RDBook: Feminist Theologian Defies the Vatican Agenda

Catholic Does Not Equal the Vatican
By Rosemary Radford Ruether
(The New Press, 2008)

What Rosemary Radford Ruether does, time and time again, is not so much strike down the ideas of her adversaries as render them ineffectual by the power of her reason, the vastness of her historical knowledge, and the accuracy of her moral compass.

The eminent Roman Catholic feminist theologian does it with wit and drollery, with courage and freedom, and with the humility that truly great minds practice, without consciously doing so. Reading her is bracing, even exhilarating.

I would never have got through the last 40 years of Roman Catholic history with my feminist identity intact and my spirit unembittered without the companionship of her work. On a couple of occasions at women’s meetings on sexual and reproductive rights, we have met, even breakfasted. In a dry midwestern voice, she lets you know you are understood and appreciated. She is one of only a few Americans who truly get the Canadian picture.

Last July, the Catholic University of San Diego rescinded an invitation which had been made to her (she lives in California now) to teach ecological theology part-time for a semester at the school. The provost gave in to a right-wing group which had objected to Ruether being on the board of Catholics for Choice in Washington. Two thousand letters flooded the provost’s office upbraiding the university for its decision.

“It signals,” Ruether says mildly, “something very disturbing about the state of intellectual freedom at Catholic universities. Where, if not in Catholic universities, can controversial issues be discussed?”

One must pose this question to leaders of our many Catholic colleges aud universities: Regis College and St. Michael’s University in Toronto, for example. Obedience, even servility, to ecclesial power reigns. Critical Catholic thinkers who diverge from the views of the magisterium are excluded. One thinks of Charles Curran, Hans Kung, Roger Haight. Think of the feminists, some in Canada, made utterly invisible.

Rosemary Ruether’s response to small-mindedness is to write another bestselling book. This time, in late 2008, it is Catholic Does Not Equal the Vatican. You bet it doesn’t.

In just 142 pages, six chapters, with not a wasted word, Ruether lays out once again her critique of ecclesial patriarchy as life-denying and institution-killing.

“When I open her books,” writes Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, president of the Chicago Theological Seminary, in the foreword to the new book, “a force of mind and heart comes out that simply will not submit to patriarchy. In a truly just world, she would be Pope.”

Always a liberationist, Ruether calls again for a church committed to the vision of Jesus, “rooted in the person and ministry of Jesus Christ.” But the present Vatican regime takes its model of being from fourth-century Roman imperialism and eighteenth-century European monarchy. Worse, it proclaims itself infallible, without error, which, to Ruether is the ultimate sin, a form of self-idolatry.

She calls, as she has in her forty books and one hundred articles, for a rejection of sexism and sexual pathology, an embrace of other cultures and religions, an option for the poor and a focus on the environment. Facing entrenched Vatican power, can one conclude that she is deluded, masochistic? Are millions of progressive Catholics who share her views deluded, engaged in a futile exercise? That is always a possibility. The direction of the Roman administration is backward, toward Vatican I, its officers adherents of the sect Opus Dei, its theologies retrogressive, exclusionary, and misogynist. Quite an agenda to defy. “I feel both helpless and urgent,” she says.

But life, wisdom, is in the community. “Catholicism is an important expression of historical Christianity in the West, and its reform is vital to many around the world who are part of this church, and others affected by its presence and power.”

As one who witnessed the machinations of the Vatican delegation at the United Nations around the Beijing Conference on Women in 1995 and again at the “Beijing Plus Five” review in 2000, I endorse the rationale behind her decision to take up her powerful critical work again.

Ruether says critics and reformers need an attachment to hope for the future. There is somewhere, perhaps everywhere, a Roman Catholicism which is progressive, sexually mature, globally-minded, even prophetic. By once again clearing away the debris which clouds thinking and can enervate the reformer, she advances the discovery of this Catholicism, not for itself but for the world in which it lives.