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Author Alice McDermott believes the Catholic Church is in need of transformative change

| Friday, September 20, 2019

In her novel, “The Ninth Hour,” award-winning author and professor Alice McDermott explores the Catholic faith through the lens of multiple generations of women, telling the story of a young widow, her daughter and the group of religious sisters who care for them. Before appearing at Thursday’s Christian Culture Lecture to discuss her written works, McDermott reflected on her own Catholicism and her relationship with the Church.

In an interview with “Image Journal,” McDermott said “[she sees] the Church not as something that can evolve, but something that must evolve.”

Maeve Filbin | The Observer
Author Alice McDermott appears at the annual Christian Culture Lecture to discuss her writing, the Catholic Church and her sometimes complicated relationship with her own Catholicism.

When asked to reflect on this sentiment in light of the growing number of allegations of sexual abuse with the Catholic clergy, McDermott said it is imperative these accusations remain part of the conversation.

“We can’t not talk about this,” McDermott said. “You know, a few years ago, I would talk to Catholic groups and [they would say], ‘Oh, do you have to bring that up?’ And I think we must. As a matter of fact, this is really what I’m going to end up talking about tonight.”

To turn away from the controversies of the Church and allow things to go on as they always have would be an overturning of everything Catholics believe, McDermott said.

“You know, as Christians, we believe that pain and suffering is transformative,” she said. “The Church is in a lot of pain now and has caused a lot of suffering and the people of the Church are suffering. I think because of the degree of pain that the Church is in and that the Church has caused, redemption — which means change, transformative change — is absolutely necessary. And the Church is not so bad, you know, they can do it. We can do it.”

McDermott said she understands why young people have left and continue to leave the Catholic Church, as it is challenging to remain in the midst of such spiritual and social turmoil.

“A friend of mine said, ‘It’s a wonderful time to be Catholic because either we’re seeing the end of the Church or we’re seeing the beginning of a new church,’” McDermott said, “But we’re seeing something.”

In the same conversation with “Image Journal,” McDermott said the ultimate undoing of the Catholic Church will be its attitude towards the ordination of women. Further expounding upon this belief, she said life as a woman of the Catholic Church, a historically male institution, can be a challenge.

“A few years ago, you could say, ‘Oh, we can be patient,’” McDermott said. “But I think the times call for us all to raise our voices. It’s the 21st century.”

Church leaders tend to explain the role of women in the Church in terms of custom, McDermott said.

“They’ll pull out stupid things like, ‘Well there were no women at the Last Supper,’” McDermott said. “Number one, you don’t know that, because only the men were taking notes. And Christianity didn’t begin with the Last Supper, Christianity began with the resurrection and the first person to know that Christ was risen was a woman. Now, if you believe in this faith, nothing’s arbitrary. It’s what makes … the story of Christ’s life such a good novel, because there are no superfluous details.”

Ultimately, McDermott said, excluding women from ordination is a form of prejudice.

“It’s saying that someone of the opposite gender is less than,” McDermott said. “I think about what it would mean for the young people in the Church, for the women in the Church, and I think, for the body of Christ as a whole, for the Church to say, ‘Oh yeah, everybody is welcome.’ Isn’t that what Christ said?”

The ordination of women — and perhaps other sources of necessary redemptive evolution — could give the Catholic Church a fresh start, McDermott said.

“What a way to renew,” McDermott said. “What a wonderful thing to come out of the tremendous suffering that we’re going through right now.”

McDermott said she explores the theme of rebellion within the faith in “The Ninth Hour“ and her other works. As “The Ninth Hour“ is her eighth published novel, McDermott holds years of creative writing experience.

Growing up with two talkative brothers who would later become lawyers, McDermott said she rarely got a chance to contribute in conversation, and instead turned to writing.

“As a kid, you look for way to take control of the world,” McDermott said. “You draw pictures, or you sing songs or you get good at some niche sport. For me, it was writing — it was always just using the written word. So, it was always there for me.”

McDermott said some life-changing professors recognized her talent and let her know “what [she] had to say was worth hearing,” encouraging her to pursue her passion.

When giving advice to aspiring student writers, McDermott said she encourages them to identify the same passion within themselves.

“It’s sort of tongue-in-cheek and sort of not,” she said. “I tell students the best piece of advice is, if you can do anything else, do it. I mean, especially in the literary world, as in any of the arts, if you don’t feel that the art that you practice is absolutely necessary, if you’re doing it for some reward, rather than because you believe it’s necessary, you’re headed in the wrong direction.”

With the right momentum, McDermott said, students can find success in their writing.

“If you do feel, ‘I must do this,’ you’ll do it,” she said. “Trust me, it will happen. It always does. I’ve been teaching a long time. It always does. If that is there … then you should write all the time and you should read everything.”

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About Maeve Filbin

Maeve is a senior studying political science and economics at Saint Mary's, as well as Journalism, Ethics and Democracy at Notre Dame. She serves as an Assistant Managing Editor of The Observer, and thinks everyone should support student journalism.

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