Where are all the Catholic women?
Women make up half the church. They are religious education teachers and altar servers, music directors and business administrators, vowed religious and mothers and wives. Women serve in parish nurseries, they lead Catholic universities, and they minister to college students.
And yet, despite this, theologians, laypeople, and Pope Francis can all agree on one thing: We need to do better at recognizing the importance of women in the life of the church.
According to a U.S. Catholic survey of readers last year, only 32% of Catholics think that the our church has a “deep theology of women.” If this is true, it’s certainly not due to a lack in women who are invested in their church. Where, then, is the church failing its women?
In a 2015 audience with men and women religious, Pope Francis made an argument for including women, not just in leadership positions, but in decision-making and problem-solving roles within the church. “When we men are dealing with a problem, we arrive at a conclusion, but if we deal with the same problem along with women, the conclusion could be different,” he said. “Women in the church must have this role. . . . The church needs the feminine genius.”
The problem is that no one seems to agree on what exactly is this “feminine genius” that the church needs so badly. In an article for Crux titled “Women must be more than ‘guest workers’ in the Church,” Carolyn Woo, the President and CEO of Catholic Relief Services, writes:
When the Church speaks of the “feminine genius,” she tends to hold up women’s sensitivity, intuitiveness, attentiveness to others, ministry for others’ wellbeing, thoughtfulness, nourishing, humility, loyalty, steadfastness.
It’s true. Think of the “good” Catholic women the church celebrates: Mary the virgin mother of God; Mary Magdalene, celebrated by many as a reformed sinner; martyrs to the faith like Perpetua and Felicity; and saints like St. Maria Goretti, whose neighbor stabbed her 14 times after she refused to have sex with him.
Woo continues her article by asking the following:
But what about the part of women who are social activists and critics like Dorothy Day? Women who have a scandalous past like Dorothy Day, Mary Magdalene, or the woman at the well? Women who are entrepreneurial, daring, persistent, stubborn and sometimes defiant, like many of the women who founded and sustained religious congregations?
What does the church do with these women whose stories don’t align with the model of perfect femininity it would like to raise up?
Sometimes the answer is to smooth over the rough edges and present them as perfect caretakers and paragons of virtue. Sometimes it is to ignore the more complex characteristics of these women or to let them slip away into history, their stories forgotten and untold.
This site, a project of U.S. Catholic magazine, is an attempt to keep that from happening. It is a celebration of all parts of the feminine genius, and a recognition of the myriad ways women have contributed to our church throughout history and around the world. We are not afraid to turn away from women with a scandalous past, women who are persistent, defiant, or who take it upon themselves to educate the men around them. Instead, we highlight their work and raise them up as role models for all Catholics today—laypeople and women religious, men and women, married and single, Black and white alike.
We encourage you to flip through the essays and read about these inspiring women who range from biblical figures to contemporary ordinary people. New essays and reflections will be added monthly. And, if you can think of a woman who has encouraged your faith or who deserves to be recognized as a role model, let us know in the comments or on social media using #unexpectedwomen.
Strong women exist throughout our faith tradition. The “deep theology of women” is work that has already been done and continues to be done. We need to be attentive to their stories.
Use the arrows at the bottom corners of the screen to navigate to the next article in the collection. Or, to go directly to a specific piece, use the menu bar in the top left corner. This page will also be updated with links to new essays as they are posted.
Woman, come down from your cross! by Diana Hayes
Dorothy Day: A different kind of saint by Rhonda Miska
Sor Juana de la Cruz: First feminist of the new world by Nick Ripatrazone
Elizabeth Johnson: Hanging on with integrity and grace by Heidi Schlumpf
Sister Simone Campbell: A nun on the bus by Jean P. Kelly
Simone Weil: Faith, reason, and empathy by Jeannine M. Pitas
St. Faustina Kowalska: A prophet of God’s mercy by Jeannine M. Pitas
Heloise: Following her head and her heart by Shanna Johnson
Louise Erdrich: Tribal writer, Catholic writer by Rebecca Bratten Weiss
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Woman, come down from your cross!
Woman Offered No. 5
From time immemorial, women, of all races and ethnicities, of all classes, have been nailed to the cross of Jesus Christ. Willingly, even eagerly, some have climbed up and hung, believing that in doing so their sacrifice of love, their martyrdom, will protect them, their families, and especially their children. Others, unwilling and unasked, have been forced onto their crosses by those they love and by the societies in which they live, again for their own protection and the good of society. In reality, they are crucified solely because they are women and that, the world teaches, is the role of women—to sacrifice themselves, their hopes, dreams, and aspirations for everyone.
Come down from the cross! If Jesus were to return today, would these not be some of the first words he would say to our world? “Come down; stop sacrificing yourselves for your alleged sins and those of others. It is no sin to be a woman; it is a grace, given by God. I died so that no one, no one, would ever have to suffer the cruel pain of crucifixion, of dying, hanging from a tree, stabbed, starved, laughed at, and derided. Come down off that cross, now! Do not wait for others to take you down; you have the right and the ability to stop your suffering yourself! Come Down!”
Too many women have been “surrogate sufferers,’ forced to live lives of sacrifice and self-effacement for the supposed good of others, especially their men, rather than being able to freely choose paths of their own making, lives of their own choosing, futures of their own desiring. They have been placed on crosses, however they may be named, that imprison rather than liberate, that impede rather than promote, that weaken rather than empower, and that cripple rather than strengthen. Motherhood and martyrdom, the virgin or the whore, these have been the extremely limited roles available to women. Any woman who chooses another way, seeking to serve God in her own right, whether by remaining single but not in religious life, by seeking further education beyond domestic skills or approved women’s fields that initially, like nursing and teaching, were also forbidden to them, is condemned as “unnatural,” prideful, and even persecuted as a witch.
The cross has become historically not a symbol of a once-and-for-all freely given sacrifice of life and love but a punishment for women, the poor, persons of color, all and any who dare to be different because they are born different, as we all are born. Those historically marginalized and made voiceless in our world, the majority of whom are women, must now step down from the cross. This is not why Jesus died and rose again. He died and rose again to give life, not take it away. He died to open up our lives to their limitless possibilities and not to restrict them by negativity, self-doubt, or fear.
Women have been condemned for their intelligence, for their sexuality, for their emotions, all gifts given to them in their creation by a God of love and compassion. God created women not as scapegoats or footstools, not as baby-making machines or mindless beings, robots without wills of their own. No. God created woman to work in solidarity with God’s other creation, man; to stand alongside and not in back or in front of him, to care for all of God’s creation. Both creation stories confirm this. The first chapter of Genesis states that God created male and female at the same time as the pinnacle of God’s creation (Gen 1:26), to nurture and sustain it, not to dominate or destroy it. But many know nothing of this story because the emphasis of Christian churches has always been on the story of Adam and Eve.
Even there we do not find a mandate for woman to be submissive to the will of man. Both are meant to submit to the will of God and both fail to do so, in their own way. Eve is Adam’s help-mate, a term too often misinterpreted as servant or slave, rather than one who works in harmony with him as an equal. They do not have ownership of each other or of God’s creation; they are stewards, not masters. They have the ability, by the grace of God, to think for themselves and, in doing so, as many of us finite humans continue to do to this day, they strayed from God’s path. They were punished by banishment but they were not cursed. More important, their banishment freed them to create life themselves in their own image and likeness and that of God’s, again by the compassionate grace of God. They were freed to cultivate the land, to attain knowledge of themselves and the world around them. In other words, they were freed to be human. Eve was not the source of evil or the gateway to hell. She was and continues to be the source of life as we have come to know it in its purest and fullest sense.
Women are the bearers of life and culture. They tell the stories, sing the songs, reweave the tapestries of our lives, and pass on knowledge of life and the world around them to all of humanity. Their gifts should be celebrated rather than condemned, rewarded rather than punished, proclaimed rather than ignored. Jesus himself proclaimed in Mark 14:9 of the unknown woman who anointed him, “I assure you that wherever the gospel is preached all over the world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”
The gospel has been preached for two millennia, but somehow this passage has been ignored, in much the same way that the role of women in Jesus’ ministry and their proclaiming of the gospel message have been ignored. Instead, we hear only of women who are sinners or martyrs, virgins or whores. Where are the real women living real lives of love, friendship, study, writing, preaching, prophesying, dancing, praying, and singing? We know little of them.
Women, of every race and nation, have carried the weight of the world on their shoulders from time immemorial. They have suffered long enough for the sins and failings of everyone. It is time, long past time, for them to come down from the cross and walk freely into new life, a life of possibility, not pain, of progress, not false failures. This does not mean that they can walk away from responsibility toward themselves and others but that they have the freedom to choose for themselves the paths they should take, the lives they should lead, the tapestries they will weave. All adults, male and female, should be free to choose. They are free to envision different possibilities for themselves and, therefore, for those they love.
Woman! Come down from that cross! It is not yours to bear. Jesus was nailed to the cross, died, and rose again, making the cross a symbol of resurrection, not of pain or death. Life up your head, look the world straight in the eye, and come down from the cross to take up your life as God’s beloved, weaving a new world, free of pain and suffering, hatred, prejudice and discrimination, oppression and marginalization, into a new, complex, and fruitful life.
A different kind of saint
Servant of God (a posthumous designation of “heroic virtue”) Dorothy Day makes us all a little uncomfortable. To secular activists who share her social critiques, her traditional Catholicism and commitment to daily rosary and Mass is puzzling or off-putting. To moderates, her anarchism, her willingness to engage in civil disobedience, and her blistering critique of the “rotten, decadent, putrid industrialist capitalist system” seem shrill or extreme. To those who embrace just war theory, her unwavering, stalwart pacifism—even during World War II—and uncompromising commitment to the gospel of peace is unsettling. To all of us living relatively comfortable middle-class lives, her voluntary poverty and deep solidarity with the poor challenges us and exposes places where we have become complacent and lukewarm.
Pope Francis, in his September 2015 address to Congress, called Dorothy Day a “great American,” and, her obituary, written by David J. O’Brien and published by Commonweal magazine, described her as “the most significant, interesting, and influential person in the history of American Catholicism.” I connect with her as a Catholic single woman writer, deeply engaged in both reflecting on and participating in social and political issues.
The ideal Catholic woman is often depicted as either the nurturing, selfless, home-making mother of a large brood of children or the cloistered, praying nun. In Dorothy—a radical, lay woman, unmarried mother, and founder of a lay movement that began as a street apostolate and never sought authorization from the hierarchy—we have a distinctly different modern model of a Catholic holy woman.
Dorothy was deeply committed to the saints, looking to their examples for guidance and seeking their intercession (such as “picketing” St Joseph when there were unpaid bills). Yet she sensed an unmet need for a different kind of saint in the light of the political, economic, and social upheavals of the early 20th century. In her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, she recounts the question that seemed to fuel her life’s work: “Where were the saints to try to change the social order, not just to minister to the slaves, but to do away with slavery?”
Her long and active life of writing, protesting, offering hospitality, building community, and performing the works of mercy was an incarnational answer to that question. Dorothy read the “signs of the times,” sensing the need for a saint who could name and confront systemic evils and create creating “a new society in the shell of the old . . . a society where it is easier to be good.” Dorothy’s desire for saints who lived out not just charity but also justice calls to mind Brazilian Archbishop Dom Helder Camara’s famous line that when he fed the poor he was called a saint, but when he asked why the poor had no food, he was called a communist.
Born in 1897 to a middle-class family in Brooklyn, Dorothy’s family moved to San Francisco when she was young. Nine-year-old Dorothy was impressed by the kindness neighbors showed one another after the 1906 earthquake. Later, during her two years at the University of Illinois, she joined the Socialist party after being exposed to the disparity between rich and poor. When she was 18, Dorothy moved to New York where she wrote for the New York Call covering strikes, unemployment, and “bread riots.” She kept company with labor organizers, Wobblies, bohemians and anarchists. She entered into a common-law marriage with Forster Batterham, living in a Staten Island bungalow purchased with the money from her autobiographical novel, The Eleventh Virgin. She recalls these years as a time of “natural happiness.”
While not religious at the time, Dorothy later described herself as “haunted by God” during her young adulthood. She began to attend Mass, pray more, and carry a rosary in her pocket. When she became pregnant—a cause for “blissful joy”—she decided to have her child baptized, though Batterham was adamantly opposed. Moreover, her radical friends and colleagues saw religion as an “opiate for the masses” and considered her 1927 conversion an abandonment of their shared values. Despite this opposition, Dorothy chose God and had herself and her daughter Tamar Teresa baptized.
In 1932, while covering the Hunger March of the Unemployed in Washington, DC, she prayed at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception “with tears and anguish, that some way would open” to use her talents for her “fellow workers, for the poor.” When Day returned to New York, the French peasant-philosopher Peter Maurin was at her door, expounding on his personalist, Gospel-inspired vision of hospitality houses, roundtable discussions for “clarification of thought” and “agronomic universities.” On May 1, 1933—the Feast of St Joseph the Worker—the Catholic Worker newspaper debuted, selling (as it still does) for a penny a copy. Dorothy’s anguished prayer had been answered and the Catholic Worker movement was born.
I first learned about Dorothy during a Newman Center service trip to a Catholic Worker house. I didn’t connect with her, though, until several years later while reading a book of her writings. I was one year back from my term as a Jesuit Volunteer in Nicaragua, an energetic, idealistic young adult trying to make sense of the holy, horrible, and heart-wrenching empathy I had felt while listening to my campesino neighbors describe the Contra War’s devastation or mourning with them an infant’s death from lack of clean water. My identification with them and their pain was deep and disorienting. Embarrassed that I might be judged as hysterical (a ubiquitous term often used to dismiss women’s experience), over-emotional, or unprofessional, I kept the intense, confusing feelings to myself.
Then I came across Dorothy’s words describing her time in solitary confinement, her perceptions sharpened by weariness and isolation, at the Occoquan workhouse after protesting for women’s suffrage:
I suffer not only my own sorrow but the sorrows of those about me. I was no longer myself. I was man. I was no longer a young girl, part of a radical movement seeking justice for those oppressed, I was the oppressed. I was that drug addict, screaming and tossing in her cell, beating her head against the wall. I was that shoplifter who for rebellion had been sentenced to solitary. I was that woman who had killed her children, who had murdered her lover.
Yes. I was filled with relief at her wrapping language around an experience I hadn’t been able to name. It was one of those graced moments that books can offer—the writer’s voice stretching across space and time with the reassurance that the reader is not alone in the universe.
These words articulated something I sensed: Our empathic feeling with others is part of gospel living that flows into our action, belief, and prayer. Dorothy’s orthopraxy (her service, or “right action”) was rooted in her orthopathy (her love and empathy, or “right feeling” for the marginalized). Perhaps this witness is particularly relevant and necessary given the polarizing and excessively narrow concern for the orthodoxy (“right thinking”) of the vitriolic culture-war arguments on nuances of doctrinal interpretation and liturgical practices. Pope Francis held Dorothy up as a model of “social activism . . . passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed” in his address to Congress, emphasizing this orthopraxy.
Despite her commitment to the sacraments, love for the saints, and radical living out of the works of mercy, Dorothy’s relationship with the church was not uncomplicated. “I loved the Church for Christ made visible, not for itself because it was so often a scandal to me,” Dorothy wrote. She described herself as a “loyal and obedient daughter of the Church,” but did not look to the hierarchy for inspiration or approval. She wrote, “In all history popes and bishops and father abbots seem to have been blind and power loving and greedy.” No cardinals or bishops came to her funeral in 1980. Perhaps this was because Dorothy subverts the supposed ideal Catholic woman as submissive to authority—be it familial, governmental, or ecclesial.
Moreover, Dorothy doesn’t fit the mold of the ideal Catholic mother. Yes, she was a mother, but motherhood wasn’t the focus of her life and mission. Dorothy had several affairs, an abortion, and a child outside of wedlock before her conversion, and there is a risk of domesticating her radical witness, casting her as simply a repentant female sexual sinner, a tired and well-worn trope. To paint Dorothy with that brush is to miss the point of her long life spent performing the works of mercy, resisting the works of war, and incarnating the gospel, despite her many critics.
Robert Ellsberg said of Dorothy that “there was absolutely no distinction between what she believed, what she wrote, and the manner in which she lived.” In this, she is a model all of us—male and female—can emulate. Her life was driven by the pressing question: “Where were the saints to try to change the social order, not just to minister to the slaves but to do away with slavery?” and she offers us another compelling question to raise up saints to change the social order, one person and one day at a time: “The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each of us?”
Sor Juana de la Cruz
First feminist of the new world
“She studies, argues, and teaches / all in service of the church, / since the one who gave her the gift of reason / did not mean for her to be ignorant.” Those lines sound like a rallying cry for women of faith in the present day, but they were written nearly 325 years ago by a nun for the feast of St. Catherine of Alexandria in New Spain. That nun was Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the daughter of poor, unwed parents—a Creole mother and a Spanish father.
Juana used literature and poetry as forms of protest and affirmation of her identity. She created a precedent for modern writers to develop, rather than stifle, the tension between faith and doubt, allegiance and independence.
Sor Juana’s literary depth and breadth would be the envy of any modern writer. She composed devotional verse, secular love poems, comedies, plays, theological essays, autobiographical treatises, and villancicos (liturgical hymns). One of her biographers, the great Mexican poet Octavio Paz, lauded Sor Juana as one of the major female poets of the eastern hemisphere, along with Emily Dickinson, Gabriela Mistral, Marianne Moore, and Elizabeth Bishop—and concluded Sor Juana is the most distinct.
Sor Juana followed her intellectual passions, even if those routes were not traditional for women of her time. Whenever I think that I have reached a dead end in my writing or learning, I look to her example of intellectual ascension, how she noticed the connections across disciplines and schools of thoughts.
Entirely self-taught, Sor Juana studied rhetoric to discern the “figures, tropes, and locutions” of scripture. She studied mathematics to understand the computations of Daniel and measurements of proportion of the sacred Ark of the Covenant and Jerusalem.
This sense of divine origin and goal suffused all spheres of her study. “Blessed be God,” she reflected, “for his will to direct [my inclination] toward learning, and not toward some vice or other that would have proved all but irresistible to me.” In 1669, barely out of her teens, Sor Juana professed her vows in the Hieronymite Convent of St. Paula in Mexico City. “My wish [is] to live alone,” she writes in a letter, “to have no fixed occupation which might curtail my freedom of study, nor the noise of a community to interfere with the tranquil stillness of my books.”
It is partly Sor Juana’s mixture of independence and humility that attracts her to me. The circumstances of our learning differ—after all, Sor Juana’s self-teaching, as a woman in the 17th century, was a matter of necessity rather than choice—but I am inspired by her intellect. My worst moments as a writer (and possibly as a person) have been when I have taken for granted my knowledge of the “small” things that, to paraphrase Sor Juana, are the creation of God. Sor Juana knew that one of those creations was herself—in one poem she writes “I will own my very soul / as if it were not mine.”
While her thirst for knowledge remained as she got older, Sor Juana had an epiphany about how to gain this knowledge of the world. She fell ill and was unable to read for an extended period of time; during her illness, she arrived at an epiphany: “Although I did not study in books, I directed my study to all the things God has made,” Sor Juana writes. “They became my letters, and my book was the machinery of the universe. There was nothing I saw that I did not reflect upon. There was nothing I heard that I did not ponder, even the smallest and most material of things. Because there is no creature, no matter how lowly, in which the me fecit Deus [God made me] cannot be found.”
I see this approach as uniquely Catholic: Sor Juana recognized that she could not know and understand all things, but she sought wisdom. Rather than mire herself in books or in one specialization, she chose breadth of knowledge; what a wonderful model of a catholic approach to Catholic knowledge.
Hundreds of years later, I consider Juana Inés de la Cruz the poet laureate of a particular tension: a religious writer who wishes to bring the ineffable to secular ears. When my wife first introduced me to her work, I was struck by the modernity of her voice and her interweaving of tradition with individuality. Sor Juana’s words have been a reminder to me that devotion includes healthy pinches of discussion and doubt. She was a better writer—perhaps a better Catholic—because of her tendency to push boundaries on and off the page.
Yet for all of Juana’s brilliance and ambition, she was still a woman in the 17th century, and thus during her time faced biting criticism from both her peers and superiors in the church. She paraphrased some of the condemnation against her: “This study is incompatible with the blessed ignorance to which you are bound. You will lose your way, at such heights your head will be turned by your very perspicacity and sharpness of mind.”
These tensions found their ultimate test in 1690 when, without her permission, the Bishop of Puebla found and published a critique she had written of a Jesuit’s sermon. Adopting the fictional persona of a nun, the bishop wrote a scathing admonition of Sor Juana. This caused a controversy that led Sor Juana to write her most influential and seminal text, the 1691 work Response to Sor Philotea de la Cruz. Hailed by contemporary religious and secular feminist critics, the work was the evolution of her rise as an independent voice. Pamela Kirk Rappaport describes the response as a “carefully reasoned and passionate argument for women’s equality but also as a scripturally based rationale for a theological anthropology that assumes women’s authority as spiritual and theological teachers.” Rappaport praises even the method of the work, which “invites the reader into the very process of theology itself—a process of reflection, contemplation, debate, and ongoing refinement.”
That is not to say that Juana had no supporters. Until the late 1680s, Marqués de la Laguna, the viceroy of New Spain, and his wife María Luisa, Condesa de Paredes, published her works in Spain and gave her remarkable literary and political freedom. But despite these powerful friends, Juana remained a radical, perhaps intellectually dangerous, voice.
Juana refused deference to masculine tradition, literary or otherwise. “You foolish men who lay / the guilt on women,” one poem begins, “not seeing you’re the cause / of the very thing you blame.” Her metaphors are fresh and clever, her points stinging and true: “What kind of mind is odder / than his who mists / a mirror and then complains / that it’s not clear.”
Sor Juana was fearless in her affirmation of her womanhood, and yet her lessons transcend gender. Sor Juana’s defense of her ideas in response to male clerical rebuke was an activity in defense of ideas and self. To be a 17th century woman intellect was to constantly fight to affirm, very simply, her God-given right to think. We need her spirit more than ever now—as an inspiration, but also as a guide and model for how women in the Church can reach new heights.
It is disheartening that many of Sor Juana’s radical defenses of women and learning still resound now, hundreds of years later: “Like men, do [women] not have a rational soul? Why then shall they not enjoy the privilege of the enlightenment of letters? Is a woman’s soul not as receptive to God’s grace and glory as a man’s?”
Today Sor Juana is in no way forgotten, particularly in her native Mexico, where her face appears on the 200 peso bill, and she has been the subject of numerous critical and creative studies, films, and even a television series in early 2016. Sor Juana truly earned the moniker of “First Feminist of the New World.” The lines she wrote for the Feast of the Assumption in 1676 perfectly describe her own identity: “Clear the way for the entrance / of the bold adventuress / who undoes injustice / who smashes insults.”
Hanging on with integrity and grace
I was born during the rise of second-wave feminism in the 1960s and grew up believing in women’s equality, but I still needed a “feminist awakening” as a young woman, since American culture had subtly—and sometimes not-so subtly—told me I was less than a man. At the time, my newfound enthusiasm for women’s empowerment resulted in several years away from regular practice of my Catholic faith. I struggled with the question of whether the church could be an open and safe place for my spiritual yearnings and emerging questions, especially given its male-only leadership and seeming near-obsession with women’s sexuality.
Luckily, I found the welcoming spiritual and theological communities I needed during that time in a center of feminine spirituality and a Protestant seminary, where I studied feminist theology. About halfway through my studies, in a class in systematic theology, the professor asked us to choose a theologian to study in-depth throughout the semester.
I chose Elizabeth Johnson, the Catholic feminist and author of She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (The Crossroad Publishing Company). And, as it had for thousands of other women and men, that book opened my eyes to how Christians—specifically Catholics—could reclaim feminine images of the divine from our tradition.
Little did I know that 15 years later, I would work with Johnson while writing her first biography, Elizabeth Johnson: Questing for God (Liturgical Press). In my research, which involved many interviews with her, her friends, family, colleagues, and students, as well as library research diving into her archived papers, I learned she has much to teach me and other women in the church. As a strong, passionate, and sometimes controversial woman, Johnson is a model of integrity and commitment to her own faith journey and to the institutional Catholic Church.
Born in Brooklyn, Johnson was a top-notch student in a family that valued education. She grew up surrounded by strong women, including her mother, an aunt who never married and plenty of women religious, both in her family and at the Catholic schools she attended. Raised in a pre-Vatican II church, Johnson did not initially see the church’s limitations on women as negative. When told she couldn’t be a Jesuit priest, young Johnson thought, “Oh well, a man can’t be a Sister of St. Joseph. I guess we each have our own ways.”
She joined the Sisters of St. Joseph immediately after high school, although she almost changed her mind after the accidental death of her father the summer after graduation. This experience of suffering and loss, though painful, would eventually prompt Johnson to ask deep theological questions about the nature of God and God’s relationship to human beings.
Her inquisitive mind landed her in graduate school, where she studied theology shortly after the Second Vatican Council, a time when seminaries and universities with graduate theological programs were opening their classes to women, especially women religious. Johnson approached her superior with the idea, explaining she wanted to study theology to answer questions like “How could God be three persons in one divine nature?” or “How could Christ be one person in two natures, human and divine?”
Johnson remembers that her superior answered her by saying, “If I questioned like that, I would lose my faith.” To which Johnson replied, “If I did not question like this, I would lose my faith.”
Later, as one of the first women to earn a doctorate in theology at The Catholic University of America (CUA), Johnson’s questioning would include the church’s treatment of women. She identifies the “day I became a feminist in the church” as Pope John Paul II’s visit to the CUA campus in 1979. Johnson was not among the protesters who called for women’s ordination at the event, but she did eventually decided to don a blue armband after Sister Teresa Kane’s famous welcome speech asking the pope to consider women’s gifts in “all ministries of our church.”
Johnson’s groundbreaking feminist work in She Who Is did not come until years later, after the harrowing experience of having her tenure application at CUA held up by cardinals on the university’s board of trustees. Despite faculty unanimously approving her promotion, Johnson was required to submit to a written and in-person interrogation regarding her beliefs and writings. In the end she prevailed, but the tenure battle was a radicalizing moment for Johnson; she realized that “even if you were doing everything right, you could still end up with your livelihood threatened,” she says. It “got my Irish up.”
Johnson eventually left CUA for Fordham, a Jesuit university that offered more academic freedom. Since 1991 she has taught graduate and undergraduate students—and written more than a half dozen books. Her writing, though academic, is accessible to the educated reader—which may be why her book Quest for the Living God (Continuum) landed her in hot water with the USCCB’s Committee on Doctrine in 2011.
Quest for the Living God is a summary of some of the creative theological work being done in the early 21st century, and not particularly controversial. And while Johnson was never officially censored, the public criticism of her book was painful, especially given her lifelong dedication to the church.
She fought the criticism gracefully, but with integrity, in a 38-page response, in which she tried to correct what she saw as a misinterpretation of her work and to open a dialogue about it. But that was not to be. Instead, the bishops continued to challenge her in the media, incorrectly claiming she refused to meet with them.
Although not directly connected to the Vatican’s two investigations into American women religious around the same time, the attack on Johnson was seen by many as one more example of the male hierarchy picking on nuns doing good work. In 2015, when the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) honored Johnson with its leadership award, the head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith criticized the group for giving her the award.
Again, Johnson responded respectfully but with integrity in her award acceptance speech, which she ended with a story about a photograph she had taken during a visit to South Africa in 1987, when the country was still under apartheid. On a concrete wall, next to a window covered with bars, were the words “HANG MANDALA” in all-caps, black graffiti. But penciled in between the two painted words was the tiny word “on.” “This completely subverts the message!” Johnson told the women religious at the LCWR gathering.
Johnson has modeled, for me and for others, a way to “hang on,” with grace and integrity, to the church, even in the midst of questioning and struggles. A supportive community of other women in the Sisters of St. Joseph and her deep connection to the living God, “She Who Is,” are inspiring examples of how Catholic women can live deep and rewarding lives of faith.
The writing of Toni Morrison, Fanny Howe, and Rebecca Brown
In 1943 12-year-old Chloe Wolford, who had grown up in her mother’s AME church, converted to Catholicism and took St. Anthony of Padua’s name at her confirmation. Family members shortened Anthony to Toni, and after a name change via marriage, 11 novels, a Pulitzer and a Nobel Prize, Toni Morrison became America’s best-known living Catholic writer.
The final statement might be true but for the fact that many readers are unaware that Morrison is Catholic. Like many contemporary writers, her daily relationship with Catholicism is complicated. In 2005 she told Carolyn Denard that while she was writing her novel Paradise, about the murder of four women living in an abandoned convent, that “what saved me was . . . knowing that I was going to take religion seriously, I mean belief.” Since then, however, Morrison has moved into a more ambiguous relationship with religion, partly due to shifting American attitudes.
In an onstage conversation with author and activist Angela Davis in 2014 Morrison noted that part of her struggle as a Catholic is with the portrayal of goodness or “the reach for moral clarity” as “weak or confined to the scholastic confining world of very religious people, evangelical people.” She added that this conflicted view of goodness also runs through the Catholic Church. Last year, she told Terry Gross of Fresh Air that her current version of Catholicism is “not a structured one,” but that she might “easily be seduced back to church because I like this controversy as well as the beauty of this particular Pope Francis.”
Morrison’s work often centers around what might be called religious themes: revenge, catharsis, redemption. And there is a level of spiritual struggle present in many of her characters. But is she explicitly a Catholic writer? That depends on how one defines the term.
In past decades, when urban enclaves of Catholicism were more visible, and when Southern Catholic writers were able to claim a kind of “otherness” on the basis of their religion, the lines between Catholic and non-Catholic writers were perhaps more easily drawn. Today, particularly for women writers in the post-feminist era, Catholicism can become more of a delicate shading that runs throughout writers’ work or a point of negotiation in the search for identity. Like Morrison, many contemporary female Catholic writers are non-practicing Catholics who still delve into religious themes. Or they may be practicing, but their relationships with the church involve making a personal and often seemingly irrational and countercultural choice.
Fanny Howe, who was born in 1940, is not as well known as Morrison, but she is revered as an important voice in experimental poetry and fiction. She received the Poetry Foundation’s Ruth Lily Prize in 2009, awarded to poets whose work warrants “extraordinary recognition.” She is an essayist as well, and in her essay “Footsteps Over Ground,” she delineates some of what keeps her attracted to Catholicism—a religion she converted to after a divorce.
Howe describes her conversion as a marriage: “in the end a matter of habit and perseverance.” Being Catholic, she writes, “you find yourself constantly arguing with texts, testing them, and feeling indignation against dogma, dull vocabulary, hierarchies, moralizing and patronizing vocabulary. You are critical.”
But Catholicism, for Howe, is also redemptive. In an interview with Bomb magazine, she stated, “I don’t agree with many [Catholic] teachings. But this is the interesting part of being Catholic: The heresy that comes along with it. Indistinguishable from the rites is the rage, the arguing, the rebelling, the mind on alert. I like to be on alert.”
Howe, who at one point was a single mother on food stamps and a civil rights activist, also acknowledges that “the church has done tons of practical good for the poor, has managed to accept the maddest among us, [and] has a huge margin for visions.” She adds that in Catholic churches, “there is generally room for everyone. There are no ‘others,’ and there is art, poetry, and music.” Howe’s 2003 poem “Catholic” reflects her idiosyncratic and mystical theology.
The churn of creation is a constant upward and downward action; simultaneous, eternal.
If you keep thinking there is only an ahead and a behind, you are missing the side-to-side which gives evidence to the lie that you are moving progressively.
If everything is moving at the same time, nothing is moving at all.
Time is more like a failed resurrection than a measure of passage.
Like Howe and Morrison, Seattle-based writer Rebecca Brown is also a convert, and the author of 12 novels and books of essays. Perhaps her best-known work is her 1995 novel The Gifts of the Body, told from the point of view of a health worker in the early days of AIDS. The book won a Lambda award for LGBT literature, and her subsequent writing has often delved into issues of the body, illness, health, and sexuality.
Brown was received into the Catholic Church in 2012. In an interview with Moss magazine in 2015, she reflected that there had always been “a real sense of dark and light” in her writing. “There’s a real sense of someone dying, and then getting to live again,” she said. Prior to becoming Catholic, because of the sex abuse scandal and the church’s historical treatment of women, Brown had a sense of Catholicism as “the worst.” But “something drew me—and keeps me drawn to it. Some longing, hunger, draw, whatever, to the mystery of incarnation, redemption, mercy.” She adds, as many Catholics would, “I can’t explain or justify it.”
As an out lesbian, Brown would seem to occupy a marginalized place in the church, but, as she told Fact/Simile magazine in 2012, her Catholicism, like much of her writing, is embodied. “I’m drawn to passion and to the elemental physicality of it—the rituals of standing, kneeling, sitting, the laying on of hands, the bending of the head in prayer, the baptism by water, making the sign of the cross, the Sacraments as signs of divine presence.” In her most recent book of essays, American Romances, her essay “Priests” describes childhood reenactments of communion using Necco wafers. Her essay “Extreme Reading” has multiple echoes to eucharistic theology and continues the theme of embodiment:
You eat some things because they’re good for you, but there are only so many hours in a day, so many days in a life, so you also consume other things solely because you want to, because you have some craving or urge or longing that only this particular thing can fulfill.
In 2013, Brown wrote an essay for the Stranger about her hopes for Pope Francis as a “super-feminist, gay, lefty Catholic.” A friend’s question about what kind of Catholic she wanted to be helped Brown understand that there was no such thing as a Catholic. “There were,” she writes, “as there are in most large groups of people, clueless, terrified fundamentalists, but there are also struggling, hopeful, trying-to-be-decent slobs like me.”
As she parsed the complexities of Pope Francis’ journey and his attitudes toward LGBT people, Brown also came to understand that “Jesus didn’t come here to condemn us human lumps; he came to show us mercy and forgiveness and the goodness of the just and loving heart. He came to show there can be life even after you feel like you’ve been dead, and that even after someone’s been horrible or had horrible things done to them, they can have another chance.”
Brown, Morrison, and Howe are all risk takers. They write books that challenge readers intellectually and emotionally, that center marginalized characters—people like women, single mothers, people of color, or LGBT people. The Catholicism that runs through their work is one of deep empathy for the struggle of others, of ritual, and of redemption. But it is also countercultural, in the manner of Dorothy Day or mystics like Hildegard and Julian of Norwich: It pushes back against the dominant structures of greed, the refutation of mystery, and the insistence that being Catholic simply means following a set of rules. For all three of these authors, Catholicism is an intellectual negotiation as much as it is a spiritual one. It is, in many ways, the Catholicism of our time: a faith of heart and mind, but also of gut instinct.
A life lived in God's eternal newness
A good conversion story fascinates Christians, especially if the convert was a vehement atheist. French laywoman and once-atheist Madeleine Delbrel fits the bill. However, her story does not find its apex in her new belief but unfolds into a grand vision for Catholic personhood that is much more far-reaching. Delbrel’s story is an example of a life whose every detail is informed by belief. The baptismal charge to live as priest, prophet, king, and apostle in this world enlivened and enlarged her identity as a Catholic and as a woman.
Madeleine was born in Mussidan, France in 1904 to artistic and determinedly unreligious parents. She showed signs early on that she would follow her parents’ leanings, demonstrating both talents in writing and the arts and strong atheist convictions. Early in her life Madeleine wrote poetry, studied art and philosophy, and designed her own fashions. She challenged cultural norms for women and was one of the first in her society to cut her hair short.
Just about any account you read of Madeleine’s life has her professing by the age of 17, “God is dead, long live death!” She was a most unremarkable atheist, really, if her dramatic teenage rallying cry was the only evidence we have of her anti-God vitriol.
Delbrel’s early life may show evidence of a firm non-belief in God, but it also shows the emergence of a young woman who was growing into herself as an artist, a philosopher, and an agent of social change. These qualities become the groundwork for the incredibly rich post-conversion life that was Delbrel’s ultimate gift to both the church and modern society.
When she was 20, Delbrel “found God,” which she described as a gradual belief in the presence and goodness of God and a compulsion to pray. She would later say that it was in prayer that God found her.
Delbrel’s earliest experience of God became the foundation of her daily life. She read widely and kept extensive spiritual diaries, leaving a wonderful picture of her life and the ordinary pursuit of holiness, much like the diaries of Dorothy Day.
A woman of varied passions, Delbrel was artistic, creative, and studious. She challenged social norms and crossed social boundaries. These qualities were there before her conversion to Catholicism, and they were present in full force after. She wrote prolifically, aligned her life with the poor, engaged with political and social movements that were in direct opposition to the church, and counseled bishops and countries in social change. She continued to break rank with established gender roles of her time and to develop her gifts in service of the church she loved and the people she cared for.
Delbrel lived a life marked not by her passionate commitment to a particular religious philosophy, but by a deep and intimate relationship with God that influenced all of who she was and everything she did. Her personal and professional life, her schedule, her opinions, and her zest for living were all transformed by her newfound faith. In a world where womanhood is often demanding and many women play multiple roles in their families, communities, and professional realms, Delbrel is a model for how to allow God to find us and permeate every aspect of who we are, transforming our daily activities and areas of influence into a wholehearted pursuit of holiness.
Declaring that lay Catholics in the modern world must be “missionaries without a boat,” Delbrel began living with and among “the ordinary people of the streets,” which would become the title of her posthumously published writings: We, the Ordinary People of the Streets.
Her strict life of prayer, poverty, and solidarity with the poor, as well as her natural inclination to be philosophical and studious, might have made Delbrel a stoic figure. On the contrary, though, she was a woman who saw God at work in the most mundane interactions between people. She was a woman of joy and conviction who refused to separate “secular” life from her personal life of faith, and instead integrated the two with passion and purpose.
In We, the Ordinary People of the Streets, Delbrel writes:
Each docile act makes us receive God totally and give God totally, in a great freedom of spirit. And thus life becomes a celebration. Each tiny act is an extraordinary event, in which heaven is given to us, in which we are able to give heaven to others.
In a world that often seems opposed to our Christian worldview and at a time when we are increasingly losing our ability to engage one another in compassionate, constructive dialogue, Delbrel’s example can lead us to see how holiness can consist in both firm conviction and open compassion. Speaking of her daily life in service to the Communist community and the working poor, Delbrel writes:
Each tiny act is an extraordinary event, in which heaven is given to us, in which we are able to give heaven to others. It makes no difference what we do, whether we take in hand a broom or a pen. Whether we speak or keep silent. Whether we are sewing or holding a meeting, caring for a sick person or tapping away at a typewriter.
Whatever it is, it’s just the outer shell of an amazing inner reality: the soul’s encounter, renewed at each moment, in which, at each moment, the soul grows in grace and becomes ever more beautiful for her God.
What Delbrel offers is a unique picture of a Catholic life well-lived that embraced and interwove her inherent gifts, her intimate relationship with God, and her radical commitment to serve the church and the needs of her own community. Working among bishops, philosophers, her neighbors, and the poor with zeal and firm faith, she is a witness to the power of the gospel to transform hearts, communities and whole societies and to the power of Christianity lived in the full context of who we are and where we find ourselves.
Shortly after her conversion Delbrel declared herself “a reporter of God’s eternal newness” and, indeed, she was someone new, doing something new, and seeing God, the church, and the call to mercy through new eyes.
Sister Simone Campbell
A nun on the bus
As a Catholic I pray and study my faith’s tenets, but I am much more comfortable living out my faith as a “doer”: preparing and sharing meals with homeless families, organizing community meetings for my parish, writing columns, and canvassing for political candidates who promise a preferential option for the poor and safe harbor for immigrants.
So when all my faith-filled actions failed to result in the outcome I prayed for in the most recent presidential election I felt paralyzed. For days I was at a loss for what to “do” next. Then I remembered a podcast I heard a year ago in which Sister Simone Campbell, my favorite role model of meaningful Catholic social action, said that if we fight against something without “deep listening,” we only reinforce it. Contemplation, she said, provides us with a compass that can direct our actions. “Faith [is] …groping in the dark and…listening for the nudges and paying attention….Religious life is about deep listening to the needs around us.”
I first learned about Sister Simone in the summer of 2012, when she and fellow sisters made headlines as they toured parts of the country as “Nuns on the Bus” to rally support for their “Faithful Budget,” an alternative to the budget proposed by Congressman Paul Ryan. This Sister of Social Service quickly became a media darling, appearing on The O’Reilly Factor, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and The Colbert Report, precisely because she was speaking up for the poor in a way that went against the “nun” stereotype. She was smart—a poet as well as an attorney who once led a community law center in California—cleverly entertaining, and savvy enough to advance the agenda of NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice via clear messaging that capitalized on public sentiment about news events and countered election-year rhetoric.
In her autobiography, A Nun on the Bus: How All of Us Can Create Hope, Change, and Community (HarperOne), Campbell explains how her coming of age in the 1960s played a role in her decision to join a small community of religious founded in 1923 with a “mission to be active in the world, a force for justice.”
“That got them into trouble,” Campbell says, “But I liked that. Jesus for me has always been about justice.” This mission of justice inspired her to take action, first as a legal advocate for the poor and then, as director of her community, an international peace activist. She was part of an American religious delegation that travelled to Iraq just months before the 2003 U.S. invasion in an unsuccessful attempt to stop a war that would “endanger the entire human family.” She became involved in the nonpartisan lobbying group NETWORK, first giving legal workshops and then serving as director starting in 2004.
Sister Simone’s position at NETWORK also put her on the front lines of healthcare reform in 2010. Despite the fact that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) was actively working against passage of the Affordable Care Act, her interpretation of Catholic social teaching spurred her to action: She wrote an open letter to members of the House of Representatives in favor of the law that became known as Obamacare. The statement was undersigned by the Catholic Health Association and the heads of 60-plus congregations, represented by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). The move played a role in the Vatican’s decision to specifically name NETWORK in its investigation of U.S women religious, concluding in 2012 that many were too focused on social justice.
Though her role at NETWORK requires very public faith in action, it was surprising for me to learn that Sister Simone sees her vocation primarily as a contemplative. “It is the most sacred piece of who I am,” she says. Her community’s practice of meditation inspired her interest in Zen meditation, which she has says teaches her how to “live on the edge of awareness and insight, about myself and about the world.
In a podcast interview last year, Campbell admitted that “Zen is the easy part of the contemplative life. The harder part is living in relationship, the living it out….Staying open-handed, treasuring but not grasping, is critical to the contemplative stance.”
In just two weeks in 2012, Sister Campbell and 12 sisters who joined her on “the Bus” visited nine states and 32 venues: soup kitchens, walk-in shelters, schools, homeless shelters, and other organizations, many staffed by other women religious. They listened deeply to and treasured the Americans neglected by government policies on wages and immigration.
I was disappointed to learn after the fact that the bus had stopped in my city that summer, something my church bulletin, Catholic radio station, and weekly Catholic newspaper failed to mention. Instead I heard plenty from the pulpit about the USCCB’s campaign to derail healthcare reform. In fact I heard so much about the “Fortnight for Freedom” that I attended Mass with my family elsewhere until the “fortnight” was over. Later, when I read Sister Simone’s autobiography, I underlined the following passage, because it captured the disconnect I felt that summer, not sure how to resolve these two very different, very public campaigns by the bishops and the sisters, both of whom I consider my church’s leaders:
No sister I know thinks she has the responsibility for the institution of the Church. Rather we walk with people in everyday life and try to live the Gospel in that context. This living reality gives us hearts of compassion for the struggle of our world….It appears that people find this attractive and describe it as spiritual leadership. The bishops, on the other hand, take their roles as chiefly one of protecting the institution. They live by rules and regulations that many people experience as judgmental and off-putting. It seems to me that some bishops are angry that the sisters are given a respect that the bishops think they alone deserve.
I realized that I needed the spiritual leadership of the sisters more than the rhetoric the bishops used to convince Catholics that health care reform was “an existential threat” to our religious liberty. I reserved words used by the bishops, Catholic publications, and lawsuits filed by dioceses against the HHS mandate— “alarming,” “unconscionable,” and “unprecedented”—to instead express how I felt about the Vatican censure of “my” sisters. How could the Vatican take exception to the loving way my pastoral associate accompanied the ill and dying on their final journeys to heaven, to how dedicated Dominican sisters I know teach children to treasure the earth, or to how the sisters of my grade school days instilled in me forever a sense of duty to the poor and oppressed? These sisters didn’t file lawsuits or grasp on to “freedom.” They listened and shared.
Thanks to the leadership of Sister Simone and other sisters, I recognized in my own spiritual practice the need for more directed and deep contemplation. I became a regular at my parish’s perpetual adoration. Following the advice of Sister Simone, I have learned to pray with questions and listen for nudges toward action. In an interview with Rookie magazine, Campbell says, “For me the religious life is about deep listening to the needs around us. The question becomes: Am I responding in generosity? …Am I responding in a way that builds up people around me, that builds me up, that is respectful of who I am? All of those questions are at the heart of how we discern the best steps forward.”
But the week of the election, even while praying in front of the host, I struggled to find expression for what I was feeling. Until, that is, I revisited the wisdom of Sister Simone: “The guilt—or the curse—of the progressive, the liberal, the whatever, is that we think we have to do it all. And then we get overwhelmed and don’t do anything. But that’s the mistake. Community is about just doing my part. Just do one thing.”
While I don’t yet know all the things I will do, I know the first one is to offer a prayer of thanksgiving for Sister Simone, who married contemplation and action when she got on that bus and “walked willing towards the hope, the vision, the perspective, and the opportunities that are given.”
Reason, faith, and empathy
In memory of Elfie S. Raymond (1931-2012).
The year was 2003. I was a 19-year-old sophomore at Sarah Lawrence College, a small liberal arts institution just outside New York City. For many young people, a university education is a mind-opening experience, a challenge to assumptions held since childhood. This was especially true for me. During my first week of college classes, I stared in shock as a plane hit the World Trade Center. Soon after that, I watched men and women my age and younger go off to war. Growing up in a sheltered suburban environment during the relatively complacent “end of history” 1990’s, I never thought I’d see this kind of violence.
Today, a decade and a half later, I still struggle to make sense of the world. Every day seems to bring more bad news: another terrorist attack, another species going extinct. Occasionally I return mentally to my college self, remembering the classes I took, the amazing teachers with whom I studied. It was in college I was first introduced to the writings of an exceptional philosopher who herself lived during a time of crisis.
Simone Weil (1909–1943) was born on the eve of World War I and died in the midst of World War II. Even as a child she could not ignore the sufferings of others: She gave up sugar at the age of 6 in solidarity with the soldiers entrenched on the Western Front. As a young woman she temporarily left her teaching job to work in an auto plant and become a labor activist. She fought in the Spanish Civil War on the Republican side. After her parents brought her to the United States during World War II, she voluntarily returned to Europe in the hope of working with the resistance—a decision that led to her premature death at the age of 34, largely due to her refusal to eat more than her ration. “It is an eternal obligation toward the human being not to let him suffer when one has the chance of coming to his assistance,” she declared.
I first learned of Weil through a Hungarian-American philosophy professor named Elfie Raymond. Herself an exceptional woman (she was rumored once to have thrown an inkwell at French philosopher Jacques Derrida), Raymond embodied some of the characteristics I see in Weil. In an essay on education, Weil states that its purpose is not to fill students’ minds with information, but to cultivate habits of character. “Although people seem to be unaware of it today, the development of the faculty of attention forms the real object and almost the sole interest of studies,” Weil says. “Most school tasks have a certain intrinsic interest as well, but such an interest is secondary. All tasks that really call upon the power of attention are interesting for the same reason and to an almost equal degree.”
For Weil, attention is the prerequisite for truly understanding and empathizing others. Unfortunately, that has never been my strong suit. Even in 2003, when I was not a daily Internet user and did not yet own a mobile phone, I struggled to keep my mind focused on the person or problem in front of me. Professor Raymond noticed this and urged me to “come out of myself,” becoming more aware of my surroundings. It was not an easy task and even now, a professor myself, I still struggle every day.
While I first heard Weil’s name from Elfie Raymond, it would be seven years before I actually got around to reading her. Working as a graduate teaching assistant at the University of Toronto for a literature course titled “Ancient and Medieval Literary Modes,” I was encouraged to read Weil’s famous essay “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force,” in which she interprets Homer’s epic in light of her own time. She notes that in the Iliad there are no real winners or losers, no “good guys” or “bad guys.” The real hero of the poem is force, an unalterable reality that humans must learn to treat properly: “Only he who has measured the dominion of force, and knows how not to respect it, is capable of love and justice,” she writes.
Whenever I read Weil’s words, I ask myself the same question. What would she think of the world we inhabit today? The fact that academic interest in her work has skyrocketed in recent years suggests that many people have the same question. What would she say about Brexit, a U.S. president elected on a platform of nativism and xenophobia, and the rise of far-right political parties across Europe? What would be her response to the five-year civil war in Syria and the ongoing reality of global terrorism? What would she say about environmental degradation and the mass extinction of species that human activity has caused? What would she make of artificial intelligence and the increased power that humans are choosing to give machines?
I am quite certain she would not be surprised. After all, she predicted Hitler’s rise to power when few were able to believe in that particular reality; she also predicted that petroleum, rather than wheat, would become a source of international conflict. If Weil could speak to us today, I know that she would offer no simple clichés or comforting platitudes. But she would also urge us not to succumb to defeat or despair. Because even as she witnessed Europe collapsing around her Weil maintained a remarkable and indeed perplexing level of faith.
At first glance, the politically radical, brashly intellectual Weil seems an unlikely mystic. One striking feature of her sensibility is her marked preference for reason over emotion; she is decidedly unsentimental. Weil eschewed all romantic relationships, believing, quite fairly, that they would interfere with her activism and academic pursuits. While she did have many friends and was noted as an extremely attentive listener, she avoided demonstrating physical affection, even with other women. In her writings Weil repeatedly reminds us that true love is indistinguishable from justice and friendship depends on a certain amount of detachment. “There is not friendship where distance is not kept and respected,” she writes. “When Christ said to his disciples, ‘Love one another,’ it was not attachment he was laying down as their rule.”
For me love among friends—what C.S. Lewis in his Four Loves (Harvest Books) calls philia—is all about attachment, warmth, and as much physical affection as the beloved person finds appropriate. But for Weil, friendship is the perfect synthesis of necessity and liberty. A certain distance is necessary for human intimacy, just as God’s apparent absence is necessary for our encounter with the divine. “God can never be perfectly present to us here below on account of our flesh. But he can be almost perfect absent from us in extreme affliction. This is the only possibility of perfection of us on earth. That is why the Cross is our only hope,” Weil says.
This discussion of affliction—which according to Weil is different than suffering and involves both body and spirit and subjecting the afflicted to a high degree of humiliation—recalls another provocative part of Weil’s exhortations: her call to self-denial. One frequent motif throughout her work is food and eating. This theme takes on a disturbing character when we consider her death, which very likely could have been delayed had she followed her doctor’s orders and allowed herself adequate nourishment. In her essay “Forms of the Implicit Love of God” she declares that in heaven the acts of looking and eating will be the same; however, on earth this cannot be so. “It may be that vice, depravity and crime are nearly always, or even perhaps always, in their essence, attempts to eat beauty, to eat what we should only look at. Eve began it. If she caused humanity to be lost by eating the fruit, the opposite attitude, looking at the fruit without eating it, should be what is required to save it,” she writes.
It fascinates me that Weil’s first mystical experience was brought on by George Herbert’s poem “Love III,” which ends with the act of eating: “You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat: / So I did sit and eat.” It is likewise interesting that of all the forms of Christianity available to Weil, she was drawn to Catholicism, whose central form of prayer is the Eucharist, a ritual meal. Perhaps the mystical ecstasy that Weil experienced was in large part what helped her to renounce earthly pleasures: Having tasted the food of divine Love, how could any human fare be nearly as delicious? Nevertheless, Weil’s ascetic impulse proves quite challenging to me, a lover of good food and wine and of dance and affectionate physical touch. Her words and actions force me to consider that love is more than a warm feeling toward my fellow creatures—even if that warm feeling may lead to action. Instead, love must emerge from one’s whole being, intellect as well as emotions, and pour outward to embrace the whole world.
Looking at our deeply unjust world, I again ask myself what Weil would be doing if she were alive today. Would she be now, as she was then, a dedicated teacher, seeking to cultivate in her students habits of attention and empathy? Would she be working to help and settle the boatloads of refugees arriving to Europe each day? Would she come to the U.S. and move to California to harvest grapes or cut garlic alongside migrant workers? What would she call upon us to do?
I am quite sure of one thing: In an age of fake news, echo chambers, and ever-greater ideological division, she would urge us to stop, think, listen to one another with patient attention, and refrain from identifying too closely with any ideology or institution. It is interesting that while Weil’s mystical experiences led her to a deep love of Christ, she refused to formally enter the Catholic Church. “Nothing gives me more pain than the idea of separating myself from the immense and unfortunate multitude of nonbelievers,” Weil wrote in a 1942 letter to her mentor, the Dominican Friar Jean-Marie Perrin. This love of Christ but wariness toward the institutional church allowed her to inhabit a liminal space between the Christian and secular worlds. Perhaps today she would be a similar go-between, mediating between secular and religious, right-wing and left-wing, urging us to look at each other with true attention—which is, in her own words, “the rarest and purist form of generosity.”
A prophet of God's mercy
It is due to St. Faustina Kowalska’s spiritual conversations with Christ—recorded in her 600-page diary—that Catholics all over the world celebrate the Sunday after Easter as the Feast of Divine Mercy. It is because of her that we pray the Divine Mercy chaplet* on rosary beads and look to the image of Divine Mercy** for inspiration.
St. Faustina was born to a low-income family; chose to live a simple life of hard labor, prayer, and self-denial as a Sister of Our Lady of Mercy; and died at the age of 33. But her interior life was filled with passionate devotion and joy. “I want to be a thurible filled with hidden fire, and may the smoke rising you to You, O Living Host, be pleasing to you,” Faustina wrote in her diary. “I feel in my own heart that every little sacrifice arouses the fire of my love for You, but in such a silent and secret way that no one will detect it.”
I first learned of St. Faustina Kowalska when I was a teenager growing up in Buffalo, NY. After a wave of church closings, the beautiful St. Luke’s, where my grandmother was baptized and married, was up for sale. Feeling a call to mercy, two Buffalonians—a restaurant owner named Amy Betros and a cancer researcher named Norm Paolini—decided to buy the building and transform it into a mission serving Buffalo’s poorest, most marginalized people.
Since 1994 St. Luke’s Mission of Mercy has opened its doors to all in need of food, shelter, companionship, and spiritual guidance. The church still houses an image of the Divine Mercy, a painting of Jesus with two rays of light emerging from his heart, and St. Faustina is the mission’s unofficial patron.
Over the years I have spent many Good Fridays walking in St. Luke’s yearly procession through the neighborhood, stopping at houses along the way to say a version of the rosary based on Faustina’s diary. After years of hearing those same excerpts, I decided to read her writings in their entirety.
My initial reaction to Faustina’s words was mixed. I was perplexed when I read of her ascetic practices, such as wearing a hairshirt or drastically limiting her food intake. It is hard to imagine leading the life she did. Moreover, our society leaves little room for the kind of visionary mysticism Faustina experienced.
Even during Faustina’s time few understood her religious experience. Many of her sisters questioned her frequent illnesses, wondering if she was feigning them in order to avoid manual labor. They also doubted the verity of her visions.
If Faustina were alive today, it is likely that her visions and conversations with Christ would be labeled hallucinations; she would be hospitalized and perhaps prescribed a strong SSRI. If she failed the psychological assessment many of today’s religious orders require, perhaps she would not have been allowed to enter religious life at all.
Having volunteered in a mental health hospital and cared for a loved one with psychosis, I have learned that the benchmark of one’s mental health is an ability to function in society. Under our current capitalist system, this means being able to hold down a job and care for oneself.
But what if the society, rather than the individual, is ill?
This was certainly true of the times Faustina lived in, and she knew it. Although she never mentions Nazi Germany by name in her diary, she does express concern for Spain and communist Russia, countries that have abandoned God, and feels the need to pray constantly for Poland. Though she did not live to experience World War II, she seems to have had a strong premonition of it, feeling a need to spread the message of mercy before God returned in harsh judgment.
Moreover, some of her visions seem to prefigure Hitler’s invasion of her country and the Holocaust. In 1937, she wrote, “Today, I saw how the liturgical mysteries were being celebrated without liturgical vestments in private homes, because of a passing storm; and I saw the sun come out from the Blessed Sacrament, and all the other lights went out, or rather, they were dimmed; and all the people were looking toward this [one] light.” While she claimed not to know the meaning of this vision, some later came to see it as prefiguring the Nazi occupation, when Mass was celebrated secretly in private homes and eventually in concentration camps.
Unfortunately, the profundities of human cruelty made manifest during World War II still exist. Even those of us fortunate enough to live in countries where an authoritarian regime does not regularly assault our dignity still live and depend on systems that are inherently unjust and oppressive. It is no surprise to me that mental health issues are rampant in the wealthy countries of the world. While we enjoy a high level of luxury, we also suffer a large degree of stress. The social bonds that once held us together—family, religion, civil society—are no longer as tight. Loneliness and isolation are rampant; fear is on the rise. Our society is indeed ill.
Well aware of the harsh reality her world was facing, Faustina was plagued by doubt and sometimes despair, but again and again she felt called to communicate God’s message of mercy, to be a “secretary” and faithfully write down all that God told her.
“From all My sounds, like from streams, mercy flows for souls, but the wound in My heart is the fountain of unfathomable mercy. From this fountain spring all graces for souls. The flames of compassion burn Me. I desire greatly to pour them out upon souls. Speak to the whole world about My mercy,” she writes. This is the message that Pope Francis took up in declaring 2016 a Year of Mercy.
We, living in a century that so far looks not much better than Faustina’s, are called to the same mercy. Let us find strength in the chaplet, in the image of Divine Mercy, in the Feast of Mercy on the Sunday after Easter. Let us maintain, like Faustina, a conviction that death implies resurrection and that judgment will be tempered with mercy.
Following her head and her heart
The year was 2016 and I was beginning my senior year of university at Loyola University Chicago. Being a Jesuit school, the university required two semesters of theology courses, and I had saved my second for my last semester. With few options left, I chose to take a Wednesday night class called “Women in Religion.”
I’ll admit my attendance in this course was reluctant at best, but I showed up week after week and participated enough to pass the class. We learned about many women, mostly martyrs, but none made much of an impact beyond “remember this for the test. Remember this for the test.” That is, until we learned about Heloise.
Heloise’s story, was so different from the pious martyrs we had learned about. I honestly could not relate to Perpetua, who willingly gave her life as one of the first martyrs of the church. Catherine of Siena provided little material to relate to, either, as I have never deprived myself of food in order to solidify my piety. I was a regular college girl on the cusp of graduating, worried about the future and hopelessly in love with a man who would never love me back.
Enter Heloise, a medieval French nun who was wise and intelligent beyond her years. She may seem like an odd role model for a millennial, but I found myself connecting with her quite a bit.
Heloise was born sometime in 1101—the official date is unknown, as is the identity of her father—in the Convent of Saint Mary in Argenteuil, France. She was raised in an enriched learning environment, quickly showing signs of advanced intelligence. Her mother recognized her capabilities and knew she was going to have to send her beyond their cloistered home.
So she sent Heloise to Paris to study theology, philosophy, and literature. During her time there, while living under the protective care of her uncle, her intelligence and beauty caught the eye of theologian and all-around academic superstar Peter Abelard.
Quick background on Peter Abelard: He was a notable medieval theologian and philosopher in Paris who worked as a teacher and tutor. He apparently caught wind of a young, beautiful, and strikingly intelligent woman who had just moved to Paris and quickly got in contact with Heloise’s uncle, Abbot Fulbert, to offer his tutoring services.
And thus a romance was born.
At this point my collegiate mind, hopelessly involved in an unrequited love, perked up. My professor finally had my undivided attention. A love story? Count me in.
Peter Abelard began tutoring Heloise. He was fascinated by her mind and she was equally as taken with his. What began as innocent tutoring resulted in a torrid love affair—one that had to be hidden. Abelard writes of their tutoring sessions in a letter to a friend:
“Her studies allowed us to withdraw in private, as love desired, and then with our books open before us, more words of love than of reading passed between us, and more kissing than teaching.” (Gollancz, Historica Clamitatum: A Letter to his Friend Philintus)
Eventually, Heloise and Abelard’s affair resulted in Heloise’s pregnancy. Abelard convinced Heloise to marry him, against her wishes. Heloise knew a domestic marriage would hold them both back from accomplishing their goals; she pushed back against Abelard’s proposal. Some historians suggest Heloise was against marriage entirely, seeing it as a transaction in which a woman is merely property to be sold. But Heloise eventually gave in and agreed to marry Abelard. They left their son in the care of Abelard’s family and returned to Paris.
Despite their marriage, the two continued to keep their relationship secret after they returned. Heloise still lived within the confines of her uncle’s home, and Abelard visited her under the guise of continuing her tutoring. The truth always comes out, though, and it wasn’t long before Fulbert learned of the marriage. Furious, he took out his anger on Heloise—even to the point of beating her.
Abelard urged Heloise to return to the convent she was raised in for her own safety. But this outraged Fulbert once again, this time by the mistaken notion that Abelard had abandoned his niece. And so Fulbert did what any sensible medieval man would do and proceeded to castrate his nephew-in-law.
This event was, understandably, traumatic for Abelard. Ashamed of his injury, he retreated from the public eye and entered a monastery. Abelard urged Heloise to join him in cloistered life so that they could live parallel albeit separate lives. Again, Heloise initially was not thrilled with Abelard’s suggestion and was reluctant to follow him into religious life. But apparently true love knows no bounds, and Heloise took her vows and became a nun.
Abelard and Heloise continued exchanging love letters—many of which were quite explicit—during their time apart. At times Heloise would ask that they be reunited, but Abelard would always decline, stating his new status rendered their marriage null. So they continued to encourage each other from afar, supporting one another’s studies and respective academic works.
Heloise eventually became the abbess of her convent and her letters to Abelard address her issues with monastic life. Over time, the letters shift in tone: no longer do they highlight their personal joys and heartbreak, but instead the reforms needed within their respective communities.
Though initially drawn to Heloise because of her tumultuous and forbidden love affair, what keeps drawing me back to her is her independence and desire to create change in her community that developed during this time of her life. She was far ahead of her time in her views on marriage and education. In fact, part of her legacy remains in the intensely studious nature of the nuns who were under her guidance and all of the women who came after, including this 21st-century college student.
Heloise noticed that the Benedictine Rule, under which both Benedictine monasteries and convents operated, was not suitable for women, who had different physical needs. So, with the help of Abelard, who as a man had more political power, she rewrote the Benedictine Rule.
Her new version of monastic life chanced details such as what the women in the convent wore, their diet, and how women were punished who misbehaved. (These punishments were often quite violent: Women who left the convent without permission were kept in isolation and fed only bread and water. Women who did not uphold the vow of chastity were beaten and no longer permitted to wear the habit.)
Mary Martin Mclaughlin describes Heloise as a “questioner and maker of just requests,” lauding her role in expanding women’s religious life. Her reforms placed the spiritual lives of women as equal to those of men religious. It was because of her insistence on the equality of women and men’s spiritual leadership in the church that she was highly respected by both her fellow nuns and monks in the surrounding monasteries. Her legacy lived on; her reformed version of the Rule was made standard for all convents until the French Revolution.
In 1904, Henry Adams referred to Heloise as a “Frenchwoman to the last millimeter of her shadow” and “by French standards worth at least a dozen Abelards.” He also stated that the “twelfth century, with all its sparkle, would be dull without Abelard and Heloise.”
Though certainly not a 12th-century scholar, I wholeheartedly agree with Adams’ assessment of Heloise. Her story inspired me to become more interested and devoted to the topic of women in the religious sphere. Her brilliant mind, capacity to lead, and passion for both love and knowledge makes her one of my favorite—albeit unlikely—role models.
Tribal writer, Catholic writer
I distinctly remember the conversation. I was a college freshman talking to an older student about our respective faith heritages. Our school, I should explain, was rigidly conservative, often to the point of paranoia, and students talked about their faith all the time. It was what might today be called virtue-signaling and could even function as coded flirtation.
I was flirting, I suppose, trying to show off how exotic and different I was, when I told him that I wasn’t just Catholic (everyone there was Catholic); I was Jewish as well.
He looked at me in pity, incredulity. “You can’t be both,” he said.
We argued for about half an hour, and I grew increasingly irate at this man for daring to define me, to tell me what I was and what I was not.
I am Jewish on my mother’s side, and that’s the side that counts, in the Jewish tradition. And while my family had grazed about on various religious pastures, from white Anglicanism to black Pentecostalism, the constant all along was the Jewish rituals we kept. I would never forget, either, the first time I found out about Hitler and the Nazis. It was me they wanted to kill. That wasn’t something I could just carve out of my identity.
But I was talking to a Catholic male, and it never occurred to him that he didn’t have the right to define me, even against my own experience.
I suppose it’s a power thing, this desire to draw stark lines between one religion and the next, but even if creeds can be easily defined, people can’t. The authorities can tell us “you must believe X” or “you can’t be both A and B”—but we defy them, simply by being human.
So I was fascinated to discover the novels of Louise Erdrich, who writes from one of those liminal places authorities tell us aren’t supposed to exist. Her mother was Chippewa, her father a Catholic of German descent, and the sense of magic and myth in her work draws on both parts of this dual inheritance.
I don’t want to give the impression that this is an easy alliance. If Erdrich succeeds in blending and overlapping these influences, it’s not because they go nicely together—after all, Catholic proselytizing was often a form of cultural obliteration—but because she’s truthful about the unique position in which her characters are located, poised between these two experiences. To those who would say you can’t be both, her answer is: But there they are, being both.
While Erdrich is widely regarded for her intricate portrayal of Native American characters and culture, she is rarely recognized, at least by Catholics, as a Catholic writer. I don’t think this is a bad thing. There’s something limiting in the idea of being a “Catholic writer,” anyway, and Erdrich is anything but limited. And we’ve plenty of Catholic writers already. Plenty of overtly Catholic stories, overtly Catholic characters.
Native American characters, by contrast, end up relegated to story sidelines or reduced to stereotype—even by white writers who mean well. This is not surprising. In contrast to Roman Catholicism, which is visible and powerful in American society and unfortunately often complicit in imperialist violence, Native cultures are overwritten, pushed aside, or at best lumped together into one amorphous mass.
So white Americans easily ignore the diversity of these cultures, unaware of how variegated they are. Give them a flat stereotype of a Native character viewed through a colonizer’s eye, and they’ll accept it as real.
The rage with which white Americans respond to the truth about the legacy of “heroes” such as Christopher Columbus is proof of this. They have their own preferred story already, the story told by the conquerors. So simply portraying Native characters as complex and internally conflicted ends up looking like an act of subversion.
Erdrich reminds us that even in labeling a culture as “native,” as I am doing here, we force it into an artificial homogeneity. In an interview with Amy Bacon in Modern American Poetry, Erdrich states that what she writes is not native literature, but tribal literature: “Ojibwe literature is very different from Lakota, or Zuni, or Santa Clara Pueblo, or Ho-Chunk, or Mesquakie literature,” she says. “Each is based in an extremely specific tradition, history, religion, worldview.”
It’s likely that the average white Catholic reader has heard of maybe two of these tribes, at most. But these are the names of the people who were here first, long before European interlopers arrived to claim and re-name their places.
The history of this continent is the history of appropriated territories, boundaries redrawn. There’s a kind of territory that can’t so easily be raided, though, and that’s the terrain of myth, which Erdrich has marked out for her magic—the magic that succeeds in creating epic out of the shattered pieces of a culture fighting to survive.
Though complete in themselves, her novels are also puzzle pieces, which together form the epic story of a people. The same characters flicker on the edges or stride across the center of many novels, sometimes over generations, interwoven stories going back through time and tradition.
If there is a central character in the epic it is not a man, as in the European epics, but a woman, the enigmatic Fleur Pillager, twice drowned but more alive than anyone around her. Fleur is rumored to have dark powers: “She can think about you hard enough to stop your heart.” In the novel Tracks, Fleur is in her youth and, in the throes of giving birth, is nearly mauled by a bear that bursts into her cabin.
Echoes of the woman of Revelation, crying out in labor, assailed by a beast? The lines are blurred. But it would be a mistake to call Fleur an avatar of Mary, because Fleur is Fleur, and Mary is Mary. And the Virgin is also powerful. A miraculous statue weeps tears that freeze into chunks of eyes in sympathy for a young girl abused by an older man, sympathy because she too had “experienced a loss more ruthless than we can imagine . . . known in the brain and known in the flesh and planted like dirt.” Women are hammered by men, used by men, used even by gods, but are not emptied of their power, especially this power of sympathy for one another.
Fleur’s long thread of story, though, is not about sex or men. It’s about her struggle to hold onto her land. And in a way, this is the overarching theme of this ongoing epic.
Because the tribes are losing their land—in the novels, as in real life, today. Sometimes it’s a pipeline; other times it’s a bingo palace. And with the loss of this land, the identity of an entire people is at stake.
What does it mean, after all, to own a thing? In The Bingo Palace, the rich have the legal right to seize the land for their own gain, but there is a deeper kind of possession, an inheritance inscribed in the flesh: “The blood draws us back, as if it runs through a vein of earth.”
When we understand this, we understand just how fictive our western imperialist concepts are. But even as we enthuse about this more vital, this “tribal” understanding of ownership, we run up against the danger of a kind of cultural tourism. As though the point of the story were our own voyeuristic enjoyment of dreamcatchers and magic powders.
Erdrich is aware of this, I think. At any rate, her work defies this imperialist impulse to get off on the “native” or “exotic.” Her characters won’t let you. Try to decenter them, and the story remains closed to you. Fleur Pillager is not there for our own enjoyment of a spectacle. There’s magical realism, but not because Erdrich is raiding her own maternal traditions for the weird and the strange to parade before the viewer. It’s more a case of sometimes needing to break a few rules for the truth to be told.
One rule that is broken is the rule about those stark dividing lines between one religion and the next. So maybe you can be both Catholic and Native, maybe you don’t always need to renounce one thing to be another. In A Plague of Doves, when wild white birds descend, everywhere, spoiling the crops, the priest leads all his people, both Indians and whites, across the fields, chanting hail marys to scare the doves away. A young man is attacked by the doves, which peck and pierce his forehead and nearly tear his ear off. When he opens his eyes a young woman in white stands over him, washing the blood away with her white sash:
…the boy shaken, frowning; the girl in white kneeling over him with the sash of her dress gracefully clutched in her hand; then pressing the cloth to the wound on his head, stanching the flow of blood. More important, I imagined their dark, mutual gaze. The Holy Spirit hovered between them. Her sash reddened. His blood defied gravity and flowed up her arm.
As a Catholic reading this passage, I suddenly find myself a voyeur not of another culture, but of my own. Who knew that being Catholic could be so strange? That the Holy Spirit might peck you in the face and tear your ear off, that a miracle might set blood flowing upwards?
Maybe in learning to honor the beliefs of the other, we are led back to the point of being able to honoring our own. Perhaps we have to step away from our traditions and let them become strange again, relinquish them, cease to hold them with such insistent control.
So maybe, paradoxically, the only reason I have been able to remain Catholic—in spite of our problematic history, our patriarchal violations, our homophobia, in spite of how boring and awful so many Catholics are—is that I’ve been allowed to remain in such a liminal realm myself, balanced between two religious traditions. Both of which, honestly, are problematic. Judaism has its own legacy of infamy, as do the tribal cultures Erdrich depicts. She doesn’t romanticize her characters for the voyeuristic tourist seeking to use the other only as a way out of his tired, dull self.
Critics tend to focus on the “conflict” between the two different religions Erdrich portrays, but I find that conflict isn’t quite the right word. The interaction is more complex than this.
Erdrich’s account of this resonates with me:
There is an immense and contradictory sorrow and love at the heart of this entire subject. Missionary work is essentially tragic. Those who enter the field from the religious side often do so out of love, and out of love they destroy the essence of the people they love. Of course, there are many sorts of priests and nuns—those who despise their converts included. My grandfather believed in the power of the traditional Ojibwe religion, and he also attended Catholic Mass. The priests where he lived (Turtle Mountain) were at the time amenable to a syncretic belief system. There is no tension in my own life regarding the two—I accept the Catholicism of many in my family. Ojibwe traditional practices are more meaningful to me, but I am not deeply religious anyway. That is to say, I do not have an assured faith. I am full of doubt. But even those who doubt can practice a faith, and can pray, and can try to act out of a tradition of kindness and love. My own emphasis is on how religion helps in this world and not how it might improve our standing in the next. (Interview in Modern American Poetry)
However, I want to resist making too much of the idea that Erdrich is important as a Catholic writer because she helps us find Catholicism more interesting. Yes, she does—at least in my case. I am more willing to say a Hail Mary in a field if I think it might have magical powers to drive away plagues. But this mindset could easily end up as just another imperialist raid on tribal peoples. The point is not “read these novels, and they’ll help your faith.” It never is.
All the same, if we fail to own her, we’re in serious trouble. And not because we’ve denied her some needed apotheosis in the curricula of the moribund Catholic liberal arts world. We’re in trouble because we’ve lost the ability to open ourselves to the stranger even safely within the pages of a book. Because we’re still just colonizers. Still slapping on labels. Still drawing those stark black lines.