Opinions, Op-Ed

Reconciling Feminism Within Catholicism

It is a distinct point of pride in my family that we are as Irish Catholic (and French Canadian!) as our names suggest: McCoy, O’Neil, Fealy, Ouellet. My mother frequently amused us with stories about how her parents attended separate Catholic parishes. Just a few blocks apart, one was Irish, the other was French, and Lord help the person that strolled up the wrong steps!

This upbringing extended easily throughout our lives. We about did it all—Baptism, Sunday school, Reconciliation, Confirmation, altar serving, the works. And while we now have varying degrees of commitment to our childhood faith, I can say with confidence that faith is an unremovable part of myself. For this reason, I find myself in a perpetually contradictory relationship with the church today.

I recently began a master’s program in reproductive history, and I unequivocally support gender equity. Thus, I find myself struggling, like so many others, to reconcile a fierce belief in equity within an institution that still prohibits all individuals into every level of church leadership. Every time I listen to a homily that glosses over the gendered divisions inherent within the church’s hierarchies, or consciously close my lips so as not to say “for us men and our salvation” during the Nicene Creed, I am again reminded that my birthright is fundamentally different from my brothers’. 

In February 2020, Pope Francis announced that women will continue to be barred from the diaconate. Whether one argues that Pope Francis made a calculated decision to avoid upsetting more conservative members of the global church, or whether it reflects his personal beliefs, I find it harder not to feel like I am betraying my integrity by remaining a church member. I do not say this lightly, as I am well aware of the countless good deeds that the church continues to do. Positive steps have been made and certain things have, undeniably, changed for the better.

Yet, I cannot deny the contradictions, slights, and disillusionments that are too glaring to chalk up to the defense that “nothing’s perfect.” It’s true, nothing is perfect, but it is concerning when imperfection becomes the smoke screen that covers up a refusal to do better. Most of us do not ask for perfection, but we do ask for transparency and a willingness to fix what is broken. We especially ask for equal respect and dignity, which I find to be nearly impossible when roughly half of the church population is systemically disenfranchised. Many would disagree with me and that is okay. As Mike Lewis wrote in his August 2020 article, these issues have sadly rendered more fissures than any of us would like to believe—though I imagine many of us sincerely hope that we will still find a way to sit down at one table again. 

Last fall, Boston College announced its C21 Student Voices Project: The Future Church. I was struck by the simplicity of the questions in the survey. One, what challenges do you think the church is facing in today’s world? Two, what hopes do you have for the future of the church? My initial reaction was less than positive. The questions themselves seemed only to underscore the church’s willful blindness to repeated requests for change. I cannot believe that because Jesus did not “call” a woman to be his disciple over 2,000 years ago, that women and girls today are fated to remain disenfranchised, or that I or any other female-identifying individuals are any less equal to the task of walking alongside our brothers. 

In University President Rev. William P. Leahy, S.J.’s message to the campus community, he writes that BC is the response to a call “from a world that has experienced an explosion of knowledge, but not a corresponding growth in understanding; a world that too often lacks trust in its leaders and faith in its institutions.” In many respects, I absolutely agree. The world has experienced an explosion of knowledge, resulting in the fundamental belief of every person’s right to participate in all levels of church leadership. There is no longer any good reason (if there ever was) why this change cannot happen, and to persist in blocking female-identifying people from ascending to the height of their potential is reflective of the church’s own corresponding lack of understanding. 

As a white, cisgender, middle-class woman, I recognize that my journey and concerns are reflective of a privilege that historically comes simply by being a white, cisgender, middle-class woman. I do not intend to represent anyone other than myself, and I know that for those who are people of color, LQBTQ+, and gender nonbinary have concerns and needs different from mine. I also realize that I am one person in a long line of others who have pushed against these very limits. This fight, sadly, is long and old. 

This is my hope, then, for the future of the Catholic Church: that every person, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender status, or any other characteristic, can still have the opportunity to feel like an equally cherished member of the church community. Because until that happens, I am afraid that it will be hard to take the church and its teachings seriously. The faith and trust that Leahy asks for have still yet to be earned. 

Featured Graphic by Olivia Charbonneau/ Heights Editor

April 3, 2021