Throughout this time I was a practicing Catholic. Yet my feminist beliefs had kept me from embracing all the teachings of the Church.
I had come to believe in most doctrines on Mary, such as the Immaculate Conception and Assumption. Not only did Catholic apologetics convince me of their truth, but these dogmas also seemed to exalt woman, and so fit my feminist leanings well. The Immaculate Conception of Mary, for instance, refuted the Evangelical belief that, while two men had been sinless (Adam and Christ), only one sinless woman (Eve) had ever existed - and she had lost her sinlessness! And the Assumption meant that God had highly exalted a woman, raising her body and soul into heaven. The Catholic Church teaches that the greatest saint in heaven is not a man, but a woman! Wow, what a concept!
I also loved the teaching that Mary is the New Eve, whose obedience reverses the sin of the first Eve. How many times had I heard Evangelicals put women down because of Eve's role in the Fall: "The woman sinned first...". I had found the ultimate answer to such a charge; God has provided a New Eve who undoes the disobedience of the first one. Mary restores the reputation of womankind!
Yet feminism also caused me to reject some teachings about Our Lady, such as her spiritual Motherhood. Many Christian feminists essentially consider Catholic Marian devotion an excuse not to call God Mother. They argue that the early Church recognized God's motherhood at first, but eventually suppressed it after embracing "patriarchy". Since Christians still felt a need for a heavenly mother, they applied to Jesus' Mother the maternal attributes formerly ascribed to God. She became the ideal patriarchal replacement for God-the-Mother: a sexless, non-threatening female who was so perfectly submissive to the big male God.
Like other Christian feminists, I wanted to see feminine images of God used more widely by Christians, and saw Marian devotion as a threat to this. I thought that we should restore to God the feminine imagery which was rightly "Hers", and restore our "sister" Mary to her place as a holy woman, humble yet exalted by God.
As I said before, I had no real devotion to Our Lady, partially due to a fear of "Mariolatry" left over from my Evangelical days. Christian feminism only seemed to affirm the fear that I could honor Mary too much - to the detriment of my worship of God-as-Mother.
The result is that I accepted some, but not all, of the Church's teaching on Blessed Mother. Theoretically, I saw Mary as the New Eve, sinless, now immortal in heaven, the greatest saint and proof of the dignity of woman. Yet in practice I kept her at a safe distance; I hardly prayed to her and did not consider her to be my spiritual Mother; that was God's role, I thought.
I also rejected other Church teachings regarding women. As you can probably guess, I believed strongly that the Church should ordain women as priests and deaconesses. I also bought into the idea that the Church's opposition to birth control arose out of a backwards, patriarchal desire to keep all women "barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen"; too busy making babies to assert themselves in the public sphere. But I had always been prolife, even before joining Evangelicalism, so I did not embrace the pro-abort aspect of modern feminism.
Return To TopWeaknesses of Feminism
After nearly two years of studying Christian feminism, I was beginning to grow weary of the feminine images of God. I had discovered their essential weakness: they are just metaphors, they do not make God a woman like me. I soon began to question my entire search for feminine divine imagery.
Back then I kept a prayer journal (which I still have) in which I wrote many prayers to Holy Wisdom, the Shekhinah/Spirit, etc. One day, I wrote the following words to Jesus-Wisdom: "Please help me to follow You in a biblical manner. Is it wrong to seek You for Your femininity rather than Your Omniscience?"
This may have been a crude way to put it (I did not really believe that the Second Person of the Trinity is "feminine"), but those words reflected a realization. Scripture indicates that Wisdom is to be sought after for her wisdom, not for her "gender" (so to speak). I was beginning to think that perhaps I was seeking Divine Wisdom for the wrong reasons; emphasizing the fact that she is a feminine image of the Logos, rather than humbly asking God for spiritual truth and insight.
The concept of "God-as-Mother" was wearing thin fast. This worried me at the time; I wrote prayers and poems to God which basically said, "Holy Wisdom, where are You? Shekhinah, why do You hide Your face from me?" I found it harder and harder to relate to God almost exclusively in feminine terms.
In retrospect, I can see that this was a natural occurance. The images had served their purpose; they healed my painful experience in Evangelicalism. Yet I continued cling to them long after they had lost their usefulness, thinking that they would somehow "empower" me. That is why they began to wear thin. In fact, for nearly two years I had essentially tried to build an entire Christian spirituality around the almost exclusive use of feminine images of God. Naturally, I had failed; it just did not work.
Return To TopHer Love Breaks Through
In August 1991, my boyfriend (and future husband) joined the Navy. He went off to boot camp, and I rarely heard from him for the next two months. This was very hard on me, because we had spent a lot of time together, and had hardly gone for one day without at least speaking on the phone. He came back in late October for a few days, but then was sent off for more training. Then he received his permanent assignment: on a ship on the opposite coast. He would be living three thousand miles away! I had hoped that he would be assigned closer, but that's the military for you.
He came home again for two weeks at Christmastime, and proposed to me on the Vigil of Our Lord's Nativity. But on 6 January 1992 I once more waved goodbye to him at the airport, as he caught a plane to his new ship.
I felt very lonely and depressed for the next few days. One day as I was praying in my room, I started to think about all this God-as-Mother stuff. It all seemed so weak and empty. I could no longer "relate" to it or find any comfort in it. My soul wept for a mother.
For some reason, my thoughts turned to Mary. I recalled how the Church has told her children throughout the centuries that Mary is our Mother. Had I been looking for a spiritual Mother in the wrong place? For the first time, I seriously entertained the thought which I had long avoided: Could it be that Mary was my real Mother in heaven after all?
What happened next I can hardly explain with words. I basically experienced a powerful "presence" with me in the room. No, not quite a presence, but a person. I saw nothing with my eyes, but my spirit sensed her; I had no doubt in my mind that this was the Holy Virgin Mary. She was so close to me, and almost seemed to "radiate" tremendous, maternal love.
Tears welled up in my eyes. I fell to my knees and started to cry. All of my resistance to Mary and Marian devotion fell before me like shattered glass. Her love had finally broken through!
When this powerful experience subsided, I set up a small Mary Shrine in the corner of my room, with a picture of Mary, some candles and a blue cloth. I started wearing the Brown Scapular and Miraculous Medal. What a relief I experienced at that moment, when I stopped trying to kick against the goads! (Acts 26:14)
Return To TopModifying Feminist Dogmatism
When I first started reading feminist literature in college, it was mainly because I was starting to discover the goodness of being a woman after five years in a subculture which in many ways denigrated women. While the literature helped me a bit, it also instilled an anti-male attitude in me. Perhaps I read too much or the wrong thing, and perhaps I was too young and naive, but it ended up hurting me rather than helping. I was one of those "angry women". In my experience, feminism became a hinderance to me mentally, emotionally and especially spiritually.
I remember how, right before my wedding, I agonized over taking my fiance's name. Would this destroy my individuality? Would it turn me into a pathetic, mindless homebody, stripped of any personal identity and deprived of my right of "naming" myself? When I look back now after so many years of marriage, I have to laugh; how naive I was to believe all that.
Eventually, I started reading some literature by feminists or anti-sexist males who disagreed with some points of feminist philosophy. Hearing the other side really helped me become more balanced and see through some of the more extreme feminist positions.
One such book was Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women by Christina Hoff Sommers. While reading that book I came across an interesting quote from Gloria Steinem: "I have become even more angry...the alternative is depression" . That quote really made me think, Is this all that feminism has to offer me: Anger or depression? I didn't like that choice at all.
It's a seldom-recognized fact: feminism is actually a very depressing prospect for women. Feminism tells women that the men they love - their fathers, brothers, husbands, boyfriends, sons - look down on them as inferior beings. It tells them that the guys to whom they look for acceptance and support only want to exploit, beat and oppress them; anything to keep them under thumb. To feminists, any man is a potential rapist or abuser; no male can be trusted. Even God is not a loving heavenly Father, but the ultimate product of patriarchal arrogance: a projection of masculinity onto the Absolute, intended only to keep women in their place.
How could any woman hear such things without being wounded to the core? She suddenly feels deceived and betrayed by all the men in her life, nay, all the men who have ever existed! It's no wonder feminists must choose between anger and depression; their worldview allows no real joy or peace as long as "patriarchy" reigns supreme.
I don't know about you, but I can't see what's so liberating about such a philosophy.
Reading literature which dissented from feminism actually had a healing effect on me. I came to realize that men were not demonic ogres who spent every waking minute dreaming up new ways to oppress women. I gained a balanced perspective which I had somehow lost during the process of "consciousness raising" (brainwashing???). I could now see that life is unfair to everyone; both women and men are wounded by its inequities.
Return To TopEmbracing Catholic Orthodoxy
Pretty soon, I had accepted every Catholic doctrinal and moral teaching except for two: contraception and women priests. These two issues were very emotional for me, and so difficult to let go.
The Evangelical church I had attended was not anti-birth control, in fact they considered it okay (although they also emphasized that children are a blessing, and encouraged large families). And although my youth leaders had a low opinion of women, our fellowship as a whole was not against female preachers; in fact, the first pastor's sister was a preacher, and she visited our church occasionally.
So as an Evangelical, I had always thought I would begin using birth control after marriage (every time a doctor offered me a prescription for the Pill during an exam I refused it, telling them I intended to have no sex until marriage). After returning to the Church, I became aware of Catholic opposition to contraception, but also heard some people saying that it was a "matter of personal conscience". So I figured I could use it, since I had no qualms about it.
However, when the subject came up one day, my fiance told me we would not use it. I was not happy with his statement, to say the least. But I got in touch with the Couple-to-Couple League and learned the Sympto-Thermal Method of Natural Family Planning (NFP), which, to my surprise, worked very well even with my irregular cycles. This was not the much-maligned calendar rhythm method which everyone made fun of ("Vatican Roulette").
I soon read Humanae Vitae as well, and realized that it was nothing like the characatures of it which I had read from dissident Catholics. Its arguments made sense, and helped me to see exactly what is wrong with birth control.
So that problem resolved itself at some point early in my marriage. But the "women's ordination" issue took longer. I read many arguments against it which all said the same thing: Only men can be priests because Christ is a man, and only men can represent Christ.
This seemed utterly absurd to me. It seemed to say that women are not Christlike, and I knew that is not true. Why, the one saint who is most like Christ is the Blessed Virgin Mary! Her entire life is a wonderful copy of His: she is sinless like Him, ever-virginal like Him, risen like Him; she is the Queen standing next to the King (Psalm 45:9), and Her Immaculate Heart is the closest copy of His Sacred Heart. She resembles Christ as closely as a mere creature could resemble God Incarnate.
Finding that argument wanting, I just could not accept the Church's refusal to admit women to Holy Orders. Why could we receive only six sacraments, while a man could potentially receive all seven? It just seemed so unfair! I knew the importance of submission to the Church, so I tried to submit to the teaching, but without a logical explanation I found it hard to accept that this could be God's will. I did not believe that God would do anything unjust or arbitrary, and the prohibition against "women priests" seemed just that.
For years, I held a secret hope that the Church might someday come around. But in 1994 that hope was destroyed when I read in a diocesan paper about the pope's newest letter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. The article quoted the pope as saying:
"In order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church's divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethern I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful"1My heart sank. If not an infallible decree, this sounded very close to one. I realized that God really did not want women to be priests after all. At that moment, I said one of the hardest prayers I've ever had to say. It went something like this:
Lord, since it seems to be Your will that women not receive Holy Orders, I submit by faith to the pope's declaration. But please, please, show me why you have excluded women from the priesthood. I believe that you are infinitely logical; everything you do has a good reason. So please show me the reason why women cannot be priests.A few months later, while browsing through the library at a local Catholic university, I came across a book on the subject. It had been written in the sixties by a woman who was actually sympathetic to "women's ordination". In the book, she listed various objections to it which had been raised throughout the centuries.
While skimming through it, one of the objections caught my eye. A certain medieval bishop had argued that women could not become priests because a priest is "married to the Church"; and since the Church is the Bride of Christ and our Mother, only a man could "marry" her.
Suddenly, the light went on! I had been studying the Motherhood of the Church in-depth, and was keenly aware of the fact that the Church is the New Eve, the suitable helper of Christ the New Adam. So this argument made perfect sense; a female cannot marry a female, thus a woman cannot marry the Bride of Christ.
God had finally shown me the answer. God does not exclude women from the priesthood for sexist reasons, but because the priesthood relates to the mystery of the New Adam. The statement that "only men can represent Christ' is true in the sense that only men can participate in the mystery of the New Adam. Women can certainly be Christlike, and even exceed men in that area (as Mary does), but they cannot represent Christ as the New Adam in His nuptial relationship to Mother Church.
Soon, I recieved a confirmation of my new understanding from an article in The Catholic Answer Magazine, where I read the following words:
Nevertheless, the sacramental economy takes human nature and created realities as its starting point. Bread and wine, oil and water: this is the stuff of which sacraments are made. And embodied, engendered human nature is also an essential feature of the sacraments. For this reason and because the Church is the Bride of Christ, a female priest (were such possible) would essentially be in a lesbian relationship with the Church.2I was so grateful that God had finally shown me the reason why the priesthood is for men only. He does always have a reason for His actions.
Return To TopConfession of a Post-Feminist Catholic
In my experience, I have discovered two definitions of the noun Feminist; one could say that the first is inclusive and the second exclusive. :-) The inclusive definition is: "A feminist is anyone who believes that women are equal to men and that discrimination against women is wrong". By this definition, even men can be feminists.
The exclusive definition is: "a feminist is a woman (not a man) who embraces a specific set of philosophical views related to feminism". For instance, she sees all of history as a struggle between dominating patriarchal males and poor oppressed females, and most if not all traditional female roles as artificial impositions by patriarchal society (I find many such feminist views, though partially valid, to be largely exaggerated).
I guess that, by the first definition, I could still be squeezed into the term feminist. But the second seems to be the truer definition, and I can no longer embrace the narrow worldview of feminist dogma. So I do not consider myself a "feminist".
I have toyed with a few alternate terms for where I stand. One is recovering feminist (shamelessly borrowed from recovering alcoholic, of course). A recovering feminist would be someone who had a bad experience with feminism and who has moved on, keeping what she sees as the best views of the movement yet not able in good faith to be identified with it any longer because of too many disagreements. That sort-of works.
But I think a better term would be post-feminist Catholic. This is a play on the term post-Christian feminist, a term for a woman who rejects her Christian upbringing in favor of secular or neo-pagan feminism. I have gone the opposite way, passing through "Christian feminism" on my way to a fully orthodox Catholicism. Hence, I am a "post-feminist Catholic".
And what does this post-feminist Catholic believe about God, women and the Church?
I believe that God made me in His image. Contrary to what my youth leader said many years ago, the divine image is not maleness; after all, tomcats, bulls, stallions and rams are all male, but they are not created in God's image. The image of God has nothing to do with sex or gender; it is in human personhood, intelligence and will, which are common to both men and women.
The Catechism says:
"Being in the image of God the human individual possesses the dignity of a person, who is not just something, but someone. He is capable of self-knowledge, of self-possession and of freely giving himself and entering into communion with other persons. And he is called by grace to a covenant with his Creator, to offer him a response of faith and love that no other creature can give in his stead....So I believe, as Mother Church teaches, that women and men both reflect God's image and likeness. Though they have some different roles to play in society and the Church, men and women are equal in human dignity and in the call to salvation and holiness. I believe that the greatest saint of all, the only human person who has ever been totally free from all sin, is a Woman: the Blessed Virgin Mary. (Jesus, of course, is not a human person, but a Divine Person).
"Man and woman have been created, which is to say, willed by God: on the one hand, in perfect equality as human persons; on the other, in their respective beings as man and woman. "Being man" or "being woman" is a reality which is good and willed by God: man and woman possess an inalienable dignity which comes to them immediately from God their Creator. Man and woman are both with one and the same dignity "in the image of God". In their "being-man" and "being-woman", they reflect the Creator's wisdom and goodness." -Catechism of the Catholic Church, sections 357, 369
I still believe that God possesses all the perfections associated with motherhood, as Scripture makes clear: "Can a woman forget her infant, so as not to have pity on the son of her womb? If she should forget, yet I will not forget you" (Isaiah 49:15). And again, "As one who the mother caresses, so will I comfort you" (66:13).
The Catechism also touches on this issue:
God's parental tenderness can also be expressed by the image of motherhood, which emphasizes God's immanence, the intimacy between Creator and creature...God transcends the human distinction between the sexes. He is neither man nor woman; he is God. He also transcends human fatherhood and motherhood, although he is their origin and standard...But I am no longer as obsessed with feminine images of God as I was. The Biblical ones do have some validity, but they cannot change the fact that God has revealed Himself primarily in masculine terms: the Father and the Son, our Lord and King. Why? For many reasons, but partly due to the Incarnation.
In no way is God in man's image. He is neither man nor woman. God is pure spirit in which there is no place for the difference between the sexes. But the respective "perfections" of man and woman reflect something of the infinite perfection of God: those of a mother and those of a father and husband. -CCC 239, 370
You see, God's Fatherhood is not a mere metaphor; it the relationship of the First Person of the Trinity to the Second. When the Second Person took flesh, He was born of a human Mother. So we cannot call God the "Mother" of Jesus because Jesus has a Mother - the Virgin Mary. People would confuse Mary with God if both were called the Mother of Jesus.
Also, the Bible says that Jesus is the "image of God" (Colossians 1:16). As the old saying goes, "like father, like son"; a son images his father more than he does his mother. So speaking of the first two Persons of the Trinity as the Father and the Son clearly shows that Jesus images the First Person. If we spoke of them as "the Mother and the Son", it would be less clear.
I won't go into an in-depth discussion of this topic here, but suffice it to say that God had a good reason to reveal Himself to us primarily as Father. Nor has he relinquished his maternal perfections; rather he has chosen to reveal them primarily through Mother Church and the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Speaking of the Blessed Virgin, I finally have a healthy relationship with her, my true Heavenly Mother. Though I found I couldn't ultimately "relate to" feminine images of an infinite Supreme Being, I can relate to Our Lady. She is a human being like myself; sinless, yes, but still human. As such, she is also superior to any concept of a "cosmic Christa" or "goddess". They are said to be embodied in all creation, but Mary is a true, flesh-and-blood Woman, embodied in a female body which is now exalted and glorified in Heaven. And she is perfectly good and loving; no dark, vindictive or violent side like many mythological goddesses. We have nothing to fear from her.
I also understand more of the mystery of the New Eve and Mother Church. The absurdity of the idea of Catholic priestesses is clear to me now. Contrary to the claims of extreme feminists, the Church is not at all sexist, and the existence of women priests would not create some wonderful gender-equitable Shangri-la in the world. Many Protestant denominations have had women ministers for decades (some of them for more than a century) and the Episcopalians have had priestesses since the Seventies, but women haven't achieved perfect gender equality yet. Priestesses are not the answer!
Feminism is not the answer, either. When I read feminist literature, I got the impression that feminism has a "messiah complex"; it really believes that its principles, if followed, can save the world. Well, I know of only one Messiah! Only Christ our Lord can ultimately save the world, through His Church. Blessed be the Name of the Lord!
(Return to Part I or Part II)
WORKS CITED 1Pope John Paul II, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, 1994: 4.
2Father Jay Scott Newman, "A Gender Gap in the Church?" The Catholic Answer (May/June 1994) 38.
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