There was a buzz of tangible excitement among the older traditionalist Catholics every time that my friends and I walked into the room. We were the vanguard, the beacons of hope in the churning storm of a postmodern, sexually liberated culture. Young Ratzinger fanboys eager for the Latin Mass and ready to repopulate the empty pews with hordes of good, solid, orthodox Catholic kids.
We were here to usher in a new (old) kind of Catholicism. To replace the lame, lukewarm middle-aged Catholic women who rejected Humanae Vitae, clamoured for womyn priests and prayed to Our Mother who art the Earth. We rejected feminism, marched for life and loved the Pope.
We were going to make Catholicism great again.
This was about twenty years ago.
Twenty years later, the old traditionalist’s faces still light up when the rad trad kids walk into the room. They still write about how this is the new face of Catholicism. They still talk about how the youth want more Latin and less felt.
But what ever happened to those young, idealistic Catholic women of a generation ago? The ones who were excited about obeying their husbands and being open to life? The ones who were supposed to bring about the brave new Church?
The ones who became the next crop of middle aged Catholic women, rejecting Humanae Vitae, clamouring for women priests, and dreaming of an egalitarian Church and a maternal God…
But For the Grace of God
If you are one of the earnest young rad-trad women of this generation, you’re probably already scoffing. I understand. You don’t think that it could ever happen to you. Other women, maybe. Lame women. Women who don’t really love Jesus, who were badly catechized, who hate men, who are filled with pride and lust.
But not you.
You are the women I am writing for.
My hope is two-fold. First, that you will warned against the pit-falls that traditionalist Catholic bloggers will never warn you about. Second, that you will be able to take counsel now to save their marriages, your families, and hopefully your faith.
Now, why should you listen to me? I’ve just admitted that I’m a lukewarm, middle-aged wash-out. If you don’t follow the blog, I should add that I’m a soon-to-be divorcee who rejects the teaching authority of the Church, has multiple queer kids and lives in a scandalous partnership with a former monk.
Shock. Horror. Eyeroll. Amirite?
Here’s why you should pay attention. Because I was you. And whether you believe it or not, but for the grace of God one day you will be me. If this is not the trajectory that you would like your life to follow, it’s probably a good idea to find out what actually causes the idealistic, pro-life, ultra-Catholic twenty-somethings to turn into angry, feminist Episcopalians by the time they hit forty.
It’s not uncommon. I’m not the outlier. In fact, quite the opposite: it’s so common that unless something extraordinary happens it is almost inevitable. And it’s not caused by any of the things that conservative and traditionalist Catholic bloggers will constantly warn you against.
So what can you do, now, as a devout young women to make sure that it doesn’t happen to you?
I never thought that I was badly catechized. Sed contra, I devoured Lewis and Chesterton, read Catholic Answers, watched Mother Angelica, listened to endless lectures by Peter Kreeft. Once I had a grounding in pop apologetics, I graduated to reading the Saints, the Church Fathers, John Paul II and Thomas Aquinas. When a new encyclical came out, I would download it and start reading the same day.
I was obsessed with learning about my faith.
But my faith formation suffered from a very, very serious defect that I was too young and inexperienced to notice: it was directed not by competent adults, but by my equally young and inexperienced friends. Most of whom were male.
What I mean by this is that the choice of what to read, what to focus on, what to discuss, what to implement and what to reject was deeply informed by the opinions of my peers. There were many books and documents that were contemptuously dismissed as liberal bullshit, even though they were in fact completely in line with the teaching of the Church. There were wise and faithful priests who were excoriated as metrosexual milksops. There were even explicit Papal teachings that were either overlooked or outright rejected because they didn’t fit in with the vision of Catholicism that was popular among my friends.
Since my friends were mostly guys in their twenties, that vision was contaminated by the particular forms of immaturity common among guys in their twenties: machismo, braggadocio, juvenile misogyny, hubris, innocent narcissism and a sense of youthful entitlement.
Naturally, this contaminated their idea of what a Catholic woman should be like. Mostly she was just a projection of their desires. She would bring them beer, sit at their lotus feet admiring their manly wisdom, cook them great food, keep herself pure for them if unmarried and provide them with enthusiastic sex on request once the knot was tied, give them lots of children, love those children with a perfect and unselfish love, and defer to them like men while caring for them like children.
Since I was young, I very naturally enjoyed being praised by young men as a paragon of “Real Womanhood.” So I tried very, very hard to become this cartoonish, contradictory ideal that my husband and male friends lionized: virginal yet motherly, strong but deferential, pure but sexy, badass but simpering. A weird mash-up of Jungian archetypes that their 20 year old psyches would need decades to straighten out.
This is how the poison gets in. If you are young and devout you are not going to be tempted by worldly appeals to sex, empowerment and liberation. You’ve been warned to watch out for that.
You will be tempted in a way that will slip under your radar: specifically you will be tempted to give away your birthright, your dignity as a daughter of God, for the pious flattery of Catholic men and boys. And it will take the form of praise for your orthodoxy, your femininity, and your virtue.
The Virtue of Immaturity
Before we continue, I want to pause briefly to talk about the word “immature.” It has two different meanings and they are too often used equivocally.
First, we call someone “immature” if they are acting their age and we happen to be older than them. So, for example, I’ve encountered spiritual writers in their seventies or eighties who refer to the typical spiritual problems of thirty or forty year olds as signs of “spiritual immaturity.”
This should not be problematic: if I have even a grain of humility, I should be able to recognize that if someone has been developing their spiritual life for twice as long as I have, they will have a more developed spirituality than me. “Immature” in this context only seems derogatory if you suffer from hubris.
The other way we use the word is to describe someone who acts as if they are younger than they are. Sometimes this is caused by developmental delay, in which case using it as an insult is ableist. But it can also refer to someone who is neglecting their own self-development.Ironically, one of the more common causes of this kind of immaturity is the pressure to be “mature” prematurely. If someone feels that they have to act like a thirty year old in their teens, there’s a good possibility that they’ll end up acting like a teen in their forties. If they have to act like an adult when they’re ten, they may behave like a child when they’re twenty.
This is because the process of maturation is not something that you can force. You can’t make it happen faster by working hard and willing yourself to be older and wiser than your years. All you can do is miss essential parts of the process, which you will then have to go and make up later — often with the result that you will look very silly partying, toking up and dancing till three am with your beer gut exposed at fifty.
I say this because I am talking about the immaturity of young Catholic men and I wish it to be understood that these men are immature in the first sense: they are in their twenties, and they have the psychology of twenty year old boys. This does not mean that they are bad, or stupid, or that they ought to be more mature. Simply that it is naive to treat them as if they are any wiser or more grown up than secular guys of the same age.
Bright Young Things
We sat around in the living room of our student housing. There was one young man in particular — a skinny youth with wild hair and almost supernaturally bright eyes — who had established himself as the guru of our little group.
In the morning he would come bounding up the stairs with a cup of tea that he would sip at briefly before hiding it under the nearest piece of furniture. Sometimes we would find these cups weeks, months, later. Usually they were located by their smell.
After some preliminary banter, he would launch into a sermon. He possessed great fervour, diabolical charm, and a grandiloquence that was almost bardic. Also, while the rest of us were amusing ourselves with pillow-fights in the yard and forty kilometre pilgrimages to ice-cream stores he was down in the basement, shrouded in incense, reading John of the Cross and Sri Ramakrishna.
Naturally, even though we made fun of his habit of washing his clothes by hanging them on trees in rainstorms, we all looked at him as some sort of fool saint or youthful prophet. And his opinions, which were often cloaked in the words of great spiritual masters, were treated with commensurate gravity.
Intelligent children often have this problem: we are mistaken (by adults, by other children and especially by ourselves) as older and more competent than we are in fact. Book knowledge substitutes for actual wisdom and life experience, creating the illusion that a person has achieved interior development beyond their years.
This is play acting. It’s not bad. In fact, it’s necessary: necessary in the same way that it’s necessary for aspiring scientists to play with chemistry sets and imagine that they are doing real experiments, even though the results are already well known in advance. Necessary in the same way that it’s necessary for children to pretend that they are mommies, or daddies, or policemen, or doctors, or dragon-slayers.
It only becomes a problem when we’re not able to step out of the play acting. When we start to believe that it is real, and more particularly when we harm ourselves or others for the sake of the game.
The Old Boy’s Ticket to Heaven Club
Not all Catholic peer pressure comes in the form of a single eccentric young guru. In some cases, it will be a parish ministry with a charismatic youth pastor who seems mature because he is almost thirty. Or a brilliant young priest whose zeal seems to bring the parish to life. A fire-and-brimstone blogger who owns the libs and calls for a new crusade. Or a tight-knit community that has separated itself from the world and that not-so-secretly fancies itself to be sole, heroic remnant of a dying but noble civilization.
In some cases, it’s even a much older person who is actually deeply immature in the second sense of the word: somebody who has made few advances in self-knowledge or in overcoming the ego because their entire spirituality is concentrated on proudly condemning all of the sin and evil which they see as being located outside of the self.
In any case, if you are a young Catholic woman and you think feminism is the enemy of your development and the enemy of life, you have certainly arrived at this belief because it has been told to you by others. And most of the people who have told you this are either men or women who got the idea by listening to men.
I’m not belabouring this because there’s anything wrong with guys. I’m belabouring it because there are certain realities about male psychology that have to be taken into account.
The most important of these is that men, in general, have a very different spiritual and psychological struggle than women. I don’t know whether the reasons for this are innate or socially constructed. I don’t know whether it’s a manifestation of evolutionary psychology or of cultural conditioning. I don’t know whether it’s because of some ontological difference between male and female souls, or because testosterone influences the brain differently from estrogen, or because patriarchy.
I don’t know, and frankly for our present purposes it doesn’t matter.
What matters is that your male friends, male priests, favourite male bloggers, boyfriends, fathers, husbands, brothers, etc. are almost certainly plagued by the universal human presumption that other people’s interior lives are organized much like our own interior lives. Which means that they are deeply inclined to assume that women’s spiritual struggles are more or less the same as men’s spiritual struggles just with a few minor tweaks here and there.
This illusion is bolstered by the fact that women’s spiritual writing is traditionally curated by men. That is, men decide which women have written things that are wise, true, edifying and worthy of respect. And naturally, without a single shred of deliberate misogyny, men will gravitate towards writing by women whose experience they can either relate to or admire.
Which means that women are habitually presented with spiritual resources that treat us as if we were men. Sometimes this is obvious, as when St. Faustina writes caustically about “effeminate” souls. Other times it is much more subtle. But it is pervasive.
And it means that the central spiritual struggle of woman is almost entirely misrepresented and misunderstood.
(To be continued.)
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