A convent schooling – school days, adult ways

By Zoë Fairbairns

A talk given as part of a seminar on Oppression, Repression and Resistance – Renouncing the Fundamentalist Yoke

Organised by WWAFE, at the House of Lords, London, on June 5th 2014

I was listening to a radio debate about airport security. Should all passengers be treated equally – i.e. thoroughly searched before being allowed on the plane? Or should resources be concentrated on people who ‘look like terrorists’?

Some people (it was argued) are obviously not terrorists: newborn babies for example. And nuns.  Nuns are mild, gentle people who wouldn’t say boo to a goose, let alone blow up a plane. Nuns can be safely waved through after only the most cursory of searches. That was the view of one of the speakers.

But somebody else thought nuns should be regarded as prime suspects, because what could be more fundamentalist than a nun? Nuns believe so strongly in the truth of their religion that they dedicate their whole lives to it. They live in like-minded communities, and spend many hours in rituals of religious devotion, serving a god who, they believe, has a special mission for them – their vocation.  A god who, if they follow their vocation obediently will reward them with eternal bliss, but who, if they don’t, may send them to hell.

That is exactly the sort of mind-set, the speaker argued, which motivates religiously-minded suicide bombers.


I mention this debate not because I have any reason to believe that any of the Catholic nuns who educated me in the 1950s and 60s were terrorists, but because one of our topics this evening is fundamentalism, and I want to underline the point that it is a word that means different things to different people.

For example:

  • For the speaker on the radio,’fundamentalist’ meant ‘religiously devout and therefore a possible terrorist’.
  • In the Oxford dictionary, fundamentalism is ‘strict maintenance of the doctrines of any religion, according to a strict, literal interpretation of scripture.’ That’s neither good nor bad: it depends on the doctrines.
  • Sometimes the word ‘fundamentalist’ is used is to mean ‘theocratic’, describing a religion that has a role in government: the Church of England, for example.
  •  A fourth way in which the word ‘fundamentalist’ is used is to describe patriarchal men who pursue their favourite hobby of controlling, exploiting and oppressing women, and who seek to justify this by reference to religion.

In her book Man’s Dominion: the Rise of Religion and the Eclipse of Women’s Rights Sheila Jeffreys suggests that the term ‘fundamentalism’ should be avoided, because it seems to suggest that religion is OK as long as it isn’t fundamentalist(1).

In Jeffreys’ view, any belief system which is based around the worship of a male godhead, deference to male hierarchy, and the control of women’s sexuality, will always be bad news for women. And that is my view too.

Jeffreys bases her arguments on Judaism, Christianity and Islam. I’m confining my comments to Christianity – specifically Catholicism. I’m not a Catholic and never have been, but I spent 14 years as a day-pupil in a Catholic convent school.

Why? I hear you ask. I have wondered that myself.


In defence of my late parents, who weren’t Catholics either, or even particularly interested in the Church of England to which our family nominally belonged, I can only say it must have seemed like a good idea at the time. The Catholic school was near our home, its girls behaved well on the buses, and the school had a good (and, as it turned out, well-deserved) reputation for getting its pupils through exams.

Non-Catholics were welcome, but we had to take part in group prayers, which occurred up to seven times a day, and which often involved special body-movements: head-bowing, genuflection, the sign of the cross, the dipping of fingers into holy water. We had to study Catholic theology, take exams in it, and show proper respect for its beliefs. For example:

  •  God created the universe. His power over it is absolute and eternal. But if anything goes wrong – floods, famines, droughts, diseases, storms, snakebites – it’s not his fault, it is ours.

  (My religious education was not, of course, phrased in those terms – I’ve tried to translate the evasive, slippery language of some Catholic theology into plain English so that we know what we are talking about.)

  • God forgives wrongdoers who repent. But the price of his forgiveness is that Jesus, who was God’s son and who never did anything wrong, had to be tortured to death through crucifixion. God could have intervened to save Jesus, but he chose not to. Yet God is to be regarded as a loving father.
  • God created all human beings equal, and in his image. But he won’t tolerate lesbianism, male homosexuality or women priests.
  •  The use of pharmaceuticals or barriers to prevent conception is against natural law and is therefore sinful. But it’s fine for women to take their temperature every morning, peer closely at their vaginal secretions, use the data to draw a graph indicating when they are least likely to conceive, and confine sexual intercourse to those times. This sort of behaviour is apparently natural.
  • Warfare and judicial execution are, in many circumstances, acceptable. But abortion never is, because it involves killing a human being.

These are the sorts of things that my Catholic friends were raised to believe, and I, sitting beside them, was warned that I had better believe them too. These doctrines are still alive and well in Catholic catechisms, websites and textbooks today


Another thing that has not changed is the kind of response you will get if you challenge Catholicism. Now as then, if you take issue or even ask awkward questions (such as, did Jesus know he was God and had divine powers? If not, he can’t have been God because God knows everything. If he did know, his so-called humanity was bogus) you get told one of the following.

  • It’s a mystery, and you have to have faith.
  •  It’s in the bible, so it must be true.  (the fundamentalist approach.)
  • Or, even if it isn’t in the Bible, it is part of Catholic tradition so it must be true. This is also fundamentalist, but in a different sense. Catholic tradition is created by popes, cardinals and priests. All of whom are men. It’s true because men say it is.

If we look at the justification offered for the all-male priesthood, we find an example of this circular reasoning.  The Catholic Faith Handbook for Youth, which, published in 2007, has the Church’s imprimatur, i.e. official declaration that the document is ‘free from moral or doctrinal error’, says this:

The Catholic Church ordains only baptised men because Jesus chose men, not women, to be his Apostles…for this reason the church is bound by Jesus’s choice to ordain only men. (2)

By this analogy it could just as well be argued that since Jesus only chose Jews to be his apostles, only Jews can be Catholic priests. But Catholics don’t exclude non-Jews from their priesthood, so why should they exclude non-men? Here’s the answer.

The Magisterium of the church has consistently upheld that this practice is part of the Tradition that has been revealed by God and cannot be changed by human beings(3).

Or, to put it another way, it’s true because we say it is.  And who are ‘we’? Celibate men.

I’m not knocking celibacy. Lots of people are celibate, either through choice or force of circumstances. But to make it part of a job specification, as the Catholic church does for its priests, does suggest  the kind of fundamentalism under which individuals who are not women, and who have chosen to forego sexual contact with women or indeed anyone, nevertheless seek to control some of the most intimate areas of women’s lives.     


Some Jesuit monk is supposed to have said, ‘Give me a child before he is seven and he will be mine for life.’

I wonder sometimes if the Sisters of Mercy who taught me were working on the same principle. Did it work? Am I ‘theirs for life’?

My brain is undoubtedly full of Catholic clutter. I can effortlessly recite prayers, Biblical quotations, questions and answers from the Catechism, the words of hymns in English and in Latin. I know the difference between mortal sin and venial sin, between Purgatory and Limbo, between perfect contrition and imperfect contrition, between the Immaculate Conception and the Virgin Birth. While I was preparing this talk, I came upon an online Catholic general knowledge quiz, and had a go. I ticked the boxes, and checked my score.

I got 87%. I am, apparently, a Catholic Genius. I was invited to CLICK HERE to become a missionary.

I’d be a funny kind of missionary, believing as I do that God the Father, as envisaged by Catholic tradition is a bully, a tyrant, a sexist and a sadist, fully worthy of our fear and contempt, but not our love or admiration.

Eternal damnation is a frightening idea, which is why the threat of it is such an effective way of controlling some religious devotees. If Hell turns out to exist after all, that will be bad news – but not only for nonbelievers.

It will be bad news too for believers, because they may have to go to heaven – a heaven devised by someone whose idea of justice is to torture people with fire for using a condom. A person whose idea of good governance to have their own son crucified in order to teach everyone else a lesson. Can we really be confident that this individual’s idea of eternal bliss would be as blissful as it sounds? In the words of the Irish-American lapsed-catholic writer Mary McCarthy, author of Memories of a Catholic Girlhood , ‘I should not care to spend eternity in the company of such a person.’


I’ve heard that, since the revelations about sex abuse in the Catholic church, Catholic priests get spat at in the street. I don’t imagine that Pope Francis’s recent comments on the subject have helped. “A priest who has sex with a child betrays God,” 3 he told journalists recently. Betrays God? No, Francis, sexual abuse is an offence against the human victim, not God. God is all-powerful, according to you, and so cannot be harmed. A child can.

At the same press conference, Francis also said “I compare it (i.e. child abuse) to a satanic mass.” What is the point of this comparison? Is he really saying that the evil and cruelty of child abuse can only be expressed by comparing it with what a recent correspondent to the Guardian correctly identified as “a harmless ritual that is neither illegal nor immoral”?

I would not defend anyone spitting at Catholic priests or anyone else. But you can see where that sort of anger and disgust comes from.


When I first moved away from religion in my late teens, I worried about how I would feel when I was older and perhaps closer to death. I knew the saying ‘there are no atheists in a lifeboat.’

Now in my 60s, I’ve never been in a lifeboat, but I have been up against illness, loss and danger.

When this has happened, I have never felt the slightest urge to call upon supernatural beings for help. I have called upon my fellow human beings, who were there and had been there all along with their rescue vehicles, their medical skills, their telephone help- lines, their hospices, their human heroism, their kindness.


Sheila Jeffreys, in Man’s Dominion   calls on feminists to reconsider the idea that other people’s religions should be treated with ‘respect’.

Disrespect is crucial. Disrespect for the cultures, values and institutions of male domination is the very foundation of feminism. Since religion is crucial to the construction of cultural norms of every culture, disrespect for it should be the natural amniotic fluid of feminist thought and activism.

I wouldn’t go that far. Christianity and other religions have bequeathed some good values to humanity, as well as fine literature, art, architecture and philanthropy. There are plenty of religious feminists and multi-culturalists out there whom I don’t disrespect, and don’t want to.

So what has been the outcome of my non-Catholic Catholic education? Am I ‘theirs for life’? Here is my answer. I am a feminist, secular, and a humanist. I am a woman who has lived with a man for 40 years without marriage. I have chosen to avoid having children, and have used contraception to achieve this. I support lesbian and gay rights, and abortion rights. I do not believe that the existence of God can be either proved or disproved, any more than the existence of Father Christmas and the tooth fairy can; but I do not believe in any version of God that has been constructed by men to promote patriarchal power. And I do not know of any others.

I have the same respect for all religions, including fundamentalist ones, as they have for me.  



  1. Sorry I can’t give a page number – my Kindle only does percentages. It’s in the Introduction, at 2%.
  2. P 199
  3. P 199
  4. theguardian.com  27 May 2014