The tattooed feminist catholic who chooses conscience over catechism


When asked to state a religion, one in three Gen Xers and Millennials respond with “none.” I’m sure it won’t surprise you – it’s quite common to be Catholic in 2014 and have brothers, sisters, children and even spouses who are “none”. Today more than ever, being Catholic is a choice, not a given based on cultural and family background.

Some people are surprised that as a priest I also have a group of no’s in my family. (As good Midwesterners, we tend to stick more to good family news and sports than to theological debates at the Thanksgiving table.) Living in Los Angeles, a city slightly out of the Bible Belt , I also have quite a few friends who would fall into this category.

Occasionally, when my holy orders are revealed in conversation with those I meet, I notice a flash of panic in their eyes, as if I might begin to force-feed them Catholic Kool-Aid. Unlike the way some of us have handled things in the past, well, 2,000 years, I don’t really think Jesus would want us to handle faith. (If he did, I’m not sure how.) I’m more inspired (and humbled) by St. Francis’ command to preach the gospel at all times, but only use words when it’s necessary.

Anyway, I can’t really blame dummies feeling a little paranoia. There is this popular perception about some Catholics. (Not you; you’re fine.) I’m talking about haughty us-versus-them Catholics, those who tend to treat people (often those they love) as uninformed and inferior (as if that would help). The many stories of Catholics respecting the conscience of non-believers are not as often reported. Remember how shocked the world was when Pope Francis openly did this during his first press briefing in front of the gathered group of journalists? Then there was his public letter in The Republic where he insisted that God’s mercy “has no limits” and also reaches unbelievers, for whom sin would not be lack of faith in God, but rather refusal to obey his conscience.

It was obeying this conscience that led Kaya Oakes to choose to become a Catholic. Testimony to James Joyce’s description of the Catholic meaning “Here’s everyone”, she is a devout feminist (she quotes Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister’s question, “How can you be a Catholic and not being a feminist?”) with an appreciation for tattoos and independent culture. She is married to an agnostic, has a formerly Catholic mother (who became concerned when Kaya considered re-entering the church), and is a popular writing lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley Not exactly the dominant stereotype of a Catholic woman in America today.

“Hybrid Memory/Ethnography/Theological Diatribe” by Kaya Radical Reinvention: An Unlikely Return to the Catholic Church frankly details his journey from atheism to Catholicism without the faux veneer of “I found God and now everything is perfect!” which seems to tie many successful spiritual memoirs together.

In fact, his return to the church did not solve all his problems, especially those related to Catholic teaching. She has grown accustomed to being criticized by bloggers and the “commentary” for some of her unapologetic beliefs about women and sexual minorities – she has been called “Satan” a few times – and sometimes receives backlash even for apparently benign subjects.

“Several people rose up against my America essay on Catholic writing, mostly upset that I wasn’t qualified to write on the subject because, you know, I’m just a Catholic writer,” she told us. Despite all of this, she seems to face backlash from him. Catholics with a Sense of Humor: “I laugh a lot at this kind of nonsense, complain to my friends and family, and then move on.”

Perhaps we have become so used to this kind of “trolling” in the Catholic blogosphere that none of it seems shocking. (It’s become so standard that sites like NCR keep an eye out for user comments now in case things get too nasty.) You might think that trolling is the least of our problems, that there’s a lot more we need to focus on. Did you see the story this week of the 27-year-old priest who bars an elderly gay couple from the sacraments in their longtime parish after it was disclosed that the partners, together for more than 30 years, had just married civilly? On Thursday we read that almost half of the 40 people who have lost their jobs in Catholic institutions since 2008 due to doctrinal disagreement have lost their jobs in last year. The trolling, the ban, and the layoffs all have one thing in common: the fear of a big-tent church where everyone belongs. You wonder how many people Jesus spent time with would be warmly welcomed this Sunday at Mass, right?

Kaya’s next book – a project that delves into non-believers – will hopefully spark the curiosity of believers and non-believers alike, perhaps inspiring others to seek their place in Catholicism. Just as the popular perception of an American Catholic is quite limited, Kaya’s research shows that the popular perception of no doesn’t tell the whole story. She expected the people she interviewed for the research to be apathetic or “ticked off”, like Richard Dawkins, about religion. Instead, she found the opposite in most cases.

“People who choose not to participate in a religion really respect the people who participate. In fact, they admire the work that churches do in the community,” she said. A recurring theme she hears is, “Religion is wonderful and I’m so thankful we have it. I just don’t want to be a part of it because I can’t commit to it. … I think that in fact, a lot of people who are religious feel the same.” This common theme of doubt, so essential to a healthy faith, really struck her, and she hopes this common ground will spark dialogue.

So what needs to be done to get more no’s to consider the church? “There needs to be more cultural literacy about where to meet people. … There’s just this tone-deaf response,” she said. “There was an announcement recently that our Archbishop here in the Bay Area [Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone] opens a center for young people, and there is an air hockey table and a daily Latin mass. I work with students. None of them play air hockey and none of them speak Latin, so there is a disconnect. … I think it’s about meeting people where they come from, [inviting them to]come ask questions, come be confused, come have doubts.”

We all know that Pope Francis has begun to build bridges between Catholics and non-Catholics, but it really comes down to how we act at the local parish level, how much we love in our flawed communities towards those who do not fit into neat box Catholicism. There is nothing wrong with being a “traditional Catholic”. Far from there. But I suggest we need to think about how best to respect the consciences of other children of God and be a little more Catholic with a little c – something that will benefit everyone in the church family, regardless your “type” are.

Indeed, Tip O’Neill was right when he said that all politics was local. So, after talking about the national absence and the religious relationship, we moved on to a more local relationship and asked Kaya how that relationship is going in her own home, where she is married to someone.

“Yes, it might be easier if we were all married to other Catholics, but one of the things I love about not being married to a Catholic is that it makes me challenges me to see my faith in a different way. I see it through the lens of someone who sees the best things about Catholicism: concern for the poor and marginalized, intellectual tradition, art, community, nuns, open-minded priests, and he’s not afraid to talk about what’s not working for him and why it’s not working.”

Don’t miss Kaya’s revealing conversation with the IN Network about her unique journey, what she learned about none, why she considers Rome’s approach to the Religious Women’s Leadership Conference “really embarrassing”, this who is to be represented at the upcoming Synod of Bishops on the Family, and some advice for non-believers and believers to find common ground.


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