“Hi! I’m Abby Bartels, I live in Badin Hall, and I’m a political science major with minors in European studies, theology, and gender studies.”
I don’t remember how many times I have recited this introduction at various functions, but I wish I could forget some of the reactions:
“Well, you’re wasting your time in at least one of those.”
“So what, are you a feminist or something?”
“Stay away from my daughter.”
And my personal favorite:
“Oh. Well. And here I thought you were a real Catholic.”
Even people who have known me for months have dismissed my interest in all things feminism with, “Oh, yeah, we all think you’re pretty conservative. None of us really understand why you do that.”
Please. Allow me to tell you.
As a real Catholic, I am called to evangelize, to witness to others the personal love of God. We ought to witness to the gospel and meet people where they are at. Every day, when we wake up, we choose a way to witness to others. Since I began my study of gender, I strive to wake up and choose first to listen in order to understand and second to live out age-old faith in modern times.
I’ve competed in forensics since I was 7 years old. Speaking and debating were skills that my parents fostered in me growing up, and I think these were some of the best lessons I ever learned. However, through the years, I learned a much more valuable skill than either speaking or debating. I learned to listen.
The worst debate round to watch is one where the two competitors rattle off their points in impassioned, God-fearing, theologically sound and completely unrelated monologues, like two ships passing each other in the night. Two very loud and annoying ships, that is. What is the point of a disagreement where the sides can’t even engage each other because both are too busy talking past each other and neither is willing to listen? There can be no productive discussion when people are speaking two different languages. No one can be brought to consider another idea.
Listening is the greatest vehicle toward evangelization. Listening to an individual’s viewpoint allows me to understand motivations and to accurately and precisely address his or her concerns. Often, what lies behind arguments against Catholic teaching on gender issues is fear of rejection. Only when listening can I recognize this fear. And only when understanding this fear can I correct it.
I am called to be in this world but not of this world. I am called to witness to everyone the love of God and the beauty of that love within the Catholic Church, to go and make disciples of all nations. I am called to hear, understand, sympathize, empathize, walk with and talk to.
No relational witness can be complete without a level of listening, even if you disagree with the other individual. Many self-identified “traditional” or “conservative” Catholics disregard all of gender studies, as if there is no value to listening to arguments opposing the Theology of the Body or the Augustinian idea of gender roles at all. But there is. There is a greater understanding to be gained of one’s own convictions if one is willing to consider the convictions of others, and there is a greater witness to be given if one is willing to care about the thoughts and fears of others as most precisely explained through their arguments. I am called to bring people to an understanding of the Truth by bringing the Truth to people in a way they understand.
In addition to this, one must consider the fact that the times, they are a changin’. The fourth wave of feminism is here, and it is far more attractive to the broader culture than any wave before it. Inclusive language is the focus of the day, language that dispels the innate human fear of rejection. Thus, words such as “cisgendered,” “intersex,” and “herstory” are becoming more commonplace. And if you don’t understand the language, you can’t impact the movement. There is something about communication that makes it the most priceless commodity in the marketplace of ideas. And there’s something about not having that commodity that convicts me that I am not carrying out the mission God has for me.
I refuse to accept that defeat. I fully believe I am called to engage with others on their turf, in their terms, speaking their languages. Therefore, I try to learn the language. I strive to understand the thoughts and ideas behind gender non-essentialism, womanism, liberation theology, queer theory, and many other parts of fourth-wave feminism. And when a classmate laughs at the idea that an alcohol-prone culture is a rape-prone culture (read feminist Peggy Reeves Sanday for some interesting work on what cultures promote rape) or informs me that having a male God makes all Abrahamic religions patriarchal (read all the way back to Aquinas and Augustine to see the argumentation for a genderless God) or calls me sheltered because I’m a Catholic (which no true feminist could ever do because to say such a thing is propagating a stereotype that is very discriminatory and exclusive), I can ask the right questions, listen to the answers, and address the specific fears or angers behind each statement. I can harness today’s language, both in listening and in understanding, in a way that I could not before I began taking classes from the gender studies department.
That is why I am a gender studies minor. It is empowering. If you feel God’s call to witness in a similar way, I encourage you to pray about taking a gender studies course. If you feel a call to witness to preschoolers, or businesspeople, or the homeless, do that instead. No matter what that call is, find the way that you are going to witness to our world today. Don’t spend your one precious life on this earth fulfilling a call that isn’t yours.
I plan to continue fulfilling my calling, despite individuals informing me that I am wasting my time or questioning my seriousness about my Catholic faith. Following God’s will won’t make people like us or agree with us; in fact, sometimes it will guarantee the opposite. Just ask every martyr ever. But if God is for us, who can be against us?
I encourage you to step into the problems of our times while keeping your mind and heart firmly rooted in finding the truth. Believe me, nothing is more empowering than knowing, understanding, and witnessing in whatever way we are called to do so. And I think that is what real Catholicism is all about.
Abby Bartels is a junior living in Badin Hall. If you would like to share with her how you witness, please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.