The Convent as Colonist: Catholicism in the Works of Contemporary Women Writers of the Americas

Article excerpt

Writing about the complex relationship between Christian religions and third-world countries in Women and Christianity: A Map of the New Country, Sara Maitland argues that Christianity has frequently been a special vehicle of oppression, but it has also, as in South America, proved a dynamic inspiration for change (16). Maitland's observation speaks to the perspective of many contemporary women writers regarding the role of Catholicism in colonized nations. Writers such as Isabel Allende, Julia Alvarez, and Rigoberta Menchu address the conflicts between Catholicism and their individual cultures with an ambivalence, an internally divided attitude informed in part by the fact that Catholicism was imported into those cultures through colonialism. This ambivalence is not limited to Latin American writers, but also informs the work of many Chinese-American and Caribbean authors such as Gish Jen and Rosario Ferre; in other words, this conflict emerges in texts in which Catholicism comes into contact with ethnicity. The connections between Catholicism and ethnicity in recent writings by women of the Americas demonstrate how such writers critique, deconstruct, and reconstruct Catholicism in terms of its relationship to nationhood and its colonial history.

Catholicism, like most religions, is looked upon unfavorably by academics. English departments marginalize it, perhaps because academics consider religion incompatible with intellectualism. Women's studies departments disapprove of it, perhaps because Christianity remains steeped in patriarchy and because women continue to be excluded from much Roman Catholic ministry and practice. This idea that Catholicism is a dirty word for women in particular may explain why scant feminist literary criticism has seriously considered representations of the Roman Catholic church as an important category of analysis.

Even outside of academia, however, Catholicism has had an unfavorable image, especially in the United States. Indeed, the religion has a tradition of seeming un-American. The sixteenth- and seventeenth-century American perception of the Roman Catholic church associated it with European imperial powers and therefore with threats to the freedom of the new world. The mid-nineteenth century experienced a resurgence of anti-Catholicism: growing numbers of Catholic immigrants from Ireland, Italy, and other areas of Catholic Europe caused Protestants to fear that the democracy of this new country would be undermined by the rule of Rome. By the early twentieth century, however, the American fear of the church gave way to the perception of Catholics as anti-intellectual, with their clericalism and their continued reliance on the pope for their political ideologies (Gandolfo 6). The combination of Catholicism and ethnicity, then, tends to connote in the US today an immigrant culture, a group tied to the apron strings of Rome and antagonistic toward the needs of a growing democracy.

These US attitudes influence our perceptions of neighboring countries as well. The perceived menace of Catholicism manifests itself in popular conceptions of countries like Mexico, which threatens the very borders of the US. Significantly, American anti-Catholicism draws sharply from historical competition for land (and thus nationhood) from Catholic groups both within and without the borders of the US (Franchot xxi). This fear of encroachment is inextricably tied to issues of immigration, which remain at the heart of US relations with Central and South American nations. This essay will read across the boundaries of nation in order to rethink the US in terms of its southern neighbors of the Americas. As Jose Saldivar suggests, it is crucial to address the politics of the borderland in the study of the Americas (ix). What follows, then, is a reading of Catholicism as it crosses those borders in the writings of contemporary women. I propose that such writers, often living on the margins of dominant hegemonies themselves, not only cross the perimeters of nationhood but also explore, resist, and negotiate the confines of American understandings of Catholicism, rereading the religion in terms of gender, class, and ethnicity. …