From the Pews in the Back presents insightful theological narratives that speak from a position of sympathy, but ask critical questions of Catholics and institutional leaders. All the while the reader will empathize, reminisce, and reflect on what made and continues to make a person “Catholic”. Kate Dugan and Jennifer Owens describe this as a work in “narrative theology—the first person attempt to describe religious identity and ideas” (xix). This narrative theology comes together through a compilation of 29 memoirs from 20- and 30-something Catholic women exploring the question of catholic identity through five themes: growing up Catholic, faith in action, being a Catholic women, vocation, and spiritual identity.
Dugan and Owens’s collection sketches a view of Catholicism from the margins. They represent women who, despite their commitment to their religion, have at one point or another questioned their inclusion in the community because of doctrinal teaching or clerical practice. They speak as cradle Catholics, girls excluded from altar serving, women who have an institutionally unrequited call to the priesthood, and those isolated from the Catholic community due to their sexual orientation. Yet, at the same time these women speak of their deep-rootedness in the Catholic faith through a spirituality that calls them to participate in social action. Many of these essays demonstrate an appreciation for and understanding of the centrality of the Catholic sacraments, especially the Eucharist. They attribute their commitment to social justice to their Catholic role models from family members to Dorothy Day. Their stories craft an ecclesial narrative that describes the church both as it is and how it could be (230).
This ecclesial work is fraught with questions, insights, emotions, and challenges both to the horizontal and vertical church. While the “typical” questions, such as sexual orientation and women’s ordination, are posed, they speak to them in a way that challenges the reader to explore those issues from the narrator’s perspective. The women who ask these questions of themselves and of their church do not do so lightly. Many of them have struggled with their orientation and their role in the church, but have continued to remain profoundly committed to Catholicism. At times this left me personally asking why? One of the authors answers this question by stating, “the church and I need each other” (193).
These stories offer a vision of church so rarely heard because they are often not asked for or, worse still, ignored. Growing up as their male peer in the post-Vatican II church, I found that their stories have much in common with mine. However, the feelings of isolation and rejection never paralleled my experience of the sacraments, altar serving, or the discernment of my vocation. I am grateful for the perspective they provide. At times these women challenge us to look back at the life of Jesus and see a “pacifist, feminist, activist—who embodied the greatest type of love, unconditional love, for every person he met” (83). Listening to and reflecting on the stories of catholic women from the back pews gives rise to different perspectives and insights that ask central questions of Catholicism.
From the Pews in the Back would serve well for those looking to explore works in narrative theology, people who may find themselves struggling with their own Catholic faith, and also for those who struggle with other Catholics whose views they may glibly label as “disloyal” or “unorthodox” without ever considering their experience. Dugan and Owens’s initial work in narrative theology challenges the reader to explore their own personal story of faith. The stories push the reader to engage in deeper theological reflection, further exploration of Catholic teaching and tradition, and a more experiential way of talking about Catholic identity.