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Forget Marriage, Why Do Women Stay Catholic???!!

Last week I posted an argument defending, in part, marital monogamy in the strict sense. Nothing, monogamish. The responses were illuminating and provocative. And, I very much appreciated the engagement. Something that stood out was how deeply gendered some of the responses were. In some replies there was an insistence that monogamy worked better for women than for men. Others wondered about the power differential between the sexes and the effect that might have on whether being monogamish was deemed a virtue.The cacophony of responses provoked another question for me, Was I just being a girl, some state of nature response, defending monogamy? Or Was I being Catholic? Or better yet, Was I being a Catholic girl defending monogamy? And, how might these two identities be related. That is, how might being a 21st century woman still committed to the Catholic Church resonate with a commitment to monogamy. Not in some doctrinal way (i.e. the Churchs long commitment to the sacramentality of marriage) but rather how might Catholic women particularly have learned to navigate the pain, love, loyalty and betrayal that comes with remaining Catholic in ways that make them particularly well suited for arguing for monogamy? Indeed, perhaps the challenges of staying committed as women to the Catholic Church are echoed, in some ways, by the challenges of staying committed to a marriage. This might not be natural law but it certainly is part of the Catholic tradition.Recently, Cindy Peabody in an essay in America Magazine (July 19, 2001) Staying Power: What Keeps Women in the Church? called on Catholic women to talk more candidly about our relationship with the Catholic Church. Indeed, she describes how eager many Catholic women are to do just that: I am no longer surprised, she says, when women jump at the chance to talk about the muddled mess of feelings they have toward the church. Love, betrayal, commitment, tradition, shame, anger, compassionwhat do we make of all this? Sounds suspiciously like the nettled complexity of a marital commitment, no? And, so I began to see how my commitment to monogamy is echoed in my feminist commitment to the Catholic Church. Im reminded of a conversation I once had with Patricia Hampl about staying Catholic in which she said, "There's just too many things I love so I cant leave." Oddly, Peabody (like Savage regarding monogamy) describes how a young Catholic colleague lamented that staying in was getting harder. She believes that a whole new order of church is in the offing. But, perhaps, staying in might be getting easier; there are now generations of women who have figured out how to stay a part of the Catholic Church with integrity. A generation, at least (!) who understands that being a Catholic woman is not a tag for false consciousness. They are, as Peabody (quoting Chastiser) calls them rebuilders.those who take what other people only talk about and make it the next generations reality. These are the superstars of the long haul. They give up prestige and money and build the new world right in the heart of the old. Perhaps as Catholic women wrestle with the challenges of monogamy they can consult some of their own success in staying committed to another vexed institution, the Church.

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Thank you for this continuing conversation. I thought this bit was a little murky, though:"But, perhaps, 'staying in' might be getting easier; theres now generations of women who have figured out how to stay a part of the Catholic Church with integrity."I'd be interested to know exactly what they've figured out and how it has integrity.

I get the analogy, but I dunno ... the Church sure doesn't hug back.

My problem isn't with the Church. It's with the clergy, mainly the hierarchy, and most especially the Vatican. I have mainly contempt for the latter and really don't care too much about what the bishops think because this generation of them have generally failed in their teaching responsibilities, not to mention the failure of their old boy culture which made the sex scandal possible in the first place. As far the lower clergy goes, yes, there are some fine priests, but I am disappointed that generally they show little inclination to challenge their bishops when the bishops are clearly wrong. The nuns, God bless what's left of them, remain strong and generous, and I respect them for it.But I never did "believe in" the pope or bishops or clergy, so I don't feel that the Church has failed me. I believe that the Church -- the whole -- is the gift of God, its heart is the Eucharist and the failings of the clergy, even their depravity in some cases, can't alter that. All the trashy parts of the Church can't possibly destroy what is good in it: the whole sacramental system, the grace it channels and the holiness of some of its members -- it's still a wonderful deal.

There are many paradoxes here. Women have always been in the forefront of the church of goodness and mercy. Just look at the end of Paul's letter to the Romans. What wonderful history was wiped out by patrology. Women became nuns to escape the oppression of marriage or the lack of a career ladder in society. Lay women have always been the most active in the parishes while lay men have shied away. The stumbling block for women has been the clergy. Now that the clergy is doing a rapid fade, women will fill that gap as they have done historically. Women have always done so much. What they have been deprived of is the right to tell their story. The deluge of professional works in theology and other fields is a twentieth century phenomenon. Men used to dominate psychology. Now it is a rare male in psychology studies. Women now dominate theology, the most chauvenistic field. When that tsunami fully hits....wow!!!

There's a thread in dotcommonweal about a Gallup poll that touches on this.It's my sense that people identify closely with their social environment and tend to develop their ways of feeling and thinking in sync with it. Since Catholicism is for most contemporary American Catholics only a small part of their social environment, how they think and feel about it will inevitably be strongly influenced by the general culture, which has very few moral absolutes and favors a sort of benign agnosticism. Their general cultural attitudes, on the other hand, will likely be very little influenced by their Catholicism.Of course, this poses a problem for American Catholic women, because the general American culture makes demands that go counter to what the institutional church demands. Most women will (as most men will) side with the culture, rather than with the Church. But if they're cultural Catholics, they'll very much want to have their cake and eat it too. The natural way of doing this will be to say that the institutional Church is simply out of touch, behind the times, run by celibate old men, etc., and so they can simply ignore the anti-American bits of Catholicism in hopes that in a generation or two those celibate old men will have died off and been replaced by enlightened women and men. The Church will come to them.That's perfectly rational. Not realistic, perhaps, but it solves the problem of how to remain a Catholic while refusing to do and believe what the Pope and bishops tell them they must.That may sound extremely critical, but, really, I'm very sympathetic. It's got to be hard.

The "why" I stay Catholic is because I believe in Jesus and what he teaches in the Gospels and because I buy into the claim that we're the Church that Jesus created. The "how" I stay Catholic is more complicated: First I had to let go of the idea that the Church, as reflected in the pronouncements of the hierarchy, is right about everything. That was actually kind of hard. I had to embrace the idea that I am as much the Church as our bishops and priests are. I need to be honest and open about where I disagree with the hierarchy (like on women's ordination) and not just secretly disagree and keep it to myself. I need to teach my daughters differently on issues where I think our Church is wrong, so they'll be off to a good start when it comes time to think these things through for themselves. To the extent I can, I support reform movements working to change the Church from within. I take inspiration from women leaders in our Church and from the men who support them.All of these things help me stay Catholic. What helps me the most, though, is going to Mass regularly; when I worship with fellow Catholics in community, that gives me such satisfaction that these very substantial issues fade into the background and it's all worth it.

"But if theyre cultural Catholics, theyll very much want to have their cake and eat it too. The natural way of doing this will be to say that the institutional Church is simply out of touch, behind the times, run by celibate old men, etc., and so they can simply ignore the anti-American bits of Catholicism in hopes that in a generation or two those celibate old men will have died off and been replaced by enlightened women and men. The Church will come to them."I wonder if there isn't some middle ground between "cultural" Catholics and whatever other kind there is ("real" Catholics?).Certainly, there have been times when the Church WAS out of touch and leadership from the clergy and hierarchy was very poor. The Church's response to any number of movements , institutions, and individuals. You can insert your own examples, but the ones that come to my mind are:1. The repression of the beguine movement in the Middle Ages2. Ignoring complaints about monastic abuses on the eve of the Protestant Reformation3. The repression of Galileo, whom the Church generally understood was correct in his astronomical theories, but didn't want him publishing it until it could get its theological ducks in a rowIn my own experience, the Church's teachings about marriage and sexuality need to be refined, not to be less "anti-American," but to help couples for whom pregnancy creates grave risks and older couples whose relations are curtailed by illness lead holier lives.I also think the Church is struggling with its teaching about homosexuality, but messages from various official channels don't always mesh. This confuses people, so it's no wonder they simply ignore what the Church says and go with their heart if they happen to have loved ones who are gay.My experience with the Church as a convert is that many bishops and lay apologists are fundamentalists rule-bound CCC thumpers. Local priests do a somewhat better job trying to put teachings in the context of individual lives. But there just aren't enough of them, and, as they age and go on part-time status, they're harder to get access to.

Sorry. Should be:"The Churchs response to any number of movements , institutions, and individuals has sometimes been inadequate or just plain wrong."

Is perhaps a huge part of the problem the fact that for a very large number of people, the "magic" is gone from Catholicism? The otherworldly sense of the Mass and sacraments is gone both because Latin is no longer used and because in the 21st century, people are no longer as "mystical" as they were in the 1950s. If sticking with the Catholic Church is something like marriage, then it seems to me that all the romance is gone. Of course, marriages can continue long after most of the romance is gone, but on what basis? And on what basis does a "marriage" to the Church continue after the romance is gone?

I know this thread is about why we DO stay, but what makes me most upset about what's wrong, isn't that there are no women priests- though I sympathize deeply with women who are excluded from that calling- but that there are no women homilists. I don't see any good reason at all why we can't read the Gospel and preach at Mass. Why aren't we even allowed to talk?

David (2:14 pm):Yes, I think that for some of us - perhaps many - the theater is very important. It certainly is for me. But it's deeper than that. If the buildings and the services look and feel drab and flat and pedestrian, that almost certainly means that things are drab, flat, and pedestrian to the core. Theologians may like living on bread and water, but some of us - perhaps many, I don't know - would starve.

David Nickol,Surprised that you would take the restorationist tack. The Eucharistic celebration is much more alive than it was pre Vatican II. People are more into it, the readings are more powerful because they are proclaimed not translated. the people sing more and engage each other more and the homilies are better. Vatican II commanded preachers to prepare and to use the readings in the homily. If you think you hear some bad sermons now, you should know that pre-Vatican II was much, much worse.It is not the liturgy. It is the poor example of the clergy that drives people away. Magic is for the stage and good for pomposity. Not for celebrating the life, death and resurrection of Jesus in which we celebrate who we are.

Um, back to women.I had lunch with a friend, a life-long Catholic who went to school to the Ursulines and then a Catholic girls' college. So her faith was formed mostly by women, and while Mass was the centerpiece of the week, apparently there were prayers led by the nuns and religious discussions and lectures by nuns and other women. She worked for many years in a nearby parish--very talented woman who could do everything from accounting to program development--and said she was fortunate to work with two priests who were very collaborative and open to ideas.She said she might be somewhat atypical, but that her upbringing and formaton had given her a very maternalistic (vs. paternalistic) view of the Church and the role women could play in it. In a way, though, her upbringing was pretty typical of an earlier time, when women religious were a mainstay of the faith in newly converted countries, and abbesses particularly were very powerful--many of them depicted with croziers in iconography. This is a heritage women might draw on more.

@Bill (8/5 8:31 pm) - I'm not sure David N was restricting himself to restorationist. I wasn't.

Jean (8/5 10:44 pm), the Church to me has been women, not men. Priests have been somewhere on the periphery, up on the altar, hidden in the confessional, barricaded in the rectory, sealed in the fancy car. I'll bet that's true for a great many American Catholics.

"... the Church to me has been women, not men."Sadly, many men, including the George Weigel (and many of his fundiegelical conservative brothers-in-arms like Chuck Colson) have bemoaned the bad effects of the "feminization" of the church, which they say drives men away.I guess the underlying assumption is that women are harder to drive away. And if so, perhaps they are more tenacious in their faith. And if that's true, then I have to wonder, like Irene, why they don't get to talk more.

Jean, I think a much more intensely male church would be extremely unattractive. I suspect males or being responsible for turning it into the humdrum (though sometimes very beautiful - chant, Gothic cathedrals, vestments, etc.) thing it was before Vatican II and likewise for turning it into the pedestrian, bland, almost sterile thing it's become since.

David is entitled to his view of pre and post VII liturgy and I think he's way off base.But, I wish this thread would have been only answers from women - and more of them!

"But, I wish this thread would have been only answers from women and more of them!"Agreed, but until more women weigh in (a phrase all women should hate, BTW), I'm happy to take up the slack by thread-hogging to keep the quantity of comments up, if not the quality."I think a much more intensely male church would be extremely unattractive. I suspect males or being responsible for turning it into the humdrum (though sometimes very beautiful chant, Gothic cathedrals, vestments, etc.) thing it was before Vatican II and likewise for turning it into the pedestrian, bland, almost sterile thing its become since."I'm a former spikey Episcopalian who gets excited whenever anyone breaks out a thurifer, and I'm happy the local parish started ringing the bells at the consecration. However, I've been in lovely homes where the hospitality was cold ... and in hovels where the hospitality was the apex of graciousness. I don't think God fails to show up because He doesn't like the decor.

What's this about "more intense" maleness in the Church? In which parts of the Church? Has anybody looked objectively lately at the way cardinals dress? Silk and lace dresses for everyday and outside of formal ceremonies? Come off it.

I'm puzzled, Ann. Are you suggesting that if a man wears a robe he's a woman?

I'm suggesting that in this day and age when men in Western cultures do not wear silk and lace dresses in the daytime in non-ceremonial settings, that the cardinals' exceptional dressing leads me to wonder about their masculinity. There, I've said it. Let's not distort what I've said, please.

Good heavens, Ann, I asked because I wanted to understand, not distort.I don't think masculinity and femininity are polar opposites. The polarity is probably largely socially constructed. I guess in a way, that's what you're saying. One reason a man might be willing to submit to celibacy is that it isn't as much of a sacrifice for him as it would be for others. (And from that perspective, the position that the Church's requirement for priestly celibacy is unnatural is probably wrong headed.)And the taboo against men wearing dresses, skirts, kilts, etc. isn't universal. It's strong here but not elsewhere - Greece and Scotland, for example.

". . . whats wrong, isnt that there are no women priests- though I sympathize deeply with women who are excluded from that calling- but that there are no women homilists. I dont see any good reason at all why we cant read the Gospel and preach at Mass. Why arent we even allowed to talk?"A few years ago, in a small mountain town in Europe, I did in fact hear a woman give a homily (and a very good one, insofar as my very imperfect knowledge of German could tell). The priest sat to one side, a pleased smile on his face. I have no idea how common the custom is, or whether it's approved at some higher level. And as for the final question -- "why aren't we even allowed to talk?" -- remember that it's not just women who are excluded from giving homilies, but all of us who are of the simple laity (as the saying goes in Rome). Yet another example of Holy Mother Church shooting herself in the foot. . . . .

"... its not just women who are excluded from giving homilies, but all of us who are of the simple laity ..."Be careful what you wish for. Listening to those trained in homiletics can sometimes be bad enough. I went to an Episcopal Church for a time where the priest allowed lay people of both genders to give talks instead of him giving the sermon. Most of these were just dreadful. I felt like I was with the Unitarians again. But a woman trained in homiletics wouldn't do any worse than a priest or deacon--and without the football and golf references.

Why do women stay Catholic? For myself I guess I have an ontological perspective. That is part of my being. Leaving the church would be like tearing away part of myself. I almost cannot imagine it.The only times when I fleetingly consider it are when I read particularly harrowing news on sexual abuse. That is the only reason why I cannot say that I will definitely stay forever. If one day I leave, it won't be over dogma nor doctrine. It won't be rational but out of overwhelming disgust, repulsion and contempt. Concerning the Vatican's doctrinal mistakes, they do not unduly bother me. That, too, will pass. I'm sure that I make plenty of mistakes myself! One day, when the time is ripe, women will be ordained priests, but I do no see that as urgent and dramatic enough to risk schism. Besides the Vatican is not that important. I wish we had trusted leaders, but in the absence of reliable human guides, we can just pray together and do the best we can to hang in together as we wait for wisdom and for better days.

Thank you, Claire. My feelings exactly.

There are "now generations of women who have figured out how to stay a part of the Catholic Church with integrity." --Melissa Matthes"What helps me the most, though, is going to Mass regularly; when I worship with fellow Catholics in community, that gives me such satisfaction that these very substantial issues fade into the background and its all worth it." -- Irene Baldwin Well, like most of the commenters, I am Catholic to the bone, but not of the female persuasion. So I can't comment from first-hand experience on the topic question. However, like many others, male and female, I am weighing my options these days, in light of the bullheaded insistence (or cowardice, take your pick) on imposing the so-called new "translation" of the liturgy. From my perspective, it illustrates the great evil present in today's world. Why? Not because it is such terrible English (which it is), served up by the Vatican word butchers. No. Rather it almost personifies that evil because the process used to create the "translation" was motivated by evil from day one. At root, it is in defiance of the formal documents of an ecumenical council, the highest authority in the Church. And it is being forced upon us at exactly the place where it hurts most: in the Mass. How can we pray with integrity when we know that our liturgy is tainted in this way, and even (probably) by heresy (in the translation of "pro multis")? Yes, we know that the Lord is still present when we celebrate. But we also know that the texts we are using are nothing more than a gigantic power play. And very few, if any, among the clergy (much less the hierarchy) are willing to stand up for the truth. No one will dare utter those fearsome words, "The Emperor has no clothes." Yet he is naked as a jaybird, for all to see. Of course, all of this is piled on top of a series of far more consequential lapses. We ordinary Catholics have been made party to an international criminal enterprise, unwittingly and unwillingly. We came to know about the widespread sexual abuse, and then about its disgraceful cover-ups. And we learned to cardinals accepting (and probably soliciting) bribes, various Vatican officials misappropriating and misusing funds intended for charitable purposes, and money laundering for the Mafia by the Vatican bank, as well as a string of lesser offenses. We have witnessed the "offing" of an Australian bishop for the mere suggestion that we ought to discuss all the possibilities for meeting the priest shortage; while at the same time, no action has been taken against bishops involved in the sexual-abuse cover-ups. But now, our very prayer life is threatened. I, for one, cannot live as a Roman Catholic with any integrity in those circumstances. A long vacation from the Roman Rite may be in my future, but I am not happy about it.

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About the Author

Melissa M. Matthes teaches in the Government/Humanities Department of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.