By Kristina Keneally
Note: This op-ed was first published January 28, 2015 by The Guardian.
I recall standing in my grandmother’s kitchen with her yellow Bakelite phone to my ear, waiting on hold for a talkback radio program. I was eight years old, and my family was in another room listening to the Catholic Bishop of Toledo take questions from callers on the local AM station.
Finally it was my turn. “Bishop Donovan,” I said, “I’m in third grade. The priest at our school has come to our class to ask for boys to volunteer to be altar servers. Why can’t girls volunteer too?”
Poor Bishop Donovan. He mumbled something about church tradition and the importance of serving at mass as a first step towards priesthood – where, again, one obviously had to be male – and moved on to the next caller.
Unsatisfactory, I thought. And my career as a Catholic feminist began.
38 years later, I’m still a Catholic and a feminist. I’ve got a degree in religious studies, specialising in feminist theology, and while girls can be altar servers now (take that, Bishop Donovan), we’ve still got a long way to go, baby.
Pope Francis’s recent comment that Catholics need not “breed like rabbits,” while insisting that artificial contraception is still banned, left many shaking their heads. Here was yet another example of the all-male Catholic hierarchy completely failing to understand what it is like to be a woman, or to live in a family, or to exercise control over fertility.
The Catholic church so overtly and fully excludes women from certain jobs and seeks to deny them certain rights that some dismiss the idea that a true feminist can profess the Catholic faith. Yet this is precisely why the Catholic church needs feminists.
The idea that one can’t be a Catholic and a feminist usually starts with a misunderstanding of what it is to be Catholic. In strict technical terms, a Catholic is someone who believes in those things listed in the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed: God, the creator of heaven and earth; Jesus Christ, the son of God who was crucified, died and resurrected; the Holy Spirit; the holy Catholic church (that is, the entire community of those who believe in Jesus Christ); the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.
That’s it. No mention in our creeds of artificial contraception, an all-male priesthood, denying communion to divorced people or excluding homosexuals. It’s not particularly surprising – not one of the four Gospels records Jesus passing significant comments on such matters.
Everything in the Catholic church after Jesus’s death and resurrection represents human attempts to interpret and apply the teachings of Christ to our circumstances. Because men fairly exclusively ran the world until very recently, it has been fairly exclusively men in the Catholic church who’ve done the interpreting and applying. Not overly surprising, then, that the result is a set of teachings and rules that exclude and oppress women.
A Catholic feminist insists that women’s experience is just as valid as men’s when it comes to understanding the nature of God, the teachings of Christ, the movement of the Holy Spirit and how we are to live as Christians in the world today.
OK, I hear you saying, but how can a Catholic disagree with the church? Don’t you Catholics believe the (male) pope is infallible? Aren’t you required to follow what the (exclusively male) bishops say?
There’s no simple answer to that question, but the short answer is no. First of all, papal infallibility (and its related concept, the infallibility of the church) is not what people often think it is. The pope is not infallible in every utterance he makes. In fact, he only very occasionally speaks infallibly, and when he does it is specifically noted. For example, the Assumption of Mary (into heaven) is an infallible teaching. The ban on artificial contraception is not.
Secondly, a Catholic has an obligation to follow her fully-formed conscience, even if it brings her into conflict with church teaching. A fully-formed conscience consults not only scripture and church teaching but also the sciences and human experience.
Conscience is a crucially important aspect of Catholic teaching and was given great emphasis in Vatican II, the reforming and modernising council that took place between 1962-65. Conservative popes – such as John Paul II – have sought to redefine conscience in order to discourage debate and dissent, but the role of a fully-formed conscience in the life of Catholics is significant and cannot be extinguished.
A Catholic feminist is a bit like a conscientious objector. She loves what sits at the heart of her faith, and fights what she cannot, in good conscience, accept in her church.
Sometimes people ask me why I don’t just leave such an anachronistic institution and join a Christian church where women can have a say, serve as ordained minsters and formally contribute to theological and moral teachings. Sometimes I ask myself the same question. It’s not easy being a Catholic feminist – sometimes it is downright infuriating – but I love the sacraments and the liturgy of the Catholic church, and I love the value it places on scripture and tradition. Why should I abandon my expression of faith to the all-male hierarchy? Why not stay and advocate for a more inclusive church, better theology, and teachings more reflective of the lived experience of women?
I’m no saint, but when I am most exasperated with the church, I recall that among the communion of saints are hundreds of examples of people who openly disagreed with the church hierarchy. Think of Mary MacKillop – excommunicated at one point – now elevated to sainthood by the same institution that threw her out.
Agitators for change are part of the Catholic church’s rich history: Catholic feminists follow in that tradition.
Related Off-site Links:
Altar Server Scandal is Reminder of How Far the Catholic Church Has to Go with Women – Lydia O'Connor (The Huffington Post, January 30, 2015).
Vatican Hits Sour Note with Women, But Progress May Come – Nicole Winfield (Associated Press via Yahoo! News, January 31, 2015).
Pope Francis, Women, and the Band of Brothers: The Ambiguity of the Jesuit Heritage That's Being Ignored by Commentators on Francis as Reformer – William D. Lindsey (Bilgrimage, January 31, 2015).