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.