A few weeks ago, returning from World Youth Day, Pope Francis made several interesting remarks to journalists, including an implicit appeal for a theology of women: “We talk about whether they can do this or that: Can they be altar boys? Can they be lectors? About a woman as president of Caritas, but we don't have a deep theology of women in the Church.”
His comments were a timely preface for the 25th anniversary of John Paul II’s apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem (The Dignity and Vocation of Women), marked by this year’s Solemnity of the Assumption.
When I was doing graduate theology work in Rome, the document had been out for many years. John Paul II had continued to teach on the topic and had articulated the need for a “new feminism.”
However, as one of my friends observed, the common translation of this “new feminism” was a type of elitist feminism. It was applicable to women who were well educated, had successful careers and were married with children and household help.
While I was on my way to being well educated, I certainly didn’t have the rest of the ensemble. I was studying with priests and seminarians, mostly. I had no desire to join their ranks, despite our common discipline. At the same time, my friend was educated and married with small children. But working outside of the home would have placed too great a burden on her family. We also knew there were plenty of other women who didn’t fit the mold. I was convinced that the new feminism had to include all of the various states in the lives of women, not just educated, affluent wives and mothers.
This became the impetus for my doctoral work, in which I surveyed various feminist and gender theories to explore why the questions of feminine identity and vocation remained. I then used the thought of Thomas Aquinas, a saint and a brilliant doctor of the Church (sometimes inaccurately identified as a misogynist), to develop a feminism of complementarity or an integral feminism, one that sees the sexual differences as constructive. I wanted a feminism that considered a woman in her entirety, not just in terms of what she did or didn’t do: a new feminism.
As I progressed in my research, I realized just how visionary Pope John Paul II had been. He wasn’t offering a Catholic version of a fascist salute to motherhood. He was taking the concept of motherhood in a wholly different direction. After all, by the time he was writing, the developed world knew that women could match, and even surpass, men in most things. Instead of answering a question that had long sought an answer by defining women in terms of what men do, he focused on who a woman is, a much more elusive topic.
Still, my first reading of Mulieris didn’t satisfy me. I thought it was fine, but not meaty enough. It took a while before I saw that it was both subtle and groundbreaking, particularly in light of his other work. Six years after this apostolic letter, he wrote another, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone). For such a controversial topic, it was certainly a short document, just a few pages. He summarized Church teaching and almost abruptly concluded, “I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.”
From this point on, John Paul II stopped talking about women’s ordination. He focused on Mary, the woman, whom, in Mulieris, he had set up as a paradigm for all humanity, including himself and every other priest, by virtue of her response to God’s call.
The shift to Mary emphasizes the change in emphasis from doing to being. We actually know very little about what Mary did. But we know who she is: the Mother of God. Her ability to become a mother fundamentally enabled her to be open to God in a relationship that only a woman could have. Her response, uniquely feminine, paradoxically, became the model for all humanity.
Toward the end of John Paul’s life, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, under Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, issued a letter to the bishops, The Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World, which emphasized that women “have a role in every aspect of society.”
If we follow the example of Mary, that means working from within, wherever we happen to be, whether as chancellor of a major archdiocese, a mother home with small children, in business, politics or countless other places. It means recognizing that women bring something to the table by virtue of who they are rather than simply by what they do.
If Mary’s role as homemaker had been so vital, Jesus would have left the preparation of the Passover meal to her and not to the apostles. (I’m willing to bet she would’ve put on a better spread.) She was defined by who she was, by her relationship with Jesus, not by what she did. Similarly, we know that the apostles weren’t the smartest or the holiest bunch of men. But Jesus didn’t pick them for their accomplishments.
Twenty-five years after Mulieris Dignitatem, women have more positions in Church offices, and certainly women could have more leadership, but the vocation of women can’t be limited to a clericalist framework. Women, like men, exist in every sector of society, and both have critical contributions to make, regardless of what they do, because being a woman or a man should constructively influence the outcome. Within the Church, women need to be able to have a unique voice, not one that mimics that of men.
Pope Francis’ comments indicate that this work has only just begun.
Much, much more will be required to get us to the point where we understand both women and men for who they are.
Pia de Solenni is a moral theologian.
Her dissertation has been published twice
and was awarded the Pontifical Academies Award of 2001,
presented by Pope John Paul II.