The “Developing Theology” of Women

One of my best friends from college, Molly O’Connor, has begun a series of posts at Catholic News Agency on the Church’s theology of women. She is responding to Pope Francis’ call: “We must therefore investigate further the role of women in the church. We have to work harder to develop a profound theology of the woman.”

Check it out here: A Developing Theology by Molly O’Connor – CNA


Since investigating Edith Stein’s spirituality of women recently, I too have been thinking about Pope Francis’ emphatic call. I remember reading John Paul II’s Mulieris Dignitatem several years ago in Rome. I stayed up for hours one night in a chapel during the silent retreat for women, because I could not put this beautiful text down. In particular I was struck by the pope’s emphasis on the “special sensitivity” of women to Christ, as reported by the Gospels. And I thought to myself – yes, this is what I am called to be as well – I have seen it in the other young women I am blessed to call my friends – I am called to be especially attentive to Christ – as His Mother was, as Mary Magdalene was, as Veronica was, as the weeping women of Jerusalem were, and the women who came with spices on Easter morning, little knowing what they would find.

And yet for all of the encyclical’s beauty, several other girlfriends of mine have expressed dissatisfaction with it. From what I understand, part of this dissatisfaction comes from a sense that “we have heard this before” – and that “yes, Mary is certainly honored in the Catholic Church — but to what cost? To the cost of more ‘practical’ and visible roles for women?”

I have three specific thoughts to share:

1) Although I am overjoyed at Pope Francis’ call for a deepening theology of women in particular, there is part of me that wants to caution everybody. This deepening of a theology of women must not be separated – in any way – from our theology of the human person. To be honest, I think this is where “feminism” (even in its more Christian manifestations) is ultimately lacking. In an effort to honor woman by devoting more study, research and attention to her, we may end up impoverishing our view further if we consider her separately from man. We can see this in certain distortions of Marian devotion that are separated from Christology. As Orthodox priest Father James Rooney puts it, “Mariology is Christology.” You separate Christ from Mary, you get certain versions of Protestantism – if you separate Mary from Christ, you get idolatry (which is ultimately a disservice to her as well). I think that as long as we continuously pursue a “developing theology of women” while contemplating the dignity of the human person “male and female He created them,” created in God’s image and likeness, we will not so easily go astray.

2) As such, it may be also appropriate to call for a deepening theology of men. This may sound strange at first, but  we cannot fully understand our “feminine genius” apart from our relationship with the other sex; likewise, men cannot fully understand their own roles without a deeper understanding of us. Jesus Christ is the source of all of our theologizing – because He shows us how to be human, whether we are men or women.

3) We must also be careful not to pursue a deepening theology of women as if we were trying to “make up for” the Church’s emphatic “no” to women priests. A “deepening theology of women” does not mean throwing the proverbial bone at disgruntled modern egalitarians who wish the Church were a democracy. Our task here is not to help all of us women feel better even though we cannot have certain “leadership roles.” If we approach it in such a way, as a sort of “well yes, we’ve been ignoring women too long, so let’s at least devote more books on theology just for them!” – then I think we will be making a false albeit unconscious concession – that theology (and everything else) is really about power after all, just as feminist critics of the Church claim. And ultimately, that would be a great disservice to those very people within the Church and outside of her who feel so deeply about women’s roles. They deserve better than just another theology of power, even if it’s dressed up in more “orthodox” garments.

A last thought, from our Mother herself – indeed, the last words she speaks in the Gospel:

“Do whatever He tells you” (John 2:5).


The “Dignity and Vocation of Women” in the Life of Saint Edith Stein, Part Three

This is the third and final post in a series on how John Paul II’s Mulieris Dignitatem illuminates Saint Edith Stein’s spirituality. Her devotion to the Cross and her unique perception of the privileged role of women in Christ’s passion is so beautiful.

You can read the earlier posts here:

Part One

Part Two

saint-teresa-benedicta-01Saint Edith Stein’s exploration of the feminine vocation in her writings is inseparable from her exploration of the human being as such, as both male and female. That is, she emphasizes the differences between the souls of men and women, as suggested above, and at the same time she offers an important insight into a common aspect of all human beings that is grounded in scripture. For her, the key to developing the human soul is to discover one’s unique gifts: “The parable of the talents refers to the unique gift given to each individual; the Apostle’s word describes the multiplicity of gifts afforded in the Mystical Body of Christ. The individual must discover his own unique gift.” She proposes that in men and women, “the same gifts occur in both, but in different proportions and relation.”[1]

This is a controversial statement to make by society’s standards today. We are searching for the true definition of equality, and many of us cannot reconcile our ideal with Stein’s “different proportions and relation.”  Personally I think this is very understandable: the notion that men and women are inherently different is not very popular because in the past (and even in the present) it has been used as an excuse to degrade and stereotype both sexes with destructive norms of “manliness” and “womanliness.” We cannot simply ignore this difficulty, and I do not think Edith Stein would want us to.

Nonetheless, John Paul II also emphasizes the important distinction between the gifts of men and women, but he insists that this distinction not only doesn’t take away the mutual dignity of the sexes, but rather constitutes it:

The personal resources of femininity are certainly no less than the resources of masculinity: they are merely different. Hence a woman, as well as a man, must understand her ‘fulfillment’ as a person, her dignity and vocation, on the basis of these resources, according to the richness of the femininity which she received on the day of creation and which she inherits as an expression of the ‘image and likeness of God’ that is specifically hers. (emphasis added) [2]

A woman’s “expression of the ‘image and likeness of God,'” according to Pope John Paul, is jp2andmother“specifically hers”–it is a special gift for all women, a particular way of reflecting who God is to the world. It is not the same expression of God’s image and likeness that men have been given–it is unique and carries within itself a special dignity.

This is very beautiful to me, but somewhat hard to understand concretely. I think that it can also be hard for many women to believe and trust in as well–especially those who have experienced the hurt of a vapid, idealized femininity stylizing itself as appropriate “gender roles” that in the end degrades women and limits our freedom. Isn’t it easier, in some ways, to insist on equality as being “sameness”–and to have done with all of this talk of “distinction,” “complementarity,” and “different but equal” (it does sound a lot like “separate but equal”)?

However, I think what John Paul II is trying to describe is a mystery that can be better understood when lived by a real person. Saint Edith Stein exemplifies the discovery of the special “expression of ‘God’s image and likeness'” in her cultivation of her gifts and unique “resources.” I especially admire her quick intelligence and hunger for truth, which motivated her to pursue her education even at the highest levels in a time when philosophical discourse at the university level was usually reserved for men. (Societal expectations of gender roles are thus not the standard she was interested in.) Her enthusiastic engagement with her own gifts and talents helped lead her to faith; her desire for the truth allowed her to recognize it in the biography of Saint Teresa of Avila—a discovery which allowed her to make a profound and courageous gift of self by converting to Catholicism and subsequently joining the Carmelite order, despite the suffering it caused her as a Jewish woman. Moreover, as a Carmelite she used her gifts in service to her fellow sisters, often in her writings on the saints and spirituality. You can see this best by reading her in her own words. Her perceptiveness and keenness flourished in the service of God.

Here is a brief example. Although Stein, like Pope John Paul II, emphasizes the differences between men and women and their gifts, she also insists upon the unity of their destiny—that it is in Christ that humankind, both male and female, is brought to perfection:

To belong to and serve God in love’s free surrender is the vocation of every Christian, not only of a few elect. Whether consecrated or not, whether man or woman — each one is called to the imitation of Christ. The further one continues on this path, the more Christlike he will become. Christ embodies the ideal of human perfection: in him all bias and defects are removed, the masculine and feminine virtues are united and their weaknesses redeemed; therefore, his true followers will be progressively exalted over their natural limitations. That is why we see in holy men a womanly tenderness and goodness and a truly maternal solicitude for the souls entrusted to them, while in holy women there is manly boldness, proficiency, and determination.[3] (emphasis added)

For Stein, “holy men,” the more they become like Christ, will exhibit feminine gifts, and “holy women” will similarly exhibit “manly” gifts. This idea is really fascinating–and, if we reflect on it for a while, true to our experience of the holiest people we know. There are members of my own family and personal acquaintance that seem to embody this mystery. The distinction that Saint Edith Stein and John Paul II insist upon is somehow caught up in a deeper union–a union achieved in Christ that does not ignore but rather exalts differences between men and women.bodyofchrist

That is, it is only in the unity and complementarity of man and woman that the destiny of the human race can be achieved by God’s grace. Both man and woman, insofar as they are conformed to Jesus Christ, can embody “the ideal of human perfection”—since in Christ “all bias and defects are removed, the masculine and feminine virtues are united and their weaknesses redeemed.”

Her words do not necessarily eliminate all confusion, and they certainly do not make the mystery any easier to swallow. But getting to know her in her life and writing is the most convincing to me.

Just as Stein locates the perfection of men and women in Christ, Pope John Paul the II locates it in the very life of the Holy Trinity–in the mystery of God Himself:

The fact that man ‘created as man and woman’ is the image of God means not only that each of them individually is like God, as a rational and free being. It also means that man and woman, created as a ‘unity of the two’ in their common humanity, are called to live in a communion of love, and in this way to mirror in the world the communion of love that is in God, through which the Three Persons love each other in the intimate mystery of the one divine life. … This ‘unity of the two’ which is a sign of interpersonal communion, shows that the creation of man is also marked by a certain likeness to the divine communion (‘communio’). This likeness is a quality of the personal being of both man and woman, and is also a call and a task.[4]

The communion of men and women is a reflection of the communion of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Go back and reread the above excerpt from Mulieris Dignitatem again, slowly. It is not only a beautiful image, but it is a challenge to all of us in our relationships with one another. I think John Paul is also referencing St. Paul here– he says something somewhere about God being the source from which all human families are named.

Some of my friends have asked me that if it is true that both men and women reflect the communion of the Holy Trinity, then where is “the feminine” element in God? Many people seem bothered by the fact that God is always referred to in the Church as a “He”–when of course he is beyond our sexual categories. Is it therefore appropriate to think of the Holy Spirit as “feminine,” in order to include our masculine and feminine human communion in our concept of the Trinitarian life?

I do not think this is appropriate, since such a gesture reverses the actual anagogical (not analogical!) meaning of communion as proceeding from God and then to us human beings, not vice versa. We are but the reflection of the light, not the light itself. But that is probably a subject for another post.


This likeness to Christ and to the life of the Trinity was a “call and a task” that Saint Edith Stein answered with profound love. Her search for the truth lead her to the Cross, to the very giving over of her own life for the people of Israel—an act of love that conformed her intimately with the life and sacrifice of Christ. She completely embraced the call to conform herself to Christ and to the image of God in a way that united her with the women in the Gospels who followed Christ even to Calvary.

Of her vocation as a cloistered Carmelite she said simply, “I even believe that the deeper someone is drawn to God, the more he has to `get beyond himself’ in this sense, that is, go into the world and carry divine life into it.”[5] (See Pope Francis’ similar challenge to us today here.) I think that discovering the true meaning of masculinity and femininity will similarly involve a “getting beyond ourselves,” toward Christ.

Saint Edith Stein offers a beautiful example of a woman who discovered her gifts and talents and offered them to God, a true instance of what Pope John Pall II calls “the manifestation of the feminine ‘genius.’”  She is an answer to the prayer of the Church which he articulated years after her death: that the gifts of the Holy Spirit,

which with great generosity are poured forth upon the ‘daughters’ of the eternal Jerusalem, may be attentively recognized and appreciated so that they may return for the common good of the Church and of humanity, especially in our times. Meditating on the biblical mystery of the ‘woman’, the Church prays that in this mystery all women may discover themselves and their ‘supreme vocation.’ [6]


[1] Ibid.

[2] Pope John Paul II. Mulieris Dignitatem.10

[3] As quoted by Kathleen Sweeny. “Is there a Specifically Feminine Spirituality?: An Exploration of Edith Stein’s Thesis.” Catholic Education Resource Center.

[4] Pope John Paul II. Mulieris Dignitatem. 7

[6] Pope John Paul II. Mulieris Dignitatem. 31

The “Dignity and Vocation of Women” in the Life of Saint Edith Stein, Part Two

This is the second post in a series I am writing about how John Paul II’s encyclical on the dignity of women illuminates the spirituality and theology of Saint Edith Stein.

This post references John Paul II’s beautiful encyclical, Mulieris Dignitatem, which you can read here.

You can also go back and read Part One of my series.

ImageWhen we consider Stein’s emphasis on (1) the special unity between the physical and the spiritual in women, combined with (2) their natural desire to give and receive love, we see how clearly Pope John Paul II not only echoes but also explicates this twofold insight in Mulieris Dignitatem. In his careful scriptural exegesis, the Pope discerns that when “Christ speaks to women about the things of God… they understand them; there is a true resonance of mind and heart, a response of faith.” He notes how the Lord “expresses appreciation and admiration for this distinctly ‘feminine’ response” to his message. Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, the Pope emphasizes that the Gospels “highlight the fact that women were in the forefront at the foot of the Cross, at the decisive moment in Jesus of Nazareth’s whole messianic mission” (emphasis added). He goes so far as to say that “in this most arduous test of faith and fidelity the women proved stronger than the Apostles”—only Saint John remained faithful and did not abandon Christ. The “true resonance of mind and heart” demonstrated by the women of the New Testament suggests the unique dignity of woman’s vocation:

From the beginning of Christ’s mission, women show to him and to his mystery a special sensitivity which is characteristic of their femininity. It must also be said that this is especially confirmed in the Paschal Mystery, not only at the Cross but at the dawn of the Resurrection. The women are the first at the tomb. (emphasis added) [1]

In a sense, the special unity between the soul and body of woman makes her particularly able to suffer like Christ: just as his physical torments during the Crucifixion were the concrete expression of the spiritual Passion he suffered for our sins, so too can the physical sufferings of women affect the soul—and, when engaged in an act of love and self-gift, these experiences can be united into Christ’s redemptive work.

Perhaps this is partially why the mystery of the Cross was so important in the life of Saint Edith Stein. The completion of her work on Saint John of the Cross, entitled The Science of the Cross, occurred shortly before her arrest by the Nazis in August, 1942, when she herself would undergo the special union with Christ’s Passion in actual martyrdom. Her particular devotion to this mystic and saint seems to have already arisen from her own spiritual experience:

One can only gain a scientia crucis (knowledge of the cross) if one has thoroughly experienced the cross. I have been convinced of this from the first moment onwards and have said with all my heart: ‘Ave, Crux, Spes unica’ (I welcome you, Cross, our only hope).[2]

Indeed, Edith Stein saw suffering as part of her own unique vocation as a Catholic, a Carmelite nun—and as a daughter of Israel. Witnessing the growing persecution and hatred toward her people, Stein spoke about the relationship between the Cross, the destiny of Israel, and her own vocation as a Bride of Christ:

I understood the cross as the destiny of God’s people, which was beginning to be apparent at the time (1933). I felt that those who understood the Cross of Christ should take it upon themselves on everybody’s behalf. Of course, I know better now what it means to be wedded to the Lord in the sign of the cross. However, one can never comprehend it, because it is a mystery.[3]

 Stein’s sense of union with the Cross was also profoundly Marian. She points to the Mother of God as the true exemplar of the feminine vocation to love through union with the Cross of Christ, since Mary “was the gateway through which God found entrance to humankind.”[4] John Paul II concurs: “this mystery also includes the Mother’s sorrow at the foot of the Cross—the Mother who through faith shares in the amazing mystery of her Son’s ‘self-emptying.”[5]


For both Saint Edith Stein and John Paul II, Mary is the model and example of how to unite oneself to the will of Christ, even in suffering—especially in suffering. Moreover, Mary, as the New Eve who is “blessed among all women” (Lk 1:42) is uniquely able to reveal for us the dignity and destiny of women who suffer. John Paul II makes this clear:

As we contemplate this Mother, whose heart ‘a sword has pierced’ (cf. Lk 2:35), our thoughts go to all the suffering women in the world, suffering either physically or morally. In this suffering a woman’s sensitivity plays a role, even though she often succeeds in resisting suffering better than a man.[6]

This ability to suffer and to endure is a characteristic that conforms woman even more closely to Christ. The “special sensitivity” which allowed the women of the Gospel to respond so lovingly to Christ also, the Pope suggests, seems to increase their capacity to bear suffering.

At the same time, the Pope’s reflection raises important questions about the distinct roles and abilities of men and women, questions which Saint Edith Stein was also very interested in. Both of them emphasize the uniqueness of the vocations of men and women, yet at the same time reaffirm the complementarity of their gifts which contribute to their mutual dignity. The secular feminist movement, which was gaining momentum during the life of Edith Stein, had emerged as a powerful and frequently destructive force during the pontificate of John Paul II. Remarkably, however, the perspectives of this Jewish-Catholic nun and Polish Pope exhibit a profound unity, and even a similar gesture toward the direction a Christian must take.

As noted above, Saint Edith Stein recognized that the role of women in the world was becoming the locus of a troubling conflict that ultimately concerned the very nature of the human being:  “A great responsibility is being laid upon us by both sides. We are being obliged to consider the significance of woman and her existence as a problem. We cannot evade the question as to what we are and what we should be.”[1] Far from evading the question, Stein engaged this problem directly in a philosophical treatment that was nevertheless informed by her own experience as a woman of faith.

Part Three

[1] Stein, Edith. “Spirituality of the Christian Woman.”

[1] Pope John Paul II. Mulieris Dignitatem. 15-16

[3] Ibid.

[4] As quoted by Kathleen Sweeny. “Is there a Specifically Feminine Spirituality?: An Exploration of Edith Stein’s Thesis.” Catholic Education Resource Center.

[5] Pope John Paul II. Mulieris Dignitatem.19

[6] Ibid. 19