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Thoughts on Catholicism and Resistance August 24, 2006

Posted by Winter in Religion.
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I’ve been trying to write a feminist post about my experiences of growing up within organised religion and have found my feelings on the subject to be surprisingly complex. There’s anger, even trauma, but there’s also a strange sense of gratitude. Although I reject what I was taught by organised religion, it’s played a vital role in forming my personality and I wouldn’t be the political person I am today if I hadn’t been raised a Roman Catholic. My upbringing gave me a legacy of guilt and a tendency to take too much responsibility for just about everything, but it also sowed the seeds of resistance and taught me a lot that has been useful.

Catholicism and Women

“For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.” Timothy 2:14

“I hope therefore, my sisters, that you will reflect on what I have called the ‘genius of women’, those fundamental inborn qualities of yours, so that you can value them yourselves and also let them have their fullest expression in the Church and in the world around us … It is in Mary that the Church sees the most complete expression of all that makes up womanhood … she described herself as the Lord’s handmaid, and she accepted the vocation of wife and mother in Nazareth.” Pope John Paul II, ‘A Letter to Women.’

The dominant Catholic ideology coming out of the Vatican teaches that women belong to men: their sexual, reproductive and labour capacities belong to men.* The cult of the virgin tells you much of what you need to know, insofar as it encourages Catholics to venerate, as the ultimate woman, a submissive virgin/mother. Women should be virgins until they marry and then become mothers, because motherhood is woman’s natural role. It is therefore impossible for church teaching, in its current form, to posit women as owners of their own bodies or reproductive capacities. This is why popes really can’t cope with contraception, even when disallowing it and encouraging female submission to men means that vast numbers of people die of AIDS. Within marriage, women are not even supposed to refuse their husbands’ conjugal “rights.” Women who don’t marry still belong to men. If they become nuns, they are symbolically “married” to Jesus. If they don’t become nuns, they should join the hordes of women who spend their lives serving parishes and slaving after priests. The ideology is both patriarchal and paternalistic, for the Catholic church is a world in which numerous celibate “fathers” (who stand in for God himself) tell the women under their authority what they should do, think and be. Now, the priests would, of course, object to my interpretation of Catholic teaching and argue, like all good patriarchs do, that they love women and are only seeking to protect them …in their best interests. But patriarchy is not the only problem. The Catholic Church also has a serious problem with raging misogyny. Until Vatican II women were not even allowed on the church sanctuary.

* I’m paraphrasing a famous feminist here but I can’t remember who, so if anyone recognises it could you tell me who said it in the comments.

Women in CatholicismHowever, women’s responses within the church are often complex. As a teenager, I got heavily into religion and the pro-life movement, but I certainly did not experience my religiosity as submission to men; I experienced it as an act of resistance. All around me, girls my age were having miserable, often abusive, sexual experiences and I was absolutely determined not to join them. At the time, I didn’t interpret my resistance as a symptom of my nascent lesbian-feminist subjectivity, but I knew I was not going to have sex with those boys. It is terribly sad that the Catholic Church was the only place I could find protection during this period in my life. Some feminists are not going to like me for saying this, but I am grateful to the church for giving me a much needed reason to resist when my peers were telling me that I must have sex by the time I was 14. The reason to resist should have come from feminism, but the only feminism that was available to me was the sort that says young women will have sex, therefore the best thing to do is provide plenty of contraception and show them how to get abortions. I wasn’t happy about that either. This is why I think many feminist responses to the Christian abstinence movement are over simplistic, insofar as they fail to see any attractions within that ideology and view the young women who sign up to it as passive victims of patriarchy. Of course young women have sexual desires, but this does not mean they all want to accept sex on the (unequal) terms on which it is being offered to them by boys and men. Women will not be truly and fully free to have sex until we are truly free to say “no” to sex and that freedom is not yet culturally accepted or recognised. I’d hazard a guess that most young women in our culture still feel intensely pressurised to have sex with men. As far as the abstinence movement is concerned, it’s really all about preserving “clean” women to have sex with men in marriage, but how many young women sign up as a temporary protection? I would be very interested to hear if any other women reading have used religion as a protection in a similar way. I wish there had been more positive avenues of resistance open to me, but I have no regrets about my decisions.

As to my involvement in the pro-life movement, I don’t regret it either, although I feel embarrassed at my immaturity and youthful acceptance of sexist oppression. The pro-life movement taught me a lot, not least about debate. In training us to argue, they gave us a good grounding in the use of rhetoric to make points and persuade. I also left with an understanding of the pro-life ethic, which I think the pro-choice movement generally lacks to its detriment, but that’s another post.

So, although it taught me that I should submit to male authority, the church also handed me seeds of resistance which have since germinated in all sorts of directions. I left the church when I was 17 because I began to realise that a. I was a young lesbian in a terrifyingly homophobic environment and b. I could never adhere to a patriarchal religion with a somewhat voyeuristic father/god in charge.

Nobody’s Handmaid“A national network of women who believe that the gospel speaks about freedom from oppression and calls women to full participation in all aspects of life and the church as a matter of justice.” Catholic Women’s Network.

To be fair, the Catholic Church is no more monolithic than anything else in this world. Catholic women are not in any way passive, malleable fools and they do not necessarily accept the dominant teaching of the church. Sure, there are still plenty of anti-feminist women and sexist priests, but what the Vatican won’t tell you is that an increasing number of women (and priests) are resisting and that there’s also a growing Catholic feminist movement. In fact, two pro-feminist priests were highly influential figures in my own late teens. While many women like me do decide to get out, there are others who decide instead to stay, resist the dogma, re-interpret teachings and scriptures and try to create a new kind of church. I suspect that much of the anti-feminist rhetoric coming out of the Vatican is actually directed towards Catholic feminism. In the UK they have a newspaper, Omnibus, which many parish priests refuse to sell in the churches. Radical nuns, in particular, are becoming the bane of the Vatican and they’re not too fond of Pope Benedict either (I heard of one who actually threatened to jump off the roof of the convent when he was elected). Energetic, dedicated and courageous, these nuns work on social justice and women’s issues around the world. The Sister’s of the Good Shepherd, for example, dedicate themselves to “restoring dignity and healing the lives of women and girl’s trapped in prostitution in Thailand and India.” Not only do they do the dangerous work of rescuing these trafficked women from pimps and brothels, they offer them a safe livelihood once they’re out. My mother was recently at a Justice and Peace conference and one of the nuns speaking about trafficking in Thailand said that after being in the brothels she wanted to spit on all the men in the street … and pray for them too … of course.

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Comments»

1. Palooka's Revenge - August 24, 2006

May I, as a man, comment? I think you will like some of the things I would like to say.

First off, I don’t know who said…. “The dominant Catholic ideology coming out of the Vatican teaches that women belong to men: …”*> But I don’t really think it matters. Its been said by many thousands across the ages in as many ways. The words hit d’nail on d’head and are not mutually exclusive to feminists! There are many of us, men included, who share that wisdom and crusade for that gross mis-understanding to go straight to hell which is where it belongs in my opinion!! By hell I mean in the traditionally accpeted interpretation of the word

Second, and this is not meant to be critical… you were doing what you needed to do to protect yourself, the only valid reason you EVER need to resist is your own choice to do so. If that is what feels right to you for that experience and that is the limit you put on a situation out of your own free will then going past you is the overriding of your free will by another. And that is against the laws of God. No one is allowed to override the will of another unless that other acquieses. Period!

Now, agreed, it happens all the time. But, at some point in time, there will be hell to pay by the perpetrator in some form. And, in this case, I don’t mean hell in the traditional sense of the word. I mean it metaphorically.

There are many forms of hell and, contrary to what many would have us believe, it has NOTHING to do with a punitive God sitting on some golden throne of judgement. It has to do with the perfection of the Universe. Karma, for example, is one form in which it plays out.

Lastly I would like to say that I believe we are on the threshold of a point in time for the feminine polarity to find its right place as a legitimate aspect of the Diety.

Think about it this way…

Spirit = positive polarity = electrical = light = masculine = yang = father. The Spirit experiences as awareness.

Will = negative polarity = magnetic = darkness = feminine = yin = mother. The Will experiences as feelings.

They are polarities and there is differentiation between them but they are of the same ONE.

Together they are Divine Consciousness and everything would still be nothing were it not for this. Where do you think sex comes from?

Unconditional Love of the Spirit is fairly well understood and accepted by many. And many understand and accept their own Spirit as part of the Divine Spirit.

But there is another energy that is also part of the Divine Creation which has not been understood and accepted and that is Divine Will.

Most people have made a seperation between the Spirit and the Will and judged their own Will as unacceptable, a form of self-denial. Likewise, most people have judged that they must eliminate their own feelings and opinions and do what they imagine, or have been taught through various pedigogies, to be God’s Will.

If the energies of feelings ARE the Will manifest then most of us have placed this vital aspect out of ourselves when we get rid of certain so-called “negative” feelings and have thrown their own Will and the Will aspect of the Diety straight to hell in the process. By hell here I mean anything that exists outside of Unconditional Love.

The true understanding is, the Will of God is not in opposition to the Will of the individual anymore than the Spirit of God is not in opposition to the Spirit of the individual.

When something is placed outside of ourselves as unacceptable then, not only do we not have unconditional acceptance and not have unconditional Love, we have imbalance.

The Greater Cosmic Forces that Are are always seeking balance and the inbalance present on earth now is so great the Will is moving to clear all the denial that has been shoved into her over the eons. I submit the incredible escalation of extreem weather patterns and earth movement events as evidence.

We are in for some very exciting and interesting times girls!

Toodles,

Palooka

BTW, another word for hell is the gap. I speculate you were referring to the warning signs down in the London tube but your blog name has a much deeper and poignant, esoteric meaning to me.

2. Sage - August 25, 2006

I’m also a recovering Catholic who lives with guilt over everything in the world. But I’m getting better every day. (My whole story’s here.) I’m not sure how one could be a feminist Catholic without bending (or ignoring) the tenets of Catholicism a bit.

3. Andygrrl - August 25, 2006

Excellent post, Winter. There’s a lot of it that I could have written myself, word for word.
I pretty much loathe the hierarchy of the Church with everything I’ve got, and what passes for theology burns me up too, but it’s the nuns that I feel ambivalent about. On the one hand, nuns played no small part in shaping my guilt-ridden, self-loathing sense of self; the Vatican makes the rules and let the nuns do their dirty work for them. But as you said, not even the Church is a monolith, no matter how hard it pretends to be, and there are some amazing women out there who are still dedicated Brides of Christ. It was nuns (Sisters of Saint Ursula, for the record) who instilled the passion for social justice in me. These women walked the walk. I might disagree with them vehemently on matters of sexuality and gender, but when it comes to human rights for the poor, the incarcerated, the exploited, the anti-war movement, illegal immigrants, they’re a force to be reckoned with, and for that I respect them. I just wish they could see how the Church exploits them as well, how hard the Vatican works to counteract any good they might accomplish.

4. Winter - August 25, 2006

I’m not sure how one could be a feminist Catholic without bending (or ignoring) the tenets of Catholicism a bit.

Sage, I think a lot of feminists would have issues with what I’m calling catholic feminism! But, a lot of them want women to be admitted into the priesthood and they want the rulings on divorce and contraception changed. I love the phrase “recovering catholic.” It’s so apt.

These women walked the walk. I might disagree with them vehemently on matters of sexuality and gender, but when it comes to human rights for the poor, the incarcerated, the exploited, the anti-war movement, illegal immigrants, they’re a force to be reckoned with, and for that I respect them.

Without accepting the catholic teaching, I think feminists could learn from the activism of radical nuns — some of their achievements are just incredible. Sometimes, when I read and take part in the endless feminist arguments about sex work and then read about some little old nun going into a Thai brothel to give women a way out of that hell (and that’s HELL for real), I think we should be ashamed of ourselves.

5. Alex Wilcock - August 28, 2006

A thought-provoking, well-balanced post. I remember being very ‘pro-life’ in my teens, too, being a bit naive but with lots of fervour looking for an outlet and lots of Catholicism coming my way. I then turned out to be a gay male teenager, which caused more problems with the Baptist side of my upbringing, but that’s another story.

During the period when I was gradually coming out of religion, I remember having arguments about the Catholic view of women. The people who were staying Catholic (so far as I know) agreed with me on women priests, but thought I was being too simplistic. Out they came with pictures of earth goddesses, all perpetually pregnant, and pointed out that before the 20th Century came along with secular ways to give women their own lives, a cult of the Virgin and the once-new-and-radical Christian option of becoming a nun was a godsend (if you’ll forgive the pun) in enabling women to have a choice other than producing babies. So, as you said about understanding where the pro-life argument is coming from, I can see that it wasn’t all about hating women’s sexuality, and see where the advantages used to lie even if there are now less limiting ways to exercise them.

6. midge - August 28, 2006

i grew up methodist, and i think i also used church teachings as an excuse not to have sex until i felt old enough, even though by that time i was no longer christian.

7. Clarice - August 29, 2006

It sounds a bit like Andrea, that quote, but I am guessing.

I don’t think it is amazingly radical to acknowledge that very few things in this life are either all good, or all bad. Hooray for some sensibleness.

My only issue with your post would be the relevance of the “some feminists won’t like me for saying this…” remark. Until I see a reply to your post that justifies the remark, I shall remain rather skeptical I’m afraid. It’s just hard for me in my ignorance to imagine a feminist that would argue against a woman’s right to self-determination, and/or, who would dislike someone just because they disagreed with them…To my mind, a feminist that argues against a fundamental principle of feminism isn’t actually a feminist at all.

I also don’t think that giving a nod of airplay to a bunch of non-arguments is that helpful in addressing the underlying problem. It’s distracting. Your point is interesting and valuable because it’s insightful and true, not because some people who haven’t thought things through might allegedly disagree with it and allegedly dislike you as a result.

8. baby221 - August 30, 2006

You wanted to hear from other women who used the Church as protection?

I did, but not specifically in the same way you mean.

I clung to the Church and its teachings because I heard the things my parents said about Those Kinds of Girls, and I wanted nothing more than to avoid being thought of in that way. I thought it was the only way to make my parents proud of me, or failing pride, to at least accept their gender noncomformant daughter. (I was a major tomboy — even though the most I heard about it was “Now now Sara, that’s not ladylike” — it was just a vibe, that they were disappointed.)

I had two stepsisters, who my father thought were “trying to grow up too fast.” They read Seventeen and wore too much makeup, and owned skimpy clothing and flirted with boys they’d only just met. Daddy disapproved, and he’d tell me that they’d regret it one day. I didn’t want to regret anything, and I didn’t want my dad to look at me with that sad look in his eyes. I would have eschewed makeup anyway because it made my skin break out, but I stayed away from racy magazines and clothing, and I didn’t flirt with boys. I certainly didn’t date them.

I also had a crush on a girl in my teenage years, and having heard endless ‘jokes’ about fags and homos from my father — I hoped that devotion would cure me. (It didn’t.)

I’ve left the Church now that I’ve come into my own person instead of just being my parents’ daughter. As it happens, my fears were well-founded; my father called me a slut, my mother said she was disappointed. They’re coping. I’m hoping.

But I don’t need all the shackles that came with the Church’s protection anymore. And I’m damned glad.

9. Winter - August 30, 2006

It’s just hard for me in my ignorance to imagine a feminist that would argue against a woman’s right to self-determination, and/or, who would dislike someone just because they disagreed with them.

Oh no, I certainly hope feminists wouldn’t disagree with me on that point. I meant, rather, that some feminists might not like me saying that there are some attractions for young women in organised religion, including the abstinence movement. However, I don’t think adhering to such a religion for all the wrong reasons represents self-determination. We live in a society in which women are now expected to come up with a damn good reason for not having sex with men and religion offers reasons not to do it which some women might find useful. But I think this is really a bad thing.

I’m afraid I was trying to be a little bit provocative with that comment, but no one’s risen to it as you observe!

10. Winter - August 30, 2006

For some reason the html tags don’t seem to be working for me! The comment above was replying to this point from Clarice:

“It’s just hard for me in my ignorance to imagine a feminist that would argue against a woman’s right to self-determination, and/or, who would dislike someone just because they disagreed with them…To my mind, a feminist that argues against a fundamental principle of feminism isn’t actually a feminist at all.”

11. Winter - August 30, 2006

Hi Baby221

“But I don’t need all the shackles that came with the Church’s protection anymore. And I’m damned glad.”

Me neither. I think I was also hoping for a “cure.” It is a trap. They offer you certain protections and privileges by making you feel special in a way, but it is a set of shackles at the end of the day. While I respect catholic feminists, I don’t really think they’ll get anywhere.

12. Clarice - August 30, 2006

Hmm. Hello Winter.

“I meant, rather, that some feminists might not like me saying that there are some attractions for young women in organised religion, including the abstinence movement.”

I don’t see why not, since it is demonstrably true. One reading of your post (which I’m sure is not the intended one) could be that feminists are people who are likely to object to evident truths just because they don’t happen to fit their agenda. Perhaps this is true, but I would like to think not. Certainly, I am cautious not to do so.

I think it’s bad PR for feminism, to imply that this might be the case – unless you have evidence that it is so. I feel very protective over how feminism is perceived, and I’m not sure the picture you paint of it is entirely positive/accurate/helpful, provocatism notwithstanding.

“However, I don’t think adhering to such a religion for all the wrong reasons represents self-determination”

I think that it does. I think finding a cultural support and validation for something you do or don’t want to do, very much does represent a means of pursuing a self-determining path. Yes it has its down sides, and in an ideal world of course, it would not be necessary, but we are a long way off that at the minute.

13. Winter - August 31, 2006

Fair enough.

But I do think most of us, at times anyway, make speculative comments based on impressions we’ve gained over time, but which we don’t actually have hard evidence for. Probably we do this in the hope that someone will come along and confirm or disprove our impressions.

I’ll concede that it’s a limited (and I would say unhealthy) form of self-determination. As a tennager, I was trying to manipulate an oppressive situation to get the best possible deal for myself, as women have always had to do.

14. Clarice - September 1, 2006

Yes of course, lots of people make speculative or subjective comments about particular groups of people in a public mass-media sphere without having hard evidence for the claims they make or imply.

I just don’t personally think that’s a good thing in general, given how media communications are consumed. And in this particular instance, I don’t think it’s a good thing for feminism, which is kind of ironic/disappointing to me, given the bent of this particular blog, that’s all.

I’m somewhat gratified though to see that your prophesy has not been fulfilled by the comments here 🙂

As far as having to “manipulate an oppressive situation to get the best possible deal for oneself, as women have always had to do”, I actually think that’s fairly healthy, considering the alternatives, though of course, what would be more healthy would be to reject the situation altogether. Teenage girls are only human, however.

15. Jcecil3 - September 1, 2006

Greetings!

I hope being male, practicing Catholic, and even pro-life doesn’t disqualify me de facto from commenting.

Let me start by saying this is an excellent and thought provoking essay.

I very much appreciate your explanaition that Catholicism is not monolithic, and there are voices of reform working within.

Let me also say that despite whatever disagreements I may have with feminism on the very specific issue of abortion, there is much I would like to see changed in my Church.

And there is a side of me that wishes articulate women like yourself would remain connected enough to the Church to help us who remain within in the fight for change.

What am I speaking about?

I do believe in using female images for God along side of male images. That’s the big one – the symbolic undermining of all truly unjust patriarchy.

I do believe in using inclusive language in reference to the people in the Church as well.

I do support women’s ordination.

I do support blessing gay and lesbian unions in the Church.

I do think the Vatican is, frankly, off its rocker on the issue of contraception.

I do support married priests (male, female, homosexual,…).

I do support creating structures of accountability that will protect our children from abusive priests, and the current structures are very resistant to change.

I would like to see ordained members of the clergy (male or female) more engaged in the types of ministries you describe for the non-ordained sisters helping women in Thailand. The Church does a great deal for the poorest of the poor already, but there is more to do. The ordained sometimes avoid the task of building a world of peace and justice.

I am not a single issue voter, and even if I am pro-life, I wound up voting for John Kerry (who is also Catholic) because of my opposition to an immoral war. We need women in the Church who can help articulate why abortion is not a trump card over all other concerns.

Of course, it should go without saying I support equal opportunity in the workplace, equal pay for equal work, and deplore sexual harrassment or violence against women.

You mentioned in your essay that feminist need to be at least a little more sesnitive to pro-life concerns. That gives me hope. Is there room for dialogue – maybe compromise – on this specific issue?

It pains me that there seems to be an impasse on this issue between people who find some sort of meaning in traditional religion, and those who don’t. Is there a way past this impasse?

I’ve said enough.

Peace and G-d/ess bless!

16. Clarice - September 2, 2006

What an excellent post, jcecil.

I think all people who disagree on an issue need to be more sensitive to the concerns of those they disagree with.

I think there’s plenty of room for dialogue, as long as the argument doesn’t go something like “because God/the Bible says so”, and it doesn’t look like that’s where you’re coming from at all. I for one would be very interested in any abortion debate that ensued on these grounds.

17. Winter - September 13, 2006

jcecil,

Sorry for the delay in replying.

I think your position is similar to a lot of liberal and feminist catholics, especially in the UK and USA. But, my perception is of a church increasingly divided between liberal reforming catholics and extreme right wingers. Sadly, the Vatican seems largely stocked with the right wingers and, as a result, I think it will be a very long time before you see any serious changes in the church.

And there is a side of me that wishes articulate women like yourself would remain connected enough to the Church to help us who remain within in the fight for change.

Well, there is the issue of faith which I left largely out of my post. If I had faith in what the catholic church teaches I might have stuck with it, but I just don’t feel it and I can’t continue with anything I don’t have faith in.

You mentioned in your essay that feminist need to be at least a little more sesnitive to pro-life concerns. That gives me hope. Is there room for dialogue – maybe compromise – on this specific issue?

Both sides are so defended; the walls are enormous and everyone involved has tremendous emotional as well as political investment in their position.

Also, generally speaking, for pro-life people all abortion is murder, and you obviously cannot condone murder. For pro-choice people, abortion is not murder and a world with enforced childbearing is utterly unnaceptable. I don’t know how we can move beyond this impasse although there might be room for a more understanding discussion.

I agree with Clarice that bringing “what the Bible says” into the argument is unhelpful.


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