Although Gina Messina resists many of the Catholic Church’s tenets regarding women, the noted feminist theologian persists in fidelity to the faith of her father — without ever experiencing the guilt often ascribed to Catholic upbringing.
Messina will explain the challenges and rewards of the push-pull of her faith during a presentation titled “Faith and Feminism: Resistance and Persistence in the Church” from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Sept. 7 at the Franciscan Spirituality Center at 920 Market St. in La Crosse.
“Being Catholic is a very cultural thing for me. My dad came to this country from Sicily when he was 5, and being an Italian Sicilian, being Catholic comes with the territory,” Messina said in an interview about the presentation.
The topic of the clash of resistance with persistence rises in part from a question often posed to the 41-year-old Messina: “Why do you stay” in a church with such a patriarchal structure with positions at odds with her own beliefs about LGBTQ issues, marriage equality, women’s roles and other issues?
“Feminism is about uprooting discrimination wherever it exists,” which Messina said she strives to accomplish as a challenging voice from within rather than a merely critical one as an outside provocateur.
Messina, an assistant professor of religion and gender studies at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio, also is a domestic violence activist who has counseled rape survivors, lecturer, co-founder of FeminismandReligion.com and author or editor of several books, including “Faithfully Feminist: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Feminists on Why We Stay.”
Her most recent tome, “Jesus in the White House,” is nearing publication. Its subtitle, “Make Humanity Great Again,” is a clear indicator that it reflects dismay at the election of President Donald Trump and the 81 percent support for him among evangelical Christian voters and 65 percent among Catholics in the voting booth.
“If Jesus was president,” she wonders in the book, “how would his policies measure up against those of the Trump administration?”
Messina also authored the book “Rape Culture and Spiritual Violence” and was co-editor of “Faithfully Feminist” and “Feminism and Religion in the 21st Century.”
Awareness of feminist issues arose for Messina when she was 12, she said with a healthy laugh, adding, “I can think that far back.”
A presentation from a Catholic abortion-rights activist nurtured her feminist leanings, she said.
That was about the time she sported a T-shirt with the message, “The incredible shrinking women’s right to choose,” which gave her father, Biagio, a jolt.
Tweaks dad, but he’s best friend
“Dad almost had a heart attack because of how strong of a Catholic he is,” she said.
Although family members sometimes take issue with her positions, her relationship with her dad is so strong that she proclaims him to be her best friend, and she has dedicated “Jesus in the White House” to him and her grandfather Edward.
“They are the most influential men on me politically,” said Messina, whose resume includes speaking before the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations to discuss matters affecting the lives of women.
“Jesus in the White House,” which is based on a sound explanation of the historical Jesus and poses the question “What Would Jesus Do?” is scheduled for release Sept. 2.
That release date is especially meaningful for Messina because that also is her father’s birthday. Whenever Messina tells Biagio that she aspires to run for elective office, it strikes a chord of resistance in him.
“He’s never voted, but he said if I did run for office, he would register to vote against me,” Messina said with a hearty laugh about the man she credits with her work ethic, her commitment to serve others and her sense of social justice.
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Messina said she became involved with women who are victims of domestic abuse in part because of past — and, sometimes, still present — attitudes of some in the church who blame women for the mistreatment instead of challenging the husbands.
“It’s as if being in a violent marriage is their cross to bear. That bothered me, and I wanted to learn more about it,” Messina said, adding that she herself never experienced a sense of Catholic guilt.
“I never felt that fear or wrath from God, but love, and I wanted to explore that,” she said in explaining he choice to obtain a master’s degree in theology from John Carroll University in University Heights, Ohio.
Priest ‘patting me on the head’
She recalled that a priest exhibited a condescending attitude toward her during pre-marriage classes.
When she told him she was a domestic abuse counselor, “the priest said something like, ‘Isn’t that cute,’ like patting me on the head,” she said.
The priest told her that she should quit the job and instead fulfill the traditional role of bearing children.
“I thought that was harsh,” said Messina, who was not able to have children because of fertility issues. “The message was that women have this role just to have children. That is damaging, especially if you can’t.”
Despite such negative experiences with patriarchy, it is important to work from within and it is OK to question discriminatory practices, said Messina, who is divorced and has an adopted daughter.
Messina, who also is scheduled to speak to Viterbo University students during her visit to La Crosse, said she raises questions for two reasons: to discern why some church teachings are “oppressive to women and to reveal the real teachings of Jesus.”
Asked how she feels about Pope Francis, she said, “I love Pope Francis. … He’s in a very difficult position trying to move the church forward … I respect that.
“We’re moving forward,” she said of the Catholic Church, although she said the pope still has “blind spots. Women are a blind spot, and LGBTQ is a blind spot, poverty and reproductive justice.”
Messina enlisted the help of comedian Steve Mazan to ensure that the book has a light, humorous touch instead of deadly dryness.
“Satire is such a great way to get to the bottom of things,” she said, laughing as she suggested the concept of “Satire vs. Real News,” echoing Trump’s slams of what he derides as “Fake News.”
Regarding her book, Messina was asked to assess the suggestions of many politicians — both Republican and Democratic — and political observers that White House employees should quit to protest the chaos surrounding Trump’s presidency.
“I was dumbfounded when he was elected, and I am amazed how anybody can support this man, with the things he has done,” she responded.
At the same time, she said, administration staffers may be staying with the same motivation that keeps her in the church — to change from within.
“It also may be for career advancement, and sometimes, it’s difficult to leave a job” without a Plan B, she said.