Catholics at a Crossroads

Increasingly over the course of this semester I have come to realize the importance of the Church in raising and socializing Catholics. Both Susan Ross, Professor of Theology at Loyola University Chicago, and Jim Barrett, author of “The Blessed Virgin Made Me a Socialist Historian”, both discussed how their Catholic heritage, religion, and upbringing shaped who they are today, what they believe, and their values. Barrett concisely summed it up with “my identity is deeply imbued with Catholicism, which has fundamentally shaped my political perspective and my approach to history. It is the place I came from- my old neighborhood, with my parish at its center; the community, family, and other people who nurtured me; the worldview that shaped my values”. No matter what country or what world events were occurring, the Catholic Church held huge influence over the opinions and politics of practicing Catholics and continues to shape them today. Catholicism is an elaborate worldview which strongly dictates how Catholics should live their lives.

Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement

The Catholic Worker is a great example of a global Catholic movement that is radically working towards applying the gospel in all situations, specifically among strangers. (To read more about what the Catholic Worker movement is, click here. ) This movement allows lay people to get involved in spreading Catholic doctrine. Post-Vatican II, there was a change in the role of lay people, so the emphasis was on helping people who were suffering, so the Catholic Worker movement grew. These small communities provide a shelter and food to those in need as well as a safe Catholic community. Daniel McKanan’s article “The Family, The Gospel, and the Catholic Worker” surprised me because of how communal the Catholic Worker homes are, some included children. There is a contradiction in the families who run these communities in that they are communally raising their children with exposure to race, poverty, etc., but the parents are also willing to go to prison for their militant activism. This is in contrast to the masculine radicalism discussed by Marian Mollin.

The Catholic Church seems to view political issues and social issues not solely from a theological basis, but on how they would affect the church. As Barrett was growing up Irish Catholic, he noticed the social intolerance in his hometown and among adults in his community, including at his parish, and this deeply affected him. Because of the global nature of the Catholic Church, he was encouraged to think globally as the reach and power of the Church is vast and crosses borders. Many global events that occurred were quite important to the Vatican, and while the opinion of the Catholic Church may be the same as the American governments, the reasons for those opinions may be distinct because of the Catholic faith. When the Chinese Revolution began, the Catholic view was that “the problem with the Chinese Revolution was not that it suppressed capitalism but rather that it suppressed Catholicism” (Barrett 6). Most of America did not support the Chinese Revolution because it was not a democratic system and this was during the Red Scare, but the Catholic reasoning was different. This is important to note that while many Catholics and Protestants and other Americans agree on the same issues, why they support or oppose those issues may diverge.

Racism was another topic that came up both in the Barrett reading and Catholics at a Crossroads. Susan Ross spoke on her experience as a white college student traveling from New England to the South with three of her friends, two of which were black. When they stopped at a diner in the Deep South, the waitress refused to sit them. This was an incredibly significant moment on Ross’ life as she still remembers it years later and it was one of the first times that she directly confronted the blatant racism that non-white Americans faced, and continue to face every day. Barrett acknowledged the racism he saw people in his community inflict onto others, yet felt a contradiction between that behavior and the teachings of the Catholic Church where “part of the Church’s universal quality was that Catholics came in all races and nationalities” and that “the Church taught us that all people were brothers and sisters” (Barrett 13). Catholics were deeply conflicted with the racial injustice in America, and in the world. Professor Miguel Diaz, a former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See and current Professor at Loyola University Chicago, also touched on issues of racism, and racial integration, in the Catholic Church. As a Catholic Latino, he was able to shift the conversation to broader racial issues within the Church that remain today, and how the Church in Latin America is different from in America or Europe. The emphasis was on how racial justice and economic justice are linked and how the Church should be and has been working towards those goals. To read about liberation theology and the significance it has had on the Catholic Church, click here.

Pope Benedict XVI, formerly Cardinal Ratzinger

Rev. Aaron Pidel, S.J. was the last speaker at Catholics at a Crossroads, and he provided an overview of the development of the thought and theology of Cardinal Ratzinger who would become Pope Benedict XVI. Ratzinger is a good example of the direction of the Church and particularly the laypeople in the Church because when Vatican II came out, there was strong support and opposition for the clarifications and changes made to the theology. Ratzinger was relatively liberal pre-Vatican II, but afterwards, he grew more conservative; or the Church grew more liberal. Vatican II was a momentous feat that came out during many social protests in America about abortion, war, capitalism, civil rights, and gay rights. While the clergy struggled with how to implement Vatican II, not all of the lay people were enthusiastic. Many were more conservative and now were being led by their more liberal priests and bishops who supported Vatican II. Many lay people were not as convinced. Vatican II had a global effect and left many Catholics debating whether the choices made were the correct ones and how they would affect their lives as citizens of their country and as Catholics.

   I was surprised by how significant Vatican II was in the lives of lay Catholics and how much weight it held in their everyday lives. This was not just a theological document created for the clergy; it had real repercussions that could be felt on the national level, in local parishes, and in individual homes. Susan Ross specifically remembered sitting in her living room with her older sister, mother, and grandmother discussing what Vatican II meant, especially for women in the Church. As Vatican II was created by all, mostly white, men, they felt that it did not represent them and their reality as female Catholics, so their worth and value was being questioned. The issue of birth control was highly relevant as Humane Vitae (Watch videos about the document and read the encyclical here) had just been released and Ross’ sister had just gotten married. Her grandmother felt that women’s voices were not being heard, a reality that is true today, and one document was not going to change her thinking on birth control. I am uncertain whether her mother and sister agreed, but I did find it really surprising that lay Catholics read and discussed these documents, so that the effect of Vatican II was not solely on the clergy.

Not only was the clergy gendered, but even among the Catholic Left social activist community was sexism rampant. Although “community was a critical part of the resistance”, if Catholic women on the left were resisting against traditional notions of gender roles and advocating for feminism, community was not of the utmost importance (Mollin 11). Marian Mollin, author of “Communities of Resistance: Women and the Catholic Left of the Late 1960s”, brings up the concept of radical masculinity in the context of the Catholic Left activist communities that were all led by men. Women are viewed as docile and calm, so the image of a female resistance leader is breaking the gender mold, and in the patriarchal Catholic Church, this open defiance of gender was not welcomed. I really enjoyed this article because of the discussion of Catholic women activists in the 1960s, but more importantly how it called out the sexism of the movements by highlighting the struggles women such as Mary Moylan encountered. Read about Mary Moylan and the Catonsville Nine.

Mary Moylan

I was pleased to learn that there were a few women-led movements, although they faced enormous obstacles from their male counterparts who in reality derided them and minimized their great contributions to the movement. When women tried to bring the Women’s Liberation movement into the larger Catholic Left, it was typically not welcomed and viewed as unimportant. In fact, Philip and Daniel Berrigan “regularly characterized the women’s liberation struggle as a trivial issue and a distraction from the primary goal of ending the war” (Mollin 20). The feminist cause was ignored by the male leaders of the Catholic Left due to patriarchal standards in America and in the Catholic Church, and this remains today. I am frustrated that a few weeks ago we learned about the Berrigans and had a whole week dedicated to the work of Daniel Berrigan, but failed to mention any of the women who supported and participated in his protests nor his anti-feminist values. When a female-led raid was held, Women Against Daddy Warbucks, an explicitly feminist public statement was delivered because to the women-only group “challenging the war and challenging traditional gender roles were all part of the same struggle” (Mollin 19). Unfortunately, the male leaders disagreed with the protest and they quickly lost support from the larger Catholic Left community. The resistance community of the Catholic Left in the 1960s and in present day, is limited because of the lack of acceptance of feminist thought and women’s equality in the teachings and organization of the patriarchal Church. “As women quickly discovered, the masculinized nature of the Catholic Left-the ways in which radical protests were gendered male-made it all but impossible for women to critique male prerogative without simultaneously threatening the manhood of the men involved” (Mollin 24).

Susan Ross was asked why she stayed in the Catholic Church when she clearly disagreed with a lot and rejected the patriarchal hierarchy that ignored women’s voices. She sometimes feels ostracized from the Church and definitely has issues with it, yet feels that she can advocate from within for change, particularly for women to be involved and heard. However, ultimately it comes down to the fact that the Church is her community, similar to how the Catholic Worker provides a home and community for those who visit. What is clear to me from the readings and listening to the speakers at Catholics at a Crossroads is that the Catholic Church needs to change and it needs to happen soon. Christianity as a whole is losing believers, but the Catholic Church is such a dominant force in the world religiously, politically, and socially, that diminishing members means diminishing power. Younger generations are less active in the Church and part of it is likely because of its views on social issues such as birth control; women’s equality, including in the Church; and racial equality. It is imperative that the Catholic Church takes women’s and minority’s opinions and issues into consideration and actively works towards both gender and racial equality.


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