Is this what a Catholic feminist looks like?

One of the clearest fault-lines in American Catholicism concerns the status of women. When American Catholics get angry at something, … Continued

One of the clearest fault-lines in American Catholicism concerns the status of women.

When American Catholics get angry at something, it’s usually because there are other Catholics who have a different view. Current Catholic discussions and debates over issues such as gender or feminism–“radical” or otherwise–are places where this dynamic is apparent for all to see.

Of course, the dynamics of American Catholicism reflect broader American dynamics, such as differences in political affiliation and ideological commitment. The way these differences often play out make American civil society something decidedly less than “civil” and that lack of civility often extends to talk within and about American Catholic life.

But Catholicism is not just about the United States. American Catholics live as part of a larger Catholic community. And so, when we look at issues concerning gender and Catholicism more broadly, we find that the configurations familiar to American Catholics are by no means universal or self-evident.

Biswaranjan Rout


Indian Catholic tribal women hold palm fronds while walking in a procession as they attend a mass for Palm Sunday in the Dantilingi village, in India’s Orissa state,Sunday, April 1, 2012.

Almost two decades ago now, I first met Rashmi, a Catholic who lived in a North Indian village. Since she was a member of an “untouchable” caste, she lived with her son in a segregated part of a village. A widow, Rashmi worked the fields as a manual laborer and often served as a midwife.

Rashmi was a devout Catholic. Every Sunday, she would walk several miles to the local Catholic mission for Mass. She would always go to confession before sitting on the chapel floor as the liturgy began. Women would sit on the left hand side; men on the right. The priest would say Mass in Hindi, wearing saffron colored vestments.

Though the Mass was designed for Indian sensibilities, Rashmi would often talk nostalgically about the Latin Mass and would lament how Indian Catholic nuns had abandoned the habit in favor of wearing saris. For her, maintaining this distinctive Catholic identity was important. This understanding of Catholicism as distinctive also informed Rashmi’s participation in the Catholic charismatic movement, in which she would lay hands on others and pray for their healing. As an untouchable, the act of laying on hands had a deep significance for her. It also represented a reinterpretation of the role of exorcist that many in her caste had traditionally practiced.

But being a healer also was an assertion of her power as a woman. Rashmi would often call priests to task for not being holy enough. Healing and laying on of hands in many ways mirrored the sacramental authority exercised by priests, although in a covert, surreptitious way.

Was Rashmi a feminist? Or was she a Catholic traditionalist?

The answer to each question would be “yes” and “no.”

Rashmi was most certainly a feminist in that she was concerned with what academics would call “female agency.” Rashmi was all too well aware that women did most of the work–both in the church and in the world. The Catholic charismatic movement provided a context in which her “work” had a different kind of meaning and value.

But if we call Rashmi a “feminist,” we would also have to admit that her form of feminism is different from many recognizable Western forms. Rashmi certainly had no explicit difficulties with the hierarchical structure of the church, or that priests were “set apart.” She also would have no issues with professing obedience to points of Catholic doctrine. But she would draw upon those same resources to call clergy to greater forms of sacrifice and self-discipline, which is obviously an implicit form of critique. In any case, Rashmi’s fondness for the Latin Mass or the nun’s habit did not mean anything remotely similar to what some Americans envision when they long for a return to Catholicism’s pre-Vatican II past.

Rashmi’s own understanding of her identity as a woman and a Catholic was shaped by her own cultural and social context. In Kerala, an Indian state a thousand miles south of Rashmi’s village, some Catholic nuns have published “tell-all” books about abuse at the hands of priests. Rashmi, of course, could never write any thing about her own life since she never had the opportunity to attend school. And so, if we see gender as a factor that shapes discourse about what it means to be Catholic, then we also have to be sensitive to the influence of class, race, and ethnicity.

If Rashmi and I were to sit down and talk about American Catholicism, it would take awhile to sort everything out. She would certainly understand how some American nuns and bishops are operating with rather different understandings about what makes the Catholic church “a church.” But it would take some doing to explain how and why gender is an issue for American Catholics or how and why certain Catholic teachings are emphasized in America and some are resisted. Such a discussion would mean talking about many of the things we as Americans take for granted that Rashmi could scarcely imagine.

But if we were to sit down and talk, I know that I would say to Rashmi that I would appreciate more voices like hers– voices that make connections different from what we would normally expect in an American context. Rashmi probably wouldn’t know what to make of a comment like that. But if I framed things in terms of American Catholicism needing more healers like her, I’m pretty sure she’d understand what I was talking about.

Schmalz writes and teaches in the fields of Comparative Religions and South Asian Studies at the College of the Holy Cross. He also writes on Catholic spirituality.

Mathew N. Schmalz
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  • mrsm117

    Thank you for writing about a “different femininity”. I enjoyed reading this immensely. Rashmi sounds like she is filled with the Holy Spirit . Her life is in direction opposition to radical feminism which has permeated American culture, and in particular the women religious in the LCWR. She is a happy, peaceful Catholic female; holy and humble. What a beautiful role model of Catholic femininity.

  • tidelandermdva

    “Rashmi’s participation in the Catholic charismatic movement, in which she would lay hands on others and pray for their healing. As an untouchable, the act of laying on hands had a deep significance” However “Rashmi certainly had no explicit difficulties with the hierarchical structure of the church, or that priests were “set apart.” She also would have no issues with professing obedience to points of Catholic doctrine” Interestingly, Saul/Paul explictly condemns women preaching, and healing. So she is clarly at odds with traditional Church teaching. However, the necessity of Saul/Paul having to condemn this proves that women acted as priests originally.


    There is no such thing as a “catholic feminist”. As far as the catholic church and most of christianity are concerned, women are second-class citizens, chattel, property. It’s in their bible, it is their dogma and doctrine. If you’re a woman and you’re in the death cult of christianity, it is your lot.

    You could always leave, but if you don’t – hey, you chose the yoke of slavery.

  • amelia45

    This is well done and interesting and actually a relief from the arguments over what divide the Church and women in the U.S.

    The needs of people will be different in worlds in which there is great poverty and lack of education versus worlds in which there is relatively more education and less poverty. When some critical mass of people begin to have the leadership, the information and/or the financial ability to better order their lives, old taboos or strictures are gotten around or overturned. And, for most people/families, that means limiting the number of children so that those they raise can be well cared for and well educated. This has happened in very Catholic Europe, Ireland, the U.S., Canada, Australia, Mexico, Brazil, and is happening amidst great argument in developing Philippines – where else? I think almost every where else.

    I am one of those who want more power for women in the Catholic Church, I believe birth control is good for families and should be universally available. I believe that women should be able to make choices about work, compete with men for any job and win based on ability and merit. But, I also recognize that if some world wide catastrophe sends us back to the Stone Age, we will probably revert to societies in which women bear children until it kills them and again become subservient to men. There is a biological absolute that does not change. What we do is create societies in which we may go beyond our biological absolutes and actually be thinking, creating humans. That wish – need – to go beyong biological absolutes affects both males and females.

    Rashmi sounds like a wonderful, strong woman – one made strong by her faith. She fights good fights in her society. And as she acts in creating the changes that will make a difference in today’s Indian village, she is helping to build the attitudes that will make the next social battles possible. And whoever fights those battles will be inspired by faith, win some battles, lose


    You should check out Rachel Held Evans’ blog @ where she is leading a discussion this week on women in the church and touches on Paul’s comments on women in ministry. Really interesting stuff.

  • Catken1

    “There is a biological absolute that does not change”

    It is, however, seriously modifiable by one seemingly minor cultural change – patrilinealism to matrilinealism.
    In a culture where descent and clan membership pass through the mother, there is no need to control either men’s or women’s sexual behavior in order to ensure that the right children are attributed to the right clan. And, since the strong need for sexual control of women in a patrilineal society almost always leads to restrictions on movement, over who controls economic resources, etc., women’s lives are often freer in many other ways as well. Matrilineal societies are almost never as hard on men as most patrilineal societies are on women, since the need for sexual control of men just isn’t there (no matter how promiscuous a man is, no one is going to be confused about which mother belongs to which child).

    Plus, since we are mammals and need heavy involvement from the specific mother of a specific child during pregnancy and nursing periods, a patrilineal society needs to take wives from one clan and absorb them into another, in order to ensure that the child’s primary female caretaker is assimilated to the right clan and communicates the right clan allegiance to the child (if that makes sense?). A matrilineal society can transfer the work a father usually does to mother’s brother, and thus allow men to remain with their natal lineage, where they have allies. Mother, on the other hand, is specifically needed as such with her child and for her child, and cannot transfer her responsibilities to father’s sister, or do the same work for her brother’s children – thus she needs to move to her child’s clan. In a matrilineal society, men do not lose their primary kinship affiliation to their natal families when they marry, whereas women in a seriously patrilineal culture often do (at least according to the “ideal” rules of the culture – actual women and men on the ground often view the situation differently).


  • Catken1

    Ah, the standard radical anti-feminist technique of pitting women against each other.
    Women in different places and different situations have different needs and viewpoints, yes. And there’s plenty of room for that in feminism. But declaring her “good” and American women “bad,” because her immediate concerns do not threaten the hierarchy, is foolish. She might not always be as docile and humble a little sheep as you would like – especially not if people like you continue to condescend to her and patronize her (why not just give her a “sweet little good girl” sticker and be done with it?).

  • nkri401

    What is the author trying to say? Is it a feminism to think you can heal by laying your hand? I’ll stipulate not being the sharpest tool in the draw but WTH??