A Theology of Women? What Does Pope Francis Mean?

St. peters squareDuring his now-famous impromptu interview while returning to Rome from World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, Pope Francis declared the ordination of women a question settled definitively by Blessed Pope John Paul II, but suggested that women’s gifts might be used in other ways. His suggestion that a deeper “theology of women” might have to be developed in order to discern such service should not be misconstrued to mean the church has no theology of the feminine. The pope’s use of the prepositional phrase—”in the church”—limited the scope of his comments.

Pope Francis did not say that the church does not have a theology of women, only that we did not have a deep theology of women in the church. His explanation focused on a central theological and Mariological tenet—the honorable status of Mary in the life of the Church—and from there he generalized about women in liturgical or leadership roles within the church.

A church without women would be like the apostolic college without Mary. The Madonna is more important than the apostles, and the church herself is feminine, the spouse of Christ and a mother.

The role of women doesn’t end just with being a mother and with housework … we don’t yet have a truly deep theology of women in the church. 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. (John L. Allen, Jr, “Pope on Homosexuals: ‘Who I Am to Judge?'”, National Catholic Reporter, July 29, 2013)

Francis implied that we need a deeper transmission of these ideas. His commentary echoed his statements published previous to his pontificate. In On Heaven and Earth, a book originally published in 2010, the would-be-pope Jorge Bergoglio expressed similar sentiments in conversation with Argentine Rabbi Abraham Skorka.

[Bergoglio, on women:] In the theologically grounded tradition the priesthood passes through man. The woman has another function in Christianity, reflected in the figure of Mary. It is the figure that embraces society, the figure that contains it, the mother of the community. The woman has the gift of maternity, of tenderness; if all these riches are not integrated, a religious community not only transforms into a chauvinist society, but also one that is austere, hard, and hardly sacred. The fact that a woman cannot exercise the priesthood does not make her less than the male. Moreover, in our understanding, the Virgin Mary is greater than the apostles. According to a monk from the second century, there are three feminine dimensions among Christians: Mary as Mother of the Lord, the Church and the Soul. The feminine presence in the Church has not been emphasized much, because the temptation of chauvinism has not allowed for the place that belongs to the women of the community to be made very visible. (Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Abraham Skorska, On Heaven and Earth: Pope Francis on Faith, Family, and the Church in the Twenty-First Century, Image Books, 2013, p. 100-101)

Based on his replies we can surmise that the possibility of women becoming members of an ordained hierarchy will not be debated by the Vatican. Yet, in Francis’s conversation with journalists, we perceive a call for more. What might that be?

In my recent book, Blessed, Beautiful, and Bodacious: Celebrating the Gift of Catholic Womanhood, I introduced some of the church’s message to and about women. Reflecting on what Blessed John Paul II described as the “feminine genius,” I introduce readers to what the Church says to women in terms of their blessed dignity, beautiful gifts, and bodacious mission. From where I stand, the Catholic Church has a theology of womanhood that can be gleaned from a variety of sources.

As Francis points out, church teaching already embraces the ultimate icon of femininity. We have centuries of theological exposition on The Woman, that is, the Blessed Virgin Mary. Every discussion of womanhood must be filtered through the lens, or hermeneutic, of Mary’s unique and exquisite fiat and of her being the Theotokos, the God-bearer, of the Christ. We see this already in Francis’s words and in his example of beginning his pontificate by expressing his relationship and dependence on the Mother of God, the woman John Paul II called “the mirror and measure of femininity.” Mary, the epitome of the feminine genius, must be the cornerstone of any theology of womanhood.

For a deeper theology of womanhood, theological precision must also be based upon sound anthropology. Again, the work of John Paul II on the theology of the body, the common phrase for his corpus of written and preached ideas about the nature of man and woman, their relationship to God and each other, is certainly is a place to deepen our awareness of the feminine genius.

John Paul II’s pontificate also brought apostolic letters on women such as Mulieris Dignitatum, (“On the Dignity and Vocation of Women,” 1989) and The Letter to Women, written in advance of the United Nations’ 1995 Conference on Women in Beijing. Women were also challenged within his encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, (“The Gospel of Life,” 1995) to create “a new feminism” that speaks to the modern culture.

Finally, we cannot fail to mention that the Catholic Church has a powerful social doctrine whereby the dignity of the human person reigns supreme, and the dignity and vocation of women is attendant to that. It is perhaps here that we may find hints of Pope Francis’s future contribution.

A theology of womanhood can be gleaned from these many sources, if people only have time (and the inclination) to do the gleaning.

Perhaps what we really need is a deeper reception of our existing theology of womanhood, and work toward making its claims more universal? The whole purpose of my book was to introduce these basic theological musings about women.

The enemy of human nature—Satan—hits hardest where there is more salvation, more transmission of life, and the woman—as an existential place—has proven to be the most attacked in history. She has been the object of use, of profit, and slavery, and was relegated to the background… (From On Heaven and Earth, p. 102)

True enough: women around the world still do not enjoy the freedoms that their human dignity entitles them. From the book of Genesis, from the fall until now, the woman has been targeted by evil. Yet, through the womanhood of Mary comes a savior who saves and inspires us to see and do the more he wishes to accomplish.

In the name of Jesus, and with the heart of Mary who stands at the foot of the cross, the Church must not only look within, but look without. It must not only stand with women who suffer, but alleviate their need.

Women, themselves, too, must embrace a deeper call. Never before in world history have there been so many women who have been given so much materially. Yet one of woman’s greatest feminine gifts has nothing to do with material advancement; it is the gift of maternity—both the physical kind and the spiritual maternity that embraces society, contains it, and brings new life to it.

Somewhere, within Pope Francis’ words on the plane the other day, I heard echoes of Paul VI at the close of Vatican II extolling women to come to the aid of humanity for love’s sake.

But the hour is coming, in fact has come, when the vocation of women is being achieved in its fullness, the hour in which the woman acquires an influence, an effect and a power never hitherto achieved. That is why, at this moment…. Women impregnated with the spirit of Gospel can do so much to aid mankind in not falling.

We, indeed, have a sure foundation for a theology of women.

Pope Francis, let women assist you in rebuilding the Church, and bringing new life to the world!


This article originally appeared on Patheos.com and is used with permission.

Pat Gohn is married to Bob and together they have raised three young adults. Pat holds a Masters degree in Theology and Christian Ministry from Franciscan University of Steubenville. She writes from her home in Massachusetts. Pat also hosts Among Women, a weekly podcast for Catholic women. Find the link at the bottom of Today's Catholic Woman homepage. Visit her website at http://www.patgohn.com. Pat can be reached at pat.gohn@comcast.net.