More and more I think the time is long past due for us Catholic women to have a conversation among ourselves about what keeps us in the church and what we can pass on to our younger sisters in faith. I am not suggesting a confrontation, mind you?since confrontations are exhausting and often end in divisive misunderstanding?but a conversation.
I envision an informal, global conversation made up of many, many smaller discussions that cross generational lines, cultural boundaries and dogmatic fences. We can tweet it, blog it, e-mail it, write it, Skype it or just sit down together over a pot of tea—lots of different pots of tea. The important thing is that we talk and listen to one another with open minds and hearts.
My work on religious environmentalism and eco-justice has afforded me an opportunity to meet many wise, strong and committed Catholic women. I am no longer shy about asking them, “Why do you stay?” And I am no longer surprised when they jump at the chance to talk about the muddled mess of feelings they have toward the church. Love, betrayal, commitment, tradition, shame, anger, compassion—what do we make of all this?
Aileen O’Donoghue, a friend and colleague, summed it up best when she said to me, “Sometimes being a Catholic woman is just so lonely.”
Last year, at an event on Catholic feminist theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York, I was particularly struck by how much women need to nurture and bolster one another. Four young Catholic scholars gave a presentation on the book Frontiers in Catholic Feminist Theology, edited by Susan Abraham and Elena Procario-Foley (2009). The presenters’ scholarship was creative, exciting and insightful, but I was saddened when one of the contributing authors expressed “complete despair” about the place of women in the church. She felt that women had once again been relegated to meeting in dark church basements and one another’s living rooms.
I am not as despairing. If women are in the church basement, it is because that is where we women feed the ever-growing number of hungry people in our neighborhoods and set up cots for the homeless to spend a safe, warm night. If we are in each other’s living rooms, it is because we are trying to figure out how to fund our efforts to give sanctuary to immigrants. We rock boarder babies and sit at the bedside of dying people. We are ardent peacekeepers and peacemakers, respected scholars and teachers. Our work honors the tradition of Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa and Sister Dorothy Stang. We are very busy doing the hard, dirty work of creation in the largest sense of the word.
Perhaps becoming more aware of each other’s work could instill a pride powerful enough to dispel despair and keep more of us in the faith. Certainly sharing each other’s exhaustion, exhilaration and confusion is more necessary now than ever.
No Catholic woman I know has any hope that the Vatican will acknowledge our efforts anytime soon. A few weeks ago, I was discussing this problem with a young Catholic colleague who lamented that “staying in” was getting harder. She believes that a whole new order of church is in the offing and wants to be part of that evolution. The institution, she said, starved by human constructs that deny the fresh air of the Spirit, will suffocate and die; but the Spirit will continue to breathe the air of life and community into all those who are devoted to building the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
I took this idea to other Catholic women whom I respect and admire. Every woman I spoke to affirmed that her faithful work is in and for the once vital, now hidden “church of the people,” that is, a spiritually, intellectually and materially generous church that recognizes God in every human being. Most of the women agreed that at some point we would return to being a church of the people, but few of them believed it would be anytime soon.
We long for a church that is honest and humble enough to admit to mistakes and misunderstandings but strong enough to work through difficulties and disagreements without alienating or isolating one another.
Mother Teresa has counseled: “Holiness is not a luxury for the few; it is not for some people. It is meant for you and me, for all of us. It is a simple duty because if we learn to love, we learn to be holy.”
In her book There Is a Season, Joan Chittister, O.S.B., writes about the merits of being what she calls a spiritual rebuilder: “Rebuilders are those who take what other people only talk about and make it the next generation’s reality. These are the superstars of the long haul…. They give up prestige and money and being the Peter Pans of the public arena for the long, hard struggle of turning their personal little worlds on their tiny axles. They build the new world right in the heart of the old.” Chittister acknowledges, “Their lot is too often, too plainly a lonely one.” She is right.
Rebuilders are what the Jesuit theologian Walter Burghardt refers to as “ministers on the margin.” But I do not think we women have to stand on the margins isolated and alone.
We owe it to ourselves, to the women who lived the social gospel before us, to our daughters, granddaughters, students, patients and friends (and to many men, of course) to join together in the struggle to make sense of our relationship with the Catholic Church. We can continually rebuild each other as we are rebuilding the church we long for. Let us make a point of asking each other, “Why do you stay?” And then let us listen without judgment or cynicism and with compassion and understanding.