Dear Pope Francis,
The other day you gave an interview. It was your first interview with a female journalist since you were elected pope. Unfortunately, in a few short sentences, you managed to touch on everything I find problematic about the Church’s attitude to women.
I certainly don’t think this is the full extent of the Church’s teaching on women, and I know if you could easily add more, but I hear a lot of this kind of thing, and honestly, I’m confused. And frustrated. And confused. (Did I mention that one, already?)
M: If you will permit a criticism…
Francis: Of course…
M: You speak, perhaps, little about women, and when you speak about them you take on on issue only from the point of view of motherhood, woman as spouse, woman as mother, etc. But women by now are heads of state, multinationals, armies. What posts can women hold in the Church, according to you?
Francis: Women are the most beautiful things that God created. The Church is woman. Church is a feminine word [in Italian]. One cannot do theology without this femininity. You are right that we don’t talk about this enough. I agree that there must be more work on the theology of women. I have said that we are working in this sense.
It seems so innocuous, right?
There were other things too but the simple response above, it got me confused precisely because it seems to be a reflection of what passes for a Catholic theology towards women today.
So I hope you’ll welcome a response from one frustrated young Catholic woman.
Maybe I’m alone in this but I don’t find any comfort when the Church goes on and on about how wonderful women are.
I’m very secure in who I am as a woman but no, I neither am nor want to be “the most beautiful thing.” Last time I checked, Christ never said “Blessed are the beautiful…” What the Bible does say is that “beauty is vain but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” (Pr 31:30)
If I am beautiful, let it be because I am loving, capable, intelligent, faithful, compassionate and strong… not because I have ovaries.
Answering a question about women’s roles in the Church with “women are the most beautiful things that God created” isn’t just irrelevant, it actually reinforce all those negative stereotypes about how women should be seen and not heard. It characterises women as things to be seen and looked at by men.
What about the other half of humanity who don’t want to spend their time admiring themselves? I wasn’t created to be the most beautiful. I was created to see, praise and create all that is good, true and beautiful. I was created to be and to do.
For the record, I also don’t think women are the most beautiful things God created. I mean, have you seen men? They sure are something yummy… ;)
You were asked about the role of women in the Church and you respond with, forgive me, a male-centred platitude about how pretty women are.
That’s not okay.
You go on to point out that the Church is feminine. Indeed, we speak of the Church as feminine: she is the Bride of Christ and our Mother. I love this sort of imagery and I think banishing gendered imagery from our language is unbiblical and counter-productive.
The problem is when people think that such imagery has any bearing on what it means to be an actual woman. What does it mean that the Church is feminine? What does that mean for me as a woman?
It turns out that it means very little because the femininity of the Church, “and thus the ‘feminine’ element, becomes a symbol of all that is “human”. (Mulieris Dignitatem, §25) In terms of women’s roles, the femininity of the Church is irrelevant. Are women meant to be thrilled that the Church is feminine when…
This feminine Church is run by men.
This feminine Church has no iconic representation in ecclesial life.
This feminine Church doesn’t even need women to exist if it can evangelise well enough. I’m not saying that the Church as we experience Her doesn’t need women. God well knows how much work women actually do to hold the Church together. But as long as only men can be priests, the Church needs men in a way She doesn’t need women…
Apparently only men can represent the male Christ by the priesthood but anyone, male or female, can represent the feminine Church. And we call this complementarity?
The fact is that feminine character of the Church has no bearing on the question of women’s roles.
Finally, you affirm again that we must develop a deeper theology of women.
I agree and I thank you for saying it. Pope St John Paul II had some real insights and a real care for women for which I, and so many others, are immensely grateful.
But maybe we could start by developing a theology of men qua male?
Until we have a robust theology of what it means to be men and women as human beings, no amount of theology of women is going to do us much good. Women will remain the theological Other and men the norm.
Women will continue to be told to model their femininity on Mary… and men will be told nothing much at all.
This hurts both men and women. Men because it leaves them adrift and vulnerable to all sorts of distortions about masculinity. Women because it can get dangerously close to our full humanity. A theology of women is today invariably conceived of as drawing its meaning primarily from Mary. Mulieris Dignitatem is based around this whole premise. But Holy Father, as a woman, my first and primary model isn’t Mary — it’s Christ.
That’s because my femininity isn’t an abstraction laid on top of my humanity: being female is how I be human. The Word made flesh is my model for being a woman. The Son of Man assumed my feminine nature and it my female body and soul He heals.
In trying to “discover” a theology of women without a theology of men, we can end up obscurely the truth that really matters, that God became human to save human beings.
The extent to which we obscure that truth, we obscure the gospel of our salvation.
Women Are Human Too
That’s really what it comes down too.
I’ve read the Church’s teachings on women and I’ve tried to be sympathetic but all the time, it just seems to miss the mark. I don’t think this is your fault. I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault as such.
The Church seems to be very good at valuing what it regards as the feminine element or the essence of femininity: the feminine as beautiful, the feminine as ecclesia, the feminine as theological concern.
I wish the Church would focus instead on flesh-and-blood women.
I wish the Church would emphasise more how women are unique, God-imaging, Christ-redeemed, Spirit-filled human beings — and not as incarnations of an imaginary ideal.
I wish the Church would speak less about “the feminine” and speak more to women as human persons.
Because Pope Francis, I don’t want to be the most beautiful. It means very little to me that the Church is gendered feminine when such femininity symbolically refers to humanity in general. Neither do I want a special theology just for me and my sisters. None of it means much at all.
I don’t want to be a beautiful ideal of femininity; I want to be free human person in Christ.
I hope you can understand that,