Professor Stafford Betty’s latest novel, The Womanpriest, describes the journey of a Catholic woman, Macrina McGrath, from youth in a southern American city to an undreamed of, seemingly impossible climax: election to the Seat of Perter in 2080 as the first-ever woman pope of the Roman Catholic Church. Alongside the story of her rise, her emotional ups and downs, her love for a man that tempts her to give up her mission, and a whole host of experiences that most of us will never have, Betty works in a little theology. It was this that interested me most.
As Macrina ascends the Catholic hierarchy, she devotes herself to breaking down barriers and questions religious doctrines that are outdated. Why isn’t Catholic Christianity more inclusive, she asks, more accepting of those on the outside, more tolerant of other beliefs instead of condemning them? Over and over Macrina challenges the Church to become something it currently is not, something better, something more attractive and believable.
She doesn’t shy away from hot-button issues. Why can’t priests be allowed to marry? What if women could be priests? Why is it so important that Mary, the Virgin Mother of Jesus, be a virgin? What if the Trinity were updated to include a Mother? What if belief in reincarnation were tolerated as a possible second chance for souls, including aborted babies, to experience earth? What if the Catholic Church were more accepting of the LGBTQ community? And why can’t the Church be less dogmatic in general? Betty, speaking through Macina, intrigued me with questions like these.
Macrina avoids a damning critique of Catholicism. Her approach is to suggest reforms that are consistent with scientific evidence and a broader, more inclusive spirituality. This is the approach that we Catholics and former Catholics are already using to some degree. But for one like me who has rejected religion, not God, because of its absolutism, I appreciated Betty’s attempt to update a future Catholic religion not based so much on dogma and tradition but on Jesus’ teaching to love one another. I could join that type of Church, one less certain of truth, more willing to have faith that our Creator is so much more all-knowing than we can imagine.
Betty uses Macrina as a means to take a spiritual journey into the religions of the world, the role of God in our lives, and the place of the Catholic Church in a world of multiple religious traditions. Through Macrina he creates a “priest” very different from those we see in today’s Catholic Church, an enlightened woman with a desire to remain deeply connected to the Church even when that same Church excommunicates her. The magic of this book is its success in showing her rise from condemned heretic to beloved pope in a span of 35 years.
As one who likes to ponder God, religions, and the individual’s place in the universe, I enjoyed the spiritual journey The Womanpriest took me on. Throughout the book I was constantly engaged in my own thoughts and compared my own beliefs to those shared and discussed in the novel. Intellectually stimulated to ponder my relationship with God, I did quite a few “what ifs” of my own.
As one who hasn’t been an avid reader of books of late, I found Betty’s narrative technique quite unusual. Many voices are brought together by Macrina’s twin brother Greg as he researches files and archives to chronicle her life. He collects emails, journal entries, sermons she gave, news articles about her, and memories of her from her parents and friends to complete the picture. It’s a challenging but effective way to bring her story to life—filled with soul-searching speculation; her love for Ezra, the Jewish mathematician she met while a professor at Amherst; the thrill of victory over an all-male bureaucracy; a chance to make changes in Church teaching that in the past she could only dream of; fun-loving adventure; humor and tears; and personal tragedy.
I have read some of Professor Betty’s earlier work on afterlife research, but this was something new. If you are looking for a discussion of subjects related to faith, philosophy, and spirit, you are in for a treat. If you want a great story about a unique woman who shakes the world, you are likely to remember her for a long time. I encourage you to find it, read it, and ponder the universe in your own way. The Womanpriest does not disappoint.
~ Sal Moretti, reviewer, The Bakersfield Californian, 3 June 2023