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Women and the Vatican: An Exploration of Official Documents. By Ivy A. Helman. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2012. 272 pp. $35.00.

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Ivy A. Helman is a feminist scholar currently teaching part-time at Merrimack and Boston Colleges, whose interests range from the relationship between anti-modernism and anti-feminism in religious traditions and the rise of various fundamentalisms to queer theology and religious eco-feminism. Her recent publications include “Queer Systems: The Benefits of a More Systematic Approach to Queer Theology” in the March 2011 CrossCurrents (New Rochelle, NY). Her stated goal in the book here reviewed is “to explain Roman Catholic Church’s theology of womanhood” (239).

Women and the Vatican partly reproduces a number of papal encyclicals and allocutions, statements by curial congregations and councils, and addresses by Vatican officials, which include mention of issues related to women. The documents are reproduced without their footnotes and often without identifying their signers. These omissions seriously detract from the solid design of the work, and send scholars back to the originals.

For the more general audience, Helman’s careful thematic reading follows officialdom’s mentions and considerations of women from the 1960s nearly to the present. Moving along each decade of documents – printed in distinguishing typeface from her commentary – one is struck by the reality that the writers did not expect women to read them. The documents seem solely directed at men, for whom women are an object of consideration and study. More recent documents reveal an obvious attempt to answer the world at large (i.e., the media’s) criticisms of the Catholic Church.

Unfortunately, Helman’s descriptions and analyses of these varied documents are flawed. She does not distinguish between and among the levels of official documents, and uniformly calls each a statement of “the church.” Further, she speaks only of the “Roman Catholic Church,” not the “Catholic Church.” These errors would not matter [End Page 78] excepting that the intent is to discuss the presentation of a Catholic theology of women considered universally applicable.

In addition, Helman misinterprets the language of systematic theology, in some cases quite seriously. For example, she is apparently unaware of the centuries old ensoulment debate, officially resolved by the determination that the conceptus must be treated as if it is a person. Helman misunderstands the statement in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s Donum vitae (1987) and writes “the soul . . . is immediately created by God at conception,” (99) presenting congruence between conception and ensoulment. What the document – not reproduced in this volume – states is “the spiritual soul of each man is ‘immediately created’ by God” (5:17), that is, God is the immediate (not proximate) creator of the soul. If Helman had discovered a document – albeit an Instruction from the CDF signed by its then-Prefect, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger – solving the question of ensoulment that alone would merit obtaining the entire book.

Early on, Helman misrepresents Catholic teaching by stating that “the church also explained how it viewed women who procure abortions as murderers and sinners” (12). Her error, given her misunderstanding that Catholic teaching regards the conceptus as a person, undermines her narrative and causes the reader pause.

Overall, the educated reader might find this collection of documents a handy reference and beginning point for additional research.

Phyllis Zagano
Hofstra University


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