Like knocking on a stones front door
In recent issues of NCR (Jan. 26 and Feb. 2), two young Catholic women, Kerry Egan and Sue Birnie, wrote essays about the choice to call the Catholic church home, despite the contradictions of church teachings and their feminist beliefs. Editor Tom Roberts invited readers to react to the essays and share their own stories. Mary Alyce Pearson responded to that call with the following essay. Also included on these pages are some of the other responses NCR received.
By MARY ALYCE PEARSON
Ive appreciated the articles of Sue Birnie and Kerry Egan, young women who disagree with the churchs stance toward women yet find their spiritual home within it. Im at the other end of the age spectrum. At 55 years, I entered the catechumenate and received the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and first Communion at the Easter Vigil in 1997.
This decision was the most important one in my life, and to echo Birnie, the best one, too. But I carry the same concerns as Birnie and Egan. The only unanimity I see among the differing voices about the status of women in the church -- those opposing change, those proceeding with incremental change in their local parish, those wanting it but resigned to the current structure, those on the frontlines working for it -- is that change is a gargantuan task. In proportion to the size of the barriers to be removed, the impact of giving women full equality would be monumental in such positive ways both within and outside the church.
At the Rite of Election, a major decision point in the catechumenate process, the bishop of our diocese, himself a convert at age 18, emphasized to hundreds of us intent on joining the church that the heart of the conversion process is mystery. While each of us has many reasons we tell to others, all true and heartfelt, his nod toward mystery, the divine hand in the process, was the best explanation for those inexplicable feelings of awe and certainty I experienced moving toward joining the Catholic church.
Im aware that people often get religion as they age, but I think for many of us, not having been raised in a particular faith tradition, it is that lifes experiences help sort the wheat from the chaff, allowing spirituality and religion to surface with a clarity not seen before. I had been in and out of Protestant churches over many years, never a member. There are no Catholics in my family, nor my husbands. Our children were not raised in a faith tradition.
Yet I found myself drawn to the Catholic church. I saw the church as the rock of Christianity, its long history and rich traditions as sources of strength, its rituals as powerful interpreters of faith. I have Catholic friends whose lives were positive examples to me. I also knew there were people who disagreed with the church and yet at the same time could say they loved it. That was intriguing rather than perplexing. I had a sense early on thats where I would land -- loving but disagreeing at times.
What I was seeking in my spiritual quest was a framework of meaning, not answers that would sit on a shelf. I take the notion of ongoing conversion as a serious one. This church for me was a foundation, nourishing spiritual growth, integrating the personal with community, the love of God with the love of self with the love of neighbor.
I found in acknowledging my spirituality, in wanting to structure it within the Catholic faith, a sense of liberation. Using that word stirs contradiction, for I was fully aware I was joining a hierarchical, patriarchal institution, one in which women do not share equal status with men. Once when I expressed my concern about women to a woman religious, she responded, People ask me why I dont leave the church, and I say, What! Leave it to them? She was voicing, of course, the age-old issue about being a part of any institution, any group, with which we disagree. The position of the church regarding the ordination of women obviously prevents many women from ever considering the church and has driven others from it. Within the church are cradle Catholics, women who have chosen to stay plus those of us who came into it with eyes wide open. It seems we deal with this in a variety of ways.
Ironically, it is women who in so many ways keep the church afloat -- sheer numbers attending and volunteering -- and yet do not share the power equally. But even in other churches that have women as priests or ministers, for the most part they have not broken into the top rungs of leadership or power. This in no way excuses the Catholic church, which does not even allow women as priests, but does underscore the challenge for women in religious institutions. Womens equality is bound up with all the major institutions of a patriarchal society. Some doors have opened. But the Catholic church doors remain closed. The hierarchical church has stood steadfast.
This intransigence has a triple effect. The church, its power structure as hierarchy, is not the real church for many members. Instead, the church is the body of Christ, it is where two or three are gathered together, it is the local parishes where priests and members share recognition of the problem and implement incremental changes, and it is the sacraments binding us together in faith.
Secondly, the failure to admit women to full status is so glaring and the rationale to support it so flawed that many find it difficult to believe that it can last, that the God we worship, the Christ we follow, makes these gender distinctions that privilege men. Time seems to favor change for women, but perhaps that is an illusion. That feeling, while nurturing those who support change, I think, often zaps more active displays of opposition. The more outrageous the actions to silence dissidents, the more exposed is the hierarchical church on this issue.
The third effect of the intransigence is that, instead of doing battle on this front, the fight appears so overwhelming that many of us prefer to put our efforts into activities in other sectors of the society that also affect women and their well-being. Being within the church, we can be a voice of reason at the same time that we encircle the church with the realities of the positive changes for women in other institutions. When the doors do finally open, the multitudes will rejoice!
This is a church that shares in our human fallibility and in our divinity. It is the latter that makes us so forgiving of the former, abdicating the present in terms of anticipated and hoped-for change for women within the church. But, as Catholic Christians, our hope is not some vapid optimism but is based on the content of the cross.
The doors may not be open, but there are windows letting in light. Light is found in many of our parishes working hard at equality within the confines of the churchs doctrines and in our involvement with and monetary support of organizations seeking change. We can continually enlighten ourselves about feminist viewpoints and support those voices within the church and engage in dialogue with others. And, of course, we can pray unceasingly for full participation of women in the church.
Poet Wislawa Szymborska, in Conversation with a Stone, repeatedly knocks at the stones front door only to be turned away. She writes at the end, I knock at the stones front door./Its only me, let me come in./I dont have a door, says the stone. Thats the bleakest scenario for women and the church. Women may increasingly decline to knock, and the church, already excluding the full potential of resources women have to offer, will suffer even further depletion.
I like to imagine drops of water over time carving a door into the rock. Knock and it will be answered for women and men, for all in our human family.
Mary Alyce Pearson is retired from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as assistant dean for development in the College of Education.
National Catholic Reporter, March 9, 2001