Tuesday, February 17, 2009

An Appeal for Open Revolt

As a deeply conservative Roman Catholic, it would be dishonest for me to suggest that I read Good Catholic Girls with a terribly open mind. Billed as a fight for change, the introduction featured calls for “an end to mandatory clerical celibacy” and arguments for “women's moral authority on birth control, homosexuality, divorce, and abortion”. Here was reform of the revolutionary variety.

Nonetheless, I read with curiosity. While Pope John Paul II's “Theology of the Body” is causing a sensation in more orthodox circles, it will be sometime yet before the rest of the world catches on: tellingly, it receives no mention in Good Catholic Girls. Meanwhile, the heresies which author Angela Bonavoglia presents are the sort paraded out every time the Church is believed to be poised for reform. Thus, for instance, when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger—ubiquitous villain of the bookwas chosen pope, journalists bemoaned the election of another traditionalist who was content to allow the Church to lag helplessly behind the times. The implicit assumptions seem to be: 1) that the Roman Catholic Church will one day shake loose the bonds of tradition and embrace modernity in all its forms; and 2) that the reluctance to do so is what prevents Her from once again playing a meaningful role in society. Specifically, Good Catholic Girls argues that it is high time the Church stops silencing women and starts embracing their role as “equals”. Of course, this is to be done on progressive terms.

Although I reject both assumptions, the book contains some value because it offers for examination a variety of arguments in their favor. This allows us to ask, charitably, how much can be said in favor of the drastic changes which Bonavoglia and her compatriots insist that the Church undertake. Setting aside the fact that many of these reforms are effectively impossible, the Church having settled the doctrinal dispute already, it remains unclear whether they would be beneficial.

As with so many feminist writers, Bonavoglia sees everything in starkly feminist terms: “The history of women's place in the Catholic Church is one of fits and starts, of rising power followed by backlash, of emerging authority squelched and denounced by a threatened all-male hierarchy.” This explanation is too simplistic, and does nothing to explain why men have also been denounced by an “all-male hierarchy”. For instance, some of the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas—who is called to the carpet for his “misogynistic theology”—were denounced as heretical a scant three years after his death. As Flannery O'Connor once put it while speaking on similar matters, “If they are good, they are dangerous.” The Church would not have lasted these two thousand years if She did not tread very carefully when it came to new and alarming thought.

Given the title, one assumes a predilection with women's issues. But her obsessiveness often exceeds the bounds of prudence. For instance, in covering the sex abuse scandal of the Church—which is done quite well for the most part—she notes that women too have been abused; and, whatever one's feelings for the “patriarchy”, the male clergy of the Church bear immense responsibility for what occurred. But to argue that it is women who are sexually involved with Catholic priests who “are arguably in the greatest danger of exploitation” is absurd: first, because it suggests that adult women are even less capable of removing themselves from abusive situations than are children and adolescents; and second, because it undermines the whole point of her book, which is that strong women cannot and will not be silenced by a Church that they are changing.

One mostly good chapter highlights the hypocrisy inherent in a clergy which takes a vow of celibacy and then lives licentiously, and a Church which seems nonplussed. To which I say: preach it sister. She then pleads for a change which is ultimately at odds with her fundamentally sound criticism: “One might have expected, in the face of the onslaught of outrage engendered by the sex abuse crisis, that the hierarchy would back off its rigid prohibitions concerning premarital sex, artificial birth control, infertility treatments, condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS, sterilization, homosexuality, remarriage after divorce, and pregnancy termination.” Why would one expect that? When confronted with an abuse of an ethic, it doesn't do to overhaul the whole edifice. The Church's teachings on human sexuality can be difficult to understand, and, but for Grace, impossible to follow completely. But their difficulty does not mean we should cease trying to adhere to them.

Despite the focus on sex and power, Bonavoglia is actually a bit confused about what she wants for the Church. After deprecating the institution of the priesthood, she implores that women be allowed to join it. Intent on improving the role of women in the Church, it is understandable that she may sometimes be unclear about the best way to do so. But it hardly makes the cautionary observer wish to join the crusade for an undefined panoply of reforms.

Bonavoglia offers insight into the progressive mind, but she seems incapable of understanding the mind of one who believes and strives earnestly to follow Church teaching on all issues. Her chapter on abortion, for instance, bemoans the fact that the Church pays so much attention to this one issue when there are so many other battles to be fought. The reasoning is simple: if the Church is correct that abortion is murder, then the silent holocaust is far and away the most important issue of our times. Noticeably, she completely fails to make this identification, instead offering her usual claptrap about sex and power.

Regrettably, this flaw pervades the book. Despite her frequent calls for dialogue, Good Catholic Girls is decidedly and disappointedly one-sided. Rather than extensively cover the reasoning behind a particular doctrine, which the Church has painstakingly defined after centuries of thinking on the matter, Bonavoglia finds a few excerpts to fit with her sophistical thesis. Thereupon she charges at the windmills of perceived oppression. The reader is left to scramble for the Catechism to provide a much needed counterpoint. It is a bit difficult to find cause to scramble back.


troutsky said...

Nice conservative review. Each point about lack of objectivity attributed to the author can just as easily be applied to you. Call it a tie.

A Wiser Man Than I said...

I didn't use the term "objectivity", so I'm not sure where you're getting that.

It's impossible for me to refute every point in a concise review. I approached the book with a critical mind--how could I not?--but give me credit: I read the darned thing.

And my main complaint stands. I don't think she spend the time engaging in the real reasons for some of the Church's more "controversial" doctrines. But if you think I was unfair on a particular point, I may reconsider.

Blogger said...

Enjoy watching live sex webcams? Then visit BongaCams.