Last month I attended the Spring Meeting of the American Catholic Historical Association (ACHA) and had the opportunity to present on part of some work I have in progress that makes arguments about the importance of feminist historical theology and of the recovery of women’s voices explicitly as works of theology. (For those who follow me on Twitter—@elissacutter—this is where I use the Catholic Church’s own social teaching as a foundation for using feminist methodology.) In the discussion that followed, the audience generally agreed with my basic argument for the recovery of women as theologians and out discussion mostly centered on the question of why this hasn’t been done previously in the tradition. Both my paper and the other one in my session—more on that later—highlighted the way that who is considered a theologian at the time of both our papers (the early modern era) was defined by the clerical state more than the content of their writings. So, the question is: is theology defined by the content or by the status of the one doing the writing?
Now, of course, in the early modern era we have the added issue of the universities. So, the theologian is the one with the academic degree in theology. Of course, using the university degree as a way to distinguish who is a theologian is itself problematic because, first, theology existed before the universities did and, second, until the twentieth century, many people were excluded from accessing this type of education, including women. As one of the comments to my original “No Church Mothers” post argues, “We expect theologians to be academics who write treatises. Mystics (male and female) [and founders of orders dedicated to service] are therefore not considered to be proper theologians. We have a very 12th century perspective on theology.”
I noticed all this again when teaching the Christian Tradition this semester. I use in that class, among other things, Alister McGrath’s The Christian Theology Reader (5th ed., Wiley Blackwell, 2016) to give my students access to primary sources. McGrath only includes any writing from three (three!!!) women prior to the twentieth century: Julian of Norwich, Mechthild of Magdeburg, and Catherine of Genoa. Now, McGrath doesn’t always give a role or title to every author, but it is interesting to note that Julian of Norwich and Mechthild of Magdeburg are both identified as “spiritual writers.” McGrath doesn’t identify any women as theologians until the twentieth century when they would have had access to advanced degrees in theology. Yet men who would not have had access to university degrees in theology—like, for example, Tertullian (c.160–c.220)—are identified as theologians.
I find myself as frustrated as I was in my second “No Church Mothers” post of the ridiculous separation of the writings of men and women by McGrath. (Note: as far as I’ve been able to tell from the book, he doesn’t identify a single man as a “spiritual writer.” Perhaps those men who might be categorized as that are left out because they are spiritual writers and not theologians and this is a reader of theological texts?) As Andrew Prevot has also argued, categorizing women as just spiritual writers is problematic in numerous ways. First, it reinforces a gendered divide between the female as spiritual writer and the male as theologian. But, second, it also separates the prayer and practice of faith from theology, which is then limited to being only an intellectual discipline. As Prevot argues, “Hence, for more reasons than one—for the sake of women and for the sake of theology—we need a category of ‘women theologians’ that is not limited to those women who have finally been permitted to earn theology degrees in the last few generations but also embraces the many thoughtful women who have come before, whom we will badly misremember if we restrict them to the feminine role of a spiritual (as opposed to theological) source” (“No Mere Spirituality: Recovering a Tradition of Women Theologians,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 33, no. 1 (2017): 107). As he notes later in that article, although spiritualty is itself an academic discipline and (as one commenter on Twitter kept insisting to me) spiritual theology has existed as a division within theology, when applied to women “it can carry a belittling connotation” (Prevot, 109). I imagine that today the label of “spiritual writer” is used unreflectively for women—that is, without knowing McGrath personally, I would attribute his use of these titles (and the lack of women in the Reader overall) to be due to implicit bias rather than explicit sexism or misogyny. But Prevot is absolutely right that even when done in such an unreflective manner the use of this label for women’s writings and not for men’s “is as though one wishes to brand women’s ideas as subjective, irrational, or emotional and supposedly therefore of little consequence to the theological tradition” (Prevot, 109). This is precisely the problem. Women are not seen as having made or even now making contributions to “real theology.”
The end of Prevot’s article gets at the issue of the way women’s voices are seen as supplementary to the history of theology—an extra that only women might be interested in paying attention to. As Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza has noted, “Students being tested on their knowledge of biblical interpretation, for instance, will be certified if they know the ‘whitemale’ Euro-American tradition of biblical interpretation. Their knowledge of African-American or feminist biblical interpretation does not count. Conversely, students who have no knowledge of either African-American, Hispanic, or feminist biblical interpretation will be certified as competent” (But She Said: Feminist Practices of Biblical Interpretation, Beacon Press, 1992).
But there is another aspect of this that was raised by Richard Yoder’s paper, “Les Pierres de Scandale: Jacqueline-Aimée Brohon and Her Revolutionary Reception.” Brohon (1731–78) was a lay mystic in eighteenth-century France who claimed that Jesus had instructed her to found a société de victimes who would provide reparation for the sins of the world through prayer and suffering. This société would be made up of six male priests and six laywomen, all of whom would be considered as equals. This was distinctly not to be a convent and this equality of men and women was meant to avoid the abuses of the convent. Now, part of what is so interesting about Brohon is how her writings got caught up in polemics during the French Revolution. Her ideas were opposed by Henri Grégoire and supported by his opponents in the politics of church structure during the Revolution. She had also been influenced by the Jesuits and Grégoire opposed the Jesuits.
Now there are a lot of issues with Brohon that are common issues to those with the Port-Royal nuns that are tied to the polemical contexts through which we have their writing. But Brohon’s teaching is given an additional layer of suspicion because she is a laywoman. While the official teaching of the church today is that “the religious state of life is not an intermediate state between the clerical and lay states” (Lumen Gentium, 43), the reason this needed to be stated at Vatican II is because there was—and I would venture still is for many, at least implicitly—a hierarchical view of holiness with the laity at the bottom. As Mary Ann Hinsdale notes in a footnote in her article about women theologians, technically all women in the church are lay in that they are not ordained, but “members of religious orders have a ‘public’ status in the Church due to their profession of vows” (“Who are the ‘Begats’? Or Women Theologians Shaping Women Theologians,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 33, no. 1 (2017): 94n15).
Again, as I argued in my ACHA presentation—and am doing so further elsewhere—all this matters so women today have historical models to look at for women doing theology. In this sense, recovering Brohon as a theologian might be more important even than the work I’m doing with Mother Angélique. As I have noted recently in conversations, I had no female professors of theology until graduate school. In this my experience maps what Hinsdale found in looking at the presence of Catholic women theologians, that for many women it was a male undergraduate professor who inspired them to go into theology (Hinsdale, 96). But, for me it goes even further in that even in my masters program the only women I had as professors were also nuns, so still not entirely a model for being a married laywoman doing theology. Thus, finding and sharing examples like Brohon from history—in addition to the religious women that Prevot talks about in his paper or like I work with—provides an important model.
Hinsdale’s article makes another important point in relation to the handful of women invited to take part on the synods on the family, namely that “even though women have been able to assume ecclesial vocations as theologians, their theological contribution to the development of church teaching remains woefully absent” (Hinsdale, 98–99). The women at the synods were treated paternalistically and with condescension by the bishops (Hinsdale, 99). We need to somehow move beyond the historical suspicion of women as heretical and incorporate more women as standards in theology (i.e., not just as specialists writing on women’s issues) to overcome this. As Maggi Dawn has said, “Theology by women is not done just for women, nor is it only about women. It’s theology – regular theology – being done by people who happen to be women.”