Toad in the Hole

November 28, 2005

More Why, Double-Barrelled

Heo Cwaeth -- Welcome! --
said in a reply string the other day:
He also openly stated -- in class, no joke -- that women had no business in the academy…

Oh yes. And this was in the ‘80s. It’s slow going, isn’t it. And with that, you triggered another one of mine. One of the reasons I’m a feminist is also one of the reasons I’m not a Catholic any more.

For the first time ever, in my freshman college year, I had a Philosophy course. Imagine the thrill: Pure Thought being taken seriously enough to own a whole course. We’d been undeniably admitted to the Olympus of Higher Learning. Plus it was taught by a priest I’ll call Father Thing (partly because I seem to have flushed his name), who was one of those photogenic stately white-haired types, just all approachable dignity and pink (but not round) cheeks. He was also the college chaplain and counselor.

His was the course where I learned that one use of long hair like mine is to hide behind when you’re sleeping in class. I learned something else, but it took a long time to sink in.

The course itself was basically rehashing Jaques Maritain about how Thomas Aquinas was correct about everything, and Aristotle was his prophet. Now, imagine – imagine! – a group of young women sitting quietly through months of hearing from that pigheaded misogynist. We were supposed to take things gratefully from the brain that had inflicted that "woman is misbegotten man" meme on European civilization, or at least reinforced it as church teaching, not just ancient Greek. You can find lots of intellectual tapdancing from Catholic philosophers and apologists to maintain that Aquinas never said that women are really inferior to men, or even, incredibly enough, that we ought to embrace our inferiority as it was assigned by God and therefore contributes to the perfect order of the universe. But the guy who taught our class never even bothered to go that far – and most of that stuff that I’ve seen was written years after my philosophy class.

After a few weeks of listening to this stuff – mind you, I was still a believer, all wide-eyed and receptive; one just gets used to this crap, growing up in the church, it’s as if all your shoes came with a built-in stone inside, and that was that – I at least figured out that this wasn’t exciting, and was basically just another catechism class. There was a standing joke that Father Thing graded exams by tossing the pile of bluebooks down a flight of stairs and grading them by what step they landed on. One of my classmates swore she’d written a straight answer on the first and last pages of hers and filled in the rest with repetitions of the Hail Mary, and got a B+.

Somewhere along the term, another classmate reported hearing Father Thing in conversation with a couple of the Jesuits from Scranton U. He’d said in so many words that he didn’t approve of higher education for women, and he wasn’t being the least bit embarrassed or clandestine about it, he wasn't disclosing any secret about himself. (Except he probably said "girls," but that wouldn’t matter much, would it?) And then other people mentioned that yeah, they’d heard that from upperclasswomen, alumnae older sisters, even a talkative nun or two. Well, it explained that class: we were supposed to be pious, not learned.

Understand that this was a women’s college. Not co-ed then (though I note with amusement that it is now), all women – to which, as chaplain, counselor, and philosophy professor, the Diocese had in its divinely inspired wisdom assigned a priest who right out loud didn’t believe in "higher education" for women. Why yes, that is a bit like putting a Creationist in charge of freshman biology.

But none of us, as I recall, ever complained that we were being cheated out of part of the education most of us, or most of our parents, had paid for. And as a full-scholarship student, I didn’t dare to rock any boats until a few years later. Even then I was awfully polite.

And it was also a couple of years later, and maybe even wiser, that I went to Confession for the last time. I don’t even remember why, but I was still devout, and maybe I wanted to clear my conscience before going to Communion the next day. I believe I was the last one in the chapel, and Father Thing was hearing confessions.

An aside here: I was even then pretty damned naïve about the anonymity of the confessional. In retrospect, I suppose the parish priests must have recognized me as the only third-grader who used words like "thrice" – and I used "thrice" in Confession because it was the only place I felt I could use it and not get hooted at. I have since been told that my voice is distinctive enough that people hearing it on the radio knew it was me, as I accidentally outed myself a decade ago as a Prozac user. Oops. (shrug)

So OK, into the confessional I went just as usual, and somewhere after the "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned" ritual I said I’d sinned against the Sixth Commandment. (Catholics number the Ten Commandments differently than Protestants do. Six is the one about sex.) The avid sharp intake of breath, the eager forward thrust of the head that I could just make out behind the cloth screen, the anticipation in the voice were unmistakable. "Sins of touch or intercourse?" he demanded… but not angrily. Eagerly. You know how phone trainers tell you that people can "hear a smile" in your voice? Well, yes they can, and I did.

I don’t even remember what I mumbled back at him, something polite, but I got through the rest of the drill and stumbled out to the pews, and then walked out of the chapel without bothering to say whatever prayers he’d assigned as penance. I was simultaneously numb and hyperalert. And I knew damned well what I’d just experienced. I thought it over, not really wanting to believe that of the old coot… and I still knew. And I know to this day.

No, I didn’t leave the church over one sanctimonious voyeur. It was an accumulation of nasties, the same as my – simultaneous, believe it or not – decision that I wasn’t going to join the Mercy order after all. (The biggest part of that was seeing how the nuns I liked most, who I saw as most like me, were treated. Interesting: all but one of the ones I got to know at all well dropped out of the order within about five years.) And somewhere along the string of outrages -- current and historical, traditional, even, it would seem, doctrinal -- that kept telling me "By their fruits you will know them and these aren’t plums" I realized that I didn’t believe any of it, so the whole thing was moot.

Somewhere in my college courses, I began expecting things to make sense. Not as divinely ordained, just as logical, and if we’re talking about explanations, as reasonable and as backed up with, of all things, evidence. And damn but it's intellectually and emotionally a lot more joyous and fulfilling.

Posted at November 28, 2005 11:35 PM


Ah, Catholicism. Yes, I have memories of that as well. But I do have something funny w/r/t Catholic universities. I called a grad department at one school that employs scholars I would love to work with and know, and asked some questions about the culture of the school. Like, would I, as a secular woman-person be a pariah? The secretary told me that if I were a strong woman, I could deal well. Also, she was sure that a secular person would be OK, since the school even admits methodists.

Posted by: Heo Cwaeth at December 3, 2005 04:40 AM

Methodists?? Oh my. What next, Two-Seed-In-The-Spirit Predestinarian Babtists?

Well, wait; there was one Baha'i at my school. I think she converted after she got there, but hey. I think she was my class' token African American too, so she had to do double duty.

I had to be the hippies and the politicos both, so I guess I got a taste of that myself.

If you "were a strong women"... That sounds like a warning, actually.

Posted by: Ron at December 3, 2005 05:20 AM