April 2005

Sumana Harihareswara

nonfiction

Good Catholic Girls: How Women are Leading the Fight to Change the Church by Angela Bonavoglia

I have an outsider's love-it-or-leave-it attitude towards orthodox Christianity. When Latter-Day Saints ask on group blogs, "When is it possible to criticize the clergy?", I mentally respond that Martin Luther answered that question a few hundred years ago for all of us. I therefore approached the women portrayed in Good Catholic Girls with some suspicion. As soon as they have decided that The Hierarchy Is Wrong, I thought, they aren't really Catholics anymore, since a tenet of Catholicism (to my nonexpert eye) is obeying the clergy and viewing them as instruments of the divine. "Why aren't these women Protestants?" I asked myself for most of the book.

Author Angela Bonavoglia, in this survey of women around the world who fight to soften the Catholic Church's positions on myriad issues, addresses this question occasionally throughout and then in depth, and almost satisfactorily, in her last chapter. Bonavoglia's chapters range over such topics as women's ordination, lay ministers, the history of the recent church reform movement, the priest sexual abuse scandals, and the Church's views on abortion, AIDS, and divorce. Each chapter reviews the protests for change, but also involves some measure of the author's fawning praise of reformers, and earnest, sometimes cloying observations of her own feelings during interviews and protests.

She finishes the book with reflections on why she and other women stay Catholic. I would have preferred some speculation on the future of the Church. She keeps saying that these women are an unstoppable force for change. How will the Church change, then? Can she extrapolate from current events?

Like any reader, I enjoyed reading about the shocking abuses of Church authority and the anti-establishment bravery of these women. Most of these women simply want the Church's policies to get in line with the sensus fidelium, or "sense of the faithful" laity. However, the various levels of apostasy some women display can be quite breathtaking. One claims not to believe in the concept of excommunication, and another scorns the concept of Hell. Certainly modern Americans don't like thinking about these sorts of harsh measures, but sensus fidelium only goes so far! Just as the women who don't recognize the Vatican's authority would seem to fit better in some Protestant church, the women who place emphasis on the sensual nature of the sacraments might be more welcome at a service performed by my father, a Hindu priest.

Bonavoglia's personal bias favoring reform makes the book more readable, since it's more a personal journey among fellow travelers and not a scholarly survey. However, that very bias makes me wonder how one-sided some incident descriptions are. She's especially strong when interviewing people on the other side, so I wish she could have included more such material; of course, many clergy make this harder by refusing to speak to her.

I'm a bit hard on the book's characters, but the book itself rewards the reader with great anecdotes and provocative insights, such as Christine Gudorf's suggestion that female biology points towards a new sexual ethic. Gudorf argues that, since most sex women have never leads to conception, and since women's clitorises provide sexual pleasure without depending on intercourse, we should see sex as normally contraceptive, not procreative, and that God willed sex for pleasure and not just procreation. As well, Bonavoglia does a great job of portraying the rigidly hierarchical Catholic Church of today. She draws together the Church's ukases on various issues to show that the Church is systematically cracking down on movements and even thoughts that are feminist, grass-roots, or laity-centered.

Bonavoglia interviews Frances Kissling, head of Catholics For a Free Choice, who recently won the blogosphere's attention with a controversial article in Conscience arguing that pro-choice activists will have more legitimacy if they acknowledge the value of fetal life. Kissling has said, "I spent twenty years looking for a government that I could overthrow without being thrown in jail. I finally found one in the Catholic Church."

She hits on the heart of the Church's dilemma. The Catholic Church is a fundamentally premodern institution, an authoritarian government that has lost its borders and the ability to physically coerce its subjects. It tries to govern the mind and so thoughtcrime is the worst possible sin, yet we live in a modern age, where the word "heresy" has positive connotations.

The modern thing is to say that we can change organizations from the inside, and make them kinder, more nurturing, more accepting, and flexible systems. But he heart of this organization's power is faith beyond reason and the ability for the leader's pronouncements to be, by definition, infallible.

Modern American women use individual common sense and judgment to run their lives, and that is incompatible with the Church's teachings as portrayed in Good Catholic Girls. The Church has changed policy in past on Galileo, slavery, and anti-Semitism, so it is possible for the Vatican to shift into views that are more in line with the feelings of American laity on the issues these women care about. But, as Bonavoglia points out, it won't happen in this generation; John Paul II has reversed previously held liberal understandings during his extremely long reign, and has court-packed the clerical ranks below him with a uniformity that FDR would have envied. Also, since more priests now come from the conservative Southern Hemisphere, the hopes of change from the top will be slim even after John Paul II's successors hand off the Vatican.. Bonavoglia's book points to schism, or just a continuing falling-away, en masse.

Good Catholic Girls: How Women Are Leading the Fight to Change the Church by Angela Bonavoglia
Regan Books
ISBN: 006057061X
352 pages