The Roman Catholic Theology of Womanhood by Ivy Helman

The Vatican has creIvy Helmanated an entire theology of womanhood without the input of a single woman!  Searching the Vatican archives reveals a wide range of documents pertaining to women, some of which mention women tersely only in their capacity as workers needing protection (Rerum novarum, 1891) and others are fully dedicated to describing the status, role and mission of women in the family, society and the world (Mulieris dignitatem, 1988).  Within the documents, as time passes, women become their own category of theological importance.  This is due to the influence of feminism on the status and roles of women across the globe.  Yet, there is vehement anti-feminism in the documents as well.

I searched the documents myself, curious as to what the Vatican had to say about womanhood and wrote a book on the topic published by Orbis in Febrary 2012 entitled, Women and the Vatican: An Explanation of Official Documents.  I would like to lay out that theology now.  However, space does not permit the detail and references I wish to include.   Please see my book itself for more.

Starting with the human being, one of the first concepts the documents explores is how humans are gendered.  Femininity reaches all the way down to the soul in women and masculinity in the souls of men.  In other words, according to the Church, sex and gender are not social constructions but natural givens.  It is important to add that women and men complete themselves and each other when they marry someone of the opposite sex, given the complementary nature of male and female from the beginning of creation.Women and the Vatican

The Church defines femininity as the capacity to live for and because of the other.  In addition, according to the Church, girls take on responsibility at a younger age than boys and mature faster than they do.  Women cherish life to a greater extent than men do.  This natural respect for life should ideally translate into women being open to the gift of children in marriage and doing nothing to prevent conception.    In fact, women are assumed to be biologically fulfilled through having children.  Even women who do not have their own biological or adopted children find fulfillment through spiritual motherhood serving as surrogate mothers of sorts to the poor and outcast of society.  While a woman’s primary responsibility is to her children and family life, the documents also state that to assume that women only belong in the home devalues their ability to contribute to the betterment of society and the Church.

In society, women operate out of an order of love rather than from society’s culture of death.  Women are charged with establishing a loving world that revolves around this principle as well.  Women, out of love, must teach men how to respect life, work for peace and practice justice, all while attempting to fix society in general and to make society friendlier.

In the Church, women cannot be priests because Jesus did not choose women apostles nor was Jesus a woman.  Therefore, the Church, even if it wished, does not have the authority to ordain women.  However, women do have an important theological mission according to official Vatican documents: women should spread the gospel and use their natural loving abilities to show the Church how to better respond to the world.

This is probably the most succinct definition of the Roman Catholic theology of womanhood I can offer in this space.  Now, I would like to offer three basic critiques of this definition, even though I am conscious of there being many, many more.  First, the burden placed on women by the Roman Catholic hierarchy to affect and fundamentally change the world is immense and unrealistic.  Second, it is unfair to characterize tenderness, care and love as only feminine principles that women must teach men.  Finally, it is important to note the interconnectedness of this theology of womanhood.  There would be no way to change one part without fundamentally altering the whole.  Therefore to approach justice and equality for women in the Church solely through advocating women’s ordination is not enough.    Roman Catholic women also need a more basic right: self-definition.

This said, there has been much speculation recently as to whether or not the position of women in the Roman Catholic Church will change with the appointment of Pope Francis, the first PPopeope from Latin America and an outspoken advocate of the poor and disenfranchised.  Surely he has already broken protocol by washing the feet of young people rather than priests when he celebrated Mass on Holy Thursday.  Two of these young people were women, and this created much uproar, some backlash and quite a lot of hope for those who wish to further justice and equality regarding women roles Church.  Pope Francis also went personally to his hotel to collect his things and settle the bill, called his newspaper deliverer in Argentina to cancel his subscription, and has so far refused to live in the grandiose papal apartments of the Vatican.

There is no doubt that he is quite different from his predecessors, and there is much evidence that the actions of one Pope can change the direction and spirit of the Church profoundly.  Look at Pope John XXIII.  He was supposed to be a “transitional” pope, chosen specifically for his advanced age (he was 77 when he was appointed), as a placeholder of sorts, keeping the status quo.  Yet, he called the Second Vatican Council.  Pope Francis is 76.

Perhaps an appeal to Pope Francis here will work.  Just as the poor and disadvantaged need those who will listen to them and be with them in their struggle for justice, so do women.  Women are voiceless, quite literally so when it comes to the institutional, hierarchical structure of the Church.  Those Roman Catholic women who want to remain within the structure of the Church, and there are many who do, need to define for themselves who they are as well as the roles and responsibilities they want to take on within society, families and the Church.   Will Pope Francis hear and, more importantly, listen to the voice of women?  Will he use his office to empower women who have been disenfranchised and marginalized by Roman Catholic leadership?  He has already heard the poor and disenfranchised of Argentina, washed the feet of the incarcerated young people in Italy, and denied the opulent lifestyle of his predecessors in the Vatican.  These are reasons to think that he may be receptive to listening to women as well.  There are so many reasons why he should and I hope he does.  Women: speak out and let your voices be heard!

Ivy A. Helman, Ph. D.: A feminist scholar currently on the faculty at Boston College teaching in its Perspectives Program and an Adjunct Lecturer at Merrimack College.  Her most recent publications include:  “Queer Systems: The Benefits of a More Systematic Approach to Queer Theology,” in CrossCurrents (March 2011) and Women and the Vatican: An Exploration of Official Documents(2012).

Author: Ivy Helman, Ph.D.

Jewish feminist scholar, activist, and professor living in Prague, Czech Republic and currently teaching at Charles University in their Gender Studies Program.

8 thoughts on “The Roman Catholic Theology of Womanhood by Ivy Helman”

  1. It is fascinating that despite the Church’s own writings on the ‘nature’ of women, that they still do not place women in any sort of position to do just what they believe they are to do – “must teach men how to respect life, work for peace and practice justice, all while attempting to fix society in general and to make society friendlier.” For women to do that, they must have a voice, they must have position, they must be seen and allowed to have influence. Thank you for your work – it is fascinating.


  2. Interesting that the Vatican fails to recognize that what is wrong with men and male morality has much more to do with being granted the right to dominate others than it does with sex or gender. In other words the very power the Vatican is struggling to hold onto– hierarchical patriarchal systems of male domination–is the source of “society’s culture of death.”


    1. Ro-Man Catholic Church given to its historical ideological constructs into which “Men” are mummified within a monarchic-hierarchical burials has to go a long long way towards anything called ‘progress’ in thinking if not in action, the locus of women is part and parcel of the mummification


  3. I am new to feminist debate though I think often of the expression of womanhood and the role of women in the world. I am clueless about feminist theology which is why I began reading this blog. Your piece really made me think and I am inclined to think more positively about some of the church’s precepts as you define them. For me, the church’s belief that woman’s mission is to affect and fundamentally change the world in a loving and positive way is indeed immense but idealistic rather than unrealistic and a call to action rather than a burden. I too believe women and feminine energy can save our world if we each are living our divine calling. I believe it is our responsibility to define ourselves, define womanhood within the context of our faith and raise our voices again and again until we are heard. All great movements for social change started without permission and Martin Luther King and Gandhi were masters at effecting change. Yes, the church has definite ideas about who and what we are. I believe it is our responsibility to let them know we are so much more than that. I appreciate the opportunity to be heard here.


  4. I would like to thank you all for your insightful comments. I agree with many of the sentiments expressed. I think there are many women out there that live with hope that change will happen, that the Holy Spirit is moving and working in the world and that this patriarchal mindset and church structure will not continue forever. We feminists all pray for that day, don’t we?


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