Woman to Know: Deborah Savage

Meet Deborah Savage

When Professor Deborah Savage attended our inaugural (2014) symposium for Catholic women scholars, I quickly discovered why this petite seminary professor is regarded not only as an intellectual and apostolic powerhouse, but as a woman of wit, humility, and overflowing love as well. Deborah is a Professor of Philosophy and Theology at St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity, University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, the Program Director for the Masters in Pastoral Ministry at the seminary, and the Director of the Siena Symposium for Women, Family, and Culture. The title she wears most proudly, though, is “mother” to Madeline.  I hope you’ll enjoy “meeting” Deborah and learning about her fantastic work.

CWF: Deborah, although the culture suggests that love is a zero-sum game, your experience is the opposite—love multiplies! Put that in context for us – tell us about your family.

DS: I am married to Andrew and this April we will celebrate our 29th wedding anniversary! We have a daughter, Madeline, now 15, whom we adopted as a newborn. She has been the greatest gift of my life – a gift that keeps on giving in every way. I did not know you could love someone that much – or that love keeps growing.

CWF: You have often said that you continually see the hand of God at work in your life– through Madeline, certainly—but what about your work? Tell us about your work and how you got there.

DS: I certainly experience my work as a calling; at least I would say I believe I have found my vocation. But it took me a long while to discover it and there were several twists and turns. I was born in California and put myself through college working in the Silicon Valley as a factory operator, finally earning a BS degree in Business Administration. I thought I would go on to law school but I became disenchanted with that possibility so, after graduation, I remained in the manufacturing industry, gradually taking on positions of greater responsibility. Eventually, I became a sort of “expert” in what is called “quality management,” an approach to management more or less perfected by the Japanese in the 70’s and 80’s.

I eventually opened my own consulting firm to help organizations apply the same methodologies. I had learned that the Japanese had succeeded at those methods because of the spiritual traditions that undergird Japanese culture, especially Confucian virtue ethics. This caused me to ask what had happened in the West: why do we go to Church on Sunday and work on Monday with no real sense of the first having much to do with the second? There seems to be a big gap. This question just kept nagging at me: was something missing from our tradition that meant it could not inform our work behavior in the same way? I simply had to find out.

So I decided to go to graduate school. I studied both philosophy and theology. My dissertation was on the subjective dimension of human work and the conversion of the “acting person.” In the course of my studies, I became a life-long student of Thomas Aquinas and have spent most of my efforts so far investigating the work of John Paul II.  The meaning of human work is still a strong interest, though most recently I have focused on the question of the nature of man and woman and the complementarity that characterizes their relationship. Of course, the topics are related since men and women share in the work of caring for creation. I never pictured myself teaching at a Seminary; I thought I would probably end up teaching business ethics. But here I am – and it is a great privilege to help prepare future priests and lay leaders for their service to the Church.

CWF: I love how through unexpected paths the Lord leads us to serve him so beautifully! What would you say to women about the call to serve, given our current cultural climate?

DS: I think we are living at an amazing (and also admittedly scary) time in human history, especially for women of faith. The Church has been pleading with us – really since the papacy of Pius XII – to bring our gifts to the task of recovering the culture. And it is very clear that, in large part, it is the prophetic voice of women that is both largely missing and desperately needed in our times. Though things might seem a bit dark, it is at this precise moment that humanity needs us to speak, to act in the service of authentic human flourishing.

The Catholic Women’s Forum is certainly a bright spot, as is Helen Alvare’s Women Speak for Themselves, and the Siena Symposium in Minnesota. There are many other initiatives ordered to making it possible now to contribute. Though I would argue we need a theology of complementarity more than we do a theology of women, the Holy Father’s call for a greater focus on women is just another signal that the Church is ready to hear our voices. We simply have to be sure that the Church Fathers hear from many, many faithful women or our voices risk being drowned out by those who seem more inclined to dissent from Church teaching.

The culture at large seems also to be desperate for our wisdom, even if prominent thought leaders often insist on looking the other way or marginalizing the Catholic perspective on the “woman question.” The #MeToo phenomenon is just one indication of that. The time clearly is ripe for the “new feminism” John Paul II speaks about in Evangelium Vitae – and he is very clear that it is up to us to create it.

CWF: In that light, what projects are you working on?

DS: My research right now is almost totally focused on developing a robust theology of complementarity. In my scholarly opinion, it is not possible to consider fully the so-called “feminine genius” apart from the genius of man. I would argue that there is actually a war on men underway in our culture and that it is because we have never made explicit what man’s “genius” really is, just as, until John Paul raised the issue, we failed to formally consider what constituted the genius of woman.  The nature of man and woman in relation to each other actually has never been fully explored in our tradition and the myths surrounding that relationship have confused it for centuries – leading to the mess we are in now. I am trying to make an impact on the gender confusion that confronts us, by offering a constructive account of man and woman, one grounded in science, philosophy, and Scripture. I hope this effort will lead to a clearer vision of the ways men and women can bring both their humanity and their distinct gifts to the tasks of human living – and work together to return all things to Christ.

CWF: The recent Popes have called for a greater integration of women’s presence and gifts within the Church. What should this look like, and how does it tie into your ideas about complementarity?

DS: I think the current interest in a greater role for women in the Church is critical and I hope it bears fruit. But if the focus is narrowed to a formal role, one where we think the problem is solved only if women end up on the “organization chart” somewhere, we will have missed the mark. This is a particularly masculine way of understanding the issue – that such things are settled when someone finally gets a “position” of some kind, one that has some measure of power. If that happens, women will actually lose the “power” they have already. The role that women play is more like a fragrance, one that should permeate the atmosphere of the Church; it needs to be everywhere, not just somewhere. This does not mean that I think women should not be involved in decision making somehow. Quite the contrary. But it cannot be just an imitation of the roles that men have played. We need to think about this question for ourselves.

CWF: Deborah, you also lead the Sienna Symposium in the St. Paul – Minneapolis area. Tell us about that.

DS: The Siena Symposium for Women, Family, and Culture at the University of St. Thomas, an interdisciplinary “think tank,” includes both faculty scholars and practitioners. It was founded in 2001 to respond to John Paul II’s call for a new and explicitly Christian “feminism.” We invite women and men into a dialogue on ways to establish a culture of life. Our work is grounded in the anthropology of the human person, created male and female, equal in dignity but different—complementary. We hold public events, workshops, and engage in scholarship to explore these ideas and their implications for human relationships and society. We also give an annual Humanitarian Leadership Award to a woman who, with courage and grace, has made significant contributions to efforts to recover our culture. We also serve the local Church in various ways at the behest of the Archbishop.

Most recently we co-sponsored a day-long symposium on Man, Woman, and the Order of Creation. It was an attempt to offer a constructive account of what it means to be a man or a woman within the context of contemporary disputes about sex and gender. We considered lived experience, science (biology, neuroscience and social science, philosophy and theology, and pastoral practice. Close to 1000 people from the local community attended and it was a sign of hope that, as a community, we are still able to have civil conversations on controversial topics.

CWF: Ending on a completely different note…Tell us something fun or “unexpected” about you.

DS: I love exercise; I guess I am a bit of a jock. I was a competitive swimmer, both before and during high school – an Olympic hopeful (I swam for the same team as Mark Spitz) – and an avid downhill skier. I later took up running and have run five marathons and countless races. I still work out almost every day.

CWF: Thanks so much for joining us, Deborah, and for all you do to serve the Church. May you always “run the race” with such passion!

Editor’s Note: In our “Women to Know” series, we introduce you to Catholic women who inspire us with their leadership and their witness to a flourishing Catholic life. To propose a “Woman to Know,” please contact Natalie Robertson at nrobertson@eppc.org