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The wages of tolerance


Catholic women who stay

By Alice McDermott

I could no more stop being Catholic than I could stop being a native New Yorker or of Irish descent, my parent's child or my children's mother. Being Catholic is a condition of my being. It might as well be genetic. Catholicism is my faith, my culture, my heritage. The Church is my social community and my spiritual sanctuary. It is the source of the very language with which I contemplate life, and death, give thanks, seek comfort, define and comprehend the substance of things hoped for.

To leave the Church for another—less sexist, less maddening—religious institution would save me a lot of anguish but also place me in what would feel like a permanent state of exile. There would be, for the rest of my days, a lingering disappointment, a loss of authenticity, a sense of failure—the failure of my love for the Church, as well as the failure of the Church itself to hear the voices of those who love it.

Simply put, women choose to stay because we love our Church. Because it is and will always be our Church. But to say we cannot leave does not eliminate our anguish as we stay. Rather, it is our longing to stay in the Church that makes our appeals for change all the more urgent. It is our full understanding of how losing the Church would diminish us that fuels our passion for its reform.

I—and many of us, I believe—will not leave the Catholic Church. What I, and many of us, fear is that the Catholic Church will leave us.

NEARLY 20 years ago, when I was first being tagged as a somewhat public Catholic, the question came up in a telephone interview with a reporter for a New York newspaper. It was couched in the usual terms: As a feminist, as a thinking person, as a modern person, how can you remain a practicing Catholic in light of your Church's archaic and oppressive attitude toward women?

My impulse then was to look for a metaphor the poor guy could comprehend, an impulse, by the way, he attributed to my career as a fiction writer, but one that I attribute to my life as a Catholic. (Consider how often Jesus says, The Kingdom of Heaven is like. . . .)

The reporter had already told me that we shared similar backgrounds—Brooklyn born, second-generation Irish-American—so I told him that for us Catholic women, the hierarchy of our Church was sometimes like a dearly loved old Irish uncle. One of those smart, witty, generous types who have loved you since your birth, who would give whatever he had to insure your welfare, who throughout your life was there to comfort you in distress and to rejoice with you in your triumphs, to offer counsel, wisdom, the occasional 20 bucks. A man you love with all your heart, who loves you with all his heart, but who will, on occasion, say "kike" or "wop" or "chink." Or expound on the inferior intelligence of women or blacks or the non-Irish in general. A good and generous man with a maddening streak of bigotry that you can only attribute to the limitations of his own particular history and culture. A thoroughly good and generous man who nevertheless, on occasion, when he opens his mouth, makes you roll your eyes in dismay or close them in despair.

When the Church defends its position on the ordination of women, I told the reporter, the Catholic women I know roll their eyes, sometimes close them in despair. We are embarrassed by the bigotry, the contorted theology, the simplistic justifications. We wish it were otherwise. But still we love the old dear. We see him as better than his flaws. We tolerate, we even forgive, because we love him and the essential part he has had in our lives.

The reporter and I laughed about the analogy—he did indeed have just such a beloved, bigoted uncle. I felt myself cleared of all charges of being either a phony feminist or a timid Catholic woman content in my oppression. I was neither stupid nor self-hating, I was simply, as so many women are, benignly tolerant of the foibles of certain, beloved men.

Benign tolerance. That's how many of the practicing Catholic women I know view our Church's attitude toward us. A benign tolerance of what is, after all, only historical, cultural, institutionalized bigotry. I'll leave it to others more well versed in Church doctrine than I to parse the Church's official reasoning regarding its failure to ordain women, but for most of us out there in the pew, in the schools, in the midst of Catholic families, of our Catholic lives, much of it sounds like the rationale of bigots.

Yes, sure, there were no women at the Last Supper. There were no Irishmen, either, but that hasn't stopped them from becoming priests. There were, in fact, only Jewish men at the Last Supper. There was at least one married man. I'm pretty sure there was no one over 60. Why do these facts have no bearing on the requirements for the priesthood? Why only gender?

What is it but bigotry that would bar Elizabeth Seton, Flannery O'Connor, Dorothy Day, Teresa of Avila, the very woman who said, "My soul doth magnify the Lord," from delivering a sermon at a Sunday morning Mass simply because of her sex? What is it but bigotry that claims that we Catholics, who can see full humanity, body and soul, in a collection of embryonic cells, can't see Christ in the figure of a woman on the altar? That we, who can see, as Mother Teresa saw, the face of Christ in the poorest of the poor, would scratch our heads in dismay and revert to paganism at the sight of a woman consecrating the Eucharist? What is it but bigotry that claims that we who are one body in that bread are nevertheless irreversibly divided, male and female, and the female is forever the lesser of the two?

It's bigotry, and we Catholic women know it. We roll our eyes or close them in frustration and shame, or in benign tolerance. We shake our heads at each other—Catholic women young and old—over the intransigence of our Church, even as we hold fundraisers and plan liturgies, raise Catholic children, run Catholic schools, dedicate our spring breaks, our summers, our youth, our lives to the care of the sick, the elderly, the poorest of the poor, to prayer and sacrifice—to our Church itself.

A few years ago, my daughter's religion teacher asked the class how many sacraments there were and my daughter offered the reply, "Six for women, seven for men." Her teacher was a nun who has been teaching Catholic schoolchildren for somewhere between three and four centuries, and so it was with some dread that I asked my daughter, as she relayed the tale, how Sister had replied. "She laughed," my daughter told me. "She laughed and said, 'You're right about that.'" (Later I corroborated the tale with the good Sister herself. "She was right," she said—this woman who had given her youth, her middle age, and now her old age to the Church. "No matter how you look at it," she said. "There are seven for men and six for women. It's the truth.")

Benign tolerance. We women are good at it. We practice it in offices and on committees, with troublesome neighbors and elderly parents, with children, of course, and boyfriends and—perhaps most universally—spouses. We are particularly good at it when it comes to the men we love. We roll our eyes. We shrug. Oh, that's just him. We keep the peace, we play along. We seldom weigh the cost.

Another metaphor comes to mind. This one anecdotal:

Some years ago I spent a few months as a writer in residence at a small college in the South. One of my colleagues there was a charming, brilliant woman who taught literature part-time. Although she was 20 years older than I was, we, too, shared a similar background—she was Chicago Irish Catholic—and similar opinions about literature and politics and life in general. Her husband was a Southern lawyer—also charming and intelligent, a marvelous storyteller, with an encyclopedic mind for the region and its history. They invited me to join them one evening for a cocktail reception, a fundraiser for an artists' group, and as we pulled onto the estate where the fundraiser was held, a parking attendant flagged us down and then leaned into the car to explain where we were to park. My friend's husband listened politely to the man and then thanked him generously. And then just as we were pulling away, rolled up his window and declared jovially, "Well, there's one dumb nigger."

Sitting behind her in the car, I saw my friend flinch. And then she turned and looked at me. And rolled her eyes. Later, she explained that her husband, who had many dear black friends, who had great respect for black people in general, simply could not shake the habit, the tradition, the heritage of racism—much as she wished he would. He was a good man with a blind spot, a flaw. In a conspiracy of benign tolerance—she clearly loved her husband, and I liked him, too—I assured her I understood.

And yet, no one who knows the history of the South, the legacy of racism's cruelty and injustice—one that haunts and diminishes this country still—could argue that such racism is anything but a grave moral error. Or that benign tolerance, in this regard, seems a moral error as well.

How then, is it different for Catholic women and our Church?

The scandal that, as the press likes to say, "rocked the Catholic Church" was a lesson in the insidious nature of our own benign tolerance. Suddenly, the bigotry that is at the heart of the institution of the priesthood of our Church was not something to be dismissed as inevitable, to be excused in favor of a focus on the Church's good intentions, to be tolerated as comfortable tradition. The bigotry that divides humanity in two and makes one-half worthy of full participation in the life of the Church and the other less than worthy, is the very foundation of the logic that allows a priest's reputation to take precedent over a child's pain, that allows a parent's outrage to be dismissed in favor of the institution's good name. A Church that can deny an individual full participation in its life, in its sacraments, in the liturgy at its center because of gender alone has already set the logical groundwork for a denial of any individual's voice on the basis of age or nationality or status in the community. It is an institution whose moral authority is already compromised by hypocrisy. It is a Church with a fatal, moral flaw.

This is not a matter for benign tolerance—much as we who love the Church, who do not want to "give rise to antagonism," wish it were so. It is a matter of grave moral error, the crack in the foundation of the institution of the Church that may well bring it down.

The failure to ordain women may well bring down our Church, not merely because of its practical implications, not merely because we are a sacramental people and the current, dire shortage of male priests threatens the dissemination of the sacraments, but because it is, simply, morally wrong to deny fully half the population of our Church their full participation. Because it is morally wrong to let cultural tradition, the hunger for power, simple fear, keep our Church, our priesthood, from the full realization of Christ's word. Because we would be a better Church, a better people, a stronger force in the world if we let go of our bigotry.

And let us not skip lightly over that last consideration: a stronger force in the world. The United States is a country at war, a country where the divide between rich and poor steadily grows wider. More than 100,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed in this war; Hurricane Katrina served to show us what the domestic divide between rich and poor means.

In the cacophony of voices that is our public discourse, I listen for the voice of my Church. I hear it raised in a discussion regarding whether certain political candidates should receive the Eucharist. Then mostly silence. Silence about the morality of this war, silence about the scandal of the infant mortality rate, and the teenage mortality rate, in our inner cities. Silence in the public forum, even silence from the pulpit, where in more than one Catholic Church over the past three years, I have heard the prayer for vocations to the priesthood repeated more frequently, and with more elaboration, than prayers for justice, or peace, or the poor. Can it be, as Fr. Andrew Greeley has said, that the priest scandal has deprived the hierarchy of its moral authority? Or has the fundamental moral error of our Church's attitude toward women, far more long-standing than the scandal, deprived the Church not only of priests but of moral vigor?

We all pray for vocations, but some of us pray knowing there are great priests waiting to serve our Church. Brilliant, compassionate, saintly priests, marvelous teachers, excellent administrators, gifted preachers waiting to serve, to help to restore our maligned priesthood. I have read that Mother Teresa, in her humility, never aspired to the sacrament of Holy Orders, never thought to be elevated to the priesthood. But how often it has occurred to me, especially in the darkest hours of our priest scandal, how Mother Teresa might have elevated our priesthood.

EVERY SUMMER I spend two weeks at a writer's conference at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. Sewanee is an Episcopal university, and every Sunday I am there, I go to the Episcopal service in the lovely chapel. Over the years, the tall and gangly pastor has been joined by a diminutive associate, a woman. I have been moved by her sermons, as well as his. I have taken communion from her hands, as well as his. I have attended with my children, all Catholic school educated, who do not scratch their heads in dismay or laugh at a woman in liturgical robes or seem in the least bit puzzled by her role as priest. I have looked around the church to see congregants of all ages—many of whom, surely, have spent the greater part of their religious lives in a church whose priesthood was limited to men, and some others, as well, who have been baptized by this woman and will never think of the priesthood as either male or female. They all seem to be well and thriving. These services have not filled me with a longing to bolt. I am, as I said, irreversibly Catholic. But they do fill me with hope.

My Church can do this, I think. My Church, our Church, our Roman Catholic Church, can do this. We can suffer the change in our outdated and immoral tradition, we can put aside bigotry, we can be neither male nor female in Christ. We can do this. If only Rome will open the door, find the compassion to hear us, if only we can find the courage to persist in our appeals.

And then another metaphor for women and our Church comes to mind.

The women in the Catholic Church are like the Canaanite woman who asked Jesus to heal her daughter. At first, Jesus said not a word to the woman, and as she persisted in her requests, his apostles asked that he send her away, she was making so much noise. Instead, Jesus turned to the woman and said that he had been sent only for the lost sheep of the people of Israel. Still, the woman persisted, falling at Jesus's feet. Jesus, unrelenting, then told her it wasn't right to take food from the children and throw it to the dogs. Still, the woman persisted. "Even the dogs eat the leftovers that fall from their masters' table," she told him. Finally, Jesus (in modern parlance we would say an inclusive Jesus) responded, "You are a woman of great faith! What you want will be done for you."

We Catholic women, and our Church, are still living through the early part of the parable. We are asking. Our Church is saying not a word, while others among us insist that we be silenced. There is still a long way to go. There is insult and discouragement to bear. But we are women of great faith. We will persist. It will be done for us. It will be done for our Church.

This is why we choose to stay.


Novelist Alice McDermott is the author of Child of My Heart (2002) and Charming Billy (1998), winner of the National Book Award. Her essay here is drawn from her keynote talk September 15, 2005, at a BC forum, "The Church in the 21st Century: Why Women Stay." Also speaking were Associate Professor of Theology M. Shawn Copeland, theology graduate student Meghan Dougherty '05, and Kathleen Power '72, vice president of Avid Technology. BC's Council for Women and the Church in the 21st Century Center cosponsored the event.


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