Catholic Woman

“Irish Girl,” Robert Henri  (Not particularly what I look like, but hey – Irish Catholic! I’m assuming. My grandmother would’ve loved this.)

Once I had a professor tell me that I should not study Catholic theology because the Catholic Church had no place for me as a woman. She made me cry. Also, I went and studied theology anyway.

Such began a career in which my gender always plays a complicated role.

I don’t get to walk into a room and not have people notice my gender. Classroom, conference panel, job interview. That I am a woman has a peculiar burden because that’s how lack of privilege works: people notice the lack and not the privilege. No one much comments on how I’m white, though I’m that too. The emphasis is always bent toward my gender, because historically women have not had it easy, because that continues today, because I’m Catholic, and because I’m in a male-dominated profession (academic theology).

It is one matter to grasp these realities at least inchoately, to acknowledge and accept, and another to wrestle with them in the pragmatics of my daily life. Suddenly everything splits into a strange vertiginous prism of conflicting interests and pressures, as if a harsh light focused itself on me and yet lanced sideways to where no one is at all. I begin to feel, with rising unease, that somehow I matter least of all. That is, sometimes I suspect that my status, religion, and gender have been pulled away from me for examination without my consent.

I’m pretty sure that I have no idea what it is like for every Catholic woman to be one, but I sure as hell get asked that question all the time. Without prelude, other scholars and colleagues have turned to me and asked, “So, as a Catholic woman…” And I hardly know how to respond. Yes, I am one. I think it is a grace of its own kind to be one. But it is nerve wracking to think that I could speak for anyone else except myself, especially other women. I am not sure how to speak from that delicate place of individual experience and universal abstraction. I often refuse to answer the question.

And I am tired, so tired, of being asked about women and the priesthood. I confess near total exhaustion. I’m asked all the time. Because I’m a woman, a theologian, so I must… Well, must what? What are they asking of me, then and there? When they ask. What really – what are they seeing, when they look at me? Sometimes I refuse to respond to that as well.

Why refuse these things? Because I adore Thomas Aquinas, my favorite theologian is a dead Swiss guy, and I don’t do feminist theology. It’s not my expertise. Not even close. Because I get tired of it sometimes. In a fit of aggravation, I sometimes think that I should just get “metaphysics” and “aesthetics” tattooed on my wrists so people know what it is I love to study, or so they at least know that I know fancy words.

Beneath what I do and the theologians I engage, there is the anxious thought that these matters of mine render me distinctively less somehow. There is, to be sure, a way in which my interests sway elsewhere, and so I do not have a facility for discussing gender as it is being worked out at the scholarly level. I am happy to defer to others. All the same, I have been discounted by other women in my field for the same reasons, and I am not so proud as to imagine they’re wrong. Nor right, exactly. I honestly don’t know what to think.

It is important to acknowledge that there are ways in which I am helpless but to be some kind of living commentary on being a Catholic woman and scholar. Or failing to be enough of one. Any one.

I am aware, very aware, that I have had to be twice as good at philosophy as others in my field in order to be taken seriously. Because logic is, apparently, what men do. I’ve even growled, frustrated, when other female scholars stumble with a simple distinction, aware it’ll reflect badly on me and on her and none of it’s fair but it sure as hell is real.

And I wonder what it means, as a Catholic woman, to have put my work as a theologian first. If that’s another failing grade.

Like when I visit home and I know it’s very hard to understand what the hell it is that I’m doing, let alone why. It does hurt.

And I’d go to battle defending mothers all the same.

Or, unsafe in the walls of the academy, I go to the faculty lounge for lunch, and a female colleague teases me about how I must think everything is Eve’s fault. That hurts too, because it’s not what I think, it’s not what the Church thinks, and dammit if it doesn’t sting to have someone else presume for my sake that I’m complicit in an evil (real or not) against my own gender. Perhaps I am. That cuts at me, all ragged and helpless.

I do not lack concern for how women are treated, in the Church or outside of it, as I hope is clear. I don’t particularly want to be called a feminist, as I also hope is clear.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that there have been times, perplexing times, when I have no idea what people are trying to get from me. Or if I could even give it to them if I knew. Painful times that I have been asked about my faith, about how I feel about it as a woman, and what my sexuality might be. What else of mine could they possibly eviscerate and place on the table after all that? Do I need to prove that I believe, that I have thoughts as a woman, that I’m heterosexual? And isn’t that somehow insanely unfair – unfair to all of it, every word? This is what people think they must see, must know, should get to ask about, when I walk into a room. Somehow. I hate the moments when I am placed under such a knife. How will I do anything in response but lose? No matter what I say. I do resent it. I do wonder what else of me is left, after the verbal surgery. Perhaps my intellect, but I can’t say much about what that means without a body and a faith to express and animate it.

It is a grace of its own kind to be a Catholic woman. Sometimes it gets really hard to remember that.


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