Today a high school friend of mine shared this NPR piece on Facebook: An American Nun Responds To Vatican Criticism. In the NPR interview, Sister Pat Farrell, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, speaks to the issues being raised by the Vatican’s current patriarchal attack on the organization; the Vatican has announced that three American bishops have been appointed to oversee it. According to the official Vatican assessment, the Conference is promoting “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”
An excerpt of the interview with Sister Farrel, in response to criticism regarding the organization’s attitude towards sexuality:
We have been, in good faith, raising concerns about some of the church’s teachings on sexuality. The problem being that the teaching and interpretation of the faith can’t remain static and really needs to be reformulated, rethought in light of the world we live in. And new questions and new realities [need to be addressed] as they arise. And if those issues become points of conflict, it’s because Women Religious stand in very close proximity to people at the margins, to people with very painful, difficult situations in their lives. That is our gift to the church. Our gift to the church is to be with those who have been made poorer, with those on the margins. Questions there are much less black and white because human realities are much less black and white. That’s where we spend our days.
This recent news coverage of apparently social justice oriented Catholic nuns has fostered the most pronounced positive feelings about anything connected to Catholicism that I’ve had in a long, long time. It’s also making me think fondly of my high school education by the Sisters of Mercy (and their fellow teachers and administrators who were lay people).
It’s funny — my all-girls Catholic high school was actually not the most horrible context in which to realize that I was queer.1 By senior year I was explicitly out to the directress (ie. principal), quite a few teachers, the school psychologist (VERY supportive and VERY helpful), my good friends, and a few classmates.
I imagine that quite a few other people knew as well; who knows if people guessed it. As for gender, it’s actually quite easy to be a stealth butch in an all-girls’ Catholic high school. We all wore the same uniforms, many people didn’t bother with makeup or go through any great lengths over appearance, and there was even a widespread trend of wearing boxers under one’s uniform kilt (a late root?) Outside of school I pretty much wore t-shirts and jeans unless forced not to for some occasion or another; since in our society masculinity is the default and is considered universally desirable (either desire of or desire to be), you can get away with that for a pretty long time as a person who’s assigned female at birth.
All of that is to say, my Catholic high school was in some ways astoundingly chill. I mean, I went on a school trip to see Rent on Broadway — as part of my senior year religion course named “Living and Dying.” I didn’t experience a single incident of homophobic harassment or teasing. My college essay had something about how coming out was a form of overcoming adversity in it and my guidance counselor and another teacher reviewed it for me; both were nothing but supportive. This wasn’t limited to acceptance around sexuality; hell, I can thank a high school religion teacher for my first introduction to Buddhism and meditation.
And yet, when it was all said and done, we were always “ladies,” one and all. We all had to own a white gown and wear it on command for special occasions. Religion classes and attendance at religious functions during school days were compulsory. Heterosexuality was absolutely the norm, though with no self-identified boys around I mostly got to ignore that.2 Except when I couldn’t, like when we had to create “wedding albums” for a religion assignment. (My ideal groom as depicted therein was John Lennon circa White Album.) There as a pro-life club but never a chance of a pro-choice club.3 A student two years above me got suspended — or was it expelled? — when she punched another girl in the Senior Lounge after she called her a dyke. (No punishment for the slur, so far as I heard.) I sure as hell wasn’t throwing a campus Pride parade any time soon. It was definitely Catholic with a capital C.
But flawed, repressive, and normative as my high school was, I got to experience a different side of Catholicism, the side that’s being highlighted in this article and the rest of the recent press coverage: the side where women are central, where women are in positions of power and leadership, and where an explicit part of the mission of the institution was to educate, enrich, and empower young women. You know, the actually kinda cool side of Catholicism.
2. I did try to fit in my freshman year by tearing out the page from an issue of Superman in the “Superman’s Dead” arc where you see Superboy looking all fierce and muscular in his leather jacket and yelling “Don’t EVER call me SUPERBOY!” and putting it up on my locker door. But somehow putting up a picture of a comic book character didn’t go over so well. From then on I stuck to pictures of the Beatles.
3. I went to the March for Life in DC because I had a huge crush on a friend who was going; I got there, felt totally traumatized by all I saw, hid inside government buildings for most of the day with said friend, and never attended another pro-life event again.