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Confessions of a Catholic feminist


In my church, women cannot be ordained. They cannot hear confessions, anoint the sick or vote at synods. Birth control is officially condemned and divorce disdained. Many say there is no place in the Roman Catholic monolith for young, free-spirited females. I disagree. In fact, as a young, free-spirited female, I studied religion after religion and converted to Catholicism. It was the best decision I ever made.

I haven’t always been religious. Baptized Anglican at age 4, I was schooled in the faith of Henry VIII and accepted Queen Elizabeth II as head of my church. As a teenager, however, I dyed my hair, smoked too much, boozed in suburban parks and one night over dinner announced I was an atheist. My parents sighed, told me God still loves lunatics but concluded there was nothing they could do.

Headstrong and wild, I caroused my way toward high school graduation and expected nothing to change at the university. I was wrong. Like most students, I matured during the transition to higher education and, studying at McGill University in Montreal and living on my own, found my stance toward God melt from defiant rejection to ambivalent confusion to, finally, a grudging acceptance.

Allowing months to pass while God and I became reacquainted, I celebrated my 20th birthday before crossing the threshold of a church. I admitted defeat. So, I’m not calling all the shots.

Won’t my parents be pleased? Well, no, actually. I didn’t tell them. Didn’t for years. Not while attending Sunday services at the Anglican Cathedral on Ste. Catherine’s Street and leaving empty. Not while learning the words to la messe at Marie, Reine du Monde, Montreal’s shrunk-down version of St. Peter’s Basilica. Not while working in Taipei, Taiwan, and basking in the sandalwood smoke of neighborhood temples. And not while traveling through Thailand and witnessing the Thai express their faith with every breath.

I came to understand that faith involves more than stained glass windows, sermons and (now) secularized holidays; faith is a way of life, and everyone who chooses to worship the Divine should choose the tradition that best suits her or him. And I like tradition. So it came as no surprise to my close friends when I decided to become Catholic.

Now, try to imagine a scenario: You’re a 23-year-old feminist who has just moved to Victoria to study fine arts at a very liberal university. What better a time to join the Holy Roman Empire, right?

I thought so. Many others, however, did not. “You know, most people our age are running from the Catholic church -- not joining it,” a perplexed classmate mused last December. Another quizzed, “You mean you weren’t born this way? Did they draft you?”

Some of the questions made me laugh. Others made me frown. No, my priest didn’t sponsor a recruitment drive. No, I’m not a cradle Catholic and, besides, no one is born Catholic -- or Christian for that matter. How can you be baptized in utero? And: Yeah, I know about running. I know the church isn’t perfect. But it’s home.

My parents said little. I suspect they worried about brainwashing. Saturday morning phone calls became tense as I spoke openly about burgeoning friendships with other Catholic students and involvement with my parish. I used Catholic lingo. I told them about www.vatican.va.

At Christmas 1999, when I flew back East to visit, my mother cut short a Sunday breakfast by sniffing, “Your father and I are going to our church. When’s your service?” The house split down the middle: Orangemen on the left, papists on the right. I returned to Victoria in January with much on my mind.

Familial concerns aside, I went ahead with my plans and, last Easter, had my forehead crisscrossed with oil and received the certificate; for better or worse, I was Catholic. “The universal passport,” a Catholic friend said of my paperwork. “Valid everywhere. Here and beyond.”

Sounds good. But what does it really mean? Along with my “Anglican-ness,” did I sign away free will and commit to a life of guilt and novenas? Am I doomed to despondent celibacy and patriarchal subjugation?

Of course not.

The Middle Ages are over, after all. Being Catholic in 2000 isn’t a burden or something to drink about. Naturally, as a Christian, I accept that I live in the shadow of the cross and that this privilege brings with it certain responsibilities. Like Christ, I am to speak for those who can’t, defend the rights of those with none and make the day a little easier for whomever I can.

I don’t always do it perfectly. Sometimes I falter and don’t do it at all. Still, with death is resurrection, and God always gives second chances. And third chances. And so on.

Do I support the bans on female ordination and birth control? No. Do I like that these rules often push women to lesser roles in the church and society? No. Nevertheless, I understand the difference between God’s will and man-made laws and know that women and men are equal.

The Catholic church is a 2000-year-old institution; it would be naïve to think it could change overnight. Fortunately, the church’s position with regard to women and women’s position within the church have rocketed forward since 1962’s Second Vatican Council and continue to evolve. Women in Canada have legally been “persons” only since 1929; perhaps in the near future, women will assume the roles they deserve within Vatican hierarchy.

Of course, none of this fully clarifies my love for the Catholic church and why I converted. Attempting to explain to a classmate, I rambled about Christ, his crucifixion and how, before he was executed, he handed over the reins to the apostle Peter, the eventual first bishop of Rome, saying, “On this rock, I will build my community” (Matthew 16:18).

Thirty-three or so generations later, I became Catholic, and my Christian heritage secured a foundation. The right foundation. For me.

Sue Birnie is a student at the University of Victoria. Her essay first appeared in Third Space, a feminist student publication on campus, in response to an article that argued the incompatibility of feminism and Catholicism.

National Catholic Reporter, February 2, 2001