There is much that is profound and extraordinary in the post-synodal apostolic exhortation Querida Amazonia. But, inevitably, there is also much that is troubling. One passage that seems especially theologically as well as sociologically problematic came up several times in conversations I had with Catholic women who are working for reform in the church:
Jesus Christ appears as the Spouse of the community that celebrates the Eucharist through the figure of a man who presides as a sign of the one Priest. This dialogue between the Spouse and his Bride, which arises in adoration and sanctifies the community, should not trap us in partial conceptions of power in the Church. The Lord chose to reveal his power and his love through two human faces: the face of his divine Son made man and the face of a creature, a woman, Mary. Women make their contribution to the Church in a way that is properly theirs, by making present the tender strength of Mary, the Mother. As a result, we do not limit ourselves to a functional approach, but enter instead into the inmost structure of the Church. In this way, we will fundamentally realize why, without women, the Church breaks down, and how many communities in the Amazon would have collapsed, had women not been there to sustain them, keep them together and care for them. This shows the kind of power that is typically theirs.
Basically, you’re wedded to a groom who is not actually Jesus, but a Jesus-impersonator. He’s constantly trying to manipulate you to stay and has a narcissistic streak, ignores your feelings and needs, and sometimes verbally cuts you down or gaslights you. (We’re not even talking about the physically/sexually abusive situations here—these clearly need to leave to survive.) You do get to live in a spiritual home, which has probably provided you with some comfort and children and neighbors, which you would lose if you leave. Do you?
It mostly depends on whether you believe you can survive and thrive without him. Maybe your income is totally dependent on your loyalty to him, which would make it really hard to leave, maybe impossible, so you stay and keep pleading with him to treat you better and pray for the best.
Maybe he’s gaslighted you so effectively that you believe you can’t survive on your own, even though you have a job and means of income apart from him. Or maybe he’s threatened to kill you (send you to hell or at least cut you off from the lifeblood of God) if you leave, and you believe that. Clearly, you’re better off leaving, but you need other people to support you in overcoming the self-doubt and/or threats.
Maybe you have children that you’d have to leave behind if you left. That’s a really tough one because you want to and can save yourself, but you’re not sure if you can save them from their toxic father. It takes a leap of faith that they’ll survive and hopefully find a way to follow you after you leave.
Or maybe you have a steady source of income unconnected to this narcissistic spouse, self-confidence and/or supportive friends, and you don’t have kids or they’re capable of making good decisions for themselves, so you walk away fairly easily with few regrets. You may miss your old house and your old neighbors sometimes, but your new life is so much happier now, so it was clearly the right decision for you.
Or maybe you have the capacity to leave, but you’re staying because you keep hoping and praying he’ll change. Because you made a commitment and you don’t want to break it, or you don’t want to be a quitter.
In that case, let me share with you what happened in my real life marriage:
I was miserable for the first twelve years of my marriage. No matter what I did to try to communicate clearly and politely what was problematic to me, my husband didn’t seem to care. Sometimes he was verbally abusive, other times he was just annoying and not very helpful. Part of the time I was too vulnerable financially and with small children to even consider leaving. But I finally got to the point where I was resourced enough to not need his financial contributions and my children old enough to speak for themselves. I told my husband I was no longer committed to staying with him and took off my wedding rings. I told him I wanted to take steps toward separation, and started with sleeping in another room.
Then, and only then, he finally listened to my complaints and taking responsibility for changing. He listened to marriage self-help recordings, started seeing a counselor and taking anti-anxiety medication, and helping out more around the house without any complaining about it. He started respecting my autonomy to think differently from him and make my own choices. It’s hard for him to let me choose to do things apart from him because we have different interests and beliefs, but he’s learning not to try to guilt-trip me for that, and to quietly let our differences go or try to understand my perspective.
This is what I hope for the Catholic Church. If the hierarchy could give us autonomy to live out our diverse convictions and gifts, and respect for our dignity and various vocations, it would be best if we never had to permanently move out and divorce. But I think the only chance we have for prompting change is to start a trial separation. And there’s always a risk when you do that, that the church may just hurl more insults at us on the way out the door, change the locks, and be unwilling to change. We have to be prepared for that to happen, mentally accepting the possibility this will be permanent when we walk out that door, even if we don’t want it to be.
We also should resist the pressure or impulse to “renew vows” just because of incremental changes. If we had the resources to break free in the first place, we should try to remain free to leave if they revert to uncaring behaviors again. My wedding rings are still sitting in a jewelry box several months after we started sharing a bed again. And family life continues to be pretty peaceful, if not romantic or euphoric.
If Pope Francis approved women deacons, I probably would stay, as long as I didn’t hear any continued threats from the priesthood that I’d go to hell or not “have Jesus” if I left, but I wouldn’t seek out any paid job in the church that I could be fired from if I spoke out against potential injustices.
The metaphor breaks down, of course, because no one of us leaving or communicating intent to leave has the impact that a wife leaving her husband has. “Wives” of the church have been trickling out for decades, but it’s never added up to something consequential enough for the clergy to chase after us. I really think the only hope for change for the Catholic Church is if people (who are in a reasonable position to do so) “strike” or leave en masse, like they’ve done in Germany. Otherwise it’s each spiritually abused bride for herself.