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Good Catholic Girls: How Women are Leading the Fight to Change the Church
NY: HarperCollins, 2005
Reviewed by Patrice Fagnant-MacArthur
In "Good Catholic Girls: How Women are Leading the Fight to Change the Church," Angela Bonavoglia provides profiles of many different women who are pushing to reform the Roman Catholic Church. Each of these women has her own agenda, her own "cause." None of them came to the decision to challenge the Church lightly. Rather, circumstances demanded it and they responded. Bonavoglia herself is one of the women pushing for change and this book is her contribution to that effort. She acknowledges that there are many Catholic women who see things differently and who support a "vision that maintains the Church's status quo." She states that "they are spirited and devoted, too. But they don't represent the future I want to see for the Church."
Bonavoglia provides a useful service in bringing a female face to the recent sex abuse scandal in the Church. While the media has focused primarily on the abuse of young boys, there are also many girls and women who have been taken advantage of by priests in power. In some cases, the abuse extended into the confessional, with women who worked up the courage to share their experience of abuse being told that *their* sins are forgiven! Obviously, there is no room for such abuse in the Church. Bonavoglia rightly condemns those in hte hierarchy who refused to take reports of abuse seriously and instead simply moved offenders from parish to parish. She makes the interesting contention that if women had a role in the hierarchy, they wouldn't have allowed this to happen - they would have protected the children.
Bonavoglia celebrates the work feminist theologians have contributed to the field. They have" reenvisioned God as not necessarily male or female, but male or female or neither." In addition, they have reexamined the role of women in the early Church. They have found "evidence that women in the early Christian Church were apostles, ministers, and deacons, that they served Mass and were called bishop, and that Jesus accepted them equally and whole-heartedly into the ranks of his disciples." Such work serves to illustrate how "hallow" the "theological arguments for women's ostracism from the Church's highest rung of sacramental authority" are.
The other issues Bonavoglia addresses are more controversial. She attacks the Church's ban on artificial contraception stating that most of the faithful choose to ignore it. While that certainly is the case, her depiction of the Church's position is faulty. She repeatedly refers to the natural family planning method allowed by the Church as the unreliable rhythm method. While that may have been true forty years ago, the natural family planning methods of today are highly scientific, easy to learn, and very reliable. She should have done more research in this area. This error does not undermine her thesis, however, that in this case the Church failed to listen to the sense of the faithful.
She also condemns the Church's position on divorce and considers the annulment process an unnecessary burden and intrusion into the lives of the faithful. Marriage is no doubt difficult and divorce painful. The Church does need to provide appropriate pastoral care and not ostracize people simply because their marriage did not last. Bonavoglia suggests that the Church get out of the marriage business all together. She puts forth an idea by Rosemary Radford Ruether that there instead be "'sexual friendship covenants for couples entering into a sexual relationship. These couples, not ready to have children or make a permanent commitment, would take temporary vows that can be evaluated or periodically renewed." There would be a second ceremony for entering into a "'lifelong effort' toward permanency," and lastly a ceremony similar to a baptism when children came in which both parents would promise to be faithful to the child whether or not their own union lasts. This idea borders on the ridiculous. As if life was ever that neat! People who are not ready to have children should not be having sex. Sex has consequences and no contraceptive method is foolproof. And to say that we will make an effort at permanency provides little incentive to do so when times get tough. Marriage has lasted since time began. The Church is right to promote and defend it.
Bonavoglia also profiles women working to promote equality of homosexuals in the Church, and women who have chosen to not wait for the Vatican to allow women's ordination but have taken that step themselves. By far, however, the most difficult subject is that of abortion. Even Bonavoglia acknowledges that this is a contentious issue, even among reformers. In her defense, she does present both sides of the issue. She interviews both Frances Kissling of Catholics for a Free Choice as well as Maria Coffey who staunchly holds the opposite opinion. She states that many Catholic women, especially young women fall somewhere in between, believing that "you can believe that a woman has a right to choose, and you can also believe that abortion should be the last possible option." That position is certainly understandable. I think almost any woman can relate to the fears of a pregnant woman in difficult circumstances. However, we are talking about a life. If we as a Church, as the people of God, a God who gave us life, don't defend it, who will?
"Good Catholic Girls" does make you think. Bonavoglia brings up almost every serious issue facing the Church today. This book is a good starting place for debate. The Church, contrary to what many think, is always in a state of flux and pushing for change can be a good thing. I agree with Bonavoglia that women need a greater role in the Church. I think that if the Church made every change that she wants, however, there would be very little left of the Church. The Church does need to follow Jesus' message of love and acceptance, but Jesus also taught us to follow the commandments. The Church should speak for God. It should provide a moral compass. Perhaps those morals are the ideal and not every one will live up to them, but that doesn't mean we should move the standards to the lowest common denominator. Instead, the Church, both the hierarchical and the people in the pews, need to be loving and encouraging and help all of us, men and women, to live the lives God wants of us.
Patrice Fagnant-MacArthur is editor of www.spiritualwoman.net and author of "Letters to Mary from a Young Mother" (iUniverse, 2004). She has a Master of Arts Degree in Applied Theology from Elms College.