From Catholicism to Feminism and Back: An Interview with Lorraine V. Murray
Ignatius Insight: What are some of the main reasons you ended up walking away from the Catholic Church as a young woman? In looking back, what might have kept you from making that decision?
Lorraine Murray: When I went away to college, the dragon of nihilism pounced on me. I was extremely naive, having led a very sheltered life until that time. Although I had attended Catholic schools for nearly my entire childhood, no one had prepared me for the onslaught of atheism that awaited me at the University of Florida. One thing might have helped me: Some knowledge of the arguments against theism and Christianity, and ways to counteract them.
Ignatius Insight: The term "feminist" is sometimes used in a bewildering number of ways. What sort of feminist were you and what were the essential beliefs of the feminism you practiced?
Murray: I was a radical feminist, championing the belief that there was no such thing as innate masculine and feminine natures. I believed that social conditioning produced the obvious differences between male and female behavior. Thus, to equal the playing field between men and women, one had to tweak the conditioning of children. For example, take away toy guns and adventure tales from little boys, and encourage them to play with dolls. Downplay ruffles and dresses for little girls, and deck them out in pants instead. Today, I look at my little nephews, who fashion guns with their hands, and see the utter insanity of these beliefs. However, at the time, I based my conclusions entirely on books.
Also, like many radical feminists, I believed that men were extremely violent towards women and enjoyed subjugating them. This piece of "wisdom" certainly wasn't evident in my own life, since the men I knew were mostly gentle souls, and my own father had sacrificed plenty so I could go to graduate school. But the feminist agenda emphasized that conflict, unhappiness and misery were part of every woman's journey, and then placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of men.
Ignatius Insight: How essential is "free love," contraceptives, and abortion to that sort of feminism?
Murray: "Free love" is crucial to the feminist agenda. Sex is seen as just another physical act that brings pleasure. It doesn't require love or commitment or emotional involvement. Radical feminists generally disparage marriage and family, seeing them as restricting women's freedom, so sex without commitment is somehow a positive thing. This poisonous belief began in the 1960s, but is still apparent today, especially on college campuses where many young people talk about "hooking up" with someone, i.e., having sex with strangers.
Contraceptives are another crucial part of the free-sex puzzle because contraceptives are an attempt to break the connection between sex and its God-given function, which is reproduction. Many people today are surprised when they use contraceptives and still get pregnant, because they believe contraceptives never fail. Sadly, abortion becomes the back-up method of birth control.
Ignatius Insight: Why do so many feminists despise the traditional understanding of femininity and womanhood?
Murray: Perhaps the deepest sin of feminism is envy. So many feminists think that men have a better life and see them as somehow conspiring to keep women unhappy. Feminists deny what the average woman on the street will attest to: Women like being women! We like dressing differently from men, wearing make-up and watching romantic movies. We know it is nearly impossible for women to separate sexual intimacy and love. Women who give themselves to a man know, in the inner recesses of their hearts, that a baby might be the result of such intimacy. This is part of our God-given nature, and it is beautiful. However, radical, gender-bending feminists want to deny the heart of true femininity.
When Betty Friedan collected stories for The Feminine Mystique, she failed to talk to the mothers who were happy! After more books like hers hit the market, many women left the home and sought jobs in the "real" world, as if creating a home for the family was not real. In the past few decades, we've seen the fall-out: Many women now realize that the male experience has its own stresses and suffering. Many career women who put off having children find it is now too late. Many mothers who put their children in daycare regret missing the early years with them.
Ignatius Insight: In what academic field did you pursue graduate studies? Why? Who were your intellectual heroes and guides?
Murray: As a child, I dreamt of writing fiction and becoming one of the big names in the literary world, so I majored in English in college. Unfortunately, I soon became discouraged because I felt I could never match up to the authors we were reading. Tabling that dream, I went on to philosophy, because I was seeking the meaning of life. Sadly, it didn't occur to me that I had once found that meaning in Catholicism. My favorite philosophers were 20th century atheists like Jean-Paul Sartre and the feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir.
Ignatius Insight: In general, what is the relationship between the secular academic world and radical feminism?
Murray: Generally, in the secular academic world, women's issues have become synonymous with a rigid creed of associated beliefs. If you walk into a self-proclaimed women's bookstore, you will see sections on lesbianism, transgender, paganism and bisexuality, which are topics often explored in women's studies departments. Abortion is seen as part of the radical feminist agenda, and anyone who questions it becomes the enemy. Catholics and other Christians point out the blinding light of the obvious, which is that abortion destroys a human life. But this is not something that radical feminists will accept, because they believe women's freedom should be entirely unrestricted. So they tend to see traditional religion as some monstrous conspiracy to keep women unhappy. They often lump together anyone who is pro-life or pro-family under the umbrella of "Evangelicals" or "fundamentalists." The average woman on the street can't identify with the typical feminist agenda because it is far removed from the realities of everyday life. This topic is explored beautifully in a book by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Feminism Is Not the Story of My Life.
Ignatius Insight: How did you finally start to make your way back to Jesus Christ and His Church? What issues did you struggle with the most in that journey?
Murray: My husband, who had little knowledge of Catholicism, startled me one day when he returned from New York and mentioned stopping in at St. Patrick's Cathedral to light votive candles in memory of his father and my parents. In that moment, I realized I had never prayed for the repose of my parents' souls, although they had been dead many years. I also read Merton's Seven Storey Mountain, and was very moved by his journey. I began to experience a mysterious sense of someone reaching into my life and tugging at me.
I struggled on my journey because I was still a feminist when I returned to the Church, so I brought my baggage with me. I wanted to continue using contraceptives, for example, and did so for many years. I also thought of myself as a "pro-choice" Catholic. In short, I was the classic "cafeteria Catholic," and looking back, I am humbled that Christ drew me back to the Church anyway.
Ignatius Insight: When and how did you finally realize, "I want to be a Catholic a practicing, serious Catholic?"
Murray: After my diagnosis of breast cancer in 2000, life started changing quite drastically. I truly thought I would die soon, and I longed for someone to help me, so I sought out a spiritual director. Father Richard Lopez, who is a religion teacher at a local Catholic high school, was at first my emotional and spiritual life-line in terms of cancer, but I also began asking him questions about why the Church espoused various teachings. He gave me books to read and carefully explained the Catholic perspective. Once I understood the rationale and history behind Church teachings, I could accept them. Until then, I was woefully ignorant.
Ignatius Insight: You mention several thinkers and authors whose works helped you, including C.S. Lewis, Augustine, and Thomas Merton. But you have a special affinity and love for Flannery O'Connor. What attracted you to her writing? What did you learn from her?
Murray: Father Lopez is a great Flannery O'Connor fan. I had read Flannery's stories, but was unaware that she was Catholic (since, alas, her faith was not mentioned in my college classes). As he instructed me in the faith, Father Lopez pointed me toward her letters in "The Habit of Being," and I was thoroughly fascinated with the woman who came to life in this book.
In her letters, she ardently defended and explained Catholicism, and this was in the fifties and sixties, when nihilism was pervasive. Also, despite sharp criticism from critics, she continued writing her fiction. As a Catholic columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, there are times when I get plenty of criticism from readers and get discouraged. Her advice has helped me, especially her point that anything that depresses a writer to the extent that he wants to give up writing comes from the devil.
Ignatius Insight: What are some of your current and future projects?
Murray: I continue to write two columns a month for the secular press and two for the Catholic newspaper, The Georgia Bulletin. I'm also working on a book about Flannery O'Connor's Catholic journey. It is a huge undertaking and I hope that it will actually be published. Please ask your readers to keep this intention in their prayers!
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