By Emily B. Cyr
This semester, I have enrolled in a course called “Smart, Female & Catholic”, a Catholic Studies class that addresses the challenges Catholic women face today. The course description reads: “This seminar is of course open to both men and women who want to be able to give an intelligent answer to the question, ‘How can someone be smart, Catholic and female?’
Though we attend a reputable, Catholic university that is arguably filled with smart females, it is also a Catholic university where less than half of students identify as Catholic. We live in a country that tries to strictly adhere to the separation of Church and State and we have come to value secularism above all because religion can make things messy. I understand people’s reservations about this topic, but a question like the one above is worth the risk. So let’s look at this question for what it really says: how on earth could someone be Catholic and a feminist?
The jump to feminism might seem quick but it is a focal point of our readings and discussion. It is a common stereotype that women are viewed as an inferior sex in the Catholic Church, and thus have limited authority in the church. I am not saying whether I agree with this or not, but I would like to argue that just because a woman cannot become Pope, does not mean she is not leading within the Church.
We have focused on a couple key figures in Christianity so far in order to understand their leadership that came without title. For example, we discussed the Virgin Mary (of course), and said it was an injustice to view her patience and loyalty as passivity when in fact it showed her strength. Actually, Mary has now become an extremely popular figure in the church, with many Christians feeling a closer intimacy with Mary due to her motherly persona. We also learned that Mary of Magdala was one of Jesus’s disciples, but has been belittled to this image as the repentant sinner. Throughout history women have had to fight for equality, and religion has not been exempt from this. Religion does not exist in a vacuum, and it has been subject to the follies of society like any other institution.
The best example of this is Sister Thea Bowman. Thea Bowman was a Sister Religious, (basically a nun) who left her mark on the Catholic Church by spreading her faith among the African-American community. Thea was a black woman in a church led by white men, and she chose to unite her religion and her culture through music. She brought what she called “black sacred soulful song” to the Catholic hymnal, and yes, she even made the Bishops dance. Thea Bowman saw a problem, the lack of support for African-Americans in the church and instead of lamenting it or leaving the church; she did what she could to change it.
Starting with Thea Bowman, I could give you a long list of women who are clearly smart, female and Catholic and among this list would be every Catholic girl in my class. I greatly applaud the men and the non-Catholic students who are in the class, because their open minds and respectful manner have greatly contributed to discussion, but the Catholic women in this class, by signing up for this course, have both recognized and taken on a great responsibility.
They are women who are committed to their identities as women as well as Catholics and we know that if we want to see any change we have to seek it ourselves. It is a reminder to me, that there are many folds to feminism and a wide range of ways to define it. The most important thing we can do is support each other in our questions, and not pass judgment when we have not looked for the answers ourselves.