Celia Viggo WEXLER.  Catholic Women Confront Their Church: Stories of Hurt and Hope.  Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016, pp. 216. $34.00 hardback ISBN 978-1-4422-5413-8; $33.99 eBook 978-1-4422-5414-5. Reviewed by Meg Wilkes KARRAKER, emerita,University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, MN 55105.1096 USA.


I wrote this book for one reason: To learn whether it was possible for a woman to be both a feminist and a Catholic (Wexler, 2016: 177).

Drawing on her own story and the stories of nine other Catholic women, Wexler concludes that “Catholic feminist is not an oxymoron”(p. 178). Throughout the book, and in tandem with the “hurt and hope” that is the subtitle of this book, Wexler presents her argument that ‘faith in God and the core values of Catholicism do not depend on unwavering obedience to an institutional church’, ‘faith is bigger than the clerics’, ‘rebellion can be a very positive position’, and ‘change in the church is possible’ (p. 177).

In essence, Wexler never lets the reader forget that confrontation of Church is by no means confrontation of faith. Rather, she uses the stories to reveal how “often the institutional church has been a barrier to that faith” (p. 1). While recognizing the significance of Vatican II and  Pope Francis’ “more tolerant tone when discussing sexual ethics” and “the need for equality between men and women,” she rues the “closed door” (p. 2) on the ordination of women and what she finds is a too-often condescending tone toward women and women’s roles in family, politics, and societies as a whole.

From my own research on Catholic sisters (Karraker 2012), I was already familiar with Sister Simone Campbell, SSS, “God’s lobbyist” and a Sister of Social Service (an international congregation in the Benedictine tradition), executive director of the social justice lobby NETWORK, and among the “radical feminist” (p. 57) stimuli for the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). Like so many others, I found the movement Campbell and her fellow sisters initiated to raise awareness of justice for the poor (i.e., “Nuns on the Bus”), even as Wisconsin Representative (and Catholic) Paul Ryan sought to cut spending on programs serving those on the margins of society, nothing short of inspiring. But it was her account of “holy doubt” (p. 65) that moved me to dig deeper into social justice and the role of not only religious, but all other social institutions, in social [in]justice.

From my colleagues involved in both Catholics for Choice and Feminists for Life I was familiar with the position of Frances Kissling. I also knew of the work of Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, and Barbara Baine, one of the founders of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). But, as a sociologist who sees intersectionality as a key understanding diversity and inclusion, oppression and justice, I was particularly interested in reading the stories of Catholic women of color and those who had lived on other margins of American society. These included Diana Hayes (the first African American woman to earn a pontifical doctorate in sacred theology), Teresa Delgado (who applies her life narrative as a Puerto Rican woman to deep understanding of sexuality), Gretchen Reydams-Schils (a Catholic from Belgium who feels increasingly marginalized at her university), and Joshunda Victoria Sanders (who broke from poverty and living homeless to finding a Catholic community home.

Catholic Women Confront Their Church includes a valuable list of resources (with links), ranging from Call to Action and Catholics for Choice to WATER−Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual and the Women’s Ordination Conference. She provides careful Notes for each chapter, as well as a helpful Bibliography.

In my own journey across religious landscapes, I am a Lutheran woman seeking ways to dialogue with my sisters (and brothers) in Catholic, but also African Methodist Episcopal (AME), Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, Seventh-day Advent, and other faith traditions, as well as those “nones” who profess no faith belief system. I need more ways to bridge the gaps in morality (do we have an alternative to just agreeing not to talk about [pick your topic]?), practice (I sit where when I worship with you?), and theology (you can take holy communion with me, but I not with you?). Initially, I did not see that divide addressed in Catholic Women Confront Their Church. We need a listening-respecting paradigm here, but perhaps that is another book. However, on second thought, by offering these ten stories, Wexler provides role models for not only women who did not capitulate to oppressive forces in the Catholic Church, but who were able to see beyond man-created religious (and other) institution to the seeds of faith that gave their lives meaning and connected them to the sacred. In sum, I saw role models of confrontation, but also engagement, represented in these stories.

A former well-published journalist and author of the award-winning Out of the News: Former Journalists Discuss a Profession in Crisis (2012), Celia Viggo Wexler has worked as a public-interest lobbyist for Common Cause and the Union of Concerned Scientists.