Pope Francis caused some eyebrows to go up last week when he remarked, in an offhand way, that, “We don’t have a deep theology of women in the church.”
I’m not sure if anything is being lost in translation, but, as Pat Gohn pointed out in her Washington Post op-ed today, the real problem isn’t that the Church doesn’t have a deep theology of women. We do. We’ve actually got the richest, deepest, and most beautiful theology around. Could it be deeper? Sure. What theology couldn’t be? But the real problem isn’t the lack of a deep theology; it’s that there is no widespread recognition or understanding of that theology.
Too many women (and men), both Catholic and non-Catholic, have never heard what the Church teaches about the beauty and witness of the feminine. They don’t know what it means to be a woman—to love like a woman, work like a woman, or serve like a woman.
What the World Thinks We Are
Some, mistakenly, think being feminine is all about being sexy, slinky, and hot. Others believe that it’s about size, i.e. the thinner you are, the more feminine you are.
Others still have bought into the idea that gender is merely a social construct and that the differences between men and women can be boiled down to biology—X chromosomes and Y chromosomes, male parts and lady parts, that sort of thing.
The Church, however, has a very different message for women.
What the Church Thinks We Are“The Madonna of the Snakes”
Through the centuries, in the face of extreme sexism in the world at large, the Church has defended the dignity of women—our ability to love, reason, create, and choose right from wrong.
When Gnostics were insisting that women had to become men before we could enter into eternal life, the Church was pointing to the Blessed Virgin Mary and shouting, “Not so!” And when the powers that be in the culture were denying women the right to study, work, or own property, Catholic women were helping St. Jerome translate the Bible, founding religious orders, and enjoying tremendous power running some of the most influential abbeys of Christendom.
In more recent decades, as women have been objectified and pornographied by post-modern culture, the Church has repeatedly reminded women that, regardless of what Cosmo says, our beauty has nothing to do with our cup size and our value is utterly divorced from our prowess in the bedroom.
Instead, She has proclaimed that our bodies—beautiful, receptive, and life-giving—are witnesses both to enduring truths about our feminine souls and eternal truths about God.
That is to say, in women’s beauty, in our innate attractiveness, in men’s desire for us, we reveal to the world how desirable the human soul is to God—that He seeks after each and every one of us with a lover’s love.
Likewise, in our receptivity, in our ability to receive the gift of our husband’s body and human life itself into our own body, we reveal that all human beings are receivers. Nothing we have is our own. Every gift, every grace, comes to us from Another, and we become most fully ourselves when we surrender to that Other and receive those graces.
Most of all, in our ability to nurture and nourish life, women image a God who nurtures and nourishes all life; who never breaks the bruised reed or crushes the smoldering wick; who hold the poor, the suffering, and the forgotten ever close to His heart; who never gives up, who never lets go, who is faithful to the end.
The Essence of What We Are
What the Church teaches is that all women are made to be mothers—some in body, all in soul.
What that means is that as women, we have been charged with the momentous task of nourishing and nurturing the human spirit. It falls to us to welcome people into our lives, to look upon them with eyes of love, see the particular beauty of each individual soul, love them as they most need to be loved, and fan the flame of grace in their hearts.
That’s a truth that is supposed to hold true wherever we go—in the home, the office, the grocery story, the halls of Congress, and the slums of Calcutta. It’s also supposed to hold true with everyone we meet. Women are supposed to love every person we encounter with a mother’s love—an enduring, powerful, life-giving, life-changing love. And we’re supposed to do that not just as the mothers of small children, but as wives and friends, doctors and lawyers, writers and political leaders, chefs and cleaning ladies.
The fact that so many of us don’t recognize that, let alone do it, is one of the reasons our world is in the mess it’s in. We’re not loving as women are called to love, and the culture is dying for lack of that love.
As Catholics, we should know that. And some of us do. But so few of us live the call to spiritual motherhood as fully as we should. And fewer of us still help others to hear and answer the call. We’re not living as spiritual mothers, and we’re not teaching others how to be spiritual mothers.
Which is why the Church’s teachings on women—for as beautiful and glorious as they are—aren’t widely known.
Becoming What We Are
It falls to us to change that. It starts with us.
So, look around you. Find the women in your world who embody spiritual motherhood and start imitating them. Look also to the saints—to Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, St. Edith Stein, St. Catherine of Sienna, St. Gianna Beretta Molla, St. Teresa of Avilla, St. Paula, St. Francis of Rome, St. Francis Cabrini, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, and a thousand other female saints. Study them. Strive to be more like them. Ask for their help.
Last but not least, read! There are dozens of fantastic books and Church documents on the genius of women that can help you become more the woman God made you to be. I won’t call mine fantastic, but my Catholic Girl’s Survival Guide for the Single Years as well as my new book that is due out in September, These Beautiful Bones: An Everyday Theology of the Body, both deal in-depth with these questions.
In my books, however, I’m just summing up—in simpler words and shorter sentences—all of the really good stuff on femininity that’s out there. At the end of this post, I’ll paste the portion of the bibliographic essay from The Survival Guide that deals with the Church’s teachings on women.
You don’t have to read everything, but my guess is, once you get started, you won’t want to stop. The Church’s theology of women is deep and rich and powerful. It’s a theology that transformed how I saw myself. It’s a theology that’s transforming how I live.
And if we let it, it’s a theology that will transform the world.
The Bibliography (From The Catholic Girl’s Survival Guide to the Single Years)
To explore the history of the Church’s understanding of women, some of the best sources include Sister Prudence Allen’s masterful, two volume treatise on The Concept of Women (Eerdmans: 1995, 2002) and Caroline Walker Bynum’s books on women in the medieval Church, Holy Feast and Holy Fast (University of California, 1986) and Fragmentation and Redemption (Zone, 1992).
For a comprehensive understanding of the feminine genius, the two best sources, hands down are Edith Stein’s essays in Women, volume four of her collected works (ICS Publications: 1987) and Gertrude von Lefort’s The Eternal Woman (Bruce, 1962). Also helpful are the essays collected in the compendium The Church and Women (Ignatius, 1998), as well as the books The Privilege of Being a Woman by Alice von Hildebrand (Veritas: 2002), Are Women Human by Dorothy Sayers (Eerdmans, 1947), and The Feminist Question: Feminist Theology in Light of Christian Tradition by Father Francis Martin (Eerdmans: 1994). Although it’s written from a strong Protestant perspective, John and Stacy Eldredge’s Captivating: Unveiling the Mystery of a Woman’s Soul (Thomas Nelson: 2005) is an excellent contemporary resource that is, for the most part, in line with Catholic teaching on women and very accessible.
The best magisterial sources on women are John Paul II’s writings, his Letter to Women (1995) and Mulieris Dignitatum (On the Dignity and Vocation of Women) (1988), both which are available at www.vatican.va, as well as The Theology of the Body (Pauline, 2006).
Many of the ideas from the above sources were explored in a series of columns I did for Lay Witness magazine in 2008, entitled ”The Feminine Genius.” Those are all available online at www.cuf.org.
*Since this bibliography was published, Pat Gohn has also released an excellent book on the feminine genius, Blessed, Beautiful and Bodacious (Ave Maria Press, 2013).