I just read Barbara Lyghtel Rohrer’s interview “Sisterhood,” with Sister Louise Akers [November 2013]. As a Catholic woman of seventy-seven, a mother of four, and a person who has witnessed the struggles of people in all walks of life, I want to applaud Akers for speaking out on behalf of women in general, and Catholic women in particular. Her ideas and questions have been ignored for too long if we are truly trying to follow the teachings of Jesus.
My wife told me that, when she was in graduate school twenty years ago at a Catholic university in Florida, she kept getting A-minuses on her work in one class. Eventually she asked the professor, a priest, “What is it going to take for me to get an A on one of these papers?”
In front of the whole class, the priest replied, “Your papers are exceptional, but I don’t give A’s to women.”
The interview with Sister Louise Akers illuminates this sort of institutional misogyny in the Catholic Church. Its policies are behind the times and a serious impediment to gender equality throughout the world. Only the persistent efforts of Catholic women like Akers, who keep chipping away at the monolithic patriarchy, give me hope that things will be different one day.
Hallelujah for Sister Louise Akers! It is so good to hear a spiritual leader say that we can believe in God and liberal politics at the same time. I like to think of the Holy Trinity as the Mother, the Son, and the (genderless) Holy Ghost.
My main issue with Sister Louise Akers is that she thinks one can be Catholic and still believe whatever one wants. This is Protestant thinking. It’s as if she were Martin Luther nailing her own set of theses to the church door. The Church, she says, is in error regarding “sexism,” homosexual activity, abortion, liberation theology, priestly celibacy, and women’s ordination. Instead of changing her beliefs to conform to the Church’s, she expects the Church to function like a democracy and decide its morality by a vote of the people.
Everyone has a piece of the truth, Akers says. But what if my piece of the truth contradicts yours? It is illogical and demeaning to the very idea of truth to say we can each be right in our own minds and that is enough.
Akers speaks of her role models and teachers but never mentions the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Church sees in Mary the highest form of the feminine genius. As a consecrated woman, Akers is in a spousal relationship with God, a virgin able to become a bride of Christ and a mother of believers in Mary’s image. This is a magnificent honor!
Sister Louise Akers had me hovering near her corner until the end of the interview, when she equated the people of God with the Catholic Church and declared her intention not to leave it.
The Catholic Church is both homophobic and misogynistic. For any thinking woman to remain affiliated with it is akin to a woman staying in a bad marriage, believing that if she is simply good enough or obedient enough, he will change. I’ve been there.
I also spent four years in a convent, studying to become a nun. I was told that we were the chosen, and it was our job to educate the young and wait for the old and unteachable to die out so the Church could flourish. This was many years ago, but I still hear stories from churchgoing friends about the arrogance of the clergy: letters of reprimand, for example, for not making a sufficient monetary contribution. I would see membership in such an institution as an insult to my intelligence and integrity.
I stand with Audre Lorde, who said, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Working to change from within an institution based on power and control seems to me a waste of time and energy — busywork that would take me away from the real work of justice. We shouldn’t need an institution in order to live as the people of God.
Sister Louise Akers responds:
To Trish Crew: I do not think that I can believe whatever I want. Nor, in my experience, do Protestants. Since Martin Luther’s famous stand in the sixteenth century there have been numerous examples of conscientious dissenters within the Church. Some have been excommunicated, others have decided to leave, and many, like myself, have chosen to stay despite punitive measures and silencing. Historically theologians have been in dialogue with the Church. In this way doctrine evolves. With Pope Francis there appear to be signs that decades of silencing will end and dialogue will resume.
To Pat Sellon: I admit it is a struggle at times to remain within the institutional Church, but I do believe it is changing, as we witness in the tone and words of Pope Francis. We have yet to see what, if any, doctrines will be altered. I’m familiar with the Audre Lorde quote you offer, but I and other feminist-liberation theologians aren’t using the “master’s tools.” We’re creating our own tools based on our lived experiences and a different vision of the Church.
I was deeply moved by Brenda Miller’s essay (of sorts) “We Regret to Inform You” [November 2013]. Never have I seen such vulnerability and candor by a writer when dealing with the pain of loss and rejection. It is a personal history of persistence in the face of criticism and feelings of inadequacy. To admit to having been fired or dismissed and then to write, with courageous self-reflection, about why — ouch! I couldn’t read it without remembering all the times in my own life when I’ve felt inadequate. I am touched by her tenderness, her courage, and especially her resilience.
As a woman who truly loves resale shops, I enjoyed Michelle Cacho-Negrete’s essay “The Chanel Suit” [November 2013]. Though I did not grow up in poverty, as she did, I did have frugal parents. My mother would order clearance boxes of clothing from Montgomery Ward; you never knew exactly what would be in each one, just the garments’ size and gender. Often there would be fashionable items that fit perfectly. It’s the hunt for such treasures that pulls me into resale shops to this day.
Joan Murray’s essay “Let Nothing You Dismay” [November 2013] is wonderful. I had no idea where the author was going with it until the second-to-last paragraph and the sentence “Christmas is like drowning and seeing your life before your eyes.” That sums up what happens to me over the holidays: all those shadows of Christmases past, the expectations, the disappointments, the surprises, the family members living and gone, the drinking. It all comes back, even if unconsciously, every year.
In the November 2013 issue of The Sun, Sy Safransky writes in his Notebook that, as editor, he is “seeing to it that every word counts, and that nothing distracts a reader or confuses a reader or makes a reader lose heart.” I love The Sun and always read it from cover to cover, but I often lose heart because of something I’ve read, and I am occasionally confused, too. For example, the short story “How It Would Come,” by Geoffrey Becker [November 2013], certainly caused me to lose heart, as did “Let Nothing You Dismay,” by Joan Murray. And the poem “Empire,” by Tony Hoagland [November 2013], was confusing to me, especially the lines “the ink is made from the eyelids of baby mice. / The paper is manufactured by someone / on trial for drinking blood.” Confusing and beautiful.
I guess I don’t read The Sun expecting not to lose heart or be confused. The ability of the writers to portray the human predicament is enough.
I am troubled by Sy Safransky’s comment in his November 2013 Notebook: “I’ve always assumed that I’ll just keep laboring mightily, in reasonably good health, until I die suddenly of a massive heart attack, or a fatal aneurism, or a violent attack by Middle Eastern terrorists or by a Midwestern writer whose poems I’ve rejected for the eighteenth time.”
Even though it is a highly improbable hypothetical, to specify that the terrorists are Middle Eastern is inappropriate and, frankly, racist. Of all the terrorist acts that have occurred in the U.S. over the last several decades, very few have involved terrorists from that part of the world. It seems to me that Safransky has fallen victim to the incessant propaganda that the U.S. is in danger from an attack by people from the Middle East. I’m surprised that he would perpetuate this campaign in The Sun.
I loved Brian Doyle’s “Essay in Which My Uncle Eddy and I Attend His Funeral” [October 2013]. What an eloquent piece of writing. In a mere page and a half he touches on all the conditions of the human heart with a perfect blend of poignancy and humor.
In Gillian Kendall’s interview with Sy Safransky [“Beginner’s Mind,” January 2014], we misspelled the last name of American Buddhist teacher Norman Fischer. The Sun regrets the error.