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Lisa McInerney: How can you be a woman and Catholic?

This question is not born out of contempt, says TheJournal.ie columnist, but is out of genuine bewilderment when you consider the status of women in Catholic doctrine.

Lisa McInerney

IN 1976, in Rolling Stone, the late Hunter S Thompson said “I have never seen much point in getting heavy with … Jesus freaks, just as long as they don’t bother me. In a world as weird and cruel as this one we have made for ourselves, I figure anybody who can find peace and personal happiness without ripping off somebody else deserves to be left alone.”

Whether you’re a lapsed Catholic or an atheist on the up-and-up, the temptation for non-believers is to come down like a Biblical plague on people of faith, often with the same vehemence so unattractive in soapbox preachers. The truth is that what an individual has chosen to believe to help them make sense of this world is no one else’s business (unless, of course, religious belief tries to influence the State, in which case let slip the dogs of war).

And so, with my choosing to make Thompson’s quote my creed, this question is born not out of contempt, but out of genuine bewilderment.

How can you be a woman and identify as a Catholic?

Like many observers, I shook my head in wonder when Pope Francis stood by his predecessor’s condemnation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the largest association of female religious in the United States. Apparently, the sisters have “serious doctrinal problems”, in that they have questioned church teachings on issues like homosexuality and women priests. As far as their superiors in the Vatican are concerned, these questions have been answered already. One might surmise that any suggestion of there being unresolved issues in Catholic doctrine is impertinent to the point of heresy.

“Sleeve-rolling empathy”

Especially if the ones asking the questions are female. The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith sternly noted that the sisters’ activities were powered on “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.” I can’t quite get rid of the ridiculous mental image of a battalion of dungaree-clad, Dworkin-reading nuns. It’s kind of marvellous.

Silly imagery aside, those of us who possess a kind of sleeve-rolling empathy will, I think, naturally identify more with the LCWR – whose members do a lot of work in the community, amongst the poor, and in fostering positive relationships and thoughtful dialogue with a rapidly changing world – than we will with the Vatican congregation, who appear in this instance as stiff-robed dinosaurs more concerned with keeping Catholicism suspended in joyless stasis than in allowing it grow as a living religion.

To deny one’s own representatives the chance to follow their calling as they see fit – which for the LCWR involves active community participation – seems peculiar to the extreme. “Less action, more prayer” cuts quite a contrast with Christ’s own behaviour, he whose legend was defined by his works among the poor, the sick and the scorned, and his radical political status. No one changes the world by sitting at home with a greasy string of rosary beads.

And yet the harsh truth is that it is the Holy See’s prerogative to curb the activities of the LCWR. The Church is, after all, their club. They make the rules.

That sounds like a rather flippant, even callous statement. And yet it’s true. You do not have to subscribe to organised religion to follow Christ’s teachings, but you do have to follow the rules if you want to make Catholicism your life’s work. You can’t turn up on the football field dribbling a basketball and saying your way works better. The Church couldn’t really be any clearer on its position on gender politics. The boys are in charge. A woman’s place is in service to a higher power: God or her husband. And that’s that.

“Do they realise how little respect their faith says they’re entitled to?”

And yet there are female Catholics. Perhaps, as in the case of the LCWR, they are faithful and driven women, hoping that by good works and patient service, they will re-shape the fetid organisation from the inside out. Perhaps they’re simply so removed from their Holy Book and the ancient men presiding over its translation that they don’t realise how little respect their faith says they’re entitled to. Perhaps, as is the trend here in Ireland, many women who identify as Catholics simply enjoy the comfort of its traditions, without espousing the bulk of its teachings. Pick and choose Catholics. Mass at Christmas. Stained glass-lit weddings and wetting the baby’s head.

Should the Church’s decision to deliver the LCWR into the hands of Archbishop Sartain in Seattle for reform not serve as a wake-up call for those women who call themselves Catholics?

Not only is the Church’s decision to reform the LCWR indicative of how resistant it is to real change, but it makes it blindingly obvious how it views female initiative in general. The sisters’ activities were linked to radical feminism, because in the eyes of their superiors in the Vatican, no female initiative can grow without some sort of angry, anti-man agenda.

The nuns, in short, were getting too big for their dainty size fives; the burning of secret and shameful underthings could only be the next step.

“Active works by nuns is identified as treacherous”

So here we have a church that refuses to entertain the notion of female priests, that identifies active works by nuns as treacherous, that has a long, cruel history of female subjugation, that can only accept the messiah as human-born if it was to a virgin child. That here at home has tried to halt anything it believes undermines the Holy Roman Patriarchy – divorce, contraception, abortion – that has tended a culture of shame that incarcerated thousands of young women for being sexual beings, that in turn incarcerated their children for being born to sluts and sinners.

Are we now expected to feel surprised that the Church has subdued the LCWR? No. Rules are rules, and it should not be a shock to anyone to realise that the LCWR, in doing good deeds and fostering a culture of acceptance and love, broke the rules.

And so the question is not what the Catholic Church is doing to its women, but what women are doing in the Catholic Church.

I still maintain that Hunter S. Thompson was right: it’s no one’s business what anyone chooses to believe to keep them sane, so long as they’re not hurting anyone in its execution.

And yet that bewildering question remains: why do women devote their lives to an organisation that continues to see them as little more than a dangerous nuisance?

Read more of Lisa McInerney’s columns here>

Read: Pope backs report critical of ‘radical feminist’ US nuns>

About the author:

Lisa McInerney

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