Having spent my first two years of teaching at Saint Mary’s College (Notre Dame, IN), I can personally attest to the way in which the College successfully fosters the voices and gifts of young women in an environment that is both rigorous and nurturing, both critical of and faithful to Catholic tradition.  It is therefore unsurprising to me that a book like Women, Wisdom, and Witness: Engaging Contexts in Conversation (Liturgical Press, 2012) should have emerged from SMC’s Center for Spirituality.  Both in its rich content and distinctive form, the book offers a valuable contribution to the field of Catholic theology, which will be of interest to many readers of this blog.

Coedited by Rosemary Carbine and the Center for Spirituality’s Director Kathleen Dolphin, the book is in fact a project authored collaboratively by the New Voices Seminar, which has met annually since 2004 and seeks to provide a forum to articulate and advance women’s voices within the Catholic Church and academy.  The Seminar, which is held in conjunction with SMC’s annual Madeleva Lecture in Spirituality[1], is described by the editors as an “intergenerational and in many ways diverse group of roughly forty to fifty women scholars who take an interdisciplinary approach to the study of Christianity,” (ix).  Indeed, the fifteen or so contributors to this book each speaks from her own experience and expertise in order to contribute to a rich dialogue in three parts that correspond to the book’s alliterative title: namely, women’s experience in the context of suffering and resistance, women’s wisdom in the context of academia and higher education, and women’s witness in the context of public life.  Not only the New Voices Seminar but the book itself deliberately employs a “dialogical” and “collaborative” method of intellectual engagement by literally putting the contributing authors in conversation with one another in order to draw out common themes as well as concerns and points of divergence; that is, each of the book’s three sections concludes with the transcript of a conversation between four authors and a respondent, attempting thereby to “model civic discourse at its best by showcasing passionate scholars who are engaged in dialogue about complex social issues from diverse and divergent viewpoints . . . in order to reach for tentative, open-to-revision conclusions about those issues,” (xii).  While all of the contributors identify both as “Catholic” and “feminist,” their discussions indicate a keen awareness of the many tensions internal to—as well as between—these two identities, and it is clear that many of the issues considered here (ranging from the Church’s response to human trafficking to the way that sexual ethics courses are taught to the problematic status of single persons within Church and society) are of existential as well as intellectual concern to the authors.

As with any collection of essays, it is difficult to write a brief and coherent review that considers each in detail; nonetheless, certain themes emerge quite prominently from the collection as a whole.  Throughout the essays, from Anne O’Leary’s opening essay on “Mary of Nazareth and the Mysticism of Resistance” to Kristin Heyer’s account of the witness of NETWORK in “Reservoirs of Hope,” and in many other essays, the authors set forth distinctive yet overlapping accounts of how women’s voices are prophetic voices, particularly in the context of speaking out against suffering and injustice.  For example, in the essay mentioned above, O’Leary considers the significance of Mary of Nazareth’s “Magnificant” (Luke 1:46-55) in her particular social context and draws fascinating links not only between the prophetic character of Mary and that of her son Jesus, but also between Mary and Miriam of Egypt (Exodus 15:20-21).  Other essays, such as Nancy Pineda-Madrid’s account of women’s protests against gender-based violence in Ciudad Juárez, trace out the twofold vocation of the prophets—that is, both proclaiming the life-giving reign of God and denouncing the powers that stand against it—as it unfolds in the lives and contexts of particular women.  Other authors (including this site’s Emily Reimer-Barry) write on behalf of those whose flourishing is jeopardized by certain aspects of Catholic teaching on marriage and sexuality.  Given that women have often been excluded from official positions of authority within the state and remain outside the Church’s priestly hierarchy, it is understandable (though I hesitate to say “natural”) that women should most often display leadership in a prophetic capacity.

In his study of Biblical notions of prophecy[2] (dedicated, interestingly, to “sisters in ministry who teach me daily about the power of grief and the gift of amazement”), Walter Brueggemann suggests that “the task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception” which is an alternative to the dominant consciousness in ways that are both critical and energizing (13-14).  Whereas the dominant royal culture is committed to “achievable satiation” through means which deny “the legitimacy of tradition which calls us to remember, of authority that expects us to answer, and of community that calls us to care” (42), the prophets call people to overcome numbness and despair through a public expression of the “hopes and yearnings that have been denied so long and suppressed so deeply that we no longer know they are there,” (67).  Prophetic ministry recognizes that “there is mourning to be done with those who know pain and suffering and lack the power or freedom to bring it to speech”—a hard saying, writes Brueggemann, “for it sets this grief work as the precondition of joy.  It announces that those who have not cared enough to grieve will not know joy,” (112).  Though the authors of Women, Wisdom, and Witness express ambivalence concerning the question of whether there is something distinctive about “women’s ways” of witnessing and engaging in prophetic action, the discussions of lament and listening that conclude the book’s first and second sections offer some evocative material for consideration, particularly in light of Brueggemann and others’ reflections on prophetic ministry and imagination.

In her role as “conversation starter” in the first section (Women’s Experience in the Context of Suffering and Resistance), Maureen O’Connell asks the authors about “women’s particular capacity for lament—the idea of lament as a form of prayer, an articulation of belief, an expression of resistance via a sense that what is, is not what should be or what God intends, and that women, by virtue of particular capacities for relationships that come from fundamental vulnerabilities . . .  have a keen sense of this,” (76).  The authors flesh out this notion of lament as prophetic action in a feminine key as they discuss a mother’s mourning the loss of a child (”Lamenting the individual and the refusal to let go of the particularity of loss is something specific to women,” Mary Doak comments, “Their movement for justice brings in the particularity of the specific person, the name of this woman dead, that child gone, this life cut off,” 87) and the way in which “lament is the universal element that in many cultures . . . is women’s work,” (86).  Among the many reasons that I found this discussion interesting against a backdrop of “prophetic witness” is that it draws an important link between memory and hope, memory and justice; the authors recognize the importance public forms of mourning in order to have true justice in the future (e.g., 85).  Like the authors in this this section, I wonder whether, as a culture and as a church, our ability to face the realities of suffering and loss without distraction or denial—that is, out capacity for lament—is sufficient to drive a truly prophetic (or “revolutionary,” to use Pope Francis’s recent words) ministry.

The book’s second section (Women’s Wisdom in the Context of Academia and Higher Education) also extends this consideration of prophetic witness by its discussion of the crucial role of listening.  In her comments on this section, Michele Saracino was able to link the diverse essays in this section by calling attention to the theme of listening—both listening to voices and listening for voices, which Mary Doyle Roche presents in her essay on “Virtues and Voices.”  If the former calls for humility and openness to those with whom one is in conversation, the latter “demands vigilance about the not-said, the unspoken, the silences, and the ruptures in speech due to power differentials,” (166).  One—relatively minor—criticism of this book is that this second section might have been more aptly titled “Women’s Wisdom in Context: the Church and Catholic Higher Education,” as it seems that conversation in these essays is more concerned with the relationship between (female) Catholic theologians and the Magisterium than it is with the place of women in the academy more broadly.  Each of the essays in this section, as well as those included in the book’s final section on women’s witness in public life, reflects a desire to listen attentively to and for voices that are left out of official Church teaching and/or academic discourse.  Elsewhere in the book, it is claimed that “prophecy implies discernment” and “discernment requires deep listening, dialogue, and critical evaluation,” (17). This link between prophetic witness and listening—not only to the voices of a dominant culture but also to the voices that are marginalized within it—strikes me as an important contribution of this book as a whole.

By refusing to reduce the differences within the Church to simplistic divisions between left and right or “good nuns” and “bad bishops,” the book’s authors maintain the importance of “the kind of genuine conversation that holds the possibility of people and communities being rendered more present to one another,” (278).  Indeed, in the book’s concluding conversation, Kristin Heyer comments that “I don’t think about the church’s internal disagreement as a failure, but actually this is what it’s about—we are better fulfilling its redemptive mission through contestation than through false unity or uniformity or perceived fortitude,” (270-271).  Perhaps a renewed desire for such dialogue—as evidenced not only by this book but also by the work of many who contribute to this blog—is a hopeful sign that prophetic voices may continue to speak in the Church today.

[1] This endowed lecture is named after Sr. Madeleva Wolff, CSC, who during her tenure as President of the College from 1934-1961 founded the first program in the United States to admit women to graduate theological studies.  Past Madeleva lecturers have included Lisa Cahill, Joan Chittister, Margaret Farley, Monika Hellwig, Elizabeth Johnson, and Sandra Schneiders, among others.  The New Voices Seminar also takes as an inspiration the 2000 “Madeleva Manifesto” (available at http://www.madelevalectures.org/manifesto/php).

[2] Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1978).