Is Catholic Feminist An Oxymoron?

Writing a book is a bit like having a baby. It's an enterprise that is best not done alone. It takes a long time and much preparation. And it promises something good after months of waiting.

Of course, there are profound differences. Baby-making is more fun than book writing. On the other hand, while a book likely has a far longer gestation period, at least you can count on a specific publication date. Yes, some mothers do give birth via appointment, but most of us just hope our due dates prove to be accurate.

My book - Catholic Women Confront Their Church: Stories of Hurt and Hope - has a September 30 publication date. The pre-publication reviews have been very positive. And just this week, Publishers Weekly ran a profile of me and the book!

I decided to write this book because I had come to a crossroads in my own life. I did not know whether I could continue to be a practicing Catholic and a feminist. In so many ways, I felt the church's misogyny flew in the face of the values I espoused -- the equality of women, and their right to think and act independently. These were the values I tried to instill in my daughter.

This book became my quest for answers. I sought out exceptional Catholic women who shared my progressive politics, hoping that understanding their lives and struggles would shed some light on my own.

I began my research a few weeks before Pope Benedict XVI surprised the world and upended a 600-year tradition by resigning from the papacy. This turned out to be fortuitous. The ascendancy of Pope Francis has put the spotlight on Catholicism, and also opened up the possibility for more change in the church.

But as Pope Francis began making headlines, I initially wondered whether the book would be irrelevant by the time it came out. The new pope seemed so radically different from Benedict, in both outlook and values, I wondered whether the problem of sexism in the church might be solved by the time I had finished.

But while Francis has changed the church's tone, and promises to consider a few reforms, such as the ordination of women to the deaconate, he's certainly not going to get any awards for his emphatic feminism.

Francis, a 78-year-old cleric from Latin America, still clings to a culture that has a hard time figuring women out. It's clear he's most comfortable with an image of women as primarily mothers, willing to concede them a space for a career or leadership, provided they prioritize their role as nurturers.

Granted, the Pope has conceded some value to feminism. In his apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, the Pope wrote, "If certain forms of feminism have arisen which we must consider inadequate, we must nonetheless see in the women's movement the working of the Spirit for a clearer recognition of the dignity and rights of women."

But that same document also made clear that feminism had its limits. "I certainly value feminism, but one that does not demand uniformity or negate motherhood."

And in his conversations, he often extols the feminine "genius," which a series of popes seem to have found somewhere in our chromosome count and that endows us with ineffable tenderness and maternal longings.

In writing this book, I learned the term, complementarity, which means that women and men "complement" each other, but the man is always on top. The church assigns men and women separate roles and they certainly are not equal.

And the exceptional women? I found them, and their stories are the heart and soul of the book. Their backgrounds could not have been more different, and yet their views of the church were starkly in sync with one another.

They include well-known advocates such Frances Kissling, former head of Catholics for Choice, "Nun on the Bus" Sister Simone Campbell, Barbara Blaine, the founder of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, and Marianne Duddy-Burke, the executive director of DignityUSA, advocating for LGBT Catholics.

But in these pages you'll also meet an African-American theologian who did some of the first research on Georgetown University's slaveholding past, as well as a Latina sexual ethics professor who found that guiding her struggling students helped her come to terms with her own rape as a teenager. One of my subjects - now a gifted and prolific writer -- spent her childhood with a mentally ill Catholic mother, cycling in and out of homeless shelters. Another - a Belgian-born academic - found her European Catholicism marginalized at that bastion of American Catholicism, Notre Dame. A former nun married to a former priest now finds God in the work she does as a psychotherapist.

In one way or another, each woman struggled with the institutional church and its relationship to her own spirituality and Catholic identity. They taught me that as Catholics, women do not surrender their free will or their ability to make moral decisions based on their own conscience. I learned that the institutional church -- which Duddy-Burke termed Catholic, Inc. -- is a fallible institution, still grappling with sexism, racism, and homophobia. I grew to understand that faith can survive and prevail, even when institutions fail us.

Writing this book brought me into contact with dozens of other Catholic women who face similar struggles, but keep their qualms to themselves. It made me realize that I was not alone.

Catholic women need to talk to one another. I am not presumptuous enough to think that this book will cause a revolution in the church. But I hope it prompts thousands of conversations.