The Question We Weren’t Allowed to Ask

Something fundamental happened to women like us because we were raised Catholic. Not just to some of us, who went to this school or had those nuns, or who belonged to a certain kind of parish. What happened to us is baked into Catholicism, and every one of us was given this same foundation. Our Catholic education taught us our identity, and our role in the world.

Who are we?

We were given our identities in religion class, when we were taught that God created us to be like Mary. We learned that good Catholic girls are compliant, and pleasant, and obedient. Good Catholic girls are selfless. We don’t think of ourselves and what we need. We think only of the needs of others. We take care of others. We don’t question authority. We submit to authority the way Mary submitted to God when she bore his child.

The one single question that is critical for the healthy development of the self is the question we have been taught not to ask: "Who am I and what do I want?" We were taught to ask a different question: "What do you need and how can I help?"

The focus of the Catholic woman's question is always the other: the husband or children or church or boss or patient or customer. The focus is never one's self - because that would be sinful, a denial of God's design. It would be selfish. For women who were raised Catholic, to be called selfish is particularly painful,because we were taught that thinking of ourselves is shameful.

What if our Catholic identity is a good fit?

If it is our nature to take care of others, then we might feel comfortable in the role assigned to us. Even so, nurturer does not completely define us. We are all unique human beings. What about our other parts, the abilities and talents we were not given the opportunity to explore? We were taught that nurturer is our entire self. We were handed our identity. We were not taught that we had the right to discover and be who we are.

And when the fit is poor?

For those whose primary nature isn’t nurturer, trying to be what we are not is a struggle that can leave us feeling like something is wrong with us. We were the girls the nuns had to tell over and over to submit to the will of God. We knew what they really meant: You’re not trying hard enough to be like Mary. You’re not trying hard enough to be a good Catholic girl. 

As adults, we can feel like we don’t fit anywhere. We don’t excel at nurturing, but we doubt the abilities we were born with because we were taught those abilities weren’t ours.

The impact for all of us

Regardless of our true natures, we were all taught that we were being good, which meant true to what God wanted us to be, when we were compliant and obedient and pleasant, just like Mary was compliant and obedient and pleasant.

This is what the church values in women. Not independence and fidelity to self. Not the normal differences in human abilities and personalities. Not who we are. Instead, the church wants conformity to its own model of the female. To the church, we are all alike.

Our journey

The question for us is, how can we - who were taught not to think of ourselves, not to be who we are - discover and be proud of and find joy in those very selves, the selves we have lost? How can we heal the damage of being raised Catholic?

The journey of a child who is raised in a healthy, supportive environment is to discover what she likes, how she is gifted, what brings her joy, and how she is best able to contribute to the world. She is taught that she has an absolute right to discover who she is, and to be her true self.

This is the journey that was denied us, and this is the journey we must undertake.

The journey can be long, as there may be a great deal we need to un-learn about ourselves before we can see the truth of who we are.

The starting point is to ask the question we were taught not to ask: "Who am I and what do I want?" Asking that question is not a one-time event. It’s a long process. What do I like? What makes me proud of myself? How am I talented, and where do my talents allow me to best contribute? What brings me joy?

Then comes learning to embrace our self, this person we really are, without guilt or shame, especially if who we are is very different from the self we were taught was ours.

We must learn that just as much as anyone else on this earth, man or woman, adult or child, we have a right to be who we are.

And then, finally, comes the discovery of our voice.

Woman who were raised Catholic were also taught not to challenge authority. To conform to the church's concept of woman, which means to be silent, just like Mary.

Healing our damage includes finding the courage to tell our stories, in a way that is personal to each of us - whether speaking the truth to friends or family or a therapist, or writing the truth, or creating a visible example of fidelity to our true selves by how we inhabit our lives.

This journey of recovery from the damage of our Catholic education is not easy, and it's not painless, especially if we are older and have spent our lives trying to be the self we were taught to be. It may seem easier to avoid the journey altogether, because of sorrow and regret for the choices we've made.

But I believe avoiding the journey is a mistake.

Once a woman understands what happened to the girl she used to be, the girl who was so full of her own promise, deciding not to stand up for that girl is an abandonment. A betrayal.

This is the journey for women who were raised Catholics: to find the girls we once were, those happy girls, all different, all unique, and to be brave for them. To undertake the long and difficult journey of self-discovery, and to support each other as we learn to be who we are, and who we have a right to be, without guilt or shame.

If you are moved to, you can share your story here. A little bit of it, a big piece of it, doesn’t matter. What does matter is finding your voice, and beginning or continuing your journey.