Navigating my way through social interactions and institutions that are often at odds with my feminism is one of the most difficult challenges as a feminist. It’s endlessly frustrating and fascinating because it’s impossible to remove myself from my society and culture. Sooner or later, we all have to choose when to reconcile and negotiate our feminist beliefs with the social institutions we belong to, or choose to create new ways of being that are apart and rooted in feminism.
Nowhere is this conflict more apparent than women’s membership in patriarchal, Abrahamic religions like Judaism, Christianity and Islam. As someone who grew up Catholic, became a feminist and is now a non-practicing Catholic, I’ve worked with deeply religious women (and a handful of men) who are able to reconcile and merge their feminist beliefs in women’s equality with their devotion to God as members of patriarchal religions. I’m often in awe of their ability, because I can’t do that. My upbringing in a conservative Roman Catholic church in liberal New York state and the current state of affairs in the Church have made sure of that. However, I believe that the sites of struggle between feminist and religious beliefs are extremely important to women’s equality.
So when I read a review of Radical Reinvention: An Unlikely Return to the Catholic Church by Kaya Oakes, in Bitch last week, I promptly downloaded the book to my Kindle Fire. I want to know how and why a feminist would return to the Catholic Church today, with all its turmoil, misogyny, sex abuse of minors and ideological struggles for control between the church’s liberal and conservative factions. I’m barely into the book and one part immediately struck a chord with me, a child of an Irish Catholic family:
Over the years, I’ve wondered if, rather than rejoining this troubled, troubling institution, I ought to look for a church that’s closer to my political beliefs, something like the Episcopalians or the United Church of Christ, both of which not only have female clergy but support gay people as well. But there’s a root problem: I’m Irish, and when you’re an Irish Catholic, even a radical one, some part of you is always going to be Catholic. It’s that God gene, but it’s also the narrative I was brought up with, the story that we were part of an oppressed minority that came to America fleeing oppression and found…more oppression. There’s something appealing about the idea that my ancestors were not tea-sipping Episcopalian Wasps, but broke-as-hell, ghetto-dwelling, hard-swearing, garbage-truck-driving, potato-famine-escaping, gallon-o’-whiskey-drinking, short-lifespan living Catholics. Yes, the Irish Catholic Church has even more ills to answer for than the American Church, but it’s also part of my culture. When I pray, I know generations of my family who came before me prayed in the very same way.
Oakes perfectly captures the question that all feminists must grapple with: stay within an institution and work to reform from within, or find a more welcoming place? More than that, she makes the argument that culture and family lineage has a more powerful hold than we think or admit. And that, I believe, is the heart of the endless frustration and fascination that I have as a feminist navigating the parameters of culture/family/tradition. At what point do you say, to hell with family/culture/tradition? When do you work within it, renegotiating these traditions without losing yourself or compromising your feminist beliefs?