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Women intellectuals

Although women today play new roles in the cultural life of the Church – a woman has been appointed rector of a pontifical university, a woman scholar was awarded the Ratzinger prize, women religious publishers are celebrating their 100th anniversary –, partly the result of the providential decision of the Council to open the study and teaching of theology to women, history reminds us that in past centuries women who contributed no less than men to building the Catholic Tradition were not lacking. 

Nancy Earle, “Circle of Friends” (1997)

It was Helen, Constantine’s mother, who invented the pilgrimage to the Holy Places and the cult of the relics of Jesus; Bridget who with her visions offered fundamental images for the portrayal in art of the crucial moments in the narration of the Gospel; Teresa of Avila who transformed the mystical experience into something that could be told, hence imitated; Margaret Mary Alacoque who proposed the Sacred Heart that became the most successful devotional symbol in the Catholic world; and Mother Teresa who taught that nursing the dying in the hells of Calcutta was as important as treating and healing. The list could be far longer since women, with their intelligence, imagination, faith and intuition, have made an important contribution to building up the Church’s culture. Yet this has often been forgotten or its intellectual value has not been acknowledged. For example, whereas room has been made in Catholic culture today for intellectuals such as Etty Hillesum and Simone Weil – and we cannot but rejoice in this – Catholic women who, in the 20th century, may rightly be placed close to them remain little known or disregarded. Indeed Dorothy Day, Adrienne von Speyr and Catherine Doherty were not only talented writers but made a first class spiritual contribution. They all identified new spiritual paths suited to modern society and devoted their lives to disseminating them with faith in a context which seemed solely to reject it. Why forget or marginalize them when they are rightly entitled to belong to the Catholic cultural tradition and still have much to say to today’s women and men? (l.s.)

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