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Ryan’s case for loyal dissent shows deep love for church

By Penelope J. Ryan
Henry Holt and Company, 216 pages, $23, hardback


If a bedraggled Catholic asked me how to “hang in there” with the church while disagreeing with basic teachings, I’d recommend this book. If a skeptic wanted to know how a good Catholic can advocate church reform, I’d recommend this book. If a long-suffering reformer wanted to know if change is a pipe dream or if it’s really possible, I’d recommend this book.

And if someone were -- as I was -- born and reared before Vatican II, I’d recommend the first few pages for pure rosary-thumbing, Latin- reciting nostalgia.

In Practicing Catholic, Penelope Ryan tackles the hot-button church issues: authority and infallibility, the nonordination of women, celibacy and the priesthood, birth control, abortion, fertility procedures, divorce, remarriage and annulment, gay and lesbian rights, conscience and dissent. She approaches them not as an iconoclast but as a critical lover who wants change without destroying the best of what exists.

She discusses the teachings as a wise interpreter approaches scripture, in context. No teachings are sterile or sanitized. All of them are shaped and conditioned by scriptural understandings, historical situations and theological or philosophical schools of thought. Indeed, many teachings have changed, signaling that further change is possible.

Ryan also interprets teachings in their contemporary context -- how they are received, or more often not received, in the church today. She relates stories from her own and others’ lives to show how many current teachings cause pain and lead to loss of faith among contemporary Catholics. In her view, serious dialogue needs to be grounded in such experiences. She makes a strong case that the sensus fidelium, or sense of the faithful, must be integral to any reformulation of teaching.

In gentle, lucid prose that speaks volumes about her love for the church, she assumes the role of loyal dissenter, rooting her positions in scripture, church history and the theology of the Second Vatican Council.

Her discussion of divorce, remarriage and annulment is a case in point. It begins with stories of her own parents’ divorce and her mother’s remarriage. She salts this with the experiences of people who have been shocked by the annulment process. Then she traces church teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, showing how scriptural passages, long used to bolster such teaching, may have a deeper or different meaning in context. Jesus’ words in Mark 10, for example (“Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her”), may have less to do with Jesus’ view of divorce than with his reaction to the social injustices that divorce caused for women in his age.

Ryan then catapults centuries of church history in a few lucidly written paragraphs to show how notions of marriage as a loving covenant gave way to its treatment as a juridical, legalistic act. She puts these issues in an interfaith context, noting the differing scriptural understandings and practices of the Orthodox and Reformation traditions. Her citations of official pronouncements in the modern era provide a backdrop for the alternative views of theologians such as Herbert Doms who calls for a person- centered, relational theology of marriage. Her own experience feeds insightful reflections, such as: “Perhaps indissolubility is something that a marriage grows into.” She makes a strong case that married women and men must be co-creators of a renewed theology of marriage and sexuality.

In the final chapter, Ryan proposes a church for the new millennium. Her vision calls for a new liturgical reform, a broadly based collegiality that includes the laity and in-depth religious education, especially for adults. It suggests a World Council of Youth where the church listens to the ideas, hopes and questions of young people and a faith that embraces the diversity of global cultures. It would put an end to growing “sacramental starvation” with the welcoming of a married clergy and women priests.

Ryan speaks for the generation of Catholics nourished on Vatican II and grounded in struggles for civil rights, peace and justice. I found myself saying repeatedly, “Uh-huh,” as I read the chapters. I have often voiced similar sentiments about the same issues.

If I were to fault the book for anything, it is its occasional lapse into sexist language. Although Ryan stresses the importance of inclusive language in more than one chapter, I was occasionally jarred by a non-inclusive translation of the documents of Vatican II and words like “kingdom,” “Lord,” and even “man.”

However, the problem is minor in the larger context of the message of the book.

Most NCR readers will find it to their liking. Some might want to launch the new millennial program of adult religious education and make it a gift for their favorite pastor, bishop or cardinal!

Loretto Sr. Maureen Fiedler is a co-director of the Quixote Center where she serves as national coordinator of Catholics Speak Out.

National Catholic Reporter, August 28, 1998