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The Brave Women of the Catholic Church


Apr 13 2010
The Catholic Church abuse stories are exasperating, but a few lay writers give me hope.

I love a good story. That's why I've been captivated in recent days by stories concerning the Catholic Church abuse scandal. Not the newspaper spreads with timelines showing who knew what, when they knew it, and what they did or didn't do about it. I've read some of those stories, but they do not captivate me.

I'm captivated, rather, by the complex, inspiring stories of lay Catholics and, in particular, the stories of three Catholic women who explain why they remain Catholic. NPR featured two essays, the first by writer Elizabeth Scalia, whose essay is a poetic meditation on the dark and light that coexist in creation. Scalia understands that "everything, from our institutions to our innermost beings, are seen through a glass, darkly," yet she holds on to her faith's "bright hope."

In the second NPR essay, novelist and poet Julianna Baggott writes of leaving the church but retaining her Catholic identity. She honors the nuns and priests who welcomed and educated her mother during a troubled childhood and who schooled Baggott in a radical, inclusive faith. Baggott credits the church for shaping her as a writer, for "the basic rule of storytelling is show, don't tell. Christianity shares this idea—the word made flesh. Of all the Christian denominations, no one does more bloody, impassioned showing than Catholicism."

Finally, religion scholar Donna Freitas, who has published a guest essay on Her.meneutics, debuted her new Washington Post column called "Stubborn Catholic" this week. Her first post revealed her own experience with priestly sexual impropriety. That experience left a scar, but that scar is only one piece of her Catholic identity. Catholicism "is my family, my friends, my professional life as a theologian and scholar of religion. It's the way I mark time during the week and the year and the food I cook depending on the holiday. It is a childhood and a lifetime of experience."

These women are so brave. To understand why, just read the comments following their essays (although really, I want to say don't, because the vitriol is discouraging, sometimes sickening). There is so much scorn, from those who accuse the writers of delusion for believing in any kind of religion, of sheep-like stupidity for their allegiance to such a damaged old institution, or of traitorous malice for speaking publicly of their church's faults.

I am not Catholic, but I am writing a book about reproductive ethics. Because the Catholic Church, in general, has more to say about such matters than Protestant churches, I read a lot of Catholic resources. While I don't agree with every Catholic position, I respect their thoughtfulness and integrity. I believe that, when people of faith are discussing difficult, emotion-laden topics (sexuality, childbearing, vocation, identity), we owe it to other people of faith to understand the context and community out of which their beliefs arise.

Related Topics:Abuse; Catholicism; Church

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