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Questions about women

“The hour is coming, in fact [it] has come, when the vocation of woman is being achieved in its fullness, the hour in which woman acquires in the world an influence, an effect and a power never hitherto achieved” (Closing of the Second Vatican Council, Address of Pope Paul VI to Women). In reading Pope Francis’ words on the issue of women in the Church, beginning with the interview he granted one year ago to La Civiltà Cattolica - in which he called for work to be devoted to developing a “profound theology of woman” - to his more recent interviews, we hear the echo of the hope that inspired the Council Fathers, when on 8 December 1965, at the conclusion of their work, the Message to Women was published. Pope Francis’ invitation joins the stream of questions that arose as a result of the conciliar reforms. 

The phrase the Pope uses is not new. A “theology of woman” normally indicates theological research whose purpose it is to describe the role of women in the Church, in the sources of faith, in particular phases of the history of the Church and, above all, in her current teaching. This field of study arose during the Council, i.e. in the 1960s. It was obviously connected to the fact that women were finally able to study theology and simultaneously had also become themselves the subject of theological reflection. These origins were also being influenced by a series of social changes concerning the roles of men and women. In Pacem in terris, John XXIII for the first time signaled these changes by bestowing on them a positive judgment: the so-called “question about woman” is one of the signs of the times to which the Church must pay attention. This perspective can also be found in the Council documents, especially in Gaudium et Spes, although one must admit that Vatican II did not devote much space to women's issues. In subsequent years, theological interest in the subject of woman developed principally in the form of women’s theological research or by feminist theologians. Gradually, a significant change in perspective grew: no longer was it restricted to particular issues; namely, those concerning women in the Church and in society. It began to look at all the theological issues from the perspective of the experience of women of faith. One can reasonably suppose that Pope Francis, in saying that “women pose profound questions that need to be addressed”, is referring inter alia to these various forms of feminine theological research. If we understand the link between theology and women in this way, the more it will become clear that this is no new phenomenon in the Church. In fact, the Church has always been built by women and men together, and reflection on the faith is the work carried out by representatives of both sexes, albeit in different ways. 

All of this has been documented by considerable research into women’s faith traditions, beginning with the mothers of the desert, to the great foundresses of the various women’s religious communities, even though they were denied access to studying at university and therefore to studying theology. And yet Pope Francis’s predecessors have bestowed on several of them the title of doctor of the Church. Thus not only their theological work has been acknowledged but also a certain authority in the Church. As we know, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, Therese of Lisieux and Hildegard of Bingen have received this dignity and honor. It may be that the Pope who hails from Latin America adds to this group the name of a great woman of the Church from that part of the world. Regardless of these important and symbolic gestures, in his many addresses Pope Francis is inviting us to transform new proposals into the practice of faith in the Church. The requests present in Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium - which later were taken up in many speeches by Pope John Paul II, especially in the exhortation Christifideles laici - have returned with great force in the speeches of the Argentinian Pope. Upholding the Church’s teaching that priestly ordination is reserved to men alone, he clearly points out that we need to rethink the issue of women's participation in the decision-making process in the Church. This is tied to the recognition of the significant contribution women currently make to the life of the Church. “I readily acknowledge that many women share pastoral responsibilities with priests, helping to guide people, families and groups and offering new contributions to theological reflection. But we need to create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church”, the Pope writes in Evangelii gaudium. He continues: “Demands that the legitimate rights of women be respected, based on the firm conviction that men and women are equal in dignity, present the Church with profound and challenging questions which cannot be lightly evaded (…). This presents a great challenge for pastors and theologians, who are in a position to recognize more fully what this entails with regard to the possible role of women in decision-making in different areas of the Church’s life” (Evangelii gaudium, n.103-104). We see, then, that Pope Francis sees the possibility for making significant changes in the Church’s practice, which can be deduced from the very foundation of the Christian faith, i.e. from the fact that God has created man as male and female, endowing both with the same human dignity, that both have been redeemed by Jesus Christ and that the Holy Spirit has been and continues to be sent to them. This type of approach to the problem already shows that Pope Francis does not consider the “theology of woman” to be a marginal question in the process of the Church’s conversion that he himself desires. Surely, on this basis, pastoral programs capable of realizing this call need to be developed. What is the consequence of this kind of approach? The vision of a “profound theology of woman” corresponds to another idea dear to Pope Francis, that of a “Church that is poor and for the poor”. The poor of whom the Pontiff often speaks are mostly women. The importance he gives to the authority of the poor is so closely linked to the need to recognize the authority of women in the Church. This - in my opinion - is a clear stance against the exclusion of women from theology, as happened in the past. And, at the same time, a clear inclusion of the work of women among the sources of theology, with all the consequences this brings, i.e., with the willingness to rethink theology as a whole. The Pope has said that “the Church cannot be herself without woman and her role”. Paraphrasing this we can say that theology also cannot be itself without women. As a witness of the support that women can give to the development of theology, and indeed women who were not scholars in the subject, I wish to propose and exceptional woman, Edith Stein, later Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, a Prussian Jewess, an atheist at a certain point in her life, a philosopher, a convert to Catholicism, a teacher, a woman involved in societal life, even in the women’s movement, an intellectual, a mystic, a Carmelite, a martyr, a saint and, since 1 October 1999, co-patroness of Europe. Her activity on behalf of women is represented above all by her work as a teacher. Her principle intent was to motivate Catholic women and girls to study. Her conferences between the 1920s and 30s, collected in a volume entitled Woman [Die Frau. Fragestellungen und Reflexionen], contain a fundamental question which she formulated in this way: “What is a woman? Is there an essence of woman, of femininity?”. Certainly the diversity of conditions in which women live did not escape her, something which poses a certain difficulty in finding an answer. “Actually,” she writes, “here a difficulty immediately arises: can we speak can we speak of the situation of the woman. (…) there is such a great diversity of types and individuals that we can hardly speak of a situation common to all of them”. Edith Stein’s thought on woman may be summed up in three principle statements. First, she reaches the conclusion that the essence of humanity is expressed in two ways: male and female. In consideration of this, we need to speak of equality of all as human beings. Advancing biblical-theological arguments, Edith Stein then underlines that the difference of gender does not favor one sex at the expense of the other. On a second level, Stein talks about diversity, about the difference between representatives of the two sexes. This part of her thought focuses on identifying the essence of femininity, which she sees in two spiritual attitudes: the support and care of life, and intuitive and empathetic knowing. Third, Stein speaks about the individuality of each human being; as a result, the essence of masculinity or femininity does not necessarily express itself fully in every man and every woman. Indeed, it can even not be compatible with the chief characteristics of a given sex. The identification of these three levels seems to be of central importance for understanding rightly Edith Stein’s thought, but it is also extraordinarily relevant in the contemporary debate on the renewed theology of woman. Although it is likely that the concrete requests that will come from this debate will be different from the claims made then, i.e. regarding the right to vote for women, activity vs. passivity, female education, the division of occupations into male and female, these are issues that today are still not resolved all over the world. It would seem, in fact, that they represent a summary of problems that are still very relevant today: the demand for equality. In theological terms: thanks to the work of creation and redemption, which in practice translates into various detailed directives. The demand to reflect, ever anew, on the essential difference between men and women. The demand to acknowledge the diversity that exists in concretely realizing what it means to be a woman or a man . This thought is well illustrated by an often cited phrase of Edith Stein: “No woman is only woman”. Making a fundamental distinction between the nature of woman and a real woman, leaving to her freedom as a human person the realization of her own vocation. Furthermore, Stein believes that the saints and religious provide the example of how the difference between the sexes is overcome. For they integrate the characteristics of the two sexes: male saints have feminine characteristics, while women saints have those typically considered masculine. Recalling the insightful thoughts of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross nearly a century ago shows the complexity of the reality with which we are dealing. Among the three levels of her thought on woman (and consequently on man) she identifies, the last in particular continues to have little impact on the way we understand the relationship between the sexes, and translate this into practice. At the same time, her thought attests that by returning today, thanks to Pope Francis, to a revival of the theology of woman that began at the time of the Council, we may look to the witnesses of preceding ages and draw inspiration from them in continually committing ourselves to its realization. It seems, in fact, that they represent a synthesis of issues that are always current: first, the demand for equality, theologically motivated by the work of creation and redemption; second, the demand for new and constant reflection on what constitutes the difference between women and men; third, the demand for recognition of diversity in the concrete realization of being a woman and being a man. Each of these levels will then produce further consequences.

 El żbieta Adamiak

El żbieta Adamiak is a professor in the Faculty of Theology at the Adam Mickiewicz di Poznańin University in Poland. Her published works include A silent presence. On the role of women in the Church (2005, translated into Japanese), Women in the Bible, Old Testament (2006), Treatise on Mary (2006), Women in the Bible, New Testament (2010). She also edited The hour for women? The reception of the Catholic Church’s teaching on women in Poland between 1978-2005 (2008).

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