Elizabeth Geraghty on Gender Inclusion + the Catholic Church: It’s Complicated

This essay is part of our “What is a woman?” series in tandem with our podcast. This season, our community is exploring the question “What is gender inclusion?”

Written by Elizabeth Geraghty.

Growing up in a Catholic family and going to Catholic school for primary education and high school shaped my foundation on the values of openness, community, and hospitality. “Safety” is a word I would use to describe it.

The first instance of gender inclusion – or rather, exclusion – that I experienced was when our parish priest came into our classroom in second grade. He asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up. One of the students excitedly answered, “I want to be a priest like you, and help people!”

He politely laughed and said, “Well you can’t be a priest, but maybe you can be a nun!”

Though we were somewhat satisfied with this answer, I remember thinking, “Don’t they tell us we can be ‘anything we can dream of’?” The answer I have come to learn is “yes,” but there’s often a catch. Equal pay, LGBTQ+ acceptance, right to vote, freedom of speech could not be possible without people who believe in a better and more equal world. More specifically, movement toward acceptance, especially surrounding the LGTBQ+ community, has gained a lot of momentum in recent years. As I began high school, there was a shift in acceptance in my social circles to a deeper inclusion, but there was not the same shift of gender inclusion in the Catholic Church. At my high school, LGBTQ+ terminology was often met with a sense of curiosity and uncertainty, but overall acceptance.

What about people who are still finding out who they are in a world full of possibilities?

Attending school with people who had different experiences and perspectives than me led to a positive environment for discussion about those larger life topics – sexuality, feminism, politics, etc. – that were not typically brought into Catholic education classes. My family has been going to Sunday Mass ever since I can remember, and at the end of the week, going to back to Sunday Mass left me with mixed emotions about inclusivity.

I asked myself:

We can pray for refugees to find a home, for policymakers to choose wisely; we can pray about religious vocations or natural disasters, but why not pray for the increasing number of teens and adults who struggle with their identity, anxiety, or mental illness? What about people who are still finding out who they are in a world full of possibilities? What about those who are not accepted by their loved ones – those who feel they do not have a voice because of how they look or identify?

People are people no matter what political or religious views they might have, the color of their skin, or who/what they identify with. In a changing world, I felt that the perspectives of young people in the church were being pushed to the side or even ignored because accepting tradition was safe. Though tradition can lead to a sense of community, it doesn’t always retain the same lasting effects of learning something new or improving on the current system. Many people I know attribute their growth as a person and in life to their faith. And that is completely valid! For me, it’s not a matter of if religion can help one grow to be a better person, but a personal mantra of, “How can one call themselves a believer if they do not put the core values of their faith into action?”

The answer I have come to learn is “yes,” but there’s often a catch.

Caught in between questioning my religious upbringing compared to my personal experiences, I felt troubled that the long-established belief system that had once given me a sense of peace and solidarity was beginning to mean less. I questioned its value all together. After attending and leading Kairos, a religious retreat focused on bringing people together through sharing stories, I thought I would feel more sure of my faith, more sure that the Catholic Church was the place where I felt I could call home. For a while, I did feel like that. The familiar sense of “safety” had come back. But it didn’t last long. I had so many questions about the world, how I fit into it, where religion and faith belonged.

I talked to my friends about my mixed feelings on gender inclusivity in the Catholic Church, and some felt the same way. There seemed to be a disconnect between what our generation stands for and the ideals of our parents or grandparents. These societal differences led me to think that my parents’ generation asked more sensibly, “How would we get this done logically and efficiently in the best way possible?” and my generation asks “Why not?” We are not afraid of change, no matter how disrupting the after-effects may be. Questioning the role of gender in society and religion is on the “why not” scale for me. All people have a right to create and be a part of the change they see a need for the world. Challenging gender inequalities leads to an increased focus on equal pay and a deeper dialogue on how gender – or assumed gender – can become a barrier in relationships. A 2015 survey from Pew Research Center found that 66 percent of American Catholics think children being raised by a gay or lesbian couple is acceptable. Forty-three percent say it’s as good as any other arrangement for raising children, and 23 percent think it is acceptable but not ideal. After more reflection, I realized that gender and religion were more related I had once thought. Both develop at their own rate in the changes of the culture they are surrounded by. I had created a system of polarization, which inhibited my ability to see the larger picture. Catholicism and gender are definitely related, but one does not define all the attributes of the other as I had once thought. Things, people, times, places – they are meant to change. Without growth, no discovery can occur.