Moving Away from Normative Maternal Roles in the Catholic Church by Michele Stopera Freyhauf

FreyhaufEarlier this week, social media was all abuzz about the Pope’s investigation into restoring women to the diaconate. In the complete transcript of the Pope’s comments,  the traditional notion of women’s maternal role in the church is mentioned in relation to the Church.  Certainly this is nothing new.  Here the Pope describes important “maternal” work such as working with the marginalized, catechesis, and caring for the sick – once again, nothing new.

However, in the next sentence, a very subtle shift is seen when it comes to normative gender roles:

…. there are men who do the same [work as consecrated women], and it is good…..and this is important.

What does this mean – a change in language?  a laying of groundwork? or nothing at all?


It is no secret that cultural constructs of women as maternal and how a mother is defined as or even does has radically changed in today’s society; but, the Church continues to remain steadfast in normative roles between the priesthood and the “motherhood” of the Church (and therefore “motherhood” in general).

Three years ago, we saw a statement from Pope Francis expressing  “concern” that if women took on “traditionally masculine roles and traits, [that] which is uniquely and irreplaceably feminine could be diminished.” In the same statement, he stated that maternity is not a “social role” and integral in building community – both civil and ecclesial.   A concern, as we know, that is not well placed – for women have been building community within the constructs of society and the church through leadership and service since the Church was established.  ” In fact, since the formation and ultimate institutionalization of the Church, women have find ways outside of normative maternal roles and social constructs to serve and even lead the church – we have a list of saints that demonstrate this fact well.

Now Pope Francis, is taking a step towards formally recognizing this work – work the consecrated women have been doing since the very first vow was taken, wants to put together an official commission to study the role of “deaconesses” in the early church.  This is a role (or construct) that he understands to be limited in capacity and service – essentially a social role.  Approximately 50 years ago, Pope Paul VI in Ecclesiam Suam expressed a profound conviction that “the church must enter into dialogue with the world which it lives” and made a request to study the question of women deacons in the church – a request that was suppressed.  This study which is way overdue,must have solid representation from scholars, especially from those (lay men and women) specializing in Bible, Early Church History, and Patristics.  090713-phoebe-deacon

As a Biblical Scholar who also studies Patristics and early Church History/Ecclesiology, I can tell you that the mere difference in using  deaconesses v. deacons as the very foundation of the study (as indicated above) – is significant, especially in terms of ecclesial roles within the church.  Scripture never uses the feminine deaconess when speaking of Phoebe, but rather calls her a deacon of the early church near Corinth. In Romans 16:1, Phoebe serves the church in Cenchreae (the port of Corinth on the Saronic Gulf) as διάκονος (deacon; minister; servant).  This word is also used in Phil. 1:1, which addresses Paul and Timothy, servants (δούλος – a male slave or servant) of Christ Jesus, and all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, Saint_Theclawith the overseers and deacons (διάκονος)). 1 Tim 3:8 states that Deacons (Διάκοωος) likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to wine, not greedy for dishonest gain.  Examining early church history and looking at women such as Thecla, who actively performed baptisms, we see women in the early church performing sacramental acts and ministry that an ordained man does today.  My point is simple: without the contribution of scholars outside of the Vatican’s inner ring, the study will be skewed and simply not helpful.

In the end, should we be excited about this study? Not really.  If you read the Pope’s statement more closely, it is riddled  with vague and redundant words that show no movement in this discussion.  We have not stepped forward, but rather taken two steps to the side – but I guess I should embrace little movement over no movement at all because, for too long in the church, we have been moving backwards.

Featured image, Mary Magdalene Priestess by Judith Shaw.

Michele Stopera Freyhauf is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies and a Member of the Centre for Catholic Studies at Durham University as well as an Instructor at John Carroll University’s Department of Theology and Religious Studies and Ursuline College’sDepartment of Religious Studies. She teaches in the area of Religion, Culture, Terrorism/Violence, and Biblical Archaeology.  Michele has an M. A. in Theology and Religious Studies from John Carroll University, and did post-graduate work at the University of Akron in the area of History of Religion, Women, and Sexuality. She is also a Member-at-Large on the Student Advisory Board for the Society of Biblical Literature and the student representative on the Board for Eastern Great Lakes Biblical Society (EGLBS). Michele is the 2015 recipient of the P. E. MacAllister Excavation Fellowship where she participated in the Bethsaida Archaeology Project.  Michele is a feminist scholar, activist, and author of several articles including “Hagia Sophia: Political and Religious Symbolism in Stones and Spolia” and lectured during the Commission for the Status of Women at the United Nations (2013 and 2014). She also wrote “The Catholic Church and Social Media: Embracing [Fighting] a Feminist Ideological Theo-Ethical Discourse and Discursive Activism” that appears in the recently released book, Feminism and Religion in the 21st Century: Technology, Dialogue, and Expanding Borders, edited by Gina Messina-Dysert and Rosemary Radford Ruether. Michele can be followed on Twitter @msfreyhauf and @biblicalfem. Her website can be accessed here and is visible on other social media sites like LinkedIn and Google+.






Categories: Bible, Catholic Church, Family, Female Saints, Feminist Theology, Gender, General, Patriarchy, Scripture, Vatican, Women and Ministry, Women in the Church, Women's Ordination

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11 replies

  1. “My point is simple: without the contribution of scholars outside of the Vatican’s inner ring, the study will be skewed and simply not helpful.”

    This of course is true, but I think that it is important to add specify that without “the contributions of feminist scholars, the study will be skewed.”

    Thanks for weighing in on this. Yes, a new study could open the doors for women, but in the end, if the door to the priesthood remains nailed shut, the study will not usher in full humanity for women in the Church.


    • I agree that feminist scholars, and not just a token woman, needs to be involved. I try to take solace in the fact a commission is being called, but the more I looked at it, the more disappointed I became.


      • i don’t expect Elizabeth Johnson, Rosemary Radford Ruether, and Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza are likely to be appointed to the commission. As I say in my post tomorrow, such a commission can never be “objective.” Its members will inevitably reflect particular standpoints. The Pope is not likely to choose scholars who will challenge his own deeply held view that the “genius” of women is to give to men–but not to rule or dominate over them! Nor is he likely to appoint anyone who is likely to challenge the structures of hierarchical male domination within the Roman Catholic Church.


  2. Does anyone really, truly think that gang of old men in skirts is going to release one tittle or one jot of its power? We need another female pope!


  3. Merci, Michèle. Ici, c’est terrible de devoir se battre pour qu’à la cathédrale de Perpignan (France) le clergé “accepte” un jour peut-être que les petites filles soient enfants de choeur. J’ai vu pleurer une petite dont le frère, plus jeune qu’elle, a “le droit” d’être enfant de choeur alors qu’elle, quel droit a-t-elle? Elle a le droit/devoir/honneur de faire la quête :( Je me sens bien seule parmi des femmes qui ont presque toutes intériorisé l’idée de leur “secondarité”!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Women (and our girls) should never feel secondary to men – ever. In the states, our girls can be altar servers. I have 4 daughters who were altar girls and for me it was awesome to have one leading choir, one lecturing, and two serving all during the same mass (and I was a Eucharistic minister). I know in France it is much different. I do appreciate your comment and view – it certainly saddens me.,.. Thanks for reading!


  4. Thank you for your post, Michele, and for helping us to wade through the current state of gender discussions in the Catholic hierarchy. I also enjoyed reading your article, “Hagia Sophia: Political and Religious Symbolism in Stones and Spolia” that you referenced. I learned a lot about the Hagia Sophia when I visited in November 2011. Your well researched article brought all that back and more. Thank you for your work!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Ann Marie, thank you for reading BOTH articles! The article on the Hagia Sophia as a guide really provides so much to a structure that can be overlooked in its historical richness. In the article above are related articles about the issue of women’s contributions in the church that I have written in the past (if you are interested).

    How long ago did you see the Hagai Sophia? I wonder what the state of it is now. It was really in disrepair when I was there last.


  6. I wonder whether the function of this announcement is to gauge how much ‘push back’ he’ll get from women-inclusive leadership initiatives. Insider or outsider, it is painfully clear that in the early Christian church women took on major leadership roles. I mean, good grief, it was a woman who got the whole “Jesus’ body is missing, he’s been resurrected” ball rolling.


  7. “Approximately 50 years ago, Pope Paul VI in Ecclesiam Suam expressed a profound conviction that “the church must enter into dialogue with the world which it lives” and made a request to study the question of women deacons in the church – a request that was suppressed”. I was reading the Letter mentioned but I couldn’t find any reference on women deacons in it. May I read it wrong? Can anybody help me in this?



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