Beginning with the premise that the contemporary Catholic Church is in trouble, Phyllis Zagano in Women & Catholicism: Gender, Community, and Authority, examines church authority and communion through a lens of gender in an effort to understand the hierarchy’s “perceived need . . . to keep women at a distance from the holy, whether as liturgical ministers, as wives of priests, or as priests themselves” (xii). In her pursuit to understand women’s apparent gender-based inability to hold any authority within the church, Zagano focuses on three areas where there is room for debate and further dialogue.
Zagano divides her work into three case studies to examine juridical and sacramental authority of the church as it relates to the laity, married priests, and women’s ordination. In the first case, Zagano looks at juridical authority of Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Nebraska and his campaign to end Call to Action in his diocese. The second section of the book deals with married priests and the sacramental authority of Archbisop Emmanuel Milango of Africa, who married and took up an association with the Rev. Sun Myung Moon. Zagano’s use of these two examples effectively demonstrates her clear understanding of the intricacies of Canon Law. Zagano also looks at married priests in the underground church in Czechoslovakia in order to make the distinction between Milango’s choice to marry, thereby breaking the laws of the church, and the necessity of ordaining married men during a Communist regime. In both sections, Zagano sheds light on how and why Bishop Bruskewitz exercised his authority in Nebraska despite opposition. The same can be said for Archbishop [End Page 81] Milango, but in this case, she focuses on how he had lost his sacramental authority. Zagano spends roughly two thirds of Women & Catholicism highlighting male authority and roles within the church. It is only when she turns to her last section of the book on women’s ordination that her readers get a sense of how church authorities prevent women from ordination, whether as deacons, priests, or bishops. Zagano’s study effectively draws attention to the confusion and contractions of Canon Law, papal Notifications, and interdicts which have barred women from ordination of any kind. She concludes that “gender barrier regarding women’s ordination is not easily overcome” (106).
If there were one criticism of Women & Catholicism it would be that Zagano’s title does not reflect her study. Very little of the book actually deals directly with women. Furthermore, the author choses extreme examples of male abuse of power. The author’s discussion of women’s ordination in conjunction with these examples, however, sheds light on the limit of what the church sanctions for women. For those unfamiliar with the intricacies of canon law, understanding how women on a daily basis relate to Catholic Church authority would add to Zagano’s study. Women & Catholicism raises important questions about the contemporary Catholic Church that need continued discussion. It is for this reason Zagano’s study is a necessary and valuable work.