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Book Review: Catholic Women Break Their Silence

October 1, 2015

Catholic Women Speak: Bringing Our Gifts to the Table
Catholic Women Speak Network
New York: Paulist Press, 2015

At this moment Church leaders are gathering in Rome for the Fourteenth Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, which will take place from October 4-25, 2015. Building on the themes of last year’s meeting, this synod will discuss the issues of family life within the Catholic Church. Meanwhile, there is currently another group gathering in Rome – one that will not be participating in the synod. Coming together from around the world, these people raise an important question: how can the all-male Church leadership fairly discuss family issues without listening to the voices of half of the global population?

Today the Catholic Women Speak Network – an online global forum of nearly 900 Catholic women – is launching a book of forty essays on issues that it hopes to see addressed during the synod. Discussing such topics as marriage and divorce, contraception, same-sex love, celibacy, maternal mortality, and women’s ministry in the church, these concise yet thought-provoking essays speak boldly, honestly, and with an admirable suspension of judgment. Much like photographs, they offer a brief, incomplete glimpse into the life and perspective of another person – a glimpse that inevitably leaves the reader wanting to learn more. Bringing together prominent Catholic writers like Elizabeth Johnson, Ursula King and Eve Tushnet with voices less frequently heard, this book speaks to the lived experience of Catholic women today.

The first part of the book, “Traditions and Transformations,” contains eight essays on women and theology. Critiquing Pope Francis’ comment that the Church needs a “profound theology of womanhood,” the writers in this section look at the ways theology is being done by women – not just about them. As the Australian Dominican sister Trish Madigan writes in an essay on Catholic and Muslim women in dialogue,

As women, we find that our religious traditions have been defining us for centuries, but it has been men defining women. Certain groups of men have defined what women’s role is in society, what their nature is, and what their contribution is – usually as mothers. There has been a failure to recognize that women’s lives are multidimensional and that women have enormously varied ways of contributing to society[…] The challenges all women face in our respective religions is to be included as part of the mainstream. We want to have our gifts recognized; we want to be able to contribute to the whole of the religion, not just the one small section that is pigeon-holed as ‘women’s role.’ We are people with a whole range of skills, and we want to be able to develop fully as human beings and to contribute all our skills. That’s what women are striving for (38).

One interesting – and fortunately unresolved- question raised in these essays is whether sexual difference is actually relevant to theology. Does “Adam” represent all human beings, men and women alike? As Cambridge theologian Janet Martin Soskice observes, “[The] picture of man (the male) as able to do everything but reproduce has informed theological anthropology down o the modern period […] Women bring nothing to the table but their reproductive capacity, and ‘man’ (here meaning ‘male’) is the default position for humanity” (16). This “sexual monoculture” is justifiable in that it affirms women’s equal status as fully in the image of God – a point discussed later in the book by British writer Sara Maitland, who argues that the differentiation of “women’s nature” and “men’s nature” leads to a highly problematic paradigm where only men can share Christ’s nature and thus receive his salvation (68). However, Soskice finds the “sexual monoculture” equally problematic in that it ignores the very real social and experiential consequences of sexual difference.

Building on this idea of difference as a positive gift, Fordham-based theologian Elizabeth Johnson seeks to revisit Jesus’ relationships with women: “Women scholars are discovering that there are many scenes in the New Testament that show Jesus’ love for women, his concern for their well-being, and his freeing effect on their lives” (20). However, she adds that “Over the centuries the power of these stories has often been ignored because the men who preach and teach usually do not appreciate the suffering that women bear”(20). This concern is echoed later in Part IV of the book by Christine Schenk, co-founder of Futurechurch, when she discusses the absence of women’s stories in the readings we typically hear at any given Sunday liturgy. While we hear much about Peter and Paul in the Easter season, we hear little about Lydia, Tabitha, Prisca, and the other women who ministered to the early Church alongside them.

The other essays in this section focus on the long-established image of women as mothers. In “Who is Christ for African Women?” Anne Arabome, a Sister of Social Service from Nigeria, asserts the need to focus on the personhood of women before seeking to theologize about womanhood: “African women have been socialized into thinking of themselves as worthless if they cannot bear children, yet all African women should see themselves as mothers of life – as intelligent educators and mentors, appreciating and affirming the beauty and gift of African womanhood”(25).

Examining the cult of the Virgin Mary in Latin America, Chilean theologian Carolina del Río Mena views marianismo as the other side of the coin of machismo by presenting Mary as an idealized mother figure whose image most women either cannot live up to. “We women who do theology are mobilizing ourselves to recover a more whole image of Mary as poor believing woman of Nazareth” (29). Meanwhile, Filipina-Australian theologian Cristina Lledo Gomez suggests that the Virgin Mary and “Mother Church” are an image not just for women, but for all Christians. According to Lledo Gomez, we are all “called to be spiritual mothers – to give birth to Christ in [our] hearts and to participate in the apostolic mission of the Church motivated by a maternal love of humankind” (34).

The second part of the collection, entitled “Marriage, Families and Relationships,” is by far the most extensive, perhaps in keeping with the theme of the occasion that has led this book to come into being. As the editorial team writes in the introduction to these twenty-two essays,

In every culture women remain the primary caregivers for the young, the elderly, and the vulnerable. Young girls are conditioned to accept these roles and to subsume their desires for personal development and self-fulfillment to dedicate themselves to serving others. While such service is fundamental to the Christian understanding of neighborly love, women today are realizing that love of others does not require the negation of self. Jesus commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves (43).

With many stories that are extremely personal, these essays reveal women’s struggles with the Church’s rules on sexuality, marriage, LGBTQ identity, divorce, interfaith relationships and procreation. Some of this section’s writers strictly follow the Church’s rules on these matters; others do not. University of Glasgow professor Julie Clague opens the section by arguing that there is a significant disconnect between Church doctrine and the actual practice of many Catholics. Expressing a similar point, London-based theologian Clare Watkins states,

In my own context as a Catholic in England, I can think of not one Catholic family, in all the churches I have known and worked with, which has not included some such moments of crossing a line. This fact is important. It means that each time a bishop sends a pastoral letter on same-sex marriage, or divorce and remarriage, into parishes, and each time a priest repeats rules about eucharistic discipline in these areas, tender places in the hearts of every Catholic are touched, often painfully (64).

In this section we hear from some of these people who have crossed lines: a cohabiting lesbian couple who, remaining under the radar in their Catholic parish community, meet with compassion from some and condemnation from others; a married mother of three who, after learning that natural family planning failed for her own parents, has relied on chemical birth control in order to limit her family size; a woman who, having married an abusive spouse at a young age and divorced him soon afterwards, has found peace, joy and indeed sanctity in her second, non-sacramental marriage.

Meanwhile, we also hear from women who have followed the rules: a practitioner of Natural Family Planning who speaks openly about the difficulties of enduring  long periods of sexual abstinence in her marriage due to her irregular menstrual cycle; a lesbian convert to Catholicism who finds that celibacy has offered her new and incredibly fruitful ways to live a loving, fulfilling life; a heterosexual single woman who, despite having once hoped for marriage and children, rejoices in the single life as her vocation.

What strikes me as so positive about this section is the writers’ openness and the editors’ lack of judgement. The transgressions that some of these women describe are neither validated nor condemned; instead, these women are simply invited to the table to share their stories and be heard. Moreover, the writers are not afraid to ask tough questions; for example, in an essay entitled “Being Good and Doing Bad?” Villanova University professor Katie Grimes draws on Thomistic virtue theory – which sees action and character as inextricably linked – to critique the logic of Magisterium’s official position that homosexual acts are “intrinsically evil” while homosexual people are not: “Perhaps lesbian and gay Catholics struggle to find a home within ordinary Catholic parishes because there is no place for them in the pages of magisterial teaching. The magisterium tells homosexual persons they can be but they must not do. But, if one should not do, then neither should one be” (122).

The third section, “Poverty, Exclusion and Marginalization” contains four essays focusing on the realities of women in the Global South. We are given a window into an impoverished Buenos Aires neighbourhood where three women who have experienced poverty and domestic violence transform their suffering into a struggle to help others; we are then transported to India, where a Catholic woman speaks of the struggles of interfaith families in a country where Catholics comprise only 1.6% of the population and many “stand on the margins of their faith communities with their nonbaptized families and invalid marriages, the ones who are made to feel uncomfortable by bishops, priests and people”(142). Nontando Hadebe questions the Church’s position on procreation in light of its relative silence on the problem of maternal mortality among the world’s poorest, and Agnes Brazal concludes the section with a fascinating discussion of Filipina migrant women who work abroad and become the primary breadwinners of their families. Brazal argues that these women and their children – who often suffer greatly from years of seeing their mothers through a webcam – need more support from the Church and the general culture they inhabit in enlisting men as equal partners in child rearing and household management. “Pope Francis invites Christians to have a conversation on the role of women in the church and society. Implicitly, this also involves reimagining the role of men as husbands and fathers”(153).

The final section, “Institutions and Structures,” contains six essays that speak most directly to the absence of women’s voices in the 2014 and 2015 synods on the family. Critiquing the ubiquitous discussions of “the role of women in the Church,” Sister of Mercy Mary Aquin O’Neill discusses the need to speak not of one role, but of many – just as there are multiple roles for men (162). Citing the moment in Matthew’s gospel when the Canaanite woman begs Jesus for “the scraps that fall from the master’s table” and makes him realize that his ministry is destined to reach beyond Israel’s borders, Dominican sister Madeleine Fredell assert that today’s Church needs a similar change in mentality. “Listening to women’s voices is about getting as broad a picture as possible of how God is acting in and with our reality. Therefore,we cannot settle for listening only to priests’ homilies; we need women in the pulpit as well” (173).

Bringing a millennial’s voice to the table, 35-year-old lay minister Rhonda Miska describes the blessings of her calling and the rampant problem of sexism, such as when a priest told her that her ministry was a nice temporary activity for her to do before starting her “true” vocation of motherhood. The entire book ends boldly with Canadian theologian Catherine Cavanagh’s discussion of “The Great Unspoken.” Analyzing the possible consequences of an all-male priesthood for the family, she dares to suggest that this institution gives children a clear message that men are more important than women, that their voices matter more, and that they are the ultimate decision-makers. Knowing that she is discussing a taboo topic, Cavanagh asserts, “Let us not ask what is impossible, but what is possible. Let us wrestle with the reality. Let us wrestle like Jacob with his God of all that is always here, that lives in angels, messengers, and prophets – men and women. Let us trust the other to wrestle” (182).

For me, this book is a breath of fresh air. A thick wall of silence has been broken; masks have been removed. It is refreshing to see these forty-four women speak in such a courageous, vulnerable and self-revealing way. I did take issue with some structural features of the book. Given that the second section on family and relationships is longer than the other three sections combined, this book could almost be divided into two volumes – one focused generally on issues of concern  in the Church, another focused exclusively on family-related topics. While the brevity of the essays makes the volume very accessible and easy to read,  some of the writers could have benefited from more space to flesh out their arguments.

In terms of representation, I would have liked to hear the perspectives of more traditionalist Catholics as well as more voices from the Global South – particularly East Asia, Central America, the Caribbean and the Middle East. Given the heavy Western European and North American representation of the authorship, it would have been good to hear more minority voices within those contexts – US Latina and African-American writers, for example. That said, this book is a must-read for all who seek a better understanding of the real, lived experience of women in the Catholic Church today. While these essays certainly contain much critique and questioning of the institution, the predominant sentiment expressed is one of great love for Christ and his Church. This love is what resonates most clearly with me as a Catholic woman who relates to many of the challenges described in these essays. Like them, I embrace this flawed Church which I believe is still the best witness to God’s presence in our broken world. As the editorial team declares at the end of the book,

We stay because we love the Church, and we belong within the sacramental body of Christ. We trust in the infinite compassion and love of the Christ who reached out to his women disciples in healing, welcome, and friendship. We draw inspiration from the many women named in the Bible, from the women saints, martyrs, and mystics who have kept the candle of women’s wisdom aglow, and from the anonymous women of every age and culture who have enriched our world through quiet daily acts of love and faithfulness (184).

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13 Comments
  1. October 1, 2015 3:09 am

    Yes! Such a breath of fresh air to read this.

  2. October 1, 2015 8:44 am

    Brava, women of the Church!

  3. Chris permalink
    October 1, 2015 10:38 am

    Thanks for taking the time to write this helpful review.

    God bless

  4. maxdonaldsson permalink
    October 1, 2015 11:26 am

    So much in these excerpts gets to the root and the heart of the change that is needed for the church to mature and realize its transformational mission.

  5. maxdonaldsson permalink
    October 1, 2015 11:34 am

    So many of the excerpts in this review get to the root, and the heart, of the profound changes needed to bring the church to the level of maturity required to fulfill its transformational mission.

  6. David Cruz-Uribe, OFS permalink*
    October 1, 2015 12:03 pm

    Thanks for this very interesting review. These voices are there to be heard—I have heard some of them in the past in various places. But it is very good for our internal unity to bring so many different voices together into one place. We really, really need to listen to one another. About these voices, I have two questions.

    First, are any of the more more conservative/traditional voices from the global south? In following the debate about divorce and remarriage, a large number of very conservative voices have been coming from these areas, particularly though not exclusively from Africa. It would be interesting to know if there are such women’s voices—this would add complexity and nuance and would work against the temptation by the developed world to speak for the third world, instead of listening to it.

    Second, if I recall correctly, there were women invited to speak to Synod last year, so it seems misleading to say that women’s voices were not heard at the Synod. Is my recollection correct, and do the editors address this point in their introduction(s)?

  7. October 1, 2015 5:36 pm

    what a beautiful and prayerful review. thank you so much.

  8. Mark VA permalink
    October 1, 2015 9:15 pm

    A thought provoking post, Jeannine.

    Two reflections come to my mind:

    (a) The absolute necessity of a broad and lifelong education for both sexes, as an antidote to some of the grosser injustices and stupidities afflicting our world. I especially would like to see a better gender balance in the natural sciences. For an inspiration in this area, let me introduce Sister Laetitia Hill (whom I was privileged to meet):

    https://books.google.com/books?id=IRbOAwAAQBAJ&pg=PA202&lpg=PA202&dq=sister+laetitia+hill&source=bl&ots=RCgpJhQRUO&sig=c1R1KRqTpyvr5ZW4TpsTif0E33s&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0CB0Q6AEwAGoVChMIjbDl2dOiyAIVwZINCh0QsQRH#v=onepage&q=sister%20laetitia%20hill&f=false

    (b) A better, more flexible balance among the mother / wife / worker / life long student aspects of female life. I do believe that too many important decisions affecting this balance are made by (often well meaning) men, who, nevertheless, may not see the whole picture. I think this balance needs to be found by women, with men playing a supporting and consulting role. I believe a just balance can be found – seek and ye shall find.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS permalink*
      October 2, 2015 7:37 am

      Mark, with respect to your point (b): I would pointedly ask why it is women who need to find the balance? Should there not also be a more flexible balance among father/husband/worker/student?

      • Mark VA permalink
        October 2, 2015 8:47 am

        Absolutely.

        First, I do think that women are sometimes shortchanged by our education system, and the work environment. Too often they are presented with implicit choices of either/or variety (as in: “either pursue your education, or become a mother”, or “either climb the corporate ladder, or get married”). Why can’t we find a much better balance here, keep the doors open, so the whole person can flourish?

        Second, I do think that the above are mainly “male rules”, or “male imagination” at work. I, for a change, would like to hear the “female rules”, and the “female imagination” on this subject. Once we have the two systems of thought clearly worked out, I’m sure we, together, can find a just synthesis – isn’t this the essence of dialog promoted by our Pope?

        Third, I find plenty wrong with attitudes of many of our young males – frequent aversion to lifelong commitment, pursuit of own gratification, wasting precious female time (which is not theirs to waste), etc. My guess is that a just synthesis would result in more need for change on the male side.

  9. Agellius permalink
    October 6, 2015 2:06 pm

    They were silent before? : )

    • October 10, 2015 2:46 pm

      I’d say so – at least on some of the more personal issues mentioned in the book. I have never heard such frank and open public discussion on contraception and other such issues before.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS permalink*
        October 11, 2015 1:45 pm

        At least on contraception, you can find the pieces, but they are usually published in widely separated sites with a presumption that only one side will be heard. Thus the blog Women in Theology ran a very good series about women’s negative experiences with NFP; but, if I remember correctly, our colleague Brett was not able to post a “dissenting” post about working through these negative problems. And conversely, I have been to many an “orthodox” site where any suggestion that NFP is not a source of perfect joy are met with derision and suggestions that one is a selfish, sexual libertine. I like the fact that, from your description, this book tried to bring all voices to the table in dialog.

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