Anne E. PATRICK, Conscience and Calling: Ethical Reflections on Catholic Women’s Church Vocations London: Bloombury/T&T Clark, 2013. Pp. xv + 197. $24.95pb. ISBN 978-1-4411-4452-2. Reviewed by David CLOUTIER, Mount St. Mary’s University, Emmitsburg, MD, 21727
Patrick offers a series of reflections that are unified by “an interest in Catholic women’s moral agency and in their vocations to church ministry” (x). In particular, she is interested in “maintaining and developing the ideological and institutional frameworks that will prove intelligible, inspiring, and supportive to women of tomorrow who will experience the grace of vocation” (xii). Never polemical, Patrick’s voice brings a balance and maturity to this work, which is too often treated in a strictly us-versus-them way. For example, in examining the sometimes conflicting vision of the two organizations of women religious orders in the US, she discusses the issue of habits, and notes that while “on balance” the flexibility of dress developed by LCWR sisters has been good, the shadow side is that “their options for recognizably religious clothing have been reduced” - a situation she contrasted with male religious (7).
The heart of the book consists of four chapters, two of which tell extended stories and two of which propose creative frameworks to foster the intelligibility of women’s vocations. Like her earlier Liberating Conscience (1996), Patrick is a master at offering a compellingly theological telling of events in the life of the Church. In this case, she provides in one chapter contrasting cases of her religious order’s conflict with pastors in the 1930’s and the late 1980’s, and in the other chapter, a narrative of the history of the National Assembly of Religious Women. The first set of stories provides opportunities to contrast both the response of the religious community and the involvement of the laypersons affected by the pastor’s decisions in these different eras of the Church. The second story, of an organization rich in zeal for the Reign of God, but one that did not end up being sustained in the long run – again, in her distinctively measured tone, she is able to recount both the successes and the problems with the association, including tendencies to neglect the good of sustaining institutions, traditional liturgies, and patience with regard to social change. Her telling of the story seems clearly aimed at future generations, and her adaptation of H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic typology of five “models” is meant to help negotiate the stormy terrain of the relation between women and church authorities, recommending the “transformationist” approach (69).
The most complex chapter theologically is Patrick’s development of a concept of vocation as a “framework for love” (112), building on an account of scripture and tradition by way of a consideration of Margaret Farley’s theology of commitments. The chapter concludes with several key considerations for an adequate theology of vocation that is properly contextualized, avoiding dualisms that can sometimes beset the idea. For example, Patrick highlight the idea of “active receptivity” (134) in the term “framework,” overcoming “the mystique of vocation” as something not involving active human responsibility. Similarly, her comments on postmodernity suggest a nuanced balance of understanding how particular vocational commitments must involve some elements that are conditional and others that are absolute.
Patrick’s writing can serve as an accessible and wise light to undergraduates and those in pastoral ministry, to help them learn some rich stories of how the Church has worked over the past century, and more importantly to offer categories for discernment – for “conscience,” as she says repeatedly – that enable a deeper following of God’s will and effective engagement in the life of God’s people.