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Book Review: Alvaré’s “Breaking Through: Catholic Women Speak for Themselves”

Caitlin Bootsma - published on 02/07/13

Dr. Helen Alvaré’s new book gives voice to Catholic women

In her introduction to Breaking Through: Catholic Women Speak for Themselves, editor and contributing author Helen Alvaré writes, “Observers can't seem to decide whether Catholic women are mouthpieces for a celibate male hierarchy, unthinkingly clinging to home and hearth, or card-carrying feminists, who, if they knew what was good for them, would leave the Church, shaking its ancient dust off their sneakers, or pumps, or whatever-the-hell shoes they felt like wearing that day” (Breaking Through, p. 9).

Too many Catholic women can relate to these misconceptions – I know I can. Though non-Catholic family, friends and coworkers might ascribe good intentions to our faithful Catholicism, many believe that we are blinded somehow and would surely leave the Church if only we knew better. Thus, the motivation for Breaking Through becomes clear: it is a direct response to these mischaracterizations, showing through real life experiences that Catholic women can be intelligent, professional, great wives and mothers and (gasp!) think for themselves, willingly choosing to follow the teachings of the Catholic faith.

To those who do not follow or understand the Catholic faith, this book issues a challenge. Alvaré urges people to read testimonies from real Catholic women who, being motivated by love, search for the truth and then live by it. She writes, “It is my outsized hope that the stories offered by the women in this book will help you to understand that there is abundant life and freedom on this path” (18).

Breaking Through is divided into ten chapters, each of which is written by a different author and focuses on an issue or challenge that Catholic women face. The chapters range in subject, dealing with everything from a young lady tackling “Sex, Mating, and the Marriage ‘Market,’” to a doctor truly coming to understand the dangers of contraception, to Alvaré’s analysis of the state of single motherhood today. The articles do not shy away from reality in favor of making the Catholic life or vocational commitments out to be easy or free of struggle. Rather, they emphasize the peace and joy that comes by living a life out of love in accordance with the truth.

This struggle to live faithfully according to the particular life God calls one to comes to life in the chapter “Something Old and Something Really New,” by Mary Devlin Capizzi. Capizzi bucks the stereotype of large Catholic families in that she is the primary breadwinner for her family. She does not say that every woman should work, but rather that this was the path to which God called her family – balancing a job as a lawyer and as a mom of six children. She writes, “[T]he opportunities available to women today are not at odds with Catholic teaching or our ability to model our lives after the saints; everything depends upon our respond and whether, ultimately, we use these opportunities for service – service to God, to the families given to us, and to all those we encounter through work” (84).

Besides the unifying factor of Catholicism, the ten contributing authors are as different as the topics, with professions as diverse as law, medicine, education, and employment in the Church. The women range in age from a young lady still on the dating scene to women with adult and teenage children. They are neither all rich nor all struggling economically; even a religious sister is represented, talking about her surprising discovery of joy in the consecrated life. In other words, they are a prism that reflects the diversity of the modern Catholic woman.

In a time when women are being told by politicians what constitutes “women's issues,” and in which the definition of sexuality has become a free-for-all, the voices of these women are much needed. They are not caricatures of what the world sees as repressed, delusional, and submissive women, but rather – as the title of Alvaré's and another contributing author Kim Daniel's non-profit implies – they are intelligent, independent, and faithful women who “speak for themselves.”

At times, in reading through the book, there were certain chapters or pages that simply made me think, “This is me.” Others, surely, will see themselves in other entries than the ones that I earmarked and reread. This is a book that women will want to give to their friends and families, if for no other reason than that these loved ones might come to see us – Catholic women – as we truly are. As Kim Daniels writes regarding her first experiences of truly Catholic cultures, these women authors “reflected a living faith of feasting and fasting, joy and grief, generosity and sacrifice that witnessed to the truths of our faith without having to articulate them” (162). I've already given away one copy to a friend and replaced it with another. I recommend you do the same.

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