A look back and a goodbye for now

It wasn't a hard sell.

More than five years ago, in the thick of my work with the Sisters of Mercy, on the brink of major life transitions -- a marriage, a house, a baby and more than a few new jobs -- I had an idea for a column: a column of young voices in the National Catholic Reporter, a publication that was, at the time, lacking many, if any, voices that were young.

I emailed Tom Fox about the idea. Right away, he said, "Yes." And soon, we began seeking other voices to join the chorus. That wasn't hard, either.

Nicole Sotelo was the first on board to write, one of the countless gifts she's given all of us. Nicole's work in the church justice movement is, in my humble opinion, unparalleled. A true Renaissance woman, there is nothing she cannot do or is not doing -- flacking press, raising funds, organizing young adults, giving voice and comfort to survivors of abuse, mobilizing the grassroots, loving nuns, embodying values of racial justice, thinking big and thinking forward. Many times over the years, my phone would ring with Nicole on the other end, saying, "I have an idea." Her endless excitement and pure passion for this work inspires me.

Mike Sweitzer-Beckman was the next to step up, though I believe he was still Mike Beckman then. Mike has always been ahead of the curve. He knew that to reach more young adults, we needed to go virtual. Before there was Young Voices, there was the Young Adults Catholics blog, an online forum Mike worked hard to launch that provides a platform for young adult Catholic bloggers still today. Mike now does development work for the first ecumenical monastic community in North America, Holy Wisdom Monastery

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Jamie Manson was the final addition to that original group. For as long as I've known her, Jamie has had a way with words. At board meetings for the Women's Ordination Conference, she'd have us rolling in the aisles or absorbed in deep thought. I remember being nervous when I asked her if she'd be interested in joining us, and I remember her graciousness when she offered to lend her pen. Reading her first column -- "The Grace of Living on the Margins" -- back in the fall of 2009, it was clear she was destined for more. Today, it's a joy to read her words as NCR's book editor and hear her speak. She gives voice to the struggles and joys that live in the hearts of Catholics around the world.

So the four of us set off. In its introduction of Young Voices, NCR wrote: "The future of our church is in the hands of a generation coming of age in the first decade of the 21st century." The bar was high.

A lightening rod

Just a few weeks before Young Voices launched, I got married. And for my second column, I figured I would write about it. After all, our nation was in the throes of a debate about gay marriage. Proposition 8 had just passed, thanks in part to the support of the U.S. bishops and the Knights of Columbus. Maybe if I shared my story -- well, our story -- it would help transform hardened hearts. 

"For us, our marriage was and is about the journey, and the ceremony was one marker along the path," I wrote. "However, our story is just one of many. And surely, other stories will vary greatly, as what it means to be family comes in a multitude of shapes and sizes. Still, common themes will certainly arise -- love, commitment, passion, devotion and so on."

I expected some pushback, a few comments that were less than kind. But there were more than a few mean-spirited comments and posts disparaging me, my partner, my life. I sat at my desk, head in hands, wondering if I made a mistake, exposed too much.

But young and emboldened and even foolhardy, I kept at it. I kept writing about being young and gay and Catholic. And once, I even wrote about being young and pro-choice and Catholic.

"Being a prochoice Catholic does not contradict my faith," I wrote. "Rather, in following my well-informed conscience, I am adhering to the central tenet of Catholic teaching -- the primacy of conscience."

After that, Thomas Peters, also known as the American Papist, called me a "gay, absolute-primacy-of-conscience, anti-Church-hierarchy, pro-abortion zealot" (not entirely inaccurate, but a little over the top). And he cited his father, canon lawyer Ed Peters, who said my words were actionable.

Elsewhere online, Patrick Madrid wrote the post, "The 5 Most Pathetic Words: 'I Am a Pro-Choice Catholic.' " (To this day, it's one of the first things that comes up if you Google my name.) His meandering post concludes succinctly, "For the sake of your own immortal soul and for the sake of the lives of the unborn children your ideology menaces, please rid yourself of this delusion."

Despite the blowback, Nicole, Mike, Jamie and I weren't afraid to tackle the controversial issues -- gay marriage or abortion or women's ordination. Our editors at NCR started to worry about us and our well-being. In the spring of 2009, we got an email asking if we could dial it back a bit and write about other issues every once in a while.

The problem was, we were. In between those early posts on being gay and pro-choice, I wrote about religious education and what it means to be an activist and finding a church home and why I'm not a nun. Nicole, Mike and Jamie had done the same. We made our case to the editors by showing them the numbers. We were writing more about much less incendiary topics, but those controversial posts were drawing all the lightning.

Our editors concurred and even went on to draw their own lightning, calling same-sex relationships "true expressions and -- dare we say it -- outward signs of God's grace" and noting that the exclusion of women from the priesthood is an "injustice that cannot be allowed to stand."

A big tent

Still, I was bothered by the division, the divisiveness that existed in our church. I wanted to be a part of a church that was a big tent, with enough room and respect for people on both sides of the pew. So, again foolhardy, I reached out to someone who I thought could help: Thomas Peters.

In an email to Thomas in January 2010, I wrote: "There is no doubt that we land on the opposite of the spectrum both politically and theologically. So much mudslinging and criticism happens, especially on the Internet. I myself have been guilty of this from time to time. So, I was thinking, wouldn't it be interesting if two people such as ourselves tried to dialogue, skimming the surface of why we hold such different beliefs while still calling ourselves Catholic?"

He responded amicably but unconvinced that the two of us could engage in a meaningful debate, reaffirming his previous posts that my views were not within the parameters of Catholicism.

I responded, again foolhardy. "Thomas, I know that you don't believe that my writing qualifies as Catholic, and I'm ok with that (though I disagree). So you know, I think your writing definitely qualifies as Catholic because I believe the tent is big enough to hold both of us. Nevertheless, I figure since we have both spent time critiquing the values of so-called liberal and conservative Catholics (for lack of better terms), we might as well try to have a more direct dialogue with someone on the opposite side of the spectrum (or someone on another spectrum entirely)."

I did not hear from Thomas again until that summer, when he had posted a blog in response to my column "Love the Sinner. Period."

"When someone says, 'I love you as a lesbian, just not your sin of "homosexual activity," ' all I can hear is, 'I don't love who you are, and I hate what you do,' " I wrote. "My sexuality, though it doesn't define me as a person, is an integral part of who I am. You can't separate it from me. The hate for my so-called sin leads to hatred for me. Because that so-called sin is me."

Thomas' response is worth the read, but the coda sums it up: "It should go without saying that I am not comparing homosexual acts to murder or heroin addiction. I'm simply trying to use widely-accepted examples of sinful behavior to make my points clearly."

He emailed me after he posted, saying that this could start a conversation of ideas. I didn't respond.

A new pope

Fast-forward a few years, and my hope for a church that is a big tent has resurfaced.

I was in the car on my way to a conference on Feb. 11, 2013. It was so early that the sun had yet to rise. I was listening to NPR, trying to stay awake. And then, they cut into the broadcast. "Pope Benedict XVI has..."

"Died," I thought surely. But no.

"Pope Benedict XVI has resigned," they reported.

My car swerved. I was shocked. And hearing it live. And no one was awake to call.

So I sent an email to a listserv or two. I posted on Facebook and Twitter. And I asked, "What qualities do we need in our next pope?"

The responses came pouring in, and I weaved them quickly into a column. Young progressive Catholics wanted change. They wanted more accountability and transparency. They wanted to be heard. They wanted justice, church justice.

A few hours later, I got a call from MSNBC. They saw the column and asked if I would come on "Jansing and Company" to talk about the hopes of progressive Catholics for a new pope.

Now, I've always been more songwriter than singer, so going on television was pretty daunting (I'd rank it somewhere between my first day of college and childbirth), but encouraged by my fellow NCR columnists and editors, I took the leap.

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I think I said the word "certainly" 17 times in that segment. But it got a little easier each time I joined the show. And then harder that one time I debated Catholic League President Bill Donahue on CNN.

Bill's a little cranky.

Say what you will about Pope Francis -- and I've said plenty -- but I believe his election has marked a new beginning in our church. Yes, in my opinion, he's wrong on same-sex marriage. Yes, he's wrong on abortion and contraception. Yes, he's wrong on women's leadership in the church. But the conversation feels different now. It feels like the tent is expanding. I hope I'm not wrong. 

A heartfelt thanks

This marks my 63rd column for NCR and my last. It has been a privilege to write alongside Nicole, Mike, Jamie, Brian, Jocelyn, Mike, Jennifer, Zachary, April and Chase. It has been an honor to work with editors like Tom, Dennis and Pam. It has been a joy to watch the young voices of NCR expand to other pages of the publication. (I'm looking at you, Josh.)

I look back on my columns, and I see my life and faith flashing before my eyes. Some pieces make me cringe; others make me laugh or cry. Taken together, the columns are a coming-of-age story I never meant to write. Like the world evolves, so has my faith. I am left with more questions than answers. And I look forward to continuing the search.

Thank you.

[Kate Childs Graham is an activist in the progressive Catholic movement. A graduate of The Catholic University of America and the U.N.-mandated University for Peace in Costa Rica, she is a communications professional in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter: @kchildsgraham.]

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