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Symposium Book Too Tame                                         800 words

The Church Women Want
edited by Elizabeth A. Johnson
Crossroad, 2002 paper pp. 141
A Catholic Common Ground Initiative Book

a review in NCR by William Cleary

William Cleary, author of Prayers To She Who Is (Crossroad 1997) and other books, resides at website clearyworks.com.


This book reports on a series of lectures staged in New York's Westchester County, refereed by Commonweal's former editor, Margaret O'Brien Steinfels and involving ten important women in the church. The book cover declares the book to be a “no holds barred” discussion - an unfortunate suggestion of dominance imagery - but even worse, untrue. One "hold" is barred: disbelief. Lots of questioning, lots of doubts, lots of quiet desperation, lots of large-souled hope - but real disbelievers were not invited to speak on any of the four discussion evenings.
        Theologian Elizabeth Johnson, author of the award-winning, paradigm-shifting 1992 study She Who Is, in cooperation with the competent Catherine Patten of the Catholic Common Ground Initiative, brought the scholars together, and has beautifully contextualized each evening's presentations with useful chapter introductions. But there the magic ends for me. There is not enough indignation, not enough evidence of honest sovereignty, not enough prophetic dissent.
        These are scary judgments for a reviewer to make, a critique of my betters. The Harvard Ph.D., the Congresswoman from Ohio, a Grawemeyer Award winner, professors and scholars and writers: formidable all. Johnson's own chapter is stunning: "Imaging God, Embodying Christ: Women as a Sign of the Times. She convinces me. But she ends: "From this point on there can be no future for the church that women have not had a pivotal hand in shaping." Really? Pivotal? That will be a day to celebrate.
         Miriam Therese Winter is at her feisty, inventive best. She actually conducts a little song to "She Who Is," defecting -- but too politely -- "in place." Thoughtful talks are given by Barbara Hilkert Andolsen, Ana Maria Diaz Stevens, Colleen Griffith and Sara Butler - urging change and consultation, welcoming diversity, encouraging activism, opening hot button issues -- but no one says "Enough!"
                  There is some bracing straight talk from womanist theologian Diana Hayes, in her satisfying chapter expressing deep disappointment with the Church's response to women's needs and rights. In another the Honorable Marcy Kaptur, having polled over 100 Catholic women before she spoke, tells it like it is - in "Politics, Religion, and Women." The present-day church is "perplexing and dispiriting," they say. That's helpful input.
                 But where's the Harriet Tubman who can lead the way to justice? Where's the Joanna Manning who says aloud that the Pope isn't Catholic? Where's the Sue Monk Kidd who retains her ear for "the deep song of Christianity" while moving beyond to "a spirituality that speaks directly to women"?
                 The book is all too tame. These Catholic scholars seem still caught in the trance of a narrowly Roman Catholicism. How about a little visit to Anglican Catholicism where women are (almost) equal? Few experiences are more mind-blowing for Catholics than a Sunday morning at, say, a woman-led Episcopal Church. The thrill of seeing for the first time a woman in a chasuble, hearing a woman saying the words of Consecration: it crimps your thought patterns. Why not! your spirit cries. One-sixth of our U.S. churches have no priest! But Rome smiles tolerantly and says: "Be a handmaid! It's part of the female charism."
         I heard recently of a mother who took her little girl to an ordination. When it was over, the child asked: "When are they going to do the women?" (Tears are allowed.) Then there's the letter to God from little Sylvia: "Dear God, are boys better than girls?" she wrote. "I know you are one, but be fair!” (Sorry, Sylvia, some things just can't not fair.)
         To me such stories shatter any trance. They suggest the outrageous is still happening. Women are still not even canonically allowed inside the sanctuary during Mass. Susan Muto's opening essay in the book is all about the need to honor celibacy and the single life style "for the sake of witnessing to what awaits us in eternity." No critique of the church's eccentric anti-women atmosphere! Alas, being lady-like in the face of oppression and unjustifiable disdain isn't appropriate for our times, in my opinion.
                 "The Church Women Don't Want" might have been a more interesting title, in fact. Ironically, that is exactly that church that is praised by contributor Mary Ann Glendon who ends her chapter of hand-wringing against women's choice, divorce and sinful society with high praise for "Focolare, Communio e Liberazione, and the Neo-Catechumenate" who she says "are pouring youth, strength, and vitality into the life of the church." Along with lethal doses of male domination, triumphalism and illusion, we might add.
         I suspect that women who no longer take the church seriously do so because it does not take them seriously. In that survey of women's opinions collected by Marcy Kaptur in preparation for her powerful chapter - and printed in the book after her speech - someone named Mary Lee Gladieux says it best: "The Catholic church needs to do what it won't do - recognize women as full and equal partners with men - and anything else is not worth discussing." #
         
         
         
         

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