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A religious sister in theology’s halls of power

Schoenstatt Sisters

For centuries, men have predominantly overseen the academic domain of theology and key committees in the Church, but women have an essential role to play. Sr. M. Isabell Naumann, a Schoenstatt Sister of Mary, shares insights on her journey as a woman in various leadership roles within the Church.

“All of my predecessors were priests and bishops,” Sr. M. Isabell explained with a smile. The Schoenstatt Sister of Mary was referring to her appointment as President of the Catholic Institute of Sydney, Australia, the country’s only ecclesiastical faculty, which confers Pontifical degrees in Sacred Theology. The faculty was established in 1954 for Australia, New Zealand and Oceania.

Sr. M. Isabell Naumann, a German-born member of the Secular Institute of the Schoenstatt Sisters of Mary (ISSM), was appointed President of the Catholic Institute of Sydney in 2018 by Archbishop Anthony Fisher, OP.

Prior to her appointment, Sr. M. Isabell worked for many years as professor at the Catholic Institute of Sydney. Her appointment as president of the Institute still came as a surprise.

In an interview with Vatican News, Sr. M. Isabell said, “There are not too many women who lead ecclesiastical faculties or universities. Ours goes back to the 1880s, and it became an ecclesiastical faculty in 1956. All of my predecessors were priests and bishops.”

Three years after her appointment as President of the Catholic Institute of Sydney, in October 2021, Sr. M. Isabell was called by Pope Francis to be a member of the International Theological Commission (ITC).

Handling questions of major importance to the Church

The task of the ITC is to help the Holy See, especially the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, examine doctrinal questions of major importance.

The members are nominated by the Holy Father for five years after having been proposed by the Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation and after consultation with the Bishops’ Conferences.

Sr. M. Isabell is one of the few women in the Commission. “We are only five women, and we are all together a group of 29,” she said.

Sr. M. Isabell Naumann meeting Pope Francis in November 2017

The womanly way of thinking and approaching a topic

In her opinion, there should be a stronger presence of women in such commissions like the ITC. She finds this important, “so that you have more complementary thinking.”

“It is very important because we might deal with the same topic, but you have different ways of approaching the topic, and in my eyes that is a very important complement, and that needs to come together when you deal with anything in theology,” she explained, expressing her hope that there will be more women on such commissions in future.

Pope Francis often stresses the importance of woman and their role within the Church.

In an address delivered to the ITC on November 30, 2023, he said, “Women have a capacity for theological reflection that is different to that of us men. The Church is woman. And if we do not know what a woman is, what the theology of a woman is, we will never understand what the Church is.”

The Pope then added, “And this is a task that I ask of you, please. To make the Church less masculine.”

Having worked in ecclesial circles for many years, Sr. Isabell has come to appreciate the unique contribution that women have to give to the Church. 

The Marian Charism of the community of the Schoenstatt Sisters of Mary, to which Sr. Isabell belongs, places a particular emphasis on helping women embrace and develop their unique feminine identity and thus enrich society and the Church.

In her work in education, administration and academic research for the Church, the German-born sister sees a concrete way of living her community’s charism and contributing to the feminine or Marian aspect within the Church.

Importance of women in priestly formation

Before becoming president of the Catholic Institute of Sydney, the Schoenstatt Sister of Mary worked for eleven years as dean of studies in the seminary.

“I was actually the first woman dean of studies in a seminary (the Good Shepherd Seminary in Sydney) here in Australia. Normally it's not a woman,” she said.

She spoke of the particular importance of having women involved in the formation of priests. “That was very important,” she added, “because when it came to decision making: ‘does this candidate really have a calling?’ Men would often approach it from a particular side, but women, because we are more relational, we have a different way of looking at a person,” she explained. “And in my experience, that was a very healthy and a very sound way of coming to a decision.”

Sr. M. Isabell summed up her experience saying, “I could see how important it is that whenever we deal with education, with anything that has to do with the human person, you need to have both the masculine and the feminine way of thinking represented.”

This story was adapted from