ROME – Several women theologians who teach in Catholic seminaries have applauded Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, who argued in a recent interview that to foster a healthy relationship between the sexes, more women should be involved in priestly formation.

“When women are not present in influential roles within all areas of seminarians’ formation – that is, in human (personal/psychological), intellectual, spiritual, and pastoral formation – seminarians are at risk of gaining a distorted view of women,” author and speaker Dawn Eden Goldstein told Crux.

Goldstein said she “strongly” agrees with Ouellet, prefect of the of the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, who in his interview noted that oftentimes, “There is unease (between men and women) because there is fear…more on the part of men towards women than women towards men,” and that for many priests and seminarians, “women represent danger!”

In the interview, published in the May edition of the Vatican newspaper’s monthly women’s insert, “Women, Church, World,” Ouellet stressed that the real danger “are men who do not have a balanced relationship with women.”

“This is what we must radically change,” he said, insisting that frequent exchanges with women help seminarians interact with them in a natural way, and “to face the challenges represented by the presence of women.”

“This must be taught and learned from the beginning, not isolating priests who then find themselves brutally in reality, [because] then they can lose control,” he said.

Ouellet pushed for more women to be included in positions of teaching, leadership and governance at Catholic institutions, and he made the bold claim that given women’s sensitivity and intuitive abilities, had they been more involved in priestly formation all along, the Church’s clerical sexual abuse crisis could have, at least in part, been prevented.

Crux spoke with several women who either currently teach or who have taught in seminaries in the United States and Europe, all of whom voiced agreement while also offering their own insights.

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Women teaching priests

Goldstein, who has taught as assistant professor of dogmatic theology at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Conn., and as a resident lecturer at St. Mary’s College and seminary in Birmingham, England, said she assented to nearly everything Ouellet said.

“When women are only discussed and not seen, they can appear to seminarians as dangerous temptations to unchastity,” she said, while on the other hand, “when seminarians have no occasion to be under a female professor or formator’s authority, and when they do not see their priest-professors interacting with women as equals, they risk seeing women as inferiors.”

“In either case, seminarians are, at the very least, not being properly prepared for pastoral service. At worst, they risk being not ‘formed’ so much as deformed or malformed,” Goldstein said.

Similarly, author and speaker Mary Healy, professor of sacred scripture at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, said she believes Ouellet’s point is “absolutely right,” because priests will spend their entire lives and ministries working with and serving women.

Chair of the theological commission of the Charismatic Renewal International Service (CHARIS) in Rome – which is overseen by the Pontifical Council for Laity, Family and Life – Healy is also a member of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian unity and of the Pentecostal-Catholic International Dialogue. In 2014, she was among the first three women appointed to serve on the Pontifical Biblical Commission.

Speaking to Crux, Healy noted that, “many seminarians are isolated during their formative years in an all-male environment where they have little opportunity to learn to relate to women in a healthy way.”

Calling this “a huge mistake,” she said this isolation “can contribute to a culture of clericalism.”

“Many young men have grown up in broken homes or experienced other forms of family distress, besides the baneful influences of our culture, all of which can lead to distorted views of women,” she said. “The presence of faith-filled, spiritually mature women in positions of authority is important for helping young men mature in their masculinity and preventing the development of clericalist attitudes.”

Melanie Barrett, chairperson and professor in the Department of Moral Theology at the Mundelein Seminary in Illinois since 2004, said she “wholeheartedly” agrees with Ouellet, “that priests need to be able to relate to women in a way that is natural, healthy, and balanced.”

However, Barrett took it a step further, saying this is not unique to the Church but “a civilizational” challenge, “as the #MeToo movement clearly has demonstrated.”

Men’s natural physical attraction to women must be rightly ordered, so that men habitually treat women with the respect owed to them as human subjects, rather than as mere objects of lust. To become so empowered, men’s intellects must be formed properly – to view women as equal in dignity – and they must cultivate the virtue of chastity,” she said, insisting that counter to popular opinion, chastity does not entail “repressing” natural desires, but integrating these into a mature masculinity.

“Avoiding women altogether will not help a man to cultivate chastity; he will remain stuck in affective immaturity, and thus unable to collaborate fruitfully with women in the workplace,” whether it be a corporate office or a parish staff, and he will be “unable to attend to women’s spiritual needs,” whether he is a counselor, spiritual director, or confessor, she said.

Both Healy and Barrett highlighted contributions their own seminaries are making toward providing healthy interactions with women, many of whom serve as full time faculty members.

Healy said she also believes that the presence of female students in some classes that seminarians are required to take, “is important for teaching seminarians to value the gifts of women and relate to women in a natural way.”

Intellect vs nurture

Goldstein, Healy and Barrett also spoke to Ouellet’s statement that women offer a necessary “human formation,” which he called underdeveloped in seminaries. Healy said that, on a theoretical level, this nurturing aspect “is sometimes over-emphasized.”

In practice, women’s presence in seminaries is, if anything, is “currently too limited to the academic side – and in some parts of the world, women have no formative role at all,” she said.

Healy argued that women are particularly needed in human formation because they have “an intuitive sensitivity to how a man relates to others and how comfortable he is with himself. They may notice character traits or personality weaknesses that could lead to problems down the line.”

Pointing to her own seminary as an example, Healy said there have been occasions when a woman in the faculty detected problems that male faculty members didn’t, adding, “Women may be particularly alert to the physical and emotional well-being of a seminarian and help ensure he has the appropriate support.”

She also said she isn’t concerned about this aspect of the female contribution being over-emphasized, a point that Goldstein also made.

“I can’t say that the ‘maternal’ and ‘nurturing’ aspect is perhaps exalted over [women’s] intellectual abilities, because I haven’t seen anything about women’s approach exalted at seminaries,” Goldstein said. “At best, I’ve seen an understanding that being in line with Vatican guidelines requires having a token female presence. But I haven’t seen any serious thought at seminaries about what is special or needed about women’s contribution.”

Goldstein noted that after becoming the first woman to receive a doctorate in sacred theology from the University of St. Mary of the Lake, she asked several individuals for their thoughts on what was expected of a woman in seminary formation.

Each of the meetings – with a religious sister who was among the first women to teach at a seminary level; with an official at the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education; and with Guinean Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Vatican’s liturgy department – proved to be unhelpful. The only encouraging meeting, Goldstein said, was with Sarah, who offered a reflection on Mary at the foot of the cross but did not shed any light on her larger question.

It wasn’t until after two years of seminary teaching that Goldstein said she found an answer in Edith Stein’s Essays on Woman, which “identifies the distinctive quality of womanhood not so much in a generalized concept of being motherly or caring but rather in the specific category of maturity.”

According to Goldstein, Stein in her writings notes that women mature faster than men, and that a woman’s maternal instincts are displayed, “in their gift for bringing others to maturity – not only emotional maturity but also intellectual maturity.”

“I think that is the key. And I believe, with St. Edith, that a woman in academia is able to exercise this gift with the same value as a woman who is in a nonacademic field,” she said.

Barrett, on the other hand, said she has had a different experience, and that the issue of prizing maternity and nurturing over intellect for women, “is not an issue at all.”

All members of our seminary faculty share the same mission:  to produce priests who are both holy and competent,” she said, insisting that at her seminary, “We all collaborate in this mission, and each person contributes his or her distinctive expertise.”

With a seminary program built around the integration of intellectual, spiritual, human, and pastoral formation, “rather than splitting them into silos,” there is a balance, Barrett said, noting that as a department chair and moral theologian, her advice is often sought out and, consequently, “I never feel that my intellectual abilities are undervalued.”

The Church lags behind

In terms of the Catholic Church lagging behind the rest of society when it comes to promoting and creating space for women in leadership and governance, including at Catholic universities, Healy voiced gratitude for Ouellet’s “bold forthrightness.”

Noting that the Catholic Church holds a biblically grounded vision of complementarity between men and women based on their natural gifts and abilities, Healy said the Church “does in some respects lag behind her own vision.”

For instance, the involvement of more women in decision-making regarding clergy sexual abuse, both at the diocesan level and at the Vatican, could have led to a more robust, humane and decisive response to these horrendous crimes,” she said.

Healy also noted that nearly all positions of teaching and authority within the Church in recent centuries were tied to the priesthood, insisting that in modern times, “there is much greater recognition that these positions can well be filled by lay women and men. But there remains a long way to go.”

Last year, for the first time a woman was appointed rector of a pontifical university. At the Amazon Synod, two non-ordained men were permitted to be voting members, but no women. A few women have been appointed as under-secretaries in the Vatican curia,” she said, voicing hope that, “there will be more proactive steps of this kind.”

Barrett had a more optimistic view, noting that when she joined her seminary in 2004, women had been serving on the faculty “for decades.”

As of the most recent academic year, some 25 percent of the seminary faculty were women, she said, noting that women also hold numerous leadership positions in the broader University of St Mary of the Lake, of which the Mundelein seminary is a part.

With regard to Catholic universities, “I’m not sure it’s fair to say that the church has lagged behind the rest of society,” she said, insisting that before the cultural revolution of the 1960s, “a large number of women exercised governance in the Catholic colleges run by their religious communities. Once religious-order sponsored schools became secularized, such opportunities for women in leadership evaporated.”

More recently, it is lay women, rather than religious sisters, who are taking these roles on again, Barrett said, adding that in her experience, “the Church is eager to collaborate with women who are intelligent, well-educated, faithful, and competent.”

For her part, Goldstein said she believes “unquestionably” that the Church “can and should do more to place women in positions of teaching, leadership, and governance.” However, she stressed that this must be done, “within what is appropriate from a sacramental perspective.”

“There are certain aspects of governance on the level of the parish, diocese, and the global Church that are so closely connected to the flow of graces reaching us through the sacraments that they should be exercised by clergy. Just as offices dealing with the laity, marriage, and family life are most appropriately led by people who live those vocations,” she said.

Goldstein noted that there are vast areas of teaching, leadership, and governance which do not deal directly with the sacraments where women, “can and should be participating. For example, one does not have to be a member of the clergy to know and teach the theology of Holy Orders and Eucharist, as I have done in diocesan seminaries.”

Von Balthasar, priesthood and laity

Ouellet also pointed to the “Marian principle” of Swiss theologian and priest Hans Urs von Balthasar, which loosely holds that Mary is more important in the life of the Church than Peter, because Mary represents the “baptismal priesthood” that the whole Church is called to live.

Pope Francis himself has often drawn on von Balthasar’s “Marian principle” to insist that the role of priests, while critical, is secondary, and that the role of women, to the extent that they carry out the “baptismal priesthood” Mary represents, is more fundamental.

Goldstein, Barrett and Healy implied the important point behind the “Marian principle” is learning to better appreciate the laity as a whole.

Barrett, who has authored a book on von Balthasar, insisted that these two dimensions – of Mary and Peter – are not in opposition, but rather, for von Balthasar, are held “together in a dynamic tension.”

Donning her academic cap, she said, “All structures of the Church – including its Petrine dimension – thus are in the service of holiness. Those ordained to the ministerial priesthood are chosen from the baptismal priesthood.”

“While different in kind and not only degree, the two priesthoods are interrelated,” she said, insisting that, “God does not favor priests – or even bishops – over lay persons, because the measure of greatness in the spiritual life is not ecclesial office; it is the depth of one’s love.”

Speaking to the broader theme, Goldstein said the Church, “can’t arrive at an adequate understanding of women until we first arrive at an adequate understanding of the priesthood of the faithful. That is absolutely key.”

“As long as the lay priesthood is thought of as second class, the role of all non-clerics will be considered second class,” she said.

Goldstein said she views part of her own role as an author and seminary teacher, “to help the faithful and clergy better understand how our entire lives are meant to be a priestly offering to God in Christ.”

Healy said that “Mary is the greatest disciple of Christ, and so she embodies the vocation of the Church. As important as is the role of Peter (the institutional dimension), hers is more foundational.”

“It is, however, one thing to state this theologically and another to live it out,” she said, noting that, “a ‘clerical model’ still prevails in many ways, in which ecclesial matters are viewed through a distorted lens of power and control.”

In her view, Barrett said she believes part of the confusion surrounding clerics versus lay people stems from the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council, which she said yielded “a strongly-developed understanding of Holy Orders,” including the office of the bishop and the restoration of the permanent diaconate, “but its conception of the baptismal priesthood remains underdeveloped by comparison.”

“Consequently, many Catholics today are not even aware of their formidable power as disciples: missioned by Christ and empowered by the sacraments, to sanctify the world,” she said.

Noting that in many places around the world, marriage preparation lasts only a few days, whereas preparation for the priesthood can take up to six years or more, it’s “No wonder many people believe (falsely) that priests are more important than lay people,” she said.

“In my opinion,” she said, “empowering the baptized – not only through sacramental preparation, but also through intentional human, spiritual, and intellectual formation, sustained over time – is the most urgent task that we have.”

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