Long ago, back in my halcyon days of undergraduate bliss, I was a religious studies major. I suppose, looking back on it, that my fascination started at an early age. I'm the product of a mixed marriage---a classic northeastern WASP/Jew mashup---and while my father didn't practice Judaism at all during my childhood, my mother dutifully toted us to the local Episcopal church each weekend for Sunday school and services. Though I never developed a religious zeal, I did develop a zeal for religion. I was fascinated by it, and by what studying it could reveal about the history---and present state---of humanity. I started strong in high school (six classes, including Zen Buddhism, The Holocaust, and The Hebrew Bible), then followed up with a full-on major in college.
My senior thesis was about a late medieval English mystic. You might have heard of her. Her name was Margery Kempe, and she was famous/infamous for (supposedly) crying all the time. My (unsurprisingly feminist) take on her, though, was that she pretty freaking brave. See, Margery's account of her life's story was, to my mind, a pretty provocative piece of writing. (It was also the first autobiography written in English---though she was illiterate, and so dictated it to one of her confessors.) Margery lived in England just as the Reformation began rumbling across the land, taking an awful lot of bodies with it. And so her depiction of herself---not only a woman, but a lay woman---as having a close, personal, unmonitored relationship with God was downright dangerous, in addition to being subversive and incredibly vital.
Margery's been on my mind a lot these days, thanks to the Catholic Church's latest internal drama. The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, a membership group representing approximately 80% of the nuns in the United States, has found itself directly at odds with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the group tasked by the Vatican with the oversight of all Catholic doctrine. The nuns, you see, do not take an official stance on things like contraception, abortion or gay marriage, preferring instead to focus their energy and public sway on what they view as the more important Christian duties of caring for the poor, sick and those in need. Sister Pat Farrell, the president of the Leadership Conference, gave some pretty illustrative quotes during her recent Fresh Air interview:
Our works are very much pro-life. We would question, however, any policy that is more pro-fetus than actually pro-life. If the rights of the unborn trump all of the rights of all of those who are already born, that is a distortion, too — if there's such an emphasis on that. However, we have sisters who work in right-to-life issues. We also have many, many ministries that support life. We dedicate to our lives to those on the margins of society, many of whom are considered throwaway people: the impaired, the chronically mentally ill, the elderly, the incarcerated, to the people on death row. We have strongly spoken out against the death penalty, against war, hunger. All of those are right-to-life issues. There's so much being said about abortion that is often phrased in such extreme and such polarizing terms that to choose not to enter into a debate that is so widely covered by other sectors of the Catholic Church---and we have been giving voice to other issues that are less covered but are equally as important...
Like Margery, Pat Farrell is one seriously brave lady. As someone who was raised in a church that ordains women, elevates gay bishops and is pro-choice, I sometimes look at women like Pat Farrell---and the thousands of female theologians in the Catholic Church---and wonder, "Why don't they just leave?" It's easy, looking from the outside, to think that. It's especially easy for someone whose relationship to religion has always been---even when experiential---quite academic and detached. (I really do go to church for the music, and to observe rituals.)
But while I am puzzled by the determination of female worshipers to change their less-than-feminist religions from the inside out when they could simply leave for a faith that values them, I am even more impressed by the courage and determination it takes to do so. After all, the church will never change if women like Pat Farrell don't lead the charge. And while I don't have a personal stake in her battle, I have to admit I'm cheering for her from the sidelines. It's not easy to leave the church you've spent your life serving, but I think it's probably even harder to stay and fight to make it the place you think it should be.
Good luck, Sister Pat. May you succeed where Margery did not.
Image: CNS photo/Giancarlo Giuliani