From Feminism to Faith


The year was 1975. I was in college, where the women's movement and other social-justice causes were a big part of campus life. I was on a mission to transform the world.

During the next six years, I worked with the homeless as a Catholic Worker and joined a group called Movement for a New Society. I marched and picketed. I rebelled against authority. Eventually, I joined
a women’s group: We spray-painted sexist billboards and practiced “guerilla warfare” against mainstream culture. By the time I was calling myself a feminist, I was sure that my Catholic upbringing had been restrictive and sexist. I began to identify myself as a “recovered Catholic” who had been freed from an institution that was “oppressive to me as a woman.”

Nowadays, this practicing Catholic isn’t really interested in acquiring labels or joining causes. Too often it seems, causes develop a dogma that isn’t Christ-centered, a dogma that keeps us from God. But back then I didn’t see things that way.

The Feminist Creed

I withdrew my faith in God and Church and put total allegiance in “sisterhood.” I believed that men, as controllers of the Church, were keeping women from fulfilling their potential as priests and leaders. The Church’s definitions of sin were outdated. The Church was standing in the way of self-fulfillment.

The rallies, feminist books, and cultural climate led many young women like me to take up a feminist religion. We put our hopes and our “obedience” in the movement, which had a creed of its own. We bowed to the pressures of feminist political correctness—which denied our true feminine nature—and declined any identification as children of God. Still, I viewed myself with Judeo-Christian eyes—it’s just that my vision was through a glass darkly. I filtered my experiences through a distorted lens. Because I wanted to think of myself as a good and prayerful person, the prevalent New-Age ideas came in handy. God is love, everyone proclaimed. So any expression of lust (which we called “love”) was therefore acceptable to God. The rest of the dogma insisted that men needed to be pushed to let go
of leadership roles and take up the roles once held by women. Men were to become softer, while women became tougher. Sex was purely for pleasure, and babies were a nuisance.

The results of this creed have been destructive. Women are sex objects more than ever. We feel obliged to join the workforce, meaning that our children are raised by childcare workers rather than in families. The courts, which were established to uphold justice, now uphold political correctness. Men pamper their skin. And no one feels obligated to stop a man battering his wife in the middle of a restaurant.

Prodigal Daughter

In the midst of my tenure in the feminist “sisterhood,” I married the man I had been living with. That lasted five years. Then I married again, and that relationship was quickly on the rocks. My background
made it easy to blame them. They weren’t meeting my needs.

I divorced again and married for the third time. But with two kids in the picture, divorce and custody issues became a nightmare. I had left the sisterhood behind when I became a mother, but I was
suffering the consequences of my past. In short, I was lost.

I was a prodigal who had squandered all the rich inheritance of my childhood. I had lost my moral compass in those years of rebellion, and I didn’t know how to return home. But my current-and-forever husband became my teacher. He suggested we visit the Catholic Church “for the children’s sake.”

It was the first week of Lent, February 2003. The priest was starting a Soup and Sharing group that would meet to discuss The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen. At church I heard the choir sing “Hosea.” The first words of the song are these: Come back to me, with all your heart. Don’t let fear keep us apart.

God was practically shouting at me to come to him. I burst into tears.

For so many years I had been roaming and stomping on the riches of faith. It was a wake-up call to realize that when I thought I was freeing myself from shackles, I was actually putting them on.

Pope St. Gregory the Great wrote, “Do not let the delights of this world ensnare us.” I had been ensnared by defining myself and my gender identity in worldly terms. I had been ensnared by the idea that freedom is a goal in itself. I hadn’t realized that freedom from God always turns into slavery. The truth is we are called to be obedient to God in whatever walk of life we choose.

How could I have thought that humans can be totally their own authority? That makes for chaos, violence, and immorality. While feminism was my religion, I was obedient to the creed which promised complete freedom and sameness for all in everything. But those two things are contradictory. Freedom implies choice. Sameness implies control.

The Lessons of Authority

St. Cyprian lived in Africa and began writing sometime after his conversion in the year 246. He commented on the corruption and cultural deterioration that comes from seeking pleasure and political success, a corruption he saw in the crumbling Roman Empire. So he reminded others, “The commands of the gospel are nothing else than God’s lessons, the foundations on which to build up hope . . . They are the rudder for keeping us on the right course.”

To understand fully the commands of the gospel, I knew I needed to study Scripture and listen to Church leaders. Obedience to the Church’s teachings was the first issue I had to embrace when I returned to the faith. What I learned is that I needed guidance and help to be truly Christian again.

Whatever the failings of its leaders, the Church began with Jesus, and it is guided by the Holy Spirit. We owe our allegiance to God and then to his Church, which helps us know him. Through the sacraments of the Church, we receive his grace.

Blessed Are the Meek

Humility was the next step in my return. There was a lot of pride in those many years of wandering. Pride is a deadly sin because it puts all the focus on me. The relationships of prideful people are always
rocky. My marriages failed because of a lack of humility and a failure to put the other person first. The humble person knows that in the grand scheme of a bountiful and majestic world, each of us is pretty small and insignificant. Yet, in his great love, God sees us as important. When I had kids, I started to see the value of humility, sacrifice, and truth. It is overwhelming when the kids are fighting and the furnace decides to break down right then, when there are no groceries and not enough money. My ego is clearly not powerful enough to zap all the problems away.

I am brought to my knees. And the longer I am on my knees, the more I realize how totally undeserving I am. Psalm 33 says, “A king is not saved by his army . . . A vain hope for safety is the horse; despite its power, it cannot save. The Lord looks on those who revere him, on those who hope in his love, to rescue their souls from death.”

For nearly 25 years, I broke God’s Commandments. I had been looking to my ego and the feminist movement to solve all of life’s challenges. But this psalm says there is only one source of hope.

My husband likes to say, “Either God is God or man is God. It can’t be both.” God is the one who sees the big picture of the world and our place in it. When we look for answers in the world, it’s as if we are going in circles, chasing our tails. God is holding out the promise of true joy and peace. But we can’t find those things without him.

A Woman of Prayer

Those who convert—or revert—to Catholicism are often very enthusiastic. And so was I. I offered to help with vacation Bible school. There the woman leading the session told the kids, “I am an  undercover nun.” (In fact, she was a secular member of the Discalced Carmelites.)

When I heard her speak, a memory hit me, as if the past suddenly dropped down into the present. My great-aunt was a nun named Sister Innocentia. She had written to me from her cloister several times when I was a young girl because she felt I was called to be a nun. I had also admired the Sisters of Humility who taught at my elementary school and dreamed about being like them. After my reversion I felt called to prayer—the charism of the Carmelites. So I began to study prayer.

In my prodigal stance, I thought God wouldn’t care how we talk to him or if we talk to him at all, since he knows our minds. But St. Teresa, St. John of the Cross, and other great students of prayer say otherwise. It is a discipline, and there is much to learn as we reach for God’s hand. Having come home, I cannot see why I wandered off into feminism in the first place. The Catholic Church is the only Christian church that truly honors a woman. The Blessed Virgin Mary is a model of strength, courage and deep faith. But the biggest counter-revolutionary lesson she teaches is that all humans are called
to sacrifice. We are on earth for the purpose of finding our way home by following the example of her Son and imitating her own submissiveness to God’s will.

Mary conceived in a most unusual and pure way through the power of the Holy Spirit. Her example is about trusting God. She was probably afraid, but she said, “Yes.” She offered herself as a servant for God. And such selflessness is what truly transforms the world.

When I started teaching children religion, I had the good fortune to relearn the catechism myself. It says, “God made us to know, love, and serve him in this world, so that we can be happy with him forever in heaven.”

The answer to the meaning of life has always been clearly stated. How is it we sometimes have to go so far afield, only to come back to what we already know?


Judith Costello is a member of the Secular Order of Discalced Carmelites (OCDS). She teaches a sacramental class for her parish and has several books in the works. She and her family live on a small farm
called Sag ging Acres, with their chickens, goats, equines, canines, and felines. At...

This article appeared in Volume 21 Number 6.