Review: Mary T. Malone, Four Women Doctors of the Church (Orbis Books. North American edition. Pp. 121. $16)
Review by Christine Havens
The British television series Dr. Who is the story of a renegade Time Lord traveling across space and time in the Tardis. The Doctor is a long-lived guardian of good, always working to save Earth and the rest of the universe, from all sorts of evil characters who wish to destroy life or enslave others. Time Lords can regenerate when close to death. Since the series first began in 1963, the character has undergone 12 regenerations, as actors have come and gone, all of them men. Each doctor had “companions,” most of them female — and often serving in the role of romantic interest and damsel in distress.
All of this was true, at least, until Christmas 2017, when the Doctor regenerated into a female. Twitter blew up with many outraged reactions when the change was announced. Vulgarities and threats abounded.
Dr. Who is just another instance of resistance to women trying to claim traditionally male roles, a subject that author Mary T. Malone addresses in Four Women Doctors of the Church. Malone is an expert on the topic, having taught in Canada at both St. Augustine’s Seminary and at the University of St. Jerome, the Catholic College of the University of Waterloo, for 40 years. One has to wonder how much of her empathy for these four women was shaped by her experiences as a professor in a male-dominated field. In addition, Malone has written other books, including The Elephant in the Church: A Woman’s Tract for Our Times (2014), which, like Four Women Doctors, advocates for deeper inclusion of women’s gifts, especially within the Roman Catholic Church.
Malone introduces her subjects in this way: “There are now four women who are officially part of the magisterium, the official teaching body of the Roman Catholic Church. After two millennia of silence this is a revolutionary innovation, but it has passed the vast majority of Catholics by with barely a ripple of attention” (p. 9).
Until 1970, no woman was considered worthy of inclusion alongside 30 men previously named as Doctors of the Church, such as Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas. For those unfamiliar with the term, a Doctor of the Church is a saint whose work made a substantial contribution to theology or doctrine. For many long years, “women have been expected to live a kind of vicarious second-hand life, without any attention being paid to their specific needs and insights” (p. 10). In the narrative of Christendom, she contends, men’s proper role was as savior and guide; the woman’s role was as the companion in need of rescue and teaching.
In the Roman Catholic Church, the four women who have been named Doctors are Hildegard of Bingen, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Ávila, and Thérèse of Lisieux. The Anglican equivalent is “Teacher of the Faith,” and there are only two women with that title in the Episcopal Church: Teresa of Ávila and Catherine of Siena.
In this brief and accessible book, Malone manages to capture the work and teachings of each of these women, looking at each within the context of her time and how that Doctor’s particular body of wisdom is still relevant in the 21st century.
She begins with the earliest, Hildegard of Bingen, who lived during the tumultuous times of the Gregorian Reform, in the late 11th century, and who was a Renaissance woman before the term came to be used of men.
She is followed by the 14th-century Catherine of Siena, whose “life was about integrating solitude with communion, isolation and deeply involved ministry” (p. 65).
Teresa of Ávila is next, who sought holiness among the Carmelites in the 16th century and befriended John of the Cross. She was called “God’s vagabond” by Pope John Paul II in 1982 (p. 77).
Finally, Malone offers us Thérèse of Lisieux, “the Little Flower,” who is probably the best known of the four. In life, her sphere of influence was much smaller than the others, and she died in 1897 at age 23. But she is called upon now in prayer by many from around the world because of her devotion to God.
These women, who lived in times of upheaval, were venerated and loved in their times, yet also vilified or perceived with suspicion, and in Hildegard’s case even excommunicated, for speaking out and following what they each heard as God’s call. Some were given male handlers, to use our contemporary vernacular.
They’ve been called mystics, which to me is the height of praise, but more often used to dismiss them from the forefront of theology. Yet we forget that mystics have a fine sense of the immanent as well as the transcendent, and these women’s works have practical spiritual and theological use. To remind readers of that fact is Malone’s goal.
Four Women Doctors of the Church reinforces the hard-won wisdom that women can, like these four, take “the initiative, based on their relationship with God, to launch themselves into the life of the Church” (p. 118), creating new opportunities for both. Greater inclusion and recognition of women’s gifts can only lead to a wider circle of understanding and love, rather than diminishing anyone’s roles.
This book presents an excellent opportunity for rectors and formation leaders in any denomination, through book studies, classes, and more, to travel back through space-time and reclaim these women doctors to help guide us through these turbulent times and inspire others through their examples.
A woman can be a Doctor.
Christine Havens is a poet and writer, and a graduate of the Seminary of the Southwest whose work has appeared in Anglican Theological Review and Forward Movement’s Daily Devo family subscription series.