Hildegard, Catherine, Teresa and Therese

January 13, 2015 at 5:55 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments
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The following is a  revised version of a review I had published in the National Catholic Reporter within the last month or so. The full NCR doesn’t appear on-line, so I can’t actually find the review, but I’ve heard it appeared there recently. (Since the NCR has been running my reviews, I finally broke down and subscribed so, God willing, I’ll be able to be a bit more accurate when future pieces appear).


By Elizabeth A. Dreyer

Franciscan Media, 2014. $15.99.

Initially, I was wary of Elizabeth Dryer’s book, Accidental Theologians. I worried that the title trivialized the contributions of these four significant Catholic women, as if they hadn’t really intended what they’d achieved, or something.

I needn’t have worried. Dreyer’s book is a valuable introduction to the theologies of the four women named in her subtitle: Saints Hildegard of Bingen, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, and Thérèse of Lisieux. In four remarkably accessible chapters, Dreyer examines each theology and its contemporary implications in light of the women’s life, work, and historical contexts.

Dreyer begins her exploration with the medieval Benedictine abbess and mystic, Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). Hildegard gave the church a fiery, empowering theology of the Holy Spirit, with music and nature at the center of her vision of cosmic connectedness. And it was this same dynamic vision that inspired Hildegard to speak out courageously against the greed and corruption of the twelfth-century church.

During the lifetime of Catherine of Siena, the second woman Doctor of the Church (1347-1380), the Black Death killed a third of the population of urban Europe. Catherine, however, transformed the era’s fixation on the plague as God’s punishment into a deeply incarnational theology. A mendicant tertiary, she used strong bodily metaphors to express the human need at the heart of creation. Catherine’s incarnational theology undergirded her political action as well, as when she successfully urged the popes to return to Rome from Avignon.

The two remaining Doctors, Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), and Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897), were each cloistered nuns who shared a deep desire to serve humanity. This desire inspired Teresa to lead the reform of her own Carmelite congregation, even as she offered Renaissance Europe a profoundly original theology of the human person. Thérèse’s theology of suffering, with its focus on the face of the crucified Christ, can seem far removed from Teresa’s humanistic and communitarian theology. But Dreyer shows that Thérèse’s theology of suffering, centered on the incredible joy of a face-to-face encounter with Jesus, is also deeply human. Likewise, Thérèse’s “Little Way” may seem to fit badly into Dreyer’s discussion of the four women Doctors as role models in the struggle against women’s oppression, until we see Thérèse, on her visit to Rome, courageously speaking to the pope, and later envisioning herself as martyr, missionary and priest.

Dreyer does a fine job in two concluding chapters of highlighting positive and negative aspects of the lives and theologies of the four doctors. One of the dangers she discusses is the overemphasis on suffering by three of the women, though she also shows the ways in which all four theologies help Christians to find meaning in their own suffering. The dualism that occasionally emerges from these otherwise deeply embodied theologies also elicits Dreyer’s concern.

Dreyer also identifies a number of contributions made by the four Doctors that are extremely relevant today—their broadening of theology to include experience and passion, their portrayals of a “God who loves madly,” their invitation to women without formal training to become theologians, and more. I especially appreciate Dreyer’s focus on the importance of nature in the respective theologies—“greening” as a pillar of Hildegard’s work, for example–and her raising up of environmental destruction as a crucial contemporary issue.

It’s pretty clear that Accidental Theologians, with its engaging discussion questions at the end of each chapter and its accessible applications of the theologies of the four female Doctors, is targeted at adult religious education groups. Indeed, Dreyer’s explains that her purpose in writing the book is to urge the laity to answer their baptismal call to become “grassroots” theologians. With Accidental Theologians, she makes a noteworthy contribution toward  that goal.

I did find certain omissions in Accidental Theologians puzzling. For example, Dreyer virtually elides from her discussion the significant numbers of women who today actually are Catholic theologians (40 percent of the theology department at Fordham University, for example). Dreyer aims to inspire “grassroots” theologians, but the line between “grassroots” and “academic” is blurring as theologians today draw frequently on “grassroots” experience in their work.

Given Dreyer’s emphasis on the importance of women’s experience in the work of the four female Doctors, her failure to mention women’s experience as a critical component of feminist theologies since the 1960s is likewise puzzling. Of course, incorporating too much of the sophisticated theological scholarship on women’s experience runs counter to Dreyer’s purposes. But her decision barely to mention women’s experience and feminism more broadly as significant components of the past half-century of Christian theology is hard to understand.

All in all, though, Accidental Theologians will be a source of much-needed knowledge and hope for many Catholics, especially the emerging women theologians among us.



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  1. Dear Marian,

    Thank you! Your clarity of writing, and subject matter, is always enlightening and joy-creating for me.

    Sometime ago, in writing for my Quaker friends, my attention was called to using “the language of violence”, such as saying that a piece of writing was “targeted at”…and so, naturally, I perked up when I read that expression in this new post. It was suggested that alternative expressions, such as “written for” or “focused on” be used. I mention this with a sense of humility, for your consideration.

    Blessings and love, Ellen Duell



    • That’s an excellent suggestion, Ellen. So many things one never notices.
      I’ll try to remember to implement it.


  2. Thanks, Marian. I love T of Avila (Teresa de Ahumada y Cepada) and Hildegard. Appreciate the comments about feminist theology and theologians. Happy New Year! Pam


  3. Perhaps Dryer’s focus is on introducing people who don’t know theology to these women, who are more accessible, perhaps, than Thomas Aquinas, etc. I love Hildegard and will have to get this, I think. Maybe I can get the Women’s group in my parish to do some discussion . . .Thanks for the ideas!


  4. thanks Marian; sounds like an interesting read.


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