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).
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.