A theology of women? What did Pope Francis mean?

Dedicated in 1966 by the Lithuanian Catholics of America, Our Lady of Siluva is made of marble. Benjamin C. Tankersley … Continued

Dedicated in 1966 by the Lithuanian Catholics of America, Our Lady of Siluva is made of marble.
Benjamin C. Tankersley / FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

During his now-famous impromptu interview while returning to Rome from World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, Pope Francis declared the ordination of women a question settled definitively by Blessed Pope John Paul II, but suggested that women’s gifts might be used in other ways. His suggestion that a deeper “theology of women” might have to be developed in order to discern such service should not be misconstrued to mean the church has no theology of the feminine.  The pope’s use of the prepositional phrase – “in the church” – limited the scope of his comments.

Pope Francis did not say that the church does not have a theology of women, only that we did not have a deep theology of women in the church. His explanation focused on a central theological and Mariological tenet — the honorable status of Mary in the life of the Church — and from there he generalized about women in liturgical or leadership roles within the church.

“A church without women would be like the apostolic college without Mary. The Madonna is more important than the apostles, and the church herself is feminine, the spouse of Christ and a mother.”

 

The role of women doesn’t end just with being a mother and with housework …we don’t yet have a truly deep theology 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, but we don’t have a deep theology of women in the church.”

Francis implied that we need a deeper transmission of these ideas. His commentary echoed his statements published previous to his pontificate. In “On Heaven and Earth,” a book originally published in 2010, the would-be-pope Jorge Bergoglio expressed similar sentiments in conversation with Argentine Rabbi Abraham Skorka.

[Bergoglio, on women:] In the theologically grounded tradition the priesthood passes through man. The woman has another function in Christianity, reflected in the figure of Mary. It is the figure that embraces society, the figure that contains it, the mother of the community. The woman has the gift of maternity, of tenderness; if all these riches are not integrated, a religious community not only transforms into a chauvinist society, but also one that is austere, hard, and hardly sacred. The fact that a woman cannot exercise the priesthood does not make her less than the male. Moreover, in our understanding, the Virgin Mary is greater than the apostles. According to a monk from the second century, there are three feminine dimensions among Christians: Mary as Mother of the Lord, the church and the soul. 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.

Based on his replies we can surmise that women becoming members of an ordained hierarchy is will not be debated by the Vatican. Yet, in Francis’ conversation with journalists, we perceive a call for more. What might that be?

In my recent book, Blessed, Beautiful, and Bodacious: Celebrating the Gift of Catholic Womanhood, I introduced some of the church’s message to and about women. Reflecting on what Blessed John Paul II described as the “feminine genius”, I introduce readers to what the church says to women in terms of their blessed dignity, beautiful gifts, and bodacious mission. From where I stand, the Catholic Church has a theology of womanhood that can be gleaned from a variety of sources.

As Francis points out, church teaching already embraces the ultimate icon of femininity.

We have centuries of theological exposition on The Woman, that is, the Blessed Virgin Mary. Every discussion of womanhood must be filtered through the lens, or hermeneutic, of Mary’s unique and exquisite fiat and of her being the Theotokos, the God-bearer, of the Christ. We see this already in Francis’ words and in his example of beginning his pontificate by expressing his relationship and dependence on the Mother of God, the woman John Paul II called “the mirror and measure of femininity.” Mary, the epitome of the feminine genius, must be the cornerstone of any theology of womanhood.

For a deeper theology of womenhood, theological precision must also be based upon sound anthropology. Again, the work of John Paul II on the theology of the body, the common phrase for his corpus of written and preached ideas about the nature of man and woman, their relationship to God and each other, is certainly is a place to deepen our awareness of the feminine genius.

John Paul II’s pontificate also brought apostolic letters on women such as Mulieris Dignitatum, (“On the Dignity and Vocation of Women”, 1989); and The Letter to Women, written in advance of the United Nations’ 1995 Conference on Women in Beijing. Women were also challenged within his encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, (“The Gospel of Life,” 1995) to create “a new feminism” that speaks to the modern culture.

Finally, we cannot fail to mention that the Catholic Church has a powerful social doctrine whereby the dignity of the human person reigns supreme, and the dignity and vocation of women is attendant to that. It is perhaps here that we may find hints of Pope Francis’ future contribution.

A theology of womanhood can be gleaned from these many sources, if people only have time (and the inclination) to do the gleaning.

Is perhaps what we really need is a deeper reception of our existing theology of womanhood, and work toward making its claims more universal? The whole purpose of my book was to introduce these basic theological musings about women.

“The enemy of human nature — Satan — hits hardest where there is more salvation, more transmission of life, and the woman — as an existential place — has proven to be the most attacked in history. She has been the object of use, of profit and slavery, and was relegated to the background…    (From On Heaven and Earth, p. 102.)”

True enough: women around the world still do not enjoy the freedoms that their human dignity entitles them. From the book of Genesis, from the fall till now, the woman has been targeted by evil. Yet, through the womanhood of Mary, comes a savior who saves and inspires us to see and do the more he wishes to accomplish.

In the name of Jesus, and with the heart of Mary who stands at the foot of the cross, the church must not only look within, but look without. It must not only stand with women who suffer, but alleviate their need.
Women, themselves, too, must embrace a deeper call. Never before in world history have there been so many women who have been given so much materially. Yet one of woman’s greatest feminine gifts has nothing to do with material advancement, it is the gift of maternity — both the physical kind and the spiritual maternity that embraces society, contains it, and brings new life to it.

Somewhere, within Francis’ words on the plane the other day, I heard echoes of Paul VI at the close of Vatican II extolling women to come to the aid of humanity for love’s sake.

But the hour is coming, in fact has come, when the vocation of women is being achieved in its fullness, the hour in which the woman acquires and influence, an effect and a power never hitherto achieved. That is why, at this moment…. Women impregnated with the spirit of Gospel can do so much to aid mankind in not falling.

We, indeed, have a sure foundation for a theology of women.

Francis, let women assist you in rebuilding the church, and bringing new life to the world!

Pat Gohn is a writer, speaker and the creator and host of Among Women podcasts. She is a columnist at Patheos.com and her book, “Blessed, Beautiful and Bodacious: Celebrating the Gift of Catholic Womanhood,” is published through Ave Maria Press.

Pat Gohn
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  • RyanOfColumbiaSC

    Of Reading a prose typographe in Alistaire McGraths “In The Beginning” i followed Pauls Letter to the Romans to be not quite different than Bergoglios trip to Rio di Janeiro; and as… found procurement in the inclusion of “what caught my eye: the inked inclusion of the word “impart”. As mutually in Psalm 23 Paul mentions “In God We Trust” for the variance of the yearning peace the Lord gives us. “Spoken upon the grounds that what is given is of value… as causistically… a proving body in the womb between the living abundance of time echoes the domain of universal gestement. Amd, as always to transverse and sojourn when we come into the grace of fervor for Spirit the “IMPARTATION; In-Of a bases for whats the filament of sacred virtuit-gratisi The comforted together bewteen the “facts of life that truth be told, “Mother-kindred lays within the aggregate demand of an opened hand of means to cover the tenderness supplicity of binding faith on “face value efficacy; at least and A True Fathers coherency to bring forth faith where nihil construct was once the bases of time… who we entailed to reveal pain is tangibility that *diagnostically caring men should recompense for a woman.. as the vitalitae of Maria reigneth true: to feel liturgy “with my body, I thee worship.” As we live in joy and pain. Whats to hold but a hand?

  • RyanOfColumbiaSC

    Of Reading a prose typographe in Alistaire McGraths “In The Beginning” i followed Pauls Letter to the Romans to be not quite different than Bergoglios trip to Rio di Janeiro; and as… found procurement in the inclusion of “what caught my eye: the inked inclusion of the word “impart”. As mutually in Psalm 23 Paul mentions “In God We Trust” for the variance of the yearning peace the Lord gives us. “Spoken upon the grounds that what is given is of value… as causistically… a proving body in the womb between the living abundance of time echoes the domain of universal gestement. Amd, as always to transverse and sojourn when we come into the grace of fervor for Spirit the “IMPARTATION; In-Of a bases for whats the filament of sacred virtuit-gratisi The comforted together bewteen the “facts of life that truth be told, “Mother-kindred lays within the aggregate demand of an opened hand of means to cover the tenderness supplicity of binding faith on “face value efficacy; at least and A True Fathers coherency to bring forth faith where nihil construct was once the bases of time… who we entailed to reveal pain is tangibility that *diagnostically caring men should recompense for a woman.. as the vitalitae of Maria reigneth true: to feel liturgy “with my body, I thee worship.” As we live in joy and pain. Whats to hold but a hand?

  • GeezerJohn

    Huh?

  • GeezerJohn

    Huh?

  • dg00088

    Dear Pat,

    Thank you for typing this piece and to the Washington Post, thank you for publishing it. This is beautiful!!! We need newspapers and media outlets to let people like you Pat to speak for the church, unlike many it feels like try to bash it.

    Pat, may God bless you and all His followers everywhere. May the Holy Spirit open our hearts to see, hears, feel your will God. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

  • dg00088

    Dear Pat,

    Thank you for typing this piece and to the Washington Post, thank you for publishing it. This is beautiful!!! We need newspapers and media outlets to let people like you Pat to speak for the church, unlike many it feels like try to bash it.

    Pat, may God bless you and all His followers everywhere. May the Holy Spirit open our hearts to see, hears, feel your will God. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

  • jezebella

    RyanOfColumbiaSC’s point is well made.

  • jezebella

    RyanOfColumbiaSC’s point is well made.

  • cricket44

    There was a point in there? Where was there even coherence?

  • cricket44

    There was a point in there? Where was there even coherence?

  • Catken1

    It would be interesting to see a religion that treated human beings as individuals first and foremost, not defined primarily by their sex. After all, women are a rather wide and diverse range of people.
    And maternity isn’t the most interesting thing about women, though it is one interesting thing, nor are our wombs, though important, more important to most of us than our brains.

  • Catken1

    It would be interesting to see a religion that treated human beings as individuals first and foremost, not defined primarily by their sex. After all, women are a rather wide and diverse range of people.
    And maternity isn’t the most interesting thing about women, though it is one interesting thing, nor are our wombs, though important, more important to most of us than our brains.

  • seeker217

    I do wholeheartedly agree with the fact that he asked for a deeper real theology of women then what we have…YES! HOWEVER, my concern and critique is with his imagery concerning women in the church… He uses Mary, the Madonna in relation to the apostles– I think this once again perpetuates the image of women simply being vessels without any voice on their own accord… what are we just supposed to do, stand by continuing to ‘give birth’ to the church without the right to lead at all which we know is so far from the truth… personally, I think this is like comparing apples to oranges… the better MARY to use as an image of women in the church is of course MARY MAGDALENE…who was equal with the apostles and had a special role in the Jesus movement and beyond. I do realize that this woman is a threat to the powers that be hence we have Mary our Mother handed down to us… keeping us in our place… I love Mary our Mother, please don’t get me wrong and her strength and challenge is evident HOWEVER, I yearn for the day when ALL of my gifts and talents or calling can be shared freely and widely not just because some benevolent pastor allows me to use them…but I guess it’s a start… still no discussion about women priests… thanks, JPII?!?!

  • seeker217

    I do wholeheartedly agree with the fact that he asked for a deeper real theology of women then what we have…YES! HOWEVER, my concern and critique is with his imagery concerning women in the church… He uses Mary, the Madonna in relation to the apostles– I think this once again perpetuates the image of women simply being vessels without any voice on their own accord… what are we just supposed to do, stand by continuing to ‘give birth’ to the church without the right to lead at all which we know is so far from the truth… personally, I think this is like comparing apples to oranges… the better MARY to use as an image of women in the church is of course MARY MAGDALENE…who was equal with the apostles and had a special role in the Jesus movement and beyond. I do realize that this woman is a threat to the powers that be hence we have Mary our Mother handed down to us… keeping us in our place… I love Mary our Mother, please don’t get me wrong and her strength and challenge is evident HOWEVER, I yearn for the day when ALL of my gifts and talents or calling can be shared freely and widely not just because some benevolent pastor allows me to use them…but I guess it’s a start… still no discussion about women priests… thanks, JPII?!?!

  • amelia45

    It makes no sense. If there is a need for a theology of women, does that mean the current theology is only a theology of men. Put another way, if there to be a “theology of women” there must also be a “theology of men” and there should be a “theology of humanity” that has nothing to do with gender.

    God made both man and woman in His image. Why is it that men can be fathers AND thinkers, creators, builders but women are supposed to just be mothers?

  • amelia45

    It makes no sense. If there is a need for a theology of women, does that mean the current theology is only a theology of men. Put another way, if there to be a “theology of women” there must also be a “theology of men” and there should be a “theology of humanity” that has nothing to do with gender.

    God made both man and woman in His image. Why is it that men can be fathers AND thinkers, creators, builders but women are supposed to just be mothers?

  • 19Robert36

    ” . . . The fact that a woman cannot exercise the priesthood does not make her less than the male.” Perhaps this would be more believable is the priesthood and clergy was not explained as being the higher vocation. Clericalism which puts priests above the laity in so many ways has many corollaries intended. So only men can perform recognized blessings etc. And the beat goes on!

  • 19Robert36

    ” . . . The fact that a woman cannot exercise the priesthood does not make her less than the male.” Perhaps this would be more believable is the priesthood and clergy was not explained as being the higher vocation. Clericalism which puts priests above the laity in so many ways has many corollaries intended. So only men can perform recognized blessings etc. And the beat goes on!

  • annpenn1

    Catken1 – there are many such religions – consider most mainline protestant religions and the Reformed Jewish faith. The Congregationalists (currently part of the United Church of Christ) first ordained a woman in the 1853! Women play an active and equal role in many of these faiths, including leadership and policy making roles.

    Alas, most of the publicity on women and/in religion goes to the Roman Catholics and to the fundamentalists of all faiths, etc.

  • annpenn1

    Catken1 – there are many such religions – consider most mainline protestant religions and the Reformed Jewish faith. The Congregationalists (currently part of the United Church of Christ) first ordained a woman in the 1853! Women play an active and equal role in many of these faiths, including leadership and policy making roles.

    Alas, most of the publicity on women and/in religion goes to the Roman Catholics and to the fundamentalists of all faiths, etc.

  • ChristianRights

    In an interview with the German newspaper Kölnische Rundschau on August 3rd, 2013,
    the canon Norbert Luedecke was asked for his opinion about why the pope categorically refuses
    to reconsider the question of ordination of women to the priesthood. He replied as follows:
    “In 1994, Pope John Paul II declared the doctrine of the impossibility of the ordination of women as a final, i.e. infallible teaching of the Episcopal College. As such it can be neither changed nor revised by any pope or council.” Luedecke refers to the teaching document Ordinatio Sacerdotalis from 1994.
    This is generally not well known. Therefore, many Catholics hope for a revision in this matter.

    The only way to distinct definitely between men and women, is to examine which of the two
    sex chromosome sets, XY or XX, holds true for a specific person. However, there exist (as is well known to 15 year-old high school students today) a variety of transitional forms, for example chromosomal mosaics or the XXY chromosome sets, XXXY etc. It is therefore likely that a certain proportion of ordained Catholic priests are presently and were in the past no men.

    As it is, the Catholic church claims that Christ makes the right to be ordained a priest dependent on the existence of certain genetic characteristics. And, according to N. Luedecke, it raises this idea to the status of firm, non-revisable, religious truth.

    To tie rights and offices to the presence of genetic characteristics has proven to be a disastrous aberration in European history. Therefore, this kind of thought is rejected definitely among Europeans, also European Catholics. As it is, if asked, European Catholics would consider that as a specific Roman Catholic idiosyncrasy, that has nothing to do with Christ.
    There is no need for such idiosyncrasies that make our and the Church`s life problematic. Rather
    we need a Church for all people. A Church where people enjoy the same rights, regardless of gender, race or other genetic traits.

  • ChristianRights

    In an interview with the German newspaper Kölnische Rundschau on August 3rd, 2013,
    the canon Norbert Luedecke was asked for his opinion about why the pope categorically refuses
    to reconsider the question of ordination of women to the priesthood. He replied as follows:
    “In 1994, Pope John Paul II declared the doctrine of the impossibility of the ordination of women as a final, i.e. infallible teaching of the Episcopal College. As such it can be neither changed nor revised by any pope or council.” Luedecke refers to the teaching document Ordinatio Sacerdotalis from 1994.
    This is generally not well known. Therefore, many Catholics hope for a revision in this matter.

    The only way to distinct definitely between men and women, is to examine which of the two
    sex chromosome sets, XY or XX, holds true for a specific person. However, there exist (as is well known to 15 year-old high school students today) a variety of transitional forms, for example chromosomal mosaics or the XXY chromosome sets, XXXY etc. It is therefore likely that a certain proportion of ordained Catholic priests are presently and were in the past no men.

    As it is, the Catholic church claims that Christ makes the right to be ordained a priest dependent on the existence of certain genetic characteristics. And, according to N. Luedecke, it raises this idea to the status of firm, non-revisable, religious truth.

    To tie rights and offices to the presence of genetic characteristics has proven to be a disastrous aberration in European history. Therefore, this kind of thought is rejected definitely among Europeans, also European Catholics. As it is, if asked, European Catholics would consider that as a specific Roman Catholic idiosyncrasy, that has nothing to do with Christ.
    There is no need for such idiosyncrasies that make our and the Church`s life problematic. Rather
    we need a Church for all people. A Church where people enjoy the same rights, regardless of gender, race or other genetic traits.