Maintaining a Catholic identity as a feminist has been a challenge. There have certainly been times where I have walked away from my tradition frustrated by teachings that are oppressive to women and LGBTQ, but I have always come back. Change doesn’t happen from the outside, right?
Being Catholic is part of my identity, part of my culture; it is just as much a piece of me as my feminist identity. Growing up in a Catholic family and going to Catholic schools shaped who I am today. I embrace Catholic Social Teaching and firmly believe in the foundational message of social justice. And although it may sound strange, going to Catholic mass feels like going home – regardless of the patriarchal messages interwoven into the service.
Becoming a mother, I have had no doubt that I want to raise my daughter Sarah Catholic – another statement that may sound odd on a feminist site – but nonetheless it is true. I think Catholic Social Teaching will be a strong guide for Sarah’s life. I also believe that the faith life of my family played a critical role in the tight knit nature of our relationship and it is important to me that Sarah have that experience. Note that – it is not that I think other traditions would not have the same impact – but rather that this has been my experience and is an experience I want to continue to engage with our family.
We recently moved back to my home state of Ohio and it has had a great impact on our religious lives. We are back in our old stomping grounds, living close to family and down the street from the Catholic church and school I grew up in. My family and friends still attend church there, and the place I once swore never to return to has called me back. We have enrolled Sarah in pre-school and she attends Sunday school each week while Chris and I attend mass.
Our experience as a family in the Catholic setting has had its ups and downs. I cry at some point during the service every week – because of anger over patriarchal messages, joy over engaging a ritual that has brought me comfort, or the experience of reliving moments from my own childhood. My heart swells every time Sarah runs out of her classroom excited to share with me what she’s learned about Jesus, God, and Mary but simultaneously breaks when she asks me why all the priests at church are men.
Before attending Catholic school she would ask me what God “she” looks like, but now she says God “he.” Sarah recently came home from school embarrassed after her teacher corrected her when she insisted that Jesus was a woman – after all, her mother told her so. My efforts to correct God language were a debacle – I had to remind myself she is only four!
This said, Sarah also comes home and tells me why we need to take care of the earth, why we shouldn’t waste, and why it is important to treat everyone with kindness. She also insists that we “give thanks” before meals and pray for justice for the people of the world every night. At this young age, Sarah is already beginning to live out the teachings of Catholic social justice.
Sarah has also come to have a new appreciation for Mary as Jesus’ mother. She is well aware of the many prayers I said to Mary while we awaited her arrival and the finalization of her adoption. This year for Christmas, Sarah insisted on picking out a special gift for me from her – “a picture of Mary.” Sarah has come to understand the important role Mary plays in our own connection.
There is no doubt that I also struggle with the patriarchal and misogynistic messages that are interwoven into the Catholic tradition and how they are impacting Sarah. But I also believe that (although I failed with the God language piece!) I am strong enough to teach Sarah that the foundational messages of the tradition are not oppressive, but rather are about love, community, and justice; they offer values to shape her own life in a way that can have a positive impact our world. In doing so, I believe Sarah will grow into a young woman who will be able to celebrate the beautiful aspects of the tradition while challenging those that are problematic.
No system is without flaws. And as I write this, I fully anticipate being criticized by other feminists. That said, I think maintaining my feminist identity alongside my Catholic identity creates hope and that raising a Catholic feminist daughter will create change.
Gina Messina-Dysert, Ph.D., is Dean of the School of Graduate and Professional Studies at Ursuline College and Co-founder of Feminism and Religion. She has authored multiple articles and the forthcoming book Rape Culture and Spiritual Violence, and is co-editor (with Rosemary Radford Ruether) of the forthcoming anthology, Feminism and Religion in the 21st Century. Her WATER Teleconference, “In Search of Healing: Confronting Rape Culture and Spiritual Violence,” can be accessed here. Gina’s research interests are theologically and ethically driven, involve a feminist and interdisciplinary approach, and are influenced by her activist roots and experience working with survivors of rape and domestic violence. Gina can be followed on Twitter @FemTheologian and her website can be accessed at http://ginamessinadysert.com.