Mary Jeremy Daigler, Incompatible with God’s Design: A History of the Women’s Ordination Movement in the U.S. Roman Catholic Church, The Scarecrow Press, Inc., Lanham, Toronto, and Plymouth, 2012.

Mary Jeremy Daigler, Incompatible with God’s Design: A History of the Women’s Ordination Movement in the U.S. Roman Catholic Church, The Scarecrow Press, Inc., Lanham, Toronto, and Plymouth, 2012. $75.00, ISBN 978 0 8108 8479 3 (hardback), pp. v + 201

Reviewed by: Jillian Plummer, doctoral candidate, University of Notre Dame, February 2014

Mary Daigler’s Incompatible with God’s Designdelivers the first comprehensive history of the Roman Catholic women’s ordination movement in the United States. Daigler does not restrict the chronology of her book to the post-Conciliar era, yet she derives the majority of her primary source documentation from the post-1970 period. An ambitious study, Daigler’s work compiles a wide-ranging and previously disconnected assortment of primary sources, such as organizational newsletters, personal correspondences, and contemporary feminist theological scholarship. Daigler’s study moves away from the more usual historical model of focusing on a specific organization and instead crafts a more complex narrative by considering local, national, and international groups and personalities that supported the goals of the women’s ordination movement within and beyond the United States. She dedicates chapters to the following advocates of female ordination and women priests: lay women, such as Mary B. Lynch; women religious, including Teresa Kane, RSM; clergymen, such as William Callahan, SJ; and to the movement’s international figures, including Ludmila Javorova, Ida Raming, and Iris Mueller.

Daigler’s examination of key leaders, supportive groups, and individual advocates of the female priesthood within the Catholic Church remains central to her analysis of the movement as a whole. Daigler surveys the life of Mary B. Lynch and the growth of the diaconate movement in the United States. She investigates the directors of the Women’s Ordination Conference and the importance of the Quixote Center as an organizational home for the U.S. branch of the movement. Daigler also considers clergy, both priests and bishops, who offered support to the goal of women’s ordination as part of a wide-ranging social justice agenda or as a key issue in their academic research, lectures and scholarship. Daigler’s analysis of William Callahan, SJ, and the founding of ‘Priests for Equality’, a group of clerics who supported female priests, illustrates that advocacy for gender equality within the Roman Catholic Church not only included women but also ordained men. She reminds readers that a vast array of clerical perspectives on subject of women’s ordination circulated within the post-conciliar Church.

Daigler’s survey of the female ordination movement provides a critical contribution to research exploring female participation in a transnational Catholic arena. She connects the American road to advocacy for the female priesthood to the distant advocates of women’s ordination across the globe. She notes that Mary B. Lynch, a leader of the U.S. deaconess movement and a later advocate for female ordination, communicated with many international Catholic women in Europe and Latin America. Daigler devotes an entire chapter to the international influences inside and outside the Western sphere of influence on America’s female ordination movement. By highlighting that women possessed similar desires in divergent geographic locations, such as Bangladesh, Brazil, and Uganda, Daigler critiques the idea that advocacy for an equal role for females within the Church remained unique to the Western World. Yet while Daigler surveys supporters of female ordination and the increased number of female priests around the globe, she leaves a large lacuna for other scholars. Further research will reveal how these transnational connections more directly influenced actions and ideas in the American context.

Daigler’s most fully developed and convincing exposition of a connection between advocates in the United States and members of an international female ordination movement consists of her analysis of the founding of St. Joan’s Alliance in England in 1911. This organization, devoted to female suffrage and later to the ordination of women to the priesthood, had an international presence in twenty-four different countries and travelled across the Atlantic in 1965 (p. 13). Its well-known scholarly work arguing for a female priesthood circulated around the time of the Second Vatican Council in Europe and later in the United States (p. 19). Daigler’s conclusion also aptly surveys how the international dimension of the ordination movement remains central to the lifespan of its American counterpart. She investigates issues threatening the continued existence and success of the movement in the United States and beyond, including disillusioned youth, classism, racism, and divergent theological motivations.

Daigler’s research offers intriguing insights for scholars interested in gender and Catholicism in the post-Conciliar era. Her analysis of Mary Lynch’s traditional Catholicism as the primary motivating factor in Lynch’s desire for female ordination complicates narratives that draw binaries between ‘conservative’ or ‘progressive’ factions following the Second Vatican Council. Daigler argues that Lynch ultimately sought the priesthood because she viewed its reward through its pre-Conciliar lens as the ultimate and most direct union with God on earth, a connection open only to vowed religious before Vatican II (p. 39). Further, Daigler’s expertise in theology facilitates her ability to critique modern scholars who emphasize the conservative tenor of Thomistic philosophy. She demonstrates that supporters of the ordination movement espouse the Greek virtue of epikeiaemployed by Thomas Aquinas in his definition of law. This virtue dictates that an unreasonable regulation which fails to serve the common good remains ‘no law at all’ (p. 170).

Daigler devotes sizable space to the discussion of the complex and conflicted role played by female religious, priests, and bishops within the female ordination movement. Daigler’s status as a Sister of Mercy gives her an insider perspective that comes through in her analysis, for instance in her discussion of vowed religious women’s participation in the ordination movement in the early 1970s. Daigler offers a corrective to the familiar narrative that religious sisters rather than lay women founded and guided women in seeking a more priestly role within the Catholic Church (p. 53). Yet her most powerful contribution in her chapter entitled, ‘Mosaic: Role of Women Religious in the Movement’, remains her analysis of the pre-Conciliar holiness scale that emphasized female vowed religious as ‘semi-clerical’. Daigler examines how this continued understanding of women religious as more divine and less womanly meant that some lay women perceived the involvement of religious sisters as controlling and oppressive rather than as cooperative and mutually supportive (p. 73).

Daigler’s decision to integrate not only national organizations, but also personal biographies of leading figures, international developments, and smaller supportive groups, hindered the overall structure of her book. While the vignettes of central figures provided a great strength to the analysis, an overemphasis on individuals also undermined Daigler’s ability to demonstrate what she views as a coherent and connected global ‘movement’. Further, the first and final chapters accept the underlying assumption that progress toward female equality and ordination within the Roman Catholic Church remains inevitable (p. 178). She concludes that the struggle remains similar to a ‘domino effect’ and although there will be challenges, ‘in the end all those tiny walls will fall’ (p. 178). This teleology within Daigler’s narrative undercut an otherwise informative and critical historical analysis.

This survey of the women’s ordination movement in the U.S. is suited for readers who are unfamiliar with the topic and eager for a basic understanding of its origins, goals and disappointments. Educators teaching at the undergraduate level might find it useful as an introductory text because of its comprehensive scope. Daigler’s book will provoke interesting discussion and reflection in any lower-level college course which aims to introduce students to gender struggles within the post-Conciliar Catholic Church.