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First FemCatholic Conference celebrates authenticity and God-given gifts

Women’s health. Consent in the era of #MeToo. The sexual abuse crisis. Balancing work and motherhood. These are just a few of the reasons that the first FemCatholic conference, held at Loyola University in Chicago, was sold out weeks before it happened in the first weekend of March.

Women ranging from college-aged young adults to grandmothers flocked to an event that promised to talk about “women’s issues…honestly”; to “reconcile feminist ideals of women’s empowerment with the truth of our faith”, and to connect participants with other “women seeking to lead, to learn, and to be a liaison between the Church and the world” (FemCatholic website).

The conference was a singular event not only because of the speakers, but because of the women attending. These women were on fire for their faith and for important global issues; these women were mothers who were sick at heart as a result of the scandals in the Church; these women were leaders in their places of work who also wanted to make an impact on their Church communities. These women were passionate and, all together in one room, the incredible power of authentic, faith-filled women was palpable.

But Catholicism and…feminism?! Are the two even compatible? That’s what many women came to find out. Opening speaker Erika Bachiochi delivered a fact-filled talk about “How the Church Beats Feminists At Their Own Game”. Specifically, she outlined how the ubiquitous promotion of abortions and contraceptives actually disadvantaged women, causing the abortion rate to rise and men (only) to enjoy sex with no consequences. In sum, she explained, we need to “Take biology seriously and expect more from men.”

So, when the Church talks about feminism we’re not talking about the kind that pushes “reproductive rights” with impunity and forgets about the realities of human biology.

Rather, as author and podcaster Claire Swinarski challenged the audience, we are called to be feminists in the way that Jesus was a feminist. “Jesus exhibited a deep, impactful love for women”, Claire explained, citing the way that Jesus taught women theology, cultivated deep friendships with them, and chose women to be the first people to discover Jesus’ Resurrection. The women from the Scriptures, the ones Jesus loved, are models for women today. Claire said, “I truly believe that if women stand at the foot of the Cross, they can do just about anything.”

Organizers, speakers, and audience, while bringing their own thoughts and perspectives to the table, all seemed to agree that true feminism is rooted in the fact that women and men were made with equal worth and dignity. A simple enough concept, perhaps, but speakers conclude that there is still much work to be done to ensure that women are listened to, valued, and empowered.

Leticia Ochoa Adams is truly a unique voice in the Catholic sphere, and talked candidly about her disadvantaged youth, being a survivor of child sexual abuse, and grieving the death of her son due to suicide. Her raw witness brought tears to many eyes as she demonstrated that strength and vulnerability, doubt and faith, and incredible courage can coexist in women and bear great fruit, with the help of God’s grace.

The other speakers also didn’t shy away from difficult topics. Long-time Catholic writer Simcha Fisher talked honestly about consent outside and within marriage. Shannon Ochoa brought personal experience and wisdom to celebrating personal integration and promoting solidarity beyond the LGBT+ paradigm. Aimee Murphy addressed how to embrace pro-life feminism. Dr. Deborah Savage provoked women to consider both the feminine and the masculine genius. Gabrielle Jastrebski gave a surprisingly practical talk that helped women to understand what they really need to consider about women’s health that many doctors are ignoring. Mary Hallon Fiorito introduced the audience to two very diverse women within the Church – Dorothy Day and Caryll Houselander.

The day would not have been complete without missionary hobo (she lives out of her car!) Meg Hunter-Kilmer’s powerhouse of a keynote speech that was equal parts hilarious and soul-stirring. Meg empathized with every woman who felt like they’d never live up to the sweet, demure pictures of Catholic femininity that are so often touted as the height of female virtue. Many women are sweet and demure and Meg applauded that. But she also reminded the crowd that God made each of them and called each of the to a unique path to holiness. She ran through a gamut of saints that were anything but homogenous. By the end of her talk, there was no doubt that most were convicted of Meg’s message that “It was good that she existed”.

So, is Catholic feminism a thing? Well, there was certainly a lot of “girl-power” in the halls of Loyola University that day. But this feminism could not be reduced only to equal-work-for-equal-pay; #Metoo; or an increase in female leadership (though there was lots of discussion of all of these). FemCatholic proposed a feminism that was much richer, one that acknowledges that women are willed by a loving, all-knowing God, to live vibrant, faith-filled, unique lives that contribute to society at every level.

 

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