Many opinions are flying around during this election cycle about what makes a Catholic a Catholic. Yes, Joe Biden is a practicing Catholic, only the third Catholic candidate to ever run on a major party nomination in the United States (the first being President Kennedy, the second John Kerry). Yet for conservative Catholics who support President Trump, declarations abound that Joe Biden isn’t really a Catholic, especially due to his support of a woman’s right to choose and full civil rights for LGBTQ+ individuals. In the eyes of such commentators, including many priests, people like me are no better— Feminist Catholics who openly support a Democratic candidate. If you’re reading this piece, maybe you are a confused Catholic who is feeling bullied by your own priest or other American Catholic thought leaders right now. Rest assured, not all Catholics are the same, and how you identify in your faith is truly between you and the God of your understanding. Be cautious of anyone who is promoting a theology of exclusion, making you feel less than for practicing your faith authentically and in a way that lines up with all of your values and points of identity.
On August 15, the Catholic priest and “pro-life” crusader Fr. Frank Pavone Tweeted that he is prepared to hear the confessions of any Catholic who votes Democrat, yet if we are unrepentant, then absolution will be withheld. For Pavone and many like him, when challenged on any other issues surrounding the dignity of human life, (e.g., how we as Americans treat immigrants or address other human rights violations) nothing matters if we allow for the deaths of innocent fetuses. This is the classic, “At least we don’t condone the murder of babies” defense whenever challenged with issues of real moral complexity that confront the intricacies of human experience. Especially when women and marginalized folks are involved. In the dynamics of spiritual and narcissistic abuse, this ideological argument is a deflection technique that also contains qualities of gaslighting (making you believe like you are the crazy or immoral one for even daring to challenge them).
I know the arguments because I was once schooled in all of them. In my experience growing up with one Evangelical parent and later working for a more conservative expression of the Catholic church, I was taught to believe that to really be a Christian or even a Catholic, I had to be pro-life. I had to renounce the evils of the homosexual and transgender “lifestyles,” even though I knew from the age of 11 that I experienced attraction to both boys and girls. Incidentally enough, around that same age I was dealing with the Evangelicals telling me that Catholics weren’t really Christians because they believed in man-made law and not the sole authority of scripture. Even at that age, this exclusionary rhetoric from Evangelicals about Catholics upset me. Yet whenever issues of culture wars emerge, I hear Catholics essentially telling other Catholics the same thing—you don’t belong if you don’t believe exactly like us. Yet the irony is that people like Fr. Frank Pavone and similar priests who condemn American Democrats can be cited for ignoring other church teachings around social justice.
I am not a theologian and proclaim no competency in delivering philosophical or theological arguments. I am, however, a clinical counselor specializing in the treatment of trauma, with a specialty in spiritual abuse, and what I can share in this public forum is my lived experience as a woman, a professional, and an open-hearted Catholic. For the record, I do not glorify abortion as I am often accused and do not believe it should be entered into lightly. Yet as someone whose professional work and personal healing has woken me up to what it means to be pro-woman, I must stand for reproductive justice and personal autonomy. Women deserve to be on an equal playing field with men, and believing anything else earlier in my faith formation was simply evidence of me trying to fit in, play the good girl, and do the right thing in the eyes of my respective faith communities. I used to believe that if I didn’t comply, God wouldn’t bless me and I would be kicked off the island of God’s grace and access to the Catholic rituals I love so much. Receiving a great deal of healing ministry through a more liberal, Feminist lens within Catholicism and other spiritual paths, in addition to other trauma therapy, liberated me from this spirituality of perfection indicative of contexts that do not fully honor women. As a result, I discovered a new freedom in that place where Divinity meets humanity, right in my own heart.
My frustration is even greater during this election cycle when I see Catholics declare their support for Donald J. Trump. Defending White Supremacists, turning a blind eye to racial injustice, glorifying gun culture, mocking the disabled, authorizing the detention of children in cages, and bullying those who accuse you of sexual assaults with misogynist attacks that shame the victim in no way feels like Christ to me. I believe that Christ loves, honors, and values women, and anyone who degrades women like this President has throughout his years in public life is perpetuating serious trauma, individually and collectively. One of the first lessons I truly retained in Catholic school is that the commandment “Thou shall not kill” applies to more than just taking physical life. I’ve spent my career ministering to people (especially women) with broken spirits, killed by the kind of behavior and rhetoric that Donald Trump so freely promotes.
Joe Biden is not perfect, not by a long shot, and I do not write this piece specifically to defend or to endorse him. I will say that his basic humanitarian actions and obvious love for his family inspire the love of Christ in me and restore my faith in the potential that we have to be good to each other in this life. His ability to admit when he is wrong, especially on how he treated Dr. Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, offers cause for hope. Having lost too many members of my extended LGBT+ family of choice to suicide and overdose, conditions of shame largely fueled by how rejecting family members and church leaders treated them, basic goodness towards human beings is a value I hold in high regard. If you are a Catholic or see yourself as a defender of traditional faith or family values and you are not willing to have this conversation, I see your moral compass as being incompletely formed.
I’ve been repulsed to hear that conservative Catholics or other “traditional family values” Christians say that a child is better off in an abusive home composed of a mother and father than in a loving, nurturing home raised by a gay couple. I’ve witnessed the same people who picket abortion clinics turn their noses up at single mothers, blended family dynamics, or people on government assistance—people desperately in need of such help to keep the babies they’ve had alive. I weep for all of this hatred, and I believe that Jesus does too. I’ve even wondered and have likely posted memes questioning if people like you are really Christians (or Catholics), or soldiers for the American Republican version of Christianity? Yet those are just my opinions—I have no authority whatsoever, nor does any other human being—to exclude you from Christ’s table. My Catholicism and my identity as a member of the larger universal family who understands that fear can drive a great deal of irrational responses does not allow me to drive you away.
I still identify as a Catholic because I love the Catholic Mass, our rituals, and the rich identity of Catholic meaning universal. The holy presence of the Blessed Virgin Mary and female saints and mystics in our history such as St. Hildegard of Bingen, guides me every day. Being Catholic was the first placed I learned how to connect with the Divine Feminine! When I go to Mass and read the teachings of Catholic saints I still feel nourished, even though women have largely been marginalized within the church’s mainstream. Even though there is a long and tainted history of childhood sex abuse by priests being covered up by officials in the hierarchy that needs to be fully addressed more than it has, I still believe there is something good within the church. My mental health recovery has taught me to live an authentic life if I want to stay safe, sane, and healthy, and this means that neither my beliefs nor my behavior are fully compliant with what the church teaches or how the church behaves.
Yet my journey has also shown me that there are wide variety of Catholic scholars, writers, and yes, even priests, who challenge the status quo and have a strong commitment to being pro-woman in all of its manifestations. By reading and studying with them, I know that I still belong. If anything, I belong even more because I still choose to hang around a church system that can neglect people like me, a queer survivor of abuse. My healing journey has lead me to explore and draw from other spiritual traditions like Buddhism, Hinduism and the path of sanatan dharma (the general name of the spirituality of India that gave birth to yoga), Judaism, Islam, and Indigenous spirituality. Through this study I’ve learned that we all have so much more in common than we may realize, and here we are, even as fellow Christians and fellow Catholics, tearing each other to shreds over teaching that can be interpreted in so many different ways.
Even with my Ecumenical world view, there is one reason that I have not abandoned Christianity altogether, especially Catholicism—the Incarnation. And the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us. I am overcome with chills every time I think of a God who is so powerful, dimensional, and loving would choose to take on a human container and dwell amongst humanity. This gift was made possible by the embodied willingness of a very holy woman. This act shows a love for humanity and the human, embodied experience that I have been unable to fully embrace in my other practices. My love of humanity is what I most love about being a Catholic-Christian. Being a human teaches me that moral decision are intricate and complex, and that radical empathy is required to truly be Christ for each other.
Those are my Catholic values, and no one can tell me otherwise.
Jamie Marich, Ph.D., travels internationally speaking on topics related to EMDR therapy, trauma, addiction, expressive arts and mindfulness while maintaining a private practice in her home base of Warren, OH. She is the developer of the Dancing Mindfulness approach to expressive arts therapy, the co-creator of the Yoga Unchained approach to trauma-informed yoga, and the developer of Yoga for Clinicians. Jamie is the author of seven books, including the popular EMDR Made Simple and EMDR Therapy and Mindfulness for Trauma Focused Care) written in collaboration with Dr. Stephen Dansiger. North Atlantic Books published a revised and expanded edition of Trauma and the 12 Steps in the Summer of 2020.
Categories: Feminist Theology