ROME – When Sister Catherine Droste became one of very few women to be confirmed as dean of a theology faculty at a pontifical university in November, one might have thought that the pressure she faced as a potential symbol of women’s empowerment in the Church might be the biggest obstacle she had to endure.

Then the coronavirus hit.

It was a true “baptism by fire” moment for Droste, who last spring was elected Dean of Theology at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, better known as the “Angelicum.” She was confirmed in November, officially stepped on in January, and by March was navigating the day-by-day evolutions of a pandemic and its implications on academic life.

An Iowa native, Droste is a Dominican Sister of the Congregation of St. Cecilia and has a long history of both studying and teaching at the Angelicum before being named vice dean of the department – the largest faculty at the university, with about 500 students out of a total body of 1200 – in 2011.

Baptism by fire

Speaking to Crux, Droste said that her already busy job as dean “intensified” when the COVID-19 coronavirus broke out in Europe.

Calling it a true, “frying pan into the fire” moment, she said the “The heat was already there but it intensified, and the level of work tripled and quadrupled, easily.”

She joked that she’s communicating “23.5 hours a day” with students and professors helping them to get in touch with each other, organize online classes, dealing with tech issues and problem solving when something doesn’t work.

Once the outbreak happened, not only were faculty members fulfilling their usual role as professors, but they were soon thrown into IT positions, and were required to develop a distance-learning curriculum with online programs and digital classes. Not only did professors have to convert their assignments to a digital format in a matter of days and weeks, but they also had to juggle any issues that might come up in terms of communication and accessibility with the students who had left.

When problems did arise, it was Droste who had to step in, navigating her own classes and students’ needs while also trying to help professors and their students resolve technical and connectivity problems.

Needless to say, the university has hired a fulltime IT person for the fall semester, as they did not have anyone in this role when the coronavirus hit.

Pointing to some of the challenges they faced, Droste recalled one student in Mexico whose internet signal was not strong enough to download his exams or large documents he needed for study. Another student in India did not have internet access and had to drive several miles just to participate in classes.

“Some of the students have been remarkable in the sufferings they’ve faced and the challenges and still making it work,” Droste said, and also praised the professors for stepping up at the drop of a hat.

Fortunately, last fall, several months before the coronavirus erupted, Droste’s department held a meeting about online teaching at her request. At the time, she said, there had been “opposition at all levels” to online learning, mostly because of the unique nature of a pontifical university as an in-person program, where interaction among students and professors is essential.

However, “As soon as schools were closed by Italy, by the next evening we had professors here in my office and online who were already set up for training … who are ready now for further training for the fall, and they’re ready to move forward,” she said.

Droste said that roughly 70 percent of their students stayed in either Rome or in Europe during the outbreak, and that while the university is planning to have some online options available for students who cannot return this fall for the new academic year, they are planning for an in-person semester, and will never offer a degree completely online.

Boiling her job down to the essentials, Droste said that for her, it’s about “mission and evangelization. That’s the Gospel, that’s what we’re here about, that’s what the pontifical university is about. It’s about forming the priests but also forming religious and laity for the evangelization, for the mission of the Church.”

A woman’s touch

Asked if she feels any pressure given that there are few women who hold such positions of authority over priests and seminarians, Droste said that this part of the job, “doesn’t bother me.”

“I believe that in some way I’m here and it’s part of God’s will that I have to fulfill. I am here, I am in this role and I will fulfill it the best that I can,” she said, noting that what helped her the most in terms of preparedness was having studied alongside priests and seminarians, and then coming back to teach them as a professor.

“That already gave me a leverage to at least understanding the system,” she said, and admitted that it can be “intimidating” as a woman to teach priests and seminarians. However, she stressed that “I have a role to play in their formation, which is a very important role that I take very seriously.”

Women belong in seminary formation, she said, “because once you become a priest, who are you primarily going to be dealing with? Women, and if you can’t deal with women now, you’re going to have some problems down the road.”

Another aspect of being in her position that could be helpful, Droste said, is that it brings a sense of normality for priests and seminarians to see women in a position of authority, whereas in most cases their direct superiors are all men.

“They need to understand working with women and they have to understand that even if they are a priest, they have to have a respect for women – laity, religious – as to their role in the Church, even if it is not as priest,” she said.

Droste insisted that if she has a student who is a priest sitting in front of her in her capacity as dean, she can correct him without disrespecting him as a priest.

“You have to have respect for me in my office, just as I have to have respect for you in your office,” she said, noting that when she deals with students regardless of their status as cleric or lay, “I’m dealing with you as a student and a subject of my authority, which I have an obligation to carry forward.”

Issues will inevitably arise with anyone in a position of authority, she said, “and I can attribute them to me being a woman, or I can attribute them to me being a dean. I still have to deal with it, and I as a woman have to be creative in the way I deal with it.”

This creativity is needed, Droste said, because the concept of the pontifical university system was primarily set up for men. However, she insisted that women can “fit in,” as popes such as John XXIII, John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis have shown.

For her, it’s not a matter of if they should be there, but where and in what roles.

As the dean of a theology department, there are certain things that must be done “regardless of who the dean is – male, female, lay, religious, etc., that doesn’t change,” she said, adding that because men and women are different, “there are different things that we can contribute.”

Asked whether she has been treated differently than a man might be in her position, Droste said “we can always look at things in that way,” but the question she prefers to ask herself is what can she do in her role that a man cannot.

“As a woman here in this office, I have to do the same things that a man in this office would, but I will do some of them in different ways,” she said, stressing the importance of complementarity between men and women.

This complementarity is what Droste said she believes the discussion of women in the Church ought to focus.

“God created male and female, and the dialogue in the Church has to be where is the complementarity with respect to their different roles. So, it’s not just talking about women have this role, the proportion and how many women have this role,” and which roles are appropriate.

Droste said she is not in favor of simply meeting a quota of women in certain positions but emphasized the importance of finding qualified women to take on these roles.

In many cases, “there aren’t as many women who are qualified to hold those roles because the studies were not open to women, as religious or laity, in the past, so there’s a smaller pool to pick from,” she said, insisting that “we shouldn’t have a proportion right away, because the proportion of preparedness has not yet been developed.”

She also stressed that it is not just women, religious or lay, getting degrees that the Church needs, but also laymen who are “qualified and capable so that we can have this dialogue and it can be more of a true dialogue on what are the roles that women can hold in the Church, but without taking away men’s proper role,” she said.

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