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Challenging Sexism as a Catholic Female

I want to thank Diane for asking us to share our thoughts on women and religion. Before telling my story, I would like to appreciate each and every female who has done her best to challenge sexism in any way whatsoever. I believe that the ending of sexism for all of us will mean the ending of sexism for each of us in our own context. With that in mind, I hope females who are from Eastern as well as Western religious traditions, matrilineal and patriarchal religions, “popular” liberationist religious movements and traditional religions, will also offer their experiences. I believe that we are indomitable as females, once we fully have each other.

In 1988 I was given the job of RC International Liberation Reference Person for Catholics. At the time, I had worked on a number of my identities—female, raised poor/working class, cultural Catholic—but I had not done the work of going back to the religion I had been raised in: Roman Catholicism. Since I live in a capitalist Protestant nation where one can “escape” from oppression by throwing away an identity, I decided I needed to go back and face old struggles within my religion. I knew that women of many other nations, where church and state were merged, did not have the option of avoiding the impact of religion and that facing my struggle would give me not only a clearer picture of my own personal liberation but a wider view of the
struggles of Catholic women worldwide.

LESSON ONE: I learned that avoiding my material was different from liberating myself from it.

Returning to the religion I was raised in offered many valuable lessons. Texts I had listened to growing up I was hearing now as if for the first time. Images I had taken for granted on murals and stained glass windows (heathens burning in Hell, oppressive images of Jews, a fair-skinned Jesus and saints, a male God) I was seeing vividly, with new eyes. I was heartbroken, fearful, and eventually indignant when I realized that, through no fault of my own, I had absorbed the hurtful messages. I knew that I needed to discharge both on being female in my religion and on each of the confusions I
had absorbed.

 LESSON TWO: I learned that the more I cleaned up my oppression as a female, the more I could understand and fight against the oppression of others. I also learned that the integrity that fueled my passion to set things right was something I had acquired within my religion, not in spite of it. Perhaps that was the most important lesson, because it was the one that kept me going.

It became clear and eventually hopeful to me that the more I challenged the messages I had associated with my entire female self—messages of being bad; deserving shame; being secondary, subordinate, and passive—the more clearly I understood that fighting for myself was linked to a larger understanding of the overall liberation of other oppressed people. I came to understand that the oppression directed at people of color, young people, Gay people, and Jews—messages of condemnation, inferiority, and subordination—often had the same source as my oppression as a female: institutionalized religion, co-opted within an oppressive society.

LESSON THREE: I learned that I needed to find a home base, a place where I could feel proud and connected.

In the 1980s, prior to becoming a Catholic activist, I led an RC women’s support group for my Area. Through RC women’s work, I learned many valuable lessons that apply to all of us women, including that we are each in charge of our reproductive lives, no woman wants an abortion, each woman needs to discharge on being a mother or not, and to end the oppression surrounding reproduction we need to end sexism. I kept these reminders with me as I worked in a local chapter of a national women’s organization.

Something I did not expect was the enormous anti-Catholicism within the women’s movement. I became exhausted by the set of assumptions about me and other Catholic women. I decided to look for the smartest Catholic women I could find, women who had the biggest picture, and was thrilled when I found them. I was able to meet and connect with Catholic women (nuns, activists, mothers, single women) who led on issues of reproduction on a national and international stage. Their policies were close to those of RC. They were fierce. They had integrity. They knew that they needed to fight within their own base and identity. They led on reproductive issues at international United Nations forums. They refused to let the church hierarchy be the sole voice for Catholic women. They were used to being targeted by the institution and had faced public chastisement. The nuns had been threatened with being forced out of their religious orders. Yet they had persisted, with courage and integrity, in their fight for all women.

I joined with these women. Finally I had a home from which I could fight institutionalized sexism along with other Catholic women. I felt proud as I learned to talk, think, and be visible on reproductive issues—as a Catholic woman, with my courageous sisters. I remember the days when all I could do was shake (and occasionally vomit) about how scary (though exhilarating) it was.

LESSON FOUR: I learned that as Catholic females we are members of every racial, national, class, generational, and sexual-identity group and that sexism affects each and every one of us and is amplified by our multiple oppressions.

After a few years I became involved in a local “base community” of women (built on the Latin American liberation model and similar to a support group). I became a representative from that group to a coalition of thirty-six women’s groups rooted in the Catholic tradition. It was within that coalition that I learned an important lesson about internalized oppression and multiple oppressions amongst Catholic women.

Two women, both national leaders, became engaged in a bitter fight over pro-choice/pro-life positions, as part of a “discussion” about whether or not our coalition should endorse a particular public position on reproductive rights. The two women’s views reflected a division within our coalition regarding whether or not endorsing “choice” was consistent with our mission and goals. Their positions were kept in place by a harshness and condemning sense of moral superiority. The “debate” was personal, public, and unresolved.

Both of the women were friends of mine, and people whom I respected. I had a chance to spend time with each of them and ask how they had arrived at their positions. The first woman, a nun, told me of her mother, who had seven children, dying in childbirth, leaving her as a surrogate mother at fifteen years of age. She knew all too well how Catholic women have repeatedly endured in their families the devastating effects of institutionalized sexist oppression.

The other woman was in a twenty-year partnership with a woman but hadn’t been free to be “out” (publicly known as a Lesbian) due to Gay oppression and the high-profile (visible) public position of her partner. I listened to her cry and rage. She wanted a baby. She couldn’t have one. She hated Gay oppression, being without a voice, and being invisible—even with her women friends. She hated that anyone would “kill” a baby when all she wanted was to have one.

It is not rhetoric when I say that each of us Catholic women needs to be listened to fully for our oppression to be understood. Layer upon layer of various oppressions (based on sexual identity, race, class, generation, nation) add to and are made worse by the institutionalized Catholic sexism, which is brutal. What does it mean for an Indigenous Catholic woman with internalized genocide recordings to think about having children? How many children? Aborting children? What did it mean for an Irish Catholic woman to take charge of her reproduction in a nation controlled by church and state in which birth control and abortion were illegal? What does it mean for Nicaraguan women when their male political leaders make deals with the institutional church in order to win elections and then prohibit abortion? What does it mean to be a political Catholic woman leader in the United States and be threatened with refusal of sacraments for taking public positions on reproduction?

LESSON FIVE: Claiming my voice as a Catholic woman meant understanding the context of my oppression and challenging the oppression alongside other women.

Our allies are often confused and astounded by the struggles we Catholic women have with sharing our thoughts and being visible. We are both brilliant and heaped under mounds of voicelessness. I want to thank Diane Balser, especially, who has recognized the brilliance of RC Catholic women leaders and persisted with us through our struggles to open our mouths. We know, but we don’t know that we know. We think, and then we doubt and dismiss what we think. We have been told that we are not entitled to speak; only to follow.

Leading women figures in the Christian New Testament (which was written within a patriarchal slave society in which woman were literally owned by male heads of households) are rendered close to invisible and voiceless. Women’s stories are eliminated from Bible readings, or read not on Sundays but only during the week. Even Mary, the mother of Jesus, (called Miriam as a Jewish woman), is rendered almost mute in Biblical texts, speaking only three times.

Catholic women who chose to lead, speak, and be visible were tortured and/or burned at the stake. (The estimates range from hundreds of thousands to millions.) Ironically, some females who were burned at the stake and viewed as troublemakers were elevated to positions of veneration after their deaths. Joan of Arc was burned at the stake and later made a saint. Teresa of Avila was threatened with being silenced (due to her writings and desire to be a priest) and later honored as a pre-eminent leader and referred to as “Doctor of the Church.”

Within the last forty years (parallel to secular feminism), Catholic women scholars and activists worldwide have researched, written about, taught about, and challenged the attempts to make women invisible. Women biblical scholars have reminded us of the first words of Mary, mother of Jesus. She spoke about her child coming to “put the mighty down from their thrones, fill the hungry with good things, and send the rich away . . . empty” (Luke 1:52-3). (Sounds like the transformation of society to me.) Over the last four decades, Catholic women scholars have searched out the tradition of women’s liberation within religion to remind us of our voices and power, and provide us with the courage to keep going.

At the United Nations International Women’s Conference (in Beijing, China, in 1995), Catholic women spoke out about the feminization of poverty, the rights of women and children, globalization, reproductive rights, and war and violence against women. A Catholic woman activist led a panel of progressive religious women (Jewish, Protestant, Muslim, and Catholic) on the connection between fundamentalism and the control of women (with a standing ovation at the end). I was proud to be there witnessing Catholic women standing shoulder to shoulder with all women, against sexism.

A few years ago in Dublin, Ireland, I was part of the first international gathering of Catholic women on the issue of ordination. It was called Women’s Ordination Worldwide, shortened to WOW (which showed our sense of humor). The keynote speaker was a sister from the United States (Joan Chittister). She was later threatened with excommunication (a profound penalty for an observant Catholic that deprives him or her from the Eucharist and severs his or her connections to the believing community) because she dared to speak on the issue of ordination. What I want our allies to understand is that the silencing of Catholic women involves extremes of punishment that reach into our souls and attempt to wrench us from our communities. Yet the keynote speaker did not refrain from speaking.

All of the three hundred and twenty-six women at the conference were notified by the BBC that we, too, were threatened with excommunication. The male leadership of the Church was willing to exact on us the harshest of punishments for our daring to challenge a profound form of sexism. Yet no one left. No one backed off. Joan spoke. She was backed by her community of sisters (who were as old as eighty-six) and all of us present. The Vatican withdrew the threat of excommunication. The women gained a new level of confidence and solidarity. Still, these kinds of threats against any Catholic woman who challenges institutional sexism persist, and they take hold when we speak and are visible.

Recently I was on a panel, at a Jesuit university, on Women in the Church Today. After a talk that I was proud of, I was asked to comment on a papal encyclical (a letter written to the faithful by the Pope): Dignitatum Muelieris (On the Dignity of Women). I was pleased to see the gains I had made (due completely to RC). With relaxed confidence I explained to a non-RC audience how the content of an encyclical was in error. I felt completely relaxed about why the Pope was wrong. He was confused about the “nature” of women, and the document expressed confusion from top to bottom because of that distortion. It was wonderful to know that the sessions I had done on being attacked, being criticized, and facing “the fires of Hell,” witch burnings, and Inquisitions had all made a difference. Many of my sessions had been on terror and having my mind. I recall my first session with a Jewish ally about “wrestling with God” and facing the fires of Hell.

I have learned to speak my mind, and I love backing other Catholic women to face their terrors and have their minds. Presently, as part of my wide-world activism, I lead a Catholic women’s group within a mainstream activist organization. I have us tell our stories and learn our history. I encourage us to be courageous as we challenge oppression within the institution and amongst our male allies. I use every direction I have thought of in sessions to offer confidence and safety to Catholic women to reach for their minds.

LESSON SIX: I have learned from Catholic women everywhere—in RC and out—who are students, theologians, workers within churches, activists, mothers, daughters, and nuns about how colonization, slavery, genocide, and racism intersect with each other and impact women, and why I need to listen to women worldwide to challenge the misinformation and confusions I carry.

Our liberation from sexism, as Catholic women, will benefit by our remembering that eighty percent of the global population of Catholics are people of color. Colonization, slavery, and genocide recordings have functioned to make women invisible to themselves and others, including their allies. Catholic women of color face double and triple oppression and what Harvey referred to as “super-oppression”: imperialism. Yet they are not victims, even in the face of all this.

Because many of us, including our allies, are unfamiliar with feminists in religion, I honor here the names of a few of the women whose shoulders Catholic women stand on: Diana Hayes, U.S. womanist theologian; Ivonne Guevara, a feminist theologian from Brazil; Mary John Mananzan, a Filipina feminist; Mary Condren, an Irish feminist; Indigenous liberationist Julia Esquavel; Rosemary Ruether, a U.S. feminist theologian; Mary Robinson, a former president of Ireland and an Irish practicing Catholic who has led on the world stage against racism. It was also Mary Robinson who said, “I am a Jew,” when Jews were under attack at the United Nations World Conference Against Racism, in Durban, South Africa.

Latin American women RCers teach fundamentals in their parishes and give priests a safe place to work on their oppression. Black, Latina, and white Catholic women Co-Counselors bring RC tools to wide-world Catholics. Nuns in Argentina, Chile, and Ireland are building RC everywhere they go. Many Latin American women have been inspired and backed by nuns who have understood liberation theology (theology that challenges all oppressions). Indigenous Catholic women have refused to be silent or disappear. They have challenged the Pope. They have fought every trace of genocidal recordings that make them want to die. The brown-skinned Virgin of Guadalupe remains the icon for prayerful activist Catholics.

LESSON SEVEN: If you are an ally to Catholic women who are challenging sexism, you will be attacked. Thus building alliances and discharging on attacks are key to both women and men allies.

Our local Catholic women’s group worked together with the Jesuit leadership of our region to plan an event challenging sexism. To begin the project, I co-led, with a Jesuit priest, a group for the twelve of us (six women, six Jesuits) on understanding sexism. Once a month for six months we met and two people told their stories. First the women told their life stories as Catholic females: what had been good and what had been hard, including experiences of sexism. Then the Jesuits told stories of Catholic women they had been close to or who had inspired them with their leadership and lives of integrity. After that they told stories of witnessing sexism.

I do not know which stories were more compelling, but the overall experience moved us all as a group and set the stage for our project. We ended up planning and holding an event based on a document about challenging sexism: “Women in the Church and Civil Society.” The Jesuit who had written the document, for thirty-six thousand priests worldwide, addressed the gathering, along with a renowned Catholic feminist theologian. Four hundred people attended. We had planted the seeds of a local movement.

Then a cardinal tried to undermine our work by attacking the Jesuits for their alliance with us. He said he would close down their work at the Jesuit Urban Society, which had become a safe haven for Gay Catholics, holding masses for up to four hundred people. The Jesuits withdrew their support from our women’s group and confessed their fear of an attack on their community, and of Gay leadership within our alliance. Our women’s group was shut out of all Catholic institutional resources (including facilities, financial backing, publishing, and advertising) in the state of Massachusetts. However, we gained nationwide support, and still today we are doing women’s work in the state.

A widely known priest, Father Roy Bourgeois, has for eighteen years challenged U.S. violence, racism, and imperialism by protesting the School of the Americas, a school in Fort Benning, Georgia, USA, responsible for training “death squads” that have murdered countless loved ones in Latin America—including six Jesuits priests and their housekeeper and her daughter—and four U.S. sisters. Father Roy has recently been excommunicated. His “sin”: being present at the ordination of a woman priest.

I am proud to be a Catholic woman. I am proud of all Catholic women who are challenging sexism—inside or outside of our religious institution. And I am proud of our sisters and brothers from every religious tradition.

Here is my program for Catholic women within religious settings:

I. Women within parishes, and all Catholic organizations, holding women’s groups and caucuses in which we tell our stories as women and learn our history.

II. Observant women reaching out to secular feminists and sharing victories and challenges in the struggle against sexism.

III. Women in parishes and Catholic organizations developing friendships with male leaders who wish to understand challenging sexism.

IV. Catholic women developing friendships with women across racial and sexual-identity lines, creating a program of unity and gaining an awareness of the impact of divisions on liberation policy.

V. Making the discharge process and the policies of RC women’s liberation central to our program.

Joanne Bray

International Liberation
Reference Person for Catholics

Greenwich, Connecticut, USA

Reprinted from the e-mail discussion
list for RC Community members


Last modified: 2019-05-02 14:41:35+00