Faith & Feminism: Can the master’s tools dismantle the master’s house?

This beautiful guest post from John Freml, who incidentally, studied with our last guest blogger, Caryn D. Riswold, continues our Faith & Feminism series. See John’s full bio after the jump, and be in touch with if you’d like to contribute a future column. I’d especially love to hear some reflections by feminists with affiliations with eastern religions, as we seem to have a scarcity of their voices here.

Queer Catholics are in the middle of an extremely strenuous and unrelenting tug of war.  They are told by their church that their desires are a “grave depravity,” “intrinsically disordered,” and “under no circumstances can they be approved.”  Meanwhile on the other end of the rope, many secular feminists and queer people make little effort at understanding why queer Catholics choose to stay.  They are accused of selling out, succumbing to the pope, and even self-hatred.


While I no longer attend church regularly, and I usually call myself a “hopeful agnostic,” the Catholic church is still my spiritual home and has been since before I could speak.  I am a queer Catholic, in a healthy gay relationship of over three years, with queer friends.  I study queer subjects, I do not compromise my views in the face of opposition from the church, and I definitely do not hate myself.

It wasn’t always like this, though.  During my first few years of high school at Sacred Heart, my afternoons consisted walking to the nearest Catholic church and spending hours on my knees, begging God to change me.  I went to confession every week and told the priest of my debilitating “impure thoughts” (he would assign a quick “Hail Mary” for my act of contrition, and send me on my way).  I shed many tears to a God who seemed not to listen or care.

It was not until my senior year of high school that I had the courage to whisper three terrifying words to my English teacher after class: “I am gay.”  Her response, luckily, was of great joy and acceptance. (When I graduated, she gave me her own copy of Shakespeare’s sonnets, with a note that she hoped I would find as much happiness in them as she did; I treasure that to this day.)  Her positive response gave me the courage to tell Sister Linda, a nun who then hugged me and told me that God still loved me.  I really needed to hear that.  All of this finally gave me the confidence to come out to my entire theology class during a presentation on spirituality; I received an A.

These positive responses are what still give me hope in the Catholic church, and they are also the reason that I was so enraged when I first heard reports of the Vatican investigating claims of feminism and activism among American nuns.  They weren’t just after people with whom I sympathized; they were (and are) after my friends.

Audre Lorde famously proclaimed, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”  However, if all feminists and queers left the Catholic church in droves, I worry about who will be left to hug the young boy who just mustered up the courage to tell someone he is gay.  Who will let the young lesbian know that God still loves her?  Who will offer encouragement to the young person struggling with gender identity?

It is my desire that the church hierarchy, as well as secular feminists and queer people, begin looking at queer Catholics a bit more seriously and engage in a more sincere dialogue.  The work of groups such as DignityUSA are critical to this end.  I realize that much needs to change within the Catholic church before most of us can even think about glancing at it seriously;  however, my only argument is that everyone, on both sides of rope, has much to learn if we would only be open to listening to all of our stories, Catholic or not.  It is only then that lasting change can begin.

John Freml is a graduate student in the Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Cincinnati in Ohio, where his research interests include queer theory, feminist and queer theology, and pop culture studies. He earned a B.A. in German and Religion at Illinois College in Jacksonville, and currently lives in Cincinnati with his cat, Elsa, and dog, Bentley.

Join the Conversation

  • nazza

    Any church with a strongly centralized system of governance like Roman Catholicism will always have issues along these same lines. Then you have churches like my own which are so decentralized that it is often challenging to find ways that unify us together. As for myself, I am a liberal unprogrammed Quaker and part of a branch of that faith that openly affirms and accepts LGBTs. Evangelical Friends and some Conservative Friends are, unfortunately, often not affirming of LGBTs for any reason.

    Many religious groups are having and have had tremendous wars over queer membership, and may continue to do so for some time. Fortunately, I think these battles are on the wane.

  • Aaron LaMonica

    I am currently a senior at a private Christian university. The topic of homosexuality and faith has been one of the topics, along with some ridiculous topics such as alcohol consumption and fraternities and sororities, always present during my time as a student. I have heard many opinions and thoughts and explanation of how individuals reconcile certain scriptures, that to some are very clear on this topic, with their own understanding and experience of life. I am interested in hearing how you have personally reconciled the texts of the Bible with being queer.

    I also want to say that I am thoroughly impressed with the church experiences you had during your time of “tears” and “coming out.” Most church bodies and religious individuals would have not shown the Christ-like love that you experienced and it makes me so happy and hopeful to hear that there are people in the world with that type of heart.

  • kisekileia

    John, have you heard the new Lady Gaga single? It directly addresses the topic of LGBTQ people being made by God the way they are. I really like that she had the courage to confront this issue head-on, in spite of the heat she’ll probably get for it.

  • sooke

    Thanks for publishing this. I’m a queer ex-Catholic and I so hear what you’re saying. I too spent far too long praying to God to make me straight. I also had to deal with a lot of criticism and hostility from the queer community when I went there for support. It was a tough couple of years figuring things out. Ultimately I stopped identifying as Catholic, though I miss Mass. I miss Lent and Easter. I miss my bible study. I miss the whole community very much.

    In the year that I spent identifying as queer and Catholic at the same time, I co-facilitated a weekly discussion group in my church for LGBTQ Catholics. We read and discussed the book “Taking a Chance on God. I highly recommend it for anyone who is trying to reconcile being Christian & the Bible with being queer.

  • konkonsn

    Hey, John! I remember seeing you around campus. I’m a friend of Alicia S. (my name’s Abby, though I don’t think we ever properly met). I was actually a member of the IC Newman Club for my four years there, vice president my junior year and co-president my senior year. Though I’ve left Catholicism since then (though for more reasons than figuring out my sexuality), it’s really encouraging to read this piece. This religion still holds a special place in my heart, so much that I still get a little defensive when I see people attack it. I remember many members of our club (including the priest that oversaw us) having issues resolving their friendships with LTBGQ individuals and their faith. For me, I always knew what felt right, and it often clashed with the church rules. I was glad Father Angel had an open ear about these things.

  • Mark

    I have to question the premise that feminists or members of the LGBT community should remain part of an organisation that demeans them, simply to be there to pick up the pieces when the that church breaks the spirits of it’s young members.

    This organisation refuses to allow women to participate in it’s core structures, resisting a movement that might stand a chance to redeem it in the light of it’s own failings, whilst simultaneously alienating those member’s of it’s congregation. If it can’t accept women, what hope the LGBT community>?

    You might in your lifetime see the church begrudgingly admit women, essentially dragging itself into the 20th century, and that change might see acceptance over time of the LGBT community, but I wouldn’t hold my breath on that.

    Even if that acceptance happened, along with an apology for a 1000 years of bigotry, in what way would that warrant either your respect or forgiveness.

    That organisation’s only hope would be to be broken and remade into something good.

  • Xandra

    I can’t tell you how much I love these articles. I was raised in the Presbyterian church, but around age 16 I became pretty disillusioned with the whole thing. Since then I’ve decided I still am a person of the Christian faith, but I’m trying to decide what that means. Articles like this give me the encouragement that I need to keep professing and discussing what I believe, both from a religious and feminist perspective. Thank you so much for these articles, and keep ‘em coming!

  • Maria

    Thank you for this! How refreshing! I am Catholic and it was in the Catholic Church that I learned my great respect for all people (grew up, indeed, knowing many out gay Catholics). People outside of the church assume that its 1 billion members are all the same; of course this isn’t the case. Most Catholics that I know support same-sex marriage, the female priesthood, etc. And the members of the body, as you know, are the church just as surely as the pope is. With the help of the (gay, out) priest who married me, I am helping two sets of lesbian friends plan their Catholic weddings (both word services, not full masses, one at a Unitarian Church, one outdoors, both presided at by Catholic lay people). The Catholic Church does teach—which, however small, is something—that one is born gay, not (like many other churches and Abrahamic faiths) that it is a choice. Have you seen Fr. James Martin’s “It Gets Better” Video? That, like your faith, was a gift of the Spirit. God keep you. And thank you for your witness! P.S. Do you read Commonweal Magazine? It’s excellent and paints a fuller portrait of the “investigation” of the nuns.

  • Jessica

    This article was absolutely amazing. I have been explaining this very same concept to people for years. I myself am in the process of converting to Catholicism, and as I have just began my journey I constantly worry if my choosing to follow this faith will conflict with my views as a young feminist. I find myself worrying that if and when i come across certain things in bible study and certain rules that i must adhere to, it might deter me from this faith. If anyone has suggestions and or help in regards as to how I might be able to balance my views, and lifestyle while maintaining a strong relationship with the Church and the Catholic faith, Id love to hear it!!!