As the Church discerns more fully the role that women play in our life and ministry, Julie Hanlon Rubio has been leading by example and her research for years.
A professor of social ethics at the Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara University, Berkeley, Rubio is the author of numerous books and articles, including “Reading, Praying, Living Pope Francis’s The Joy of Love” (Liturgical Press, 2017). Her work brings together issues of sex, gender, marriage and family through a lens of social ethics.
She spoke with Cross Roads about her research and where she sees it leading the Church.
Cross Roads: How would you describe the current moment for women in the Church?
Julie Hanlon Rubio: Francis’ elevation of a woman to a Vatican post that reaches out to other states, a post that no woman had ever had before — I thought the reactions to that were interesting. More moderate voices said great, Francis is honoring his promise to put women in leadership and management roles.
Others said this shows us how deep the problem is … just all of the many positions in the Church which women are excluded from. This kind of brings that to the fore and reminds us of how deep the inequality is.
CR: How does your research relate to issues of the domestic Church, the family?
RUBIO: I’ve tried to … fill in what is seen as a missing piece of Catholic ethics, or at least an undeveloped strand. We might think that Catholics are talking about family all the time … but in terms of our ethics, a lot of our attention has gone to sexual ethics. So there’s a lot of attention to issues of contraception, Natural Family Planning, sex outside of marriage and same-sex relationships.
So myself, as a married theologian, and other married theologians have tried to fill that gap by asking different kinds of ethical questions, like what does it mean to be a good parent? What does it mean to love my spouse well? What sort of schooling choice makes sense? How can a family honor Catholic social thought on possessions and private property and charity?
So those are things that have mostly been left to personal discernment, but it seems to me that they’re profound ethical questions. They’re not the kind of things that we have absolute moral norms, one way or the other on, but we do have guidance in the Tradition, so part of the realm of what’s more virtuous or less virtuous, what’s better or worse, rather than right or wrong — these are the kind of questions that I find that people struggle with.
CR: So guiding people in their flourishing instead of merely giving people a set of lines not to cross?
RUBIO: In some ways, the teaching has been hard, so people associate Catholic teaching on family with a set of “no”s or “don’t”s. But in other ways, I think it’s actually been too easy, in the sense that I’m not sure that families hear a call to discipleship in the same way. We have our mostly single saints — the Oscar Romeros the Dorothy Days, Mother Teresa — and they kind of live the really difficult lives. And families we assume are just trying to do the best they can. Increasingly, in the U.S., in more middle- and upper-class contexts, I’m not sure we call families to account to their full responsibilities. But recently, in the field of family ethics … people are asking, so, now we have Laudato Si’, now we have Evangelii Gaudium — we have this whole centering of Pope Francis on issues of social justice — what does that mean for how my family lives?
CR: Earlier this year, you participated in a conference at Boston College on the priesthood. What were your takeaways from that discussion?
RUBIO: The model of priesthood that we were talking about owes something to Francis. There was a sense that priests need to be formed among the people and not so isolated, that they need to be in the model of servant leadership. They need to have the capacity not simply to lead but to enable the growth of others, mostly the laypeople with whom they’re going to be working.
CR: What gives you hope?
RUBIO: When I’m in Catholic gatherings that are diverse — ethnically, gender-wise, ideologically — and I see how alive the Church can be. When we bring in Latino Catholics and African-American Catholics, Asians, when we look at the diversity of the Church today, then some of the polarization looks a little bit different. The same issues aren’t as central or divisive.
I still feel like there is a hunger, really, for good theology … for ways of talking about Christian faith and practice that are beautiful and compelling.