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A plan of life

Many theological questions, but also matters concerning inter-Christian and interreligious – and not last, ethical and socio-ethical – dialogue, are settled on the basis of man’s image: is man a social animal from the outset or do his individual interests come first? Is human nature radically corrupted by original sin or has it kept its openness to God’s grace?

Does man have a special place in the universe or is he an evolved animal who with his intelligence is inclined to act destructively? Is his orientation to goodness and happiness part of his vocation or is it a form of alienation through social manipulation? Is man’s openness to religion a sign of a transcendent promise or is it no more than an epiphenomenon of specific cerebral functions? Theological anthropology fails to keep up with the rapid increase in questions. It is a relatively young discipline that has not yet found its proper place. It neither belongs to classical dogmatic treatises nor has a precise place in moral theology and social ethics. Theological anthropology was given a decisive impetus by Gaudium et spes, the Pastoral Constitution of the Second Vatican Council.This document did not intend to pronounce only on the “Church in the modern world”, but also on man in the mystery of God: “What is man? He has put forward, and continues to put forward, many views about himself, views that are divergent and even contradictory. Often he either sets himself up as the absolute measure of all things, or debases himself to the point of despair. Hence his doubt and anguish” (n. 12). We are all very familiar, perhaps even in our own heart, with the two extremes cited here. They are expressed through apathy or aggression that are easily transformed into each other and in their turn threaten humanity itself and undermine hope in peace and in justice. The main anthropological message of the Council is linked to the biblical affirmation of the creation of man in God’s image and has a Christological centre: “Christ, the new Adam, in the very revelation of the mystery of the Father and of his love, fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling”. In other words he who “is the image of the invisible God (Col 1:15), is himself the perfect man who has restored in the children of Adam that likeness to God which had been disfigured ever since the first sin. Human nature, by the very fact that it was assumed, not absorbed, in him, has been raised in us also to a dignity beyond compare. For by his Incarnation, he, the Son of God, has in a certain way united himself with each man” (n. 22). No other affirmation of the Council has been so frequently quoted nor has such far-reaching effects on the understanding of human dignity in the current discussions about human rights in general and about freedom of religion in particular. A theology of women has a place in theological anthropology. Man, “male and female”, is an image of God (Gen 1:27). It should be noted that in projects on theological anthropology this aspect has so far received little attention. Perhaps the essential has already been said when we describe humanity as such as a figure in the image of God? Doesn’t the reference to the image and likeness of God in the respective gender lead to aporiae? When Jesus reveals to us the image of God not only as man but as male, might women be excluded from the image and likeness of God or even from redemption, or are they maybe included only indirectly? However if we were created as “male and female” in the image of God, who manifested himself in Jesus Christ, then why shouldn’t women too be called to the repraesentatio Christi through sacramental ordination? An in-depth study of theology in order both to avoid these aporiae and not to relapse into patriarchal clichés is lacking. Other interpretations of peoples’ dual gender have been successfully inserted into this empty space; the feminist theologies that want to promote an emancipation of women in both the ecclesial and social contexts; gender studies that in the socio-cultural form of the genus as gender, unlike the biological genus as sex, see a construction based on external influences and, at the same time, analyse the transformations of sexuality understood as such in the context of culture and of society; the reference to the juridical equalization of the sexes or the human right of non-discrimination. In the sphere of theology there is an additional bottleneck: the theological issue of women has been largely limited to the question of the possibilities of the work and influence of women in service to the Church. In this case, however, once again the woman is not seen as a woman but rather as a holder of offices. Before this, John Paul II had already directed his gaze to the vocation of women itself. In his Letter to Women (1985), after a tribute to the different spheres of women’s competence and a self-critical examination of conscience because of the lack of respect shown for the role of women in the history of salvation, one reads: “Thank you, every woman, for the simple fact of being a woman!”. This is the main task of a theology of women: what theology can affirm about women as women and not about women in their different roles must be demonstrated. The fundamental question can be none other than that mentioned above: is the sexual differentiation of people, hence being a woman, part of the person’s image and likeness of God? The question must not necessarily lead to aporiae, but can also be put in a very fertile theological form.

The affirmation about the human being’s image and likeness of God is not in the first place a positive definition with regard to its content, but expresses unavailability: man shares in God’s mystery. He is not consumed in all the conceptual definitions we can give of him. Theological anthropology is an apophatic theology. It is impossible to deduce from it an attribution of characteristics and role models. This fundamental insight is not absolutely empty and devoid of consequences. It bears another kind of intuition, guided by the attention of faith and by trust: the difference between a man and a woman has to do with the image that God reveals to us of himself. It should not, therefore, be interpreted as a conflict or a battle between the sexes but rather as a reciprocal set of rules in the unity of humanity and in the hope of redemption and of fulfilment. This trust gives rise to seeking traces of God’s mystery in the man and in the woman. In this task we have at our disposal the whole treasure of the history of salvation: Mary, who as “the One who gave birth to God” already has the highest honorific title that may be attributed to a person; the female figures of the Old and New Testaments, the women saints in the Church’s history, martyrs and confessors, wives, mothers, spinsters and women religious, of every epoch, language and culture, in their oral and written testimonies, in their portrayal in art works, in the communities and institutions to which they gave life and in the many fruits of their faith. This search for traces is inexhaustible. It includes the world in which we live and our experiences of life in which we seek to interpret reflections of the history of salvation. It leads to the discovery of new and unexpected things.

Theological phenomenology, which must be developed, is not born from an observer’s distance. It is disclosed in the harmony between “person – community – gift” which John Paul II elaborated in such an extraordinary way in his Apostolic Letter Mulieris dignitatem (1988). “Being a person means striving towards self-realization (the Council text speaks of self-discovery), which can only be achieved in a sincere gift of self’ (cf. Gaudium et spes, n. 24). The model for this interpretation of the person is God himself as Trinity, as a communion of Persons. To say that man is created in the image and likeness of God means that man is called to exist ‘for’ others, to become a gift” (n. 7). Here the dynamic of the gift, far from being limited to women, is granted to both men and women. In his Letter to Women the Pope sees precisely here the motivating force of the history of salvation: “to this ‘unity of the two’ God has entrusted not only the work of procreation and family life, but the creation of history itself” (n. 8). Nor, in the light of God’s gift of himself to creation out of love, can anthropological theology be developed on the basis of the logic of identity and of boundaries but rather by the ever surprising relationship with the other in his diversity. Accepting this difference requires the courage of faith since it is here that we experience the greatest beauty, but also the deepest wounds. The theology of women is not primarily a theory but on the contrary a plan of life. Inevitably it possesses a historical opening: “when the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (Jn 16:13). It is in any case possible to formulate a supposition for future theological work: the Church, from the very first, has borne witness to God the Father’s revelation of himself in two Persons, the Son and the Holy Spirit. God acts in history with two hands, said Irenaeus of Lyons who also developed the typology Eve-Mary and Adam-Christ. It will be easier to recognize the male gender of Jesus as significant for the history of salvation if we recognize the descent of the Spirit on Mary (Lk 1:35) as the way in which God made possible the Redeemer’s mission in history. Mary is not the “incarnation” of the Spirit, but in her the Spirit of God made the person capable of giving birth to God. Thus, in the Acts of the Apostles, he is promised to the whole community of the Church: “you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come down upon you” (1:8). In the world of the images and the languages of the Bible, beside “life in Christ” is the taking form of the “Bride of Christ” which, with him and through him, shares in the saving work of the Father. Paying scant attention to the soteriological meaning of the Spirit seems to go hand in hand with the lack of a theology of women. We should not complain of the lack of a theology of women. We should not complain of what is lacking but we can participate, in what is possible here and now, in the history of God’s love for his creation. Indeed “it is not by measure that [God] gives the Spirit” (Jn 3:34). Women are among those lay people who cannot flee from their destiny as lay people. This is not meant cynically but as a task, which, this very day, will be crucial for the success of the reception of the Council. If women discover and live their vocation to share in Jesus’ royal, priestly and prophetic mission as women rather than as holders of an office in the Church, they will help to shape the life of the Church as participants in this priestly, royal and prophetic mission. In this way they will create for themselves new traces of the vocation of the entire People of God to the mission for the salvation of the whole of creation which will disclose the future and bring with them new insights and possibilities. The integration of the difference of genus in the world of the Church’s symbols through the sacramental ordination of men alone is a beneficial confusion that keeps open for the Church and for humanity in its entirety a question on the unavailable value of the relationship between a man and a woman. If this openness is misunderstood as a static response, it denies the dynamic of the history of salvation as a love story that reaches even to completion: “The Spirit and the Bride say: ‘Come!’. And let him who hears say: “Come!” (Rev 22:17).




St. Peter’s Square

Aug. 25, 2019