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Women take charge as theologians, “deaconesses” in Switzerland, France

Women are taking charge as theologians in their Churches in Switzerland and France and, in the Catholic context, as “objective deaconesses”.

Driving the news

“I grew up with a Catholic father and a Reformed Protestant mother. As a child, I went a lot to worship, but also to Mass”, 34-year-old Lauriane Savoy told La Croix.

“Very early on, I found it incomprehensible and unfair that a priest can only be a man”.

Savoy, a Protestant doctoral assistant in theology at the University of Geneva and a married mother of two, is just one of a new generation of women theologians in Switzerland and France that are giving the Churches the gift of a different way of speaking about God.

Julija Vidovic, an Orthodox theologian from the former Yugoslavia and now researcher on moral and bioethical issues at St Sergius Institute in Paris, is another one of the new brand of female theologians.

“Considered as an academic discipline, theology must be rethought”, Vidovic told La Croix.

“Jesus spoke with ordinary men and women. Everyone can utter a word that will surprise and open a dialogue”, she said.

Go deeper

What explains the surge in female theologians like Savoy and Vidovic=

Father Jean-Louis Souletie, dean of the faculty of theology in the Catholic University of Paris (ICP), told La Croix that more and more women have been enrolling in tertiary theology programs ever since the great reforming Second Vatican Council of the 1960s.

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“Post-Vatican II, the ICP opened up to lay people and therefore to women, so that they could access the canonical doctorate and academic responsibilities”, Souletie explained.

Vatican II might explain the beginnings of women’s role in modern theology, but in the fifty years since female theologians have come to be appreciated for the unique insights they bring to the work.

“In their way of interpreting God, [women theologians] have a greater sensitivity to God’s femininity — discreet, tender and compassionate”, Swiss theologian Daniel Marguerat told La Croix.

Why it matters

For all the respect they’ve earned, though, there’s still a “stained-glass ceiling” for female theologians.

Their voice in university classes, conferences and research works still isn’t filtering out into society and the mainstream Church, where the faithful and the members of the wider public often still believe the ‘authentic Catholic position’ can only come out of the mouth of a man.

Bit by bit, though, that situation is starting to change – for educated women theologians, if not for the faithful Catholic women stuck with the cleaning and the administration.

University-educated women Catholics in France are starting to be appointed as members of Church councils, finance chancellors in dioceses and as heads of pastoral services, or even as the deputy secretary-general of the French Bishops’ Conference.

La Croix spoke to some women taking up such roles and their reactions were varied:

  • Women’s involvement “should be systematic in each diocese because a woman brings a different sensitivity” 
  • “It is important that our institutions take our words into account”
  • “Most of the priests I meet want to make room for women… But are they all really convinced that it is worth listening to this different intuitive voice of women and are they ready to let themselves be moved? I am not always convinced of this. I believe that they also have their share of responsibility”

What’s next

Beyond being theologians, volunteers or professional Church employees in other capacities, however, what many Catholic women seek is that the Church recognises their vocation to the ordained ministry.

“In fact, some women are objectively deaconesses. One day, evidence will finally emerge that this should find its institutional and liturgical form”, an anonymous vicar-general, or ‘number two’ of a diocese, admitted to La Croix.

How far away is that “one day” though?

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Pope Francis pledged after October’s Amazon Synod to reactivate the Commission on the female diaconate he set up in 2016, after bishops at the meet asked the pontiff to endorse new forms of official ministry for women in the Church.

Just last week, too, even Pope Benedict too seemed to suggest in a message to the International Theological Commission (see footnote 1 of the text) that further study on the women’s diaconate is needed.

“Benedict says an interesting (and true) thing: the issue must be decided theologically, not historically or archeologically”, theologian Massimo Faggioli wrote on Twitter.

“With that footnote, Benedict XVI is kind of helping Francis decide the composition and orientation of the new study commission on women deacons”, Faggioli explained.

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In the meantime, though, until the women deacons Commission is reestablished, there’s not much women theologians and professionals with a vocation to the ordained ministry can do, except continue to research and serve.

Not that they seem to be complaining about it, though: and neither are the rest of us in the Church who benefit from their wisdom.

Next on Novena:

German bishop says he “can imagine” women priests

New female Catholic “pastor” making history in Germany urges other women to follow in her footsteps

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