The Feminine Genius of Catholic
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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
His interest is in their teaching rather than biographical
detail; and in the content of their writings rather than their
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
Lavinia Byrne is a writer and broadcaster.