A lot of people have asked me, since the recent news stories broke about the Vatican’s ongoing investigations of Catholic women religious, what I think about the whole situation. I’ve been thinking about it for days. I tried to formulate my thoughts into a Facebook status update. Then I tried to formulate them into a 500-word op ed that I thought I might send to the Oregonian. Then I ended up with this.
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Saint Barbara was kept prisoner by her father in a tower. When she refused the marriage he arranged for her, and told him she had become a Christian, he turned her in to the authorities, who tortured her, then beheaded her himself. Saint Lucy was betrothed to a Roman who denounced her to the governor when he found out she was a Christian. She’s the patron saint of the blind because part of her torture was having her eyes torn out with a fork. When Saint Agnes, a wealthy Roman girl, refused to marry the son of the prefect, he had her stripped naked and dragged through the streets to a brothel to be raped. They tried to burn her at the stake, but the flames would not touch her body; she stood there in the flames, singing hymns, until one of the guards finally drew his sword and stabbed her in the throat. She was twelve years old.
(One of the many unspoken weirdnesses of a devout Catholic childhood is that, while your parents strictly monitor your film and TV intake for appropriate content, forcing you to watch Dirty Dancing in secret with your cousins because it’s banned at your house, they somehow overlook all the graphic sex and violence you have at your fingertips in the Children’s Book of the Saints THEY GAVE YOU. Catholic children know what “the rack” is by the time they’re eight.)
“Virgin Martyr” is a term popularly given to a group of these young female saints, most of whom lived during the Great Persecution (303-313 B.C.E.) when the Roman emperor Diocletian issued a series of edicts rescinding the legal rights of Christians and demanding they comply with traditional Roman religious practices. It’s important to note here that the term “Virgin” as applied to these saints is more of an honorific than a literal physical description; imperial law prohibited the execution of virgins, so draw your own conclusions about the Roman guards’ torture techniques. Diocletian saw himself as the guardian of Roman tradition, and in his time – as in ours – tradition, religion and politics were inseparably braided together. Suddenly being Christian was an act of staggeringly bold political rebellion.
The degree to which the patriarchy hated these girls can scarcely be conceived. It was the duty of all Roman women to marry a Roman man and bear Roman sons for the Empire. It was an act of treason, punishable by death, to insist that you were not a commodity to be bartered for trade, that you carried within yourself something that could not be sold. It would have been bad enough to have this institution challenged by a wealthy, educated adult woman. But these were girls. They were young. They were not considered important or powerful. They were the property of a father or brother or other male guardian who would choose a match for them, marry them off, and transfer ownership to their husbands. That was just The Way Things Are. But here’s the thing about imperialism – it only works if the people on the bottom believe it works. Because there are always going to be more of them than there are of you, and the second they see someone else defying the system, it starts to plant dangerous, free-thinking ideas. These girls were a risk. They were threatening the system from within, and they had to be silenced. They were political rebels. And by canonizing saints who died rather than compromise what they believed, the Church did justice to their bravery, to the horrors they endured and the hideous government oppression they suffered. The Church stood by its girls.
From the moment a working-class Palestinian thirteen-year-old living in a gossipy small town let an angel impregnate her, the Catholic Church has been tied, permanently and irrevocably, to a particular and specific kind of person – a girl who has the courage to step outside the rigid social structure of her time and go right on ahead and become something completely different than whatever all the men around her insist that she should be. This is why, as a thirty-year-old Catholic woman, I have such a special place in my heart for the Virgin Martyrs. Lucy, Agnes, Perpetua and Felicity, Catherine, Barbara, Dymphna, Cecilia – the contours of their stories are all remarkably similar.
Catholic tradition is full of women who were radical activists, persecuted prostitutes, wacky mystics and warrior princesses, as well as wives, mothers, daughters and sisters. One of the things I love most about Catholicism is its history of being a refuge for women who don’t fit in. A woman who didn’t want to be sold into marriage like property could join a Benedictine convent, receive a level of education and literacy well above that of the average upper-class man and become a scholar, a philosopher, an artist. She could enjoy independence, education, control over her own life and body. She could be a whole person instead of some man’s property. I was named for Saint Clare of Assisi, the medieval Italian nun who was the best friend and partner-in-crime of her hometown’s more famous saint – Francis, patron saint of Italy. They both started off as spoiled, bratty rich kids with glamorous, wasteful lives. They both turned their back on all of that to found religious orders whose followers lived in direct communion with the poor they served. They did not stay in their cushy mansions with indoor bowling alleys and private jets. They believed that when Jesus said you should feed the hungry, he meant that you yourself personally should go do it. And while Francis was the proud heir to a tradition of male monastic orders who had been practicing simple living and radical poverty for years, it was Clare who petitioned three different Popes over the course of her adult life to convince them that women were not prohibited by “natural weakness” from living exactly that same kind of life.
What’s significant about these women – about Mary, about the Virgin Martyrs, about Clare – is what their glorified role in our Church history tells us about ourselves. They show us that rebellious teenage girls have been making patriarchal institutions uncomfortable from the beginning, while reminding us that, back in the days of Jesus, the Church was on the side of the rebellious girls before it was an institution. I keep saying “girl” and not “woman,” and that’s deliberate. These were children, twice-marginalized, once for their age and again for their gender. Even in this oh-so-enlightened time we like to think we live in, girls are starved, maimed, raped, abused, mutilated, and killed around the world every day. They are told that their worth can be measured by how hot they look in skinny jeans. They are cyber-bullied in staggering, ever-increasing numbers. In the U.S., girls aged 16-19 are four times more likely than the general population to be victims of sexual assault. India’s 2011 census reports an alarming decline in the number of girls under the age of seven, leading experts to believe that approximately 8 million female fetuses were victims of sex-selective abortion in the past ten years. A study published earlier this year used data from 86 countries to assert, once and for all, that just being a girl doesn’t make your math scores lower. You know what demonstrably does lower girls’ math scores? Male teachers who assume girls suck at math.
I have a hard time getting juiced up about the should-women-be-priests debate. As a devout, churchgoing Catholic, I’m expected to rail against it as a violation of 2000 years of tradition. As a 21st-century progressive woman, I’m expected to be loudly for it as the only way to give women an equal standing in my church. But with apologies to both sides, I just can’t muster up that much ire either way. It doesn’t make me feel oppressed as a woman that all the priests I know are men, because the priests it has been my privilege to know and work with are all men that value and depend on women’s contributions to keep the church alive. I realize that is a very 4th-wave feminist thing to say (“This problem isn’t a problem because it doesn’t affect me personally”). But I also don’t think that a male-only priesthood is the root of the church’s woman problem. The church already has thousands of women serving in the consecrated life all over the world. The church’s woman problem is that we – even progressives, even feminists, even women – don’t take their contributions as seriously and have no idea what they do.
Nuns are superheroes. While an ambitious, career-driven priest can ascend to the status of an Archbishop or Cardinal, there is no possibility for flash and glamour in nuns’ jobs. They’re working in AIDS clinics in the inner city and getting shot in El Salvador and rescuing abandoned baby girls on the streets of Calcutta. 80% of this country’s 30,000+ Catholic lay ministers (people who work for the church besides priests) are women. They are the heirs to the great women saints whose fearlessness in the face of a massive, entrenched institution built this Church and spread the love of Christ throughout the world. (And while we’re talking about Christ, may I just very quickly remind everyone that not one word in the Bible which condemns women as less than men was ever actually spoken by him.)
I worked for eight years as a Catholic youth minister at All Saints Church in Northeast Portland, and I spent a lot of time with teenage girls. If you have not had this pleasure, let me say a few things about them. Yes, they do shriek and giggle and text and discuss Edward Cullen exactly as much as you think they do. But they’re also amazing. I met girls who endured all manner of trauma – cyberbullying, cutting, sexual assault, ugly breakups, depression, running away from home, life-altering illness, the loss of a parent, attempted suicide. And they carried those burdens as they walked through a world that told every single one of them that they were too fat or their hair was too curly or their family was too poor or their clothes were too unfashionable or boys would only like them if they had sex on the first date. They were trying so hard to hold onto that thing the women saints had, that unquestioning knowledge of who they are. If you have girls in your life, you know how heartbreaking it is to watch the sharp jagged broken edges of the world scrape against them and draw blood. You also know how inspiring and dazzling it is to see what it looks like when they find that inner well of heroism and live it, even in small ways – from standing up for a friend who’s being bullied, to choosing not to cut themselves today. The fierceness with which I love these girls – especially the struggling ones, the difficult ones, the ones that don’t fit neatly into a box – is impossible to measure.
The fate of the Virgin Martyrs, I don’t wish that on anyone. I hope that kind of ugliness never happens to any woman ever again. But I do wish for our girls to have women in their church to look up to who witness that kind of bravery – the insistence that their sense of self is not to be sold or traded, that their body is their own, that they are no guy’s property, that they have within themselves the strength to withstand even the most brutal suffering. They still need to know that there is room in the messy, noisy, crazy world for them to be their unique selves. That their courage matters. That if any of them should choose to follow the call to become a holy sister, their brothers in the clergy will value their contributions and celebrate the work they do.
I understand that the Vatican can’t let anyone just go around teaching whatever they want to and claiming they speak on behalf of the church. But we need more nuns to keep this Church thriving and vital, not fewer. The Church needs those women, out there on the front lines doing work that no one, and I mean NO ONE, else wants to do. And the girls growing up in a world with, sadly, fewer and fewer awesome nuns to look up to, those girls need heroes. They need ass-kicking women of faith to light the way.