Last month, on the way back from his spectacularly successful trip to Brazil, Pope Francis offered some off the cuff comments that sent the Catholic blogosphere buzzing.

While re-affirming the church’s longstanding prohibition on the ordination of women, Pope Francis called for what he termed “a truly deep theology of women in the church.”

Many in the Catholic blogosphere celebrated the Pope’s remarks, interpreting them as evidence of the Pope’s appreciation for women.  But I am not so sure we should greet these words as “good news.”  The problem seems to be exactly opposite of what Pope Francis argued.  I blame not the absence of such a “theology of women” but the fact that so many church officials think we need a “theology of women” in the first place.

First of all, a previous pope, John Paul II, has already attempted “a theology of women” in the form of his 1988 Apostolic Letter, Mulieris Dignitatem (On the Dignity of Women).  Here, John Paul II identifies two dimensions to women’s vocation, Marian-style motherhood (18) and virginity.  But rather than critiquing this particular theology of women, I want to uncover the problems with this project’s premise. 

The search for a theology of women, I argue, does not affirm women; it further exoticizes them by placing them under the confining glare of the male gaze.  Why has no pope ever penned a letter on the role of men in church and society?  Or pondered a “theology of males?”

The answer is simple: papal authors have never questioned the theological significance of their sex because power made masculinity its own justification.  Holding social and ecclesial power, males seemed normatively human.  Magisterial authors even made the word for “males” interchangeable with the word for the entire species–women can be men, but men can never be women.  Women are never the standard; they stand as the exception.

This holds true with all socially powerful groups.  For example, in the United States, mainstream social commentators commonly referred to the country’s persistent white supremacy not as “the white problem” but as “the negro problem,” or “the race problem.”  Then as now, whiteness seems normative, taken for granted, and invisible.  Only peoples of color must explain themselves.

Rather than calling for a “truly deep theology of women,” I wish the pope had summoned a more incisive critique of sexism, misogyny, and androcentrism.  Rather than a deeper theology of women, I wish he had recognized the need for more theology by women.

A pope has never written a letter affirming the dignity of menfolk also because the dignity of menfolk has never been in doubt.  The church has always honored and respected the dignity of masculinity.  We typically have to explicitly affirm the dignity only of those groups denied dignity in concrete happenings of everyday life.

In a similar way, the place of men in the church has always been taken for granted—it seems so obvious as to go un-discussed.   But, if Pope Francis speaks accurately about our lack of an adequate theology of women, two thousand years is not enough time to figure out what God wants for women.  How can this be so?

What about women is so hard to understand?

Maybe contemporary magisterial authors find women so vexingly complex because they are aiming at the impossible: the production of a theory that renders women both essentially and uniformly different from men but fundamentally equal to them.

Catholic authorities didn’t used to find this question so complicated.  Thomas Aquinas devoted just one question (ST I.92) out of his entire Summa to the explicit discussion of women.  He spoke of angels more frequently than he uttered the word “woman.”

For the vast majority of its history, the church did not need to justify its belief in male supremacy against a chorus of doubters.  The societies the church inhabited largely agreed with them.  Catholic authors therefore devoted the majority of the church’s rhetorical resources to defending the church’s stance on issues of controversial.

But in the twentieth century, this began to change.  The church’s belief in the superiority of men to women no longer seemed so obvious.  Seeking to defend the church against a burgeoning women’s rights movement, in 1930, Pope Pius XI wrote Casti Conunubii. Re-affirming man’s status as the head of his family, he insisted on the importance of wifely submission.  (27) He scathingly excoriated all of those who “assert that such a subjection of one party to another is unworthy of human dignity, that the rights of husband and wife are equal.”  Women must not “be freed at her own good pleasure from the…duties properly belonging to a wife as companion and mother.” (74)

By the time Pope John Paul II took office, proclamations of sexual inequality had fallen out of favor with even the most conservative Catholic women.  Old teachings were newly indefensible.  Reversing course, pope John Paul declared women the unconditional equal of men for the first time in church history.

But this did not solve all of the church’s problems.  Having no desire to open up the priesthood to female men, the church needed a way to justify its intention to continue reserving ordination only to male men. And, since the church’s ban on women priests had always rested quite heavily on the obvious inequality of women to men, this put the church in a bind.

Sexual complementarity, which grounds the all male priesthood in sexual difference rather than sexual inequality, arose as the somewhat successful solution to this rhetorical problem.  This ideology increasingly splits discipleship into sexual subdivisions, emphasizing women’s iconic impersonation of Mary and men’s iconic impersonation of Jesus.   Only male men can stand on the altar in persona Christi, because Jesus Christ was a male man. This “theology of the body” strives to assign theological and ontological import to reproductive organs.  The meaning of “woman” and “man” can be divined in the heterosexual operation of their genitals.

In his 2010 book, On Heaven and Earth, then Cardinal Borgoglio described this line of thinking perfectly:

“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.”

John Paul II presents a fuller description of Mary as icon of femininity in Mulieris Dignitatem. In undoing Eve’s disobedience, “Mary is ‘the new beginning’ of the dignity and vocation of women, of each and every woman.” (11)

Through her freely exercised “fiat,” (4) Mary serves as “the representative and the archetype of the whole human race.” In this,  “she represents the humanity which belongs to all human beings, both men and women.” But, “on the other hand, the event at Nazareth highlights a form of union with the living God which can only belong to the ‘woman,’ Mary: the union between mother and Son.”

Just as Mary acts as a model for women more than men, so Jesus serves as a model for men more than women.  “Precisely because Christ’s divine love is the love of a Bridegroom,” John Paul II argues, “it is the model and pattern of all human love, men’s love in particular.”  (25).

The popes correctly identify pregnancy as the unique capacity of women, but they put this fact to strange theological use.  If we agree with them, we find ourselves in the strange position of maintaining that the mere possession of a uterus provides women a more intense experience of bodily union with God than a man’s taking Christ’s body into his own body Eucharistically.

While Mary did indeed achieve union with God through bearing God’s Son in her body, and while only women can become pregnant, no woman before or after Mary has ever given birth to God.  Mary’s pregnancy stands as a historically unique and unrepeatable event.  What makes Mary’s pregnancy emblematic of the human capacity for union with God is not so much the fact that it was a pregnancy but the fact that she carried God inside of her body.

While many human women share anatomical capacity for motherhood in common with Mary, no human woman shares in common with her the experience of giving birth to God.  Contrary to papal arguments, Mary’s pregnancy underlines her difference from all other human women at least as much as it demonstrates her representative similarity to them.  For every woman but Mary, pregnancy does not bring her any closer to bodily union with God.  Like Catholic men, Catholic women experience bodily union with God during the Eucharist.

We face another problem.  John Paul believes that Mary and Jesus model sexual essence for a second reason.  Femininity, John Paul believes, expresses an essential passivity while masculinity embodies activity. “The Bridegroom is the one who loves. The Bride is loved: it is she who receives love, in order to love in return” (29).

"Christa," by Edwina Selmys Photo: Adam Reich
“Christa,” by Edwina Selmys
Photo: Adam Reich

But is Mary’s “yes” to pregnancy really that different from the “yes” offered by Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane?  Both “fiats” served as a response and submission to God’s will.  Just as Mary accepted pregnancy and did not initiate it, so Jesus accepted crucifixion.  Both entailed physical suffering—certainly in Mary’s milieu, pregnancy carried a high risk of death and deformity. In saying yes to crucifixion, Jesus suffered passively; his body was penetrated by a sword and offered up as a source of new life.  The word “passive” in fact hides within the word “passion.” Just as God’s body grew off of Mary’s so the church sprung from Jesus’ crucified body.  Both Mary and Jesus respond to God’s love-offer and say yes with their bodies.  Like brides, they accept their masculine lover’s gift and then return it with their bodies.  Following John Paul’s schema, God the Father loved both Mary and Jesus in a masculine way and both Mary and Jesus loved back in a feminine way.

And, while John Paul II figures the crucifixion as an occasion of bridegroom gusto and masculine chivalry, perhaps we ought to imagine the perilous pregnancies of ordinary women as a much more accurate analogy for the passion of the Christ.

Women represent neither a problem to be solved nor a mystery to be explained.  Against Pope Francis’s desire to slot women as a separate theological species, let us affirm the existence of one discipleship and one salvation.

25 thoughts

  1. Great article. I want to take it further; all people gender identities and sexual orientation need to be have their experiences reflected in Catholic spirituality, cultural and theology. Plus, the sacrament of holy orders needs to be reclaimed and decolonized while affirming the value the middle and back end of the ecclesical life.

    I find it horrible that many are (mis) using sacramental theology as a justification for spiritual hoarding, legalism and inhospitality.

    The constant misuse of the theology that often does NOT get called out and the unwillingness to further develop and push the boundaries on the implications of the sacramental life just makes doing my work as a prophet witness harder. There is a lot of justified trash talk about Sacramental High Church Tradition as it is.

    In all, God creates sacramentality through working with things and dwelling in the created world. I am always been taught that there’s no division between ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’.

  2. Extraordinary writing, Katie. The master’s tools are indeed unmaking the master’s house.

    Sent from my iPhone

  3. I have been thinking about many of these things since the call for a “deeper theology of women.” Your perspicuous articulation of all the basic problems with this project’s premise is a significant contribution but your perspicacious insights on the recent genealogy of this project and some of its pre-critical assumptions about gender are both fascinating, elucidating, and (most importantly) challenging. I don’t keep up with feminist theology as well as many of my friends but if some of these insights are your own innovations I really encourage you to develop these thoughts and present them for scholarly publication. I’m particularly interested in your exploration of “feminine receptivity” and Eucharistic reception, and I would love to hear more about that. This is hard work. And I’m glad WIT is doing it.

  4. Katie,

    Thanks for this post. I found it very helpful, and for the most part really spot-on in analysis. I just have one small point of departure. To be fair, this was based on my own personal understanding of what he said, and since I wasn’t there to ask a follow-up, I can’t really be sure until (if) he speaks on this topic at greater length. (Incidentally, I am not entirely certain why someone wouldn’t ask this question as a follow-up).

    My follow-up question to Francis would be this: “Do you think that that the “theology of women” presented by Pope John Paul II is actually superficial? I would have asked that question because my take on his words is simply that this is actually what he believes to some extent. I always remember Elizabeth Johnson in class saying that while JP II’s writings on women were a huge step in the right direction, there were still a couple of drawbacks: 1) his understanding of women’s “special nature” and 2) an ambiguity about women being in imago Christi (one can read about this further in Johnson’s essay in “The Church Women Want”). You touch on both of these in one way or another in this posting.

    In other words, while I agree that ideally there never would be a need for a “theology of women,” it has been necessary to try to correct the errors of history, of which the church has been guilty. On this same note, then, I think that when Pope Francis calls for a “deeper theology of women” he is hopefully trying to further clarify what the church means about the two problems listed above (and hopefully others). In that sense, I remain hopeful. I am less hopeful about who will be doing the theologizing. Hopefully it is done not by the CDF or the pope, but by some of the people who have been doing this theologizing from the ground-level, as it were, over these past years and decades. True “depth” should be displayed not only in content, but in the source of the content.

    But, thanks again for this great post. I look forward to your further thoughts on this.

    1. Hi Dan,
      You might be right although (and if anyone knows more about this, please chime in) the excerpt I quoted from the pope’s 2010 book would seem to indicate that he more or less agrees with the theology of women offered by JPII.

      But maybe you are right that calling for a theology of women is not inherently problematic. What do you think a non-sexist theology of women would look like?

      1. Katie,
        I think you are on the money with your interpretation of Francis’s 2010 book, which you analyze well in your post.

        Your final question is the dicey one. I think that a theology of women that is non-sexist (like a Latin American theology of liberation that does not discriminate against the materially poor) has to have some sense of shame and regret for past errors and faults. It has to attempt to be a theoretical corrective. This is something that some of the great feminist thinkers have been doing for many years now. But for this thought to be directly accepted and used in the magisterial teaching of the church would be a welcome addition to the corpus. Will it happen? Maybe not imminently, but the Spirit can’t be quenched forever.

      2. Dan, I should also say (and probably should have said in my post) that I consider feminist/womanist theologies to be something different than a theology of women. I think there will be some overlap but many disagreements.

    2. What you’re saying about the rationale behind needing a “theology of women” to correct the errors of the history of theology resonates with my general discomfort with feminist theology (which I’m having to overcome in writing my dissertation) in that just as theology has traditionally and implicitly assumed maleness as the standard, feminist theology turns around and raises the importance of femaleness. Of course, in each case there seems to be too much emphasis on gender as being too important of a difference between men and women.

      But, in relation to the original post, Katie, I like what you’ve said about the role of Mary being given to that of women. An important distinction that I don’t think you mentioned explicitly, but certainly implied, is that women cannot ever be Mary. Mary represented as the fullness of womanhood represents something that regular women cannot ever achieve: both virgin and mother.

  5. Thanks for a great post Katie! At first I too was thinking along the lines of Dan, so it was interesting to read the quote from Francis’ book. Much to ponder here as I find Francis refreshing but am nevertheless aware of the slow, glacial pace of institutional change.

  6. Ms. Grimes,

    What an insightful, articulate review of the problems that underly the very idea that the church needs categorize women as a theological discipline. As you so aptly put it, our sisters in Christ are “not a mystery to be explained”.

    It was while reading Simone de Beauvoir’s “Second Sex” and other feminist works that my own male-centered view of both church and world began to crumble. What I discovered amidst the rubble is that there really is nothing to be afraid of when we encounter the previously exoticized (and thereby often marginalized) “Other”, as de Beauvoir names it. Instead, reaching out beyond the boundaries of gender, race and other deliniations to share in more equitable and honest community-building has enriched my faith and opened my heart.

  7. It is not only a matter of reproductive organs. There are differences on hormones, shape of the brain, way of thinking (arose from these both), and shape of the body, If you cannot see these differences, and you only see a difference on reproductive organs, then you are completely blind. All these difference are important for everyday life, and have meanings on our understanding of the world and even of God.

    There is a need to have a specific theology, because women have asked for it by arguing against women submission to men (which actually is important and underlies many facts to be really discussed or taken into consideration. I heard a woman say: you will see women asking for a divorce more than men asking for it – You may see many men leaving their wives, but not necessarily asking for a divorce).
    Sure a theology for men should also be in order, if a theology for women is made. But since I don’t see any man complaining, I don’t see it coming. And sure men won’t be complaining… Women have subjugated their husbands for ages – You see it everyday. Perhaps it is due to this subjucation that men resourced to society (work, etc.) to level things up.

    Evil women are an EVIL who can destroy entire human races; they get other women supporting them, and they won’t get may men fighting against them (because their are women). On the other hand, evil men cannot have such a great power: women would not be very supporting and other men would just take them down if they notice something evil. That’s the way it is. That’s part of human race culture (from Greenwich to Gerenwich). Then you see there is something that lies beyond a simple physical external appearance.

    I would not see a need for a theology of women, but I do see many women asking for it: Asking for an explanations, for a “why”… Or perhaps, rather than a “why” they just say “you are wrong”. So, if an explanation is demanded, an explanation must be given. So let’s keep this talk out of words and see what is really going on around us (not just our local communities or countries).

    Btw… Even though I do not find myself very conservative, I do find women (wives) submission is important and FURTHEMORE, I am sure this is harder (more difficult) for men than for women. So let’s not plain victim. We ALL have it difficult, and we ALL are called to take our cross and follow Jesus.

    -I won’t activate “Notify me of follow-up…” If you found something useful on what I wrote, then I’m glad: good for you. — If you didn’t, well, then, I do hope at least my writing would have some good fruits for someone else.

    1. It’s too bad Octavio has decided to post and flounce rather than stay for conversation, but if anyone else is interested in supposed Big Important Differences Between The Sexes, might I suggest Thomas Laqueur’s book _Making Sex_? He shows how there was a decisive historical shift in the West, from thinking of women as misbegotten males (whose bodies are basically male only not as good) to thinking of women as the opposite sex (whose bodies, brains, hormones, thought processes, and psyches are different from men’s in every way).

      And echoing what a great post this was, Katie. I learned a lot.

  8. I see the Holy Father’s comments as a very positive call for the Church to adopt a deeper theology of women, one that is based on the very radical discipleship of the Blessed Virgin Mary, her radical solidarity with all the poor and oppressed, downtrodden, ignored, marginalized and excluded, including women, based on her central leadership role in the Church as Queen of Heaven and her pivotal role in the dispensation of all graces (including those dispensed by the ordained ministers) as Mediatrix of all Graces.

    I think that if the Church is able to fully articulate the central role of the Blessed Virgin Mary, then this will greatly help us in sorting out our problems of a sexist and misogynistic nature, and pave the way for the full and proper role of women in the Church.

    This is what I read Pope Francis as calling for and I think he is spot on.

    God Bless

    1. Yes, Mary is an example to us all, men included.

      I read Mary as radical: casting down the mighty from their thrones, raising up the lowly, filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty.

      Read “the poor” as all the mariginalised and excluded.

      Applying that radical solidarity to where the Church needs to go would be very helpful IMHO.

      The problem with our Marian theology is that we have domesticated it and toned down it’s radical call to change, to justice, to equality, to overturning barriers, to breaking chains of oppression and to setting the prisoners free. We need to return to its true meaning and recapture is radical call to change.

      God Bless

      1. That all sounds great, but it still seems that would amount to a particularly robust Mariology, not a “theology of women.”

      2. Here’s the question+answer on the plane back from WYD:

        Anna Ferreira:
        I would like to know, why, yesterday, you spoke to the Brazilian Bishops about women’s participation in our Church. I’d like to understand better: how should this participation be for us, women in the Church? If you … what do you think of the ordination of women? What should our position in the Church be?

        Pope Francis:
        I would like to explain a bit what I said on the participation of women in the Church: it can’t be limited to being altar servers or presidents of Caritas, catechists … No! It must be more, but profoundly more! Even mystically more, with what I’ve said of the theology of woman. And, with reference to the ordination of women, the Church has spoken and she said : “No.” John Paul II said it, but with a definitive formulation. That is closed, that door is closed, but I’d like to say something about this. I’ve said it, but I repeat it. Our Lady, Mary, was more important than the Apostles, than bishops, deacons and priests. In the Church, woman is more important than bishops and priests; how, it’s what we must seek to make more explicit, because theological explicitness about this is lacking. Thank you.

        So, if the role of women “can’t be limited to being altar servers” liturgically, then what’s the next step beyond that limit ? It’s ordination.

        And if Mary outranks all the clergy and the Pope says : “it’s what we must seek to make more explicit, because theological explicitness about this is lacking” then that’s a call for a deeper Marian theology with radical implications for the question asked: about the role of women in the Church.

        This is all dynamite, a hammer shattering rock, a tearing open of the heavens and God coming down, a call for radical change.

        OK, it isn’t a fully worked out theology of women, but is a way around current roadblocks in terms of the question Anna Ferreira asked and one with very solid roots in the tradition.

        God Bless

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