Women of Character, Then and Now

An unpleasant fact of book publishing today is that Big Authors can suck the oxygen out of a market. They get the lion’s share of public attention. And this, in turn, obscures smaller but important books by equally gifted but lesser-known names. My life has been filled with women I admire; foremost among them my bride of 50 years. But I count several women writers among my treasured friends. And new books by two of them deserve generous praise and a wide popular audience – which I’m happy to encourage here.

Women of Hope: Doctors of the Church, published by Our Sunday Visitor, is a portrait of four remarkable women from Catholic history, offered by a talented current writer – Terry Polakovic.  I first met Terry as a colleague on staff at the Archdiocese of Denver in the mid-1990s.  In the wake of World Youth Day 1993 and a subsequent capital campaign, the archdiocese had launched a creature called “Seeds of Hope” (SOH).  Seeds of Hope was an autonomous educational trust.  It had the seemingly hopeless task of raising private sector money in a thoroughly secular environment to support Catholic schools serving inner-city and disadvantaged students.  Terry ran the SOH show with patience and skill.  And results.

Seeds of Hope became the gateway to a later and even more fruitful apostolate.  In 2003, with friends Marilyn Coors and Betsy Considine, Terry founded Educating on the Nature and Dignity of Women (ENDOW), the Catholic women’s organization grounded in the teachings of St. John Paul II.  She led it for 15 years, growing it from a local women’s ministry to a national presence.  What she learned about her faith, her Church, and the unique genius of Catholic women in those years, animates every page of Women of Hope. 

Terry Polakovic

The book’s opening lines capture the purpose of the entire text: “I have often thought that hope is strengthened by remembering.  In other words, when things seem desperate, it is good to remember how God has answered our prayers in the past.”  Memory is a sacred task, especially in challenging times, because it anchors us to reality. Remembering teaches us two great lessons: humility, because of the many mistakes we make; and hope, because despite our mistakes, our sins, and our failures, God has never abandoned us – and he never will.

The saints that Women of Hope highlights range across the centuries. Each embodies a particular and compelling quality: Teresa of Avila, the woman of prayer; Catherine of Siena, the woman of wisdom; Thérèse of Lisieux, the woman of love; and Hildegard of Bingen, the woman of consequence. Each profile includes the saint’s biography, her historical circumstances, her special contributions to Church life, and her enduring legacy. I admit to a special affection for Catherine’s courage (matched by few men of her time) for relentlessly pressing the Avignon papacy to return to Rome; and for Hildegard’s astonishing creativity: nearly 900 years later, the beauty of her music remains miraculous. Terry Polakovic captures all of these “women of character” with the grace and clarity that mark her own character as a writer. Women of Hope is a wonderful and rewarding read that really shouldn’t be missed.

Which brings me to my second “must-read” recommendation. The Love of Learning: Seven Dialogues on the Liberal Arts, released by Cluny Media, is the work of another gifted friend, Margarita Mooney.  An associate professor of practical theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, Dr. Mooney is founder and executive director of the Scala Foundation. Scala focuses on revitalizing the role of classical liberal arts in education, because in Mooney’s own words, “A mind open to God, to mystery, to wonder, is not the opposite of scientific reason, but is integral to comprehending the full significance of reality and recovering the love of learning.”

Mooney argues persuasively that the traditional “humanizing” role of a well-rounded education has, in recent decades, declined into spiritually starved forms of instruction, instrumentalized toward specific political or economic ends.  In response, she notes:

Any purposeful human life must consider and respond to the fundamental question of who we are as humans and ask how we are meant to develop our talent through education. . . .In particular, the liberal arts tradition [acknowledges] that experiences of beauty shape our capacity for attention to all of reality. . . .[Thus] liberal education is key to social order, not just because of the inclusion of great texts that have shaped civilization, although that is important, but because liberal arts education treats the person holistically.

Margarita A. Mooney

The Love of Learning organizes itself around seven rich and engaging conversations with leading educators like Princeton’s Robert P. George and George Harne of the University of St. Thomas in Houston, on themes like “Does Human Nature Matter for Education?” and “Liberal Education and Beauty.”  Each individual discussion is absorbing.  But every reader will have his or her favorites.

As do I:  Baylor’s Elizabeth Corey on “Learning in Love: Authentic Friendships and Liberal Learning” is especially good.  She’s exactly right that the best educators are people who love their subject and come into the classroom to communicate that love.  And the best education “arises not from some kind of professionalism but out of love for students and love for other people.”  City University of New York’s Carlo Lancellotti, translator of Augusto Del Noce’s important works on the crisis of modernity, is likewise excellent on “St. Benedict and Education: Bringing Order Out of Chaos.”

In partnership with the Pepperdine School of Public Policy, Mooney is developing a short course on the humanistic foundations of education that compares four key thinkers (good and otherwise) who come up repeatedly in The Love of Learning‘s chapters: John Dewey, Jacques Maritain, Paulo Freire, and Luigi Giussani.  Preliminary video clips from that course can be seen here.  In the meantime, get the book.  Margarita Mooney has written a lively and thoroughly refreshing book that champions liberal arts education.  It’s worth every moment you’ll spend on it.


You may also enjoy:

Lorraine V. Murray’s A Tale of Two Women

Carrie Gress’s Time for a Restoration – of Women’s Glory

Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is the author of True Confessions: Voices of Faith from a Life in the Church .