Learn more about my latest book – All In: Why Belonging to the Catholic Church Matters. Available now!

A little bit more from Francis on a theology of women in the church….

Most Catholics I know have heard of or read the now-famous interview with Pope Francis in America magazine. I sincerely hope that you read it for yourself, as some of the media summaries of the interview are skewed as they don’t often report from the lens, or context, of faith. Yes, its 12,000 words, but take some time –and read it for yourself.

(In other news, just yesterday, the Pope gave another interview in LaRepubblica in Italy — though some folks are quibbling about the translation to the English, and for now I’m just going to say that in regard to women, he told the reporter he’d like to cover that subject on a later day –  “We will also discuss the role of women in the Church. Remember that the Church (la chiesa) is feminine.”.)

As you may also recall, the Pope has been making some noise about women in the church in his post-WYD interview weeks back. So there are many of us who watching and wondering just when he might talk more about this. Turns out, we didn’t have to wait too long. However, must of what Pope Francis shares in this interview has been shared before.

Let’s look at that portion from the America interview…

Women in the Life of the Church

And what about the role of women in the church? The pope has made reference to this issue on several occasions. He took up the matter during the return trip from Rio de Janeiro, claiming that the church still lacks a profound theology of women. I ask: “What should be the role of women in the church? How do we make their role more visible today?”

We must therefore investigate further the role of women in the church.

He answers: “I am wary of a solution that can be reduced to a kind of ‘female machismo,’ because a woman has a different make-up than a man. But what I hear about the role of women is often inspired by an ideology of machismoWomen are asking deep questions that must be addressed. The church cannot be herself without the woman and her role. The woman is essential for the church. Mary, a woman, is more important than the bishops. I say this because we must not confuse the function with the dignity. We must therefore investigate further the role of women in the church. We have to work harder to develop a profound theology of the woman. Only by making this step will it be possible to better reflect on their function within the church. The feminine genius is needed wherever we make important decisions. The challenge today is this: to think about the specific place of women also in those places where the authority of the church is exercised for various areas of the church.”
That’s 263 words from the Pontiff on the subject, and I’m sure my own word-count in considering what he might mean will be more than that.
I wonder what are the deep questions that the women are asking– in the Pope’s mind? It can’t fully be gleaned from his recent comments. If we are talking about ordination for women, that is already settled. If we are talking about women talking leadership roles with parishes, dioceses, and the Curia — roles that work in tandem with the clergy/hierarchy — that is a subject for growth and possible change. Benedict began some of that conversation here when he was the #2 Man, as Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. As Francis talks about “function” — I’m guessing he means work and leadership roles in the church — and there can more inroads for women’s leadership to be made, outside of ordination, for sure.
I wonder what are the deep questions that the women are asking– in the Pope’s mind? It can’t fully be gleaned from his recent comments. If we are talking about ordination for women, that is already settled. If we are talking about women talking leadership roles with parishes, dioceses, and the Curia — roles that work in tandem with the clergy/hierarchy — that is a subject for growth and possible change. Benedict began some of that conversation here when he was the #2 Man, as Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. As Francis talks about “function” — I’m guessing he means work and leadership roles in the church — and there can more inroads for women’s leadership to be made, outside of ordination, for sure.

If we are talking about the deep questions of freeing women from the oppression of poverty, sexual slavery, mutilation, and war and other ghastly bondages, let’s keep talking and working on that too.

If we are talking about a woman’s dignity and vocation, the Holy Father is correct (not that he needs my approval) in pointing out Mary’s positive role, in that women are called to imitate her spiritual motherhood… and women ought to know the sublime dignity that Mary brings to a woman’s role in the life of a family, the church, and the community. Mary is the feminine genius par excellence. 

Spiritually and physically, women help give birth to and help nurture disciples of the Church already. How that might translate into “those places where the authority of the church is exercised” has yet to be revealed to me. In the meantime, I can write a good many words and I can make educated guesses about respect for the aforementioned vocation, and praying that it becomes more fully understood and implemented by the faithful. That is why I wrote my book, and why I recommend women and men cut their teeth on the theology of womanhood by starting with Mulieries Dignitatem, a groundbreaking document that is now 25 years old.

Keep talking Francis. we’re listening.

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.

IMG_0123

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.

photo

 

We need ‘apostles of the theology of women’ — and so it goes…

We need ‘apostles of the theology of women’ — and so it goes…

Pope Francis has got people talking and thinking about women, their dignity, their vocation, and how the Church fits into all of that. (I’ve already penned my thoughts on this subject in the Washington Post’s “On Faith” blog, and the same content is found reprinted at my column at Patheos.)

rebeccaOver at the Catholic News AgencyRebecca Ryskind Teti, in the lead-in to writing a review of my book, Blessed, Beautiful, and Bodacious, she powerfully reads the cultural barometer where women are concerned and how they are demeaned by society, and even by themselves. She also astutely nails the problem that motivated me to write my book in the first place:  the Church has a great message on the dignity and vocation of women, but its marketing of that message stinks. Or to quote Teti’s erudite eloquence: “…what the Church already knows about the full, free, joyful flourishing of women has yet to break out into the culture at large. It’s still a mostly-hidden treasure, enjoyed by those who have discovered it in rarified Church circles.”

Take this in…

Two utterly unrelated stories have me thinking about what Pope Francis means when he says the Church must “go out.”

The first comes from Francis himself, who recently told reporters that the Church “need[s] to develop a profound theology of womanhood.” That jarred me a little initially. Bl. Pope John Paul II’s 1988 encyclical on the role of women, together with his Letter to Women, changed my life and the way I think about what it means to be a woman. Does the Pope mean to suggest Bl. John Paul’s work was not profound?

Hardly. In the same press conference Francis spoke enthusiastically about Bl. John Paul’s pontificate and why he will soon canonize his holy predecessor. But he did complain that the intra-church discussions we tend to have about women can be sterile. When Church-y people – those of us who in one way or another make our livings or dedicate our volunteer time in service to the Church—talk about the role of women, we tend to debate what women are “allowed” to do. Within the walls of the Church, should they be altar servers, lectors, Eucharistic ministers? (Priesthood, Pope Francis said, is a definitively closed question.) Outside the Church, should women work or should they be mothers?

We all invoke Church documents to defend our answers to these questions, but Francis seems to shake his head and say those questions are a bit pragmatic – they don’t get to the essence. “The role of women in the Church must not be limited to being mothers, workers, a limited role… No!  It is something else!” He indicated he did not have time to explain fully what this “something else” might be, but he gave two hints: he invoked an episode in history where the women of Paraguay took stock of a country in post-war shambles and made the conscious decision to save their nation and culture. And he reminded us that Mary is the most important (non-divine) person in the Church and women are “more important than bishops and priests.” It’s less important what women specifically do, those examples suggest, then who they are – and what happens in a culture because of who they are.

Two weeks prior to the Pope’s making these remarks, the New York Times ran one of its perennial stories about sex on campus. The headline triumphed, “She can play that game too,” but the story of co-eds deliberately getting drunk because they dislike their sex partners and can’t hook-up sober is anything but liberating. If a man forced a woman into nightly sex, we’d call it sex-slavery. What is it called when a woman forces it on herself?

There have always been promiscuous women and telling their titillating stories under the guise of journalism is hardly new. What’s novel in the story is the reason given for this self-punishing behavior. In my day, a woman might sleep around in search of love – not a wise plan, but at least understandable; these students sleep around to avoid entangling relationships because they are too busy for them.

Here we begin to see Pope Francis’ point. A woman so alienated from herself that she gets drunk to be able to have a human connection which is deliberately rendered neither human nor connected is not touched even slightly by parish tiffs over who serves at the altar or internecine battles over individual child-rearing decisions.

We need a better theology of woman in the sense that what the Church already knows about the full, free, joyful flourishing of women has yet to break out into the culture at large. It’s still a mostly-hidden treasure, enjoyed by those who have discovered it in rarified Church circles. We need apostles of the theology of women.

You can read the whole thing here. And if you’d like to hear Rebecca Ryskind Teti speak for herself on womanhood, you may enjoy my Among Women interview with her from earlier this year. I know I did, and I hope Rebecca might keep writing about the subject in the days ahead. For more Q and A as to why I’m writing on this subject, go here. 

Here’s some media follow up on the “Women Speak for Themselves” rally in DC

Some of you may have heard about the Washington DC rally, hosted by Women Speak for Themselves held yesterday. While I did not have the luxury of attending, I really support this message, so I just wanted to add a few related articles that I came across in the aftermath of the event.

By the way, you can still sign the letter to President Obama voicing your objection to the mandate.

:::

In other news, you may be wondering why I’ve not posted anything yet on Pope Francis’ remarks regarding the need for a deeper theology of women in the church. I have a piece that I’ve written and when it breaks online, I’ll let you know. Maybe this Sunday night/Monday morning. We’ll see when. I’ll also be discussing it on a future Among Women podcast.