SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Karen Stein was at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome when she heard the call of Pope John Paul II to conduct an “effective and intelligent campaign for the promotion of women.”
Stein was then one of a group of women in upstate New York who would meet regularly to read and study Church documents, among them Humanae Vitae, Familiaris Consortio and Mulieris Dignitatem.
It was the third — On the Dignity and Vocation of Women — that most impressed Stein.
“When I first read the document, I realized that the love I had for Mary from childhood was really valid,” she said. “I guess the image of Mary as a ‘humble’ woman was scorned by some misguided women in the Church, and their view had come to be accepted. It made me very happy to know that how I felt about Mary was exactly how the Church truly felt about her.”
As a Catholic in the Diocese of Syracuse, Stein served on its Commission on Women in Church and Society, which focused on the needs of women in the central New York diocese. Her work with the commission developed into Women for the Third Millennium, a program that promoted authentic feminism in light of the Jubilee Year.
Its Breakfast for Women speaker series opened with an address by Gladys Sweeney, founder and academic dean of the Institute for the Psychological Sciences. Two hundred and fifty women listened to Sweeney’s talk on “Women and the Vocation to Love” and came away eager for more.
Women for the Third Millennium continued to sponsor events, drawing women from all over the diocese.
Recalled Stein, “At each event, the women expressed their desire to know more about the faith.”
The success of Women for the Third Millennium brought home the need for more extensive studies designed for women and based on the teachings of the Catholic Church. While attending the 2002 International Women’s Congress in Rome, Stein proposed the formation of an institute in the United States that would advance a “new style of women’s studies.” She envisioned a course that would “bring women to a deeper understanding of the feminine genius and fall in love with what the Church says about women.”
Four years later, Women for the Third Millennium became what is now known as Avow: Advocating the Vocation of Women. Its stated mission is to develop and advance each woman’s dignity in light of her unique identity. To that end, Avow offers “seminars, forums and study groups dealing with contemporary topics relevant to today’s woman and her responsibilities in the family and in society.”
Stein is director of the Avow International Center.
Women’s Studies Transformed
In 2006, Avow formed a collaboration with the Institute of Higher Studies on Women in Rome, which is associated with the Legionaries of Christ-run Regina Apostolorum College. Stein’s vision of a “new style of women’s studies” was about to become a reality.
“Typically, women’s studies courses are founded on a false understanding of the nature of masculinity and femininity,” observed Julia Six, who is studying for her master’s degree in theology at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia. “They claim that men have dominated, repressed and marginalized women, so they aim to empower women to dominate, repress and marginalize men instead. They decry the sins of men and then ironically seek to imitate the very things that they detest in men.”
But not all women’s studies courses are created equal.
“I participated in the institute’s 2006 summer master’s program,” Stein explained. “The course was phenomenal, perfectly grounded in the natural law and the theological anthropology of John Paul II. I was convinced that it would be a life-changing experience for American women — professionals, mothers and students, young and old alike.”
The Avow International Center, in cooperation with the Institute of Higher Studies on Women, will offer the course this summer.
The seminars, as they were presented at the Regina Apostolorum , drew on examples from European culture. The Avow course has been adapted for American culture and will be taught in English by professors from the institute in Rome. It will be the premiere presentation of the course outside of the Eternal City, and is expected to become an annual event for American women.
‘Healing the Divisions’
Father Joel Kiefer, assistant pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish in Pottsville, Pa., has studied the writings of Pope John Paul II and has given talks and workshops on the theology of the body . He is enthusiastic about the seminars.
“The insights of Pope John Paul II on God’s plan for men and women provide a refreshing and effective vision for healing the divisions between men and women,” he said. “Men and women each have unique gifts and missions which are both vitally needed. The course offered by Avow affirms the goodness of being a woman, explores the invaluable gifts that women bring to the world, and strengthens women to use their talents for the good of others.”
“Women’s Formation and Leadership for a Better Society” consists of four seminars: feminine identity, psychology, and leadership; interpersonal relationships in the family; women in the social field; and leadership, education and communication. Each seminar uses an approach designed to help women acquire the skills needed to “make a positive impact on our culture and society.”
The four-credit, 64-hour course will be held June 15-24 on the campus of Cazenovia College in the village of Cazenovia in upstate New York. Cazenovia is less than an hour’s drive from Seneca Falls, the site of the first women’s-rights convention, where the “Declaration of Sentiments,” drafted by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, demanded equality with men before the law in 1848.
Equality and True Femininity
“Equality is widely misunderstood,” Father Kiefer said. “We need to understand equality in the sense of communion. We want to understand equality in the sense of the Father and the Son being equal but not identical. It’s, of course, going to turn modern feminism on its head. ... Equality is not identicalness; equality is communion of persons.”
According to its course description, the institute “hopes to foster new academic and cultural contributions to the field of women’s studies” through its summer program. “Women’s Formation and Leadership for a Better Society” is open to anyone, man or woman, with an interest in the vocation of women. The course is especially recommended for education and health professionals and those who work with women or girls.
Julia Six is eager to participate in the seminars. “I think Catholic women have a burning desire to work for the good of our families, our society and our world,” she said. “Our femininity gives us a special insight into the needs of people and an ability to bring to them the love of Christ, which transforms hearts. I’d love to take this course to continue to deepen my understanding of my femininity. I’ve come to realize that my gift to others comes from living fully my identity as a woman, not in becoming something I am not.”
Celeste Behe writes from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
For More Information
Registration and other information is available at DignityofWomen.org or by contacting Karen Stein at firstname.lastname@example.org or (315) 254-7929.