Why I Stay by Gina Messina


IMG_0007Why 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.

WRR COVERSince 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.

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Categories: General

24 replies

  1. Thank you Gina! I’m with you feminist Catholic Sistah! Thanks for giving words to the experience of many us!

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  2. Thank you Gina. Despite the apparent differences between the Catholic and Anglican churches in regard to women, the underlying patriarchy remains and I identify with you in your struggle and uneasy commitment to ‘stay’. There seems to me no ‘satisfactory’ solution to living ‘as both’ – staying or leaving – both are problematic. But for those of us managing to stay and be feminist in our being we touch lives and give role models that enhance lives – even though we meet all sorts of opposition and discouragement too. I honour your voice and your identity and stand with you in maintaining the being of both.
    May you continue to find the support and resources to manage and even to flourish
    Margaret

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  3. I disagree that asking the question why do you stay is inappropriate. I have never understood why feminist need patriarchal religion.What’s wrong with the Goddess traditions?The christians and catholics I know most definitely believe god is a man and they become outraged if anyone says different.I think it is wishful thinking that these belief systems will change.The men running these churches benefit from patriarchy they arenot giving that up.I think when people ask why do you stay it is probably because they are tired of listening. to womyn complain about the church.The church is what it is and it’s not feminist.

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    • Hello Teresa
      I was interested to read your comment on Gina’s post.
      Sometimes the question about why we stay can come from concern and interest and result in constructive conversation but sometimes the question is a rebuke and that is hard.
      From my perspective there isn’t anything ‘wrong’ with the Goddess traditions but for some of us formed within christian traditions there are other dynamics at play.
      I’m sorry that you haven’t met christians who believe that the divine is not male but I assure you that we exist, including within the catholic church.
      I agree that there are enormous barriers to change but there are reasons that we stay and Gina has explored some of those dynamics. I hope you encounter some more positive expressions from women within christian churches.
      All good wishes
      Margaret

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    • You’re right, the church is not feminist.

      I speak as a christian feminist. I too, had always believed God is a man, but unlike the people you have spoken to, I was not outraged if anyone says different. I now happily embrace the concept the God is both male and female. In my opinion, there is a wonderful film called ‘The Shack’ where God is portrayed as both male and female at different times, for different needs. From my understanding, in the bible, which I realise is controversial over its authenticity, refers to God as both male and female.

      It is a film based on a bestseller – I saw it three times and there was not a dry eye in the house and it was certainly not your traditional mainstream christian film.

      I have embraced the Goddess traditions and incorporate them happily in my life. It does make for difficulties because people want you to be one or the other.

      You are again right, the men running these churches benefit from patriarchy and whether they are not giving it up or not, I am going to make them – even if I have to do it on my own, for the rest of my life.

      To say that I have struggled for the last three years is an understatement.

      This is not to engender sympathy, and feels pertinent to the discussion. I am a survivor of severe childhood sexual abuse and subsequent adult abuse, due to difficulties with boundaries etc. My reliance on first my catholic religion and then my church of england religion, for all its faults, has kept me alive and continues to do.

      However, having moved to a new area due to violence (I refuse to say domestic violence due to it being seen as less serious), I attended my local church of England church and became very friendly with both the Reverend and his wife.

      A few months in, I had a conversation with the Reverend’s wife (although she doesn’t like that term and is now a Reverend in her own right). She told me about the fact that they perform child role play marriage ceremonies, in the church building, officiated by her husband, an ordained Priest.

      I have spent the last three years jumping up and down, writing to all and sundry, involved in rediculous power games with both the church, the education system and now social services along with many others.

      I don’t know if when I print the link, whether it will come up, but I will try:

      http://www.kentonline.co.uk/dartford/news/child-marriages-sparks-bitter-row-128370

      Obviously, I feel strongly about this. With all my academic and personal struggles with abuse, I am under no illusion that this practice is damaging – however harmless and sparkly it looks. I reasoned that I could not stay silent and do nothing, particularly with my history. If I, as an adult, cannot speak out about what I consider abusive practices, particularly in my place of worship, then I have/had no right to criticise the people that turned a blind eye, when stuff was happening to me.

      I say this as lovingly as possible, but saying that an institution “is what it is” is not coming from a point of empowerment.

      Personally, I believe we need a merging of the two – male and female but absolutely not patriarchial male! both the divine masculine and the divine feminine and, whether we like it or not, and I certainly don’t, if male bastions (if that’s the right word) refuse to compromise, then just walking away, is allowing them to continue and I, for one, won’t allow it.

      I have spent many an uncomfortable moment in the two churches near me and at present, am taking yet another break from attending services and have no idea when/if I’ll be back.

      One tangible reason why I think you’re idea wouldn’t work is that we would just be swapping one separatist religion with another and the whole cycle will begin again, but just with different players. I personally don’t want to get so angry with ‘male’ christianity, that I either literally or symbolically cut off the noses of their statues (which was done to us), destroy their ‘temples, (which was done to us, commit mass genocide (which was done to us) etc

      However, if they don’t stop role playing the marriage ceremony in church, in front of a Priest, I might just be tempted! That is my attempt at light hearted humour over an intense subject matter.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Thank you for your comments.I have heard about the movie the shack and I’ll give it a watch.I am sorry for the violence you have experienced and I wish you peace and security.The above link did work and I agree with you.I don’t think the church should be doing play marriages.I am also concerned that all of these play marriages were heterosexual in nature.Also not everyone wants or should be married and there seems to be no discussion about non-marriage.Good luck with this issue.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Have you seen _Christian Goddess Spirituality: Enchanting Christianity_ by Mary Ann Beavis (2015)? It is based on interviews with goddess Christians (including some friends of mine).

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      • Thank you for making me aware of this book.I looked it up and I definitely want to read it.I am curious to see how these womyn combine the two.I am aware of pagan-goddess-wiccan christians,but have wondered how they deal with scripture like Exodus 22:18 “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”.

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      • This is a great book, I reviewed it for Theology and Literature.

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      • Theresa, re “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”, one way to deal with it is to retranslate/redefine the meaning of “witch” to make it very narrow. Another is to say that, while it might have been relevant then, before they knew what we now know about the science of cause and effect, it is no longer relevant. For example, with antibiotics that can cure infants, we no longer need to blame the local midwives for their deaths.

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  4. I think you make some good points in that nothing is black and white. There are many positive things the church has done in the world and also many negative things. I have chosen not to stay with the Catholic church due to the way they covered up the abuse for so many years, but I do believe everyone needs to take their own path and whatever inspires a person to be there better self is a good thing. Thank you for articulating your positive experience.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I have been spending a great deal of time of late thinking about women and the dynamic of enabling. Enabling through silence the abusers of ourselves and other women. Enabling racial hatred because too often we get tired of conflict. Enabling vile, old white men in the highest positions of power by voting for them. Enabling centuries-old destructive patriarchal religion by continuing to stand in its ranks. I am asking myself these VERY difficult questions and it is time for us to ask each other these questions. Feminism, at its heart is full of rebellion, power and humanity.

    We better be asking these questions and encouraging others to do so.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve known ex-Catholics and recovering Catholics. They were mostly very bitter people. You, on the other hand, sound brave and sincere. Your church is not one I’d choose, but if you’ve chosen it, you have your reasons, and you’re courageously following your chosen paths. Good for you! Onward!

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  7. Hi Gina!

    I struggle with the same question as a feminist Muslim, and I wrote about it a year ago on my blog: https://inbetweenamerican.wordpress.com/2017/02/03/why-are-you-still-a-muslim/
    (And recently updated it with current examples.)

    It is hard to justify our reasons, but it’s harder not to believe in what we believe in just because there are questions. Here in DC, I have been a questioner of my faith and how I practice and what it means to be a Muslim really…These questions have made me feel that much more strongly that others should too. I hope you continue to explore these thoughts, it really resonated for me!

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  8. As a budding feminist, I couldn’t remain in my Calvinist church and fortunately found Goddess spirituality. But I believe that we need feminists who are resisting patriarchy EVERYWHERE. So Gina, mazel tov! Continue the good fight. You fight for me and every woman in resisting the sexism and misogyny of the Roman Catholic Church. Yay!

    I’m not sure that “Why do you stay?” is always an inappropriate and unfair question. I believe there are feminists that are curious about how you can pull off what they have been unable to do. In some ways, I long for the stability and comfort of my birth religion. But it damaged me too much to go back. If I asked you that question, it would be to understand the difference between your story and mine. These days it seems that we often make it impossible to have a conversation across difference by immediately assuming disrespect. that’s why I love FAR. By and large, the conversation here is respectful, enlightening, and ultimately empowering.

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  9. Thank you, Gina. Although I’m Lutheran, I often wonder why I stay. But I’ve decided that part of my calling is to resist patriarchal religion from within and bring forth the healthy and positive aspects of Christianity. In fact, I just recently posted “How Can We Dismantle Patriarchy and Still Call God Exclusively ‘He’?” and “How Can We Dismantle Patriarchy While Still Having a Theological Hierarchy?” on my blog. You have allies.

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  10. So much of our religious practice comes from how we imagine “God”. I’m at the point where I understand the Divine Mystery to be neither male or female, but spirit and energy and love. I experience the “incarnation” as happening within all of creation, not just one man, or all men, or men and women. And I have other R.C. friends who also are moving in this direction. We are on a pilgrimage, hopefully ever exploring.

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  11. Thank you Gina. I loved reading you articulate what goes through my head and heart all the time. I cannot bring myself to abandon a tradition that has nourished me in many ways, especially my Franciscan education and my mother’s no nonsense piety, and the rules be damned attitude.The continuing silence of the Catholic bishops deeply disappoints me–but the continuing work of the sisters and people like you help me stay. With your permission, I will reblog this. It speaks to me in all kinds of ways. Dawn

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Beautiful, sensitively written essay. I am not a Catholic. In fact I don’t belong to any formal religious sect. However, it is my belief that religion and feminism can and do co – exist and it would never occur to me to trespass on another’s belief system at this point in my life. Truths are to be found everywhere. My expectation is that my Nature based religious leanings ( mostly rituals written and celebrated by me) would be respected as being authentic and true – for me – just as your Catholicism is for you.

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  13. I no longer identify as a Catholic, but I pray to “the Blessed Mother Always with Us” as my grandmother taught me. Those looking for respectful femnist dialogue across difference might like the book I wrote with Judith Plaskow; In it we explore the hard questions: why did you stay? and how could you leave? https://www.amazon.com/Goddess-God-World-Conversations-Embodied/dp/150640118X

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  14. Teresa – for some reason, I cant seem to reply under your comment.

    When I wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury about this, his correspondence secretary, Andrew Nunn replied: “As far as I am aware the circumstances in which two five year old boys or girls role play a marriage ceremony has not arisen and so ‘the Church’ has not formulated a ‘stance’ on it, and I am not going to invent one in response to such an unlikely and obscure hypothetical situation.” “Thank you for your correspondence. I am now bringing our exchange to an end.”

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    • Gina,

      I am almost 80 and have lived through a number of #MeToo episodes. I’ve not gone to church for years – unable to put up with the “God, He” teachings. Instead I spent years researching ancient cultures, the biblical document, early languages. As I result I have two published books. Then, since 2012, I walked away from the subject of religion in disgust. Now, in the current climate concerning women, I’ve checked back in again. That is because I believe that religion and the biblical document in their current forms are extremely important patriarchal causes of woman’s position in today’s world . Thus they should not be ignored. My books, particularly the eBook, “A Gender Neutral God/ess” contain documented facts about the early biblical text (and a attempt to be inclusive) that can be used by women to claim their rightful place in religion if they wish to do so.

      Until lately I haven’t checked online to see how my books were doing. Just this week I did and found that in addition to legitimate sales, my copyrighted books were being offered and downloaded on a number of “free book” sites. I say, “Women, go for it!” Get those free books and use the textual evidence in them. Women need to obtain/demand their rightful position in the biblical religion if they wish to do so. It is only in that way that society will change.

      Jennifer Sharp (J. J. McKenzie)

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