Summer Books
This week's stories | Home Page
Issue Date:  May 20, 2005

By Angela Bonavoglia
HarperCollins (Regan Imprint),
352 pages, $25.95
Women's battle to change the church


In Good Catholic Girls, Angela Bonavoglia takes a fresh look at the post-sexual-scandal church and finds the landscape both familiar and surprising. A seasoned journalist with Catholic feminist sympathies, she casts light on the hitherto largely invisible abuse of girls and women, a subject familiar to her because she covered it in all religions for Ms. magazine in the ’90s. What surprises and encourages her today is the discovery that many strong, diverse women are working to change this situation and many others for the sake of the church itself.

Chapters on the abuse of women, the failure to look realistically at the growing shortage of priests and the heavy-handed fight against abortion, contraception, divorce and homosexuality are detailed and well-documented. What is new in Good Catholic Girls is its focus on the spunky, creative women already ministering to those hurt by the lack of compassion that has accompanied this approach.

When in 1979, Mercy Sr. Theresa Kane asked John Paul II to “open all ministries to women,” the Vatican responded by declaring that ordination for women could not even be discussed and, besides, the church has no power to implement such a change. Ms. Bonavoglia’s book highlights the ironic reality that the church hierarchy has nevertheless of necessity been turning to women to fill the many ministerial gaps caused by the drastic continuing decline in priestly vocations. At the same time, more and more women have been awakened by the secrecy and deception revealed by recent scandals and have founded or joined organizations that the author usefully lists at the end, with addresses and phone numbers.

She gives a respectful nod to women theologians, and her decision to illustrate current struggles in the church through the actions of individual women brings her narrative to vivid life. Even close readers of NCR will learn from her lively portraits of Sr. Joan Chittister, Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, Frances Kissling and Sr. Jeannine Gramick as well as from those of many less well-known women among the hundred or so the author interviewed.

One of the best chapters takes a close look at women ministering in the church now. We are reminded that nearly 30,000 Catholics are engaged in paid parish ministry, and the vast majority of them — 82 percent — are female. The story of such an experienced and committed parish minister as Alexandra Guliano, who has served for years in the Milwaukee area, may elicit both laughter and tears. She has felt called to be a priest ever since she can remember but has had to settle for a position as parish director, one of the thousands of women for whom “the rules of engagement are still being written.” She performs all functions in her parish except sacramental ones, which often makes for strange situations. She and the parishioners know each other, but the revolving priests who show up, sometimes late, sometimes getting the names wrong, do not. At times the restrictions are deeply frustrating:

I have spent hours at the bedside of a suffering person, held their hands, counseled their family, and asked the hard questions around the death and dying process. But when the persons request the sacrament of the anointing of the sick or the sacrament of reconciliation, I cannot administer the sacraments to them.

The strength of this book does not lie in history or ideas. In the 1960s and ’70s, many church members worked for aims quite similar to those Ms. Bonavoglia presents and believed for a while that they had gained ground. The author might well have shown the roots of today’s efforts by weaving in an awareness of Sr. Mary Luke Tobin’s work at the Second Vatican Council, John Noonan’s breakthrough book on contraception, Patty Crowley’s response to Pope Paul VI’s rejection of the majority report of his Birth Control Commission, Sr. Marie Augusta Neale’s sociologically grounded assistance to nuns renewing their orders, or Leonard and Arlene Swidler’s tireless support for lay theologians and women’s ordination. Men, women and clergy often worked together in those decades, encouraged by the Second Vatican Council’s attempt to involve the “people of God” in the world.

Perhaps because the official church has been so adamant in its resistance, Ms. Bonavoglia and most of those she interviewed are convinced that the ordination of women must subsume other goals today. This is a book confined to inner-church concerns that concludes with an enthusiastic report on the ordination of Mary Ramerman in Rochester, N.Y., in 2001, by a California bishop of the Old Catholic church. The ordination remains a divisive reality, however, and one that has weakened an unusually admirable and effective bishop.

To her credit, the author has laid out the painful splits within the church today and makes the case that reserving a sacrament exclusively to men is a power play detrimental to its health. Only when “sacramentality is open to all,” concludes Ms. Bonavoglia, will the priesthood “no longer embody ‘power over’ but ‘power to.’ ” To her joy, the “good Catholic girls” of her title have grown up and given her hope that “a new model of church in the spirit of equality, mutual respect, open dialogue and true collaboration” might emerge from current struggles.

Sally Cunneen published Sex: Female; Religion: Catholic, a narrative journalistic report on Roman Catholic women after Vatican II in 1968. Her In Search of Mary won the 1997 Book Award of the College Theology Society.

National Catholic Reporter, May 20, 2005

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: