When I was a student at Barnard College in the 1960s, I was a lost soul until I took medieval history as a junior. The professor, Norman Cantor, brought medieval Europe to life. Not only that, he brought medieval Muslim countries to life, teaching us that without the Muslims, we would indeed have been greatly impoverished. But much as I would like to tell you about those Muslims whom the Christians attacked in the Crusades, here I would like to talk about Catholicism.
I was a Latin major at the beginning of Professor Cantor's course, not because I wanted to be but because I had so many credits in Latin I could do it easily. And my mother thought it was thrillling to have a daughter who knew Latin (but that's another story). Halfway through Cantor's course, I switched to being a history major with a concentration in medieval history (I'd already taken medieval Latin) with Professor Cantor as my advisor. What a nerd I sound like! I got one of three As in a class of 150 in both terms.
Why did I love it? Certainly Norman Cantor did not inspire crushes: a large, soft man whose jaw hung. But somehow he saw something in me and encouraged me. Neurotic as I was, at the end of the second semester, I couldn't finish my paper on Peter Abelard. I took an incomplete. I went to Maine to my second summer as a camp counselor and that summer as a unit leader, in charge of a whole age group which meant three cabins under my wing. I brought my term paper in a box. After all the campers had gone to sleep, I'd pour through my notes and drafts. I'd cut and paste and tear apart -- electric typewriters I don't think even existed. It wasn't just that I was neurotic: it was that Abelard was so interesting, and so were his times, and so was the church. In the end, I sort of ordered the stuff in the box and sent it off to Professor Cantor who had become my advisor.
I got an A in the course.
And in my senior year, I found myself in a graduate medieval history seminar. It was a small group and it included three priests. The three priests and I would go to the West End Cafe for beer after class. They were wonderful men, much like the nuns described not just in Maureen Dowd's cited above column but in other places as well. They were committed to social justice as were many nuns and priests of that era. They thought the idea of unmarried priests, among other ideas, was silly, but since they'd sworn to it, they felt they had committed to it.
At the end of the seminar and at the end of my senior year, we had a party at my parents' apartment. During the party, Professor Cantor asked if he could talk to my parents privately, and the three of them retreated to my parents' bedroom (New York apartments could be small). As they told me after everyone left, Professor Cantor (who was Jewish and assumed I was) told my mother (who was Episcopalian) and my father (who indeed was Jewish) that he was afraid I was, because of my love of medieval church history and my friendship with the priests, being tempted to become a Catholic.
Was I? Yes and no. Throughout my life, I have been drawn to the Catholic Church, but every time I step too close, I feel the flames not of hell (well maybe of hell), but certainly of all-too-human rigidity, of anti-womanhood, of the grip of men who are cruel and self-righteous, etc. etc. etc. I remember people like the Sister Annes and those devoted to teaching at places like Our Lady of the Lakes University, the nuns of St. Bridget of Ireland, the priests in Latin America involved in Liberation Theology. But I can't take the step. There are too many Pope Benedicts, too many ambitious men who follow him, too many abusers allowed to go free, TOO MANY MEN PERSECUTING DEVOTED AMERICAN NUNS. (See link to Maureen Dowd's column.)
I cannot believe what Pope Benedict, that old snake, is doing to American nuns. Why? Why? Why? The Catholic Church STILL enfolds so many great human beings. When will it be free?