Flash Points in Sex and Gender: Case Studies from the Fringe Underlie Analysis of Women in Catholicism

By Dallavalle, Nancy | National Catholic Reporter, August 5, 2011 | Go to article overview

Flash Points in Sex and Gender: Case Studies from the Fringe Underlie Analysis of Women in Catholicism


Dallavalle, Nancy, National Catholic Reporter


Phyllis Zagano has long been a careful and reasonable voice, active in both scholarly and media conversations about Catholicism. Author or editor of more than a dozen books and numerous scholarly articles, particularly in the field of spirituality, she has turned her talents in recent years more often to questions about the church and the role of women. (Her blog, Just Catholic, appears on the NCR Web site.)

Thus my first impression, scanning the table of contents for this latest offering, was puzzlement. This is a writer who championed the ordination of women to the diaconate but oh-so-carefully sidestepped the question of the ordination of women to the priesthood (Holy Saturday: An Argument for the Restoration of me Female Diaconate in the Catholic Church, Crossroad). This is the writer who highlights the giants of the great spiritual traditions of the West (the Spirituality in History series, Liturgical Press) and responds directly to the times with a tender and straightforward handbook for starting a prayer life (On Prayer: A Letter to My Godchild, Ligouri).

That was then. Her current study finds her hanging out with Lincoln, Neb., Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz, Call to Action, the Society of St. Pius X, Married Priests Now!, Roman Catholic Womenpriests, and the simply weird case of Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo of Lusaka, Zambia--healer, exorcist and on-again, off-again spouse. Somehow Zagano seems to have moved from the nourishing soup of history and prayer straight to the macadamia nuts.

All these players form a series of three "case studies" that have common themes, Zagano claims: internal communion, hierarchical authority, and gender. In the first, we are introduced to Bruskewitz, who came into office brandishing antifeminist tracts, rejecting the notion of altar girls, and, finally, issuing his famous decree of automatic excommunication for Catholics in the diocese who were members of any of a dozen groups he found to be problematic. Zagano teases out the canonical niceties of this (the bishop did not sign this piece of legislation?) and traces the rise of Call to Action along the way, noting that the bishop seemed to be most annoyed when Call to Action Nebraska (already banned from his diocese) would feature women religious as speakers. When the sex abuse crisis breaks, Bruskewitz breaks with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, finding that their common efforts would impinge on his rightful authority over his diocese. His touchstone is the juridical; he reports only to Rome; the notion of internal communion seems to mean little to him.

In the second scenario, communion and authority are clearly at issue, as Milingo exercised a popular but controversial ministry as healer and exorcist in Zambia, running afoul of the Vatican and his fellow African bishops for flouting the norms for exorcism, under the banner of inculturating Catholicism for African believers. That was just phase one. In "retirement" in Rome, he married Maria Sung, a Korean woman, in a mass wedding under the banner of the Unification Church; renounced his wife for several years; then re-appeared as the initial organizer for a movement based in the U.S. called Married Priests Now!, still married (or remarried?) to Sung. It would seem that sex, not gender, has now been introduced--except for Zagano's careful examination of Milingo's rationale for married priests. …

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