Woman in the Church: Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia

Author: Cardinal William Baum


Cardinal William Baum

A woman who adhered to the Catholic vision of life

Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., at its Tercentenary Academic Celebration, under the auspices of the Italian Cultural Society and the American Italian Bicentennial Commission, heard Cardinal William Baum, Archbishop of Washington, speak in terms of highest praise of "the first woman in history to receive a doctorate degree", Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia.

An occasion such as this one, honouring a woman whose life was entirely dedicated to scholarship, prayer, and service of the poor, is an appropriate time to reflect on a question which she herself must have pondered: the role of women in the Church, and indeed, in society. Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia answered this question, not with some treatise on the subject, but with her life. Nevertheless, the Cornaro's prodigious intelligence and love of scholarship invites us to seek in Christian scholarship the basis for the living response which she gave to this question.

It is not my intention in this presentation to undertake a theological or philosophical analysis of the role of women in the Church. My goal is more limited, namely, to share with you my thoughts on the principles which should guide such a study if it is to be fruitful for the life of women in the Church—fruitful not only for women, but for the vitality of the Church and our fidelity to God's plan of salvation.

We know that in recent years the role of women in human society has become a subject of great interest, concern and even passion. It must be admitted that such concern did not originate within the Church, that is, it did not first present itself as a theological problem. The concern arose when more and more women awakened to the realization that there was much in our social and legal customs which seemed to ignore or deny their inherent rights. It is obvious that the struggle to overcome these injustices (some of which, are claimed to be deeply enshrined in our legal, social, political, cultural, and economic structures) has not come to an end. In fact, the period of the "heightening of consciousness" concerning this matter—as this phase of the effort has been called—has not passed, since there are still many women and men who are not aware of the existence of these injustices.

Affirming equality

The Church which, although it has a divine origin, also shares the life of human society, could not avoid this issue. The reaction of those entrusted with the teaching of the Church has been to support the struggle for the elimination of these injustices by affirming the equality of dignity of both men and women. Such a teaching is part of the marriage rite of the Catholic Church, where we find the following petition as part of the nuptial blessing of the bride. "May her husband put his trust in her and recognize that she is his equal and the heir with him to the life of grace".

Although the Church does not enjoy any special competence to judge the complex legal and sociological matters which are part of this effort, it should not be doubted that the Church supports the realization in our society of the teaching contained in this prayer.

Heirs to life of grace

The prayer itself, however, teaches us that it is not only a matter of securing and defending society's recognition of the rights of women, but also of examining the practices of the Church herself to ensure that these are faithful to the teaching that woman is an equal heir with man to the life of grace. Concerning this fundamental equality of dignity in the supernatural order, we have the clear teaching of St Paul: "All of you who have been baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with him. There does not exist among you Jew or Greek, slave or freeman, male or female. All are one in Christ Jesus" (Gal 3:27-28).

The Church is certainly attempting to respond to this challenge. Although it is clear that more remains to be done, it is not possible to deny that there exists within the Church today a greater recognition of the need to give witness to this biblical teaching.

Women priests

The question of the admission of women to the sacrament of Holy Orders was bound to be raised during this process of self-examination by the Church. You know the answer which the magisterium of the Catholic Church has given to this question. The teaching that the sacramental Orders of episcopate and presbyterate cannot be administered to women is not exclusively a Catholic doctrine. Until recent times, all the Churches which have a sacramental conception of the priestly ministry have shared this conviction. Even today, the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, together with many within the Anglican Communion, continue to adhere to this belief. This will always be the belief of the Catholic Church. Yet no one can deny that there are many who do not understand the reasons for this belief.

Life in Christ

Such difficulty should not really be surprising. First of all, there is still with us the influence of a kind of clericalism which sees the priestly ministry as the highest achievement of life in Christ, as well as the locus of real power and authority (where these are conceived basically in a political way). Second, the influence of theologies which do not admit that the priestly ministry is a sacrament (or which, in fact, do not adhere at all to a sacramental conception of life in Christ), has led to a certain secularization of the understanding of the priesthood in the mind of some. According to this view, the priesthood is conceived as a necessary structure whose task is to ensure order in the Church, or to promote and facilitate growth in the Christian life. According to this non-sacramental, desacralized, functional conception of the priesthood, the biological and psychological differences between man and woman are only accidental to the mission of the priest.

This is not the Catholic conception of these biological and psychological differences. According to our vision, these differences are not accidental to the human person. The world, including the Christian world, has always been haunted by this dualism between the visible and invisible, between the material and the immaterial. The struggle of the Orthodox Christian faith against this dualism is the struggle for the survival of the Christian faith itself, since our faith depends on the fundamental mysteries of the Incarnation of God's Son and on his Resurrection: both mysteries which emphasize the dignity and purpose of matter and the human body.

Form of separation

Today this dualism takes the form of a separation—not precisely between body and soul—but between the person and everything else.

The first principle which I propose to you as necessary for a proper understanding of the role of women in the Church and in human society is therefore the following: the human body is constitutive of the human person. It is not accidental, it is not like a dress which one puts on and discards; it is not like a shell inside which lives, temporarily, the real self. Rather, the body is the language of the self, the sacrament of the self. It is necessary to recapture the biblical vision of the constitution of the human person, and to offer this vision to a society which has become dualistic. The human individual does not consist ofan abstract soul, an abstract self falling into a body and inhabiting it; rather the self is the soul of the body. The human body tells us what the person as spirit is.

The second principle is based on this one. It is this: the role or purpose of material, earthly realities such as the human body, is to be the symbol of the divine life, it is to symbolize the divine life. The word "symbol" comes from the Greek, and it means, etymologically, "each of two halves (of a reality) which two strangers, or any two contracting parties, broke between them, each party keeping one piece, in order to have proof of the identity of the presenter of the other" (H.G. Riddell and R. Scott, A Greek English Lexicon,9th ed. Clarendon Press, Oxford. 1925-40) To symbolize, therefore, means to bring together, to unite, to make present to each other. At the same time by overcoming the breach between the two partners, the symbol respects the integrity of the two sides by showing them to be initially separate, by showing them not to be identical but united.

The attempt to express the relation between God and creation has always been subject to two temptations: to separate radically one from the other and then to emphasize one or another, or to submerge one into the other, to identify them. The Catholic conception avoids these pitfalls by asserting that created realities symbolize divine life. This concept of symbol allows us to preserve the integrity of both creation and God and yet to show how they are united, for creation's purpose and glory is thus declared to be the symbol of God's life. Nowhere is this capacity for being such a symbol greater than in the human being. The human being sums up the material and spiritual creation and shows it to be capable of this relation with God. But in order to be a true symbol ofthe divine, it is necessary that the integrity of creation be preserved, that it be respected, thatit be affirmed as important and constitutive of its very nature as a symbol. This is why we affirm that biological differences inthe human body cannot be dismissed as accidental, as unimportant. Rather, they have a part to play in that marvellous plan of God who has wished to communicate his love and his life to his creation.

Symbol of God's life

The third principle follows from these two: if the true purpose of creation, if its greatest dignity, consists in being a symbol of the life of God, then we will never discover this purpose outside of the Revelation of God's plan. In terms of our discussion, this means that only an examination of the role of woman in the Church, that is, in the life of redeemed creation, will make possible a valid understanding of the role of woman in creation, in human society. This places upon believers, and especially upon women who adhere to this faith, great responsibility, namely to come to society's help as it struggles with this question. Catholic women scholars have an enormous contribution to make in this regard. May the honour which we render today to Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia inspire many to respond to this challenge.

For it is in a way unfortunate that the question of the proper role of women in human society has arisen at a time in which our culture is least prepared to cope with it. This is because our culture is de-sacralized, radically secularistic, crippled by an inability to comprehend the human as a symbol of the divine. Our culture has been wounded by the belief thatGod and creation are in competition, that the affirmation of one injures the other. Accordingly, the sacred is not allowed a place in public life; it is considered the subject of a private belief whichmore and more appears to be an amusing romantic attachment to a more primitive conception of life.

Perhaps this is the result of an erroneous conception of the mystery of sin and evil. It is necessary, therefore,to assert as the fourth principle in our study of the role of women the conviction that sin has not entirely corrupted creation; it has not destroyed its symbolic power in such a way that belief in redemption requires us to deny the goodness and the integrity of creation. In fact, sin consists precisely in the refusal of the self to be what it was created to be. Evil does not reside in creation, in matter, in the human body. It originates in the rebellion of what is highest in the human person, namely, his or her liberty. As a result of this rebellion of the will, creation and its power to symbolize the life of God are rejected, both God and creation are experienced as hostile.

As far as the relation between man and woman is concerned, the consequences of this rebellion of the will is seen in the hostility within the couple. Thus, according to the Book of Genesis, she whom Adam had declared to be "bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh at last" (Gn 2:23) becomes after the sin, "the woman whom you put here with me" (Gn 3:12) who is blamed for the rebellion. The couple, which is the fundamental human unit and most powerful symbol of God's life, is torn apart. On the side of man, his desire to blame and dominate the woman appears. Perhaps it is possible to say that on the part of woman one of the consequences of this rebellion of the will is a temptation to reject her difference from man.

Disdain for motherhood

Should it surprise us that there has appeared in our culture—hostile as it is to the power of creation as the symbol of the sacred—a denial of the biological and psychological uniqueness of women? This destructive development is best evidenced in woman's disdain for her capacity to be a mother. This is the most dramatic example of this hostility to creation's nobility and purpose; a hostility which is the consequence of that rebellion of the will known as sin. It appears that science and technology will make it more possible to do away with motherhood altogether in the production of new life. (Notice that we say production, and not reproduction, for that is what this ultimate dehumanization will bring about). Fortunately, more and more feminists are becoming more aware of this great threat to their own uniqueness, just as many blacks came to reject an equality which consisted in an assimilation into white culture. Here, in any case, lies another urgent task for women, especially scholars and activists, like Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia, who adhere to the Catholic vision of life.

Our final principle, therefore, must concern our view of redemption, that is, of the process by which God empowers captive creation to be the symbol of his life. We believe that God has done this by respecting the integrity of creation so much that he inserted himself into its midst, as it were. The Eternal Son of God, God of God, took on a human nature and inserted himself into the point of utmost alienation from God (by means of his death). Then, by sharing with us the power of his resurrection, he reconciled the world to God, the Father, by means of this power which is the power of the Holy Spirit. In this new order of life which emanates out of the risen, transformed, glorified humanity of Jesus Christ, the realities of our world are empowered to become symbols of the new creation.

The role of women in the Church is the role of women in the new creation. This, in turn, is the role of women in human society.

Woman's unique role

The Catholic Church holds that the unique role of woman consists in her power to be the symbol of divinized creation, that is, of creation receiving from God his life, bearing it within as the life of God but also as part of our life, and bringing forth the effect of God's love in a fountain of more and more life. This unique symbolic power of woman comes from her ability to bear within her body the life of another who is also flesh of her flesh.

In virginity consecrated to God, woman becomes a symbol of creation's total openness to being divinized. In motherhood, woman becomes a symbol of creation's capacity to bear and bring to birth the new creation which is the fruit of God's love.

While the masculine is the symbol of God's activity on creation, coming from outside of it, as it were, the feminine is the most powerful symbol of God's fruitful presence within creation, the symbol of the fruit of this divine Self-giving. The woman is a symbol of this mystery not only for herself, but for all of creation, including men. She stands in the midst of the community of salvation personifying it, fostering the assimilation of God's self-communication, helping as to make our own—without ceasing to be ourselves—what comes from God. Woman can be the leader, the inspirer, the protector of this process of creation's assimilation of God's gift. Without the contribution which comes from this capacity, the life of the Church and human society can become impersonal, cold. Human thought, for example, if it depended entirely on men, would become abstract, unreal; it would lack what modern philosophers call "empathy".

An instrument of light

Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia gives us a good example of the contribution of women to the Church. She realized our need for the scholarship of women, and became the instrument of light, discernment, and justice to those who brought their disputes to her. Hers was also a life of service to the poor, caring especially for their children. Finally, she chose for herself the coarse habit of a Benedictine Oblate and cultivated the life of prayerful openness to God's life.

We have said that the uniqueness of the feminine consists in woman's capacity to be the symbol of divinized creation. This capacity, which is present in every woman by virtue of biological and psychological constitution, is (as has been said) especially powerful in consecrated virgins and mothers. Is it then not clear why, for the Catholic Church, the most powerful symbol of divinized creation is that woman who is at once a consecrated virgin and mother—not just of another child of the new creation—but of the new Adam, of the One who is the primordial symbol: the Word made flesh, Christ Jesus, in whom and through whom the new creation lives.

We could not conclude this reflection without honouring her, Mary most Holy, the Mother of God, the new Eve, the Mother of the Church. We recall her here before God, imploring that through her intercession, be will bless us with the scholarship, love and zeal of many women like the one we honour today.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
25 May 1978, page 4

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