Why do you stay? It is a question I am often asked – but not because I am in an abusive relationship; rather because I am Catholic…and a feminist. Now please let me say up front, this is an inappropriate and unfair question to ask in any circumstance. For me, the question is particularly frustrating because it denies that my work as a feminist within my religious tradition has value. And, it implies that my faith is “less than.”
Maintaining this dual identity is a challenge. There is an incredible lack of support from both communities and I often find myself struggling to balance my faith and feminism. However, both are critical pieces of who I am. And while many argue it is only a feminist act to leave a patriarchal religious tradition, I believe it is also a feminist act to stay.
As a first generation American, I was raised in a very traditional Sicilian Catholic household. Along with such an upbringing, came many misogynistic undertones and even more unrepentant discriminatory teachings. As a child, I never knew that I could question this dogma, and as a young adult, I thought I had no option other than to identify as a “recovering Catholic.”
Although it is embarrassing to admit, I was in college before I realized that God is not a man. Growing up saying the “Our Father” and making the sign of the cross, it never occurred to me that God could be anything but a man. However, as a budding feminist at a public university, I granted myself permission to challenge such misogynistic notions. Exposed to new ideas and challenged on questions I never thought to ask, I experienced my first wave of doubt. I began a journey that allowed me to explore ideas that seemed condemned by my faith. I recognized my value beyond the roles of wife and mother; I embraced the ability to make choices about my body; I found my voice that had been silenced for so long. With my feminist awakening came the idea that I could no longer be Catholic. And so, I walked away from my faith.
It was my work with survivors of rape and domestic violence – and eventually my mother’s death as a result of such violence – that brought me back to Catholicism. As I listened to women question God’s intention in their abuse, I was compelled to find an answer that revealed no god would demand such a cross to bear.
Entering graduate school and diving back into the Catholic tradition I began working to brush away misogynistic interpretations to reveal a foundation that acknowledged what I believed deep down. Having faith does not mean embracing teachings that deny my personhood. Rather, belonging to such a tradition means honoring my place in a larger community by working towards justice.
Since my epiphany I have been committed to dialogue about the ways that religion honors the value of women; to work through problematic interpretations that have been utilized to oppress and condone gender based violence. The books, Faithfully Feminist and Women Religion Revolution, are a continuation of these efforts.
I often refer to my work with my feminist sisters, and especially Xochitl Alvizo and Jennifer Zobair, as my act of contrition. There is no doubt I have committed a series of both feminist and Catholic sins in my lifetime – and with such an identity, I continue to tow a line that sometimes is very difficult to navigate.
In one of my essays appropriately titled “Confessions,” I confess both feminist and Catholic sins.
I confess that I want my daughter to embrace our Catholic identity.
I confess that I fear being Catholic will make my daughter will feel “less than” because of her gender.
I confess that when my daughter talks about God “He” I correct her and tell her it is God “She.”
I confess that I still imagine God as male.
Collaborating with feminist sisters and participating in sharing the stories of other feminists who engage in my struggle has provided a sense of salvation. This volume is a powerful way to not only speak our truths, but also for others to recognize they are not alone in their experiences. In addition, I believe it will allow conversations to continue and evolve around the possibilities that do exist for women living within boundaries.
So, why do I stay? I “stay” because I believe my faith has feminist value. I “stay” because I believe my tradition offers me the tools to work for positive change. I “stay” because I believe that as a feminist, I have the responsibility to uproot oppression wherever it exists – and that includes religion.
I confess, I am a Catholic feminist, and though some may not understand how these identities intersect, I cannot separate them. I am not one or the other. I am both.
Gina Messina, Ph.D. is an American feminist scholar, Catholic theologian, and activist, and is Co-founder of FeminismandReligion.com. She writes for The Huffington Post, and is author or editor of 5 books including Women Religion Revolution and Jesus in the White House. Messina is a widely sought after speaker and has presented across the US at universities, organizations, conferences and on national platforms including appearances on MSNBC, Tavis Smiley, NPR and the TEDx stage. She has also spoken at the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations to discuss matters impacting the lives women around the world. Messina is active in movements to end violence against women and explores opportunities for spiritual healing. Connect with her on Twitter @GMessinaPhD, Facebook, and her website ginamessina.com.