I’m Catholic but….
That’s how I always begin my answer to the question, “What religion are you?” When you identify as a feminist, saying you are Catholic can often be met with suspicion (the reverse is true as well). If I had a quarter for every time I was asked how I can remain in a tradition that subordinates women, my undergraduate loans would have been paid off a long time ago. So, when people ask me what I am, I feel the need to say “Catholic but a progressive, liberal Catholic,” or “a Catholic who doesn’t agree with certain Church teachings (then names those teachings)” or sometimes even “a bad heretic Catholic (with a chuckle).”
I used to be the “good girl.” I went to mass every Sunday, feeling guilty if I ever missed, even for illness. Whatever the pope said, I felt I had to follow it. I remember my mom telling me that John Paul II condemned a Madonna video- that’s all I needed to hear to make me unwilling to listen to Madonna. Whenever she came on the radio, I turned it off. While a small part of me felt that maybe women should be priests, I felt guilty for thinking such thoughts.
Flash forward to now and I haven’t been to confession since high school. I express open disagreement with Church teaching in research papers and class discussions every day. I do go to Mass- sometimes it makes me angry and other times I find myself crying in the pew, remembering the times I clung to Jesus as a scared, sick little girl, knowing my Savior would always love me and never be ashamed of me.
I’ve started to fall in love with the Catholic Church again and I think I love it more fiercely than I did when I was “a good girl.” When I was young, I loved the Church like a child. I approached the Church with fear, wanting to do what made me “good” and avoid what made me “bad,” without questioning the good/bad dichotomy, without allowing my conscience to be open to the possibility that sometimes doing what is right and just requires questioning, and even breaking with tradition. Sometimes I went to Church/said a prayer/wore a crucifix because I didn’t want to feel the nagging guilt that I knew would come if I did not.
I am starting to shed my obsession with whether or not my attendance at a service “counts” to “fulfill my obligation to go to Church on Sunday (or Saturday evening).” What matters most is that I saw God in the ritual and community- this may be at a service for a faith tradition not my own. Spending two years at Harvard Divinity School, I felt a connection with God at Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and Unitarian Universalist services. I truly believe that my faith NEEDS to be enriched by other faiths- I’m a better Catholic because of my Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Unitarian, Protestant, and Humanist friends, and I hope they are better Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Unitarians, Protestants, and Humanists because of me and other experiences with the Catholic faith.
In many ways, my newfound love for my Catholicism is much like my journey toward adult independence when I left home for Fordham University at age 18. I needed to start, for lack of better words, “doing my own thing,” becoming my own person apart from my parents, which sometimes meant questioning their views and actions. And I grew. I made friends with persons I never would have come across in my small town in NJ, I tried foods I never would have dared to touch back home, I achieved more than I ever could have dreamed. There were bumps along the road. Sometimes I fought with my parents, wanting to break free of their hopes and dreams for me. Sometimes they realized I was right. Other times, I realized they were right and I was mistaken. I began to realize that my independence did not necessarily mean renunciation of my family and my home. And even now, as a 24 year old doctoral student, I will never cease being a part of my family. No matter how many places I go, my family will influence me and they will always be the persons with whom I need to share my greatest joys and my deepest fears.
So, for a while, I needed to break free of Catholicism- I needed to question it, whether it was really what I, as an adult, wanted. For a while I was in a dark place, not sure where I belonged (thus the long hiatus between blog posts). I was angry and scared. Yet, in the darkness, I also learned a lot of valuable lessons. Eventually, I realized that I needed to go back home, even if I’m what some call a “cafeteria Catholic.”
To me, home is praying the Examen; wanting the Eucharist so badly because you truly believe it is the body and blood of Christ; having a bunch of really cool saints to pray to and look up to; singing the Ave Maria; putting the baby Jesus in the manger on Christmas Eve; wearing a crucifix around my neck because it reminds me that God became human and suffered; and much more. Yes, my Church is not perfect. But neither is anybody. As Avery Cardinal Dulles said, the institution is not the only model of the Church, the Church is also the Body of Christ, the people of God. So, here I am, a Catholic woman at a Jesuit university studying systematic theology with the hope of transforming the Church and transforming the world. I am in love with my faith, and that love is strong enough that if I feel a Church doctrine is harmful and does not reflect the teachings of our leader, Jesus Christ, I state this clearly. I will not shut up until I feel that my Church fully contributes to the flourishing and well-being of ALL people and treats them the way Christ would. Because deep at its core, the tradition of the Catholic faith contains such great sources of liberation for those who feel marginalized in the Church today. The Church is not the sum of a few publicized actions by members of hierarchy. I love being at a Catholic university because there is so much dialogue. Sometimes I change a mind, sometimes someone makes me amend my position, and other times we agree to disagree. What I love is that people listen to me and engage my work. I may be a “heretic feminist Catholic” but I am Catholic. I am part of this wonderful, but also deeply flawed community.
Some may think I need to give up my Catholic faith to be a true feminist, but if I gave up my Catholic faith, I would not be my authentic self. I cannot do what pluralist John Hick proposes and give up my belief that Jesus Christ is God incarnate and the cause of our salvation, so that all religions are more alike and never contradict one another. Loving someone of another faith and learning about them means taking them as they are, not making them change to be more acceptable to you. Love means trying to understand each other’s point of view, and being opened to have your perspective altered, but then going out for a beer afterwards even if your conflict is not fully resolved.
Becoming a “feminist heretic” is what started my long journey toward falling in love with my faith again. Being a “bad Catholic” makes me a better Catholic. Now, I don’t mean to imply that its my particular viewpoints that make me a better Catholic, but rather the fact that I am following my own conscience. I am coming to the Church as I am, not hiding behind the person I think I should be. I am not a Catholic because my family is or because I feel that if I wasn’t Catholic, I’d be less likely to be saved or because its a sin to “to know Catholicism is the one true Church and then break away.” I’m Catholic because I choose to be, because this is the faith where I feel most connected to the divine, that has shown me, as St. Ignatius says, to “see God in all things and all people.” There’s been a lot of bumps on the road, but I’m home again. And as long as Jesus continues to welcome me, I’m staying there.