impacts the human person and rewires our brains. So, when we talk about forgiveness for a trauma survivor, we need to be conscious of the way that trauma might be impacting their reactions.
How can forgiveness sometimes be used or weaponized against abuse survivors?
Sara Larson: Some abuse survivors call forgiveness “the F word.” For many, this is not because they reject the possibility of forgiving their abuser, but because the idea of forgiveness has been weaponized against them as a way of dismissing their pain or their desire for accountability. Some Catholics often tell survivors, “You just need to forgive,” as a way to end a hard conversation or avoid difficult questions about justice and accountability. It can sometimes feel like these words serve the same function as harmful commands like “keep quiet” or “move on.”
All forms of abuse are primarily about a misuse of power and taking away a victim’s ability to choose for themselves. For some abuse survivors, the choice to forgive can be an act of empowerment, a choice to move forward after deep harm. This individual choice is not something that can be commanded, especially by those in the institution that has caused the harm.
What does the journey of forgiveness look like practically for abuse survivors?
Esther Harber: This is an important topic to examine closely. Forgiveness will look a little different for each person because how we respond to trauma is different. One phrase that has always been helpful for me is, “Taking them off of my hook and putting them on God’s hook.” Ultimately, I want to strive to free myself from the need to get retribution or revenge. A large part of my healing journey is learning to trust that God’s justice will be done, but it is not up to me to make that happen. I have found deeper freedom and healing through forgiveness. For me, it was also empowering and ultimately joyful.
Forgiveness is not a rejection of justice or neglecting holding a perpetrator accountable. In fact, that is a perversion of forgiveness and mercy. If we ignore someone’s sin and allow them to continue to sin, we are not acting mercifully. I firmly hold that bringing perpetrators to justice is the most merciful thing we can do for their soul.
In terms of forgiveness, what do Catholics need to understand from the experience of abuse survivors?
Sara Larson: To forgive someone who has caused deep and lasting harm is a courageous and deeply meaningful act, but it must be freely chosen, not imposed by others. If you are ever given the sacred opportunity to listen to someone’s story of abuse, the first words out of your mouth should be, “I am so sorry. I believe you. How can I help?”
I have also heard many survivors say that they have been able to forgive the person who abused them, but it’s more difficult to forgive those in the Church who have responded to their abuse with minimization, blame, covering up, or simply silence and apathy. Often, the original abuse has ended, but this institutional betrayal continues for years (even decades) after a victim comes forward. It’s important that all Catholics work to not only end abuse, but also to transform the way that our Church responds to those who have been harmed.
Spiritual Identities in Latin American Culture: Catholicism Meets Ancient Superstition
I recently had the rare chance to catch up with one of my “new mom” friends, Nancy. She and I are both Latinas, and though we are from different countries, we share many similar traditions. As both new moms and first generation United States citizens, we talked about how we are gearing up for the holiday season. In the US, we are now in what social media fondly calls “spooky season.” As Nancy and I talked about our plans to celebrate, I thought about the origins of many Latin holidays that came about from a blending of ancient religious superstition and the Catholicism brought to Latin countries through colonization.
Celebrating Latin Heritage and Holidays
“I never thought about it before but I’m not sure I really plan on celebrating Halloween this year.” Nancy told me when we were catching up. “I think I’m actually planning on celebrating Dia de Los Muertos instead! It hadn’t really occurred to me before because my family rarely celebrated it in our own home – it was more of a social, community thing we did back in Juarez. But now that [my son] is here and half American, I want him to get to know his heritage and share in the same memories I had as a child.”
We talked about Nancy’s father, who is from the southern regions of Mexico (where certain traditions are stronger than they generally are in Juarez), and about how her family celebrated Dia de Los Muertos.
“My parents were very intentionally Catholic, which made them a little less interested in doing the home altars for our deceased relatives. Instead we went to the community’s celebrations at school, where they’d make these huge memorial altars where people would bring photos of their deceased relatives and their favorite foods to share a meal with them.”
Nancy went on to say that the beauty of the cempasúchil (marigolds) and the colorful calaveras (sugar skulls and painted skeletons) were things she loved, though she never dressed up when she was a child. Her sister started dressing up as La Catrina after becoming a part of a growing Mexican community in recent years, and it has inspired Nancy to dig deeper into her roots.
How Colonization Blended Catholicism and Ancient Superstition
Before the globalization of American culture, Latin America celebrated All Souls Day and All Saints Day without a whisper of trick-or-treating or Halloween. In Mexico, this took special form in Dia de Los Muertos, a multi-day celebration coinciding with All Souls Day and All Saints Day, when Mexicans and Central Americans celebrate the memories and lives of their deceased relatives.
Mesoamerica had been celebrating this tradition for 3,000 years. It only began to be celebrated in conjunction with Catholic holidays after colonization by the Spanish. As it is for most Latin American countries’ traditions, there exists a blending of both ancient and spiritual identities. Indigenous civilizations in the Central and South American regions were deeply spiritual, and many superstitions were ingrained into their identities through religious practices as nations.
It was crucial to the colonization of these civilizations by Spain to bridge the gap between these practices and Catholicism as well as they could, without eradicating these spiritual practices and rituals. This created an entirely unique practice of Catholicism all together.
Religious Origins of National Holidays in Latin Countries
National holidays play a huge part in shaping a country’s culture and what it looks like to be a part of that country’s people. They are a major factor in what sets Latin American countries apart from one another, but also in what binds them closely together.
It’s true that many national holidays in Latin American countries have religious origins. Our Lady of Guadalupe (December 12th) is celebrated nationally in many Latin American countries. Other popular holidays include celebrating Semana Santa (Holy Week) in lieu of Spring Break and observing Father’s Day on the Feast of St. Joseph (March 19th). In my country of origin, Colombia, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (December 8th) is another big one.
These national recognized holidays are usually celebrated with great feasts, fireworks, parades – you name it. Community-based Catholic traditions are extremely popular within Latin countries. For example, instead of making cookies for Santa Claus, we celebrate La Novena by praying a novena, dancing, singing, and eating during the nine days before Christmas Day as we prepare to welcome El Niño Jesus.
The Messiness of Blending Ancient and Catholic Spiritualities
Latin American and Caribbean countries boast the largest populations of Catholics, making up around 39% of all Catholics globally in 2010, with three Latin American countries appearing in the top ten most Catholic countries in the world in 2019. While the percentage of Catholics in all Western countries is declining, Catholicism in Latin countries persists as a cultural identity. With each country claiming their own lesser-known Marian apparitions, the casual wearing of rosaries as bracelets or necklaces, and having the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe printed on nearly every item imaginable, being Catholic and Latin American has been almost synonymous.
This has not come without its faults. Enmeshment of Latin America’s ancestral spirituality with Catholicism has always posed a threat to the national identities of many Latin American generations. It is no surprise that, over time, the relationship between a Latin nation’s culture and Catholicism has resulted in a variety of superstitious and borderline (if not at times overtly) problematic practices. Many of these practices are perpetuated through cultural traditions, and the expectations to abide by them are given spiritual weight.
For example, there is generally a greater susceptibility to “apocalyptic” speech and approaches towards religion and life. Death is a regular visitor to Latin American countries, whether through extreme poverty, natural disasters, or tragedies of guerilla warfare. The seemingly constant turmoil within our countries has existed for thousands of years, and has often been attributed to dark, unseen forces. Much of our indigenous roots and practices were to seek healing and protection from these dark forces, something the Spanish were able to use to facilitate conversions to Christianity.
These practices are perpetuated in ritualistic traditions, from smaller ones like saying “sana sana colita de rana” when your child falls and scrapes their knee, to beliefs that require more intentional solutions like “El Mal de Ojo” or “the Evil Eye” and eventually lead down darker paths to practices like Santeria.
Many of these ritualistic traditions result in wearing items that repel dark spirits or ill will, having within them an ancient presumption that we are all at the mercy of the spiritual world and its whims. Ways to control and break free from these negative “chains” often require the use of religious practices which, in most cases, must be continued through generations. From frequent exorcisms (some sources that claim 1 in 8 Hispanics in the US have witnessed an exorcism) to burning “Jesus” candles in the wake of natural disasters, there has been a consistent embrace of a more charismatic approach to Catholicism within Latin America.
Mortification and suffering take on greater meanings as a result of the Catholic and indigenous perceptions of suffering and sacrifices. Suffering holds high value and is even revered when attempting to achieve greater spiritual gifts, which in turn enables a culture that views suffering as equitable to a gift for holiness. This becomes problematic on many levels, leading many devout Catholics ,and particularly older Latin generations, to permit the existence of untreated mental illnesses for the sake of perceived sanctity. As a result, God’s judgment can be defined most clearly in the chaos of the uncontrollable forces of nature, life, and tragedy, and His mercy found in suffering.
Owning our Cultural and Religious Traditions
However, as the decades pass and our countries continue to progress alongside newer First World countries in various technologies, exposure to other ways of life often comes with the breaking of traditions.
For example, while about 68% of all Colombians identify as Catholics, in recent years, there has been backlash for not creating a greater and more public divide of Church and state. The previous Vice President, Marta Lucía Ramírez, was sanctioned in 2021 for consecrating the nation to Our Lady of Fátima and asking for her protection against COVID-19 on social media. Surprising as it may seem, Colombia’s neighboring country Ecuador was publicly consecrated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus in the late 1800s by their president, Gabriel García Moreno, who was later killed in 1875 for his pro-Catholic policies.
In the last few decades, there has been political and social turmoil in our countries, much of which demonstrates more progressive movements aligning themselves to deconstructionist and anti-Catholic views. But for now, Latin American cultures still remain extremely Catholic overall, maintaining their uniquely religious national holidays with no sign of leaving them behind.
For people like Nancy and I, it’s an opportunity to share with our children the richness of our cultures, both ancient and renewed through Catholicism. Though our traditions may have come as a result of influence from Catholic Spanish conquistadors, generations of Latin Americans have long made them our own and a part of our Faith.
Nancy is looking forward to sharing these traditions with her son, especially Dia de Los Muertos. “I am just so excited to share it with him. I don’t feel there is much of a division between my Catholic beliefs and the idea that on Dia de Los Muertos, our deceased loved ones’ memories are remembered and celebrated. There is a recognition that our deceased relatives haven’t really died, especially when they live on in our memories. The meals we ‘share’ with them are the best part because it reminds me of the resurrection. Christ came back from the dead and ate and drank with his beloved apostles, so it's like a taste of what is to come.”
It’s “spooky season,” which means the return of the Sanderson Sisters, haunted houses, and scary movies. Whether it’s witches, blood and gore, demonic possession, or ghosts, this time of year reminds us of our fascination with things otherworldly, supernatural, and a bit macabre. Did you know that the Catholic Church has its own share of creepy, eerie, and mysterious things that go bump in the night? Here’s a round-up of the spookiest Catholic beliefs.
Relics: Family Heirlooms from the Saints
The head of Catherine of Siena. The hand of Francis Xavier. The heart of Jean Vianney. What do these items have in common? They’re all relics of Catholic saints and, yes, you can see them on display.
Relics are the bones, body parts, clothing, or personal possessions of saints that are revered by the Church and often associated with miracles. Like heirlooms passed on by families, relics are a way to preserve the memories of fellow Christians. These tangible objects remind us of the bodily existence of the saint and a way to connect with his or her example – kind of like how you might hold onto your grandma's favorite apron.
The reverence we offer these relics is called veneration, and it’s not worship. Rather, it’s “the honoring, cherishing, respecting, and devotion of heart given to the saints [as] an expression of our friendship and love for the saints.” Relics help us remember the real connection between us here on earth and the saints in heaven who continue to pray for us.
During the earliest days of the Church, persecuted Christians in Rome had to meet in the catacombs (burial sites of early Christians) to celebrate Mass. Being surrounded by these tombs led to the veneration of relics. This practice developed into taking relics from saints beginning as early as 156 AD, when it was said that after the martyrdom of a bishop in Turkey, Christians “took up his bones, which are more valuable than precious stones and finer than refined gold, and laid them in a suitable place” so as to gather together to “celebrate his martyrdom.”
By the 12th century, relics were a common practice in Christianity and a source of pilgrimages. It is still common practice today to place a relic of a saint in the altar (or underneath it) to recall those early Masses in the catacombs.
There’s even a precedent for relics in the Bible, such as Moses taking of Joseph’s bones after the Exodus and a woman being cured of a hemorrhage by touching Jesus’ cloak.
One especially spooky relic is the blood of St. Gennaro (a third century bishop) in Naples, Italy. His blood is contained in a vial and displayed three times each year. The relic of dried blood typically rests on one side of the container, but on these special days it is miraculously restored to its liquid state and covers the entire glass.
The Incorruptibles: Bodies Preserved from Decay After Death
Incorruptibles are saints whose bodies have been miraculously preserved from normal decay after death. While this is the general definition, the Church “does not have a cut-and-dried definition of what condition a holy person’s body must be found in to be declared incorrupt, and it does not necessarily require that the body remains permanently in the same condition in which it is found.”
While what “counts” as incorruptible can vary, all examples are miraculous since they cannot be explained by any means of preservation or by natural processes. Signs that a body is incorrupt include “retain[ing] lifelike flexibility, color, and freshness” for many years after death. Some examples of saints that are found in some state of incorruptibility are St. Rita of Cascia, St. Zita, St. Bernadette, St. John Bosco, and St. Catherine Laboure.
The Church acknowledges any scientific or medical explanations for this phenomenon, especially when previously declared incorruptibles are shown to have received preservative methods. Therefore, this is not used as a miracle in the process of declaring someone a saint, nor is it something that the Church will officially declare of any body found to be incorrupt. However, the existence of these bodies can teach us something: They may be viewed as a confirmation of the person’s existence in heaven and they can remind us of the resurrection of the bodies at the end of time. Ultimately, they can provide hope in the miraculous and in eternal life.
Bleeding Communion Hosts
In the Catholic faith, the Eucharist is believed to be the body and blood of Jesus, a teaching that can be hard to accept for a variety of reasons, including that the Eucharist still appears as bread and wine. Doubt in the Eucharist has been present since its inception, and has raised many objections and questions. Sometimes, these doubts and questions have been answered miraculously.
Eucharistic miracles are instances in which the Eucharist no longer appears as bread and wine, but as human flesh and blood to reveal its true nature as Jesus’ body and blood. The Vatican International Exhibition showcases 100+ eucharistic miracles that have taken place all over the world.
The first of these miracles took place in 750 AD in Lanciano, Italy when a doubtful priest celebrating Mass found that the bread and wine had turned into flesh and blood on the altar. This exact flesh and blood remains preserved today at the Church of San Francesco.
In the 13th century, a Portuguese woman consulted a witch to help her deal with her unfaithful husband. The cost of this help was a stolen consecrated host from Mass. After stealing a host, the woman found that it started to bleed. She repented and gave the host back to her priest and that host continues to bleed today at the Church of the Holy Miracle in Santarem, Portugal.
Eucharistic miracles have been reported in the 20th and 21st centuries in Venezuela (1991), Argentina (1996, investigated by Jorge Bergolio, now Pope Francis), India (2001), Mexico (2006), and Poland (2008 and 2013).
These miracles have undergone extensive scientific study, beginning with Lanciano in 1970. These studies found common features in miracles that span geography and time: the blood is human and AB type, the blood is fresh and contains white blood cells as if the heart were still beating, and the flesh is human tissue of the left ventricle of an inflamed heart. Each of these features has not been explained nor been able to be replicated by any available scientific techniques to date.
Exorcisms: They Aren’t Just in the Movies
Since the 1973 release of The Exorcist, a popular trope of scary movies is a possessed person in need of an exorcism. This phenomenon provides great visuals and scary imagery, but it can be easy to forget that demonic possession is real.
Exorcisms are “when the Church asks publicly and authoritatively in the name of Jesus Christ that a person or object be protected against the power of the Evil One and withdrawn from his dominion… Exorcism is directed at the expulsion of demons or to the liberation from demonic possession through the spiritual authority which Jesus entrusted to his Church.”
Exorcisms may only be performed by a priest with the permission of the bishop, and they are rooted in the authority of Jesus, who performed exorcisms in the Gospels. There is one exorcist per diocese who is especially trained to perform exorcisms, and whose identity is known only to the bishop.
True demonic possession is pretty rare and the Church is careful not to immediately declare a supernatural cause for disturbing behavior. To determine whether an exorcism is needed, the person must first be interviewed by medical professionals to rule out any neurological or psychological explanations for the person’s behavior and experiences, according to USCCB protocol.
As is often depicted in movies, signs of possession may in fact include hatred of holy things, knowledge of languages not studied by the subject, predictions of future events, strange noises, flying objects, violent attacks, and severe personality changes. These signs are intermittent, with moments of lucidity in between. The possessed may have no idea in their lucid moments what is happening during these manifestations of possession, and the Church does not hold the subject personally responsible for what happens during this time.
Demonic possession doesn’t happen suddenly, and it’s typically the third and final step of a progression that begins with temptation and then oppression/obsession. This progression usually stems from involvement in the occult, such as seeking mediums and using Ouija boards. What begins as fun and games can be, in fact, opening up to evil forces. Protecting against evil and possession is actually rather ordinary: prayer, Mass, the sacraments, and generally maintaining a relationship with God can all protect us.
The Rite of Exorcism includes prayers, blessings, and calling on the help of Mary and the saints, all in the name of Jesus, who is the one that truly expels the demon. The rite is continued until the demon is cast out, which could be hours, weeks, or even years. Exorcisms are part of the healing ministry of the Church, meaning that the goal is both to remove the demonic influence and to provide healing for the one possessed.
Memento Mori: Remembering Our Death
The Catholic Church is very comfortable with the topic of death, which can be off-putting in a culture that is so uncomfortable with the topic. Some communities still proclaim, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” when placing ashes on people’s foreheads during Ash Wednesday. We dedicate the entire month of November to remembering the dead, and many portraits of saints include a skull as a symbol of memento mori, “remembering your death.”
While this practice was popularized during the medieval period, it has its roots in the Bible:
Memento mori means a few things. First, it’s a reminder that we all do in fact die. It’s a call to remember our mortality. However, it is also a call to remember that our earthly life is not our only life. Second, this phrase reminds us to contemplate our death and the offer of eternal life beyond death because our earthly lives, choices, and actions determine the course of that eternal life.
The focus on the end of life can motivate our daily living, inspiring us to choose to live well. The Catechism reminds us that “death lends urgency to our lives: remembering our mortality helps us realize that we have only a limited time in which to bring our lives to fulfillment.” Sr. Theresa Aletheia, a former atheist now known as the “death nun,” is on a quest to renew this practice (and you can find more from her on Twitter).
Do We Have to Learn How to Live with Porn in a Relationship?
I received my first real kiss behind the kickball field at the parish spaghetti dinner. We missed. Fortunately, the second attempt was more successful and I walked out of the spaghetti dinner with the ultimate 7th grade status symbol: a boyfriend.
As is typical in middle school romances, the relationship was mostly talking (and mostly over AIM). I learned about his family and his hobbies. He even confided in me about his porn use. I was naive enough to be surprised, but he quickly explained to me that it was normal, that all boys watched porn. My best friend confirmed this assessment.
“Porn is like breathing to boys,” she assured me. “If they don’t do it, they die.”
I couldn’t very well ask my middle school boyfriend to stop breathing, so I accepted his porn use. Besides, I reasoned, I was a really bad kisser.
Eventually, the boy and I stopped speaking and we broke up. But I had learned something important from this brief relationship: If I wanted to date men, I’d have to learn to live with porn.
How Porn Impacts our Relationships
My middle school innocence didn’t last long. The next relationship was significantly more physical, as was the next one. There were a lot of boyfriends, to be honest. I was never shy about exploring my sexuality. However, the guys and I were never really on the same playing field. I may have gone on a lot of dates as a teenager, but the person I was most interested in was always the person right in front of me.
Meanwhile, I frequently had the impression that I was being compared to someone else: an idealized woman who was not in the room. That woman wasn’t just interested in trying new things – she was an expert in everything related to sex. She wasn’t vocal about her likes and dislikes; she liked everything. She made certain noises and certain movements. She flipped her hair in a certain way. Gradually, I learned to imitate this woman, and the more I did so the happier my partners were. My own satisfaction was less important. I thought I was getting better at sexual encounters, but I was only getting better at playing a part.
Compared to the young women of today, I had it easy. No one tried to choke me or asked for anal sex, both of which are increasingly common. In fact, 25% of American woman report being scared during sex. It shouldn’t have to be said, but most women do not enjoy being choked. They especially don’t like it when it’s a surprise.
Unfortunately, you’d never know that from watching porn. Despite what we may want to believe, the version of sexuality portrayed in pornography absolutely impacts our real sex lives – and it’s usually women who suffer the consequences.
The Porn Taboo
Imagine you are on a date with someone charming and funny. You’re having a good time, and eventually, he asks you to go home with him. Of course, you know what he’s really asking. You look him in the eye and say, “Before we go any further, could you tell me what kind of porn you watched last week?”
If asking this question seems absurd, invasive, or even laughable to you, ask yourself why. This man is already asking you to join him in the most intimate act two human beings can engage in. Don’t you have a right to know what his expectations are?
Approximately 98% of men and 73% of women watch pornography, yet very few people talk about it. Porn has a dual stigma: watching it is stigmatized, but critiquing it is also stigmatized. The inability to talk openly about porn use means we rarely know what kind of porn our partner is consuming. We may fear sex-shaming or kink-shaming our partners. It’s their private life, after all, and it has nothing to do with us. But the truth is, our partner’s private life has a lot to do with us. There is strong evidence that the porn a person watches impacts their sexual desires, not the other way around. By not discussing porn, we allow it to be the unspoken director of our sexual lives.
It’s Okay to Ask For What You Want
I was already married before I felt comfortable speaking up about my feelings on pornography. It took reconnecting with my faith, gaining confidence in my own worthiness, and finally being with a man I could trust before I realized that I had a right to an opinion. For too long, I had believed that porn was something I had to learn how to live with in a relationship, something I had to accept without question. This is, quite simply, a lie.
My preference is for my partner to avoid porn entirely because, in my experience, sex is better with a person who isn’t watching porn. I feel safer and more confident in a relationship with shared sexual language and shared expectations that arise from our shared bedroom. It’s not because I “can’t compete” with a porn star, it’s because the information she’s sharing is different from the information I want to share. Her message isn’t my message, and her message is really quite loud. It’s completely reasonable for me to ask for what I want.
It’s also reasonable for you to ask for what you want. Despite what society tells us, it’s not controlling to speak up for yourself. So ask your partner directly for what you want, whether it’s less porn use, no porn use, or simply avoiding certain types of porn. Maybe you don’t care, but you should still discuss it.
Porn is not like breathing, and your partner will not die without it. I promise.