The refutation of feminist theology, with its troubling interrogation of traditional gender norms, has been building in both the scholarly and popular worlds of traditional Catholicism for several decades. Featuring the work of both academics and think-tank attorneys, Promise and Challenge continues that effort, taking aim at a broad audience and seeking to articulate a fresh appropriation of the Catholic tradition on the significance of the creation of humanity as male and female. The goal of these authors is thoroughly pragmatic: To present the Catholic Church as a place where women’s leadership can flourish, while ruling out any sense that female leadership is compromised by its lack of inclusion in a church thoroughly shaped by a hierarchical clergy. Thus their immediate task is to defend recent papal statements about gender complementarity, the “genius of women and men,” and the rejection of women’s ordination—and to do so by presenting these statements as definitive, rooted in the tradition, and appealing. This is a tall order.

Promise and Challenge draws repeatedly on the “Theology of the Body,” a system of interlaced devotional reflections about maleness and femaleness that emerged from catechetical talks on Genesis given by Pope John Paul II. Animated by the philosopher-pope’s embrace of personalism, as well as his reflections on “male” and “female” in the creation accounts, these authors argue that human sexual differences give rise to a rich dynamism of complementary gifts—the “genius,” respectively, of being male or being female. Such a project finds ample justification in even a cursory survey of the social turmoil all around us today, in which genuine advances in recognizing the complexity of human sexuality are intertwined with a callous disregard for human dignity, the celebration of depravity, and a consumerist approach to primary human relationships.

The results are mixed. The essays in this collection tend to ignore the good that came from the opportunities for women that emerged from the social revolutions of the past half-century, while blaming women’s enfranchisement—rather than the overwhelming economic changes in technology, manufacturing, and the service industries—for the social dislocation that has also marked these decades. Nevertheless, these writers are correct in claiming that the contemporary sundering of the sexual body from gender identity, a claim that some feminists deem necessary for women’s full equality, has led to a worrisome cultural inability to assert anything normative about the human person.


BY WAY OF RECTIFYING this situation, Sara Butler, MSBT, the most theologically articulate expositor of the church’s ban on ordaining women, examines the intersection of “equality” and “vocation,” and in the process correctly notes the need for a more nuanced understanding of the notion of difference and the telos of the human person. Another promising line of thought is articulated by Elizabeth R. Schiltz, who draws on the work of Prudence Allen, RSM. Schiltz presents a persuasive case for an “integral complementarity” that does not merely present women and men as parts of a single whole, but rather as full human beings, “complete in themselves,” whose relational unity, with each person’s gifts fully deployed, is a “third” anthropological moment, one which reveals, precisely in their relationship, the integrity of each of the two persons. Both essays deftly display the potential contribution of a theologically informed notion of complementarity to our understanding of the human person as male and female.

The problems emerge with those essays that proceed to detail the contours of the “genius” proper to women and men. How are men and women different, and do these differences lead to norms by which both can flourish? Addressing this question, Promise and Challenge illustrates the difficulties facing those who would write on gender (indeed, these difficulties are amply on display in the feminist theology these writers have in their sights), in that their claims tend to be ideological—in this case, offering a rational for reserving priestly ordination to males—as well as blind to the shaping force of culture (Margaret Harper McCarthy’s essay, with its strong critique of the public/private split in the assignment of gender, is an exception). Most importantly, these authors have an overly partial reading of the tradition, in this case, limiting themselves to a devotional reading of Scripture through contemporary eyes as their guiding resource.

The limitations of this approach are most evident in the essays that explore the “genius of men.” Adam is treated as the prototype for the male. “He is the first to know God,” writes Deborah Savage, adding that “man’s prior relationship with God prepares him in a special way to introduce the woman to God and to the things of creation.” This ordered relationship, Savage suggests, even governs the Fall, which is caused when the man fails to exercise his proper dominion over the woman’s relationship to the “things of creation.” Although the Fall affects both male and female, Savage finds that women “do owe men a debt of gratitude”—for “without the specific genius of man, the human species would not have survived.” Really? One wonders if claims such as these, which are clearly intended to “correct” the imagined agenda of “feminism,” would be made without that foil.

A similar treatment of Joseph is problematic as well. The Catholic tradition has a long history of reflection on Mary as a model mother and an exemplar of discipleship. Joseph, too, has been venerated for his role as the “foster father” of Jesus—a phrase parochial education firmly impressed on my youthful imagination. In this role, Joseph is seen as heroic in his assumption of the roles of husband and father, given the mysterious origins of Mary’s pregnancy. There is, however, little scriptural evidence for much else: Joseph is not even mentioned in Mark, after all, and confined to a few appearances in the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke. For devotional use, to leap from this most slender of accounts to an imagined profile of the “silent, faithful carpenter” in a crèche scenario is perfectly appropriate. But Theresa Farnan’s normative claim that “the male genius” is “exemplified” by Saint Joseph’s life of “justice, magnanimity, generosity, courtesy, courage, industry, [and] perseverance” imposes a set of modern moral virtues on a cipher. A further claim that Joseph’s “fatherhood” was formative for Jesus is similarly speculative, since the internal dynamics of the Holy Family are lost to us.

In these essays, the stories of Adam and Joseph are manipulated to promote the notion that maleness is necessary to sacramentally mediate the divine—a contortion that seems designed solely to defend the church’s ban on ordaining women, and one that forecloses the fullness of these narratives as they are received by the Catholic imagination. These authors might also want to ask themselves if taking that ban as a starting point is costing them too much intellectually—and unnecessarily so, for shoring up that position is not necessary for this project’s important goal of articulating a “more incisive female presence in the church.”


SUCH CRITICISMS notwithstanding, Promise and Challenge offers many fruitful lines of inquiry and fresh observations. Economist Catherine Ruth Pakaluk reframes the roots of Catholic social teaching in the work of Leo XIII and Pius XII by reading relevant texts alongside their writings on the family and education. Erika Bachiochi urges dueling accounts of feminism to find common ground in their shared focus on the body and a concern for the poor. Mary Hallan-FioRito draws on her long experience in church administration to detail how women’s leadership has been exercised, and how it might be more fully utilized in the future. And Mary Eberstadt explicitly calls Catholic women to engage in the male-dominated public conversation about social norms and the common good

Overall, these essays would be stronger if they drew from a broader range of resources. Imitating Pope Francis’s approach in Laudato si’, for example, would allow the theological question of what is essential to “male” and “female” to be informed by the social and natural sciences. And what about the work of established Catholic feminist scholars? From this volume one would never guess that theologians such as Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ, and Lisa Cahill have produced decades of academic work on Catholicism and gender. That work should be part of this conversation.

Women are crucial to the future of the church, and a critical re-examination of the dynamism of gender in Catholic life is arguably the question of our day, one that requires, in Mary Rice Hasson’s evocative phrase, the evangelizing voice of “the public Catholic woman.” We should all hope this well-edited volume will lead to a broader effort, in which Catholic women from across the spectrum will join in a critical conversation, with the common goal of realizing both the challenge and the promise of our creation in God’s own image.

Nancy A. Dallavalle is associate professor of Religious Studies and vice president for Mission and Identity at Fairfield University.

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