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The Church’s distaff side

07 December 2012

This selection could be more dangerous, says Lavinia Byrne

Glass his medium: St Anne with the Blessed Virgin, whose conception is celebrated tomorrow, in a 1936 window in St Andrew's, Radcliffe, Lancs. By Francis Spear (1902-79) with Marion Grant (1912-88), it appears in one of 32 colour photos in Alan Brooks's new book,The Stained Glass of Francis Spear, an artist who designed more than 300 windows in public buildings, including six cathedrals (£10 plus £1.50 p&p from the author: alan@thebrooks.me.uk; or phone 020 8248 7115). Another photo is reproduced below

Glass his medium: St Anne with the Blessed Virgin, whose conception is celebrated tomorrow, in a 1936 window in St Andrew's, Radcliffe, Lancs. By Fr...

The Feminine Genius of Catholic Theology
Matthew Levering
T. & T. Clark £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30 (Use code CT226 )

MATTHEW LEVERING is Professor of Theology at the University of Dayton in the United States. He is a former student of Professor Susan Keefe at Duke Divinity School, to whom he dedicates his book; a fan of George Eliot, the author of Middlemarch; and the devout son of his influential mother, Patty Levering.

Rather than write individual chapters on his principal witnesses, he chooses to examine the teachings and example of true greats from the Catholic tradition by looking at their contribution to our understanding of theology. There are chapters on God the Trinity, Jesus Christ, creation and providence, sin, sacraments, the Church, the virtues, Mary and the saints, prayer and eternal life. To examine these, he draws on the well-known Egeria, Hildegard, Elisabeth of Schönau, Mechtilde, Julian, the Catherines (of Siena and of Genoa), the Teresas (of Avila, Lisieux, and Calcutta), and the less well-known Gertrud the Great of Helfta, Angela of Foligno, Maria Faustina Kowalska, and, engagingly, Edith Stein.

His interest is in their teaching rather than biographical detail; and in the content of their writings rather than their spirituality.

At the end of each of his chapters, Levering gives us a "conclusion": a résumé of the contents of each chapter. This is where the truly Roman Catholic identity of his text shines through. He is loyal to the core: loyal to his Church, and loyal to all that is best in it; but is he loyal to his sources?

He knows them really well, and shows real skill in laying out their ideas. But does he admit any shadow of conflict, any sense that virtue for women is different from virtue for men; for it may involve standing up to authority, questioning the tradition, refusing subjugation, and pushing the boundaries? For that, he might have needed a chapter on the Holy Spirit, but that could have been too dangerous.

In fairness, he has produced a book on the "feminine genius" of Catholic women, and it is nice to have their contribution to theology acknowledged so generously. The term was invented by Pope John Paul II, and can be seen as opposed to any nasty feminist genius. Perhaps this explains why the 17th-century Englishwoman Mary Ward, who understood the "Discernment of Spirits", is not on his A-list.

Lavinia Byrne is a writer and broadcaster.


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