Even though prolife activist and law professor Helen Alvaré dismisses feminism in her introduction to Breaking Through: Catholic Women Speak for Themselves, the book ends up proving the feminist adage that “the personal is political.” Written by and for women who wholeheartedly embrace church teachings concerning sexuality and gender, the essays in this collection may evoke indifference among some readers and anger among others. Yet Breaking Through is worth reading, both for its stories of faith and for its window on the fractious landscape of contemporary American Catholicism.
In discussing how Catholicism intersects with everyday experiences of dating, work, love, and family life, the book’s authors aim—as do feminists—to bring personal experiences and perspectives to bear on the politics of issues like abortion, contraception, clergy sexual abuse, and same-sex marriage. The premise of the book is as follows. The general public is curious about Catholic women and their relationship to the church, but ill-informed. Most Americans believe that Catholic teachings, especially those concerning human sexuality, are contrary to women’s interests and out of step with contemporary thought because they inhibit women’s rights and freedoms. “Catholic women in agreement with this perspective,” Alvaré asserts, “get ample media play. The rest of us have to create our own opportunities.”
And here they do. The authors are at their best when speaking from their own experiences—of mothering, materialism, vocation, or simple human connection—and of the ways in which their Catholicism has deepened over time. Elise Italiano discusses the difficulty of being a single woman who wants to save sexual intimacy for marriage while participating in a dating culture where casual sexual availability is the norm. Mary Hallan FioRito writes of her efforts to put material possessions and her love of fine things into proper balance with family life, a challenge in which her marvelous acquaintance with the saints provides unexpected help. And Kim Daniels extols the importance of fidelity to parish and neighborhood in everyday life, urging Catholic women to dedicate themselves, as did their forebears, to practical actions that create cohesion in community and parish.
Even if not everyone shares the traditionalism of their view of women and Catholicism, these voices deserve to be heard. The essays that do not engage personal experiences prove less interesting. Many of these chapters grapple with culture-war issues, including single motherhood and homosexuality, and use data gleaned from social science to reach conclusions that predictably support church teachings and views of social problems. Alvaré’s essay on single motherhood is a case in point. Although she cites some of the best recent research about single mothers, her suggestions for reducing single motherhood fail to consider sufficiently the economic and cultural conditions that many single mothers encounter. Similarly, Michelle Critella, a medical doctor who writes about homosexuality, mentions that she experienced same-sex attraction as a teen—then uses her essay to build a research-based case for church teachings requiring celibate chastity of homosexuals, overlooking the importance of sexual identity in human experience.
I do not believe one necessarily needs personal experience of a social problem in order to have insight into it. But these authors appear at times to lack genuine understanding of the structural causes of the problems they examine—and, as a result, they too freely propose solutions to other people’s problems without considering other people’s circumstances. This limitation is political. Breaking Through presents not only a univocal religious point of view, but a privileged swath of women’s experience. Although Alvaré emphasizes their diversity, these essayists are nearly all middle-class, well educated, professionally accomplished, and if married, successfully so. Given the book’s premise, it is disappointing that Catholic women who are single parents or have had an unwanted pregnancy, for example, were not invited into this discussion. Whatever the reason for this exclusion, the book’s roster of contributors reflects all too well the demography of the conservative politics the book articulates.
Breaking Through is a mixed blessing. Its nine essays are often thoughtful and sometimes perceptive, and give Catholic women an opportunity to be heard on political issues. The faith journeys described in these pages, which often include long-ago personal struggles with the church, are honest and at times beautiful. But the exclusion of viewpoints from women who currently struggle with church teachings is a political choice itself and one with ironic results. Though it aspires to a countercultural agenda, Breaking Through not only reproduces the polarized politics of the broader culture, but is in danger of being co-opted by it. In my view, its limited choice of voices is more likely to contribute to division and doctrinal exclusion within the Catholic community than to the inclusive universality that is Catholicism’s distinctive genius.