Today in Rome a group of Catholic women, representing the Catholic Women Speak Network, a social-media-driven forum for conversation, dialogue, and theological reflection, will officially launch a new book titled, Catholic Women Speak: Bringing Our Gifts to the Table (Paulist Press).
The event is scheduled to take place at the Pontifical University Antonianum, which is the international Franciscan university and a fitting place indeed to host this book launch. In addition to the symbolic witness of the Franciscan tradition’s inclusive spirituality and priority in attending to those at the margins — including, in this case, nearly half of the earth’s population, which has for millennia been pushed to the margins of societies and institutions — the Antonianum holds the distinction of being the first Pontifical University in Rome to be headed by a woman, Sr. Mary Melone.
This is an impressive volume that includes a diverse collection of Catholic women voices from well-known theologians and ethicists to young pastoral ministers. The contributors come from all parts of the world, offering a panoply of cultures and social contexts. Though each of the forty short essays bears the individual style and perspective of its respective author, the editors explain that all contributions are brought together under a common theme: calling for greater inclusion of women, particularly in light of the discussions surrounding the Synod on the family set to begin on Sunday. “This anthology is a collaboration among many women who believe that the Church cannot come to a wise and informed understanding of family life without listening to women” (xxvii).
Additionally, highlighting the “spirit in which this book has been written,” the editors note their resistance to what Pope Francis (echoing, it seems, John Paul II before him in Mulieris Dignitatem) has suggested in an interview, saying “we have not yet come up with a profound theology of womanhood, in the Church” (xxix). The editors explain:
We resist, therefore, any suggestion that the Church needs a theology of “Woman” or “womanhood.” Rather than a deeper theology of women, we say that the Church needs a deeper theology of the human — a theological anthropology that can be developed only by the full inclusion of women in the process of theological reflection informed by the experiential realities of daily life. In her welcoming address to participants at a conference on “Women in the Church: Prospects for Dialogue,” at the Pontifical Antonianum University in April 2015, the university’s rector, Sister Mary Melone, said, “We are not mere guests — we are the Church, and we wish to be so more intensely.” That is the spirit in which this book has been written (xxix-xxx).
In my opinion, statement is very welcome. I, too, agree that the focus has been often misdirected toward gender essentialism and an anthropology rooted in a narrowly defined sense of complementarity (see my article, “Beyond Essentialism and Complementarity: Toward a Theological Anthropology Rooted in Haecceitas,” in Theological Studies). Though this essay collection does not “solve” the theological problems that remain, it nevertheless offers succinct, honest, and concrete reflections, which tell “of the burdens that women bear in a tradition that too often continues to make religion a form of female servitude” and “stories of courage and joy, patience and perseverance, often in the face of extreme adversity” (xxx).
Aimed a broad, general readership, this volume seeks to aid the conversation by providing accessible narratives and reflections to serve as starting points for further inquiry and dialogue. The essays are organized under four headings: (I) Traditions and Transformations; (II) Marriage, Families, and Relationships; (III) Poverty, Exclusion, and Marginalization; and (IV) Institutions and Structures.
The sheer number of contributions prohibits my commenting on each essay, but I wish to make a few representative comments.
The timing of the book’s publication and formal launch was deliberately timed to coincide with the opening of the 2015 General Synod on the Family. It should be no surprise then that more than half of the essays collected in this volume — 22 to be specific — appear in Part II on “Marriage, Families, and Relationships.” This is perhaps the most timely section of the volume, though that should not be interpreted as a dismissal of the other three parts, each of which contain formidable and important contributions.
As noted earlier, in this section there are both familiar names (Lisa Sowle Cahill, Tina Beattie, Jean Porter, Margaret Farley) as well as newer contributors. They cover a range of topics that will strike some readers as controversial although, as these authors note, these are topics that must be addressed with greater inclusivity, directness, and import.
In her essay, “Catholics, Families, and the Synod of Bishops: Views from the Pews,” Julie Clague addresses directly the undeniable gap between theory and practice “between the vision of marriage and family promoted by the Church in its official teaching and the various attitudes, values, lifestyles, and practices that can be witnessed in the diverse social and cultural contexts in which the Church has its being” (52). As Clague puts it bluntly, indeed, “on certain questions, the Church’s magisterium and large numbers of the faithful appear to inhabit different Catholic worlds” (55). Pointing to the data that verifies these divides, Clague calls church leadership to take seriously the sensus fidei of the faithful, something Pope Francis appears to affirm in his instruction about open dialogue and solicitation of views with a survey to the faithful.
Essays in this section also address the often-painful realities experienced by “those in the pews.” In particular, the feeling of being unwelcome in one’s own church. Here the themes of divorce, remarriage, contraceptive use, and same-sex marriage and partnerships appear.
One particularly interesting point of reflection on the church’s teaching on contraception is found in the essay by Jean Porter, a moral theologian at the University of Notre Dame. She notes that in terms of definitively expressed teaching of the past, which has been subsequently deemed errant (to put it colloquially), there has never been a “magisterial reversal” or promulgation that a given teaching or position has “no been canceled” (Porter uses the example of past teaching on “the marital debt”). Rather, Porter says, the church “simply stopped mentioning it.” Drawing from this observation, she continues:
It is easy to imagine something similar happening in the case of the current teaching on contraceptive use. It is difficult to imagine that any future pope or council of bishops would explicitly repudiate this teaching, but it is easy to imagine, in fact it seems probable, that at some point in the near future the magisterium will just stop talking about it. This possibility does raise real theological problems, but these problems do not arise solely in the context of moral teaching (90).
Porter’s reflection opens yet another way to consider the role of the Spirit in the life of the church, suggesting perhaps that we might understand the sensus fidei of the faithful acting to influence formal teaching not by way of direct retraction or contradiction, but more tacitly by way of privation.
As with these two examples, the personal narratives and theological considerations contained within the Catholic Women Speak volume are wonderfully thought provoking, powerful, insightful, and at times very painful.
Reading through this volume as a theologian who is both a male religious and a Roman Catholic cleric, I try to place myself in the shoes (or red-trimmed cassocks) of the bishops who will be gathering for the Synod in coming days. Admittedly, I am already part of the proverbial “choir” to which these essayists could be preaching and so I’m not especially shocked by this volume’s content, but I still can’t help but wonder how the episcopal participants of the Synod would receive this volume.
Could they open themselves up to insights from the stories of healthy, generative, same-sex partnerships? or stories of painful and divisive experiences of divorce? What might a synodal conversation look like that followed an invitation for these women to speak to their brothers in baptism? Prescinding from addressing directly the question of women cardinals or clergy, what if the Synod participants were required to represent, proportionately, the church’s composition of both women and men? How might we hear the Spirit differently and what might God be trying to say to us if we had both halves of the body of Christ present together?
I doubt many of the Synod participants will voluntarily read this volume, and that is a shame. As the Jesuit theologian Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator says in his forward to this book, “This anthology offers the body of Christ an opportunity to encounter the God of surprises with open hearts in unexpected ways” (xiv). The real surprises aren’t found in this book, for the experiences described have been and continue to be reflected in the lived reality of more than half of the church. The real surprises could be the conversations that take place when we open not just our hearts, but our ears and minds as well.
Photo: Paulist Press