Vigorous Hope: An Interview with Dr. Jennifer Miller Developing a Theology of Masculinity and Femininity

By: Jason Songe, Seminarian, Archdiocese of New Orleans

It’s always a delight to witness. When a preacher becomes so familiar with scripture and tradition that they effortlessly breath out a synthesis of the two. Sheen. Barron. Wehner. We know the men who’ve made it look easy.

In order to do this, to speak and act with the mind and heart of the Church, seminarians need professors to teach them how. Preferably those who already do so.

Enter Dr. Jennifer Miller, who in conversation speaks with a zeal, a fervor unresolved. The Spirit is audible here. Her vigorous hope for the discovery of truth gives one the sense that no conceptual connection is impossible.

Dr. Miller is a product of Cajun country, born in Louisiana. She obtained graduate degrees from the Pontifical Universities of the Angelicum and the Gregorian, and in 2013 she received her doctorate from the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross. She is now professor of moral theology at Notre Dame Seminary.

Dr. Miller recently took a year-long sabbatical to build on scholarly work on sex and gender by John Paul II, Benedict XVI, Sr. Prudence Allen, Thomas Aquinas, Hildegard of Bingen, and others by developing “a uniquely Catholic vision of gender identity,” according to her website,

She’ll also “investigate the way that Catholics live out their masculinity and femininity in several diverse cultures” by interviewing laypeople, scholars, and clergy in foreign countries from this past May to June 2020. She will publish a book based on her findings.

In this interview we talk about her project, and like any good journey, it’s a look inside how God works. This interview was conducted in Crowley, Louisiana in early August.

JS: What was your first introduction to gender studies?
JM: So, part of my personal story is 10 years ago I was doing youth ministry here in Louisiana. My spiritual director, a priest at the time, told me, “You’re young, you’re single, go to Rome and study.” And so, I did. I thought I would be gone for three–I was gone for ten years. I came back and I met up with that spiritual director again. And I was kind of waiting for the “Well done, faithful servant, good job,” and instead he told me, “Now, Jennifer, go and study gender theory.”
JS: Oh really?
JM: So, that was literally the first time I remember it vividly crossing my mind, or even the thought passing, that this was something I needed to become involved with.
JS: So, had you expressed any interest to him before that?
JM: None at all. And, to be completely honest, I didn’t want to study it. Despite the fact that he told me this, despite the fact that for several years Dr. Neal would at least, once a year, say, “Dr. Miller, what about gender theory?” He sent me a “I have a dream” gender theory e-mail about a young female moral theologian writing a book on it. But it’s not where I wanted to go.
JS: Wow. So, there needed to be a conversion on your part.
JM: Yes. And God is really good about that, right?
JS: Yeah.
JM: Sometimes He kind of pushes, He kind of nags, He writes in bold, and there’s that attraction to it. But, I think there were two key points on my journey. And the first was that Dr. Neal, after 3 or 4 years of “I have a dream,” offered that the seminary would send me to a conference on gender theory at an ecclesial institution, all expenses paid. So, when the Church offers you something for free, you go, right? And, I thought, “Well, all I have to do is sit there for two days and take notes.” And I had friends in town. And I sat there and I listened for two days and took notes. And I heard people speak on gender theory from the point of view of philosophy, from the point of view of biology, from the point of view of plastic surgery, from the point of view of public policy, and yet I didn’t hear anyone speak about gender theory from the point of view of theology, and I thought, “If the Church has anything to give to the world, it is first and foremost the Word of God.” And so if we’re gonna be discussing this, if we’re gonna be answering some of the really good questions about what gender theory asks about what it means to be a man and a woman, we need to begin with God’s gift to us and our gift to the world. So, that was the first point in my conversion. And the second point was probably about six months later. I had begun this interest on my own, I had started a gender theory study group with some of the Masters students from Notre Dame Seminary, and we had begun to dive into it. I was doing some of my own exegesis and the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City asked me to do the clergy study day. So, four talks in 48 hours. And I thought, “This is the only thing I really have four talks worth of material on—masculinity and femininity.” The first talk was a general introduction to gender theory, and then what does God say about our humanity in Genesis 2, what it means to be a human person, the vast amount of freedom that he’s gifted us with along with a particular human nature, and then the next morning I did a talk on masculinity, and that was the first time I had ever done that. That was the first time I had spoken those words, put everything together, given it that particular form, so 45 minutes to an hour in front of over 100 priests as a woman telling them what it means to be a man. And, you know, I prefaced it with the words of St. John Paul II. As Karol Wotyla, when he published “Love and Responsibility,” he said, “People might ask the question, ‘How can a celibate man speak on married love?’ He said, “I don’t have first person experience, but I have wide third person experience. I’ve counseled thousands and thousands of couples, and this allows me to have a broad picture of what general tendencies are and what married love looks like.” And I said the same thing: “Obviously I’m not a man, but I spent the last twenty years of my life in seminary surrounded by men, interacting with men, having friends who are men, and this comes out of that experience and conversations I’ve had with male colleagues in my own studies.” So I challenged them. I said, “You can listen, you can critique.” I spoke for 45 minutes to an hour, and when I was done, the grace in the room was palpable. I said, “Questions, comments, queries.” Just that palpable silence. “I just told you what it means to be a man. You can tell me I’m wrong!”(laughs)
JS: And they’re all just like, “We’re good.”
JM: I sent them out for a break, and they came up afterwards and said, “We can’t find your book on Where do we buy it?”
JS: And you didn’t have a book(laughs)
JS: And they just thought, “It’s so good, there’s gotta be a book. She’s gotta be established.”
JM: Yes. And I thought, “If these are men who are in pastoral ministry day by day and they need this, then this is a need for the Church and this is a need for the people of God.”
JS: That’s great. What year was that?
JM: January 2018.
JS: Is that when you start to get the idea for the project you’re doing now?
JM: I think so. One of the things to keep in mind—and this was a kind of gradual unfolding in the conversations I had with people and a lot of grace–is that St. John Paul II has a particular methodology for doing moral theology as rooted in sacred scripture, and this is very much in response to the call of the Second Vatical Council, specifically the document on priestly formation, Optatam Totius, No. 16 asked for that, that moral theology be more nourished by the teaching of the Bible so that it can bear fruit in the life of the faithful for the life of the world. What he does is, he doesn’t use, we tend to think, “Is someone going to use the historical-critical method or the fathers or the medievals?” He uses both of those but doesn’t just use that. I spent some time last summer studying his method to better understand how that could be used. This was on the suggestion of Dr. Nathan Eubank, who’s currently at Notre Dame University. What St. John Paul II does is he looks at the exegesis he’s already done, taking both the historical-critical method and those tools that are helpful from it, as well as the fathers and the medievals. But then he looks at them through a particular lense, and the lense he uses is the experience of faith of St. John of the Cross. And so it’s not just looking at Sacred Scripture itself but it’s trying to look into it. And he wants to use that personal experience that allows the meaning for the human person to jump forth, to jump off the page. And so I thought, “If we’re gonna be looking at sex and gender and sacred scripture, questions regarding what it means to be created male and female in the image and likeness of God, how we live out masculinity and femininity, whether it’s imposed or it’s cultural, biological, an e-mail that God sends to me with a detailed outline…
JS: (laughs) I like that one, the fourth one. Did you come up with that one?
JM: (laughs) I think it’s part of the way we live at the seminary.
JS: Keep that.
JM: (laughs) We can’t just look at the words themselves. We also need to look at them through the experience of faith. And especially since this is something that is very much influenced by the culture we grow up in. Not determined by it but certainly influenced by it. Then that means I can’t look at it through just my cultural eyes. Living in Rome for ten years was a blessing for me because I realized that I better understood what it meant to be a woman or the ways I could live out my femininity through speaking with women from different cultures. There’s a young woman from Yugoslavia I worked with, a girl from Brazil, a girl from Italy. And so having all those other women, I had a broader picture of what a healthy femininity looked like. And so I thought, “I have to do the same thing.” I can’t just look at sex and gender through sacred scripture. I have to look at it through as universal a picture as possible. Use the experience of men and women of different cultures and sometimes different faith and different reason to have the best idea of what sacred scripture is trying to tell us about the human person.
JS: As far as what you were talking about before, it sounds to me like lectio divina. Is that fair to say, as far you’re trying to pull the soul out of the scripture?
JM: That might be a good comparison, right? Because lectio divina should also help us understand the moral meaning of the text or how we’re meant to act. There’s always a resolution that comes out of it. I think one of the things that was important for me in this was that I had a providential encounter with Michael Waldstein last summer and since this is what was on my mind, I really wanted to corner him, so I did. That’s not necessarily in my nature, but I cornered him at a conference. And I asked him this: “What is St. John Paul II doing? Is he using Method A, is he using Method B, is he trying to create his own Method C,” thinking very much in Ratzingerian terms, I guess we would say. He looked at me, and in this beautiful Austrian accent, he said(affects Austrian accent), “Jennifer, when we look at the house, we can’t see the back of it, but we know that it’s there.” And I just felt like my grandfather had just chidingly tapped my cheek. You know, to be like, “Method A, method B, help us to give it structure, but I don’t want to just see the structure in front of me. I want to go within it, right? I want to go within the house itself. I want to know what that entire house looks like. I want to dwell therein.
JS: Yeah.
JM: And looking at the personal experience of people who throughout the centuries have allowed their lives also then to be molded by the Word of God helps me to dwell within that house.
JS: Yeah, like, “I don’t wanna know just the technical or mechanical aspects of it. I wanna know more about the emotional aspects of it or…”
JM: The human aspects of it. The word of God is living and effective, St, Paul says, right? He says it’s sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow. He says it’s able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. We forget that the Word of God is a living Word, that it is the person of Jesus Christ who reveals man to himself. Right? And so we tend to think of it sometimes in the way we might think of a recipe, but it’s not a recipe. It’s a conversation of a Trinitarian God with a people that He loves. So, how do I enter into that conversation? By seeing how other people have entered into the conversation. How it’s transformed their lives and helped them to be better men and women of God.
JS: That’s awesome. I’m interested to know how your personal prayer has informed the preparation and execution of your project.
JM: I guess probably in two ways. One is just keeping up your regular prayer life. My spiritual director at this point is very Ignatian in his method. And it’s helpful because there’s this combination of faith and reason working together. Right? Sometimes intellectuals, we have a tendency to ignore our emotions or passions. To put them in second place or to not give them their just due. They’re part of the way God has created us. He gives passions for a reason. To move us to act.
JS: But, if you’re a moral theologian, you can’t do that, right?
JM: Exactly. I have to understand that the intellect, the will, and the passions are all working together to lead me to God. Those passions have to be rightly ordered and educated, but that means that I first have to pay attention to what they’re doing. What are they trying to tell me is good. If my intellect is telling me it’s not a good good, why do my passions think that way? How can I help them to be better ordered or educated so that when I see something that’s new for me but is a good, they’ll spontaneously be able to reach out to that, right? And allow God to work in and through my emotions, as well. So, I think that’s been really helpful, to keep these things in prayer, to be even more encouraged by my spiritual director to bring them to prayer. Sometimes we think we bring God the difficult things. I bring to Him when someone’s going into surgery or when someone in the family is ill—ask Him for the day-to-day things. And also, from the advice of my spiritual director, to up my prayer game. Just to put it in the most basic terms possible. He said, “Jennifer, you need to start going to Reconciliation more often.”
JS: Really.
JM: And so I’ve been like, “Ok.” So, I used to think, “Once a month would be good,” and I would probably go every once a month, every other month. So, now, I’m like, “Ok. You can have every two weeks.” I need all the graces I avail of because it’s not just about me doing something, right? I read recently a paper by Malachi Walker in which he said, he pointed out that we tend to think of St. Thomas Aquinas as a great theologian who happened to pray, and what we forget…
JS: Oh, sure
JM:…is that he was a great theologian because he prayed.
JS: I heard that too, recently.
JM: So, allowing myself to be more united with Christ, more intentionally seeking that union with Him through the sacraments: reconciliation, daily Mass whenever possible, the sacramentals. Holy water, and the intercession of the saints.
JS: I don’t wanna divert, so…
JM: Divert, divert.
JS:…if I go too far, pull me back, but do you think it’s fair to say St. Thomas Aquinas was able to grasp at things other people weren’t able to grasp at because of his prayer life?
JM: Yes, because he prayed for it. His biographers recount that when he came up against a problem, he didn’t just gather more books, which is a typical academic/intellectual thing to do. “I don’t know what it is, someone else must have an idea,” or they go to a coffee shop and discuss it with all their friends. Those are good accessory means, but if theology is trying to understand the mystery of God, shouldn’t I be first asking Him to reveal that to me?

To donate to Dr. Miller’s project visit her GoFundMe page here

About the Author: Jason Songe, Seminarian, Archdiocese of New Orleans

Jason is a seminarian in First Theology.


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