“Sorry, Guys, Still Catholic”

On November 19, Salon ran a piece by a Catholic re-vert named Kaya Oakes titled “My Torment As A Catholic Woman.” The melodramatic title — probably the editors’ choice, not the author’s — does the work an injustice. When Oakes talks about the Church’s ban on women in the sacramental priesthood, it’s not so much agony she expresses as confused, weary resignation.

At least that’s how it reads on balance. Visiting an Episcopalian church, Oakes does admit to feeling “a knife in the heart” at seeing a woman in late middle age read from the Gospel, a privilege she’d be refused in Oakes’ own parish. But Oakes also admits that the Church has never denied her anything “to the point of resentment.” Her final note is ecumenical, even indifferentist — “Whatever church we walk into, whoever says the words that make it shift…we are given bread.” But we’re meant to understand she’s not about to run the Cross of St. George up her gaff anytime soon. It’s such a strange little piece, with such an ambiguous conclusion, that I wondered why Oakes had bothered writing It in the first place.

Then I checked the comments section. Here are the words of a Salon regular, a real charmer who calls herself Aunt Messy:

You choose to belong to a Church that hates you just because you’re female. How is that all right with you? Sure, you can put your ass in a pew every week and try and skip over the ugly bits, but this is not a plate of stew – it’s a church that wants you to disappear except when giving birth and dying…

And here’s one from a dab hand at interfaith dialogue named Frank Knarf:

You lack the self-awareness to examine why it is that you subordinate yourself to a ridiculous patriarchal cult. Google “Reformation” if you can’t bear to give up sky god fairy tales completely.

And so on. I first found Oakes’ piece through a link someone had posted on Facebook. It did come with some grumbling about bad catechesis, but it was pretty tame stuff. From her target readership, however, Oakes caught a small fistful of genuine odium fidei. She took one for the team.

In 2012, Oakes published a reversion memoir, titled Radical Re-invention: An Unlikely Return to the Catholic Church. I haven’t read it, but the secular establishment spared it no garland. Publisher’s Weekly paid it this tribute:

…Yet now, on the cusp of midlife and all its crises, Oakes, a lecturer who teaches writing at UC Berkeley, is still swearing up a storm and taking the Lord’s name in vain, but she’s turned to God and can’t seem to look away. What’s more, she has discovered she is Catholic through and through, despite the Vatican’s politics (which she despises). This memoir tells the story of this unlikely convert—as she sees herself—in all its gory detail. Oakes doesn’t mince words or clean up her language, and doubt, frustration, and anger are frequent companions on her journey. Oakes not only treats readers to gorgeous prose, but manages to provide an overview and history of the best of the Catholic faith, without losing momentum.

I don’t think it’d be splitting hairs to point out that this description doesn’t quite match Oakes’ latest work, which contains no F-bombs, no gore, and not even much in the way of anger. These still do turn the heads of certain magazine editors and win approving belches from the Aunt Messys of this world, so she had nothing in particular to gain by omitting them. Absent a better explanation, I’m wondering whether this onetime dissenting firebrand is cooling off slightly.

Faith, which makes full assent to Church teachings possible, is a supernatural virtue, a gift of the Holy Spirit. I admit — I don’t have it. Not the full megillah. At least most of the time, I have to make do with pius credulitatis affectus, or the good will to believe. For me, contemplating Church teachings feels a little like sitting respectfully through The Grand Illusion, exclaiming in all the prescribed places over Renoir’s virtuosity, but knowing, deep down, I’d be much happier watching Elf.

Rating other people’s conversions is a risky thing, but it sounds to me that Kaya Oakes is in a slightly different place, one where she’s watching the movie, but fidgeting, crumpling the empty popcorn bag, and all the while muttering that Erich von Stroheim is no Will Ferrell. Considering how, just a little while ago, she seems to have been calling friends on her cell phone, shouting, “My GOD, this SUCKS,” that’s pretty darned good.

When Joanne McPortland’s blog first started catching fire, I resented her for it. Not that she didn’t write well enough to deserve a readership — on the contrary, her work has always been superb. But I simply couldn’t believe that anyone who’d come back to the Church as recently as she had — and after leading so colorful a life as she’d led — could adopt such an all-in, culture-warring style. It seemed to me she must be putting it on for traffic’s sake.

“What the hell, Joanne,” I once wrote her in PM. “One day you’re a proclaiming the apostleship of Mary Magdalen, the next you’re making fun of vaginas? Shouldn’t there be a transitional period?”

“Ah,” Joanne wrote back. “But there was. It lasted for years, and it all happened before you met me. Be patient, and maybe one day you, too, will gain the moral authority to write about vaginas.”

Of course she was telling the truth. The pilgrimage to Assisi that repositioned Joanne on the Divine (and the vagina) was but the culmination of a decades-long process. And, though most Catholics I know accept that conversion can be a lengthy affair, they seem happiest reading about it as a fait accompli. Augustine and Newman both wrote in the past tense.

So did Merton in The Seven-Storey Mountain. But he continued writing, even as his views evolved. By the time he finished The Sign of Jonas, he found he was no longer able to recognize the person he’d been as a postulant. (That hasn’t made Merton’s younger self any less appealing to readers; Seven-Storey Mountain continue to fly off shelves everywhere.) I, for one, can relate. Most of the things I wrote two years ago make me wince, as I’m sure, two years from now, I’ll wince looking back at what I’m writing this very moment.

So I wonder whether Kaya Oakes’ piece didn’t amount to a kind of status check, her way of telling people, “Yeah, I’m still Catholic. And despite everything, I’m getting used to it.” In another five years, I’ll start checking The Wanderer for her byline. After a few more years, I’ll start checking it for mine.

  • RelapsedCatholic

    Loved her essay that you described. I also interact with her on Twitter on occasion and she is sincerely trying to be a part of the church an live a faith that is often at odds with modern life. I am not sure how she feels about women’s ordination, nor am I willing to guess. But I can say that I am in favor of women’s ordination. I am in favor of it not out of disrespect or unfaithfulness for Rome, but out of love for my church and a desire to see it grow. I loved this essay and the perspective that it contained.

  • TheReluctantWidow

    I was going to make a comment about church ladies and your use of the word “vagina(s)” multiple times but I realized that I am not very good with humor in writing. That being said, I think the best part of your piece is the last paragraph. What’s that saying I have heard over and over throughout the 15 yrs I have been Catholic? Faith is a journey not a destination. Something along those lines. My own faith has waxed and waned in it’s fervor throughout the years, but I think back to where my faith was even five years ago, and I like to think I am a bit more mature not just in age but in faith too.

  • Gail Finke

    As a woman and a revert, I just can’t muster up anything but bewilderment for my angry, “how dare you not let me be a priest???” sisters. I really, really don’t get the rage, the charges of hatred, any of it. I have no problem at all with a male priesthood, it makes perfect sense to me. That said, I love your bit about not having faith and making do with the good will to believe. That’s me, too. It sounds second-rate and lukewarm, but it’s not. It doesn’t let go. I would like the fires of full-blown Faith with a capital F, but most of the time I hunker down with this iron cord that connects me to Catholicism. It’s not going anywhere. It’s my lifeline. It’s as indispensable, and as non-dramatic, as breathing.

  • http://conservativecommune.com Joy W. McCann

    “I really, really don’t get the rage, the charges of hatred, any of it. I
    have no problem at all with a male priesthood, it makes perfect sense
    to me.”

    Then you are blessed and cursed at the very same time.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    Despite whatever JM might say, unless we actually get a sex change, neither of us will ever “have the moral authority to write about vaginas” :-P
    Yeah, the experience is the same with me. The longer I’m striving to perfect my faith, the more i just accept the things of the church I disagree with.
    Side note: I have to say that one of the biggest surprises since I’ve gotten on the internet for me has been how savage some of the Liberals are in these com boxes, especially the atheists.

  • Martha Oram

    Okay I’ll bite.

    Why is she cursed?

  • Almario Javier

    The thing is, though, being in favor of women’s ordination is like being in favor of eliminating gravity – you can wish it all you want, but it will never happen.

  • RelapsedCatholic

    This is the dismissive attitude that alienates people so effectively. If I had the time or inclination I would explain why. Have a blessed day.

  • lindenman

    It was for me, too. Whatever Kaya thinks about women and the priesthood, she should not have to stand alone when people are giving her hell for praying to a flying spaghetti monster. I’ll have those churls know that’s MY flying spaghetti monster, too.

  • http://conservativecommune.com Joy W. McCann

    Because she is unable to see the other point of view: she is locked in to her own.

  • ME

    According to the requirements of the sacrament of form and matter, form for Ordination has to come from a bishop, and matter has to be male, because Christ was male. God made them male and female, and gave them differences for a reason. Value what you are as a man or woman, and value the opposite sex for what they are. Don’t try to confuse the two, as it does no one any good.

  • JohnE_o

    “Faith, which makes full assent to Church teachings possible, is a
    supernatural virtue, a gift of the Holy Spirit. I admit — I don’t have
    it. Not the full megillah. At least most of the time, I have to make
    do with pius credulitatis affectus, or the good will to believe.”

    Wait – what? You can do that? That’s a thing?

  • RelapsedCatholic

    Since Christ never turned to his apostles and said ‘Hey dudes, in this church you’re going to set up…boys only OK.’ This is all based on interpretation and tradition. Interpretation is deeply affected by the culture and biases of those reading it. Not every tradition deserves to move forward and can indeed become anachronistic and counter productive.

    We have chosen this interpretation, we could always make a different choice.

  • RelapsedCatholic

    Very well said sir.

  • jenny

    I wonder how a man feels by going to confession to a woman….

  • Dale

    Why would going to confession to a female priest (assuming the Church allowed such a thing) be any different than going to confession to a male priest? Why would a male parishioner feel any differently than a female parishioner?

  • arb16035

    This goes to the heart of what I don’t understand about sacramental theology. It makes sense that according to Thomistic metaphysics you can’t give absolution to a parrot even if it can talk or say a Mass for a dead dog because the proper object of a sacrament is a rational supposit, otherwise known as a human person. The gender of the sacramental recipient doesn’t seem to make any difference in any of the other sacraments except Sacred Orders. So the core question for me is, “Does the Roman Catholic Church warrant that women are rational supposits and as rational supposits as rational as men?” If they are then I don’t see any impediment to all discerned women receiving the Sacrament of Holy Orders.

  • http://arkanabar.blogspot.com/ Arkanabar

    There is another sacrament in which validity depends on the gender of both matter and minister, and that is the sacrament of matrimony. Given that Christ regularly described himself as bridegroom and never as bride, and that those in holy orders stand in His place, it’s hardly surprising that they must be men.