Book Review: Catholic Women Speak

Book cover for "Catholic Women Speak: Bringing Our Gifts to the Table."
Book cover for “Catholic Women Speak: Bringing Our Gifts to the Table.”

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

As I sit to write this review, the World Meeting of Families is underway in Philadelphia, and over the past week most news, social media, and idle chit chat around my university has focused on Pope Francis’s first visit to the U.S. So, I was grateful for the opportunity, amid all of the speculation and preparations for the papal visit, to sit down with Catholic Women Speak, an anthology of essays by members of the Catholic Women Speak Network that will be released tomorrow. The brief essays reflect a myriad of hopes and struggles for women in the Roman Catholic Church. As Tina Beattie (a contributor to the volume) describes in a recent article, the book represents the desire of the network to make space for women’s voices. Though this is a perennial need, it is especially acute given the upcoming synod on the family, and the limited representation women will have there — though 30 women have been invited as auditors, none of them will have speaking or voting privileges.

It is this ongoing institutional exclusion of women’s voices and experiences that the book focuses on. Framed in the introduction, written by Fr. Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator, S.J., as an exercise in being the “listening church,” the collection takes advantage of this moment in time, when Pope Francis has made repeated calls for dialogue, for respectful conversation, for listening to those who have felt silenced.

The book is divided into four parts, each wrestling with a particular theological and ecclesiological theme: traditions and transformations; marriages, families, and relationships; poverty, exclusion, and marginalization; and finally institutions and structures. The essays in each section vary. Some pieces, from senior scholars such as Margaret Farley, Elizabeth Johnson, or my own professor Jean Porter, are fairly straightforward discussions of doctrinal issues like Christology, sexual ethics, and moral authority. These essays provided helpful briefs of the stakes in such teachings. They also bring up the questions that women bring to these teachings, and point in constructive directions.

Other essays are more personal, written by women and scholars of faith who struggle to see their place in the Church. Ursula King’s essay talks about wondering where to find women that she could identify with in her theological studies — either among fellow students, or within the texts she approached. The section on marriage and family includes several essays with personal reflections by women who have gone through annulments and divorce,  who struggle with natural family planning, or who are in same-sex relationships. Among these is an essay co-authored by a current parish minister and former colleague of mine from my MDiv program, Rachel Espinoza, on the many pastoral challenges of NFP. Other essays raise experiences that get less attention than ongoing controversies about divorce and birth control, such as Astrid Lobo Gajiwala’s description of the gifts and demands of interfaith marriages among Indian women. I especially appreciated how Rhonda Miska, a lay minister, describes doing professional ministry in a church that consistently questions non-clerical authority.

One of the strengths of the volume is the plurality of voices, which do not speak with a single, unified opinion on controversy. Recurring themes do abound, such as the particular problems of poverty and motherhood, or the need for mercy in the aftermath of divorce, but there are some tensions between voices in the book. This is all the better, really, to reflect the complexity of women’s lives. Eve Tushnet contributes an essay on her identity as a Catholic and celibate gay woman; following that is an essay by Katie Grimes that critiques the stance of Tushnet from a virtue ethics perspective. Such conflicts and dissonances are not problems, but signs of a live conversation, of ongoing processes of discernment about what our experiences mean and how the Spirit may be working in the world.

Throughout the reflections runs a thread of disconnection, disjuncture between women’s lives and official church teachings. The most relevant sign of this is the oft-cited survey completed in advance of last October’s first meeting for the extraordinary synod, which concluded that “a majority of catholics expressed views on contraception, on abortion, and on the admission of the divorced and remarried to the sacraments at odds with the teaching of the church” (53). Julie Clague describes this as a “significant disjunction” between magisterial teaching and the values expressed by communities in the pews.

So it is interesting to see that many of the contributions describe moments when members of the church act with some flexibility concerning the letter of the law. Essays on annulments and divorces describe the judicious use of the internal forum (80; 85). In another essay, Sophie Stanes and Deborah Woodman describe the tension between how, on one hand their church welcomes their service (and financial contribution), but on the other expects that their “‘true’ identity” in a same-sex marriage remain unspoken (110). Following a pregnancy loss, they experience the love of the church through “a priest friend [who] jumped on his motorbike late at night to come to the hospital and baptize [twins] T and G in their precious few moments of life. He accompanied us in those dark hours and three weeks later buried them in a beautiful funeral liturgy that we compiled together…in contrast, the official Roman Catholic hospital chaplain denied us holy communion the day after our loss simply for being a same sex couple” (111).

Such small moments of grace, and the requisite tensions they produce, should be taken seriously by those who serve in any kind of teaching or leadership role within the church. I can easily see this book being valuable for pastors and pastoral associates, for parish book clubs, for academics to use in their classrooms when dealing with perennially hot-button topics. The Catholic Women Speak Network plans to distribute the book to all the attendees at the next meeting of the synod this October — I sincerely hope those who will speak and eventually vote will make the time to read it as they discern a future trajectory for the Roman Catholic church.

Proceeds from the sale of the book will go to the Catherine of Siena Virtual College, which provides online higher education in theology, religion, gender, and social justice for women in the global South. Catholic Women Speak can be purchased form Paulist Press for $16.95.