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A reflection: ‘Questions of a fledgling, Catholic feminist’

April Federico, Crier Staff

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I’m part of the age group called Generation Z. For those of you who have lost track of who Gen X, Y, Z and the Millennials are, those of us in Gen Z are the group who were born in the mid-90s. According to market researchers we are multi-taskers, entrepreneurial, and are more likely to be independent self-starters.

We have grown up with, and are almost never without our digital devices –unless required to unplug by a college professor or manager—and, as a result, we’re accustomed to receiving and processing constant “updates” from various social media platforms and whatever apps are trending. Some say this has made it difficult for us to develop and maintain long-term attention spans, but the neurological jury is still out on that.

We were born well after many of the most dramatic developments in the civil rights and gender equality movements, and we were just infants and toddlers when 9/11 changed so much of the world. We were young elementary school students during much of the great recession and the country’s outrage against Wall Street greed and corporate scofflaws. So, some hypothesize that we are less concerned with the value of a dollar (presumably because we’re too young to have understood financial strife).

Thanks to the rapid pace of technological and communication developments, we are also the most global generation of this era. In fact, we are likely to have more in common with our peers around the world than we do with other generations within our own culture.

Last, but not least, we are a generation that wants to make a difference in the world. We volunteer, want jobs that make a positive impact on the world, are environmentally responsible, and we are distinguished by our unprecedented diversity.

So, as a Gen Z student at a small Catholic college in New England, I’m pretty sure some of those generational characteristics made me notice that the young women at my school outnumber their male counterparts by roughly 2 to 1 when it comes to our involvement in church activities and spiritual pursuits.

Throughout the week, women on my campus are in the majority when it comes to reading at mass, volunteering as altar servers, and participating in various spiritually-focused groups. Except when it comes to the Sunday morning mass.

Sunday morning services are the most popular, well-attended, high-visibility services of the week. It’s “The Big Show.” And, lo and behold, at this one mass, the altar boys are all … well … boys. Readings are more likely to be done by a our male student. In other words, the highest profile services are led by men.

I consider myself a feminist, but this does not preclude me from deriving a lot from my faith. I’m a regular church-goer, and I’m a lector at the Sunday night student masses on campus. Maybe it’s this level of involvement and my Gen Z comfort with diversity and positive social impact that lead me to look into this observation further. I found that the rosters of lectors, altar servers, and Eucharistic Ministers are predominantly made up of women. Statistically it seems that women would have a higher likelihood of being assigned to the higher profile masses.

So, the question remained with me when I arrived home for our Winter Break and attended service at our hometown church. While this is pretty anecdotal evidence, I immediately noticed a similar trend at the popular 11:30 AM mass: an all-male cortege of altar servers, communion servers, and deacons.

So, I have to ask:  What’s up with that? Haven’t we gotten past things like this?

I know. This is hardly an original question. Sex and gender roles in the Roman Catholic Church have been the subject of controversy and intrigue for centuries. Christians who hold traditional views believe that men and women are created equal in the sight of God. But there is also the traditional (some would say archaic) belief that, while being equally important, men and women are also created to be different and play different roles in society and the church.

Flickr\Open Democracy
April Federico reflects on what it means to be Catholic and a feminist today.

The church claims to follow the authority of the Bible (i.e. ‘We must obey God rather than conform to modern trends …’) and, for Catholics, there is also the authority of the teachings of the Catholic Church. These influences and definitions of “traditional” gender roles in the church have relegated women to take either no part in Church leadership, or assume limited roles.

It’s been many years since girls and women were permitted to be altar servers. So, female involvement in mass isn’t something new, controversial, or revolutionary any more. But if the high-profile services I attend are any indicators, it also means that the women’s involvement, like my own, in celebrating mass is something to keep on the down-low. We’re good enough to work all week long behind the scenes and “fill-in” for our male counterparts in all but The Big Show.

Maybe it’s a PR thing. On our campus, the general public are more likely to attend Church on Sunday morning, and our Abbey is filled with many more non-university students at this service. Whereas the nighttime masses are attended almost exclusively by students. Is there a survey somewhere that indicates the public is more comfortable with all-male participants in mass? By contrast, are the evening masses geared toward students lead by more women to satisfy our generational preference for gender equality and diversity?

The Bible states that both male and female were created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27), and Saint Paul’s teachings famously state that there is ‘neither male nor female’ (Galations 3:28). Jesus’ own treatment of women – that of dignity and respect – is often cited. There have even been compelling arguments made asserting that Jesus was a feminist.

So, here’s one more question: Is it possible to be a Catholic and a Feminist? Or Muslim? Or Buddhist?

And I can answer this one. Yes. A Catholic by definition believes in several very specific things:  that God is the creator of heaven and earth; Jesus Christ is the son of God, who was crucified, died and resurrected; the Holy Spirit; the holy Catholic church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and life everlasting. These beliefs define members of the Catholic Church.

We are actually not required to believe in anything in the Catholic Church that was added on after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Not the exclusion of the LGBTQ community, not the ban on divorce, not the church’s position on contraception, not even a male priesthood.

In the Catholic church all of these “add-ons” were imposed after the resurrection and are the products of a time in which men sought to dominate all aspects of life – not just their own, but that of as many people as possible. It follows that women were marginalized and excluded by a male-dominated institution, during times when gender equality and human rights would have been threatening to a male power structure. They do not form the heart of our faith, they are peripheral and don’t define members of the Catholic church. There are parallels to this in nearly every faith.

The doctrines of men change, but the heart of our faiths – whether Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, or any other – remains the same. And it is this fact that leaves it up to the individual to follow his/her conscience when it comes to following doctrines that are not central to their religious affiliations.

Even in this day and age, we still can see the vestiges of gender inequality in regular practice – some more subtle than others – and we know that there is a need for the feminist in the Catholic Church. Without Catholic feminists over the many decades we would not have women celebrating our beliefs as lectors, altar servers, music directors, or communion servers. And we would not be able to look forward to futures changes that can only come about through the efforts of feminists today and tomorrow. We’re not at odds with our respective faiths – we are needed by them.

I’m a Catholic feminist, and I know I have many Generation Z contemporaries across many religions. Committed to our faiths we are an asset to our churches, not a threat, as we help them evolve and embrace the world as our generation has.

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The student news site of Saint Anselm College
A reflection: ‘Questions of a fledgling, Catholic feminist’