Print edition : September 24, 2004

Immensely rich and diverse in schools of thought, the methodologies and theoretical paradigms employed, and the concerns addressed, feminist theology has come to represent a major force in contemporary theology, both Christian and non-Christian. According to the leading Catholic feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether, Christian feminist theology adopts a critical-reconstructive approach to established mainstream theology. In its critical mode, it "question[s] the patterns of theology that justify male domination and female subordination". For instance, feminist theology criticises the "exclusive male language for God, the view that males are more like God than females, that only males can represent God as leaders in Church and society... ." On the other hand, it reconstructs and redefines "basic theological symbols of God, humanity, male, female... " in a "gender-inclusive and egalitarian way".

Retrieved and developed in the process are "nascent egalitarian and positive female themes in the Christian tradition". However, Rosemary Radford Ruether adds, this retrieval per se does not constitute a feminist reading. It is, in fact, based on the awareness that "symbols, including theological symbols, are socially constructed" and hence open to fundamental change ("The Emergence of Christian Feminist Theology"; The Cambridge Companion to Feminist Theology; pages 3-4).

One of the most prominent Catholic feminist theologians is Susan A. Ross, currently Professor of Theology and Faculty Scholar at the Jesuit-run Loyola University, Chicago. Author of the path-breaking Extravagant Affections: A Feminist Sacramental Theology and co-editor of Broken and Whole: Essays on Religion and the Body, she has to her credit several articles and book chapters on such topics as women and Eucharist, embodiment, feminist theology and ethics. Prof. Susan A. Ross is the recipient of a Louisville Institute Sabbatical Grant, the 1999 Book of the Year Award from the College Theology Society and the Ann O'Hara Graff Award of the Women's Seminar of the Catholic Theological Society of America.

In this e-mail interview she gave Nandagopal R. Menon, Prof. Susan A. Ross spoke about various aspects of the Vatican document on feminism. Excerpts:

Is there any significance in the time chosen to issue the document, especially since the feminist movement is no longer vibrant and active? In other words, is there a socio-political context that necessitated its release now? Earlier major Vatican documents concerning women were issued to coincide with specific occasions - the Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem (1988; on the occasion of the Marian Year) and "Letter to Women" (1995; on the occasion of the Fourth World Conference on Women, Beijing).

First, I would strongly disagree that "the feminist movement is no longer vibrant and active". The movement may not have the excitement it had 20 or 30 years ago when the question of women's rights was still something of a novelty. Rather, thankfully, the feminist movement has become more mainstream. But the concerns about women's health and education remain critical, especially with the problem of HIV/AIDS [human immunodeficiency virus/acquired immune deficiency syndrome] having a particularly severe impact on women. Women in many parts of the world have found their voices and are using them, for achieving economic goals (for example, women's cooperatives), for ensuring education of girls and women, and for attaining political goals (for example, the right to vote, to have women's concerns represented in the political process). Without feminism, the growing grassroots movements of women all over the world struggling for their rights would not have the impact they do in the present.

In terms of the timing of this document, I do not know if there is any particular significance. The document was issued on May 31, the Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I can only speculate that the document was issued because the Vatican still perceives feminism to be a threat. While feminism may not be grabbing the headlines, there are more and more women who are active in the Church, speaking out against injustice, both in the Church and in society, and the movement is not going away.

But the Vatican's understanding of feminism is a distorted one. The document says: "A first tendency is to emphasise strongly conditions of subordination in order to give rise to antagonism: women, in order to be themselves, must make themselves the adversaries of men (#2)." Later, the document says, "these observations seek to correct the perspective which views men as enemies to be overcome (#14)". Yes, feminism emphasises conditions of subordination, but the point is not to make women adversaries of men, but rather to name the oppressive conditions that must be overcome. There is a small radical minority in feminism represented by Mary Daly, which has characterised men as the enemy. But this hardly represents the mainstream of feminism, and certainly not of feminist theology. I should note, however, that Mary Daly's powerful contributions have contributed much to contemporary religious feminism, even if it has not adopted her strong positions.

As it has done in the past (for example, Pope Pius X's 1907 encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis, which condemned "Modernism"), the Vatican has created an enemy and then attacked it. If one reads the document carefully, one will note that nowhere does the Vatican acknowledge the historical subordination of women or its own role in perpetuating this subordination. Even the U.S. bishops have acknowledged the "sin of sexism", but the Vatican writes as if it has always supported women's full equality, as if there has never been a problem in its long history.

The "second tendency" that the Vatican identifies and condemns is the distinction between (biological) sex and (cultural) gender. Here again, the Vatican is unable to deal with these ideas in terms other than caricature. While it is true that the sex/gender distinction is very important for feminism, it is not an absolute "either/or", as the Vatican charges ("the human attempt to be freed from one's biological conditioning", #3). The Vatican appears not to recognise that what it means to be "masculine" or "feminine" may be related to cultural or historical conditions.

The document starts off with the claim that in contrast to "certain currents of thought which are often at variance with the authentic advancement of women", the Church puts forward a view "inspired by the doctrinal elements of the biblical vision of the human person that are indispensable for safeguarding his or her identity". Is this "vision" based on a tenable and credible exegesis?

The vision that the Vatican proposes in this document is the one that has been advanced by Pope John Paul II since the beginning of his papacy and even before that, with his writings on sexuality. The understanding is that the relationship between men and women is analogous to the relationship between God and humanity, and Christ and the Church - that is, the Bridegroom-Bride relationship ("God makes himself known as the Bridegroom who loves Israel his Bride", #9). This is based on the Vatican's exegesis of certain biblical texts, particularly the Genesis 2-3 account.

Now, I would say that much of what the document says is very positive: the document emphasises the importance of relationship and community (#5), points that both religious and secular feminism also emphasise. The document comments that sin has distorted this relationship (#7). Later in the document, the significance of what the Vatican calls "feminine values" are highlighted: a sensitivity to the "concrete" over "abstractions" (#13), and an interpretation of virginity that "refutes any attempt to enclose women in mere biological destiny" (#13). These too are legitimate points and have also been emphasised by movements in feminism (for example, Carol Gilligan and others' "Ethic of Care", and feminist biblical scholars' work on the significance of virginity).

But the basic problem, as I see it, is that the Vatican has literalised the metaphor of Bridegroom and Bride. Its exegesis is primarily a "spiritual" and "allegorical" one and does not take into account a historical-critical exegesis, which would highlight not only the various positive but also negative ways that this metaphor has been used. As the document says, "the terms bridegroom and bride... are much more than simple metaphors" (#9). But metaphors, especially metaphors that continue to have power, are never "simple". It is, in fact, the Vatican that has given this metaphor a "simple" interpretation. This very complex metaphor goes back a very long way, not just to the Hebrew Bible but to the religious traditions that predated Judaism and which emphasised the divine spousal relationship. The Hebrew prophets took up this metaphor from these Canaanite religions, which saw the divine as god and goddess, and transformed this relationship into the spousal one between God and Israel. A historical-critical exegesis would reveal that the use of the Bride-Bridegroom metaphor needs critical examination insofar as it suggests that sinfulness is always on the part of the woman (for example, in the Old Testament where Israel is condemned for its "prostitution"). This metaphor has been used throughout the history of Christianity to characterise the relationship between Christ and the Church and God and humanity as one of intimacy.

But the Vatican's use of this metaphor takes it literally: God becomes male, Christ's incarnation is not just in human form, but deliberately male form (#10), and "the feminine" is ultimately modelled in Mary, whose being is "listening and receiving" (#15). This idea stereotypes men and women and suggests that men are more like God than women. While men, as humans, share in humanity's "femininity", yet can take the role of the Bridegroom and model God and Christ to (feminine) humanity, women are only on one side of the model, always in the position of "listening and receiving", never as ones who initiate or lead.

So this exegesis is certainly in the Church's long tradition of allegorical interpretation of the scriptures, but it fails to recognise the danger of idolatry in defining God as male, and renders female humanity as ontologically different and secondary to male humanity.

In what is perceived as a reference to feminist theology and feminist biblical hermeneutics, the document criticises interpreting the Bible as "handing on a patriarchal conception of God nourished by an essentially male-dominated culture" and diminishing "the relevance [of] the fact that the Son of God assumed human nature in its male form". As a feminist theologian, how do you respond to these charges?

To say that the Bible "hand[s] on a patriarchal conception of God nourished by an essentially male-dominated culture" is hardly revolutionary! One has only to read the Bible to see its patriarchal nature - for example, passages that identify women as possessions; that tell men to "stay away from women" before receiving the Covenant from God at Sinai; that identify Israel as a whore and a prostitute; that render women who give birth to girls impure for twice the amount of time than women who give birth to boys; and that say women should keep silent in the churches and are responsible for original sin. The list could go on and on.

But this is only part of the story. Feminist biblical critics, while recognising the patriarchal context - this is simply a historical fact - nevertheless also recognise that the Hebrew and Christian scriptures reveal a God who takes the side of the innocent, who loves humanity as a mother loves her children. Again, the Vatican sees part of the story, not the whole of it. It is very important to recognise the patriarchal context here, so as to avoid a literalism that would look to the Bible for justification for women's subordinate status as well as for keeping slaves! Recognising and naming patriarchy and other social-historical realities helps to explain why these passages appear in the Bible and helps to say why their context is different from the present (where we no longer hold to these ideas).

The second point, about "the relevance [of] the fact that the Son of God assumed human nature in its male form", is more complex. No feminist would deny that Jesus was born male. That is simply a historical fact. The problem with giving it such increased emphasis suggests that male humanity is more adequate to receive the form of the divine than is female humanity. Christians believe that man and woman were both created "in the image and likeness of God".

Elizabeth Johnson, a feminist theologian at Fordham University in New York and the author of She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (New York, 1992), puts it quite well: "In particular, when Jesus' maleness, which belongs to his historical identity, is interpreted to be essential to his redeeming christic function and identity, then the Christ serves as a religious tool for marginalising and excluding women" (page 151). "Maleness," she writes, "appears to be of the essence of the God made known in Jesus" (page 152). This suggests that only males can adequately represent Christ, which is the main reason the Vatican gives for refusing to ordain women. Feminist theologians argue that placing such a strong emphasis on Jesus' maleness serves to make God more "male" than "female" and to make the assumption of human nature on the part of Christ to be the assumption of male nature. And if male human nature is normative for humanity, then is the humanity of women fully redeemed in Christ? These are some of the critical questions that feminist theology raises about this point.

From a theological perspective, the document has been accused of laying too much emphasis on the "gender complementarity" model and ignoring the necessity of defining the "sacramental significance" of the female body. Your comments.

Yes, I would agree that the document places too much emphasis on "gender complementarity". As I have already said, male and female humanity are defined by the Vatican as ontologically different - that is, different in their very being. I do not wish to deny any differences between women and men. There are obvious biological differences, and I also would say that one cannot ignore biology's role in the cultural and psychological dimensions of maleness and femaleness. Sexual responsiveness, verbal and spatial ability, to take just two examples, are ways in which males and females differ not only culturally but also in some "hard-wired" ways. But we are just at the beginning point of learning more about these differences, and it is a mistake for either feminists or the Vatican to think that we "know" exactly what the biological and cultural differences are. While the Vatican puts so much stress on the "listening and receiving" qualities of women, I find it very strange that the Church "herself", as the Vatican always describes the Church in feminine terms, does not "herself" also engage in the listening and receiving process from the voices of women around the world. The entire structure of the "feminine" Church is oddly masculine: a hierarchical structure of men passing on power to men. The governing structure of the Church is entirely male.

Some years ago, an American bishop travelled around his diocese to listen to the voices of women on the issue of abortion. He wanted to know, from women themselves, why it was that equal numbers of Catholic and Protestant women sought to end their pregnancies. He did not want to condemn; he wanted to listen and learn. Soon after, the honorary doctorate that he was to have received from a prominent European university was withdrawn. Another American bishop, during the same time (in the late 1980s and early 1990s) that U.S. bishops were trying to draft a pastoral letter on "women's concerns", was told by the Vatican that his role was not to learn from women; it was to teach them. I find this very telling: the Vatican itself does not open itself to listening to the voices of women.

The "sacramental significance" of the female body is that it is in the image and likeness of God. Like all bodies, it is capable of pleasure, of good and evil acts. Women's bodies, with their cyclical hormonal processes, echo the processes of nature, but in fact all human beings are "natural", men as well as women. Both women's and men's "natural" processes develop and change over time. It is, I think, a mistake to say that women are "closer" to nature than men are, since such an identification tends to contrast "nature" with "culture" and place women on the (lower) side of nature. Female bodies are as symbolic of God's love and delight in creation as are male bodies: God's care for children, God's anger at injustice, God's mercy toward sinners, and God's ultimate incomprehensibility.

From the viewpoint of feminist theology, what can be a truly Christian vision of a woman? Can Virgin Mary be taken as the model of an ideal Christian or, even, non-Christian woman?

Many books have developed a theological anthropology that is informed by the voice and experiences of women. But just for a start, I would suggest that such a vision is modelled on the life and message of Jesus. I find it very interesting that the Vatican continually emphasises Mary as the model for womanhood. Mary is, of course, a wonderful model, in that her openness to God allowed her to bear Jesus, who Christians see as the Son of God, and that her fidelity to her son remained steadfast throughout his life.

But I would, again, defer to my colleague Elizabeth Johnson, who in her book Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints, places Mary with and among humanity, not above it, as a quasi-goddess. A truly Christian vision of a woman - or of a man - is a vision that holds that the unity of our body and soul is in the image of God; that our sexuality was given us for our delight and for our future; that our rationality and our emotions were given us so that we could understand and relate to the world around us with intelligence and care; that we have obligations to our families and our communities to love them but also to work with them for the betterment of the world.

The feminist movement was born out of the realisation that women's voices were not being heard, that women's many talents were not being used, that violence against women and children was rampant in the world, that we could only make a better world when all of humanity, men and women together, could fully participate in its future. I find it sad that the Vatican continues to see feminism as an enemy. I think only when the Vatican allows itself to take on a receptive and listening role in relation to those of us who are not clerics will it be able to understand why the Church, and indeed the world, needs feminism.

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