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I’m in an abusive relationship…with a church. I was reminded of this during Holy Week, when our pastor made a point of choosing twelve men for the ritual of the washing of feet, because only men can represent the apostles. Except that’s not true. Women have their feet washed by the clergy all the time — the Pope himself does it.

Then, on Good Friday, I went to another parish (ours didn’t have a Mass scheduled at a time my husband could fit into his schedule) only to find an even more antiquated service. There were seven people around the altar. All were male.

Growing up, I was always top of my class. So when someone said something silly like, “Only boys are good at math,” I could laugh it off. I was proof that they were wrong. I was fortunate to receive sixteen years of Catholic education, being taught by great thinkers and being told that I, too, was capable of great thought. I planned my first mass at nine. I narrated The Passion Play at 13. I’ve spent a lifetime as a faithful Catholic. And somehow, I’m still not good enough. I can’t be good enough. I haven’t got a Y chromosome.

“How many times,” I asked my husband after Friday’s ordeal, “do I have to be slapped in the face by my own church?” “All of them,” he replied sadly.

I know, I know. I really ought to leave. Except that I have nowhere else to go. The church that honed my soul and sharpened my thinking is still my home — my bigoted, outdated home. Why should I have to leave?

On the other hand, why bother baptizing girls if we can never, ever have full participation in the church? Why bother with Confirmation, unless to make sure we understand that we’ll never be fully wanted? Why let us in the door if we can’t be trusted to make policy or even determine what happens to our own bodies? Why not just be honest and come right out and say it: “The Catholic Church: We’re not big on chicks”? At least we’d know what we were getting into.

I brought my husband into this church. At some level, I must think it capable of change (just like every other woman in an abusive relationship am I right?). But what I won’t let it do is hold me back.

Before we get to the “blowing your mind with stuff you didn’t know” part of this post, a preface: I adore Sister Joan Chittister. She’s Benedictine nun, author and speaker, and when it comes to matters spiritual, she knows her stuff. If this post isn’t enough to make you gallop to your nearest bookstore and demand every last one of her books, I don’t know what would be.

Sister Joan recently cited an article by biblical scholar R. David Freedman which brings up a rather earth-shattering point: The bible, as we read it today, is a translation of a translation of a translation. And things get lost in translation. To wit: The Hebrew words “ezer kenegdo” appear many times in the bible; every time are translated as “strength” or “power.” Every time, that is, except for once. That “once” happens in the story of Adam and Eve and refers to God creating Eve. The words “ezer kenegdo” are used here, too, but in this case — the only time it happens in the entire bible — the words are not translated as “strength” or “power.” No. Instead, Eve is described as “a suitable helpmeet” or “helper.” Remember, the actual translation would have you understand that Eve is equal in strength and power to Adam. But that’s not what the translation says.

Ladies, imagine if you had been brought up, from your early days in bible school, hearing that Eve (and thus, you) was equal in power and strength to Adam. Not a helpmeet. Not an appendage. Not a plucky sidekick but an actual hero. A co-hero. How might that have shaped your feelings about yourself and about women’s place in the church?

Because “equal in power and strength” is not what we see in most churches. In fact, there are a good number of so-called Christians who believe that women are not as good as men, not made of the same godly stuff, and must be regulated and chastised and kept in their places. What would happen to these women — to these “Christians” — if the truth were known? What would happen if we really knew the bible like we say we do?

The fact is, unless you’ve deeply studied the bible in its original language, you don’t know it. You know someone’s interpretation of an interpretation, and interpretations are always colored by personal preferences and beliefs. And since most of those interpretations were done by men for men, those “colorings” are not always going to be flattering — or even truthful — to women.

Women are experiencing a “moment” lately. We’re finally being believed and supported for the years of abuse and harassment we’ve suffered. What better time, then, to spread the word about “ezer kenegdo”? God made us equal in strength and power. All of us. And if we forget it, it won’t be scholars and writers we answer to: It will be God.

I remember my sister giving me the news (she always was dramatic): Cat Stevens had changed his name, converted to Islam, and given up music — his reasoning being that his new faith did not approve of it. I’d grown up loving Cat Stevens’ music — “Moonshadow,” “Oh Very Young,” “Wild World,” “Peace Train” — how could any child of the seventies resist him? I totally dug (to use the parlance of the times) the gentle, fairy tale quality of his lyrics, his reassuring voice, his seeming gentleness. And here he was, taking all of that back and calling it somehow wrong.

Yusuf Islam (as Cat Stevens is now known) has since seriously softened his stance, and has been performing and releasing new albums for a while now. He also contends that his rejection of music had much to do with feeling burned out, a state I can relate to. But at the time, that’s not how I heard it. At the time, someone’s religion broke a kid’s heart. That’s something religion should never do.

I didn’t grow up feeling disheartened about women not being able to join the priesthood, as it was something I never aspired to myself. But I know now that some little girls were disheartened. They grew up, and certainly some of them took their (religious) business elsewhere. Which makes the Pope’s announcement that he is putting together a committee to look into the reinstatement of women into the deaconate so important. I say “reinstatement” because women were, for many years, deacons in the Church, until the day they were suddenly and (let’s face it) inevitably deemed “not godly enough.” If the Pope makes good on this beacon of hope, it will be a sign of true inclusion for women in the Catholic Church. Not an end point, by any means, but a good start.

If I can be a part of something that undoes or prevents the breaking of a child’s heart by religion, count me in. God loves children — Jesus made this abundantly clear. Nothing that purports to be “of God” should damage, dismay or disconcert a child. Not ever. Just as someone who claims to be a person of God should do his or her level best to never cause anyone — least of all a child — hurt or sadness.

The Church has not always been good in this regard. I now know that an abusive priest called my childhood parish home, and when our pastor found out about it and went to the bishop, the bishop merely sent the offending priest elsewhere. I am certain this brought terrible sorrow to our pastor, a good and moral man. It also must have brought a lifetime of hurt to many children, who, as altar servers, trusted priests implicitly. Although I admire Pope Francis for being vigilant about this abuse, there remain hundreds of scarred hearts out there, the hearts of children who once trusted the wrong persons. Nothing can make up for that.

It makes the defection of a pop star seem silly in comparison, I know. But kids are fragile, their hearts easily bruised. It remains up to us grown-ups to remain on guard against this misuse of faith. Here’s to a future full of hope, a day when religion offers only (as a hymn Cat Stevens once covered notes so beautifully), “Praise with elation, praise ev’ry morning.”

I look at the form. It is the 2016-2017 stewardship questionnaire from my local parish —my commitment to volunteerism and financial support for the coming year. How much will I pledge weekly? What can I do to help out: bake cookies? Mow the law? Clean the chapel?

It is not the “giving” part of the equation that bothers me, that causes the hairs on the back of my neck to rise; it is the actual form itself. “Family name” it requests. Easy enough. But then, this: “Mother’s name.” “Father’s name.” Each with a blank. My heart drops.

I am not a mother. I have no children, for reasons too personal to discuss. And yet, if I am not a mother, how can I put my name in this space? The Catholic Church simply assumes that if I call myself part of a family, I must be the mother. Who else could I be?

Much has been made of Amoris Laetitia (Joy of Love), the latest in Pope Francis’ responses to Catholic family life. In it, he asks that each parish be open to family in all its forms, welcoming and supportive. As usual, the document has been blasted by both sides — by traditionalists for being too liberal and by liberals because the Pope does nothing to change the church’s response to LGBT persons or divorced Catholics. I will admit to hoping for more, but understand that the Pope must tread gently in these divided times. Still, the document does much to open the doors to families in all of their nontraditional, messy splendor. Yet my parish still asks: “Mother’s name”?

I sometimes get the distinct feeling from my Church that if I am not a mother, I am nothing. I have no role. I am unfruitful, an anomaly. I have missed the proverbial boat. When I tell my pastor that I am childless, he says, “That’s okay,” as if to soothe me. What have I done that was so terrible? Do I need to be told — over and over again — that a woman without children is a failure?

My husband isn’t nearly as unnerved as I am. “You should write your mother’s name in the space,” he suggests. But the onus on him isn’t the same as it is on me. Catholics are notoriously fruitful. I knew a girl in high school who had 13 siblings. I have more cousins than I can count — 11 in just one family. My mom is the youngest of seven. In the Catholic Church, I do stand out like a sore thumb.

And yet there have always been childless Catholics. My great-aunt Lydia and her husband did not have kids. How must she have felt, back when “family planning” was an anathema akin to mortal sin? (Not that the proscribed methods of the Catholic Church are much better nowadays…as my high school religion teacher once deadpanned, “I used the rhythm method. I have 11 children.”) A childless Catholic woman is either a “poor thing” (she wanted kids but couldn’t have them) or a harlot (she didn’t want them). There is no room for anything in between.

I consider my spouse to be my family. It is the two of us against the world, and we’ve done okay. After all, he once considered himself an agnostic; now he is a full-fledged Catholic. We attend Mass every week. We give, financially, and of our time and talents. And yet, there it is: “Mother’s name.”

In the end, I will put my name in the blank, mostly out of resignation. But is it too much to ask: Can’t I be a married Catholic woman in good standing, a real woman of faith…but not a mother?

As my friend Mary-Claire would say, “Open mouth, insert foot, turn sideways.” Cardinal Raymond Burke, who would be laughable if he didn’t have adherents, recently delivered the following opinion on today’s Church: It’s too girly. This from a man who celebrates Mass in lace, satin, gloves and jewelry. (Clearly, he doesn’t mind womanliness when it comes to looking FABUUULLOUUUS!) Specifically, all those women up on the altar (female altar servers, lectors, Eucharistic ministers) are “turning off” men from becoming involved in the Church — and worse, from becoming priests. This “feminization” of the Church, Burke claims, has repelled men who “respond to rigor and precision and excellence.” (What do women respond to, you may ask? Apparently, slovenliness, imprecision and a sense of “meh, it’s good enough.” Maybe we’re just cranky because we’re on our cycles.) He also says men are afraid to marry because: Feminism.

I really shouldn’t dignify this guy with any more attention than he’s already received. (Although can’t you just picture Burke as Yosemite Sam, shooting indiscriminately and bellowing, “Dadgum wimmin! What with their fooferalls and lady parts!” While nearby, Bugs Bunny chuckles, “What a maroon”?) There are some (few) folks who’d like to turn the Church into the He-Man Woman-Haters Club, complete with a sign on the Vatican that says, “No Girls Allowed” (only the “S” in “Girls” is backwards because awww…who can stay mad at those mischievous scamps?). Well, Ray (can I call you Ray?), I hate to tell you, but women in the Catholic Church are here to stay.

Who do you think gets the kids to come to Mass on Sunday? Who makes them go to Catholic school? Who keeps the local parishes up and running? Who do you see at Perpetual Adoration? In the Church Office? At the fundraisers? Without us, there would be no Church. Frankly, Raymond Burke is the best argument I’ve heard in a long time for the Catholic Church allowing women priests: Surely, we could not do worse than this.

In better, brighter news, a consortium of bishops in the state of Kansas are working to review the practices of “payday loan” shops, who so often end up victimizing the poor they claim to help. This move is right in line with Pope Francis’ message: We must tend to the disenfranchised, the marginal, the oppressed. That is what God wants from us and what Jesus came to do. Good for them! This is what the Church should be up to.

Finally, I’d like to express my sadness over the recent terrorist attack in France. And I want to say this: My God can take a joke. If yours can’t, maybe you have the wrong god. Consider it.

 

Wow! What a week, sportsfans! I suppose you’ve heard the remarkable things Pope Francis has been saying lately, to wit:

  1. He doesn’t judge gay people. In fact, he seems to be promoting a more conciliatory and open-minded stance toward gays in and out of the Church.
  2. He feels that women need to be given a more prevalent place in the Church. While the Pope does not (yet) promote the idea of women priests, he feels that women need a greater voice in the Church, and a more participatory role. He went so far as to say that we need to recognize that Mary is more important than the apostles.
  3. He told the crowd in South America to “make noise” — that is, not to quietly accept complacency.
  4. He is thinking of ways to reach out to divorced Catholics, something that’s long been needed.

To call these remarks “mind-blowing” is to limit their power. What Francis is discussing is revolutionary. Power for women in the Church? Acceptance of gays? No more telling kids to quietly accept what the Church says whole-hog and without question? Boom! That’s talking change on a cellular level.

Many of us have longed for this kind of change for many years. To us, the words of our Pope are music, poetry, a dream come true. Of course, not everyone feels this way. Church conservatives are certainly cringing. And by conservatives, I mean the kind of Catholic who likes their Masses in Latin and their nuns docile. The kind of Catholic who liked Pope Benedict. The kind that wishes Vatican II hadn’t happened.

To these people, I would like to say, “I understand.” It’s hard to watch the head of the Roman Catholic Church say things you don’t want to hear. I had to put up with it for most of my life, so I know how upsetting it can be. But please, try to be happy for those of us who are cheering, up here in the cheap seats. We’ve felt marginalized for so long. Words like Francis’ — hopefully backed up by actions — will bring disaffected Catholics home. It will keep our children in the faith. And we need that.

So hip, hip, hooray for Pope Francis! He’s opening the doors and yanking up the windows. Soon a fresh, new breeze will be blowing through our beloved Church. I can’t wait.

Dear Catholic Church,

I understand. You don’t want to be forced to do something you feel is immoral: provide coverage for contraceptives. I’m a Catholic, too. So since I’ve listened to your point of view, I’m sure you’d be willing to listen to mine, yes?

The Church’s stand on contraceptives is flawed…for so many reasons. Not all contraceptives are used for contraception; sometimes they are a medical necessity. I was a virgin when I went on The Pill; my mother, the most fervent Catholic I know, took me to the doctor and said, “Don’t leave without a prescription.” My problem was brutally heavy periods that left me anemic and once sent me into shock. But my mother was no stranger to The Pill. She took it after my sister died at birth and my mother then suffered three miscarriages in a row. Some things are too much to endure.

Second, the very idea that women shouldn’t be allowed to plan when they get pregnant is repugnant, and attributable at least in part to the fact that there are no women in the Church’s hierarchy. How can a group comprised entirely of men possibly understand what it is like to be a woman? You tell me that you know what is best for me spiritually; but here on Earth, at least, my body and my soul are bound together. I would never tell a man what to do with his body, so what gives you the right to tell me what to do with mine?

Moreover, by concentrating solely on our gynecological possibilities, you reduce women to Easy-Bake Ovens. Because we CAN have children, we MUST. That’s like saying that every man should be a football player because men have superior upper-body strength. It doesn’t matter if you’d rather not play football, or you’re not especially suited to it. Motherhood is a calling, just like the priesthood. Not everyone is cut out for it (as any trip to WalMart will show you, in graphic detail), and not everyone is good at it. To press women to do something they perhaps ought not to do is cruel not only to them, but to any children they might bear.

Which brings me to the next point: The United States isn’t the world. To deny contraceptives to poor women, especially in Third World countries, is tantamount to savagery. Is it truly more moral, holier, kinder to allow a child to be born and die in misery, of malnutrition or disease, rather than prevent the pregnancy altogether? Add to this the fact that pregnancy is a dangerous condition — it can and does still kill women. Why does new life have more worth than an established life?

And if pregnancy is all that we are good for, then what does menopause turn us into?

No contraceptive can undo God’s will. If He wants a particular soul to come to Earth, He will make it so. To think that mere humans have any power against Him is ridiculous. God gave us the tools to plan our families for a reason: Life should be lived with intention. Only then can we give our best to all facets of it.

Catholic Church, you are wrong.

Sincerely,

Me

There’s a women’s retreat this Saturday at my church, and I’m dithering about whether or not to attend. Here’s my problem: Yes, the camaraderie with other women of my parish would be a good thing. I’m sure I would enjoy meeting new friends. But the main focus of the retreat consists of two things: A panel of women discussing how faith has brought them through difficult times (a worthy topic), and a speech by a priest on “The Genius of Womanhood.”

The Genius of Womanhood, huh? Why do I feel reasonably certain that a speech on this topic will contain the words “wife” and “mother” rather predominately, but will omit the words that most need to be said? Oh, the Catholic Church likes women just fine…in our proscribed place. We are allowed to do the work of the Church: Organizing events, cleaning and caring for the buildings, minding and teaching the children, singing in the choir, keeping families faithful generation after generation. But we are not allowed to make decisions for the Church; we have no real power. That remains in the hands of men.

When I was very young, I asked my mother why she, my sister and I had to cover our heads when we went to Mass. She put as positive a spin on it as she could — we GOT to wear hats or scarves; wasn’t that neat? I was not much of a hat person even then, but I allowed myself to be swayed by the fashionableness of it all. It wasn’t until many years later, long after this stricture was relaxed, that I realized the truth: We covered our heads because deep-down the Church saw us as unworthy. Oh, we could birth the children and prepare the potlucks, but be on an equal spiritual footing with men? Heavens no!

The Church has never gotten over the slightly squicky sensation that women are somehow dirty, somehow less important than menfolk. You wanna see the genius of women, guys? Try this on for size: WOMEN PRIESTS. Now that’s a genius idea. Unfortunately, it is unlikely to be on the menu at this women’s retreat, or any other. Not for a long, long time.

Have a Mary Little Christmas

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