Two utterly unrelated stories have me thinking about what Pope Francis means when he says the Church must “go out.”
The first comes from Francis himself, who recently told reporters that the Church “need[s] to develop a profound theology of womanhood.” That jarred me a little initially. Bl. Pope John Paul II’s 1988 encyclical on the role of women, together with his Letter to Women, changed my life and the way I think about what it means to be a woman. Does the Pope mean to suggest Bl. John Paul’s work was not profound?
Hardly. In the same press conference Francis spoke enthusiastically about Bl. John Paul’s pontificate and why he will soon canonize his holy predecessor. But he did complain that the intra-church discussions we tend to have about women can be sterile. When Church-y people – those of us who in one way or another make our livings or dedicate our volunteer time in service to the Church—talk about the role of women, we tend to debate what women are “allowed” to do. Within the walls of the Church, should they be altar servers, lectors, Eucharistic ministers? (Priesthood, Pope Francis said, is a definitively closed question.) Outside the Church, should women work or should they be mothers?
We all invoke Church documents to defend our answers to these questions, but Francis seems to shake his head and say those questions are a bit pragmatic – they don’t get to the essence. “The role of women in the Church must not be limited to being mothers, workers, a limited role… No! It is something else!” He indicated he did not have time to explain fully what this “something else” might be, but he gave two hints: he invoked an episode in history where the women of Paraguay took stock of a country in post-war shambles and made the conscious decision to save their nation and culture. And he reminded us that Mary is the most important (non-divine) person in the Church and women are “more important than bishops and priests.” It’s less important what women specifically do, those examples suggest, then who they are – and what happens in a culture because of who they are.
Two weeks prior to the Pope’s making these remarks, the New York Times ran one of its perennial stories about sex on campus. The headline triumphed, “She can play that game too,” but the story of co-eds deliberately getting drunk because they dislike their sex partners and can’t hook-up sober is anything but liberating. If a man forced a woman into nightly sex, we’d call it sex-slavery. What is it called when a woman forces it on herself?
There have always been promiscuous women and telling their titillating stories under the guise of journalism is hardly new. What’s novel in the story is the reason given for this self-punishing behavior. In my day, a woman might sleep around in search of love – not a wise plan, but at least understandable; these students sleep around to avoid entangling relationships because they are too busy for them.
Here we begin to see Pope Francis’ point. A woman so alienated from herself that she gets drunk to be able to have a human connection which is deliberately rendered neither human nor connected is not touched even slightly by parish tiffs over who serves at the altar or internecine battles over individual child-rearing decisions.
We need a better theology of woman in the sense that what the Church already knows about the full, free, joyful flourishing of women has yet to break out into the culture at large. It’s still a mostly-hidden treasure, enjoyed by those who have discovered it in rarified Church circles. We need apostles of the theology of women.
One such apostle is my friend Pat Gohn, the popular catechist and podcaster, who’s recently penned Blessed, Beautiful & Bodacious on just this topic. The title is either going to sell you immediately, or turn you off (forgive me, Pat, I had to get past it!), but it is an engaging exploration of what it is to be a Christian woman. Chapter by chapter Gohn offers a succinct explanation of Church teaching. There are no one-dimensional lectures, though; she explores the material with us by revealing her own battles with it: what was hard to understand, how her thinking changed over time, how her faith and the Church’s teaching on women have helped her navigate through life: would she lose herself in a marriage? Where was God in moments of self-doubt or bouts of loneliness?
There is a particularly moving passage where she talks about learning to trust God while battling breast cancer and fearful she won’t be around to raise her kids. I won’t spoil it here, but you will be blessed by reading it.
The book’s chock-full of practical wisdom. Many a Catholic book will advise you to develop a relationship with Mary or create a supportive community around you, but Gohn shows you how, which is a gift. Funny and “real,” it’s an excellent entry into the growing literature exploring the “being” of women and how to articulate it woman by woman to a culture in need.