Discussions of a “theology of women in the church” continues in the press… my thoughts

Discussions of a “theology of women in the church” continues in the press… my thoughts

Two pieces that have come out in the press this past week that continue to express interest in what Pope Francis alluded to when he talked about “a deeper theology of women in the church.” One very much reflecting an important Marian perspective found in magisterial teachings, and the other offering a wide ranging sampling of opinions from Catholic women from around the country — yours truly was even quoted among them.

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My photo of a pilgrim image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Patroness of the Americas

The first is from theologian Pia di Solenni, PhD, in the National Catholic Register, who very much echoes my own view that the church already has a theology of women, and what we need is a deeper integration of that message world-wide. Further, in my previous post, and in my book, Blessed, Beautiful, and Bodacious, I made the point that Blessed John Paul II’s writings are calling women to a new feminism that fully integrates our Christian values. And in so doing, the Church must look to Mary, the Mother of God, as shedding light on a woman’s dignity. Long before John Paul took up the subject, we have had centuries of Marian meditation and Mariology, such that Mary ought to be the cornerstone of that new feminism, just as Jesus is the cornerstone of Christianity.

At the Register, Di Solenni describes her doctoral studies that explored John Paul II’s Mulieris Dignatatem as well as other works. She describes John Paul’s thoughts on womanhood through the lens of Mary… and how an adequate theology must look deeply into the woman as she truly is, not just what she does.

[John Paul II] focused on Mary, the woman, whom, in Mulieris, he had set up as a paradigm for all humanity, including himself and every other priest, by virtue of her response to God’s call.

The shift to Mary emphasizes the change in emphasis from doing to being. We actually know very little about what Mary did. But we know who she is: the Mother of God. Her ability to become a mother fundamentally enabled her to be open to God in a relationship that only a woman could have. Her response, uniquely feminine, paradoxically, became the model for all humanity.

Toward the end of John Paul’s life, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, under Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, issued a letter to the bishops, On the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World, which emphasized that women “have a role in every aspect of society.”

If we follow the example of Mary, that means working from within, wherever we happen to be, whether as chancellor of a major archdiocese, a mother home with small children, in business, politics or countless other places. It means recognizing that women bring something to the table by virtue of who they are rather than simply by what they do.

If Mary’s role as homemaker had been so vital, Jesus would have left the preparation of the Passover meal to her and not to the apostles. (I’m willing to bet she would’ve put on a better spread.) She was defined by who she was, by her relation with Jesus, not by what she did. Similarly, we know that the apostles weren’t the smartest or the holiest bunch of men. But Jesus didn’t pick them for their accomplishments.

[Read the rest.]

I think there are two areas that we should address when we want to discuss a theology of women… the first is the role of women in the church alluded to in the Pope’s comments. Specifically, that is, roles within the Church that equal leadership, that is the doing of things. Yet, this doing must flow from the primacy of one’s being. And the context of being is the larger context, embracing the doing. DiSolenni’s point is the profound starting place… women bring something to the table by virtue of who they are rather than simply by what they do.

In yesterday’s Washington Post’s “On Faith” article by Elizabeth Tenety, a wide-ranging discussion continues under the headline, “What Catholic Women Want.”

It is largely a discussion of the doings of women, and within it, and one aspect the article describes is the seeming inequity of women not being allowed to be priests. The Catholic Church has an ordained hierarchy. Francis makes the point that the subject of woman’s ordination is closed. And frankly, I don’t have a beef with that, and never have. I believe that decision flows from the being question. The “doing” of things is not requisite for the dignity of being. Yes, the human dignity questions go very deep, all the way to a person’s ontology — their very being. The dignity of a man, flows from his personhood, but in a man’s personhood we also see and regard his masculinity and his paternal gift, that of fatherhood. A woman’s dignity flows from her personhood, including her femininity and maternal gift  –motherhood. We share one human nature with complimentary and distinctive genders, male and female. There are ontological, biological, spiritual, and anthropologically differences between men and women, and respect for these aspects of our humanity need to be acknowledged.

Meanwhile over the last several years I increasingly see more women emerging in local Northeast church leadership and administration of dioceses and parishes. This trend, in time, may eventually lead to more qualified women serving in the Roman Curia or as leaders within Pontifical societies without having to be ordained. There is room for the complimentary gifts of lay women and lay men, as well as members of religious orders, to work in collaboration with the ordained hierarchy, as mentioned in DiSolenni’s article above.

I discussed the emergence of women leaders, both current and historical, with Ms. Tenety in our conversation leading up to her article, and I was very pleased to see her express similar ideas in her piece.

No one denies that women have played a crucial role in the spiritual life of the church, from the often-thankless work of raising children and ministering to the needy in parishes, to the theological contributions of the four female “doctors of the church” (all named since the 1970’s) like Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. The church, as Francis referenced, already has a theology of women, centered in documents like ‘On the Dignity of Women’ and John Paul II’s work on what is called the “theology of the body,” the teaching that differences in gender point to differences in men and women’s nature. But even the pope says more must be done.

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, the first female director of communications at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, says that “women don’t feel heard. So just being heard is a major move forward.”

Catholic writer, activist and new mother Ashley McGuire recommends the Vatican start by convening a council of women theologians, activists, educators and leaders at all levels to help the hierarchy address “the issues women are struggling with and then helping the church then to present church teaching back to women in a way that reaches women.”

Permission to lead

One issue Catholic women struggle with? The question of authority and leadership in the church. This is 2013, they say, and Catholic women want to lead, they want to be allowed to lead, and they want to be encouraged to lead.

“The feminine presence in the church has not been emphasized much, because the temptation of chauvinism has not allowed for the place that belongs to the women of the community to be made very visible.” The source of that quote? Jorge Bergoglio, the man now known as Pope Francis, in a 2010 book.

The exclusion of women from the priesthood is one highly-cited practice that is often seen, even within the church, as plainly discriminatory, and a 2010 poll by The New York Times/ CBS showed that 59 percent of American Catholics favor the ordination of women. But the church does not operate by popular opinion and the longstanding teaching on the all-male priesthood is one of the oldest traditions of one of the oldest religions in the world. Pope John Paul II said the question of female ordination was not open for debate and said the church “has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women”; Pope Francis, in his news conference, affirmed that teaching. For some Catholics, anything short of ordination means that women will never achieve equal status or influence as men.

From my vantage point, according to the dignity of the human person, women already possess an equal status with men as persons, and women’s ordination will not change that, or strengthen it. This is a confusion of the being and doing. Not everyone is clamoring for women’s ordination and I was glad to see Tenety’s piece identify that.

Others see nothing unfair about men and women having different roles, and identify huge potential for female leadership in the church, from the parish level all the way to the Vatican.

“The first step is to encourage what is already permissible,” says [Sr Mary Ann] Walsh. In other words, deepening a theology of women would encourage the church to find ways to get women in positions of greater authority and influence. Catholic women have already proven their ability to lead major organizations like schools and hospitals. Can that authority extend to the Roman Curia?

Pope Francis says he wants to move beyond the image of the church as chauvinistic. Catholic women have some ideas on how to get there: Bring more women into key positions in the Vatican, as consultants and theologians and heads of offices that don’t require holy orders. Map an affirmative action plan for qualified females to infiltrate Curia positions, such as members of the Congregation on the Doctrine of the Faith, where few women today serve. Encourage women to work as chancellors of dioceses around the world. Help them to prepare for careers as pastoral associates, who fill many of the roles of the traditional parish priest, a task needed more than ever due to the priest shortage in the West. Some even say that a theological argument can be made for women to serve as deacons, with a spate of articles in the Catholic world exploring the issue. Catholic women across the ideological spectrum, many of whom point to female leaders already working in the church like Harvard legal scholar Mary Ann Glendon, now serving as adviser to Pope Francis on Vatican finances, nonetheless agree that these are positions that women not only can fill, but should.

So that’s part of the doing questions that should be discussed, and I’d welcome Francis’ thoughts on this in the future — how women can best serve within the church’s leadership, besides the many roles they are already doing within catechesis, in schools, or as diocesan or parish staff members.

What remains is the larger framework — the being questions — that side of “what women want” that is more universal. Simply, women would like to know the church is for them, not against them. The Church does have a positive message about women — with aspects that we call the feminine genius, or the gospel of life, or the dignity of the human person, or theology of the body —  but much of it is still not widespread and known. The media’s contrary spin about the church’s negative attitude toward women has affected our cultural mindset. We need a renewal of our consciences on these matters, and I take up the idea of renewing our conscience in chapter one of my book.

This message to women — the beauty of the feminine genius and the call to a new feminism — is clearly suffering from a marketing problem among Catholic women themselves. One of the reasons I wrote my book was to begin conversations to familiarize women with what the church has already proclaimed about women, and share the resources on the subject.

I see advancing the dignity and vocations of women as an important part of the new evangelization that cannot be overlooked. It is easy to see that from a human dignity standpoint, anti-women biases, especially in the third world are still prevalent and need correction. And in the West, where women have the most advantages, there are mounting anti-life losses that affect the maternal core of femininity — contraception, abortion, sexual abuse, and more.

A new feminism, a deeper or more profound theology of women, universally preached and taught will have life-giving and healing results for women and men. As more people embrace this message, it will transform the landscape, not just locally, but globally. I said as much in Tenety’s article:

Pat Gohn, a Catholic author of a recent book on the church and women, sees the potential for a renewed theology of women to “have a ripple effect in civil society.” Says Gohn, “I think this idea of the dignity of women has not been made universal yet. Women are still suffering on multiple levels from all types of injustice like abuse and sexual slavery.” Because the Catholic Church has global reach, she says, the result of a deepening theology of women could “touch all of those problem areas where women are in trouble and in need.”

The impact could not only touch those in desperate poverty, but also women in the developed world who still struggle in other ways.

For example, Alvaré says, “corporate culture, law and policy would have to do a whole lot more taking account of motherhood than it does now.” Paid maternity leave for all mothers is on the table. So is an invigorated cultural effort to support women who want to work part-time in order to spend more time with their families. Also just as relevant, says Janet Smith, would be a greater respect for women who choose to stay at home and raise children.

“Feminism didn’t fight the diminution of a woman who chose to spend her time dedicating herself to being a wife and mother,” Smith says. Enter: a theology of women, which she says “to some extent is meant to show that women don’t have to live life by the rules of men.” [Read the rest.]

To be clear, an enriched theology of women, like any good theology, is never about what any of us might want, as Tenety’s catchy headline might read, as if we could concoct a recipe for it…  a theology must examine how the church might apply Sacred scripture and tradition to the problems of our time, and in this case, to the problems that face women. A theology is the study of God, and if we are talking about a theology of women in the church, we must look critically at God’s creation in light of God’s revelation. And God’s Incarnation has revealed himself quite profoundly in and through The Woman, Mary — God’s masterpiece of creation.

A deeper or more profound theology of womanhood would speak to women universally, and at the same time, it would not invalidate what has been already accepted doctrinally within the church. It would build on them, enhance them. Divine revelation ended with the death of the last apostle. We already possess the fullness of truth, thanks to the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Yet, we can grow deeper in our awareness and understanding of our faith traditions, such as the dignity of the human person, and of Mariology, already mentioned. These  social and Marian doctrines are in keeping with Scripture and Tradition.

One final thought for the moment in distinguishing between doctrine and disciplines. (And thanks to Fr Dwight Longenecker’s eloquence in an interview recently when he said, “Doctrines develop and grow, but they can’t be changed. A discipline of the church can be changed, however.”) We must remember that doctrine is different from the disciplines of the church, or even, say, the local or national hiring practices within dioceses and parishes. It is here where a deeper theology and universal acceptance of the dignity and vocation of women would assist increasing the number of women within leadership roles in the church, for that is within the disciplines of church governance, in collaboration with the hierarchy.

From a doctrinal standpoint, we already have the social doctrine of the dignity of the human person, and the dignity and vocation of women falls well within that. Plus, particularly in the last fifty years, the church through her popes have given us documents pointing out the beauty and strength of the feminine genius. And, finally, I’ll end where I began this post: we have Mary, whose power and influence cannot be overlooked in terms of the action of the Spirit of God through her.

We need a deeper, better, and more profound reception of these things now, and in the years ahead.

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