Note: This piece is the first in a series on Catholic theology on women. The series is my own response to Pope Francis’ call for a deeper theology to be developed. He first called for it this summer following World Youth Day and then again this week. Please, please comment to join the conversation
"Women are asking deep questions that must be addressed. The church cannot be herself without the woman and her role. The woman is essential for the church…We must therefore investigate further the role of women in the church. We have to work harder to develop a profound theology of the woman. Only by making this step will it be possible to better reflect on their function within the church. The feminine genius is needed wherever we make important decisions."
–Pope Francis, Sept. 19, 2013
I think a lot (as social science master’s students are won to do) about identity.
What is at the core of my identity? Is it my nationality? Race? State citizenship? Kinship? While I will always be proud of my identity as Oklahoman, I must confess that identifying as Catholic and a woman come first.
Sometimes this identity of “Catholic woman” is hard to navigate. I was raised in and choose to continue practicing the Catholic faith, which many within and outside of the Church see as being oppressive towards women.
Female priests? Forget about it, we’ve already had that conversation. Female leadership in the hierarchy? Well, Mary Ann Glendon was just named to Pope Francis’ council of laypersons, but for a worldwide church of 2 billion people, one name coming to mind is just not that impressive.
Okay, so we know that many women in the church feel underappreciated. We know the secular media is constantly antagonizing the Church to stray from its longstanding, male-dominated tradition.
But what does the Church actually teach on women?
There is actually a very rich—if not yet fully developed—tradition on the role of women in the Catholic church. From women being present with Jesus as he died on the cross, preparing his body for burial, and the first to know that He had risen is pretty significant. As Catholics, our reverence to Mary is second to none and we have many, many female saints and a few Church doctors to boot.
Continuing in this tradition, John Paul II penned the letter On the Dignity and Vocation of Women. This letter is a must read for Catholic women, especially those that question how valued they are by the Church as an institution and how fundamental they are in both physical motherhood and spiritual motherhood.
Pope Francis, however, shocked many on his return from this summer’s Rio World Youth Day by calling for a more developed theology on women—that is not dependent on ordination. This is exciting for several reasons. First, we have the opportunity and responsibility of thinking about the unique contributions of women in the Church. Second, we are able to witness this theology unfold. This is really an incredible moment to be a woman in the Catholic Church.
This surprising statement is not one from which we can expect a change in Church teaching, but a larger acknowledgement that the role of women in mainstream culture, in the family, in the workplace, in the Church, and more has changed with little exploration from theologians on how Church teaching is relatable to the 21st century woman.
Adelaide Mena reported for CNA:
[Pope Francis] noted that the existence of a male-only priesthood does not diminish the role of women, adding that the “Virgin Mary was more important than the apostles and bishops and deacons and priests,” and that the feminine Church, as the Bride of Christ “is more important than the bishops and priests.”
As a high schooler, I was incensed—as any 18 year old who thinks the world is their oyster—that women couldn’t be priests. The Church doesn’t even know what it is missing out on, I thought as I could instantly call to mind several wonderfully talented, insightful, Catholic women role models in my life. To accept this has been a challenge in its own right and something I plan to address later in this series.
But to have to conversation, aside from female priesthood, on women in the Church today? How insightful. Because let’s be honest…what percent of men in the Church are called to vocations other than the priesthood? Most.
We as, women, as well as men, have a dignity that lies in our innate humanness and is not exclusive to the vocation of priesthood or the religious life. So regardless of female priesthood, there IS great significance in women’s unique, present-day role in the Church, the workplace, the home, and the community that is applicable to all women, regardless of their vocation.
What is that exactly? I challenge women and theologians alike. Who will be the ones to help develop a deeper, richer theology on women? How can we better understand our role as Catholic women so that we are not negotiating or defending the two co-existing identities?
Please keep reading as this series covers the following:
• Women of the Church: Old Testament Women, Mary, Female Saints
• Church Documents: John Paul II’s Letter on the Dignity of Women, Papal writings and Encyclicals on the dignity of the worker and the vocation of the family, Catechism of the Catholic Church, and Scripture
• 21st Century Women: Here is where I hope to receive feedback on the previous columns, share my own experience, and profile Catholic women in the Church today.