Notes from WATERtalks: Feminist Conversations in Religion Series

“The Evolution of the Catholic ‘Everywoman’”

An hour-long teleconference with

Celia Wexler

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

1 PM-2 PM ET


WATER spoke with award-winning journalist Celia Wexler about her new book Catholic Women Confront Their Church: Stories of Hurt and Hope (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016). Celia discussed her own journey as a lifelong Catholic and profiled ten women who have confronted the institutional church in diverse ways.

These notes are provided as companion to the call’s audio. A Q & A session followed.

First of all, I want to thank Mary for her support for the book and for her invitation to speak with all of you. I have heard previous WATER talks, and I was intimidated by the stature of your previous guests. Intimidated is too mild a word. I’m pretty freaked out, not because I haven’t given talks before. I’m pretty experienced at public speaking. I have even testified before Congress. But I’ve never spoken to so learned a group. I invited all the women I profiled in the book, so I also worry that my references to many of you in this talk will not do justice to you. At least I didn’t have to worry about what to wear!

I thought it would be good to let you know right off what I am not. I am neither a theologian nor a historian. I haven’t been an activist, working for change within the Catholic Church. Rather, think of me as a Catholic everywoman. I attend Mass every Sunday. I sing in the choir, which makes the sermon more bearable. I look out at the congregation and see weary mothers trying to keep small children in tow. I see middle-aged women who rarely smile throughout the service. I sometimes see frowns and grimaces when the priests say something particularly sexist.

I don’t know why other women remain in the pews. For me, the reasons are complicated.

Certainly Catholic guilt is a factor. But perhaps the real reason I stay with Catholicism has more to do with art than doctrine. As a child, I was enchanted by a book of renaissance Madonnas, part of my parents’ very modest library. I would look at the gold-etched paintings and find great beauty, and also humanity and vulnerability. Thoughtfulness and purpose. The Madonnas of Raphael and Da Vinci were complex women – mothers for sure, but women made of flesh and blood who may have kept their thoughts to themselves, but who had thoughts all the same.

Their world was so different from the dystopia that my grammar school teachers painted – a world full of temptations to be avoided, where the soul was inconveniently housed in a human body, a body which we should consider an occasion of sin.

My high school teachers and later the experience I had at St Michael’s College, a part of the University of Toronto – undid a lot of that rigid thinking, but not my legacy of Catholic guilt. I continue to struggle with scrupulosity to this day. That scrupulosity affected how I lived my life, and certainly put a damper on my dating. Intellectually, I moved on from the rigid doctrines of the church and became an independent thinker. But emotionally, I was pretty trapped.

But here’s my dilemma. To me, church also was linked to what I cared about: the gospels with their message of social justice, the liturgy with its beauty and drama, and Catholicism’s links to all I appreciated in art and music.

When I am conflicted, I write a book. My first book was about my profession, journalism, and its uncertain future. This, my second book, was born out of a more personal conflict. I was haunted by one nagging question: Could I continue to be both a practicing catholic and a feminist? (My husband hopes that I set out to write a book on marriage.)

My crisis in faith was prompted by a number of events. Certainly, as so many Catholics, I was greatly disillusioned by the priest pedophilia scandal, even more so by the church’s attempts to cover it up. I was demoralized by the sexism and rigidity of Popes John Paul II and Benedict.

Benedict even changed the words we pray at mass, making them more remote and clinical. I was angry that the American bishops launched a loud and costly legal war on the Affordable Care Act and its birth control mandate. Their actions reinforced their foolish and blind focus on sexual morality – to me, proof of their wish to punish women.

I am sure that my feeling of isolation was worse because I belonged to a parish in the Arlington, Virginia diocese, one of the most conservative dioceses in the U.S.  But I don’t believe my experience varies that much from the experience of thousands of other women throughout this country and in many parts of the world.

In writing this book, I looked for guidance from Catholic women who shared my progressive politics and feminism. But I did not have an agenda. Coming to this as a journalist helped me seek my answers not as an expert but as a typical woman in the pews, a Catholic woman who is a professional in the world and considers herself equal to men.

I did not think I could ask other women to bare their souls, if I was not willing to tell my own story. Mine is the first story in the book. I conclude that chapter with these words (p. 22):

“A few scientists have theorized that there is a gene that prompts some of us to seek out religion. I don’t know whether that is true, but I do know that I need God. I need to believe in a power greater than myself who watches over me and the rest of the world. I need to appreciate nature and my own good fortune, as well as my troubles, in the context of that faith. And for me, faith cannot be solely personal. The Catholic Church, for all its flaws and for the narrowness of the vision of its leaders, has sunk its roots deep into my bones and flesh.  There is no doubt that my life has been enriched by the gospels, by the stories of the saints, by the world’s cathedrals, and the solemn and spiritual liturgy of the church. I don’t want to appreciate the church’s music, art and history as a disinterested spectator. I want more. But that’s where the struggle comes in. I cannot reconcile my conflicted feelings for the church I cannot bear to leave.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Madeleine Blais once wrote that journalism often is a ‘frightening and perilous and delicate’ process that permits the writer ‘to go through someone else’s truth to get to your own.’ This book is my perilous journey.”

Now, this book has been a journey, but much less perilous because of the support I found in the women I interviewed. The women I profiled liberated and radicalized me – helped me see beyond the vacuous weekly sermon and my basic and pretty ill-informed Catholic upbringing and achieve a more informed view of my faith –As Sister Simone Campbell put it: “Faith is so much more than the church. For me, that’s a huge comfort. That Jesus is bigger than the institution.”

They shared not only their faith but also their lives. They are a diverse group, varying in age, race, ethnicity, background, sexual orientation, and the degree to which they remain practicing Catholics. But they all were generous, brave and honest. Their stories are the heart and soul of this book. I think that they appreciated the chance to share their views. I remember Notre Dame administrator and professor Gretchen Reydams-Schils telling me how much she welcomed being asked her opinion, something that hadn’t happened at her campus. “I have been encapsulated in silence,” Gretchen confided.

I touched on the book’s themes in the book’s introduction, which was circulated to all of you. These themes, I’m sure, are not revolutionary insights to most of you. But they were to me. Over and over, the women I interviewed reinforced the idea that we must make moral choices according to our own conscience. And that the notion of “sin” needs to be re-thought.

As a young woman religious in the 1960s, Sharon MacIsaac McKenna was one of the few women permitted to study graduate theology. Along with a group of Catholic scholars, Sharon joined a psychotherapeutic commune, ultimately left the convent and married a former priest. They now both practice psychotherapy.

Her thesis, done under the supervision of theologian Gregory Baum, became a book, Freud and Original Sin. She contended that original sin was just a metaphor for our conflicted natures. Our unconscious and our conscious are often at odds. “It’s not a pathology,” she told me. “That’s what Freud was saying. It’s constitutive of the mind.” But our unconscious fears and desires are so frightening, she said, that they drive some of us to alcohol or drugs or even suicide. She told Baum “We can’t keep talking about sin this way.”

Of course tied in with this notion of sin and sexism is the church’s obsession with sexual conduct. Latina theologian Teresa Delgado grapples with the challenge of helping her Catholic students navigate the minefield of sexual ethics. She regrets that an institution that developed a nuanced ethical position on the concept of a “just war” has failed to explore the nuances of sexual mores.

Her Catholic students, she says, aren’t “even comfortable writing about God and sex in the same paper.” Catholic students who opt for any sexual exploration, she says, lack any “resources” within their faith to guide them “through the labyrinth of sexual growth.” Within her classroom, she faces students who are deeply confused about how to apply Catholic principles to their sex lives. Her goal, she says, is to offer them a safe place to discuss their feelings, and to share her own insights about addressing these moral dilemmas.

The women I profiled also introduced me to liberation and womanist theology, both of which make clear that Christians must do all they can to free those who are oppressed by racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism and homophobia. They take very seriously the obligation to help the poor and marginalized.

The irony is that the typical Catholic in the pews has been exposed to the Beatitudes, to the psalms, to the parables, all which the catholic hierarchy de-emphasizes, and which often is ignored in the sermons we hear on Sunday.

Frances Kissling was the longtime head of Catholics for a Free Choice, now Catholics for Choice. She spoke of her work not only through a pro-choice lens, but also in the context of morality, and the obligation of the feminist movement to advocate for poor women. Indeed, Frances felt so strongly about this that she co-wrote Rosie: The Investigation of a Wrongful Death, which told the story of Rosie Jimenez, who died from an illegal abortion because she was too poor to obtain a safe, legal one. The book gave her a chance to address her concern that the abortion movement was not “as attentive to the issues of poverty as I felt it should be.”

African American theologian Diana Hayes introduced me to the concept of a Christ “lynched” on the cross, and a faith that seeks to end suffering by ending oppression and discrimination. Hayes believes that womanist theology is a critique both of feminism, which is too narrowly focused on one form of oppression – sexism – and black theology, which ignored the experiences of black women. She jokes that if the church leaders understood womanist theology, they would be much more afraid of it.

Barbara Blaine is a social justice hero to me. Barbara was a young teen when the assistant pastor at her church began to sexually abuse her, an ordeal that lasted four years. She was able to break free of the abuse, but not the guilt. One way to atone was to serve the marginalized. She ran a Catholic Worker house for the homeless for more than a decade. But years later, even after she came to realize that she was a victim of abuse, not the guilty party, Blaine never abandoned her social justice approach. She founded the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests to help other victims heal and protect children from clerical predators. She still takes in strays, part of her Catholic worker legacy, she tells me. She has done far more to serve the poor than the bishops who have lied to her over the years, promising reforms and then not delivering on them.

I think I’m like a lot of Catholic women:  I never thought seriously about women priests. But the women I profiled opened my eyes to the grave injustice and stupidity of refusing ordination to women. Marianne Duddy Burke, the head of DignityUSA, is a strong advocate for LGBT rights.

But for years she also harbored a very strong desire to be a priest. As a child, she’d preside over the funerals of dead pets, and dispense communion in the form of Necco wafers. That desire persisted. When she pursued a graduate degree in theology, she studied with seminarians and then watched them as they celebrated Mass as priests.  “I remember sitting there and sobbing, week after week after week. I had this deeply felt call and no way of seeing it through.  Seeing a priest up there on the altar doing what I knew I was totally capable of doing, but knowing I would never have that status, was excruciating.”

Teresa Delgado also felt a strong call, and was tempted to become an Episcopal priest as she was earning her graduate degree in theology from Union Theological Seminary. She resisted the opportunity because she felt she could change the church only if she remained within the institution. But just as intriguing to me, both Teresa and Marianne ultimately decided that ordaining women to the priesthood would not be sufficient.  They both told me that the fundamental problem was the top-down nature of the church – what Marianne terms Catholic, Inc. – its hierarchical structure that made the priest the center of the liturgy, and demoted the laity to lesser roles. Their argument resonated with the other women I profiled.

These women also agreed that Pope Francis had changed the tone of the church in a positive way. But none of these women thought that Francis would achieve revolutionary reforms. Change, they contended, if it were to happen, would come from the people in the pews, not the hierarchy.

I don’t expect this book to create a revolution in the institutional church. But I would love for it to provoke thousands of conversations. The Catholic woman who is not a member of a religious order or who is not a theologian is pretty lonely when it comes to matters of faith. We women in the pews need to talk to one another.

A lot is at stake. Demographers tell us that young women, born and raised Catholic, having been walking away from the church for quite some time. Four of the five adult daughters of the women profiled in my book – including my own daughter – are not practicing Catholics.

If the church is to have any chance of reforming itself, we can’t lose our daughters, the women we’ve raised to question authority, to think independently, and to care about social justice. My fear is a church left only with women who are more apt to say, “Yes, Father” than “Why, Father.” Or “I disagree, Father.”

Since I began with a reference to artists, let me end with one. Over the years I’ve grown to deeply appreciate the work of Caravaggio. Born in 1571, he was reportedly a violent man – a convicted murderer—but also a great artist known for the intense realism of his paintings.  For me, the most moving Madonna I’ve ever seen is Caravaggio’s Death of the Virgin. He does not depict Mary as a plaster saint, holding lilies and enveloped in a deeply blue silk dress. He does not pretend, as Michelangelo did, that Mary never aged. No, his Mary is an old woman, bloated by age, clearly dead, and clearly mortal. She is surrounded by grieving apostles and young women, all expressing inconsolable loss.

So this is the message of my book: Women are real. They are neither plaster saints, martyrs, nor Mary Magdalenes waiting for redemption. We are both body and spirit. We are your equals. We deserve a church that recognizes who we are and what we can contribute. Thank you, and I am happy to hear your views and respond to your questions.

Q & A/Discussion

Q: This question is about rage. Each week there is a new outrage from Catholic authorities against women. For example, in Canada, the Western bishops have announced that they will not offer last rites to people who have chosen medical assistance in dying. Is there a productive use of rage?

Celia Wexler: Last Sunday I had a white rage from the ways a “baby priest” was saying mass. I think rage can be useful; it helps us understand what’s wrong and what should be addressed. It prompts me to not be able to walk away. I used to turn that rage against myself; it would turn into guilt. I don’t do that anymore. There’s no good answer to this question.

Q: Similar question. You write about single-sex education for women and how later competition from men is not so difficult. Working in all-women’s environments can be very helpful to women who develop leadership skills etc. The recent naming of the new Bishop of Arlington, VA made me realize that there are many women who are far more qualified than this man. How do we explain this to our daughters in a tradition that values love, justice, and equality?

CW: I think this is difficult. Our daughters won’t be willing to take many explanations. My daughter is a feisty feminist. I don’t think they will accept this, but there’s nothing we can do. Will the church realize it’s losing the people who are the smartest and most gifted? I’m not justifying the church, but as women we often see the milk rising through the top in many institutions, not just the church. The way of the world is often not to honor the people who are the most accomplished, but who are not good at self-promotion. This is a problem for women, but also a general societal issue.

Mary E. Hunt: I wouldn’t want my daughter to see those men very often. I don’t think it’s good for children to see something unjust and lacking in quality. It’s one of the reasons why people don’t go to church, they don’t want to expose their children to injustices. I enjoyed your daughter’s blog post related to this.

Q: What about house churches, women-church groups, or intentional Eucharistic communities as a way of being a Catholic and practicing without dealing with hierarchy and injustice?

CW: Yes, this came up. But I started writing this as a Catholic who didn’t know much about a lot of things. This book has radicalized me. If you read my story, you’ll understand that I still struggle with coloring outside the lines. I’m not proud of this. Emotionally, I have a lot of growing up to do. I’m a work in progress. This will push me to explore various worship options.

Comment: I’m hoping you’re going to do a companion book for those who have left the church, like your daughter. I had a crisis of faith that affected my life. I’m sure there are other women for whom this is true. WATER has allowed me to work through these long-term issues. I think this would be an interesting topic to explore.

CW: I agree. This would be a great topic.

MEH: I wondered, given the new Pew Research Center study of “nones,” how do you see the stories you’ve written about coming to an end or not having the same resonance in the next generation? Have you run into parallel kinds of experiences among Jewish, Protestant women, and women from other religious traditions?

CW: I recently attended a conference of religion news writers. There were panels about these two issues. One was about the “nones,” the other was a panel, “When Feminism and Faith Collide” that had women from various traditions who told stories about misogyny in their own traditions. They came from evangelical Christian, Mormon, Muslim, and Hassidic Jewish faiths. They told stories of being discriminated against, ignored and worse. So this misogyny is a problem not only in Catholicism. I remember attending a panel this summer on a similar topic, and one questioner asking: “If women in various traditions are facing similar problems, why don’t we all get together?” My question is “Why are men in all traditions so afraid of women?”  I think they fear giving up power. The power dynamics cut across faith traditions, and this is a problem for women.

I think with the “nones,” it is the lack of faith in all institutions. This explains why we have the presidential campaign we have now. It’s hard to rebuild faith in every institution (government, economy, etc.). This loss of faith goes across everything, it’s not just religious faith. Even faith in the media is lacking, just as we lack faith in government and academia and science. I don’t know how this gets resolved, and it’s very worrying. There’s a reason they don’t have faith. It’s the fact that we’ve left our young people with a world that’s imperiled by climate change, economic inequality has grown, and we have some responsibility here. The reality of “nones” will not go away. It will be interesting to see how this plays out. I just learned about “nones” at Yale who are meeting together to do good, proving that you don’t need religious faith to act ethically. It is a form of secular humanism. This is something that young people understand. There are many things my “none” daughter has done that support goodness–she’s volunteered at abortion clinics, protested with BlackLivesMatter. I think there are ways “nones” make a difference that may require more courage without the support of an institution.

Q: I have a question about resilience. I’m wondering if Catholic women’s resilience is really keeping us from our rightful places in the church?

CW: I think this depends on where you are as a Catholic woman. Here’s an anecdote: I’m part of the choir, and a bunch of women were rehearsing in the church sanctuary. It was a scene where the women weren’t supposed to be seen. The assistant pastor came in and told us women that we couldn’t be here. He behaved as if we were a group of teenagers, acting up in a sacred place. But we were behaving very respectfully, just waiting for our cue to sing. He demanded that we leave. The other women just caved. I was outraged. So I don’t think a lot of women are anywhere near resilience.  We have to build it among many thousands of Catholic women. We have to make women realize they can fight back and talk back, they do this every day in the workplace, why not in the Church?

MEH: One suggestion I have is to redirect economic giving. Take money out of the basket for our mothers and grandmothers. Try not to put more money in the basket. We are all lacking the power to make decisions.

MEH: What are your current writing projects?

CW: I do blog for the Huffington Post. A lot of my blogs are critiques of the Pope. I have another book project in mind that is very different. I want to look at immigration through the lens of personal experience, through the experience of my mother’s and father’s families. I want to understand what it means to be immigrants in order to have more compassion for immigration.

WATER thanks Celia Wexler for sharing her work and starting what we hope will be a long conversation.

The next WATERtalk will be on Wednesday, November 2, 2016 with Renate Rose, “Feminist Efforts to Overcome the Genocidal Mentality of Nuclear Weapons.” All are welcome. Register Here.