Feminism + Catholicism = ?

Yolanda López, “Portrait of the Artist as the Virgin of Guadalupe”

Oh, so many people cannot figure out why/how in the hell I can be a feminist AND a practicing Catholic. And, I must admit there are days when I, too, am perplexed.

This past Sunday after Mass, for example, I waited outside the Cathedral while my children ran and climbed and smelled flowers around a statue of St. Therese. After a few minutes, two modestly dressed women with clipboards walked up to me and asked: “Would you like to sign a pro-life petition?” I snappishly said no. (Still wishing I would have asked more questions. How do you define pro-life? What good will a petition do?)

I sensed a little surprise from them. I’m sure I was the picture of Catholic motherhood, if you didn’t notice the electric blue toe nails. Only about 30 minutes earlier, I was on the altar reading Scripture to the congregation — something I’ve done since I was 17, when I realized that was likely the closest I would get to priesthood. Also during Mass, my two older children were altar servers (the gender-neutral of “altar boys). And, we were waiting outside because my husband was washing chalices as part of his duties as Eucharistic minister.  So, I certainly appeared to be someone who would gladly sign their petitions.

And, later this week, I read a nauseating blog post published by the National Catholic Register where a converted Catholic woman discusses the importance of modesty. She writes:

“But once I saw it [modesty] in practice, I saw it as an opportunity, not a punishment. By dressing in a way that dignifies the body that God gave us, we have an opportunity to show our gratitude to God. By clothing ourselves in a way that doesn’t cause the men we meet to face one more source of temptation that day, we have an opportunity to help them carry their crosses.” (emphasis is the author’s)

Oh, wow! Is this Catholicism? WHY do so many women and men continually define Catholicism in terms of women’s bodies?

Recently, the Catholic blogosphere has been ablaze with talk of a schism within the Church. The army of men at the top of the papal hierarchical pyramid look down at the people who populate our Church, as they cling to an archaic version of power that — to many of us — has little to do with the core of our Faith. They do a better rendition of the Sanhedrin, the court who convicted Jesus, than they do in emulating Jesus.

We go to Mass on Sundays and we hear Jesus’s message of love and helping the poor, but the patriarchs tell us a different story. They want us to believe that Catholicism is defined by how we they control women and their sexuality. This false premise of Catholicism has served to separate many feminists from spirituality. Author Leela Fernandes offers this excellent analysis:

“While feminists have rightly been wary of religious institutions that have sought to control women’s bodies and sexualities, this wariness has inadvertently allowed conservative religious and political organizations and movements to colonize spirituality.” (from Transforming Feminist Practice)

In other words, the Church hierarchy would love for us, feminists, to slink away from our faith and religious practice. By bringing our bodies to Church, insisting on our faith and our sexuality, we disrupt their power. (If you don’t believe that power has become more important than God to some leaders in our Church, you only have to remember how they did more to protect the patriarchy from abuse scandals than they did to protect children from sexual assault.)

Will we ever have the ability to transform the Church and its patriarchy? I don’t know the answer to that, but we can, as Fernandes argues, use feminism as “a means to decolonize the divine.”  We can use our physical presence to complicate their simplistic divisions. Most importantly, we can dismiss all attempts to separate our bodies from our spirits. They want us to choose between the materiality of our bodies and the spirituality of our soul. The Trinity — with its unification of Heaven, Earth and Spirit — demonstrates why we don’t have to choose.

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