AGENT FOR CHANGE American scholar Rosemary Radford Ruether was amongst the pioneers of feminist theology in the Catholic Church of the last half century.
Fr Kevin Hegarty
In the past year the archdiocese of Dublin, in common with Catholic dioceses throughout the world, has been involved in a consolation process with laity, priests and religions, as a preparation for the Synod of Bishops in Rome in October 2023. The hope is that the Synod will provide a template for the pastoral and theological renewal of Catholicism in the 21st century.
The Dublin consultation included 173 parishes which hosted gatherings for 10,500 participants. Launched last October, the results of the process were released earlier this month.
Among the significant findings is that the continued treatment of woman as less then co-equal with men is a source of anger, as well as of sadness. Across the vast majority, there is great hope that women will have a meaningful role in governance and ministries, including becoming deacons and priests. Parishes also expressed great openness to married men becoming priests. In this way the witness value of optional celibacy might be more evident. One parish concluded that ‘women and married priests would be much more in touch with people in the community – real people in touch with real people’.
Coincidentally, the Dublin report was issued a few days after the death of a woman who would have rejoiced in its findings. Rosemary Radford Ruether, an American scholar, was amongst the pioneers of feminist theology in the Catholic Church of the last half century.
Born in 1936 Minnesota, from childhood Rosemary was influenced and enriched by diverse Christian traditions, Her mother was Roman Catholic and her father a Protestant Episcopalian. After her father died when Rosemary was 12, her mother brought the family to San Diego. Here, she attended a school run by progressive nuns. A door opened in her childhood that let the future in.
At university, she intended to study art. After hearing a lecture in Scripps College on the classics she opted for that subject. An able student, she achieved a masters degree in the study of the ancient world. At college she continued scholarship with romance. She married Hermann J Ruether, a political science student and they had three children.
For her doctoral course, Rosemary chose Patristics, the study of early Christian writings. It led her into theological discourse and shaped the rest of her life. In her doctoral thesis she argued the male domination of the Christian message became embedded in the first century after Christ’s death. Starting with the Gospel of St John, church leaders and scholars had defined the institution doctrines through the perspective of men. She asserted that the Church needed a pluralistic approach that accommodated the diversity of human experience.
Not surprisingly her liberal stance attracted suspicion in the institution and Catholic Church, As she once said, the Church has ‘a problem with woman’. She lost her first teaching position at a Catholic college in Los Angeles in 1964 after writing an article advocating a change in the Church’s teaching on contraception. She never worked in the Catholic institution again. Most of her academic life was spent at Northwestern University in Illinois.
She was a prolific author. She wrote 40 books and at least 600 articles. Her main topic was Christianity and feminism, but she also wrote on redemption, the family, anti-Semitism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Jewish, Christian and Buddhist relationships and the ecological crisis. Her best known book is ‘Sexism and God Talk’, in which she considers the feminine dimension of God and argues the case for women’s ordination to the priesthood.
She remained a committed and critical Catholic. She liked the sacramentality of Catholicism, its prayer, rituals and symbols. In a tribute, after her death, in America Magazine, friend and fellow theologian Susan A Ross offered a positive assessment of Rosemary’s position: “By saying that Ruether was a Catholic on her own terms, I don’t mean that she rejected the tradition or invented her own form. Rather, she was a Catholic in a deeply thoughtful and communal way, but also in a way that often put her at odds with institutional authority because of her commitment to justice for women. In a very real sense Rosemary deliberately lived with in the tradition and on its margins.”
When asked why she remained a Catholic, Ruether replied that as ‘a feminist I can come up with only one reason to stay in the Catholic Church: to try to change it. You’re never going to change it if you leave. So that’s why I stay around’.
I share her sentiments.