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Pope Francis Says There’s No Deep Theology of Women in the Church

July 29, 2013

In an interview with reporters, Pope Francis said we don’t have a deep theology of women in the church. The more I think about this statement, the more I am impressed by its radical critique of the official tradition. Pope Francis basically admits that the church has spoken about women for 2000 years without the grounding of a deep theology of women. Intentionally or not, he’s raised an intriguing question: if church teaching about women has not been grounded in a deep theology of women (because the church doesn’t have one), then what has been the grounding of these teachings?

I assume he didn’t mean to downplay the contributions of theologians to the question of femininity, but was speaking instead about the theology, or rather lack of theology, at the heart of official discussions concerning the role of women in the church. “We talk about whether they can do this or that, can they be altar boys, can they be lectors, about a woman as president of Caritas,” he noted, implying, I take it, that this sort of talk lacks deep theological roots. I agree. Too much talk about women in the church focuses not on who they are or what they can contribute to the life of the church, but on where the boundaries of their proper, limited place in the church should be marked (by men).  It’s superficial and demeaning.

If what Pope Francis has said here is true, then perhaps the most pressing question the church should ask is why it doesn’t have a truly deep theology of women. One possible answer might be the absence of direct involvement of women in the official teaching capacity of the church. Pope John Paul II spoke what he called the genius of women, by which he meant a way of being and perceiving the world that is unique to women, but he also, in a definitive statement, maintained the constant exclusion of women from the holy orders. The genius of women has had no formal place in the Magisterium of the church.  Women theologians might influence Popes and bishops, and this influence might inform their official declarations, but you’ll notice that the influence of women remains always indirect, if it’s there at all. The masculine perspective remains dominant and final. Holy Mother Church speaks officially with a masculine voice. Assuming the church won’t be ordaining women (Pope Francis reasserts that this door is closed), the challenge for the church will be to involve women and the “feminine genius” in the development of its official theology and formulation of doctrine, not because men cannot think theologically about women, but because women understand what it means to be feminine from a perspective no man can have.  And, of course, women’s involvement in the development of doctrine would benefit all of its development, not only the doctrines pertaining to women.

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  1. July 29, 2013 1:10 pm

    To be honest, the church doesn’t have a terribly deep theology of either sex. There are, of course, statements made regarding both sexes, but they have been, for the most part, on the periphery of discussions more focused on “whether they can do this or that.”

    Notable exceptions include (but aren’t limited to) the work of Hildegard von Bingen and Edith Stein (my area of expertise), who dealt with the question of “Was ist die Frau?” before it was cool, and have much to contribute to theologies of gender.

    There’s much more I could say on the topic, but I’ll leave that to come out in conversation.

    • July 29, 2013 9:53 pm

      One sex has gotten more attention than the other. A flip through the index of the catechism shows a lot more entries and variety of topics related to masculinity than to those pertaining to femininity. That’s not proof, by any means, but I think it illustrates the difference.

      • Julia Smucker permalink*
        July 30, 2013 1:24 pm

        I’m not sure what you mean, Kyle. What topics in the catechism relate specifically to masculinity to the exclusion of femininity?

        I can’t think of any time I’ve felt marginalized by the Catholic theological tradition on the basis of gender (the priesthood notwithstanding; that’s a non-issue for me). But I have, numerous times, felt awkwardly placed on a gender-based pedestal. In that light I’m not sure we need an extensive “theology of women” as distinct from theological anthropology in general. A theology of gender, perhaps…

        • July 30, 2013 2:48 pm

          I agree with you about the “gender based pedestal.” As someone said, “Pedestals are high and narrow, so God help you if you fall off.” I think a lot of the pedestal idea for women means “We’ll treat true women with respect.” (Yes, I have seen the phrase “true women.”) However, when women deviate from this status of “true women” to even the slightest degree, then there is no need to treat them with even basic human respect. I read a post from a man online who referred to Alice Von Hildebrand (!) as a “filthy pig,” because she wrote a book about the greatness of women, rather than building up his fragile male ego. (He also had a hilarious misunderstanding of the book. It was the only thing that made the post bearable.)
          (When I see comments like that, I realize that it’s not an accident that countries in the Muslim world, with very strict, traditional gender roles, have terrible problems with sexual violence.)

          Anyway, I think what would be nice is for these men to learn to see the image and likeness of God in every woman, not just the women who, in their minds, most closely conform to the Blessed Virgin.

        • Melody permalink
          July 31, 2013 5:27 am

          “I’m not sure we need an extensive “theology of women….” I agree with you, Julia. Seems to me it might be an occasion of mischief; we don’t need any more madonna/ hooker dichotomies, or TOB misinterpretations.

        • July 31, 2013 7:56 pm

          Julia – The Catholic ways of imagining and understanding God, for one. Two persons of the Trinity are approached through masculine terms. Not without reason, as God purportedly revealed himself as Father and incarnated as a man. If memory serves, Scott Hahn once wrote about the feminine images of the Holy Spirit in the Scriptures and received not a little push-back. Now I’m not suggesting we start calling God “Mother/Father,” as this sort of manner of speech has other theological problems not related to thinking of God in feminine terms, but if God really is infinite, and if the perfections of both masculinity and femininity are found in God, then I see no problem of thinking God in feminine language and from a feminine perspective. Indeed, I’d say we have a responsibility to do so.

        • Julia Smucker permalink*
          August 1, 2013 8:03 am

          I suppose it’s a matter of personal taste to some extent – or perhaps more appropriately, of what trips one up. I know a number of people who are bothered by any masculine language in reference to God, but I personally am more distracted by pronominal tap-dancing (i.e. avoiding such language like the plague, often with grammatically awkward results). At that point I tend to think, “Why can’t we just say ‘he’ and be done with it?”

          Anyway, calling God Father, Son and Spirit is still a far cry from the catechism being dominated by masculinity. I honestly don’t see that.

  2. jono113 permalink
    July 29, 2013 2:57 pm

    Really? Francis knows nothing about the contributions of Catholic women theologians? Buy him a copy of anything by Elizabeth Johnson, Rosemary Radford Reuther, Margaret Farley, Catherine LaCunya, just to pick the first four that come to mind. He probably will have to special order them; I doubt they are available from the Vatican Library.

  3. July 29, 2013 3:41 pm

    Jacob is partially right, but it ignores that, for centuries, men were considered normative, and women were in some way an aberration from the norm. This is not surprising. Christians were very much influenced by Aristotle and other Greek philosophers.

    • July 29, 2013 9:55 pm

      If I wanted to cause trouble, I’d suggest that Christian thought on women has had less to do with theology and more to do with cultural patriarchy. If I wanted to cause trouble…

      • brian martin permalink
        July 30, 2013 8:36 am

        and you would arguably be right.
        The question is, do you want to cause trouble?
        Make a mess?

      • July 30, 2013 8:36 pm

        It wouldn’t be you causing the trouble; it would be you observing evidence of the trouble caused by others.

        • brian martin permalink
          July 31, 2013 8:21 am

          Sometimes, merely observing something, and putting words to it “causes trouble”

    • August 5, 2013 7:57 am

      Quite true, but I’d disagree only in seeing this as a peculiarly Christian problem. It isn’t. Try to find a great philosophy or religion where men have not been considered normative. Take a look at Confucius on women, for instance, or those Buddhist sects that considered women incapable of enlightenment. The list goes on and on. One might argue (quite rightly) that Christians ought to take the lead in correcting these views. Some Christians have done so, perhaps, but only very recently.

      • August 17, 2013 8:26 pm

        Oh indeed, I would never argue that Christianity was alone in considering men normative.

        I think a large part of the problem is Christianity (and Catholicism in particular) insistence on relying on Greek philosophers.

  4. Chris Sullivan permalink
    July 29, 2013 6:41 pm

    I take it as self evident from the position of women in the Church today (quite at odds with the ministerial and leadership role of women in the early Church, and recorded in scripture) that the Church lacks a deep theology of women in the Church.

    I think we have gone much too far in watering done the radical inclusiveness of Christ and the early Church in order to fit the male dominated social order. This can be seen, for example, in the embarrassingly misogynist arguments from the fathers and scholastics against ordaining women.

    The Holy Father has done well to point out the need for a deeper Marian theology which can show the way forward here by drawing on the inspiration and help of Our Lady:

    “A Church without women is like an Apostolic College without Mary. The role of women mirrors that of the Virgin Mary. And the Virgin Mary if the most important out of all the apostles. The Church is female because she is a wife and mother. The Church cannot be understood without the women that serve it. Here’s an example that has nothing to do with the Church: I see Paraguay’s women as glorious human beings. After the war (Here Francis refers to the bloody war between Paraguay and Brazil which took place between 1864 and 1870, Ed.) there were eight women for each man. And they chose to have children, save the homeland, their culture and their faith. This is how women should be conceived in the Church. We still do not have a theology of women. We need to create one. The Church has discussed the ordination of women bishops and has decided against it. John Paul II gave a definitive answer to this so that door is closed. But let us remember that Mary is more important than the bishop apostles, so women in the Church are more important than bishops and priests.”

    The theology of body and sexual complementarity have something to offer here. The different feminine perspective has much to offer the Church and we are losing a great deal not to fully integrate women at all levels of the Church.

    God Bless

    • July 29, 2013 10:01 pm

      His reported language of the church deciding against women’s ordination is…interesting.

      • July 30, 2013 10:43 am

        What is that about it strikes you as interesting?

        • July 30, 2013 1:13 pm

          Because the general line is that the church hasn’t made a decision but that it does not have the authority to make a decision.

    • July 30, 2013 2:51 pm

      Ugg, reading this post once again makes me realize that I have virtually no knowledge of Central or South American History.

  5. July 29, 2013 9:30 pm

    I think this might actually be a good thing, though. Do we really want a “theology” of gender roles or of the sexes beyond the question of sex itself? It would probably wind up being “conservative” and embodying all sorts of essentialization that isn’t real. Is there a theology of males? Is there a theology of black people? What does “theology of women” even mean? “In Christ there is no…”

    • July 29, 2013 9:59 pm

      I would think different racial and ethnic experiences would each have something to teach the universal church. Same for the different sexes.

      • July 31, 2013 9:05 am

        Yeah, but not as a “theology.” Do we lack female Saints? There’s where individual differences all contribute to a diverse tapestry etc etc…

        • July 31, 2013 7:58 pm

          I don’t see why these perspective can’t inform our theology.

  6. trellis smith permalink
    July 30, 2013 2:00 am

    I agree with A Sinner and Saint Paul, There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

    If soon to be St. John Paul 2 had paid any attention to this rather than his annoying biblical fundamentalism he would have seen that the social constructs and divides were superseded by Christ and Ordinatio Sacerdotalis would be a better read.
    We don’t need TOW anymore than we needed TOB.

    • July 30, 2013 1:16 pm

      So…would you argue that Catholics should abandon all gender-specific language? No calling God “Father,” etc. What about women priests?

      • trellis smith permalink
        July 31, 2013 6:37 am

        The attribute of God the creator is more strongly a feminine attribute and of course I would have no problem with women priests,,,however the prime objection remains the danger of bad teaching.

        • July 31, 2013 3:49 pm

          I think its ironic and thought provoking that you think of God as creator to be a feminine attribute. For St. Thomas Aquinas, it was God’s attribute as the creator and source of everything that meant that signified that men were fully created in the image and likeness of God, and women less so. Of course, he was working with faulty biology.

    • July 30, 2013 3:54 pm

      I think this discussion thread actually has a lot of connections to the concurrent one on the Tridentine liturgy and its emphasis on transcendence/incarnation.

      Yes, I line up with you, A Sinner and Saint Paul behind that incredible statement of transcendence. Nonetheless, the fact remains that any transcendence can only be known and experienced through our carnal bodies.So how, exactly, does this “no male or female etc.” move through time, through individuals, through personal relationships? We might learn a lot about the Mass from this, I think.

      Agreed, the idea of a TOW is almost enough to bring me out in hives. It’s going to take a new kind of speech. Hopefully that’s what he meant by “deep theology.”

  7. brian martin permalink
    July 30, 2013 8:48 am

    Pardon if I delve a little into slightly exaggerated stereotypes, but it seems that traditionally the place for women in the Church was that of mother. Period. Oh yes, there are those odd Saints like Saint Catherine of Sienna, the above mentioned St. Hildegard of Bingen, St. Teresa of Avila,St. Thérèse of Lisieux who are Doctors of the Church. But really, who pays any attention to that? Really?

    Seriously, when one thinks of Theologians in the Church…what women come to mind?
    Elizabeth Johnson? Why…because she got crosswise of the U.S. Bishops for reasons understood only by the Bishops? Sinner, if the Church truly accepted that there is “no male or female” etc., then why would there be a door closed to women priests? If gender is somehow a barrier, then there is a difference, and there should be an exploration of a Theology of Women. Also, women cannot be Bishops and Priests…but there is historic evidence of women Deacons. Also, one does not have to be a Priest to be a Cardinal, correct?

    • Dante Aligheri permalink
      July 30, 2013 3:36 pm

      To an extent, I might agree with you. However, I would not say that women religious are marginal in the history of the Church – even if no one pays attention today (or sees the institution as oppressive our outdated). At least according to tradition, the reason we have so many “virgin martyrs” in the Roman period is the freedom of Christian women to reject marriage and motherhood from the demands of their suitors – that is, giving them a separate and liberated status (not unlike “liberated” women in other religious groups such as the Pythagoreans or Hypatia – who, ironically given today’s climate, despised matter and bodily functions quite zealously). At the same time, women religious controlling organizations just for women did unnerve certain members of the Church in most periods of her history for just the reason you gave. I might suggest feminist historian Gerda Lerner’s “The Creation of Feminist Consciousness: From the Middle Ages to Eighteen-Seventy”/”The Creation of Patriarchy” and French medievalist Regine Pernoud’s “Women in the Days of the Cathedrals” (who surmises the fall of women’s status was not monolithic during the Middle Ages but declined as Greco-Roman law supplanted Germanic local institutions).

      To my knowledge, women deacons were primarily involved in baptizing female converts when baptism involved full immersion. As for female cardinals, I believe there has been some discussion of this of late. Yes, one does not need to be ordained to be a cardinal. Who knows?

    • July 31, 2013 11:00 am

      I’m not sure that the traditional role for women in the Church is that of a mother. Historically, the Church has always celebrated consecrated virginity. As St. Ambrose said, motherhood is not reproved, virginity is praised. This view of motherhood as a glorious vocation is not one that St. Jerome, bless him, would recognize as a fundamental Christian belief.

      I have been thinking a lot about the priesthood=motherhood argument in Catholic circles. The argument goes that women do not need the priesthood because motherhood is an equally great gift from God. I don’t buy the argument that motherhood=priesthood. Priesthood is indispensable to the Church. Motherhood is not.

      I’m not even saying that women should be priests. I am simply saying that, when we say women cannot be priests, we should be honest about what this means for both men and women.

  8. Grace Seitzer permalink
    July 30, 2013 1:19 pm

    In the discussion of women’s ordination, it seems to be a foregone conclusion that the priesthood as structured today is the final word on the issue. Maybe JPII was right about not ordaining women. Maybe what he did not see is that the priesthood is already going through a period of transformation that is leading it into a new era in the Church. Whatever happens will rise from the parishes, not come down from the Vatican. So I applaud the efforts of Pope Francis to reform Church governance. But I have come to understand that what is happening in the pews (and it is happening) will have a greater significance in the long run. Our priesthood is a living reality and its structure will evolve with the rest of God’s creation. There is a place for women and it will emerge.

  9. David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink*
    July 30, 2013 8:27 pm

    Julia writes: ” But I have, numerous times, felt awkwardly placed on a gender-based pedestal. In that light I’m not sure we need an extensive “theology of women” as distinct from theological anthropology in general.”

    I would think that the existence of gender base pedestals, often backed by a shallow theology (say of the Virgin Mary) is actually evidence of a need for a deep theology of women.

    • Commoner permalink
      July 31, 2013 12:04 am

      I have quite honestly never understood how my role as a wife and mother mirrors that of the Virgin Mary. While I honor and respect her as Christ’s mother, I can’t for the life of me feel any connection whatsoever to her. Did she cuddle up with Joseph at night? Did she tease and joke with him? Did she have an earthy sense of humor? We know she was perfect, so she must never have gotten irritated or snapped at anybody out of sheer exhaustion, worry, or anxiety. While I know she experienced anxiety and sorrow at times, I highly doubt she ever woke up in the middle of the night in a sweat wondering if her lack of parenting skills were totally screwing up her own children!

      I can’t help but picture her as living a very ordered, very quiet sort of life where everything was pretty peaceful on a daily basis. I, on the other hand, live a life of chaos (lots of kids, demanding career, never-ending laundry, serious chronic illness and all that entails). I also love the sexual relationship I have with my husband and have no idea what it would be like to be a virgin while living with him and raising all these children.

      It’s beyond me if we need some sort of Theology of Women, but I sure hope if they come up with one, it’s much more relatable to the average woman than the life of the Virgin Mary.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink*
        July 31, 2013 6:46 am


        • brian martin permalink
          July 31, 2013 8:34 am

          I fully admit my limitations..I am no theologian, however I suspect Mary has much more to offer than the image painted above. The pain of childbirth, the fleeing in fear for her life along with her husband and son, the fear when she realized that her son was missing, and frantically searching for him, only to find him in the temple…The horror of seeing her son executed. These are things many women can relate to. Also, from what I know about life then, a peaceful, tranquil life was likely not what she lived. I suspect that many women in today’s middle east would find a great deal in common to the flight at night, the fear that a political leader would try to kill one’s baby, living in a foreign land to keep your child safe, and seeing your grown child killed by political powers.
          I’m not so sure that in it’s need to talk about her “purity, chasteness etc.” the Church has not made her something other…beyond human…which to me seems to defeat the point of Christ being born to a human mother.
          To me the important thing about Mary is her “YES” to God….and the suffering that the yes brought to her mortal self.

        • Commoner permalink
          July 31, 2013 11:30 pm

          But in all of her travails, Mary responded perfectly, did she not?

          I, however, railed at God upon my 4 miscarriages and felt put upon indeed. I’d do the same thing if I had to watch my son executed, I have no doubt. I don’t really desire to react in any other way, to be honest, because I responded as I believe pretty much any human woman would. Don’t give me a child only to take it from me!

          Eventually, I came to resolution, of course, but it was a process. I can’t really relate to humans who were able to deal with grief perfectly, without all the usual stages of denial, anger, bargaining, despair, acceptance.

          I suspect Mary’s life was much earthier and less private and sanitized than we are ever led to believe. She must have used chamber pots, and she must have had a period she had to deal with, right? Periods back in her day must have been quite messy to cope with.

          I don’t know how to react to her childbirth, either, having read too many arguments about something miraculous and completely unrelatable (did Jesus miraculously pop out of her somehow?) happening so that her hymen wasn’t broken in the process–having to keep that virginity intact and all–to be sure that what she experienced was anything remotely close to what I experienced in childbirth. And I can’t imagine going through that without my husband right by my side. Was Joseph there to watch Jesus crown? Did he help her clean up afterwards? Childbith is about as messy and earthy as it gets.

          To be honest, it almost feels heretical somehow to even think such things when all that’s ever been represented to us is a snow-white image.

          And I really honestly have found her virginity in motherhood and marriage to be completely unrelatable. I have no idea what it would mean to be intimate with my husband without physical intimacy, mutual nakedness, and physical affection. I’m not talking about sex; I’m talking about all the other types of intimacy we share on a regular basis—dressing together, showering around each other, all the physical touching that happens in the course of our days and nights,—the complete vulnerability of being naked with each other.

          Anyway, this might just be my own weird ideosyncracy, but it wouldn’t be surprising to me if a lot of other modern wives and mothers don’t find the image of the pure white Virgin to be equally meaningless to everyday life.

          The image makes for great goddess material, and I have no doubt it was very useful in converting pagan societies who needed something to replace the goddesses they had happily worshipped, but I’m not so sure it’s a very relatable or meaningful image for the modern woman.

          While I respect and honor her place as the Mother of God, she–or at least the image of her that I grew up with–does not inspire me in my every day life, simply because she seems to be completely foreign to the life I actually live.

      • July 31, 2013 8:09 am

        This is so true: I once heard a funny story of a very devout mother of 10 who one day snapped and, passing her picture of the Madonna, came out with, “You!! With your ONE!”

        Sometimes I wonder whether the problem is our perception, though, and our twisted ideas about perfection and beauty. We’ve inherited a tradition that sees beauty as something ordered and symmetrical, separate and whole in itself – a kind of closure of the beautiful thing that makes us remote from it even as we contemplate it. But that sits at odds with our growing appreciation of particular beauties seen in the light of daily life: these non-symmetrical people – noses with freckles, chipped teeth, cracks and wrinkles, disabilities, the annoying habit that’s the first thing we miss once they’re gone. This is a much more recent thing, I believe – it’s there in Hopkins’ poetry, but his perspective was too new to be popular in his lifetime.

        We know the image of God is most perfect in us when we are in communion with each other. It seems to me that it’s the imperfections – the things that draw us to interdependence, to admission of need, to abundance that we can’t contain in ourselves – that draw us into this communion. I suppose this has been one of my paths to seeing Mary as a warmer figure who didn’t live in a bubble, who experienced anxiety, stress, annoyance, anger and all the rest of it, but whose perfection was in not closing up around it. The Magnificat is a charter for discomfort, upheaval and the dismantling of boundaries after all – but she sees us (and God sees her) right through to the end of the process. Maybe that’s not a perspective that works for everyone, but it’s helped me.

      • July 31, 2013 11:02 am

        Lady Madonna,
        Children at your feet,
        Wonder how you manage to make ends meet.
        Who finds the money
        When you pay the rent,
        Did you think that money was heaven sent?

        -John Lennon and Paul McCartney

        • July 31, 2013 4:08 pm

          On a more serious note, I think that Commoner’s remarks about Mary have less to do with a Theology of Women and more to do with the role and function of Saints. As I said on another post, the book The Stripping of the Altars describes how, for pre-Reformation England, saints were not examples but rather channels of divine power. England women were not troubled by Mary’s “other-worldly” quality. Quite the contrary, the more otherworldly a saint seemed, the more powerful the intercession!

        • Commoner permalink
          July 31, 2013 11:42 pm

          Yes, but what concerned me was that PF seems to be suggesting that any theology of women needs to start with the fact our role mirrors that of the Virgin Mary.

          His line about how Mary is more important than the apostles, so therefore women are more important than bishops and priests totally skeeves me out. I’ve never once in my personal experience seen a situation in which women were put up on Virgin Mary pedestals that did not involve a certain degree of misogyny. Mary is more important than the apostles because she is the mother of God—and perfect, to boot. Not just because she is a mother. Why is being capable of being a mother any more special than being capable of being a father, anyway?

          Look, I’m all about respecting motherhood, but something is amiss here.

          I can see any theology of women that starts out from the point that women are more special than priests and bishops simply by reason of their possessing uteri going sideways really quickly.

          I’m glad women are being recognized as important in the Church, don’t get me wrong, but I dunno, something just seems really off about this approach.

        • Julia Smucker permalink*
          August 1, 2013 8:17 am

          The irony here, if I dare say so, is that Commoner seems to be holding pretty tenaciously to an unrelatable and hyper-sanitized image of Mary. Do you really think that’s the only way she CAN be understood? True, there is plenty of bad Mariology out there, but the “earthier” images presented by Brian and Elizabethoo are beautiful, orthodox, and there for the taking.

        • August 1, 2013 10:29 am

          I do think that there are many different ways of portraying the Virgin Mary. There is no doubt that the image of Our Lady of Sorrows and the Pieta comforted many women over the centuries who lost their children. And as Brian pointed out, life in 1st century Palestine was far less idyllic and tranquil than life in suburban US.

          However, I do agree with Commoner that, if the Church was to formulate a theology of women, the Virgin Mary would be a bad place to start. It would simply be a stick with which to beat women. I’ve seen that done enough as it is.

        • Thales permalink
          August 1, 2013 7:47 pm

          A quick comment about Commoner not identifying with saintly Mary: this is not necessarily a foreign concept to men. Men have a similar problem considering that the perfect example manhood for men is Jesus, and a top example of fatherhood is celibate Joseph living in a house of saints.

          As someone else alluded to in these comments, that’s why we’ve got the rest of the sinful saints to be our examples.

      • Melody permalink
        August 1, 2013 5:10 pm

        I suppose we won’t really know what Mary was like until we get to heaven. Maybe it’s enough to know that she loves us and intercedes for us. My own mother’s life was different than mine; she was a farm wife and the matriarch of a large clan. Two of her sisters had much different lives than either of us; they were single women and had careers in academia. But all of them were sources of encouragement, love, and inspiration to me. And I like to think that maybe I was the same to them, in my own way. Our lives don’t have to be alike in order to support and encourage one another. There is a lot more that women (and men) have in common, than separates us; if we don’t get hung up on the details so much. I’m always a little skeptical of efforts to try and reboot Mary so that she is more relevant to us. That has already been attempted in other times, notably the 19th century, with results that some 21st century women feel alienated from her. Even though what they are reacting to is not really her, but the packaging from the past.
        As far as formulating a theology of women? I’m inclined to think, don’t do me any favors.

        • August 1, 2013 5:49 pm

          I’m tempted to agree with you. After reading comboxes and blog and website posts over the past few years telling me women should never wear pants and that only stay at home moms are “true women” and women who aren’t are “feminist bitches,” I can’t help thinking, “The last thing I need is for another man to tell me what it means to be a woman.”

          Still, it has to be said, those comments have never come from the clergy. Only lay men.

          It’s also not simply a “Catholic problem.” There was a post on a website I read a couple of years ago calling for “a second wave of atheism.” The woman considers herself an atheist/freethinker and she was decrying all the posts she has seen on the websites where atheist men threaten atheist women with rape. She called for a new atheist movement in response.

    • Julia Smucker permalink*
      July 31, 2013 8:22 am

      From my personal experience, I was referring more to the exaltation of femininity as some kind of theological panacea. Honestly, as a woman in an often heavily-courted age bracket, it can get wearying to be made the be-all and end-all in certain circles.

      • July 31, 2013 8:09 pm

        I’m a perspectivist, meaning that I think our perspective–where we are situated–informs our understanding and formulation of the truth. My interest in this post isn’t to put women on a pedestal, but to call for their inclusion directly in the official development of doctrine. Feminine perspectives have not been absent, as members of the Magisterium have no doubt been influenced by women theologians, but these perspectives remain subordinate and indirectly influential.

        How could this be accomplished? How about involving women theologians directly in the writing of encyclicals?

        • Julia Smucker permalink*
          August 1, 2013 8:24 am

          I sure wouldn’t have any problem with that – especially if I could be that theologian. :-)

          I do always find it ironic, though, to be informed by men (and here a “perspectivist” one at that) that I am subordinated or marginalized as a woman, contrary to my own experience.

        • August 1, 2013 9:07 am

          You don’t experience marginalization, but others do. People’s interests vary.

        • August 1, 2013 9:20 am

          You don’t experience marginalization, but others do. I’m not sure how my drawing attention to that is ironic.

        • August 1, 2013 11:09 am

          For me, the real problem is men who cherry pick elements of Catholic and Christian theology and use them as weapons against women. I’ve experienced this far more on the web than anywhere else, but over the last couple of years I’ve become far more aware of this phenomenon. It is troubling. This is coming from lay men, not the clergy, it has to say.

        • Julia Smucker permalink*
          August 2, 2013 2:54 pm

          What I’m reacting to is blanket statements about women’s experience, which I almost always find alienating.

  10. Ronald King permalink
    August 1, 2013 9:15 am

    It is my belief as a male that women must be understood through the knowledge of their unique physiological, psychological and interpersonal dispositions in relationship to being born into a world of violence created by men of violence. Starting with the physiological knowledge that the dna of mitochondria contained in each cell in our bodies which supplies the nutrition needed to maintain life is passed down from women only to their children. Much more to say, however, my spouse is now calling me to go for a run just when a thunder storm is starting. Let me end with this, theology must come from revelation which must start with knowledge rather than assumptions.

  11. brian martin permalink
    August 1, 2013 12:13 pm

    Commoner , your comment from July 31, 2013 11:42 pm is precisely why there needs to be a “deep theology of women” because the things you talk about, and the things I talked about (fear, fleeing in the night so your child is not killed, watching your son executed) are more relatable and lend themselves to Theology that speaks to women…from a woman’s voice.

    On a related question…In regard to Women Theologians…who would be considered influential female theologians?

    • Commoner permalink
      August 2, 2013 12:04 am

      I’m not sure if the question is directed toward me, but if it is, you are asking the wrong person, because I have no idea.

      I grew up in a really weard 80’s kind of reaction to Vat II, and the very thought of women theologians was pretty much anathema. Part of me still doesn’t know what to think about that.

      All I know at this stage of the game is that the institutional Church seems to have little to offer me as a mature woman, wife, and mother of many, but I still hang on to the hope that when I die, I will discover that there was much more to to it than was ever revealed to me during my life.

      The Virgin Mary, or at least the image I grew up with, is completely unrelatable to me, and I hope that any theology of women that happens isn’t based solely on Virgin Mary pedestals.

      To be honest, the very idea of some sort of thelogy of women is disquieting to me. Again, it’s nice that the Church seems to be recognizing that women matter, but no thanks to Virgin Mary comparisons and pedestals.

      I’m not a virgin, I have no ability to even relate to the life of the Virgin Mary as it has been represented to me through the Catholic Church, and I have a completely different set of worries than that woman ever did (are my kids going to turn out okay? am I completely screwing them up? what if they end up not even Catholic? am I respsonsible for that? how can I balance my career with the needs of my children? how do I balance the financial needs of my family with their emotional/psychological needs? how much is nurture vs. nature? Am I completely neurotic for even thinking about all this stuff?) Mary knew her son was God. You can’t tell me that isn’t a completely different kind of experience.

      I’m just a common person, not a philosopher or a theologian. I don’t pretend to have answers. All I have to offer is my own experience and perspective, which may or may not reflect that of many others.

      • Thales permalink
        August 3, 2013 9:39 am

        I don’t know if you saw my comment above, but it strikes me that your problem is not unlike a man being unable to relate to the life of the Perfect Man, Jesus, who is supposed to be an example and model to men in a particular way. (Of course He’s supposed to also be a model for all, but again, that’s not unlike Mary who supposed to also be a model for all).

        I would suggest that if you’re looking for women to relate to, that there are women saints who can be related to and who give important feminine perspectives on womanhood and following God’s Will, as seen through their lives, actions, and writings.

      • Commoner permalink
        August 3, 2013 3:32 pm

        Thanks, Thales,

        I grew up on Lives of the Saints, so I am quite familiar with many of their stories. I have never found many of them particularly easy to relate to, either, to be honest. But I did find Trellis’ comments below regarding the transcendence aspects of the saints vs. using them as exemplars (because, as my very-orthodox college chaplain used to say, let’s face it, many of the saints were just plain crazy–crazy in love, but crazy nevertheless–and most of us would be best not to do the same crazy things they did in our own personal lives) very interesting and something that makes quite a bit of sense to me.

        I’m not sure that men are held up to Jesus in quite the same way as women have often been held up to the Virgin Mary. Certainly, we are all supposed to follow in the footsteps of Christ, and he is most definitely the perfect man, but I don’t know that men are pressured to live up to his standard in quite the same way that women have been expected to try to live up to Mary as the model of wife and mother, the exemplar of the wifely and maternal vocation. I will freely admit that I may be mistaken on this matter, as I am viewing it from the perspective of a female and truly can’t see it from the male perspective.

        • trellis smith permalink
          August 3, 2013 8:40 pm

          Couldn’t agree with you more Commoner. I know of no appellation of Jesus referring to his sexual status i.e. the Holy Celibate Christ. Such things are telling. Some of the saints seem not only crazy but some of the ‘mortifications” absolutely repulsive which seems to go far beyond an explanation of the “via negativa”. i can only surmise that they are able to descend into the depths of hell and pathology to see the redemption but it is beyond my understanding as i like you am more steeped in the via positiva.

      • Thales permalink
        August 4, 2013 9:24 am

        I’m not following your statement of “I know of no appellation of Jesus referring to his sexual status i.e. the Holy Celibate Christ.”

        Sure, it’s not exactly the same Mary, but I see similarity. Yes, as a man trying to live a life of manly virtue, Jesus is held out as a model to me, for compassion, courage, purity, etc.—- but it’s difficult to follow that exemplar for some of the same reasons that you describe.
        In addition, for men, the exemplar for husband and father is Joseph. But he’s a celibate man living with a family who never sins — and who thus is unrelatable to me as a father and husband, in some of the same ways that Mary is for you.

        • trellis smith permalink
          August 4, 2013 8:13 pm

          The nomenclature alone illuminates that the sexual status of Mary as virgin is considered an essential rather then an accidental aspect of her significance. Whereas the virginity or celibacy of Jesus is relatively immaterial or more certainly not essential or dwelt upon.
          I think its safe to say that the Virginity of Mary has attained a cultural iconography far beyond its origins and intent even attaining a pathology as Freud observed of men so afflicted with the madonna complex that ” where they love they have no desire and where they desire they cannot love,” Few women would like to be in a relationship with such a man.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink*
          August 5, 2013 12:00 pm

          I would just like to note that I blogged about this question a few months ago, asking the question of why it was so important to label a particular female saint as a virgin, while no male saint is so labeled.

        • trellis smith permalink
          August 5, 2013 3:13 pm

          Thanks David, I think you underline why a “word cloud” in the margin would be welcomed on this site
          Most everything you wrote a well as the ensuing comments mirror my own reflections on the various aspects of the issue. In fairness one must look at historical contexts. In that light, one of the positive aspects of virginity is in regards to the preservation of a woman’s autonomy.

        • August 17, 2013 8:30 pm

          Per trellis smith: If I wanted to cause trouble, I would say that for some men, devotion to the Blessed Virgin makes it difficult, if not impossible, to love the real women in their lives, be they wives, mothers, daughters, coworkers, etc.

  12. trellis smith permalink
    August 2, 2013 11:28 pm

    Actually Commoner your experience is common and I might add it’s refreshing and decidedly non neurotic for someone to so unapologetically and nonchalantly say they enjoy having sex with their spouse in forums such as this. The confluence of comments here convey a real trepidation and distrust of the hierarchy to develop a theology of women or for that matter a theology of sex (the body) given the past ,even recent past attempts of male celibates, doubly so since the irony somehow escapes them.
    What is positive in Pope Francis remarks may concern theology itself and therefore theologians as actually contributing and developing theology. It might just dawn on the teachers that the theological magisterium is what informs their teaching. One of the most unfortunate legacies of Cardinal Ratzinger was the censorious distrustfulness of some of the most original theological thought and exploration whose absence has left the Church in such poverty.

    There are also in the comments a variety of viewpoints which illuminate many facets of the Church’s own purity codes and I believe its misapplication in Mariology and the meaning of saintliness. I’ll leave it to others to separate out more precisely the differences of chastity, celibacy, virginity, innocence and purity and holiness for i will conflate them as i think the Church has,(though no doubt in a different conflation),

    Emmasrandomthoughts here and elsewhere have shown us how historically the holiness of the saints transcended the commonness of us sinners and unlike today were not thought of as exemplars but as signs of the transcendence of God and supernatural channels of his grace for which we pray for intercession. A Sinner in another post regarding Pope Francis remarks concerning gay priests, states the true significance of celibacy as an eschatological sign.
    In this light we can see the meaning of the virginity of Mary ( and even the virgin martyrs) not in the unfortunate context of the anti sexual purity codes promulgated from Jerome, Augustine and onwards but as Christ is “God with us” par excellence so Mary transcends to “we with God” par excellence. Her virginity is as freely chosen celibacy, an eschatological sign, not a negation or something to be emulated out of context or applied as an anti sexual purity code despite its conflation with concupiscence or Immaculateness
    The true gift that God bestowed on Mary was that of Mother not that of Virgin. In other words how can we, in our own context (for which virginity is not an option or is indeed a negation), say yes to the God who brings life.

    In that the Church emphasizes the saints as exemplars it necessarily must show the humanity and even the mundanity that can be found in a holy life.
    From my childhood till this day, My mother still has this prayer under a refrigerator magnet “Lord of all pots and pans and things,
    Since I’ve no time to be
    A saint by doing lovely things or
    Watching late with thee,
    Or dreaming in the twilight or
    Storming heaven’s gates.
    Make me a saint by getting meals or
    Washing up the plates.,,”
    I believe that it was Rabbi Herschel who said (I paraphrase) that God’s judgement would not be on whether if he had lived the life of Moses or Jesus but if he had lived the authentic life of Rabbi Herschel. Now that is something I can identify with.


  1. Feminism: The Good, Bad, the Lie. « thechurchforgotten

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