Full of questions about her lifelong Catholic faith, journalist-turned-public-interest-lobbyist Celia Viggo Wexler decided to interview other women who have remained in the Church despite their disagreements with its official teachings. Her new book, Catholic Women Confront Their Church: Stories of Hurt and Hope (Rowman & Littlefield, Sept.), features nine activists, theologians, and other professional women who are engaging with the institutional church in multiple ways.
Conflicted about the Church’s refusal to respond to the concerns of Catholic women, and uncomfortable with the conservative Catholicism practiced in her parish, “I had come to a fork in the road in my own life,” Wexler told PW. “I did not know whether I could continue to be a practicing Catholic and a feminist.”
In the resulting book, Wexler reveals a complex web of connections among faith, tragedy, life choices, and career trajectories as women reflect on their identities as Catholics, their experiences with the Church, and why—and in what ways—they’ve decided to stay Catholic despite the challenges.
Among the range of diverse voices, including those of younger Catholics, Wexler discovered key themes, in particular what she called “the primacy of conscience” in making moral decisions that might differ from official Church teachings. While this can apply to a broad range of personal choices, “there is for many women a sense that the church does not respect the role of conscience when women are making decisions about reproductive issues, even birth control,” Wexler said. For Frances Kissling, whom Wexler refers to in the book as “abortion’s moralist,” her disagreements with the Church’s teachings on sexual ethics led to a 25-year career of very public activism as president of Catholics for a Free Choice (now Catholics for Choice), which fights for abortion rights.
Ordination of women to the Catholic priesthood was another topic Wexler’s interviewees discussed. Several “actually felt a call to the priesthood, and it mattered a great deal to them that that call was denied to them by the Church,” said Wexler. The women revealed a range of nuanced views on the impact of women priests: “Nun on the Bus” Sister Simone Campbell, who as executive director of NETWORK lobbies for social and economic justice, told Wexler that “we have to open our eyes to the broader story. We’re thinking of ordination too narrowly.” Taking another view, Latina theologian Teresa Delgado “does not believe that ordaining women to the priesthood alone would greatly alter the church’s unbending orthodoxy,” Wexler writes in the book.
While women are contributing their perspectives to Catholic theology, some of Wexler’s interviewees felt strongly that women’s voices should also be heard from the pulpits in Catholic churches. They “bemoaned the fact the liturgy is the poorer because women do not preach,” Wexler said. Psychotherapist and author Sharon MacIsaac McKenna, a former nun, told Wexler she was distressed by the quality of the sermons she heard in Church, knowing women colleagues capable of, in McKenna’s words, “doing it with more care and more pastoral sense.”
Whether these women are engaging in direct activism, adding their voices to Catholic theological discourse, or are just willing to speak their minds about the Church they love, all are realistic about the future. “We understand that the institutional church is not going to change easily,” Wexler said. Her hope “comes from the belief that faith is bigger than the institutional church which is made up of fallible human beings. It’s really up to us to find our faith, to hold on to it, and to nurture it and to make the Church better in any way that we can.”
Ultimately, writing the book helped Wexler navigate the fork in the road between her feminist beliefs and her faith, and she remains a Catholic. “I wrote this book not to start a revolution but to start a conversation,” she said. Wexler hopes to reach “Catholic women in the pews, women who have basically kept their frustrations and their sense of perhaps anger and disillusionment to themselves,” as well as women in other religious traditions facing similar issues.
Sarah Stanton, the acquisitions editor at Rowman & Littlefield who worked on Catholic Women Confront Their Church, cited demographic trends that show people are leaving churches in droves, including Catholics. "It’s so easy to leave when you feel marginalized or disenfranchised," she told PW. "To see these women, diverse women, of all ages and races, staying and working for change in a variety of ways was very powerful.”
Publicity for Catholic Women Confront Their Church will include advertisements and outreach via Catholic magazines, libraries, colleges and seminaries, parishes, and other institutions, including public libraries; listing on Readara.com; and op-eds by Wexler, including her ongoing blog for The Huffington Post.