Aporia Mulieris: Puzzling out the Theology of Women – Petra Turner

Catholic Social Ethics

At an October 2013 seminar hosted by the Pontifical Council for the Laity, Dr. Helen Alvare emphasized the need, not primarily for a theology of women, but a theology of men and women together. In this, she spoke in harmony with many of the other participants, who were leery of having a new theology that included only women, or in other words, was exclusionary. The fear, if I understand it correctly, rests in part on the awareness that the Roman Catholic Church does not have an express theology of men. If we construct an explicit theology of women apart from men, we continue to place women in a separate, and (in practice) marginalized space.

The alternative is clear: construct a theology of men and women together, a theology of the laity instead of a theology of a single sex. And, in essence, I agree. If by a ‘theology of women’ one means a theology which seeks to divide theological anthropology between the sexes, and thereby separate them further, such a theology would render women more marginalized, rather than less. I would argue, however, that a Roman Catholic theology of the laity cannot occur until we come to terms with the fact that Christian theology has historically (implicitly and explicitly) rendered masculinity normative for the construction of human nature.

The groundwork for this is largely found in Aristotle, who characterized women as defective males, both physically and intellectually (Politics I.12). Although many scholars have chimed in as to whether this understanding of women was grounded in the nature of women as Aristotle saw it, or in the fact that women had no opportunity for education and therefore were rendered inferior by this lack of opportunity, it nonetheless remains clear that when medieval philosophers and theologians absorbed Aristotle’s thought, they took up womanly inferiority as part of female nature, rendering her distinct from the man primarily in her ability to carry children, and a positive part of creation because of that role. Witness Aquinas:

It was necessary for woman to be made, as the Scripture says, as a “helper” to man; not, indeed, as a helpmate in other works, as some say, since man can be more efficiently helped by another man in other works; but as a helper in the work of generation . . . But man is yet further ordered to a still nobler vital action, and that is intellectual operation. Therefore there was greater reason for the distinction of these two forces in man; so that the female should be produced separately from the male. (ST I.92.a1)

The implication here is that intellect and generation are much more separable in men than in women; it thus follows that men are not defined by their role in generation, while women, whose bodies declare a much more integrated relation between intellect and generation, are defined by that role. In Patristic and Medieval accounts, moreover, the accepted superiority of male intellect meshed with the sequential account of male and female creation in Genesis. This engendered the theology that, while both men and women have the image of God, women have it in a lesser sense than men because the woman was created from man, a copy of a copy, as it were.

Furthermore, this inferiority leads to a weakness in the ability to acquire virtue. For Aristotle as well as Plato, the acquisition of knowledge led to the acquisition of virtue. Since intellect is required to know things, the greater a human being’s intellect is, the greater is the potentiality for the attainment of virtue. Medieval theologians, including Thomas Aquinas, commonly held this view (see ST I.q92.a1, II-II.q149.a). For them, women, intellectually inferior and with a diminished image of God, are therefore less able to cultivate the full complement of virtues.

But what does this have to do with the theology of women today? In contemporary Catholic theology, not many theologians would say that a woman is intellectually inferior to men, let alone indicate that she is gifted with less of God’s image than a man. All true. But the imprint of this inferiority still remains.

In my previous blog post, I noted that the Catholic understanding of women is theologically hollow, that women are defined by the roles assigned to them. The reason for this is, at least in part, that earlier theologies founded the differentiation of women from men in the space of reproduction. That is, her nature is defined by what earlier thinkers saw as her primary role, whereas men take up roles to which the constitution of their nature predisposes them, but by which they are not exclusively defined. In essence, the constitution of the woman’s nature moves from the outside-in, and the constitution of the man’s nature moves from the inside-out.

In current Catholic theologies and practices, this most plays out in how we contextualize virtue. When speaking about virtue today, we largely tend to render (rightly, in my opinion) the nature of virtue unisex.   We are able to render the concepts of virtue in the latter fashion because we have a sensibility that habits of goodness should apply equally to males and females. Most contemporary theologians regard the descriptions of women in earlier theologies and philosophies as unfortunate by-products of cultural assumptions and philosophical inheritances. In order to utilize the surrounding theological material, they shunt aside these descriptions so that we can appropriate the majority of theological thought on virtue and anthropology for the entirety of the human race, and not just the male portion of it.   In essence, we maintain that both sexes possess the fullness of the image of God, and in that fullness, are able to actualize that image through the cultivation of virtues. However, because the differentiation of women from men hinges on the governance of the role over the nature, the Roman Catholic understanding of the virtuous woman is particularly susceptible to the invasion of culturally inflected constructions of this role. And this is what, in my opinion, has occurred, particularly in the realm of practice.

I am speaking here of the tendency, still, to bind womanly virtue to reproductive capacity and the domestic virtues which surround that capacity, rather than to see women’s reproductive potentialities as one expression of a more universal set of virtues. Do not mistake me. I am not disagreeing with the Roman Catholic stance on the value of human life, or on their rulings on reproduction and abortion. In abstract form, the teaching on human reproduction is part of a much larger argument about the nature of human value. However, the way in which parishes and individuals received it, and the historical context in which it became most visible, created the circumstances for reducing the laywoman’s virtue to a function of her biology, and thereby implicitly limiting the sphere of her virtue to the domestic, whether those domestic activities take place in the home or in her local parish church.

The Roman Catholic stance on reproduction became more publicly visible in the 1960s, as did their stance on abortion, right when second wave feminism was gaining ground in America and in Europe. This form of feminism expanded feminist concerns from political equality to those cultural and economic inequalities that were so prevalent in the daily life of Europe and America. Alongside these concerns, most feminists also began to reject many perceived traditionalisms—including the structure of marriage exemplified in 1950s suburbia—to embrace the various forms of birth control, and to advocate for what became known as abortion rights.

So, for those American and European Catholics who accepted the church teaching, and which the various Catholic parishes were enjoined to support, the opposition to birth control and abortion carried with it the implicit normativity of a particular structure within family life: the stay-at-home mom (or mom as primary caregiver) and the income-earning father whose parental responsibilities were relatively minimal. Consequently, the acceptance and promotion of the Church’s teaching on contraception carried with it, in the popular mindset, an alliance with the domestic roles and structures that second-wave feminists opposed.

This alliance, which creates unnecessarily clean oppositions, both places the burden of family virtue upon the woman and also limits a woman’s sense of her value if she is not fulfilling those roles. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard parishioners at my church call out to a childless couple: “You should have kids! They’re great!” To be sure, the parishioners who say this are well-meaning. But I do not think they know the hurt those statements can cause: What if the couple cannot have children? What if there are other factors involved? Do we really want to imply that the woman is not being virtuous because she does not have children? Do we want to open up what may be a wound, a loss, a desire in her? In her spouse? No, of course not. But it is an expectation: if you are married you should have kids, or you are doing something wrong. And this expectation, with its attendant fear of condemnation, lies heaviest upon the woman. It limits the way others think of her and, more importantly, how she thinks of herself and her relation to her church community.

As heartbreaking as such occurrences are, however, they are only a symptom of a much larger problem: that womanly virtue is tied to those roles of wife and mother because Roman Catholicism still hasn’t figured out how to differentiate a woman from a man without reducing her to that differentiation. It’s a puzzle that has accompanied Christianity every step of the way, and although it is not easily solved, the time has come for the Roman Catholic Church to make concerted efforts in that direction.

For that reason, we do not need another encyclical on the feminine genius. That would simply exacerbate the problem. We do not have encyclicals on the masculine genius, and so to have another one on the feminine genius would simply sharpen the contours of our present situation.   What we do need, however, is for the Church to take issue with those authoritative texts concerning women that are deeply offensive, and yet continue to shape the way in which women’s roles have defined them in toto.   Through this examination, we can then begin to iron out the wrinkles, to see women—as we see men—as bearers of the image of God whose embodied-ness provides a distinct harmonic in the practice of virtue, but does not center that virtue within particular roles.  Once we can do this, not only in official theological endeavors, but also at the level of parish practice, then we will have a functional theology of the laity that does not reduce the woman to particular roles, but allows women to expand into roles as part of her larger cultivation of virtue.   Such a move can only enrich Roman Catholic thought and practice, but to accomplish it requires courage and a willingness to move beyond the comfort of static definitions. In short, we must overcome the worldliness that still confines our theology, in our written words, to be sure, but first and foremost in our actions and our assumptions, for in this as in all things, lex orandi, lex credendi: The Law of praying is the law of belief.

Petra Elaine Turner is a Doctoral Candidate in Philosophical Theology in the Program of Theology Ethics and Culture at the University of Virginia’s Religious Studies Department. She is currently completing her dissertation, which employs contemporary French phenomenology to raise up the experiential aspects of Augustine’s understanding of faith.

One thought on “Aporia Mulieris: Puzzling out the Theology of Women – Petra Turner

  1. I agree that a theology of humans, mail and female would be most a appropriate.
    Perhaps it is time to reconsider exactly what cultural and intellectual norms traditional Catholicism is based on. We may now consider the views of ancient philosophers mysogonistic when they were actually correct for their time. Women were bound to be the life bearers of human beings and their energy and short life spans reflected that.
    It is about time to consider that the One Who is gave us the intellect and means to control ovulation exists – and that women have discovered that their lives have generative power other than reproducing another human being.
    And it is time to consider both men and women as beings made in God’s image.

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