Friday, February 03, 2006

Women,, Change, and the Hope for Reform

by Gerry McCarthy

Angela Bonavoglia is a nationally recognized writer on Church reform. Her work has appeared in The Miami Herald, The Chicago Tribune, The Nation, Ms., Cosmopolitan, Redbook, and Newsday.

Her most recent book Good Catholic Girls: How Women Are Leading The Fight To Change The Church was recently published by HarperCollins (Regan Books). It will be released in paperback in March. I reached Bonavoglia in Westchester, New York, to speak about the book.

Gerry McCarthy: In Good Catholic Girls we learn about Harvard University's first Catholic laywoman chaplain Jacqueline Landry. She says a fundamental problem is the difficulty the Church has integrating sexuality with spirituality. You add that: "Because women have represented sexuality in the Church, lay ministers like Landry bear a special burden." Can you talk to me about this? Do you see more signs that the Church is waking up to what Landry is saying?

Angela Bonavoglia: Jackie Landry is a very beautiful woman. She is tall with blonde hair. She could have been a model. But she's a chaplain. When she talks about these things --she knows from whence she speaks.

It's interesting that when I spoke with her about this issue, she talked about trying to find this third way in terms of being a minister. She says: "All my energy is spent?negotiating?door number three? Father, Sister, me."

We know that 80 percent of the lay people in paid parish ministry in the Catholic Church are women. Lots of them are married. But a good number are single. Some of them are divorced. So they've come out of the box. In the Catholic Church sexuality is supposed to be limited to married people open to procreation. As Jackie Landry told me, nuns have had to exchange their sexuality for their power. She says they have to be "perceived as a neutered, neutral women." Although she adds that some nuns she's worked with have worn lipstick and earrings. But she talks about being very conscious of what she wears when she speaks from the pulpit. How does she look? Does she wear high heels? Female sexuality in the Catholic Church is still a very scary thing. The fear for the powers-to-be in the Church is that women take control of their sexuality. Now we have all these women coming into the Church who are ministering, and many of them are not former nuns. They are confronting us with this image of women no longer in the box they were put in --which was: Be home, take care of your children, and be nurturing. That's wonderful. There's nothing wrong with that. But that was a safe place to have women.

The Church has taken awhile to deal with these women in ministry. It's taken years for them to address them. Now they are addressing lay ecclesial ministry in a much bigger way. But we have a long way as a Church to go in terms of addressing and celebrating sexuality, and coming up with an ethic that we can all agree on. These young ministers are going to push us forward by their very presence.

GM: Your chapter "The Revolt of the Erie Benedictines" was particularly engaging. In her decision not to comply with Vatican's "precept of obedience" to forbid Sr. Joan Chittister to attend a women's ordination conference held in Dublin in 2001 --the prioress of the Erie Benedictines Sr. Christine Vladimiroff made a significant public statement: "I cannot be used by the Vatican to deliver an order of silencing. I do not see her participation in this conference as a 'source of scandal to the faithful' as the Vatican alleges. I think the faithful can be scandalized when honest attempts to discuss questions of importance to the Church are forbidden." You write that the Erie Benedictines provided a model for a "new spirit" of Church reform. But it's going to take more public stands like this for serious reform to take place isn't it?

AB: Definitely. When I heard about the Erie Benedictines I was doing a piece for The Nation magazine on the Church. I interviewed a priest in the Boston-area named Walter Cuenin. He's a wonderful man. He'd been a co-founder of an organization called The Priests' Forum where they began to gather together the priests in that community. This is right after the clerical sex abuse scandal broke in the U.S. in 2002. The Priests Forum would meet to talk about being a priest. They did this outside the aegis of the Archdiocese of Boston. It was a brave step for them to take.

When I interviewed Fr. Cuenin he talked about the Erie Benedictines and Sr. Joan Chittister. He said that they were an influence on him and that their courage was inspiring to him.

Shortly after that The Priests' Forum became stronger and worked with The Voice of the Faithful. Eventually Fr. Cuenin and The Priests' Forum put together a list of 50 to 70 signers calling for the resignation of Cardinal Law (of the Boston Diocese). That was a very dramatic action. In the book I quote Fr. Richard McBrien saying it was "unprecedented" in modern Church history for priests to take that kind of a stand in relationship to their bishop. Shortly after this action Cardinal Law resigned.

In the interim Fr. Cuenin was dismissed from his position. So the attack on him came later. But it came. Still over a 1,000 parishioners formed a movement to bring him back, or to deal with what they felt was the unjust grounds on which he was fired.

That's just one example of this movement that we've seen in the U.S. (and elsewhere) of Catholics joining up and taking a stand. The most colourful and provocative example just happened in Canada last summer. I was there for the ordination of the nine women on a boat on the St. Lawrence Seaway. The Roman Catholic women's priest movement is a very dramatic action. It began in 2002 with the ordination of women on the Danube River. And the movement has grown.

There's a lot more willingness to stand together in opposition to these Church policies. Another example: Look at the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. This organization --which not coincidentally was begun by a woman-- is the most powerful organization we have for abuse for victims in this country. This organization is everywhere. They demonstrate all the time, and call attention to particular parishes and diocese where the Church is failing to bring sex abusers to justice.

There is on the ground a tremendous movement of Catholics to take back the Church --in terms of their own consciences and what they think the Church should be. But questions remain. How deep is that movement? How strong is it? How long will it take to have an impact on the institutional Church?

GM: The Vatican never followed through with the penalties (including excommunication) they threatened to impose on Sr. Chittister and the Erie Benedictines. Can you speculate on why this didn't happen?

AB: This was a surprise to everybody. But the people I've spoken to about this said they finally realized whom they had tried to take on. Not only in the Church --but also in the culture-- there's this lack of awareness of the power of Catholic women in the Church. To my mind, Joan Chittister is the most powerful voice in the Catholic Church right now. The Church skipped over that. They didn't realize the extent of power she had. It wasn't just that the Erie Benedictines had signed that letter of support. Joan Chittister is an orator and author known worldwide. Maybe they did a little homework. I think they became a little freaked, because they realized they wouldn't get away with it.

GM: It's very depressing to read where some dioceses in North American are firing laywoman ministers or replacing them with male deacons. Some reports suggest pressure from conservatives in these dioceses contributed to the firings. What are your thoughts?

AB: There are a number of situations I reference in the book. In particular there is Lexington, Kentucky where five people were fired --four of them senior women leaders-- and replaced by male deacons. That's where the local news reports said it was conservative pressure to replace them.

One person who figures prominently in my book is Sr. Celine Goessl. She was a parish administrator for 30 years heading up parishes. She is an amazing person. She said that the order had come from Rome to move women out and move deacons in.

Without pointing to a particular conservative person who is making this happen --we can clearly see that this is a Church (especially right now) that's steeped in a belief that women do not belong in the role --or close to the role-- of someone who is ordained. They want more priests and male deacons. As you get these priests and male deacons they'll move them into other positions. It just fits in with their view of what the Church should be --and the place of women in the Church. It's very depressing.

I heard one woman chaplain speaking at a conference at Boston College called "Envisioning The Church Women Want" a few years ago. She talked about the effort to literally split her job so that she'd no longer be the spiritual chaplain, but the administrator. They would have a priest coming in to do the spiritual matters.

At that same conference there was a woman theologian from Boston College who said it was important to look at the parish closings. She believed that the Church would prefer to close parishes rather than to allow women who want to be priests and deacons to fill those responsibilities.

The Church is in a tricky position. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops recently came out with a new paper on lay ecclesial ministry. Included in this was a new study done on lay ministry. It's taken the Church a long time to accept that this is a movement that's here to stay. That movement is principally women. Eighty percent of lay paid parish ministers are women. Seventy percent of the U.S. Catholic Chaplain Association are women. The Church is going to be pushed more and more on these limits they impose on women. They're not going to be able to replace these women unless they go with what Benedict XVI seems to be open to --which is shrinking the Church. You take away the people who don't fit within this very conservative structure. If they're willing to do that --then this will continue.

It's an interesting moment now. There has been a decline in lay ecclesial ministers in the last nine years. From 1990 to 1997 it jumped by approximately 35 percent. But from 1997 to now it's only been five percent. So there are people who think that women are just getting fed up and walking away. There are no jobs for them. The wages and benefits are terrible. And as some leaders in the Church have said --if women walk way, that's the end of it, because women make up much of the Church.

GM: You write about the issue of lay preaching in the book. Currently the Vatican forbids a layperson from preaching the homily, but it takes place in many parishes when it's called a "reflection." Still the Vatican insists it must never be "transformed from an exceptional measure into an ordinary practice." But you explain that: "Ironically, some bishops may have learned to preach in a homiletics course taught by a Catholic woman at a seminary, yet remain silent as the Vatican tightens the restrictions on Catholic women's right to preach." Do you think more bishops are being challenged on this issue? Do you think the Vatican will loosen these restrictions given the continuing shortage of priests?

AB: What's interesting is this new study on lay parish ministry (which was conducted by the committee of the laity of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops). It's all about who lay parish ministers are --and what they're doing. There's a little chart that lists ministry's role. One of them is preaching. They don't say a homily or explain anything about it in the study. But it says only two percent of people who are in lay ecclesial preaching are doing this. But I thought that was progress. In other words: In this book done by the National Pastoral Life Center (which is an organization in the U.S. that works with the bishops) they didn't bother to dress up the fact that lay people are preaching. So it's a good sign.

A bad sign is that about a year ago the Archbishop of Boston Sean O'Malley gave a homily about preaching and he called it the eighth sacrament. He said it's the first and irreplaceable path of the ordained. He was putting out the party line that only priests should be doing the preaching. But on the ground the reality is that women are preaching. It may not be called a homily, but they're invited to step up and take the opportunity. As Jackie Landry says it doesn't matter whether they call it a homily or not, because when students look up and see her preaching they look like deer caught in the headlights. They've never seen a woman get up and talk like that.

This is something that could change (and is changing) on the ground. I have a little bit of hope for this.

GM: At one point in the book you write that: "I find it extremely troubling today that the fight for dialogue is so desperate today. That the days when the hierarchy listened to the laity are long gone, and so much ground has been lost." Do you see any sign of change under Pope Benedict XVI?

AB: One thing that people have fastened on to is that Benedict XVI did meet with Hans Küng --which is kind of fascinating. Because Küng had his licence to teach in a Catholic university taken away from him.

Küng sent a letter to Benedict XVI asking for a meeting. In the past he'd sent many letters to John Paul II asking for a meeting and never received one. But he did get a meeting with Benedict XVI. They both came out after the meeting and put a wonderful spin on it. They found the areas they had in common, and decided not to get into a dispute over their doctrinal differences. Küng seemed to imply that this gave him hope that this was a pope who was going to listen to people.

Sr. Joan Chittister did comment on Cardinal Ratzinger taking the name Benedict and the notion of hospitality. I would love to hold on to that. But I don't see issues like women's ordination as a side issue. The place of women in the Church is absolutely central to the future of the Church. If women can't have sacramental authority --and if they can't be involved in the decision-making in the Church-- it's a Church that's deeply discriminatory and flawed. So a pope who won't look at that (even though he happened to meet with Hans Küng and look at some of the areas that they'll work in together) doesn't give me much hope.

GM: In the book we learn that almost two years ago Boston Archbishop Sean O'Malley referred to "feminism" among the world's worst ills lumping it along with "the drug culture," "hedonism," "consumerism," and "the culture of death." What could he be thinking --particularly when one considers the death and destruction caused by patriarchy in Third World countries? Was there any reaction to what he said?

AB: People were very upset about this. There were a lot of opinion-editorial pieces written in response. I can't tell you what he was thinking when he said that. But I can tell you what my impression would be. Within the Church, feminism has been linked with selfishness, women as careerists, and women rejecting a nurturing role. It's also been linked to divorce. Most of all they've linked feminism with women as advocates for reproductive health care.

Feminism has always had this negative image in the Church. Which is not to say that there aren't things about feminism worth criticizing. But the issues I cited are the reasons O'Malley would lump feminism with the things he did. But it's such a disturbing thing to do. Because feminism has been liberating for so many women.

Also: As you noted there's this absence of understanding the details of women's lives. For example: Many women in sub-Saharan Africa are married --and they're in a culture where sex outside of marriage is okay for their husbands. They suffer from that, because their husbands are bringing home HIV/AIDS. For the Church to say that marriage will solve this problem is to completely be unable to see what's going on.

But there are some positive things happening. In South Africa, Bishop Kevin Dowling (who is a fantastic bishop in that part of the world) and a group of nuns called "The Sisters for Justice of Johannesburg" came out and opposed the Church's ban on condoms to prevent AIDS for all of the reasons that were mentioned. They've talked about what the realities of life are like for women in these countries, and where the increase in HIV/AIDS is being most dramatically realized.

Bishop Kevin Dowling talks about the need for a new moral understanding of sexuality. From the Church's perspective, condoms have been thought to be part of a culture of death. But according to Bishop Dowling, not allowing people to use condoms --when it could kill them-- is a death related matter.

So there are these voices in the Church saying: Pay attention to what's really going on. But how long it will take for these voices to filter up --if they ever will-- is what we're all holding our breath about.

GM: It was particularly inspiring to read about young women ministers for social justice. For example: You write about twenty-four-year-old Sara Willi who majored in peace studies at the College of St. Benedict in Minnesota. Willi says that at St. Benedict: "I claimed my faith for myself." Are these young ministers signs of hope for you?

AB: Totally. Sara Willi is incredible. She has a roommate and they live in an apartment they rent. They're all devoted to social justice. They do that as their ministry. Her roommate worked at the Center for Concern. This is a Jesuit-founded independent organization for global and economic justice.

There is also a young woman named Aisha Taylor who is now the head of the Women's Ordination Conference in the U.S. She used to work for Network --which is a Catholic social justice lobby and a fantastic organization. There is a young woman named Leslie Kretzu who was a Masters of Theology student at Union Theological Seminary (and who I was amazed by). She is devoted to social justice and is a kind of one-woman sweatshop movement. She and her husband went to live in Indonesia on the amount of money people are paid by Nike --and then came back and made a movie about it.

When Ida Raming --who was one of the women ordained on the Danube in 2002-- came to Union Theological Seminary, the question was posed: Could she celebrate a Mass there? Many of the Catholic students and faculty were very much against it --for a lot of reasons. Without going into the pros and cons of that, Leslie Kretzu was so clear that Ida Raming should be able to say Mass. She believed this 74-year-old woman had taken this stand for women's ordination, and that she did it for herself and young people. Leslie fought to make that Mass possible. They finally held the Mass outdoors in a park in Manhattan, not far from Union Theological Seminary.

These young women don't always get into all the pros and cons of issues the way some of us older people do. They seem clearer about what their faith is to them. And the social justice women are just fantastic. Their faith moves them to help make the world a better place. That's what they devote their energies to.

GM: Your epilogue was very moving. You write that: "With all my hurt and all my anger, I am Catholic still. Because of the love. Because of the hope. Because of the community. And, oh. Because of the beauty." During the course of researching and writing the book were there things that surprised you about the Church and Catholic women who are fighting for change?

AB: I went through so much writing this book in terms of emotion. It was up and down the range. I didn't realize how deep the struggles were for the women who were doing the ministering. When I finished the book I had such incredible respect for them. To try and work within this institution that talks out of both sides of its mouth. But these women are out there helping people. They love the people and take care of them. I watched them in action with parishioners, and I had such sadness that they're being held back from giving all the gifts they have to the Church. It's a bundle of emotions for me in terms of what their place is in the Church.

GM: You write that some Catholic women can't take it anymore and walk away from the Church.

AB: Yes. Many.

GM: But you also provide the reader hope when you write about the various small faith communities and reform organizations that exist. So you don't have to be in exile from the Church --there are places to go aren't there?

AB: Yes. In the back of the book I give a directory of all the Church reform organizations in the U.S. and elsewhere where people can become connected with other Catholics who want change or are working toward change. That's important to have support for fighting for change in the Church. It can be a long road if you're just going to church and struggling through another sermon that makes you so upset --and just having to be silent.

But to get involved in these organizations with people who love the Church, Eucharist, Catholicism --and are Catholics who want a more inclusive, open Church that appreciates everybody's gifts.

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