With a church in crisis, why do Catholic women stay?
The story of the dysfunction of the Catholic Church as an institution is now the subject of multiple investigations and copious news coverage worldwide. Tragically, at issue is not just the sexual abuse of minors by clergy or the exploitation of women religious or the exclusion of women from positions of authority and oversight or denying women full use of their gifts. We are now confronting all of this together.
The picture that emerges is stark: In the eyes of the world, the church has lost much of its moral authority.
My part in this story began a few days after the Pennsylvania attorney general released a devastating report describing in detail hundreds of cases of sexual abuse of minors by members of the clergy, when I received an oddly addressed envelope marked “personal.” Inside was a “study guide” claiming to prove that the Catholic Church was “the harlot of Babylon.” We have all likely seen these pamphlets before. This time, however, the sender identified himself, gave me his phone number and added: “It is so clear that Satan is in control of so much of the Catholic Church: now is a wonderful time to get out of Babylon, Rev 18:1-4, God be with you and yours.”
His conviction was impossible to simply dismiss. Is this how others see us now?
I began to notice that anywhere I spoke, when I reflected on our priorities as a church, advocated for a gospel of mercy and inclusion or expounded on the requirements of the Reino de Dios, women young and old wanted to have conversations.
A few months later, as more records of abuse emerged, I joined 3,000 other Hispanic Catholics in Dallas, Tex., for the culmination of the V Encuentro process. Heading there, many of us imagined a time of speaking truthfully, praying together, grieving and healing. Even accounting for over 500 ordained members of the clergy in attendance, it was obvious that more than half of the delegates were women. Yet as the program unfolded, it was challenging to find the community we sought, as few women were included in the liturgical ministries and or in the major talks.
In the hallways, some women expressed outrage, while others seemed simply resigned. Is this how we see ourselves now?
I started comparing notes with other Catholic women who teach or lead ministries in the church. What were they hearing from their communities? Some recounted that their students asked why women would remain Catholic today. Others shared how their elderly parents grieved, unable to participate in Mass or “look a priest in the eye” because of the abuse crisis. One woman lamented the loss of her nephew’s vocation: He had tragically “walked away” from his plans to enter the seminary.
I began to notice that anywhere I spoke, when I reflected on our priorities as a church, advocated for a gospel of mercy and inclusion or expounded on the requirements of the Reino de Dios, women young and old wanted to have conversations. In any part of the country, at large meetings or small, in universities, parishes or classrooms, women came up to me, speaking in whispers. Women who teach, run ministries, parent and study shared their experiences of marginalization and their desire to serve the church and our collective good. They were also explicit about their fear of speaking up. “Why stay Catholic?” was no longer just a question coming from curious outsiders; it was a question we were asking ourselves.
“Why stay Catholic?” was no longer just a question coming from curious outsiders; it was a question we were asking ourselves.
Signs of the Times
One of my students, a 30-something youth minister, recently introduced me to a new term: the “dones.” Thinking I had misheard her, I asked, “Do you mean the ‘nones,’ people who don’t identify as belonging to any religious tradition?”
“No, I mean the ‘dones,’” she said, “Like, in, ‘I’m totally done with the Catholic Church.’”
There was pain in her voice, which soon gave way to tears. Saying “none” could be about disaffection, boredom or the perception of a faith tradition’s irrelevance, but “done” was about betrayal and disillusionment. It was about love and loss.
Melissa Cedillo, a recent graduate of Loyola Marymount University who is now working on issues that affect women, echoed my student’s frustration. “When are we going to have our #MeToo movement?” she asked, referring to the growing willingness in the worlds of business, entertainment and politics to act on women’s allegations of sexual harassment and abuse. We have no analogous community rising to speak on behalf of women in the Catholic Church, she lamented.
In a very practical way, the need to articulate reasons for remaining Catholic as women is also related to the church’s demographic survival and moral relevance. Betty Anne Donnelly, a former lay missioner and philanthropist, told me of her fear that “people’s willingness to learn about and be inspired by the church’s rich social tradition has been fundamentally undermined by the institutional church’s positions on several issues, not the least of which is the church’s failure to avail itself of the tremendous gifts of women in its liturgical life and governance.”
The contributions of Catholic social teaching and all the good works it inspires contribute to society in truly significant ways. Consequently, the church’s ability to grow and thrive in its ministries of compassion and mercy affect the whole world. The imperative to survive as the global Catholic Church is most acute when we think of how the most vulnerable and dispossessed of the earth depend on our work.
The Catholic Church’s ability to grow and thrive in its ministries of compassion and mercy affect the whole world.
What Can We Learn From the Past?
Women are Supreme Court justices and astronauts, surgeons and philosophers, prime ministers and firefighters. And although in many parts of our unjust world women and girls are kept from school and viewed only as necessary for reproduction, there are many of us with education and political voice working against this injustice. The wider culture has come to accept the basic truth that gender has no bearing on abilities or intelligence and cannot be used to curtail our God-given freedom. But today, in many corners of the church, women are not treated with equal dignity and worth. Too often, the structures of the Catholic Church show little openness to meaningful transformation.
This is not a new story. As the formidable Teresa de Jesús set out from Ávila in the 16th century, braving cold and illness to reform a religious order, her every move was controlled by men. St. Teresa was not allowed to study formally, and young priests were appointed to “guide her.” She was consistently made to feel inferior and incapable. But as difficult as Teresa’s life as a Carmelite nun was, religious life was often the only space where a woman in her time could have any education and develop her gifts.
The 20th century church offered something different. Following the Second Vatican Council, many women sought the possibility of theological study, and more than a few persevered to earn advanced degrees. At my own university, the merging of Marymount College and Loyola University in 1973 allowed for the co-education of women and men. Shortly after, the church historian Marie Anne Mayeski joined the faculty as the university’s first woman theologian. Her teaching inspired me, and she suggested I continue my studies. The door of education, once opened, could not be shut again, and we now have three generations of women theologians teaching the fourth.
But getting here has not been easy. In various other Christian denominations, committed students will often receive considerable institutional and financial support for graduate theological education. Catholic women rarely receive any from the church. For a Catholic woman (lay or religious), completing an advanced degree in theology can be a lonely and costly climb.
Today, many women theologians teach priests. We evaluate their work, engage them in the complexity of the Catholic intellectual tradition and help form them for ministry. But in our own parishes, we are at times forced to sit silently by and watch deficient homilies, uninspiring liturgies, neglected communities and abuses of power.
As the young theologian Layla Karst confided to me, “I remember responding to a faculty member’s question about my career goals my senior year in college by expressing my desire to go into ministry and being told that as a woman, my options for this were either to become a nun or become a Protestant or become unemployed.”
Many women theologians teach priests and help form them for ministry. But in our own parishes, we are at times forced to sit silently by and watch deficient homilies, uninspiring liturgies, neglected communities and abuses of power.
What Must Change?
Embedded in the frequent question from students,“Why are you still Catholic?” is a suggestion that there is something very wrong that is apparent to everyone else. Why isn’t it obvious to us? What prevents us Catholics from seeing it?
My attempt to understand this question pointed me in the direction of neuroscience. We Catholics seem to be suffering from a collective case of a condition called anosognosia, “an inability or refusal to recognize a defect or disorder that is clinically evident.” But unlike an individual who has suffered a traumatic brain injury, our problem seems to manifest itself in what the neuropsychologist Katherine Rankin characterizes as the “loss of the ability to accurately characterize one’s own personality and social behavior.” Once I replaced “the patient” with “the institutional Catholic Church,” I found Ms. Rankin’s outline of this condition in an essay for the anthology The Study of Anosognosia to be profoundly helpful.
Anosognosia is a pathological and extreme manifestation of a lack of self-knowledge or self-awareness, which in healthy persons (or in this case institutions) derives from:
1) Introspection: paying particular attention to our internal states and their meaning;
2) Exteroception: observing ourselves and our behaviors from an external, third-person vantage point, identifying group norms and, I surmise, playing an important role in moral reasoning;
3) Memory of a longitudinal self: putting together, through the aid of our memories, the key insights into ourselves and our behaviors that through multiple experiences we come to believe define us.
What lessons might we learn if we apply these categories to the institutional church?
We need introspection. This introspection must be vulnerable and truthful. It must notice how we feel, not avoid it. As an institution, are we joyful? Are we grateful? Do we feel we have clarity? Do we feel capable of doing the work of discipleship? If we feel none of these things, why not? What lies have we been telling ourselves about ourselves?
We need exteroception. If we step outside of ourselves and adopt the perspective of others beyond our institution, what do we find? Are we doing what it takes to be part of a moral order predicated on the inviolable dignity of every human person? How is that possible if we exclude half of the human race, victimize the vulnerable and cover up what we have done? What profound inconsistencies do others see in us that we fail to see in ourselves?
We need memory of who we are. We know how to do this. We have a rich bounty of memories from two millennia. From these, we can relearn and recalibrate who we are. The return to the sources, the ressourcement that guided much of the theological thought of the 20th century, did this. It allowed us to see more clearly and embrace more robustly Jesus’ words and actions as the best markers of our communal identity. Our interpolation of myriad ideologies extraneous to the New Testament witness, including patriarchy, mind-body dualism and imperial hierarchical structures, have contributed much to our inability to know ourselves as disciples of a very unambiguous teacher who revealed to us a very unambiguous God.
According to Ms. Rankin, overcoming anosognosia can also be aided by “explicit communication from others.” The mortal danger our Catholic Church is in right now has many authors: the priest who abuses a child, the bishop who covers it up, the pastor who expects “Sister” to keep the parish humming and his food on the table, the priest whose homily makes young people leave never to return, the closed rooms where the few make decisions for the many.
This cursory list reveals that the “others” whose explicit communication may be helpful include women. But do women continue to be excluded by the power structures of the church precisely because our perspective is destabilizing to a false self-image? Ms. Rankin would probably think so. As she explains, “[p]atients who consistently reject explicit feedback about their behavior and personality are more likely to have had a multicomponent breakdown of the self-monitoring systems.”
We are experiencing a multicomponent breakdown of the institutional church’s self-monitoring systems, and we need urgent intervention.
We are experiencing a multicomponent breakdown of the institutional church’s self-monitoring systems, and we need urgent intervention.
Why Are You Still a Catholic?
The hope-filled answers to this question from Catholic women I trust may provide the very medicine that the anosognosia affecting our church desperately needs. Clinicians refer to cases of anosognosia as a “loss of insight.” So what are some insights, derived from our communal memory, that we can offer in order to heal our Catholic Church?
Be church. Shannon Green, the director of the CSJ Institute at Mount Saint Mary’s University in Los Angeles, is very clear: “As I have walked with college students for the past 15 years, I have returned to the question, ‘What makes good church?’” she tells me. We need to refocus on “church as ‘People of God,’ as radical hospitality, as pilgrims, as humble, vulnerable disciples who lay down our lives in radical friendship for our neighbor.”
Honor the incarnation. The theologian Nancy Pineda-Madrid points out that “the Catholic faith is and can be so much better than a lot of what we see today. While the church is infused by God’s grace, it also commits sin.” This is critical self-awareness. “I remain Catholic,” she tells me with conviction, “because, as a theologian, I have spent my life seriously studying this tradition and, in the process, have gained an ever-increasing appreciation of its enormous treasure. What we believe is extraordinary: We believe in the incarnation of the divine in human flesh, which is the greatest expression of God’s love for every human being. Wrestling with our beliefs will transform us and our world.”
Show up and act. A religious sister I greatly admire shared her grief with me while simultaneously insisting that her “first loyalty is to Jesus Christ and to being a faithful disciple during these difficult times. I cannot answer for those in power; I can only answer for my own actions, my own beliefs, my own response to the needs and the people I encounter each day. So I will continue to ‘show up’ as a Catholic and affirm my identity and my vocation.”
Make room for others. “Communion is an act of trust, caring for the local issue while holding on to the larger principles of speaking a common language of human life together,” the theologian Susan Abraham stressed in a note from the school of theology where she is dean. “Since this is a dynamic and organic notion, no blueprint exists for it because it arises in continuing dialogue and recognition of claims being made.”
Be a disciple. Emilie Grosvenor finds the deepest reason to remain Catholic in living out her discipleship. “To leave behind my Catholic identity,” she wrote from Scotland, where she is completing her doctoral studies, “would be to disown part of myself, allowing it to be claimed by those against God’s reign who claim to speak on its behalf. When we do our best as disciples to reveal the goodness in the world and in so doing call ourselves Catholic, we prevent the church from being completely defined by false prophets. We allow for hope to break through.”
All of these women give me hope. Our church’s lack of insight, and the breakdown of our own self-monitoring systems, are curable. We cannot allow the very blindness of the condition to keep us from seeking the change that will heal us.
The “others” are here: women, offering themselves in faithful discipleship and with bold vision to renew our communal life and saying “mine too.” The Catholic Church is #MineToo.