Last week in unscripted remarks to the International Theological Commission (ITC), Pope Francis called for theologians to “demasculinize” the church. As happens frequently when Francis’ remarks go “viral,” many online commentators greeted these remarks with a hope that Francis’ revolution of the Catholic Church is just around the corner. Others noted that Francis has called for the ITC itself to include more women since 2014 (the address that included the women are the “strawberries on the cake” line) and that these latest remarks offer mostly a reiteration of his call early in his papacy for a “profound theology of the woman.” Throughout these various remarks, Francis echoes John Paul II’s “feminine genius” and Hans Urs von Balthasar’s “nuptial” interpretation of gender, put to work towards an ecclesiology of Christ the Bridegroom and his Bride the church.
When I hear these kinds of remarks and think about the theology that informs them, I am reminded of a line from a letter Dorothy Sayers wrote in response to C.S. Lewis who, anticipating the possible ordination of women in the Anglican Church, requested that Sayers write in defense of an all-male priesthood, reasoning that the defense might be received better from a woman than a man. Sayers declined, and wrote to Lewis:
“Incidentally, one has to be very careful with that ‘Bridegroom’ imagery…[T]hat sort of thing doesn’t make much appeal to well-balanced women, who look on it as just another example of men’s hopeless romanticism about sex, and who are apt either to burst out laughing or sniff a faint smell of drains.”
Reading Francis’ latest comments, I do detect a whiff of drains. “Demasculinizing” the church, addressing its longstanding patriarchal subordination of women’s voices and bodies, is certainly crucial both for the future of the church and for doing justice to women. But it is hard to believe such “demasculinizing” can be accomplished while continuing to think in terms of abstract principles of the “masculine” and especially the “feminine” instead of the actual lives of men and women. Even at their most positive, these discussions of “feminine genius” and “theology of the woman” (singular!) are laden with what Sayers names “hopeless romanticism,” and in their less positive moments, they simply reaffirm misogynistic stereotypes.
These stereotypes of the feminine tend to show up in Francis’ more painful moments of discussing gender—from encouraging religious sisters to be spiritual mothers and not “old maids” to countering a query about the possible misogyny of his ideas of women as primarily mothers and wives with a quip that, “The fact is, woman was taken from a rib.” Indeed, Francis has a tendency, when pushed on his views on gender, to resort to jokes.
In the spirit of sororal suggestion (admittedly less official than fraternal correction), I might recommend that the pope and his brother bishops listen to some of the women’s ripostes to their quips and opining on the status of women.
From the time of Francis’ 2013 remarks, women theologians have pointed out with variously pointed and playful tones that should he and his brother bishops wish to encounter this more “profound” theology where women are concerned, they might consider reading one or several of the bookshelves full of theology written by women. We would be happy to provide reading lists.
Indeed, when reflecting on the “demasculinizing,” of theology and of the church, I am reminded of a religious sister whom I met during my master’s one evening as we attended a lecture on a Marian and Petrine ecclesiology inspired by Balthasar. At the end of the talk, she leaned over to me with a wide grin and said, “You know how I remember my theological education amongst the seminarians? The phrase, ‘even the dogs eat the scraps from their master’s table’ comes to mind.” And then she began to laugh, amused at the dissonance between the idealized rhetoric of the “feminine” church we had just heard and the realities of her own theological education in a space defined by clericalism.
While women’s reactions to the patriarchal realities of Catholicism rightfully run the gamut, jokes like the one this sister made simultaneously make plain the pain of being a woman in this tradition and burst the bubble of overinflated rhetoric about the “feminine genius,” laying bare the inadequacies of even benevolent patriarchy to see women as truly human. Speaking of women in such idealized complementarian terms, as we have seen, does little to rectify the structures of patriarchy in church and theology that for generations have been content to leave women the “scraps.”
I do hope, with Francis, for a “demasculinizing,” of the church, if what is meant by that is addressing these structures of patriarchy, so that women’s theological expertise, preaching and leadership is both fostered and given equal status within the church. If, however, this “demasculinizing” is simply an expansion of the “feminine genius” to serve as the “profound theology of the woman,” Francis claims is lacking, then I suspect more and more women will continue to wrinkle their noses and make their way out of the church, from which they smell that scent of drains.
Callie Tabor is a lecturer in the Department of Catholic Studies at Sacred Heart University.