The Catholic Church and Unruly Women Writers: Critical Essays edited by Jeana DelRosso, Leigh Eicke and Ana Kothe. Palgrave MacMillan, New York, 2007.

The Catholic Church and Unruly Women Writers: Critical Essays edited by Jeana DelRosso, Leigh Eicke and Ana Kothe. Palgrave MacMillan, New York, 2007.  ISBN 978-0-230-60025-6, 253 pp.

Reviewed by: Judith Sutera, OSB, Mount St. Scholastica, February, 2011

This series of essays roams a wide range, from medieval subjects like Angela of Foligno to the post-Vatican II world of contemporary women writers. What ties them together is their identification by the editors as ‘unruly women’ writing from within the Catholic Church tradition. Their writings may be letters, literature or personal reflection, but all these women have left marks of their own faith journey on paper.

For some, the writing served to inspire and edify others, inside and outside their Church. In other cases, however, theirs was a paper trail that could cause readers, contemporary or in later scholarship, to question their orthodoxy. For those who were expressing themselves in poetry or prose, and perhaps even for those who felt compelled by the Spirit to speak their truth to the Church, questions of orthodoxy were probably not all that important to them. The question of whether or not they were ‘unruly’ might in fact have seemed fairly irrelevant. The more modern writers especially, who had no desire to write as theologians, were simply formed in a faith that informed, in some way, what they wrote. Some are unashamedly critical of how a Catholic upbringing distorted their perceptions of the world. Some are writers of fiction, so it is open to debate how much, and what parts, of what they write reflects personally held beliefs.

This is not light reading. The essays are, by and large, scholarly literary criticism. There is solid academic research here, and copious footnotes. Especially welcome is the broad geographic spectrum, with several women from the Spanish language tradition represented. This is a group that is only recently receiving the attention it deserves. Included with an essay on the epistolary mode of Teresa of Avila (by Joan Cammarata) and one on the plays of the seventeeth century Mexican Sor Juana (Jeanne Gillespie), there is one on the theology of her Peruvian contemporary Angela Carranza (Stacy Schlau), and on the autobiography of the earlier Spaniard Luisa de Carvajal, who preached against the Reformation in England (Ana Kothe).

More recent times are represented by the social activism of Adelaide Anne Proctor in an essay by Cheri Larsen Hoeckly, and a surprising comparison in a work by Barbara Eckstein. She is able to make a remarkably unexpected connection between New Orleans’ death penalty activist Helen Prejean and its earlier “voodoo queen” Marie Laveau.

In the last section of the book ‘Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries’, contemporary women seem to be represented primarily by women who are writing novels rather than theology. There is a decidedly dark and heavily symbolic bent to their writing. Included are explorations of contemporary Irish-Americans (by Sally Barr Ebest), Marie-Claire Blais (Ben Robertson), Graciela Limón (Mary Jane Suero-Elliott) and Louise Erdrich (Pamela Rader).

For many of these writers, and no doubt for some of those of the earlier eras, there is evidence of a real ambivalence about their Catholicism. The more recent ones sadly reinforce stereotypes of Irish Catholic guilt and education by stern nuns. At the same time, especially in an essay on schoolgirl memoirs by black women (Jeana DelRosso), there is recognition of some of the ultimate values of having been challenged by strong women who were committed to making them achieve.

Ambivalence is often present in the writer, but perhaps sometimes it resides more in the scholars doing the research. A study of recusant Catholic women by Tonya Moutray McArthur shows both the determination and the cleverness of women determined to keep their faith. The theme here is not women who were unruly towards the Church but unruly towards the government in upholding their Church. In fact, many of the women in these essays were motivated by love of their faith. There is not strong evidence that the Church condemned or suppressed them in very many of the essays. There is a great modern temptation to start with the question, ‘How did the Church put up with this?’ The evidence here and elsewhere is that it obviously did. These essays, among many such essays, are about women speaking out throughout the whole course of Christian history.

The Church was a product of the culture in which it lived and so naturally questioned the role of women. Yet history shows that the Church still continually made room for a role outside of the traditional one of wife and mother. A Catherine of Siena, a Hildegarde of Bingen, a Teresa of Avila could hold a place of wisdom and respect in times when female scholars and leadership figures were not all that common in the secular realm.

Outsiders often see the Church as more ‘ruly’ than it is. Later Christian denominations tend to be more rooted in a single national ethos or a single foundational time in history. Catholicism only got to be the longest ongoing institution in Western civilization by making room for other cultures, tolerating dissenting voices (short of what it perceived as heretical, which was not always an accurate perception) and somehow coming to terms with unruly women and the role they played. If one comes to this collection looking for direct clashes between females and hierarchy, between major Church doctrines and defiant detractors, they will be sadly disappointed. Few of these essays are really about unruliness active dissent by women. Rather, they are typical of the many talents and personalities that write from within the enormous tent of humanity that is the Catholic Church. There is a danger of modern researchers wanting to find more trouble than there was, or suggesting that all their stretching of the boundaries was a serious problem for the Church. There is a tendency also to identify the Church with the hierarchy of the Church or the documents and opinions they produced. These unruly women are the Church. These women are unruly in a much broader sense because their voices will neither be subjugated by the Church, nor by those who expect them to fit a narrow definition of that Church.