Reforming the Church, Not Leaving It

Emma McDonald

I arrived at Yale Divinity School in the fall of 2017, eager to join an ecumenical community committed to both academics and ministry. I chose YDS in part because I hoped that its student body, drawn from many strands of the Christian faith, would help expand and enrich how I thought about Christian ethics and theology. Happily, that hope was fulfilled. At the same time, however, I was surprised to find skepticism among many of my peers when they discovered that I am both Catholic and a woman. 

Overt questions and subtle comments suggested that the Church’s stance on women’s ordination, on same-sex relationships, on contraception, and abortion meant I should be leaving it behind. The revelations of the Church’s role in covering up and perpetuating the sex abuse crisis that emerged in the Philadelphia Grand Jury Report in 2018 only renewed these kinds of questions in my second year at YDS. 

Both Pain and Empowerment 

These inquiries made sense to me: If all you know of the Church is its scandals and shortcomings, who could stay? I, along with most Catholics I know, feel an acute sense of pain and sorrow in seeing the Church hierarchy’s neglect of vulnerable children and its frequent failures to adequately honor the experiences and perspectives of women. While the Church’s failures on an institutional level can be nothing but discouraging, my own experience in the Church never fails to remind me that the Church is much more than the worst elements of its hierarchy. In fact, my own experience in the Church has been one of empowerment and support. From my childhood through graduate school, I have witnessed strong female pastoral leadership in the Church and have found support within the Church to make my voice heard as a Catholic woman. 

Seeing Women Lead 

As a child, my parish had a female pastoral life director. Though the intricacies of her role were not clear to me at a young age, I became accustomed to seeing a woman lead our parish. Opportunities for women to contribute and lead were readily available: I was encouraged to be an altar server, a lector, a confirmation peer minister. I served on the Archdiocesan Youth Advisory Council, which itself was led by a woman from the archdiocese. I attended a Catholic summer service camp, which was run by women. Though the Church’s male hierarchy might have possessed disproportionate institutional power, my experience of the Church was shaped by women. I never doubted that the Church was a place where I belonged. 

As an undergraduate, I studied Christian ethics, writing a senior thesis on infertility treatments and Catholic moral theology. While this culminating project opened my eyes to the many ways in which sexism has infected Church theology and practice, I discovered that I was not alone in my frustrations with the Church’s missteps. The work of Catholic theologians (introduced to me by professors from the Presbyterian and Methodist traditions, by the way) – from Margaret Farley and Teresa Okure to Ada María Isasi-Díaz and Rosemary Radford Ruether – ushered me into a community of Catholic women committed to changing the Church for the better. 

Desert Mothers and Dorothy Day 

Studying these contemporary theologians in conjunction with a course on the history of women’s religious life and thought revealed to me that, from the early church’s women deacons and desert mothers, to Dorothy Day and Saint Josephine Bakhita, women throughout the history of the Church have held fast to their faith. Like the hemorrhaging woman in Matthew, Mark, and Luke and the women who discover the empty tomb in all four Gospels, these women persevere despite social stigma to follow Christ and build up His Body. 

YDS furnished even more instances of female leadership in the Church, both ancient and contemporary. In her course on women mystics, YDS professor Janet Ruffing, RSM (Sisters of Mercy), shared the spiritual insights of Teresa of Ávila, Hadewijch of Brabant, and Gertrude of Helfta, all inspiring examples of female leadership in church history. Professor Ruffing’s own accomplishments in Christian spirituality and spiritual direction carry forward the legacy of these storied women into the present day. The scholarship of another YDS professor and practicing Catholic, Teresa Berger, highlights the role of women in liturgy, giving voice to global expressions of women’s rites that reflect both struggle and hope. 

A World of Voices 

Examples of Catholic women leading at YDS are not limited to the faculty: Jeanne Peloso shares her gifts of compassion and commitment as YDS Dean of Students, and Catholic YDS alumnae continue efforts to better the Church in a variety of fields. Jamie Manson ’02 M.Div. adds her insights as a columnist and book editor at the National Catholic Reporter, writing on LGBTQ inclusion in the Church, women deacons, and sexual ethics. Carlene Demiany ’12 M.Div., ’14 S.T.M., assistant chaplain at Yale’s Saint Thomas More Catholic Chapel, offers pastoral insight and support and leads students on Alternative Spring Break trips to Taizé, France. Within the academy, Christiana Zenner ’05 M.A.R. at Fordham University has utilized the resources of the Church to develop an ethic for fresh water; Nichole Flores ’09 M.Div. at the University of Virginia conducts scholarship on Catholic ethics, Latinx theology, and the aesthetics of solidarity, while reflecting on how to do Catholic theology at a public university. 

And let’s not forget the leadership of current students and very recent graduates: Emily Judd ’19 M.A.R. created and produced “The Quadcast,” a YDS podcast series that features conversations with Yale faculty on issues of faith, politics, and culture. Phoenix Gonzalez ’20 M.A.R. directed and produced a modern rendition of the medieval Noah play this past year in Marquand Chapel and at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, constructing an ark made of garbage in order to ask questions through performance about the destruction of Creation. Sarah Watson ’19 M.A.R./M.B.A. used her financial prowess and theological skills to undertake an independent study investigating how Catholic women religious have spearheaded lending practices that uphold principles of Catholic social teaching. 

Pushing the Church 

As a Catholic at YDS, I’ve been part of a community that offers so many examples of radical witness and prophetic leadership from women who make a lasting impact even in the face of sexism and misogyny in the Church. As I continue my studies as a doctoral student at Boston College, where I will remain focused on connecting the perspectives of Catholic women experiencing infertility with theological ethical reflection, I will carry with me the inspiration from these many women of YDS, whose faith, vision, and leadership push the Church to a more just future. 

Emma McDonald ’19 M.A.R. is a doctoral candidate in theological ethics at Boston College. She also has a B.A. from Middlebury College. Before attending YDS, she spent a year as an AmeriCorps VISTA member at the Middlebury College Center for Community Engagement, where she coordinated the Privilege & Poverty Academic Cluster.