While the university that I attend is very supportive of the current liberal attack on gender and identity, for the most part I have been able to avoid direct entanglements with the implementation of the agenda. In that classroom, however, I was suddenly forced into it. As each classmate spoke up in turn, I considered refusing to give any pronouns—but then realized that choice could itself be interpreted as a specific ‘gender preference’ from the vast spectrum that the modern world has invented. When my turn came, I had to declare that I use ‘she/her pronouns,’ or else challenge the professor and perhaps derail the class into a debate on gender.
As a normal, Catholic woman, I work quite hard to dress and act in such a way that there is no doubt that I am female and conservative. I have made the choice not to wear pants. I watch my hemlines and necklines. Considering these efforts to convey my identity through my appearance, it was unexpectedly demeaning to be required to state that I would like to be referred to as ‘she.’ Reflecting on the experience, later, I realized that, in fact, it constituted a kind of persecution.
The liberal message is that everyone should have a voice, that absolute freedom of expression and identification is the goal toward which society should move. However, by pressuring others to conform to the standards of this message, the movement effectively renders voiceless all those who do not agree. In that setting, there was no room for me to pause the conversation and explain my hope that society would automatically choose female pronouns when speaking of me, because I believe that language expresses reality.
On the preceding evening, I had been chatting with several classmates and two of my professors after another program event. The topic was an upcoming interview, arranged by my program with a Seattle writer. She happens to be Catholic, so my professor had originally wanted me to be part of the interview team, so I could ask questions on the subject. As we listened to the discussion, the professor brought up the fact that the writer in question had originally converted during the pontificate of Benedict XVI. Disparaging comments were made concerning his strict moral teaching, and eventually someone asked me what I thought of Pope Francis. I explained that I preferred Benedict’s attitude, and that I felt highly ambivalent about much of the current pope’s teaching and apparent beliefs.
A classmate quirked an eyebrow at me. “Wow,” he said. There was an unmistakable shade of scorn in his voice. “You’re not just Catholic, but super conservative, too, and yet here you are, hiding out in the middle of our MFA program.”
I shrugged. I wasn’t hiding, I told him. It was just that no one had ever bothered to ask what I really thought.
After that weekend, I reflected for a long time on what (if anything) I should do in response to these faintly discriminatory interactions. The next time I was pressed to assign pronouns to myself, perhaps I could arrange a private meeting with the professor afterwards and explain my beliefs. The next time someone brought up Pope Francis, perhaps I could launch into an analysis of his problematic, ‘Who am I to judge?’ stance.
At the end of Winter Quarter, I had been asked to fill out an anonymous diversity survey about campus life for my university. In one of the boxes, I noted that religious groups and their members are sometimes implied to be objects of ridicule or proponents of extremism. Recalling this observation, I wondered if I should work to become more outspoken. I envisioned myself campaigning for greater fairness toward Catholic positions. If the man who has tragically mistaken himself for a woman is allowed to claim female pronouns in speech, shouldn’t the Catholic who understands that gender is determined by biological sex be allowed to ask others to acknowledge this reality in language? I could become more vocal in arguing for absolute equity for Catholic truth. Since the modern era intends to eradicate the persecution and oppression of minorities, no doubt the Catholic Faith should benefit from such a trend!
With the Easter season upon us, and the memories of Holy Week fresh in my mind, however, I contemplated the suffering of Christ. “Despised and the most abject of men” Isaias called Him. Christ himself declared that “the Son of Man had not whereupon to lay his head.” In His Passion, when the whole world rose up to persecute Him, He took on the aspect of a lamb led to slaughter. Moreover, He warned His apostles and disciples that the world would suppose that it served God by persecuting the followers of Christ.
The text of the last and most challenging of the Beatitudes reads, “Blessed are they who suffer persecution for justice’s sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The persecution of the modern world is insidious. Rather than being dragged before pagan altars and asked to burn incense before effigies of emperors, we are more subtly judged and then unobtrusively ostracized for making the wrong vote, or appreciating the wrong Pope, or supposing that it is abnormal to reject one’s birth sex.
This is the age of activism, when champions of various behaviors and identities are rising, right and left, ready to defend their own and others’ choices, no matter how vicious or unhealthy. In such an atmosphere, it’s easy to get caught up and suppose that the Catholic Church also needs activists. Reflecting on the Gospels, though, we do not see Our Lord as an activist. Instead, He simply exemplified truth at all times, going forth to preach the Kingdom of Heaven to the Jews, and admonishing sinful behaviors when those who came to Him showed true penitence.
For the most part, however, He did not actively seek out the Pharisees to correct them; He did not show up in the middle of the Sanhedrin to argue; He did not protest imperial policies in front of the Roman governor’s palace. Often he was simply in attendance at the different events where we see Him, either by invitation, or because of obligations from the Jewish law. When Mary Magdalen came to the house of the Simon the Pharisee, Our Lord was present as a celebrity and guest, but certainly not for the purpose of haranguing Simon for his lack of charity. When the occasion arose, He did take the opportunity to point out that Simon’s attitude was far less generous than this sinful woman’s, but in all other ways He was courteous and discreet.
Lately in the city of Spokane, as I pass through on the bus, and on the campus of my university, I have observed men standing on street corners or in the middle of the quad, using microphones to project their message of Jesus Christ as a personal savior. Other residents of the city or students at the university pass them by, sometimes stopping to argue, but for the most part putting their heads down in embarrassment and scuttling past. One afternoon, I sat on the bus, waiting for the departure time, and watched one of these men. It occurred to me that there is something admirable in their willingness to shed all sense of shame or human respect in the effort to spread the word of God.
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At the same time, though, I wonder how effective their work is. As I said, most people assiduously avoid eye contact with these street preachers, and remove themselves from the vicinity as quickly as possible. Those who do stop usually have been provoked to rage by what they perceive as an ideological attack. The old adage, ‘actions speak louder than words,’ may be a better strategy in this day and age than such public exhibitions. People have been affirmed and validated in their sinful behavior and agnostic viewpoint for so many decades now, that they no longer have the moral fiber necessary to allow them to listen rationally to someone who says their position is wrong or suggests they might be doing themselves more harm than good. It is unfortunate but true that their reaction to such statements will probably be anger, or self-justification, or the conclusion that the person who dared to confront them is a smallminded bigot. On the other hand, I have discovered that if one works as hard as possible to live in accordance with the standards of the Catholic faith, the people around you will eventually notice and even make hesitant queries.
In my job as a writing tutor, I have befriended a Saudi Arabian woman working on her master’s degree in education. She shows up one or two times a week to talk about subject-verb agreement and other issues of English grammar. I have gathered from listening to what she writes about her country and its education system that she is a devout Muslim; the fact that she dutifully wears a hijab and covers every inch of her skin except her hands and face only underscores this fact. As she has become more comfortable with me, she has begun to ask questions. ‘Are you married?’ was one, and when I answered no, and explained that I am looking for someone who believes what I do which somewhat limits my choices, she asked me about my religion and whether Catholics believe (as Muslims do, she informed me) in chastity before marriage.
Once the subject of religion had been broached, she began to ask more questions, culminating just a few days ago, when she finally worked up the courage to inquire about the Miraculous Medal I always wear. Suddenly the two of us were talking about Our Lady, Catholic nuns, the intercessory power of prayer, along with the need to find a way of being a witness to the fact that one believes in God.
Besides the aspect of activism that is so prevalent in our world, another undercurrent is the tendency to assume a victim mentality. You are persecuted, liberals tell us, because you are female, or non-white, or queer, or a democrat, or an immigrant. The list goes on. The result is a painful sensitivity in almost every minority. These days, even white, straight, conservative men (the one group who receives no pity in our world) feel ostracized, and they too claim to belong in the ranks of so-called victims. Those who are blamed as persecutors feel attacked; the victims themselves feel attacked. We exist in a state of enmity.
When I was talking to the Saudi Arabian woman, though, I did not feel like a victim. Instead, I realized that I was being called to a kind of martyrdom—‘witness,’ as that word means in the original Greek. Martyrs do not complain, do not protest, do not rabble-rouse. Instead, they exist simply and joyfully in the daily practice of their Faith. They take blows and turn the other cheek; they know how to exemplify what they believe without attacking or blaming others.
In my case, fighting and arguing with my classmates and professors will probably get me nowhere. If anything, being excessively touchy and defensive about my Faith will most likely alienate those who might otherwise make inquiries. On the other hand, wearing a Miraculous Medal, or praying before meals, or not eating fish on a Friday while out to dinner with classmates—these are the sorts of things that make people curious and lead to questions.
Perhaps during this exact moment in history, none of us shall be called before governments and put to death for our faith. We will, however, be martyred in more subtle ways, since the world makes it clear that it has no use for truth and goodness. But the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Faith. By peacefully shouldering this cross of social injustice and carrying it with resignation and joy to whatever end God has in store, perhaps we can draw others after us into the pathway of salvation.