Women in the Church: Revising Traditional Theology


First, regarding exclusive language and the image of God. Many women criticize the Church for its theology, its message about God and humankind. Traditionally this has been presented in a way which can give an unthinking support for the exclusion of women. So, although Scripture and Philosophy tell us that, strictly speaking, God is neither male nor female, the pre-dominance of male language in speaking about God as Father creates an impression that God is really male, and the maleness in humanity is therefore closer to the divine ideal. Elizabeth Johnson notes the harmful implications of this: ‘since the concept of God defines and orients a whole way of life and understanding, sustaining a moral universe, exclusive masculinity presumed in the traditional doctrine of God has also had profound consequences beyond the idea of God,’ instancing in particular the harsh treatment of women by men. The figure of Jesus can be presented in Church teaching in a way, which emphasises God’s maleness over God’s humanity and so is alienating for women.

Feminist theologians call for the use of many metaphors and models for God and for divine – human relationships, since none alone is adequate. One suggestion is the metaphor of God as ‘friend’.[1] There is biblical basis in Jesus’ saying about laying down one’s life for one’s friends (Jn 15: 13) and his reference to the Son of Man as friend of tax-collectors and sinners (Mt 11: 19); Jesus is the parable of God’s friendship with people. That friendship is shown in his parables of the Lost Sheep, the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, and the ‘enacted parable’ of his table fellowship with sinners. The Gospels describe Jesus as critical of familial ties and his presence as transforming the lives of his friends. Friendship to the stranger, both as individual and as nation or culture, is a model for the future on our increasingly small and beleaguered planet where, if people do not become friends, they will not survive.

The metaphor of God as friend corresponds to the feminist ideal of ‘communal personhood’, a relationship among persons and groups that is non-competitive and mutual. It responds to feminist concerns for expressions of divine-human relation that overcome images of religious self-denial that have shaped women’s experience and engendered internalised patterns of low self-esteem, passivity, and irresponsibility and to the search for concepts of mutuality, self-creation in community, and the creation of ever wider communities with other persons and with the world.[2]

The theme of God’s friendship is intensified in the life and death of Jesus, who reveals a God who suffers for people and invites them into a fellowship of suffering for others.[3] It unites theology with feminist spirituality in its emphasis on women’s friendship and non-competitive, non-hierarchical mutuality and interdependence.

Second, regarding traditional teaching on sin and grace. Another issue relates to the Church’s teaching on sin. In traditional Church teaching pride is often seen to be at the heart of Original Sin. However, for many women, a more appropriate way of describing Original Sin is to look at their loss of pride, their loss of sense of self, their low self-esteem and their lack of confidence. Many women too are wary about an image of Jesus, which stresses his obedience and self-sacrificing love. Too often they have had to assume a passive, subordinate role without choice. The self-sacrificing love of Jesus presumes a strong sense of his own personhood, an ability to assert himself even to the point of handing himself over to the power of others for a greater good. The forced subordination which so many women experience can often seem a parody of such love. Women are too easily seen in their own and other’s eyes as wives, sisters, daughters, and mothers, and only secondly and derivatively as persons. Women are made by our culture to bear undue responsibility for nurturing relationships.

The Christian stress on love and relationship needs to be presented with more sensitivity for the basic personal equality and mutual responsibility, which ought to inform all human relationships. This could also lead to a richer understanding of the relationship of both men and women with God. Above all, Christian theology needs to recover a greater sense of the scandalizing and liberating relationship of Jesus to women in his own day, and his preaching of a kingdom in which male and female relate as equals and not as masters and slaves (‘neither male nor female…’ Gal 3: 28). The Church needs to rethink and find a new way to present its Good News through the eyes of both men and women. In doing so we will find once again that the theology of relationship developed by women theologians is valuable not just in correcting a clear injustice, but also in offering us all a deeper understanding of our relationships with one another and with God.

Dermot Lane, the Irish theologian notes that underlying many of the difficulties involved in relationships between men and women is a particular view of humanity.[4] He thus sees women as equal but different from men. However, the way this difference is presented is crucial. In practice, Lane argues that this is done in a way that shows women are somehow subordinate to men. A more Gospel-faithful view would see men and women as equal and different. In this view the difference is secondary and is seen as a source of enrichment, not subordination. The Church is charged to preach a Gospel of respect and equality. It should not give any credibility to a way of thinking which reinforces exclusion and discrimination against women.

Third, regarding the image of the Virgin Mary. The image of the Virgin Mary, Mother of God, has entered deeply into Catholic imagination. There has been an acknowledgement since Vatican II, not least in the Encyclical Marialis Cultus (1974) of Pope Paul VI, that many of the historical expressions of Marian devotion and theology have been subject to exaggeration in a way that people today quite rightly feel to be culturally alien. Women in particular have reacted against a role-model which is presented as passive and submissive, as implying a denigration of their own sexuality, and which seems to limit their sphere of influence to the domestic and the private. This ‘privilege centred approach’ to Mary, stressing what separated her from the rest of humankind, has made it difficult to identify with her. Faced with the spiritual and patristic contrast between Eve and Mary, it has not been easy for women to see themselves like this perfect woman, without sin or fault, both virgin and mother. This repressive idealization of womanhood has not been helpful for men either. It has encouraged a romantic, sentimentalised view of women, which has simply reinforced traditional gender stereotypes and done little to challenge a patriarchal culture.

Women must occupy less powerful positions in society than men and they are paid less. This is true of business, education, academic life, law, medicine, and politics. The particular values the Church has emphasised in devotion to the Virgin Mary may have had an influence in keeping women in less powerful positions. Among many sections of the Church the ideal woman is still probably one who has children, stays at home, looks after them and cooks for her busy husband. There is very little stress on the contribution that women can make to the wider society, for example in an area such as business, politics, education, theology, science, medicine, etc.

There is of course a much less sweet, more challenging theology of Mary available to Roman Catholics today. It is based on the teachings of Vatican II, further developed by Pope Paul VI and in particular by John Paul II,[5] and is being creatively carried forward in modern theology.[6] This theology is mindful of the rightful equality of women in society today. It sees Mary as the first disciple of Jesus who said ‘Yes’ in a daring, faith-filled, free and active response to his world-changing message, a strong woman who experienced poverty, flight, exile and suffering, a mother who would have been influential in the shaping of her Son’s saving grace, and is a type of the Church and of discipleship with whom we can identify. And so a more sober contemporary imagination would include in its litany to Mary titles, not like ‘Tower of Ivory’, ‘House of Gold’, but more like ‘Mother of the Homeless’, ‘Widowed Mother’, Unwed Mother’, ‘Mother of a Political Prisoner’, ‘Liberator of the Oppressed’, Seeker of Sanctuary’, First Disciple’…[7] The trouble is, of course, that it takes time for a new conceptual theology to become devotional forms for a culturally more relevant image of Mary. In the meantime we need to be aware of the psychological images that we have inherited and we need to continue to be critical of them.

[1] Cf. S. McFague, Metaphorical Theology: Models of God in Religious Language, Philadelphia 1982; Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age, Philadelphia 1987.

[2] Cf. J. Plaskow, Sex, Sin and Grace: Women’s Experience and the Theologies of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, Washington D.C., 1980.

[3] Cf. E. Moltmann-Wendel & J. Moltmann, Humanity In God, New York 1982.

[4] D. Lane, “The Equality of all in Christ: theological reflections”, paper given at the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace study day, Dublin 1993.

[5] Cf. John Paul II, Redemptoris Mater, 1987; Mulieris Dignitatem, 1988.

[6] Cf. M. Daly, Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation, Boston 1973; R. Ruether, New Woman, New Earth: Sexist Ideologies and Human Liberation, New York 1975; Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology, Boston 1983; E. Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins, London 1983; A. E. Carr, Transforming Grace: Christian Tradition and Women’s Experience, San Francisco 1988.

[7] Taken from the Litany of Mary of Nazareth, Pax Christi, USA.

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