The Catholic Women Speak Network. Catholic Women Speak: Bringing Our Gifts to the Table. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2015. pp. 180. $16.95. ISBN: 978-08091-4974-2. Reviewed by Marianne T. FITZGERALD, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467.
For far too long, women have served the Catholic Church selflessly but have not been allowed to participate in the conversations that guide it. In order to strengthen the voices of women and to call for greater participation in the Church, the Catholic Women Speak Network, an online forum for theological dialogue and collaboration, published Catholic Women Speak: Bringing Our Gifts to the Table. This remarkable collection of articles and essays was compiled in anticipation of the Fourteenth Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, also known as the 2015 Synod on the Family, in Rome. Members of the Catholic Women Speak Network wrote these essays in order to illustrate the diverse experiences of women and to highlight the fact that women have been left out of important decisions regarding major church teachings, despite the fact that there are more women than men working on church staffs and that women make up more than half of the church-going population. This book includes contributions from forty-four different women, from sixteen different countries, all of whom identify as practicing Catholics but who have variously struggled with different positions that the Church maintains. These women are world-renowned theologians as well as graduate students and women who work in local parishes. Like the experiences of each author, this book illustrates the fact that there is no single experience of “being a woman” in the Catholic Church, but instead discusses the different ways women’s lives intersect with the Church and highlights the ways in which women live their faith either because of or in spite of church teachings.
There are four parts in this book, each one dedicated to a collection of issues facing Catholic women today. Part one, “Traditions and Transformations” focuses on “fleeting but inspiring glimpses of the transformations taking place in many different Catholic cultures and contexts” (p.5). One common theme in this section is the idea of rethinking the traditions that we have inherited from the Church. Author Cristina Lledo Gomez, for example, talks about the Church as Mother, not in a classical Marian sense, but in a way that invites all members of the Church to treat one another as family. Latina author Carolina del Río Mena discusses the role that marianismo has played in Latina America in creating norms that force women to be meek and submissive to their husbands. She wants Mary to be more than just a one-dimensional figure in order for her to be truly prophetic for women.
Part two is titled “Marriage, Families, and Relationships.” Emerging themes from this section include hot-button topics like contraception and family planning, interfaith marriages, same-sex marriage, and the practices of Catholic families. No two women have had the same experience, but each author is in some way dissatisfied with the current church teachings on marriage, families, and relationships. For example, Pippa Bonner writes about the realities of divorced and remarried Catholics who want to continue to participate in the Eucharist, and Amelia Beck writes about her challenges with natural family planning. These real-life issues are part of the everyday experiences of Catholic women, and they are issues with which church officials have had little firsthand experience. Inviting Catholic women into conversations about these issues would give church officials a much richer understanding of women’s realities.
The third part of the book, “Poverty, Exclusion, and Marginalization” includes essays that highlight the unequal levels of poverty among women and men. Women are disproportionately more impoverished throughout the world, and Pope Francis’ call to care for the poor and the marginalized needs to extend to more women. Theologian Agnes M. Brazal, for example, looks at the social costs of Filipino women who are forced into migration so that they can serve as domestic workers in wealthier nations, and Astrid Lobo Gajiwala discusses the marginalization of Catholic women in India. She says that Indian women are repeatedly left out of discussions and conversations around whether or not church teachings make sense for women’s lives. The poor and marginalized do need to be cared for, as Pope Francis has said, but poor women in particular have a variety of needs and concerns that are not currently being considered by the Church.
The book’s final part, “Institutions and Structures” illuminates the “many ways in which the absence of women limits the capacity of the institutional Church” (p. 157). For example, Madeleine Fredell challenges the Church’s position on whether or not women can proclaim the gospel, and Catherine Cavanagh talks about the challenge of being taken seriously as a young Catholic woman serving the church.This collection provides a powerful witness to the work that women are engaging in and the Catholic Church that they are helping to construct. The Catholic Women Speak Network hopes that this book will be a vehicle to “enrich the conversation” (p. xxviii) about women’s participation in the Catholic Church. I personally found the book both inspiring and helpful as I discern my own path through these questions