Approaching a Theology of Womanhood Through the Door of Empathy

What does it mean to say, as Pope Francis did in 2013, that “we need to work harder to develop a more profound theology of the woman”?[1] For that matter, what would it mean to say that we need a more profound theology of manhood? For many in the Church today, particularly in the United States, this is a moot question, as even implying that there are essential differences between women and men is enough to spark a heated debate. Too often, however, a just advocacy for equality between men and women becomes a misguided quest for uniformity, resulting in articulations of difference and complementarity (to say nothing of gendered language) being stricken from the record in favor of a kind of neutered theological discourse.

The problem with such an approach within the context of the Church is that it presumes that a person’s encounter with God is something that can be experienced, interpreted, and lived out apart from the body. However, whether we like it or not, we human beings are embodied creatures; therefore, such separation is impossible. There is no part, no mystery of our existence that we can encounter outside of the body, and this includes the mystery of God; thus, as Tania Geist recently articulated in her essay “Matter Matters: On the Need for a Pastoral Theology of Radical Particularity,” embodiment in general and gendered embodiment as male and female in particular cannot be so easily dismissed.

Throughout its history, the Church has struggled to body forth the teachings of Christ in the ways she ministers to her daughters and sons. Indeed, though much progress has been made relative to gender relations and understanding in the Church, this struggle continues to this day. So how to engage the Holy Father’s question of developing theologies of womanhood (and, implicitly, of manhood) in such a way that those theologies become sources of unity rather than division? After all, there will inevitably be those who argue that no man could ever be capable of contributing to the conversation surrounding a theology of womanhood and vice versa. However, such a mindset creates an impasse, and can only deepen the divisions between men and women that currently trouble the Church and the world. How to bridge this gap? By entering the conversation through the door of empathy. Before asking the question of how the Church can develop a more profound theology of womanhood or of manhood, one must learn to practice empathy, an act in which one enters into the experience of another without the loss of oneself. Only when men and women learn to enter into one another’s experiences through empathy will they be able to value the uniqueness of the other and view the other not as a threat to themselves and their experiences of encounter with the divine mysteries, but rather as a way of enriching those experiences.

In this essay, I will argue that a theology of womanhood or manhood can only be built on the foundations of a theology of empathy. I will first turn to the scholarly work of Edith Stein (St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross) for an explication of the nature of empathy and its vital importance for human relationships. I will then offer the Incarnation of Jesus Christ as the exemplar of empathy—when God, who is utterly Other, enters into human nature without loss of his divine nature—and highlight moments from Jesus’ earthly ministry in which he models this practice of empathy for his disciples. Finally, I will suggest that this divine empathy continues within the liturgy of the Church—especially the Eucharist, and that the liturgical life cultivates within the faithful Christ’s own capacity for practicing empathy.

Defining Empathy

[caption id="attachment_1514" align="alignright" width="309"] Image: Jornal O Bom Católico; CC BY 2.0.[/caption]

In her doctoral dissertation On the Problem of Empathy (published in Germany in 1917), Edith Stein considers the nature and scope of empathic actions from a phenomenological standpoint. For Stein, empathy becomes the way of interacting with other people in the world, and more importantly, of understanding them. Stein defines empathy as “a kind of perceiving,” as “the experience of foreign consciousness in general, irrespective of the kind of experiencing subject or of the subject whose consciousness is experienced.”[2] Empathy is an act of the will by which the subjective “I” enters into the experience of the subjective “you” and, in the process, comes to a greater understanding not only of the other, but also of the self in relation to the other. This retention of the self is critical for the practice of empathy, which is often mischaracterized as ‘making another person’s experience our own.’ Stein, however, identifies this shift of ‘making our own’ as transference. Transference is not empathy, for in taking the feelings and experiences of another and making them our own, we are in fact turning our attentions back to the self, rather than focusing on the other (i.e., I myself become upset when I see that my sister is upset). True empathy, on the other hand, entails entering into the experience of another without wanting to subsume it into myself; there is a feeling of unity with the other, but both I and the other remain our selves. Stein explains the phenomenon thus using the experience of joy:

Strictly speaking, empathy is not a feeling of oneness. But this does not mean that there is no such thing as a feeling of oneness. . . . I have intuitively before me what they feel. It comes to lift in my feeling, and from the “I” and “you” arises the “we” as a subject of a higher level. . . . We empathically enrich our feelings so that “we” now feel a different joy from “I,” “you,” and “he” in isolation. But “I,” “you,” and “he” are retained in “we.” A “we,” not an “I,” is the subject of the empathizing. Not through the feeling of oneness, but through empathizing, do we experience others. The feeling of oneness and the enrichment of our own experience become possible through empathy.[3]

This idea of empathic enrichment finds a foothold in the question of gender relations with the help of Pope Francis’ remarks during his General Audience on the Family from April 15, 2015: “In order to know oneself well and develop harmoniously, a human being needs the reciprocity of man and woman.” In other words, all human beings, men and women alike, need the reciprocity of the other in order to flourish themselves. The Holy Father goes on to state, “We are made to listen to one another and help one another. We can say that without the mutual enrichment of this relationship . . . the two cannot even understand the depths of what it means to be man and woman.” Only through empathy, through mutual enrichment, can one come to a greater understanding of the other, and, through the other, the self. Returning to Stein, it is through empathy that
I accomplish the transition from my standpoint to another’s . . . but the new standpoint does not step into the old one’s place. I retain them both at the same time. The same world is not merely presented now in one way and then in another, but in both ways at the same time. . . . Were I imprisoned within the boundaries of my individuality, I could not go beyond “the world as it appears to me.” But . . . I cross these boundaries by the help of empathy and obtain [others’ perceptions of the world] which are independent of my perception. Thus empathy as the basis of intersubjective experience becomes the condition of possible knowledge of the existing outer world.[4]

Only through empathy, through mutual enrichment, can one come to a greater understanding of the other, and, through the other, the self.

In these descriptions of empathy, one begins to see the implications for a theology of womanhood and manhood. Indeed, reading Stein in conversation with Pope Francis suggests that it is only through the practice of empathy that such theologies of womanhood and manhood can begin to take shape at all. In the first place, empathy allows women to perceive and ‘transition from their standpoint’ to the standpoint of other women, thereby enabling them to discern together the ways in which they might draw closer to God precisely through the gift of their female embodiment. In the second place, empathy allows both women and men to perceive and ‘step into’ one another’s experiences—all while retaining their own experiences—in order to ‘cross the boundaries’ potentially raised by gender and arrive at a place of enriched mutual understanding. A theology of empathy, then, can provide the bedrock on which foundations for theologies of womanhood and manhood can be built, and it is Jesus himself, “the stone the builders rejected [that] has become the cornerstone” (Ps 118:22; see also Mt 21:42 and Mk 12:10), who shows us how this can be accomplished.

The Incarnation of Jesus Christ: Divine Empathy for the Human Family

St. Athanasius famously wrote that “God became man so that man might become God” (cf. CCC §460). Yet, God also became man in order to reveal what it means to be human, as the Second Vatican Council emphasized in Gaudium et Spes:
In reality it is only in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of humanity truly becomes clear. For Adam, the first man, was a type of him who was to come, Christ the Lord. Christ the new Adam, in the very revelation of the mystery of the Father and his love, fully reveals humanity to itself and brings to light its very high calling. (§22)

In the mystery of the Incarnation—the hypostatic union of the divine and human nature in the Person of Jesus Christ—lies the exemplar of empathy. The Only-Begotten Son of God, without loss of his divine nature, enters into the experience of the human family by taking on our flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. And yet, the Son of God did not need to take on our flesh in order to understand it, as our human empathic actions are often undertaken in order to better understand the other (and through the other, ourselves). No, “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:24), the Word through whom all things—including human beings—were made (cf. Jn 1:3; Col 1:15–17) already understood his creatures perfectly before the Incarnation. Put simply, Christ did not take on our flesh in order to understand it, but to redeem it (cf. CCC §461), to reveal to humanity the love of the Father for his children (cf. CCC §458), to reconcile us to the Father and to one another (cf. CCC §457), and to become our model of love that places the needs of the other before its own—a love that gives unto the end (cf. CCC §459). Such love can only be lived out through a constant practice of empathy, for one must first be able to enter into the experiences of the other empathically in order to discern the other’s needs and place them before one’s own in an act of self-giving love. Before agape, empathy. And here, too, we find our exemplar in Jesus, whose earthly ministry embodied the practice of empathic agape and provided us with “a model to follow” (Jn 13:15).

Empathy in the Ministry of Jesus

Two key episodes from the earthly ministry of Jesus stand out as powerful examples of empathy. The first episode—Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan woman at the well (Jn 4:5–42)—is particularly relevant for our underlying question of empathy and gender, for it demonstrates how empathy can serve as a catalyst for ‘crossing boundaries’ and cultivating mutually enriching relationships between men and women. Jesus sees in the Samaritan woman a thirst that goes beyond the merely physical; she draws water at noon because her sinfulness has isolated her from the community. Jesus understands this thirst; his cry from the Cross, “I thirst” (Jn 19:28), speaks to a thirst for reconciliation and communion. And so, Jesus ‘steps into’ the experience of the woman’s thirst; he opens the door to a conversation that would never have taken place under normal circumstances in that cultural context by expressing his own desire for water: “Give me a drink” (Jn 4:7).

[caption id="attachment_1515" align="alignleft" width="390"] Image: Jesus and the Samaritan Woman (5th c.; Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna); Photo: Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP; CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.[/caption]

What is so striking about the interaction that follows is that Jesus’ empathy for the woman’s physical, spiritual, and emotional thirst gradually results in revelation. Jesus offers her living water that will quench her deeper thirsts (Jn 4:10, 13–14), and as the conversation continues, what began as a simple recognition that they are both thirsty ends with Jesus revealing the woman to herself—“Come and see a man told me everything I have ever done!” (Jn 4:29)—as he reveals himself to be the Messiah (Jn 4:26–27). Jesus crosses boundaries of both culture and gender in speaking with a Samaritan woman, and through his extension of empathy, he crosses spiritual and emotional boundaries by entering into the thirst of this woman in order to quench it with the gift of himself. As Jesus does so, the woman grows not only in her understanding of who he is, but also in her understanding of herself.

If we take the self as the standard, we lock ourselves into the prison of our individuality.

The second episode of empathy in Jesus’ earthly ministry is recorded in St. John’s narrative of the Last Supper, when Jesus washed the feet of the Apostles. One might wonder whether an act of service could also be interpreted as an act of empathy, but returning to Stein’s definitions allows us to read the foot washing through the empathic lens. Although it is the Apostles who receive Jesus’ act of service, Jesus is actually empathizing here with the all of poor and the lowly—those whom he came not only to redeem, but also to serve. In taking off his outer garments and tying a towel around his waist, Jesus ‘steps into’ the role of a slave (cf. Phil 2:7). He crosses a social boundary so set that Peter cannot believe what he is seeing and protests, “You will never wash my feet” (Jn 13:8). And yet, it is precisely in washing his Apostles’ feet that Jesus embodies empathy poured forth as agape. So deeply does Jesus enter into the experience of the poor, the lowly, the oppressed, that he not only becomes one of them in the Incarnation—emptying himself of divine glory without loss of his divine nature—but he also enters into their experience to such an extent that he goes so far as to offer himself as the remedy to their poverty by becoming their servant. “The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mt 20:28; Mk 10:45). This is agape born of empathy, empathy overflowing as agape: to enter into the experience of others in order to discern and satisfy their needs in an act of self-gift.

Empathy in the Liturgical Life

Jesus’ divine empathy did not end with his time on earth. Even now, he still enters into the experience of the human family by offering the gift of himself in the liturgical life of the Church, particularly in the Eucharist. Just as the eternal Word became flesh in Jesus of Nazareth, taking on human flesh without loss of his divine nature, so now Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary, comes to us—Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity—under the appearance of simple bread and wine. So great is Jesus’ desire to continue to enter into our experience that he allows us to consume him physically in the Eucharist; indeed, he commands that we do so: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you” (Jn 6:53).

The liturgical life cultivates within the faithful Christ’s own capacity for practicing empathy.

The earthly ministry of Jesus shows his followers what empathy poured forth as agape looks like; now, in the liturgy, the empathy extended by the Incarnate Word through the power of the Holy Spirit capacitates and forms his followers to practice that empathic agape in their own lives by drawing them into the very life of the triune God. By receiving the gift of divine empathy poured forth in the sacramental life and by allowing ourselves to be transfigured by this gift as God himself continues to enter into our human experience, we learn to enter into the experiences of others in order to understand better how to love them and serve them as God’s own beloved children, and in so doing, we become more able to live into our own identity as God’s beloved children with ever increasing fidelity.

Conclusion: Implications of Empathy

Empathy is the practice by which one is able to move beyond the self, a movement without which human relationships cannot exist. As Stein observed:
If we take the self as the standard, we lock ourselves into the prison of our individuality. Others become riddles for us, or still worse, we remodel them into our image and so falsify . . . [the] truth.[5]

Both women and men, in discerning how to live out their faith, must learn to respect and understand the particularities of embodiment and the challenges they pose, in order to learn how to serve one another as Christ has commanded. For in the end, any theology of womanhood or of manhood that does not seek to teach women and men how to empty themselves as Christ did is no theology at all, but a self-serving enterprise seeking only to reinforce the long-perceived divisions between the genders. A true theology of womanhood or of manhood will seek not to isolate women from men or to dissolve the differences between the two; rather, it will seek to discover the ways in which women and men can mutually enrich one another’s lives through the practice of empathy. Indeed, the practice of empathy carries with it possibilities for furthering relationships of all kinds: imagine, for example, how empathy might contribute positively to conversations surrounding differences of race or ethnicity or socioeconomic status. Entering into the experience of the other through empathy is the first step in building relationships of mutual respect, enrichment, and love. It reveals the other to us, and, perhaps most significantly, it allows the other to reveal ourselves to us in order that we might see what changes are necessary in our own lives that will enable us to become better women and men, better human beings, better disciples of Jesus.

Featured Photo: Jason Devaun; CC BY-ND 2.0.

[1] Pope Francis and Antonio Spadaro, SJ, “A Big Heart Open to God: The Exclusive Interview with Pope Francis” in America Magazine, vol. 209, no. 8 (September 30, 2013), 28.

[2] Edith Stein, On the Problem of Empathy, trans. Waltraut Stein (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1989), 11.

[3] Ibid., 17–18.

[4] Ibid., 64.

[5] Ibid., 116, emphasis added.


Carolyn Pirtle

Carolyn Pirtle is the program director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy and a composer of liturgical music. She is the author of Praying the Rosary Together.

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