One of the clearest fault-lines in American Catholicism concerns the status of women.
When American Catholics get angry at something, it’s usually because there are other Catholics who have a different view. Current Catholic discussions and debates over issues such as gender or feminism--“radical” or otherwise--are places where this dynamic is apparent for all to see.
Of course, the dynamics of American Catholicism reflect broader American dynamics, such as differences in political affiliation and ideological commitment. The way these differences often play out make American civil society something decidedly less than “civil” and that lack of civility often extends to talk within and about American Catholic life.
But Catholicism is not just about the United States. American Catholics live as part of a larger Catholic community. And so, when we look at issues concerning gender and Catholicism more broadly, we find that the configurations familiar to American Catholics are by no means universal or self-evident.
Almost two decades ago now, I first met Rashmi, a Catholic who lived in a North Indian village. Since she was a member of an “untouchable” caste, she lived with her son in a segregated part of a village. A widow, Rashmi worked the fields as a manual laborer and often served as a midwife.
Rashmi was a devout Catholic. Every Sunday, she would walk several miles to the local Catholic mission for Mass. She would always go to confession before sitting on the chapel floor as the liturgy began. Women would sit on the left hand side; men on the right. The priest would say Mass in Hindi, wearing saffron colored vestments.
Though the Mass was designed for Indian sensibilities, Rashmi would often talk nostalgically about the Latin Mass and would lament how Indian Catholic nuns had abandoned the habit in favor of wearing saris. For her, maintaining this distinctive Catholic identity was important. This understanding of Catholicism as distinctive also informed Rashmi’s participation in the Catholic charismatic movement, in which she would lay hands on others and pray for their healing. As an untouchable, the act of laying on hands had a deep significance for her. It also represented a reinterpretation of the role of exorcist that many in her caste had traditionally practiced.
But being a healer also was an assertion of her power as a woman. Rashmi would often call priests to task for not being holy enough. Healing and laying on of hands in many ways mirrored the sacramental authority exercised by priests, although in a covert, surreptitious way.
Was Rashmi a feminist? Or was she a Catholic traditionalist?
The answer to each question would be “yes” and “no.”
Rashmi was most certainly a feminist in that she was concerned with what academics would call “female agency.” Rashmi was all too well aware that women did most of the work--both in the church and in the world. The Catholic charismatic movement provided a context in which her “work” had a different kind of meaning and value.
But if we call Rashmi a “feminist,” we would also have to admit that her form of feminism is different from many recognizable Western forms. Rashmi certainly had no explicit difficulties with the hierarchical structure of the church, or that priests were “set apart.” She also would have no issues with professing obedience to points of Catholic doctrine. But she would draw upon those same resources to call clergy to greater forms of sacrifice and self-discipline, which is obviously an implicit form of critique. In any case, Rashmi’s fondness for the Latin Mass or the nun’s habit did not mean anything remotely similar to what some Americans envision when they long for a return to Catholicism’s pre-Vatican II past.
Rashmi’s own understanding of her identity as a woman and a Catholic was shaped by her own cultural and social context. In Kerala, an Indian state a thousand miles south of Rashmi’s village, some Catholic nuns have published “tell-all” books about abuse at the hands of priests. Rashmi, of course, could never write any thing about her own life since she never had the opportunity to attend school. And so, if we see gender as a factor that shapes discourse about what it means to be Catholic, then we also have to be sensitive to the influence of class, race, and ethnicity.
If Rashmi and I were to sit down and talk about American Catholicism, it would take awhile to sort everything out. She would certainly understand how some American nuns and bishops are operating with rather different understandings about what makes the Catholic church “a church.” But it would take some doing to explain how and why gender is an issue for American Catholics or how and why certain Catholic teachings are emphasized in America and some are resisted. Such a discussion would mean talking about many of the things we as Americans take for granted that Rashmi could scarcely imagine.
But if we were to sit down and talk, I know that I would say to Rashmi that I would appreciate more voices like hers-- voices that make connections different from what we would normally expect in an American context. Rashmi probably wouldn’t know what to make of a comment like that. But if I framed things in terms of American Catholicism needing more healers like her, I’m pretty sure she’d understand what I was talking about.
Schmalz writes and teaches in the fields of Comparative Religions and South Asian Studies at the College of the Holy Cross. He also writes on Catholic spirituality.