PRODIGAL DAUGHTERS: Catholic women come home to the Church, ed. Donna Steichen

PRODIGAL DAUGHTERS: Catholic women come home to the Church, ed. Donna Steichen

Michael Daniel

A book that challenges popular feminist stereotypes

Catholic women come home to the Church
Edited by Donna Steichen
(Ignatius Press, first published 1999, 353pp, $33.90. ISBN: 0898707-323-9

This is a book that will challenge and defy popular stereotypes. If elements of the popular press and radical feminists from within the Church are to be believed, the Catholic Church is an organisation that oppresses women and has only itself to blame for the huge loss of female numbers.

Such an interpretation is challenged by the stories of the reverts to Catholicism contained in this anthology. While each story is unique, as Donna Steichen notes in her introduction and conclusion, some common patterns emerge.

Many of the women left the practice of their faith because they perceived that the Church was either irrelevant to their needs or their aspirations as women. Born and raised in the decades immediately following WWII, they came of age in the 1960s in a culture that questioned and rebelled against received values. It was also an era in which women not only demanded equal rights but gained more opportunities.

Faith weakened

Not only were there largely external pressures on Catholic women entering adulthood for Steichen also identifies factors within the Church in the years following the Second Vatican Council that shook the faith of these women: vacuous faith formation in the form of defective religious instruction; and changes in the liturgy which all too often replaced the Latin Mass with banal celebrations of Mass, featuring music described as "sacro-pop", and being riddled with liturgical abuses and lacking any sense of the sacred.

Sadly many of these women experienced emptiness in their years away from the Church with some of them enduring the pain of broken marriages. Others, discovering they were pregnant, underwent abortions and suffered what has now been described as post-abortion trauma syndrome.

Some were extremely angry with the Church, seeing it as a basis for patriarchal oppression while others simply saw it as irrelevant.

Given what were often negative experiences in the Church and the problems within the Church that in some cases were the catalyst for lapsing away, it is a testament to the power of God's grace that these women not only returned to the faith but have themselves become staunch defenders and champions of it.

The routes by which they returned are all unique; however, some had similar experiences. Many ended up in Protestant denominations and returned when they were challenged by the claims of the Catholic Church. Others, such as Moira Noonan, left behind the New Age movement, while others such as Constance Buck realised that Consciousness Raising seminars were no alternative to authentic spirituality.

The odd one out on many levels is Juli Wiley who became ensconced with radical feminist groups within the Church led by luminaries such as Sr Joan Chittister.

This is an inspiring book. The accounts of the work of God in the lives of the women contained therein are an inspiration, as Steichen notes, particularly to parents whose daughters seem to have abandoned the faith. She concludes by talking about the special vocation of parents to pray for such children. The good news from this book is that - contrary to popular opinion -radical secular feminism has not had the final word!

Michael E Daniel teaches at a Melbourne independent secondary school.

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