“Doubly othered.” That is how Gina Messina-Dysert describes her life as a faithful feminist and a faithful Catholic. She is suspect within Catholicism for her feminism. She is suspect among feminists for her Catholicism.
What a perfect name, really, for those of us like Messina-Dysert who are not quite with the program either. We tread lightly. We speak gingerly, ever aware that too-overt a feminist stance could alienate even friends within our parish. Yet any ardent embrace of Catholicism demands an explanation, a justification, from feminist friends who cannot fathom why we’d ever, ever choose to stay.
Messina-Dysert may be four times “othered,” actually.
She comes from a conservative Catholic family of recent Sicilian immigrants. Her grandmother built a shrine to Mary in the middle of her home. A cousin at a family get-together just asked, not in a particularly welcoming tone, “Why don’t you become an Episcopalian? Why are you trying to ruin our religion?” How could Messina-Dysert support birth control, same-sex marriage, and woman priests and claim membership in a religion that opposes it all?
She’s “othered” as well in academia. Typically the rule there is to keep your faith secret until you’ve got tenure and it’s too late for colleagues to second-guess your brainpower. But Messina-Dysert is a Catholic theologian. She admits keeping what she calls the “f” word on the down low when she was looking for a job. And during her first days at Ursuline College, a Catholic women’s school in Ohio where she’s a dean, a male colleague turned to her and said, “I am highly disturbed to know you identify as a feminist.”
The beleaguered Messina-Dysert is even “othered” at church, the conservative parish she grew up in and where her 6-year-old daughter will receive the sacraments. The priest greets parishioners heartily as they exit Mass. A big handshake, “nice to see you,” enthusiastic high-fives for the kids, she says. For her? “He responds very coolly. ‘Hello.’ That’s it. It’s very noticeable.”
To top it all off, Messina-Dysert gets the suspicious raised eyebrow from fellow feminists. To many, if not most, active participation in a patriarchal church — whether it’s Catholic, Mormon, a Muslim mosque, or an orthodox Jewish temple — is a sellout; a submissive, naive, intellectually dishonest, self-defeating, and even self-loathing knuckling under to the boys who call the shots. The only act of integrity is to leave.
It’s no wonder then that Messina-Dysert co-founded the website “Feminism and Religion,” where other “othereds” share their schizophrenic stories and buck each other up.
Now these stories are the subject of a new anthology, “Faithfully Feminist: Jewish, Christian and Muslim Feminists on Why We Stay.” Messina-Dysert edited it with a Muslim woman and a Jewish woman. Inside, 45 women detail their high-wire act: standing up for women’s full equality in religions where women, basically, need not apply.
“Read this book,” says Temple University religion professor Laura Levitt in praise of the anthology, “to plunge immediately into the world of why women bother sticking with the world’s sexist religious traditions.”
One of the Catholic essayists, Kate McElwee, offers the answer she received from famed feminist Catholic theologian Mary Hunt. “We have a responsibility to speak this language. This is what a Catholic looks like,” Hunt told her. And then McElwee understood. “My inheritance of Catholicism came laced with a duty to study, to question, and most of all, to refuse to suspend feminism in the name of the sacred,” she said. “We cannot be spoken for by the patriarchy.”
Gina Messina-Dysert, like many of the women in “Faithfully Feminist,” considered leaving her religion many times. She did the familiar church shopping routine: the Episcopal Church, the Methodist church, Buddhist temples, even goddess-worshipping. She worked with survivors of rape and domestic violence and witnessed the sexist biases in the system. She remembers in pre-Cana classes how the priest told her to quit that job because staying home and raising Catholic babies mattered more.
She did not quit. But after 10 years of infertility, with all its emotional and psychological toll, she rejected the Catholic idea that motherhood is a woman’s highest calling and that infertility treatments are wrong. She authored “Rape Culture and Spiritual Violence.” She began doing media interviews and speaking around the country, including at the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations. She watched her website expand to reach women in more than 100 countries. Last year, she gave a TEDx Talk on Catholic feminism.
Yet Gina Messina-Dysert, also like many of the women in “Faithfully Feminist,” is no wild-eyed revolutionary. She talks about “small steps” and “strategic resistance.” At Mass, she will use inclusive language in the Our Father or the Nicene Creed, inserting “Father and Mother” so her adopted daughter and the people around her can hear. She has spoken to the second priest at her parish — the one who likes her — about how his homilies might impact the women and young girls hearing them. He listens. She ducks the “pro-choice” or “pro-life” question, preferring to talk about access to birth control. And she hopes Pope Francis keeps taking “baby steps for women, too.” Easing the bans on contraception and Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried. Carving out a significant role for women in the Church. She thinks this is coming. At 39, she hopes it’s coming soon enough to see it.
“I am not one — a feminist — or the other — a Catholic. I am both. I’m committed to change, to giving my daughter the comfort of family and tradition and the empowerment and strength of a feminist,” she says. “The teachings of Jesus and social justice are consistent with feminist practices. It’s the subordination of women that are distortions of the faith.”
She says she has a new answer to those who’d push her from the Catholicism she loves.
“Why can’t the Holy Spirit be working through me?” she asks — a woman, a mother, a wife, a writer, an educator, and a feminist.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Gina Messina-Dysert’s book was co-edited by a Muslim woman and a Mormon woman. It was co-edited by a Muslim woman and a Jewish woman.