Less noticed than references to homosexuality in Pope Francis’ widely circulated remarks to the press on the Rio-to-Rome papal airplane was this comment on developing a theology of women:
The role of women doesn’t end just with being a mother and with house work . . . we don’t yet have a truly deep theology of women in the church. We talk about whether they can do this or that, can they be altar boys, can they be lectors, about a woman as president of Caritas, but we don’t have a deep theology of women in the church.
Pope Francis’ call for a theology of women is welcome, especially since Catholics are prone to a pop-philosophy of womanhood that runs counter to true theology. Negative examples of this can be found even in the writing of a figure as estimable as Archbishop Fulton Sheen:
To a great extent the level of any civilization is the level of its womanhood. When a man loves a woman, he has to become worthy of her. The higher her virtue, the more noble her character, the more devoted she is to truth, justice, goodness, the more a man has to aspire to be worthy of her. The history of civilization could actually be written in terms of the level of its women.
Sentences like these seem to imply that the influence of sex is one-sided: Women influence men, but men don’t influence women. The morality of men depends on the morality of women; thus if women are immoral, all is lost. Some seem to find this sentiment appealing, but it doesn’t stand up to reflection.
How a man treats a woman plainly says more about the man than the woman. A woman’s behavior doesn’t determine whether a man holds the door for her or whistles at her; the man’s intentions and desires (in short, his morals) determine it. The woman can do little to change his inclinations, as any woman who’s been on the receiving end of a catcall could tell you.
Moreover, men’s behavior affects women as much (or as little) as women’s behavior affects men. The influence is reciprocal: Each can drag the other down or inspire the other to become better. In either case, however, the greater responsibility lies with the moral actor him- or herself. Even if one man’s sins cause his wife to sin more, the wife remains an individual responsible for her own actions. The negative influence of another person does not absolve anyone from blame.
So where should we turn for guidance? Pope Benedict XVI emphasized the need for women in the Church during his pontificate, and as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith he released a letter to bishops on the collaboration of men and women. Blessed Pope John Paul II composed Mulieris Dignitatem (1988) and a letter to women (1995), and his book Love and Responsibility as well as his theology of the body lectures are relevant. St. Edith Stein’s essays on women are doubtless worth considering. Any other suggestions?