I cannot express the great sorrow and genuine fear I experienced upon the news of Ruth Kolpack, the Pastoral Associate of St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Beloit, WI. As Bill Przylucki explained in his recent post, her termination (after 35 years of service to the parish, mind you) was apparently based on a series of anonymous letters and her 2003 Masters of Divinity Thesis about the use of inclusive language in Church services.
You see, I am employed by the Church too. I’m pursuing academic theological studies. I write things—feminist things—that make some people upset. In Kolpack’s unjust expulsion, I see myself—and the potential future of so many of my companions in the Church—and I wonder: Have we no space to think through God and our Church? No safe arena to genuinely wrestle with reason and conscience? Even the classroom is endangered. Even the typed papers quietly filed away on hard drives and library archives speak too loudly. Have we no room of our own?
In A Room of One’s Own, author Virginia Woolf imagined a young, college-aged woman, Judith. She was the sister of William Shakespeare. An “extraordinarily gifted,” “adventurous,” and “imaginative” individual, she had much in common with her famous brother. But unlike William, whose education and easy success in the theater facilitated opportunities for his triumphant achievement as a writer, Judith was not sent to school, nor given the time and permission to write. After her father arranged her marriage and attempted to persuade her into its execution, the “force of her own gift alone” drove her to disobey him, leaving home for London and the pursuit of playwriting. Finding no opportunities in the theater for women, she desperately gave an actor-manager her body. Pregnant with his child, hopeless and shamed, Judith eventually took her own life.
As Woolf rightly pointed out, Judith—a metaphoric character representing the female writers of her day—lived in a world where one could not possess both a vocation in writing and a female gender. When I read Woolf’s famous book a year ago, I immediately drew parallels between Judith, the female writer’s of Woolf’s day, and the lives of so many Catholics I know: we belong to communities that allow us no safe space to make sense of our lives, particularly the controversial or contradictory realities that so fervently demand consideration and dialogue.
Ruth Kolpack labored with reason, the tradition, and her life to make sense of inclusive language in liturgy in a thesis paper—and her professional ministry was taken from her. Is there no space for humble, genuine consideration of the realities of gender in Catholicism? Not even on the page? Have we no space to even wrestle with it? To write about it in community? In public dialogue? This cost Ruth Kolpack her career—a career of vocation.
It appears that 80 years after the initial publication of Woolf’s book, some still lack “a room of one’s own.” How am I supposed to live—or merely survive—as a Catholic then, if I cannot communally consider the questions and doubts that arise in my faith? Must I live as St. Joan’s accusers implored her to live, with the screaming voices locked up in my head?
Jessica Coblentz recently graduated from Santa Clara University where she majored in Religious Studies and Women’s & Gender Studies. She now resides in Los Angeles where she splits her time between work in young adult ministry, and campus ministry at a local Catholic women’s college. In her free time she loves to cook, read, play in the sunshine, write, travel, and drink really good lattes.