Catholic Women, the Church and Me

by Thea Lavin on December 29, 2004

After last November’s elections, my opinion of conservative Christians plummeted to an all- time low. It was around that same time that I read progressive journalist Barbara Ehrenreich’s article, “The Faith Factor,” in which she argued that secular-type democrats, like myself, were guilty of blithely dismissing as irrational and oppressive the “the religious transformation of America.”

Ehrenreich was right. After the elections I smugly
cast conservative Christians as misguided hate mongers
who were a threat to women’s rights. Not only had
evangelical voters carried Bush back to the White
House, but their “moral values” inspired an onslaught
of homophobic and anti- choice legislation. I was so
bothered by the power of America’s “religious
transformation,” that by the time Christmas arrived, I
partially viewed Jesus Christ as an enemy.

But enemies are easier to loathe as anonymous entities
than beloved family members. My Aunt Maureen is a
conservative Catholic in Wisconsin, the home state I
visited last weekend. In fact, my entire midwestern
family is Catholic, the kind that immigrated from
Ireland after all the potatoes died, and left a
religious faith that endures today.

At Christmas dinner, I was busy picking cherries out
of a Santa Claus jello mold when I spotted a portrait
of the Virgin Mary on the opposite wall. “Don’t you
find the whole church thing oppressive,” I asked,
before rephrasing my question. “Or, what I mean is, do
you think Mary has feminist potential?”

“Mary is a role model for me,” responded Aunt Maureen.
“Going to church and knowing Mary has really helped
me.”

Reeeeaally, I scoffed skeptically while Ehrenreich’s
charge resurfaced in my mind. Chewing hard on a jello
cherry, I imagined Ehrenreich appearing as a billowy
divine vision who whispered gently in my ear: “How do
you know the church is bad for all women, you self-
assured snob.”

Eight years had passed since I last attended a
Catholic mass. In 1997 I completed 13 years of
Catholic education and recieved my high school diploma
in a church ceremony. After the chapel cleared, I
snuck onto the altar with a devious friend and
jokingly humped a statue of Christ. Mid-thrust, my dad
walked in and stared icely until I silently demounted
Jesus.

Trying my best to follow Ehrenreich’s lead, I asked my
Aunt when I could join her at mass. “Tommorrow morning
at eight,” she replied enthusiastically.

The next morning Maureen and I motored past frozen
corn fields on our way to St. Francis Xavier Church.
“This past year has been hard and the church has,
like, been my backbone,” she said while turning into
the church parking lot. “I see these people all the
time.”

I nodded vaguely, as if I didn’t know what
difficulties she was referring to, even through I had
heard all about how her alchoholic husband, Wayne,
went off his psych meds and crashed his car in a
drunken blackout. And I knew that she lost her job as
a medical technician and was struggling to support her
three kids. Those dilemmas hung in my mind like a
crust of frozen dew as we walked through the church’s
front doors.

To my surprise, the place was already packed by the
time we arrived at 7:45 a.m.. Every pew bowed under
its fullest capacity, while Father Matthew, the parish
priest, strolled down the aisle and greeted lay
members.

“Peace be with you,” said Father when he reached the
altar.

“And with you, Father,” we replied in unison.

As I listened to Father Matthew, I sincerely wanted my
resentful stereotypes to be proved wrong. I wanted to
walked out of church with my head bowed, embarrassed
that I had so self-righteously labeled conservative
Christianity a threat to women’s well-being.

Then Father read a letter from Saint Paul to the
Colossians. “Wives be submissive your husbands.
Husbands love your wives and do not treat them with
bitterness.” WHAT?!

“I am going to consciously forget that,” I thought and
tried to focus on the rest of the service.

Fortunately, Father Matthew’s homily was much better
than the biblical readings. Standing in front of his
congregation, he told us that “our calling in life is
to be good brothers and sisters, husbands and wives,
sons and daughters. To treat each other with respect
and honor… To hold eachother.” I turned to my aunt,
who was listening intently, and watched her smile as
Father Matthew shared the Good Word.

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