“Is it possible for a woman to be both a feminist and a Catholic?” This question is central for Celia Viggo Wexler’s book, Catholic Women Confront Their Church: Stories of Hurt and Hope, said Gail DeGeorge in a review of the book for the National Catholic Reporter. It is a similar question to one many Catholics have asked, “Is it possible to be an LGBT person and a Catholic?”
These questions are not just similar: they are deeply interrelated. Indeed, the cause of women’s equality in the church is inextricably linked to the cause of LGBT equality, and vice versa.
DeGeorge described the genesis of the book and its title:
“[Wexler] is not a theologian or historian, she writes, nor does she intend the book to be a definitive work about the views of Catholic women. She seeks instead to inspire conversations among women who, like her, are ‘torn between the faith they love and the institutional church that often sets their teeth on edge.’ . . .
“There is a reason, Wexler says, that she titled the book Catholic Women Confront Their Church rather than their ‘faith.’ For these women and so many others, it’s not a matter of confronting their faith, but rather confronting an institution that is led exclusively by men.”
Among the nine Catholic women that Wexler profiled are two involved with LGBT advocacy: Marianne Duddy-Burke, the executive director of DignityUSA, and Sr. Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK who is most known for her leadership of “Nuns on the Bus.”
Other women in the book include: Teresa Delgado, a Latina feminist theologian; Frances Kissling, founder of Catholics for Choice; and Diana L. Hayes, a theologian who was the first African American woman to earn a pontifical doctorate.
The chapter on Marianne Duddy-Burke follows the contours of her journey as a devout Catholic and lesbian woman. Wexler explained at one point:
“Catholicism is just too important to Duddy-Burke to abandon. So she’s found a different space to practice her faith, a space outside the norms of the institutional church. The Catholicism she practices, she contends, more authentically follows the gospel. . .
“Whatever steps Pope Francis may take to soften the church’s position on same-sex marriage and LGBT issues, she believes that real change has to come from the people in the pews, not the church hierarchy. And she continues to immerse herself in a Catholicism that embraces the sacraments and service to the poor and marginalized.”
Sr. Simone Campbell’s advocacy for LGBT people has increasingly been a part of her larger efforts for social justice. Her organization, NETWORK, is linked with New Ways Ministry in a particular way: the two organizations were singled out by the Vatican in its 2012 investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious for allegedly promoting “radical feminism.” Campbell offered the following wisdom, as reported by Wexler:
“One might have thought that the public denunciation. . .would have signaled to the sisters to lie low until the flap blew over. But Campbell did not express any sense of remorse. ‘When you don’t work every day with people who live at the margins of our society, it’s so much easier to make easy statements about who’s right and who’s wrong.’ Campbell said, ‘Life is way more complicated in our society, and its probably way easier to be eight thousand miles away in Rome.’ . . .
“‘I wish I knew what was in their [the Vatican leaders’] brains. . .The leadership doesn’t know how to deal with strong women.'”
In her latest supportive act for LGBT Catholics, Campbell will lead “Justice and Mercy: Our Faith Challenge?“, a retreat preceding New Ways Ministry’s 8th National Symposium this week. For information, please click here.
Teresa Delgado is a feminist theologian who is both Puerto Rican and a survivor of sexual violence, influenced by liberation and womanist theologies. These aspects of her identity have, in her words, “allowed me to speak in a way that is authoritative around issues of sexuality and faith.” While not explicitly focused on LGBT issues, her work to integrate sex and faith has obvious implications. Wexler wrote:
“Delgado has remained a Catholic despite her deep reservations about the church’s approach to sexual issues, and its misogyny. She regrets that an institution that developed a nuanced ethical position on the concept of a ‘just war’ has failed to explore the nuances of sexual ethics. Within her classroom, where she teaches Christian sexual ethics, she faces students deeply confused about how to apply Catholic principles to their sex lives. Her goal, she says, is to offer them a safe place to discuss their feelings, and to share her own insights about navigating these moral dilemmas.”
Reading the stories of these nine Catholic women is moving, and Wexler’s advice, especially for younger women, is compelling by the end: “Don’t give up on Catholicism just yet. Make it work for you. Fight for it.” DeGeorge’s concluding words will ring true for readers:
“In conclusion, she notes the dangers facing a church that is unwilling to allow women a greater role and voice. . . .[The reader will] come away with a deeper conviction that there is a place for visionary feminist women in the church. Wexler’s book deserves to be read widely, especially among parish-based women’s groups and young women who struggle with their Catholic faith.”
To read Gail DeGeorge’s full review in the National Catholic Reporter, please click here.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, April 26, 2017