29 January 2012

Because of her unique structure, the Catholic Church is perhaps humanity's last bulwark of genuine appreciation of the difference between the sexes.
--Hans Urs von Balthasar

Saint Teresa Benedicta (born Edith Stein) composed these essays in the years following her conversion to Catholicism but before her entry into the Carmel from which she was eventually deported to the Nazi death camps. During this interim period, Stein dedicated herself (among many other things) to an articulation of a theological vision of femininity that both recognized the myriad changes in how women were being regarded (and how they regarded themselves) as well as the theologoumena of Christian revelation. With the upheaval generated by the first world war and the subsequent recovery efforts enlisting the help of men, women, and children alike, traditional feminine roles were called into question. Women seemed capable of accomplishment in the very areas previously denied to them. Stein sought to sort out the wheat from the chaff and present God's plan for man and woman in the midst of this world turned on its head.

I came across this book during research for a talk on the Catholic Church's reservation of priestly ordination to men alone, and Stein does touch on the issue briefly, but I found her presentation of the meaning of a particular calling for the male and female sex insightful and profound. Her philosophical training obviously shines through here, though without obscuring her points in technical terminology--most of these essays are adapted from lectures delivered to women's organizations simply interested in sorting through the rhetoric of women's emancipation. She even resorts to sampling from literary forms in her pursuit of the feminine vocation, earning a big A+ in my book for referencing a character in Sigrid Undset's quadrilogy The Master of Hestviken.

Some might consider a book written in the 1930s hopelessly outdated for a contemporary discussion on woman, but the power of her perspective has a ring of truth about it that ought not be hastily dismissed. I would encourage anyone with an interest in the subject to dive in to her essays and take her seriously.

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