Dawn Eden Goldstein isn’t trying to be a priest.

She even argued in a New York Times debate that women should not become ordained deacons.

But that didn’t stop her from becoming the first woman ever to earn her doctorate in sacred theology alongside an all-male, all-seminarian class at Mundelein seminary in Illinois.

Even though Goldstein technically graduated from the University of St. Mary of the Lake, she was in the same classes and ate at the same dining hall and frequented the same libraries as the 220 men at Mundelein studying to be priests.

Her new degree, the highest pontifical degree one can receive from the Catholic Church, qualifies her to teach on faculty at either a seminary or university, at a time when the Holy See is seeking to encourage a greater presence of lay women professors in seminaries.

“The Holy See for some time has been saying that women need to be involved in seminary formation,” Goldstein told CNA. “Pope John Paul II talked about it, and Pope Francis, repeating the recommendations of the Family Synod, says in Amoris Letitia that there’s a need for the presence of lay people in seminary formation, especially women.”

The need for women on seminary faculty

Although Goldstein said she isn’t sure of the exact reasons for the Holy See’s recommendation, she has some guesses, especially after spending most of her graduate studies in nearly all-male environments.

“I think that just for a person’s human formation, just to be well-rounded as a human being, you need to have contact with both sexes, and I would certainly think that for a seminarian to live celibacy fruitfully, he’ll learn that better if he is in an atmosphere where he can have a healthy celibate relationship with women,” she said.

Goldstein also said that she has something to offer not just as a woman, but as a layperson who really wants to be teaching.

Sometimes, she said, Bishops have to fill seminary faculty positions with reluctant but qualified priests who would perhaps rather be in a parish than teaching at a seminary.

“I realized that if this was all I really want to do, then I can contribute something by being enthusiastic, being motivated, and also having the academic qualifications, the wisdom, the love of the church that I can transmit to the seminarians,” she said.

She’s also heard from her male seminarian peers that having women on campus helps keep the macho tendency of all-male environments in check.

“Having a woman present on faculty makes the atmosphere healthier for the seminarians because it leads them to be less macho and more gracious with one another,” she said.

“Apparently seminarians can become competitive in that uniquely male way that men can outdo or best one another, so I’ve been told that a woman’s presence help to mitigate that.”

How it all started

Originally, Goldstein had no intention of pursuing doctoral studies or teaching.

A convert - first from Judaism, then agnosticism and then Protestantism - Goldstein was still completing her RCIA classes, which every convert must complete before becoming Catholic, when she wrote “The Thrill of the Chaste”, a book explaining Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body.

Soon after publishing, and just six months a Catholic, Goldstein was overwhelmed with requests for interviews and talks on the topic. As a recent convert, she was surprised that there weren’t more qualified Catholic who could convey the same message.

“I certainly didn’t have a depth of understanding of the theology behind it, so I first became conscious of my weakness and conscious of the need for the Catholic Church to have people who knew about theology and could also convey it to a popular audience,” she said.

Her previous experience working as a journalist in mainstream media gave her an edge, Goldstein realized, because she could condense theological concepts into words that people could understand. It was the first time she had an inkling that she should study theology.

Those thoughts became reality after Goldstein was laid off from her job at a Catholic non-profit and received a diagnosis of thyroid cancer.

She started her Masters in Theology at Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., and “fell in love” with the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas. Her intent was to go into college campus ministry after graduation, in hopes of a steady job with health care benefits.

But after she sent one of her papers to a long-time priest friend, he insisted that Goldstein should pursue her doctorate and teach.

“I told him that I had no interest in teaching because I thought that it was like being a parent with no spouse,” she said. “But he insisted that this was my vocation.”  

Goldstein agreed to continue her studies, and decided to pursue her degree in sacred theology (STD) at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, where she studied under theologian Dr. Matthew Levering and focused her dissertation on Recent Magisterial Teaching on Redemptive Suffering from Pius XII to Francis. The theme of mercy, she said, had been constant throughout her faith journey and continually cropped up in the books she wrote.

Though she loved the work, one of the biggest obstacles to her finishing her studies was not her gender - but her funds. It’s probably the main reason that lay people - men or women - do not  finish the full pontifical degree program, she said.

Fortunately, after she’d racked up over $100,000 in debt, “an angel” stepped in and offered to pay the rest of Goldstein’s way.

And on May 7th, wearing the same square biretta worn by Catholic clergymen and scholars with pontifical degrees, Goldstein walked across the stage and became the first woman to receive a Doctorate in Sacred Theology from the University of St. Mary of the Lake. This fall, she’ll move overseas to join a seminary faculty.

Talking “guy stuff” - a woman among men

So what was it like to spend years of graduate studies as a woman in two, mostly-male environments?

For the most part, Goldstein said, the men at both the Dominican House and Mundelein were friendly and open to having a woman in their classes, though Goldstein admitted that she felt she fit in a bit better at Mundelein, since her classmates were coming from dioceses all over the country and weren’t already formed as part of the same religious order.

“Overwhelmingly, at Mundelein, I felt that there were a number of seminarians who went out of their way to welcome me,” she said.

It also made for some awkward - and funny - moments with her classmates, she said.

Sometimes, after sitting in on mealtime conversations on campus that consisted mostly of “guy stuff”, Goldstein would joke with her fellow classmates that she would have no idea how to speak to women again once she graduated.

“It really is true, I learned how guys talk,” she told CNA.

“I think people from the outside think that seminarians just think about God all the time, but they also think about sports, and about video games, and about Star Wars, and Red Robin burgers, all this guy stuff.”

The unnecessity of ordination - women leaders in the Church

From the outside, Goldstein might seem like she is advocating for women’s ordination - but anyone who takes a closer look at her work and her beliefs can see that’s not the case.

When asked about whether there is a need for more women in leadership positions in the Church, Goldstein said it all depends on how one defines leadership.  

In the Catholic Church, she said, positions of leadership are properly understood primarily as positions of service rather than power.

“I wouldn’t want to see the kind of women who want to be in leadership positions because of the power,” she said.

In May, Pope Francis indicated his openness to establishing a commission “to clarify” the question of female deacons.

He noted that in Church history, deaconesses existed to help in anointings and full-immersion baptisms of women, for the sake of modesty.

These female deacons lived a life “similar to that of nuns,” according to a 2002 document from the International Theological Commission. The document offered a historical context of the role of the deaconess in the ancient Church, overwhelmingly concluding that female deacons in the early Church had not been equivalent to male deacons, and had “no liturgical function,” nor a sacramental one.

But Goldstein said she wondered whether simply upping the numbers of women in leadership positions in the Church would make a difference.

A common argument in favor of bringing more women into Vatican positions, Goldstein said, is that women may have acted more quickly and decisively during the abuse crisis. But Goldstein is not convinced that that is necessarily true.

“There’s no shortage of women as administrators of our public schools, and the Catholic Church has already done so much more than our public schools have done to protect children,” she said.  

“That’s not to say there isn’t more that the church could do, but if the question is simply whether having more women in leadership leads to more just and humane policies, I’m not sure.”

“At the same time, I’ve been able to receive the highest degree that the church has to offer, summa cum laude, and I’ve been able to receive that with things being the status quo, so I have no real complaints with status quo at this time in my life.”