(WOMENSENEWS)–One Easter Sunday in the late 1980s, Angela Bonavoglia, headed for Mass at St. Peter’s Cathedral in Scranton, Pa.
Years earlier, she’d written an article for New Directions for Women, a feminist newspaper, criticizing the Vatican’s directive against ordaining women. Since then her frustration had been growing.
“I know I’m going to do something,” she warned her mother.
During communion, when her chance came to receive the bread and wine, she opened her mouth and gave the priest a piece of her mind.
“The Church has a long way to go to make women equal,” she told a stunned Bishop James Timlin. Once he regained his composure, he invited her to meet with him later. That was the beginning of a very long conversation.
After talking with the bishop–during which she suggested that he excommunicate her for having worked for Planned Parenthood and he
chuckled–Bonavoglia went on to interview close to 200 Catholic women who, like herself, refuse to sit quietly in the pews.
Many of their stories are now in “Good Catholic Girls: How Women Are Leading the Fight to Change the Church,” published by Harper Collins (Regan Books) in early March.
“Angela is exposing in her book that we have great women that the church is determined to turn into good girls,” says Marie Wilson, president of the White House Project, an organization working to advance women into more leadership roles, including that of U.S. president.
“Basically, I want women’s lives to be better,” says Bonavoglia. “The Church has a huge impact on women’s lives.”
Ahead of Media Pack
Writing about women and the Church in books and articles for the last 30 years, Bonavoglia has often forged ahead of the media pack.
Her 1992 article, “The Sacred Secret: Sexual abuse by the clergy,” about clergy sex abuse of women, was published in Ms. magazine a full decade before the scandal over pedophile priests broke into the headlines.
In 2002, she wrote an article for The Nation about women who were taking bold steps to reform the Roman Catholic Church, such as undergoing ordinations condemned by the Vatican.
It’s not easy challenging a powerful organization with a little laptop.
“I feel very naked in that regard,” she says. “Anyone can pick apart my Catholicism. I am in danger of being attacked by the right wing . . . They attack your credibility. They marginalize you. They call you names.”
At the same time, Bonavoglia wishes progressives would offer more support to religious women like herself. “Prayer is not seen as intellectual. The progressive community has been very inhospitable to religion,” she says.
Inspired by Spirited Women
Bonavoglia says her subjects inspired her to write her latest book. “These courageous and spirited women, I fell in love with them,” she says.
They include Joan Chittister, the Benedictine nun, who, at risk of being excommunicated or banished from her monastery, defied the Vatican’s orders not to speak about women’s ordination.
There is also Mary Ramerman, a woman in Rochester, N.Y., who became publicly ordained four years ago. Despite being ordered off the altar by a Rochester bishop, she persists in her church leadership role.
There are many theologians cited, including women who have been fired for reconstructing Biblical history to include early, influential Christian women. Elizabeth Johnson, who was Catholic University of America’s first woman to earn a PhD in theology and join its faculty, quit after being disparaged, insulted and dragged before a court of cardinals to defend her views.
Determined Push ‘From Within’
Marie Wilson–who says she turned to feminism after her hopes of becoming a Presbyterian minister were stymied by earlier prohibitions against female ministers–praises Bonavoglia’s determination to push Church reform from within.
“Angela is extraordinarily brave in taking on the Catholic Church,” says Wilson, “Whereas others have walked off or left it, Angela has been steady in dealing with the Church. She understands that the Church has enormous power.”
In her book, Bonavoglia discusses her early spiritual attachment to the Catholic Church and a girlhood infused with incense, religious rituals and the images of early Catholic saints.
But as a teen-ager, she was mortified at being called a tramp by a priest after she confessed to necking with her boyfriend. Another time, a priest reeking of alcohol came on to her. During the late 1960s in college she encountered a blossoming women’s movement that spurred her to question the Church’s prohibition against women entering the priesthood.
“That denigration of women,” Bonavoglia told Women’s Enews, “that refusal to see women as embodying the sacred or to allow women access to real power and that institutional control of women’s private lives feeds the oppression of and discrimination against women in real life, worldwide.”
Features, Op-Eds, Investigations
Bonavoglia’s features, op-eds and investigative pieces have appeared in Redbook, Mirabella, Cosmopolitan, Newsday and The New York Times. Her first news story for Ms. was published around 1980 and she continued with that publication for the next decade as a contributing editor.
In a 1988 Ms. article, she wrote about a pregnant teen-ager who, fearing her abusive stepfather, went before an anti-choice Alabama judge for permission to have an abortion. She was denied. She was the first teen in Alabama to try the courts for permission. Sometime after Bonavoglia’s article, the judge was investigated and eventually removed from the bench.
“Angela’s always understood the fundamental importance of reproductive rights issues,” Gloria Steinem told Women’s eNews. “Angela’s information is trustworthy. She’s always been a very thorough and responsible reporter. That is a gift.”
Steinem recalls that in Bonavoglia’s 1991 book, “The Choices We Made: 25 Women and Men Speak Out About Abortion,” Bonavoglia allowed the voices of her subjects to take precedence as they described their personal experiences with abortion. “Angela added flesh to the bone,” says Steinem.
Bonavoglia was diagnosed with breast cancer in the early 1990s, which prompted her to write opinion and investigative stories on that health topic and on the sensitive issue of breast reconstruction, especially as the Food and Drug Administration was, at that moment, in the heated throes of determining whether to allow silicon breast implants to remain on the market.
With “Good Catholic Girls,” Bonavoglia has once again added her own voice to the fray. “It’s a really helpful and insightful infusion of people and policy in the history of the church. I hope the Pope reads it,” says Steinem.
The past Easter Sunday, more than 15 years after confronting Bishop Timlin, Bonavoglia attended an ecumenical Mass at an Episcopal church. A female minister retold the gospel story of Mary Magdalene’s discovery that Christ had risen and passing that information on to “official disciples.”
“It pains me that Mary Magdalene is still not seen as an official disciple and that her role and the role of the women in Jesus’ time is still seen as so ancillary,” Bonavoglia sighs.
Then she brightens. “It made me happy that I have a book out there right now that can help to set that record straight.”
Ann Farmer is an independent journalist who reports for The New York Times and writes about culture, law, women’s issues, and other subjects for Emmy, Dance Magazine, Yahoo! Internet Life, The Christian Science Monitor, and other publications.
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