Friday, 20 June 2014

A Certain Precedence

When Saint Edith Stein says that men seem to have a "certain precedence", she is not saying that men are better than women. She is not saying that men's lives mean more. (And when you consider men's lives during wartime, you swiftly realize that they certainly don't to other men.) Indeed, as I mention in my speech, Saint Edith stresses that it has been a woman's "No" and a woman's "Yes" that have determined the fate of all mankind. St. Edith believes that men and women are different and equal--breaking the impasse between the traditionalists and the feminists of her time.

I didn't mention it this year, but Saint Edith took a very dim view of some of the ideas of her fellow Christian Jew Saint Paul. Her work was edited and translated before the Second Vatican Council, and in at least one early English translation, you can see mollifying footnotes intended for (or insisted upon by) ecclesiastical censors. But it is easy to guess why Saint Edith takes Saint Paul's injunction against women teaching so personally: even before the rise of Nazism in Germany, women could not join German faculties of philosophy.

So it would be unfair to ignore Saint Edith's ground-breaking and highly influential work just because she looks squarely at Genesis and the Incarnation and observes, "Adam was made first; he came before Eve. And our Lord chose to live His humanity as a male human being. What does the Lord God mean by this? It seems men have a certain precedence. I wonder why?" Although Saint Edith has no problem hissing at the Epistles of Saint Paul, the Incarnation and the intentions of the Holy Spirit in Genesis are another story. She doesn't pick the easiest answer, the answer that most flatters her as a woman. And she certainly wasn't being a wimp; as the ascending Nazis preached that women should stick to church, children and chopping vegetables, Saint Edith travelled around Germany contradicting them.

Part of the reason our shoulders may hunch up around our ears at the phrase "certain precedence" is that it doesn't appear in Mulieris Dignitatem. I hope you all sit down and read or reread Mulieris Dignitatem at some point. I don't think Saint John Paul II was always right--I have a problem with his approach to other religions, for example--but his thoughts on women are truly luminous. If Saint Edith had survived the war, she and her most famous disciple might have argued over whether or not he distorts Genesis. It is interesting to speculate. However, those who are scandalized by Saint Edith, may take some comfort in John Paul's development of her thought.

Here is the "John Paul II" section of my Krakow speech. It was adapted from an article I wrote two years ago for the Toronto Catholic Register.


The major sources for Jan Paweł II’s theology of women are Love and Responsibility, Mulieris Dignitatem (“On the Dignity of Women”) and his 1993 “Letter to Women.” Love and Responsibility is associated more with sex and marriage and, of course, has touched off a huge “Theology of the Body” industry. As such, it does not interest me as much as Mulieris Dignitatem and “Letter to Women,” which are more about women in ourselves.

The key to Jan Paweł II’s theology of woman can be found in his devotion to the Mother of God. This comes as no surprise to anyone who knows that his motto “Totus Tuus” (“All Yours”) refers to her. And it is not a surprise, either, that someone who lost his earthly mother at the age of eight might adopt the Mother of God so totally as his mother and guide. And it is significant, of course, that Mulieris Dignitatem was published on the Feast of the Assumption during a Marian year. The importance he places on Mary he would have found also in the work of Saint Edith Stein, whom he himself canonized in 1998.

Jan Paweł II begins his reflections with a meditation on the Annunciation. A woman was asked to be the means through which God would send his Son to redeem the world—but not just as means, but as a mother. And thus, of all the human race, it is a woman who “attains a union with God that exceeds all the expectations of the human spirit.” As a human being, Mary represents the humanity that belongs to all human beings, men and women. And she is a model for both men and women because she said “Yes” to God. As her Son would later identify himself as a servant, so Mary during the Annunciation also calls herself the “maidservant of the Lord.” It is the dignity of both women and men to serve.

Service to God and others is fundamental to Jan Paweł II’s theology of what it means to be a human being in union with God. And he notes, both in Mulieris Dignitatem and in his “Letter to Women”, that women seem to have both a special genius for receiving the Word of the Lord and in serving others. Following the work of Saint Edith Stein, he asserts that all women, not just women with children, are called to be mothers. It involves “a special readiness to be poured out for the sake of those who come within one’s range of activity.” It involves being open to each and every person. And this is not proscriptive, incidentally, but descriptive.

Jan Paweł II is well aware of the many ways in which women have always poured ourselves out for others, ways that have not always been as respected as we should be. In his “Letter to Women”, he wrote: “Women have contributed as much to history as men have, what is more, women did it in far harder circumstances, for they were excluded from education, not taken seriously, underestimated and ignored. Yet in spite of all this, their influence—a sort of feminine tradition—has survived right up to today. And yet, how many women are still valued far more for their physical appearance than for their skills, intelligence, sensitivity or professionalism.”

And that’s where his theology advances. Moving beyond St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Edith Stein, who both believed that woman was made for man, to be the companion of man, Jan Paweł II asserts that woman was made for herself, as the human being—male and female--was the only creature made for himself. Woman is called to be the companion of man, but man is also called to be the companion of woman. All humanity is thus “a unity in two.” Again and again Jan Paweł II repeats that men and women are equal in dignity. Masculinity is no more important than femininity. He lists and deplores the way in which discrimination has hurt women since the Fall. He interprets Saint Paul’s thoughts about married life as a call, not for wives to be subjugated to their husbands, but for “mutual subjection out of reverence for Christ.”

Jan Paweł II offers our Lord Jesus Christ as a model for how men should treat women. He notes that our Lord behaved in a counter-cultural way by how he spoke with women, healed women, included women amongst his followers and friends. The Gospels are full of stories of women of age and condition, all of whom our Lord treated with kindness and respect. Men who do not treat women with kindness and respect sin against both women’s dignity and their own.

Finally, he asserts again the great importance of women as givers of life to children. His emphasis that women who do not give birth are still called to be spiritual mothers does not lessen the importance of physical mothers. Indeed, against a contemporary tendency to despise motherhood as just “a lifestyle choice”, Saint Jan Paweł II defends it as married women’s highest calling.

Between them Saint Edith Stein and Saint Jan Paweł II represent both the beginning and the end of the best 20th century theology of Woman, Saint Edith beginning her intellectual work about women before German women were granted the vote in 1919, and Saint Jan Paweł II being a world famous example of love for “the feminine genius” until his death in 2005. It was he who promulgated the work of Saint Edith Stein, giving it the highest stamp of approval and bringing it to the attention of the whole world. In a time where the very notion of “male and female” is being attacked by gender theory, their writings on women are a great gift which we can study to regain our confidence in our uniqueness and value as women.

---from "A Speech about the Theology of Women of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross and St. John Paul II to the Dzielne Niewiasty in Kraków, Poland on May 4, 2014 " by Dorothy Cummings McLean.

As one way of understanding "precedence", consider how Jesus said that the Father was greater than Himself (John 14:28), although we understand the Father and Son (and Holy Ghost) to be equal. The answer to that is that the Son eternally proceeds from the Father, and thus the Father is, mysteriously, First. And the Author of Genesis wrote that Adam was first, and of course we Christians know that Jesus of Nazareth was the first born from the dead. I don't know if this is a satisfactory solution to St. Edith's hypothesis of male precedence, but it is an example of equality allowing for precedence.

Update: I believe it was Saint Edith who likened the Blessed Trinity to a family: Father, Mother and Child. God is, of course, beyond human limitations of sex, and the Son--before His Incarnation--was not so limited: He deliberately chose the limitations of humanity when He assumed humanity and, for whatever reason best known to Himself, chose to live his human life as a man (vir). But when we understand how limited language is for entering into the Mystery of God--and personally I prefer attending those Masses whose literal meanings I imperfectly understand--then we are free to develop whatever imagery helps us to do that. We are not free, however, to impose our own pet ideas on others. We are called to baptize in nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti and jettisoning any of those names on any pretext is simply wrong.


Sarah Lantz said...

This St. Edith Stein stuff is all interesting, and I am really liking what I've read here so far. Does she have certain books, or is there a biography of her that you would recommend? (I, being one of your Eastern Orthodox readers, am not very easily familiar with many post-medieval Catholic saints!)

Seraphic said...

I recommend "Essays on Woman" which is Volume 2 of the Collected Works of Saint Edith Stein.

There are lots of biographies out there, at different reading levels, etc. Check university libraries for the best ones.

Domestic Diva said...

I might not have enjoyed this so much if it had been the first bio I'd read of ES, but I found her incomplete autobiography "Life in a Jewish Family" fascinating. Strictly speaking it ends in 1916 or 17, several years before her conversion, and the sense of incompleteness is very profound when you come to the end. But as she conveys various vignettes about friends and family throughout, she will often continue it up to the time she was writing, backtracking to the main story when she finishes the vignette. This gives the book a rambling feel, but also helps complete at least some people's stories.

Magdalena said...

Yes, if you want to read a biography, read the one she wrote herself! :) But you might be interested in the rest of her life which she didn't write about, so another biography might be good as well. I don't know if her collected letters are translated into English, but those are also very interesting and continue until right before her death. A biography would be shorter though, as she wrote quite a lot of letters.

Sarah Lantz said...

Thanks all for your suggestions! It seems like she has been popping up everywhere lately. For example, in this excellent article on what it considers the new reality of larger numbers of long-term single, religious, educated women.

Amused said...

Sarah, thanks for linking to that article!

Sheila said...

I do like JP2's writings about women! In particular, I appreciate his understanding of men and women, including in marriage, existing in relationship rather than hierarchy. I know it's a minority view in Catholic thought, but if he thought so, it must be at least an okay point of view.

I have been struggling for years to define something that is universally true about women, something that doesn't leave any women out. I haven't found it yet, but the closest I've found is the female ability to absolutely work ourselves to death when someone we love needs us to. Almost all the mothers I know either do it, or have to stop themselves from doing it. They burn themselves out simply because there's never an end to the work that needs to be done, and they care too much to leave it undone.

But nuns do it too -- burnout can be a serious problem among nuns, and the superiors have to be very careful of it. My sisters-in-law both suffered ill health for awhile in the convent, and my husband said, "Well, it is their own fault. They are adults, they should know not to work themselves that hard." Um, no, they are women, and they are in love with Jesus, and without the superior keeping up on them and making them rest, they just didn't! Likewise in the workplace, G. K. Chesterton complained that women were ruining the comfortable environment of slacking men by earnestly working as hard as they possibly could, all the time.

And that seems to be what JP2 is talking about when he talks about women pouring ourselves out. We really do. Martha of Bethany did, and most of the other women in the Bible are praised for being constantly busy too. Mary of Bethany is the only woman I've found in the Bible who ever sits down.

Obviously this can be a fault as well as a virtue, so we have to be careful to preserve ourselves from overwork. Unlike men, who always have to be told to give more and try harder, women sometimes have to be told, "You can't do it all. Not everything depends on you. You have to sit down sometimes."

Seraphic said...

So true!