When I was about eight or nine years old, I received my first book of saints. Catholic kids know it well: the brightly colored pages often included stylized images of each saint, along with a few paragraphs about their lives.
It was the women in these books who drew my eye even as a child, and they were easily divided into two types. The virgin-martyrs: Lucy, Cecilia, Maria Goretti. The mothers: Anne, Monica, Felicity.
All women, all praised for their commitment to Christianity, even to the point of death. All women, their bodies offered up in one way or another. All women, caught between society and faith, between piety and practicality.
I never quite knew how to feel about these women as I grew up. I railed against their untimely deaths — many were actually murdered for their religious commitments — but I don’t think I understood what their deaths meant beyond the fact that they led to sainthood. It took me a while to realize the question I was really asking: what does it mean to be a woman, and a feminist, in the Catholic Church?
I come into this discussion as more than a feminist who practices Catholicism. I am also a Filipina, with the full weight of that history behind me. As a member of the Filipino diaspora, I carry the traditions of my family into my own future. 76 million Catholics reside in the Philippines, and the faith doesn’t die out even with the diaspora. Many of us remain Catholic, at least in name.
Feminism is an identifier that isn’t welcomed quite as warmly.Being a Filipina Catholic feminist is a radical act. Click To Tweet
But that wasn’t always the case. Feminism is not a new concept to Filipino women — not at its core, but perhaps in the way the movement carries itself out. Native Filipinos were highly respectful of the babaylan, or the healers, and women took central governing and spiritual roles in the centuries before Spanish colonization. Those roles were diminished and dismissed until they disappeared from Filipino society altogether, to be replaced by Catholic priests and bishops. The babaylan are a painful reminder of how integral women were to the formation of early Filipino society and how losing that history sets Filipino women behind.
Like many Filipino kids, I wasn’t raised knowing about feminism. My family never discouraged me from pursuing whatever goals I wanted, but it wasn’t from the point of view of equality — they just wanted me to know I could do whatever it is I set my mind to. It wasn’t until university that my Catholic beliefs began to intersect with my newly formed feminist mindset. I was lucky to have attended a school founded by the Jesuits, its core values and curriculum influenced by their focus on education and liberation theology. Here, I found myself questioning my religion in ways I didn’t realize were necessary for growth, or even possible.
In books like Gabriel García Márquez’s “Chronicle of a Death Foretold,” I found characters like Angela Vicario, who pushed back against the small town beliefs and religious devotion that condemned her. In theology classes, I learned about religious women who worked towards social justice. These experiences made me look at my own position in the world, the identities that shaped me, and how they all intersect.
In “Feminism Across Our Generations,” Filipina-American professor and writer Karin Aguilar-San Juan explains that pull:
I am forced to embrace feminism and to make feminism matter to me, because the world is otherwise not going to have a place for someone who thinks, and acts, like I do.
The learning curve didn’t end there. I may have been given new lenses with which to see the world around me, but I also had to decide if the contradictions and challenges those lenses brought to my life were worth it. Was feminism worth butting heads with the religion I’d been raised with, with the culture that surrounded me even having grown up in the diaspora? Was being Catholic going to make it more difficult to be a woman, making her own choices and owning her body? What did it mean to me to be a feminist in a culture that places women in very specific contexts, and asks very specific obligations of them?
Being a Filipina Catholic feminist is a radical act, a revolutionary one. I commit to my Catholic faith and I believe that the female identity can’t be separated from that faith. I believe that understanding my needs and limitations and capabilities as a woman is an innate part of developing my faith–how can I believe in something that doesn’t acknowledge the person I am?
I do know that this is easier said than done. My attendance at weekly mass is rarely without discomfort and sometimes anger, as an older generation of priests continues to reaffirm that women have a particular place in Catholicism, that feminist issues are out of step with the beliefs of the church. This isn’t an irritation solely limited to Catholic parishes: I have several friends who attend different churches, and the frustration is palpable across the board.I think God might agree that the Catholic Church is in dire need of change. Click To Tweet
Today, being pro-choice means being questioned about my faith. Today, lobbying for more female participation in the hierarchy of the Catholic church brings calls of heresy. These things aren’t surprising, nor should they be. Questions are the only entrance for change, and I think God might agree that the church is in dire need of change.
So as a feminist, I question the role that’s been set for me in my church, and the expectations that have been set. As a Catholic, I question the treatment of women by an organization that instructs us to “love your neighbor as you love yourself.” As a Filipina, I question the ways in which my culture lifts up religion at the expense of the women who believe in it and keep it alive.
The female saints I met in that book as a child were my first entry points into a religion that has been both fulfilling and frustrating, often in equal measures, over my lifetime. They were held up as examples of true devotion to the church, of the ultimate self-sacrifice and trust in Jesus. But I’d like to believe that they wouldn’t be so very different from feminists today, and that their deaths don’t have to be repeated in our world to make a difference.