Catholic Bad Girls or Good Catholic Women: Bridging the Generation Gap

This week, Frances Kissling, longtime activist for women’s rights in the Catholic church and society, penned an article entitled “The Best and the Brightest of the Catholic Bad Girls.”

As a young Catholic woman dedicated to bringing about change in the church and society, I have the utmost respect and gratitude for Frances Kissling and her cohorts mentioned in the article. Indeed, these women are the shoulders upon which young Catholic women like me stand.

Much of Kissling’s article contains a story that needs to be told, but by and large, the article did not resonate with me; and some of it went so far as to irk me. Why? I think it might be a sign of an emerging issue in myriad social justice movements: a generation gap.

The Dichotomies of Yore

The article pits the alleged “Catholic bad girls” (like Mary E. Hunt, Sr. Margaret Farley and Donna Quinn) against “Catholic good girls” (like Mary Ann Glendon and Alexia Kelley). “One of the major differences between the two groups,” Kissling states, “is that the bad girls don’t care at all about the men. It’s not that we don’t like them—and we’re not all lesbians.”

Now, I do happen to be a lesbian and from time to time I have even expressed dislike for certain men, but I think the idea of not caring at all about men does, perhaps, more damage than good. Men/bad, women/good is a dichotomy that does not serve us. After all, gender inequality is not a men’s problem; it is a structural problem. Should we call out those men (and women) who work to uphold structures that bring about gender inequality? Most definitely. Should we assume that all men are not to be counted on or are cowardly? Definitely not.

There are men who are fiercely dedicated to gender equality and sexual and reproductive health and rights. And there are women who (though this boggles my mind) fight against gender equality. We must find those who share our values, no matter their gender, and work together to bring about change.

Taking this argument against dichotomy a bit further, it seems that we are coming to a time when even gender cannot be described in two separate categories. Surely, not enough feminist organizations have taken the leap to recognize those who do not clearly fit into one gender category or the other. Nonetheless, man/woman is another dichotomy that should be phased out.

One might even argue, as Harvard law professor Janet Halley has, that we are past feminism; not past gender equality, just past feminism. But perhaps this is another debate for another day.

New Activists, New Tricks

The climate in which young progressive Catholics grew up, in both the church and society, is a world apart from that which the “Catholic bad girls” experienced. For young progressive Catholics in the United States, abortion has been legal (to varying degrees) our whole lives. The birth control pill has been similarly available. Vatican II is akin to the Vietnam War in terms of historical events, in that we did not see the “before,” and therefore have less reverence for the “after.” Since our teens, we have had friends who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. The list goes on.

Because our experiences are different, our methods, goals, and even our language are bound to differ as well. A small example is the very term “Catholic bad girl.” I, for one, don’t feel invigorated by using negative or diminutive terminology to describe myself (nor do I necessarily want to label myself at all). I’m a good Catholic woman, whether the church hierarchy and their conservative allies agree or not.

A larger example is methodology. Take the newspaper ad, “A Diversity of Opinions Regarding Abortion Exists Among Committed Catholics,” that Kissling describes in her article. Young progressive Catholics do not generally practice this type of activism. Instead of taking to the streets, we are taking to the keyboards. There are a great deal of blogs, listservs, Facebook groups, and online publications that are bringing young progressive Catholics together, helping us mobilize and providing us with space to discuss the complex issues.

This type of activism, to those who have been working for justice for years, may not seem like enough. And to explain why it is enough would take a much longer explanation of how we express ourselves online. But, suffice it to say, although we have not yet ironed out every wrinkle, online activism is the new frontier for social justice, and it is working.

The Heyday is Now

Kissling states, “This is about the best and the brightest of the bad girls (BBBG) who had their heyday in the 1980s and ’90s when Catholic feminists were radical feminists.” I must admit, when I first read this sentence, I felt a bit angry and disappointed. We—young progressive Catholics—might not consider ourselves bad girls and we may not even identify as feminists or radical, but we are certainly dedicated to bringing about gender equality in our churches and securing sexual and reproductive rights and health for all.

The issues that move us may differ, but that does not make them any less valid. Our struggle for gender inequality may happen online instead of on paper, but it is strong nonetheless.

The Alexia Kelleys of the world are in the minority. Kissling will be relieved to know that, much like her, I can count the number of progressive Catholics who are actively anti-choice on one hand. Surely, apathy abounds among many people in my generation, and we are equally overwhelmed by the many issues that affect our world today. However, those of us who are working for justice in the church and society are, by and large, dedicated to fighting for gender equality and sexual and reproductive health and rights. The heyday is now.

Moving Forward

As previously stated, many social justice movements are seeing the gap between generations grow. The movement for justice in the Catholic church is no different. In order to survive and thrive, we must close the generation gap as much as possible. Young progressive Catholics must learn from the generations that have gone before us, and, equally, those in the “wisdom” generations must be aware of the work we are doing and open to working together. We must abandon stereotypes and blanket statements. Most of all, we must have these dialogues and learn to compromise without abandoning our ideals.

So, thank you, Frances Kissling, for getting this dialogue started. Let us close these gaps together.