The Place of "Feminine Genius" in the Church

Interview with Author of a Thesis on the Feminine Genius at Work in the Church

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ROME, DEC. 1, 2003 ( The contribution of the «feminine genius» in the Church was one of the novelties of Paul VI’s pontificate, but especially of John Paul II’s, according to a recently defended doctoral thesis.

Sister Rosetta Napolitano, who defended her thesis at Rome’s Teresianum Pontifical Institute of Spirituality, analyzes the application of this contribution in areas such as theology and spiritual direction.

Q: You say in your thesis that the feminine dimension in the Church has been an issue, a resource, a specificity, and genius. Can you explain the differences among these?

Sister Napolitano: The feminine aspect has been regarded in different ways since the first feminine controversies. This has meant slow but continuous growth in understanding and reflection on this phenomenon.

Initially it was seen as an issue, that is, it had a more negative connotation: It was seen as a danger to be resolved as soon as possible so that it would not attack the traditional image of woman, seen essentially and solely as the «angel of the home.»

Subsequently, the feminine aspect was seen as a resource, emphasizing the recognition of the potential of woman’s contribution, not only in the family ambit, but also in the growth of society and of the Church, typical of John XXIII’s pontificate and of the conciliar period.

The topic of feminine specificity arose with greater vigor in Paul VI’s documents, which tried to delineate the «specifically» feminine, in order to find its place in the Church.

The feminine as «genius» is a typical expression of John Paul II, who wishes to point out the way that is proper to woman in living the faith, a way that is both different and reciprocal in regard to the masculine.

Q: Is «feminine genius» as such an invention of John Paul II?

Sister Napolitano: The term is, but what the content stands for had already been intuited, along general lines, by John XXIII and Paul VI.

Q: You criticize some movements for perpetuating the inferior condition of women and others for making extremist feminine claims. Is there a third way?

Sister Napolitano: It is not, exactly, about finding a third way. The issue is to be able to be ourselves in the light of the Spirit, trying to realize the plan that God has for us as his image, and to do so as women, without abandoning our femininity out of fear of being accused of weakness, or diluting it, out of a misunderstood idea of equality with man.

God has created the human being masculine and feminine, not just for the relationship, but also because only one human being could not have expressed totally the richness of his image.

All the good and beautiful that we express, as women and men, is no more than a reflection of those characteristics that, in the Creator, are already present in the highest perfection.

Acceptance, understanding, tenderness, specificity, fortitude, gift, etc. — before being feminine or masculine characteristics — are divine prerogatives that we are all called to reflect, even if it is in different ways that stem from our physical and psychological constitution as women or men, and that necessarily influences the way of acting in the world and of expressing the faith.

Therefore, each one is called to conform to the image of God in keeping with his own peculiarities and potentialities.

Q: What is the meaning of the idea that spirituality is the privileged place of the feminine genius?

Sister Napolitano: It means that it has been practically the only ambit, in the history of the Church, in which women have had the possibility to freely express themselves and, therefore, to manifest their innermost self, a particular way of living the faith, in a word, her genius.

Spirituality, as the actualization of the Christian mystery in the believer, is expressed by what has been concretely experienced rather than by theological speculations. It is within everyone’s reach, and its importance is well understood, especially when, as has happened for so many years to women in the Church, there are no other possibilities to manifest in the light of the Spirit what has been received.

If it were not for the numerous «living books,» qualified testimonies of the faith written in the course of the centuries with the lives of so many women, we would not have the basis to speak of «feminine genius» and of the irreplaceable and peculiar contribution of women to theological reflection, even if expressed in a different way from traditional theological treatises.

Q: You write: «I hope there will be a time for the concrete integration and participation of all women in ecclesial life.» What would this mean?

Sister Napolitano: On one hand, to have the courage to put into practice what the magisterium already says in this regard, and that many times is neglected in practice. On the other, to find concrete ways of commitment, through a renewed courage on the part of women themselves.

I think much time has been wasted discussing the opportuneness, or lack thereof, of admitting women to the priesthood, as if it were the only way that a person can express their collaboration in spreading the Kingdom of God.

It has been forgotten that there are other concrete ways of commitment, whether in the field of theology, scientific research, and teaching or in the liturgical and ministerial fields as, for example, in spiritual direction. These are areas that, in theory, are also open to women, but in practice remain as something almost exclusively masculine.

Q: What is woman’s contribution to the new evangelization?

Sister Napolitano: I think that it is expressed above all in the ambit of the recovery of the relational dimension, understood as care and acceptance of the person himself, at a time that is increasingly dominated by «massification» and anonymity.

The spiritual experience of so many women in the past and present demonstrates, in fact, how women are particularly suited for this task, because of their predisposition to maternity which enables them to enter the inner world of the other to understand him/her from within. This could be very useful and profitable in different ecclesial areas, in the first place, in the ecumenical and interreligious dialogue.

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Sister Rosetta Napolitano’s thesis is entitled «Il genio femminile e il suo insorgere nel Magisterio e nella Teologia Spirituale degli ultimi decenni del XX Secolo (1962-1999)» (Feminine Genius and its Emergence in the Magisterium and in Spiritual Theology of the Last Decades of the 20th Century (1962-1999).

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