I’m beginning the second year of my M.Div. at Union Theological Seminary, an ecumenical institution with a growing focus on interreligious engagement. While it has recently established programs in Buddhism and Islam, Union remains rooted in mainline Protestant traditions. It lives amid sometimes-painful contradictions, and as a 24 year-old feminist Catholic, I can relate.
I am one of a handful of Catholics at a school of about 200 students. It’s more groundbreaking to be a non-Christian at Union than it is to be Catholic, of course: my Protestant peers and I have much in common, and I can look to a legacy of female Catholic alumni. At the same time, the messy history among our traditions can present challenges. Most of these are trivial misunderstandings: no, I’ve told classmates, papal infallibility doesn’t mean that the pope’s every word comes straight from God.
There’s some latent ugliness, too: liberal Protestants can be condescending toward Catholics, whom they consider less enlightened, backwards, or just plain oppressive. At its worst, this ecumenical problem, which manifests uniquely in self-proclaimed progressive spaces like Union, can be painful. Dissident Catholics are told, well, why don’t you just become Protestant? All of our Christian traditions need to reckon with their violent legacies. The old story about sinners casting stones comes to mind.
I want my classmates to learn about the beautiful things, too, especially the legacy of Catholic social teaching that grounds my commitment to social justice. From Francis of Assisi to Dorothy Day, my tradition is peopled with misfits, radicals, prophets, and troublemakers.
As a writer and activist, I’m committed to making and remaking this deeply creative Church, a Church whose resilience is in part due to adaptation and regeneration. We can draw on this rich sediment to shape a community that serves the most marginalized among us.
Unfortunately, there’s no direct path for me to bring what I learn at Union back to my Church. While I don’t want to minimize the arduous series of exams, interviews, biblical language requirements, and polity courses that dominate the schedules of my Protestant peers on the ordination track, these are foreseen obstacles with straightforward solutions. Working a little bit harder to prepare for a Greek language exam or meeting with an ordination committee is not a concrete step toward realization of my vocation. There are no clear steps before me, no series of X, Y, and Z tasks to accomplish before I may go out to serve my community.
Moreover, many of my friends are young women called to ordination in mainline Protestant denominations. While I don’t experience a call to ordination, I sometimes feel a pang of jealousy when I see young Lutheran or Episcopalian women in clerical collars. That collar represents the deep trust of a community. It represents a reciprocal relationship of love and service that I crave.
I’m not alone, of course. I know many young Catholics who feel unmoored, called to serve the Church but uncertain about vows of celibacy – or vows of obedience. Our paths are winding and overgrown. Traditional ministry is no easy choice, either: many of us who do become sisters, brothers, deacons, or priests have doubts about our role in an unjust hierarchy.
Young Catholics may lead church choirs. They may teach religious education, serve as acolytes or Eucharistic ministers, or bake cookies for the coffee hour. These are critical contributions (though some are feminized and therefore undervalued). But what if our skills lie elsewhere? What if we are anti-racist organizers committed to challenging white supremacy in our churches? What if we want to hold trainings to combat homophobia in our communities? What if we are writers, dissenting theologians, artists, activists – people who push and question the Church, people who follow their consciences, people who join an ancient tradition that actively wonders how we might best live out God’s will in the world?
I’m an advocate for women’s ordination, but women’s ordination on its own won’t drastically reorient the Church toward the marginalized. The Catholic Church must critically examine its clericalism, the concept that the clergy are superior to the laity. As Garry Wills explains in Why Priests? A Failed Tradition, our current model of priesthood is a restrictive product of power and tradition. Our Church has always been a dynamic and living body. If we understand the damage enacted by clericalism, an all-male priesthood, and the corresponding theology of complementarity, we have to get creative. How can we serve one another? How can we more equitably divide labor in our communities? How can we affirm a priesthood of all believers?
I study at Union because it gives me space to question and explore. Ecumenical and interfaith spaces feed me, and I’m grateful for that life-giving sustenance. Union students don’t have to fit a preset “mold”: students from many traditions are exploring unconventional vocations to do the work of justice in the 21st century. Classes like Comparative Feminist Theology with Professor Jerusha Tanner Rhodes have helped me examine my own tradition in dialogue with others. To complement my work here, I also work with Call to Action and Women’s Ordination Conference, two Catholic reform organizations, and I’m currently doing my field education at Maryhouse, one of the New York City Catholic Worker houses.
Though I “pray for vocations,” that cliché doesn’t fully describe the active, imaginative task before my community. If the Church is to serve the most marginalized, if it is to repent of its implication in colonialism, patriarchy, sex abuse, and climate change, it must (re)imagine vocation. I don’t expect the October 2018 synod on the subject to do so; the all-male gathering of bishops probably won’t produce the radical change that our community needs. That change will come from people on the margins of the institutional church.
Young Catholics are already going where we are called, even when it’s off the Church’s beaten path. Women, POC, and LGBTQ folks are doing the work of justice in the Catholic Church. This might look like joining a Church reform group or shouting in the streets or forming ad-hoc intentional communities around kitchen tables in tiny apartments. We’re doing something deeply countercultural in both the secular and religious worlds, but that’s good. We’re here to pray, imagine, and build. We’re here to go where we are called – together.