Woman blazes path to train Catholic priests

On the bucolic Mundelein campus that houses a theological university and the largest Roman Catholic seminary in the U.S., there are 220 men studying to be priests — plus one woman about to join a small cadre of female faithful blazing new paths.

On Saturday, Dawn Eden Goldstein is expected to graduate from the campus' University of St. Mary of the Lake with a doctorate in sacred theology, which will allow her to help train aspiring priests. The feat marks the first time a woman at the north suburban school will earn such a degree.

Priests and administrators at the university emphasize that Goldstein, 47, is not earning her degree from Mundelein Seminary, but from St. Mary's, a co-ed theological school where most students are men. Still, Goldstein's accomplishment signals a new direction in American Catholicism.

"I've found a kind of equilibrium here," she said, referring to the cautious pride professors have expressed about her pursuit. "I'll be glad to move forward, but I'm thankful for the experience of being here."

She is earning the degree, issued by the authority of Pope Francis, at the same time Francis is pushing to raise the profile of women in the Catholic Church, most recently in his 260-page apostolic exhortation "Amoris Laetitia," in which he praised some aspects of women's liberation, though he did not go so far as to say women should be priests.

Goldstein is not calling for women's ordination. She's not condemning celibacy, and she voluntarily took a vow herself. She's simply pursuing an education to shape the church's ministers of tomorrow and mentor women who feel called to serve the church.

"There is a lot more room for women in leadership positions in the church than has been allowed in times past," she said.

But overcoming suspicion that she is out to alter church teachings from within has been one of many challenges facing Goldstein and other women who want to accept the pope's invitation to lead. Only a small number of lay women have earned the church's highest theology degree from one of the seven American institutions that offer it.

Some people bristle at the term "woman theologian," said Goldstein, sipping tea in the seminary's dining hall recently, surrounded by a sea of men. "People think 'feminist theologian with an ax to grind.'"

As a convert from Judaism, Goldstein has found a sense of spiritual fulfillment in the Catholic Church that she lacked for most of her first four decades.

Raised in a Reform Jewish household in New Jersey, Goldstein became an agnostic in 1981 after a rabbi preparing her for her bat mitzvah told her questions about her Torah portion belonged to scholars, not 13-year-old girls.

But by then, her connection to God already had begun to fray. At age 5, during her parents' divorce, she accused a staff member at the synagogue of sexually abusing her — an allegation the rabbi did not believe at the time, and one Goldstein did not pursue. Goldstein said she was abused a second time years later by someone close to her mother, leaving emotional wounds that one day would direct her calling.

In high school, she began writing for rock music publications and dropped Goldstein from her nom de plume. Though she never legally changed her name, she remained Dawn Eden for decades to come. After graduating from New York University in 1989 with a degree in communications, she continued writing about rock, composing liner notes, covering shows and interviewing musicians.

Battling bouts of suicidal depression, she found herself drawn to Jesus 10 years later and sought baptism at a Seventh-day Adventist church where she lived in Hoboken, N.J. But the Protestant denomination didn't hold much appeal for Goldstein. Initially, Catholicism's complex liturgy and lack of fellowship also turned her off. But the church's position against abortion rights and fertility treatments reflected Goldstein's political views.

In 2002, she launched a blog called The Dawn Patrol to rail against abortion rights, in-vitro fertilization and groups such as Planned Parenthood. During that time, she also worked as an editor and headline writer for Women's Wear Daily, The New York Post and New York Daily News. The blog occasionally prompted words of caution from editors — and eventually cost her her job at the Post.

She jokes that joining the Catholic Church in 2006 appealed to her rebellious streak.

"When I saw how the world is against the church, I did feel I was rebelling for something, for truth, for the dignity of human life — and that attracted me," she said. "It's not the main thing that attracts me now. If my only interest in the church was the pro-life teachings, then I think my life in the faith would be difficult to sustain."

By 2007, she left secular media to work for the Cardinal Newman Society, a conservative watchdog that monitors Catholic education. The organization eliminated her job within six months, leaving her without health insurance shortly before doctors discovered thyroid cancer.

Knowing she needed a full-time job with health insurance to cover the cost of any future treatment, she enrolled in a master's theology program at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., with the intent of working in Catholic college ministry when she was done. There, she fell in love with a different calling. Urged by a priest to change her plans and continue her education, she started down the road to a doctorate in May 2010.

In 2012, she wrote "My Peace I Give You," a book about how the lives of the saints could offer hope for abuse victims. As a Catholic, it disturbed her how defensive the church had become regarding the sexual abuse crisis.

"It's not enough for the church to simply be in damage control mode," she said. "We're not serving our mission as a church if we're not providing spiritual accompaniment to people who are hurting."

Goldstein has been inspired by Pope Francis' messages on the healing power of mercy, as well as his statements on women.

In his most recent papal document, he stated that women could and should help prepare men for the priesthood. She said it shows a respect for what women have to offer the church, without crossing the line into women's ordination, which she thinks would be heresy.

"There have been a number of female theologians that have shown it is possible to be a woman in theology writing on topics of importance to women, yet to not to take this subversive kind of view," Goldstein said.

Goldstein's sister, Jennifer Goldstein Lewis, a rabbi who lives in the Cincinnati area, thinks her sister will be a powerful force in the church and the formation of its clergy.

"She is such a thinker," Lewis said. "She's going to be a unique voice as she teaches these new priests."

The Rev. Nick Parker, a priest from the Diocese of Salina, Kan., who has lived across the hall from Goldstein for two years, has read all of her books and is struck by how she has transformed her personal pain to help others, including priests.

"Either you live in the misery of suffering or you find a way to transform it for the better," said Parker, who is pursuing the same canonical degree as Goldstein. "She's tried to transform her own past for the better."

Goldstein reflects a new zeal emerging among laypeople in the Catholic Church, said the Rev. Thomas Baima, vice rector of academic affairs at the University of St. Mary of the Lake Mundelein Seminary. But integrating women and laypeople into the seminary community has presented a steep learning curve in recent years, he said.

In a guest column for the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, Goldstein describes one particularly awkward moment during a worship service on campus. When the seminary rector called for all of the students to stand up, she did, then slumped back into her seat when he began lauding the 200 or so "men."

"I don't believe the outsider feeling came so much from being a woman in an overwhelmingly male environment as it did from being a layperson surrounded by future priests," Goldstein wrote in the Vatican newspaper.

"I did not envy my seminarian schoolmates' vocation, but I did envy their brotherhood."

Though she has gone by Dawn Eden her entire career, Goldstein has reclaimed her surname for the next chapter of her life. She already landed a job for next fall, teaching at a seminary overseas.

Last month, Goldstein, Parker and two other graduates traveled to The House of Hansen, a shop on Chicago's North Side that sells clerical vestments. Goldstein debated what to wear on the stage at graduation. What was the appropriate attire for a woman earning a canonical degree? After checking with the powers that be, she determined it was the same as the men's.

So at The House of Hansen, all four graduates were fitted for birettas, a square cap worn by Catholic clergymen and scholars with pontifical degrees. On the graduation stage Saturday, for the first time in the school's history, it will be worn by a woman.