The Feast Day of St Teresa of Avila
The title 'doctor of the Church' is the title given by the Roman Catholic Church to people in the history of the Church whose work is considered to be exceptional and of great importance for our understanding our faith.
'Doctors of the Church' include such well-known figures as St Irenaeus, St Augustine, and St Thomas of Aquinas. In the Church more widely, there are theologians whose writing is also considered of great importance for the Church. People such as Luther, Calvin, and Karl Barth, for example. Studying the life and thought of these theologians is an essential part of any theology degree and in the training of people for the ordained ministry.
What is obvious at once is that they are all men. The explanation given for this is, of course, that in the past theologians were all men. In the Roman Catholic Church, there are, however, four women doctors of the Church. They are St Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), St Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), St Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), and St Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897). Outside of the Roman Catholic Church, you will find it hard to find any women theologians who are considered to be of similar importance to the men, if you can find any at all. This, you may think, makes the work of those women who are recognized by the Church as important theologians all the more significant.
I have recently read, The Dialogue, a book by St Catherine of Siena. It is a book I have found not only helpful, but life-changing. I thought, then, that it would be interesting to read her letters of which some 380 survive. Much of St Catherine's thought and teaching is to be found in her letters. These have been carefully translated into English in four volumes by a scholar who is an expert on St Catherine, and her translation is generally considered the best and most reliable available. So far so good!
When I searched for them on my normal online book provider, I found that they had volume 1 at a much reduced price. More good news! Thinking that it would be worth purchasing all four volumes, I then discovered that, of the other three, only volume four was still in print. Trying other suppliers, including on eBay, I discovered that volumes 2 and 3 are completely unavailable either new or second-hand.
This led me to see whether I could obtain any of the works of St Teresa of Avila. Her work has also been translated into English in three volumes by a scholar who is an expert on her life and work. His translation is generally considered the best and most reliable available. Again, however, the volumes are not easy to obtain. Volumes 1 and 3 are basically unobtainable new, and not easy to find second-hand.
The situation is somewhat better with St Hildegard. This is largely because her writings are of interest more widely outside the Church, given that she was a composer and also wrote extensively about subjects that are important to people who are not themselves believers. Some of her writing is of particular interest to those in what is often referred to as the 'green movement', a movement that is currently having its day. You will, however, struggle to find an authoritative and reliable biography of her by anyone who understands her life and work as a theologian and doctor of the Church.
St Thérèse of Lisieux died when she was just 24, and so does not leave quite the same body of work as her three sisters, but, again, what she did write is not readily available in reliable and accessible editions.
Contrast this with the major male theologians of the Church. Their work is available in multiple scholarly editions in both their original language and accurate translations. Biographies and books about their lives and writings are plentiful. There are also many popular guides to their life and thought written by experts who have spent their own lives studying them.
So, is this another case of sexism in the Church? I think partly it is. But it is not just about sexism. Saints Hildegard, Catherine, and Teresa were all what is known as 'mystics'. That is, they prioritised a direct and personal relationship with God. Theology for them came out of their encounter with, and experience of, knowing God. For them, it was not simply a matter of academic study.
I recently listened to a radio programme about St Catherine. The way that the people in the programme were talking about her (and they included women) was almost comic. They simply couldn’t understand her. They resorted to reducing what St Catherine had to teach us today to the idea that we all need to stand up for what we believe in. I don’t for one moment think that St Catherine herself would summarise her message to us in that way!
So what am I saying?
Well, firstly, that the neglect of the work and writing of these four amazing theologians of the Church is a terrible loss to the Church. It is all very well for the Church to promote the work of women today when we so ignore the work of women in the past. Is it because we don’t like what they teach? Is it because they are not the right sort of women?
Secondly, and more broadly, we need to stop seeing theology as an academic subject that is separate from our faith in God and our experience of him. Each of these women will not allow us to think about God without also thinking about our relationship with him.
What is needed in the Church is not less theology, but theology that emerges out of an encounter with the living God and which seeks to help us in developing our own relationship with him. Theology is about God, and not about academic careers, university courses, and degrees. Or at least it should be. Saints Hildegard, Catherine, Teresa, and Thérèse show us what theology should look like.
I just wish that what they have written was more easily available for us to read and to learn from.
St Teresa of Avila,
pray for us!