Ivy A. HELMAN. Women and the Vatican: An Exploration of Official Documents. New York: Orbis Books, 2012. pp. 272. $35.00 pb. ISBN 978-1-57075-967-3.
Reviewed by Ella JOHNSON, St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry, Rochester, NY 14618

Ivy Helman’s Women and the Vatican provides a comprehensive selection and analysis of the theology of womanhood presented in Vatican documents from 1960 to 2010. She gives an accurate and helpful explanation of what this theology is, while arguing that the Roman Catholic Church has constructed such theology “out of historical necessity and in response to changing global conditions” (10). In order to explain the Roman Catholic teaching on women, Helman relies on primary sources. She summarizes and synthesizes numerous Vatican documents about women, especially the most important and representatives ones.

In fact, the book serves as an anthology of the Vatican's theology of womanhood by providing several selected documents in their entirety: Address of Pope Paul VI to Women; Humanae vitae; Declaration on Procured Abortion; Persona humana; Inter insigniores; Familiaris consortio; Mulierus dignitatem; Ordinatio sacerdotales; the Responsum ad Propositum Dubium; Evangelium vitae; Letter of Pope John Paul II to Women; On the Collaboration of Men and Women; Intervention by The Holy See at the 61st General Assembly of the UN on Women; Statement of the Holy See Delegation to the Economic and Social Council on Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women.

Helman places these documents and highlights of other Vatican pronouncements on women in their historical context, moving from decade to decade. She situates the Roman Catholic Church’s evolving theology of womanhood within the background of developments in feminist thought as well as changes in societal attitudes and conditions of women, sex, family and marriage. In general, Helman’s narrative is comprehensive. If a criticism must be given, I suggest that her chapter on “The 1990s” would do well to provide more details about the Vatican’s preparations for the Fourth World Conference on women, held in Beijing in September of 1995. She discusses and includes John Paul II’s “Letter to Women” in the chapter, however she neglects to mention the Pope’s other pronouncements made that year in anticipation of or in response to the Conference (e.g., the World Day of Peace address, various Angelus messages,etc.).

Helman is judicious and reserved in her own theological aluation and commentary of the theology of womanhood. Even in her discussion of the reception of the theology of womanhood in the conclusion of her book, she is fair. She provides examples from both sides, those who agree and disagree. This, coupled with the fact that she provides the pages of many of the primary documents themselves in her book, allows readers to form their own opinions. In this way, Helman’s book speaks to a broad audience, inclusive of divergent opinions, and thereby invites further thought and conversation on church teaching on women.

When the author does allow for her own commentary, especially when looking to the future of such theology, her sights and suggestions are keen and astute. For example, she remarks: “[I]t is easy to see how much a part of a discussion they [i.e., church teachings on women] are since women’s ordination is specifically declared a topic not up for discussion” (252). Helman is critical of the fact that women’s voices seems to be missing from the Vatican documents and pronouncements on women, and asks: “Who knows how the Roman Catholic Church’s theology of womanhood would evolve when women are empowered to speak for and about themselves?” (252).

The book makes the Roman Catholic Church’s theology of womanhood clear and accessible. It is, therefore, a valuable resource for Catholic libraries, scholars, teachers and students. For its synthesis and fair commentary, Women and the Vatican should also be useful as required reading in courses ranging from Catholic morals, ecclesiology and sacraments to feminist theology.


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