Common Existence: A Review of Good Catholic Girls: How Women Are Leading the Fight to Change the Church

Christiana Peppard ’05 MAR

Good Catholic Girls: How Women Are Leading the Fight to Change the Church, by Angela Bonavoglia (ReganBooks, 2005), reviewed by Christiana Peppard ‘05 MAR

Describing oneself as a “Catholic woman” can be a dicey undertaking. There are approximately half a billion people worldwide who fit this description, which suggests that what it means to be simultaneously woman and Catholic is not a one-size-fits-all phenomenon. Plurality is no simple matter in this global church. Indeed, the term “Catholic woman” is often a site of contention—even such that, when describing myself thus, I sometimes hold my breath. Catalyzed by Andrea Bonavoglia’s Good Catholic Girls, this review charts several complexities and tensions in being both Catholic and woman in the current American moment.

I. Identities in Tension

Bonavoglia writes passionately about women (and, to a lesser degree, men) who strive to make aspects of the Catholic Church more just. Consistently throughout the book she bristles at structural iniquities of the Catholic hierarchy and offers a litany of practical and historical indignities experienced by the laity at the hands of an all-male celibate priesthood with exclusive sacerdotal power. In this way Good Catholic Girls is an exposé of particular corruptions and an impassioned biography of several among the Church’s committed activists. It often reads as a frustrated, indignant, and querulous attempt to bring to light the many layers of what it means to be a Catholic whose lived experience contradicts Church teachings and practices that have become especially prominent since Vatican II.

The realities that most concern Bonavoglia have to do with sexuality, sexism, and the power of the hierarchy over the laity. By topic, her chapters include debates over women’s ordination; the sex abuse scandals; the many faces of Catholic sexuality in relation to the requirement of celibate all-male priesthood; issues of sexual ethics beyond the priesthood, such as birth control, abortion, homosexuality, and divorce; and the significance of feminist theology and critiques of religion in the latter half of the twentieth century. Giving flesh to these topics are personalities, whom Bonavoglia characterizes with great enthusiasm. One of the significant strengths of the book lies in the care and dedication with which Bonavoglia profiles these people —primarily women—who in many different ways embrace tensive identities as reform-oriented Catholics. These personalities range from renowned Sister Joan Chittister, to Sister Jeannine Gramick, to the less well known founders of Call To Action and Voice of the Faithful, to Mary Ramerman—a lay Catholic minister who was ordained by an Old Catholic bishop in 2001, in response to the call of her parish in Rochester. Also included are many feminist scholars who have questioned the terms of traditional theological debates, shifted toward new methodologies, and focused on retrieval and reconstruction within the tradition. Readers of Reflections will recognize Bonavoglia’s invocations of Catholic womanist and feminist scholars—including Lisa Sowle Cahill, M. Shawn Copeland, Mary Daly, Margaret Farley, Ivone Gebara, Christine Gudorf, Diana Hayes, Elizabeth Johnson, Catherine Mowry LaCugna, Rosemary Radford Reuther, Susan A. Ross, Sandra M. Schneiders, Elizabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza, Cristina Traina, and Janet Walton.

The product of years of research, in-depth interviews, and attendance at multiple conferences, Good Catholic Girls does a remarkable job of depicting the multiplicity of concerns and opinions of committed Catholics who dissent from official Church teachings on these contentious issues. For the reader who wants to explore some on-the-ground contours of Catholic unrest within the ranks, or for the reader who has never before considered the significance of the laity’s experience in the formulation of theology and ethics, Bonavoglia’s book offers a corrective. However, the book also has weaknesses. Her analyses are more circumstantial than systematic,1 and Bonavoglia unabashedly focuses on the personalities that she finds most appealing—i.e., those who rail against the hierarchy and the Church’s stance on women. Finally, the book is quite American-centric, such that at times the reader forgets that the Catholic Church is a global church, facing challenges beyond the borders of the United States; and that the afflictions shaping women’s lives worldwide do not all boil down to these issues.

Taking Bonavoglia’s book as a catalyst, I would like to contextualize some of the debates about what it means to be Catholic and to be woman at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

II. Change and Authority

The Catholic Church interprets its tradition as enduring through time, tracing ultimately back to the life and teachings of Jesus. This raises questions about the character of that endurance: Can Church tradition and moral teaching change?2 If so, on whose authority? Such inquiries are particularly pressing for women in the Church who bristle at contemporary moral teachings.

These questions came to the foreground in the latter half of the twentieth century, prompted in part by liturgical and theological revisions following Vatican II; by an increasing involvement of lay people—especially women—in theological education; and by the tenor of the Church’s engagement with a pluralistic world. As these factors converged, American Catholics in the pews and in professorships began to question the methods, assumptions, and authority of several pontifical decrees. In particular, the teachings of two encyclicals became sites of contention: Humanae Vitae (1968, forbidding birth control) and Inter Insigniores (1976, rendering official an exclusively all-male priesthood because women lack a “natural resemblance” to Jesus). In response to theologians’ qualms, the Vatican has reiterated the authority of these teachings. Most notably, in 1995 the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI), upped the ante by defending the teachings of Inter Insignores as “infallible.”3 This has not solved the issue of authority once and for all, but it has certainly reflected the Vatican’s sense of urgency on the issue. It has also prompted reflection about the role of conscience in moral discernment and the significance of dissent. Practically speaking, theologians today are not entirely certain when their theological opinions will be deemed problematic or with what consequences. In recent decades several prominent theologians and activists have found themselves censured, silenced, or excommunicated. The issue is still live and skittish.

III. Gendered Theology

Lord, I am not worthy to receive you; but only say the word and I shall be healed.4

As noted above, some of the most contentious points of disagreement among laity, theologians, and the Vatican have to do with matters of sexual identity, practice, and morality. With regard to women, the Catholic Church is the largest among Christian communities that do not recognize women as ordained church leaders. But the issue is not just about ordination. As the late Catherine LaCugna pointed out in a 1992 article in America, a more fundamental issue persists: “The basic theological issue is anthropological,” insofar as “God is imaged and conceptualized as a male, and … woman is seen as complementary and subordinate to man.”

Phrased differently, the issue is one of authority and anthropology. Who defines what it means to be human, to be woman, to be man? LaCugna insists that several additional questions cannot be avoided:

Are women persons in the same way that men are persons? … Do the obvious biological differences between men and women amount to a qualitative difference in personhood? Is woman’s personhood derived from man’s personhood? Has God eternally decreed that in the orders of creation and redemption woman be subordinate to man? If so, then who is God?5

Anthropological concepts have significant ethical fallout: They shape the lives of individual women and men, and they affect the sacramental life of the Church.

IV. Waiting

And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, the women went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” (Mark 16: 2-3)

Bonavoglia’s book is a testimony to the fact that the relationship between women’s lives and the life of the Church—especially its rituals of faith and its halls of power—can be fragmentary and difficult. But the issue is not localized to Catholicism: Pandemics rarely respect ecclesial boundaries. Within many Christian denominations in the United States (and other religious traditions, too) women’s roles can be contentious, and their opportunities for leadership can be limited. The “stained-glass ceiling”6 persists for many women ministers. Even those who have painted their way into ordained church leadership face difficulties. In a conspicuous example, the first woman presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church U.S.A., Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, has remarked that “there is anxiety about a woman in the boys club.” Although the U.S. Episcopal Church has been ordaining women since 1974, in a recent article the New York Times commented that Schori’s performance in a leadership position “may be made more difficult by her sex.”7

What, then, does it mean to be a woman who stays, who continues to live amidst tensions of tradition, gender, and power? Often it means embracing embeddedness in one’s ecclesial community, living with liminality in that same community, and persisting because of deep faith. Embeddedness, liminality, and deep faith are also characteristics of prophets. The “pathos of prophecy in community”is an intimate phenomenon. Many women know it well.8

Embeddedness, in the words of Carolyn Sharp, means that “a bone-deep commitment to living in community is essential to authentic witness.”9 Liminality results from the fact that those who speak intimate truths are not mainstream; they are incisive, but not popular. They press our convictions, reveal our biases, and speak difficult words. As Juan Arzube notes, “[A] characteristic of a prophet is to point out something beforehand, that is, before everyone else already accepts it or believes it, because we are convinced, as a result of prayerful meditation, of its validity and truth.”10 This means also that prophets are not merely critics: Deep faith is required. Indeed, deep faith is the only thing that can sustain the enterprise of living prophetically. In Joan Chittister’s words:

the core of hope, the absolute centrality of the inner-God Experience is crucial to true prophecy … we’re radical believers, deep believers. That’s what gives any of us the true authority to speak. … The God of despair, the God of frustration, the God of great vision. That God is the God that leads to Jesus.11

Explaining how women stay in the church, or what it means that they stay, does not tell us exactly why they stay. This last question haunts Bonavoglia with regard to Catholicism. Certainly it is true that, in the words of Bonavoglia’s aunt, “Plenty of Catholic women like things the way they are.” Yet Bonavoglia is less interested in women who like things the way they are than in those who don’t. For this latter group there are no easy answers. In the epilogue some of these women speak for themselves. Some stay because they view change as that which happens from within, not (in the words of one chaplain) from “quitting my job and becoming Mary Daly.” Some realize that eventually they might part ways with the Church, but not yet. Others stay out of stubbornness coupled with a powerful love for community, the meaningfulness of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, or the resonance of tradition. Still others bifurcate their hopes for the Church from their personal spiritual lives. One ninety-year-old suggests that being a woman in the Church means being someone who is “successfully maladjusted, who [won’t] settle for the status quo, who [is] determined to make changes, but without bitterness.” Others interpret “staying” as following a call, even if it means official excommunication, as is the case for Mary Ramerman. And Bonavoglia offers her own ambivalent answer: “I am Catholic still, I see. With all my hurt and all my anger, I am Catholic still. Because of the love. Because of the hope. Because of the community. And, oh. Because of the beauty.”

Of course, faith is not about simplistic solutions. It is about complex questions. It is about the Gospel witness, the cloud of witnesses, and the convoluted pursuit of discipleship.

And very early in the morning, when the sun had risen, the women went to the tomb.


1 By this I do not mean to suggest that circumstantial evidence is ancillary to theology and ethics. On the contrary, the experiences that constitute this “circumstantial evidence” matter a great deal, and it is in the lifting up of some lived realities that Bonavoglia’s book makes its biggest impact. For a helpful essay on the role of experience in moral and theological discernment, see Margaret A. Farley, “The Role of Experience in Moral Discernment,” in Lisa Sowle Cahill and James F. Childress (eds.), Christian Ethics: Problems and Prospects (Pilgrim, 1996), 134-51.

2 There is a large literature on whether, and in what way, continuity of tradition entails change. For some key points in this debate, see John W. O’Malley, S.J., “Vatican II: Did Anything Happen?” Theological Studies 65 (2006): 3-33. See also: Steven Schloesser, S.J., “Against Forgetting: Memory, History, and Vatican II,” Theological Studies 67 (2006): 275-319; John T. Noonan, Jr., A Church That Can and Cannot Change (Notre Dame, 2005); and Charles Curran (ed.), Readings in Moral Theology, No. 13: Change in Official Catholic Teaching (Paulist, 2003).

3 The Catholic doctrine of infallibility, besides being a point of contention as described above, is also often misunderstood. The doctrine itself was established in 1870 and holds that certain papal decrees made ex Cathedra are infallible. Thus far only two decrees have been made in this way: the notion of infallibility itself and the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary into heaven. Given this situation, whether or not Ratzinger’s 1995 pronouncement confers the “infallibility” that he asserts is an open question. The assertion of the infallibility of Inter Insigniores is found in “Responsum ad Dubium: Concerning the Teaching Contained in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis,” October 28, 1995. It follows up an apostolic letter from John Paul II of May 22, 1994, “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis: On Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone.”

4 This line is spoken in Catholic mass during the preparation of Communion in the Eucharistic rite.

5 Catherine Mowry LaCugna, “Catholic Women as Ministers and Theologians,” America 167(10), October 10, 1992.

6 See the excellent article on struggles of Protestant ordained women described in Neela Banerjee “Clergywomen Find Hard Path to Bigger Pulpit: Rising Slowly, They Hit Stained-Glass Ceiling,” New York Times (August 26, 2006), page A1.

7 Both quotations are cited in the article Neela Banerjee “For an Episcopal Pioneer, the Challenge is to Unite,” New York Times (June 21, 2006), page A10.

8 This is Carolyn Sharp’s phrase from “Voiced in Paradox: Prophecy in the Contemporary Church,” in this issue of Reflections.

9 Carolyn Sharp, “Voiced in Paradox.”

10 Juan Arzube, “Criteria for Dissent in the Church,” in Readings in Moral Theology, No. 3: The Magisterium and Morality, Charles Curran and Richard McCormick(eds.) (Paulist, 1982), 202.

11 Joan Chittister, in “Prophets Then, Prophets Now: An Interview with Joan Chittister and Richard Rohr,” in this issue of Reflections.

Christiana Peppard is in her second year of doctoral studies in ethics in the Department of Religious Studies at Yale University.