Close encounter with feminist theology

Close encounter with feminist theology

Dr Frank Mobbs

There has been considerable controversy over the place of so-called feminist theology in the Catholic Church. Recent editions of 'The Australian' publicised complaints by a number of Catholics at some disturbing aspects of this "theology" as presented at Sydney's Aquinas Academy Summer Schools 1990.

Dr Frank Mobbs, an experienced writer, philosopher, lecturer and teacher attended one of the Summer Schools in question and filed this report for AD2000.

Australian theology got away to a shaky start in 1990.

In Sydney the Aquinas Academy ran concurrently two summer schools, one entitled Feminist Theology, the other A Feminist Spirituality.

I attended five mornings of strenuous endeavour in the field of feminist theology. The course was given by Ann Louise Gilligan, PhD, a charming lady from Dublin.

She is not to be confused with Katherine Zappone, PhD, who taught the other course and whose remarks on lesbianism produced a spirited correspondence in The Australian during January.

Dr Gilligan began by telling the hundred or so she-persons and half-a-dozen he-persons that she expected the course to be a "conversation", a "sharing". What did she share?

Feminist theology has grown out of liberation theology. It challenges the way we know, she said, and calls us to shift our horizons, a task which involves pain and threat.

Clearly we were being prepared for something big. The big thing turned out to be a vision of men and women living as "mutual and equal".

What that meant was not explained, but apparently it is the opposite to the way we have lived since the time when the rot began - with Adam and Eve.

It transpires that, ever since Those Two, women have been horribly oppressed by men. But what has this to do with theology (theos = God)?

Dr Gilligan warmed to her thesis. Christian theology suffers from a fatal flaw, an original sin, an aboriginal calamity, in that it has been formulated and written by men. In order to hear what God has to say we must listen to the voice of women - "the locus of divine realities is not just men but also women."

This astounding information was well received, showing that the audience was prepared for adventuresome theology.


Something called "women's experience", she continued, is the test of the truth of all theological statements. One might object: How is women's experience different from men's, so as to make theology radically different?

This objection was no trouble to Dr Gilligan. She referred to three male, classical theologians who all said that the original sin was pride and had generalised to the conclusion that the greatest human sin is pride.

But feminist theologians say that this does not accord with women's experience, for they know that women are not proud - not at all.

I have to confess that Dr Gilligan made her point. I had no idea that her women's experience is that different.

Images of God is a terrible problem, our lecturer repeatedly affirmed. So we did little exercises in constructing new images of God, satisfactory ones (e.g., God is Presence), more appealing to the contemporary female.

What was so wrong with the old ones? They were "patriarchal" and, therefore, rendered women invisible. They had legitimised all sorts of nasty treatments of women. They had to go.

I was a trifle puzzled. After all, Dr Gilligan had already pointed out that God is neither male nor female (which is not so surprising, seeing that God is bodiless.)

Yes, I thought to myself, the Bible pictures God as having a character like that of a human father. God loves Israel as a father loves his son, and so on. However, the Old Testament contains many other pictures of God which owe nothing to a resemblance to a human father. For instance, the opening chapters of Genesis tell of the work of the Creator, not of the Father.

But the image of God as Father dominates, insisted Dr Gilligan. She refrained from naming the culprit and we can only be grateful for such delicacy. However all that she said pointed the finger at the Lord, Jesus Christ. He is the one who addressed God as "Father", advised his followers to speak to God as "Our Father", and frequently referred to God as "the Father".

So now we knew who had given wicked men a stick with which to beat women ever since.

All this led to Christology, the doctrine of the person of Christ, a doctrine long overdue for a re-write, she told us.

So we formed groups to discuss the question: Can Christology be liberated from the structures of patriarchy and be reformulated as a subversive force for the transformation of the world?

It was a deep question. Too deep, for not much emerged from the discussions, maybe because we had difficulty figuring out what the question meant.

Not that it mattered. One of the participants made practical suggestions. (This is called "praxis"). Why not make and distribute cards showing women of the Bible? How about ensuring that new churches are named in honour of women? Mary the Priest could be the new image because did she not give flesh and blood to Jesus? Mary the Priest would demonstrate conclusively that it is not necessary to restrict the priesthood to males.

At this point I realised my theology was antiquated. I had always been under the impression that priests transformed bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus, not that they gave birth to him.

Where lay the remedy for these deplorable notions of God?

"Retrieval" was the answer. We must explore the sources of Christian tradition and retrieve from them better, that is, female images of God.

Which brought us to the Bible. We were told that it contains significant texts. Isaiah 45:15, for example: "Truly you are a God who hides yourself, O God of Israel, a Saviour." The significance escaped me. Then Isaiah 42:14: "I (God) cry out like a woman in travail, I groan, my breath comes out in gasps." So God's crying out is like a woman's.

Dr Gilligan recalled that as a child in Ireland she was often told about a man, Moses, but never was her attention drawn to the women, the Egyptian midwives, who disobeyed Pharaoh. That's Ireland for you.

How about the New Testament? There are notable parables. Like the one about the leaven (Matthew 13:33): "The kingdom of heaven is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal until all was leavened."

I am still searching for an image of God here.

Then there is the Widow's Mite (Luke 21:1-4). From the little she had the widow gave generously to the treasury. Note - a widow, a woman. We were learning more and more about God.

Try Acts 17: 28. St Paul is speaking: "For in him (God) we live, and move, and have our being." This, said Dr Gilligan, suggests a cosmic womb. Got it? I confess I failed to get the message. It seemed not to fit with the line which follows: "as certain of your poets have said, 'For we also are his offspring'."

Meagre results

Obviously the canonical Scriptures were producing meagre results. To remedy this deficiency, Dr Gilligan several times urged us to go "beyond" them, to search the Gnostic Gospels wherein we would find a rich harvest of both female and male images of God.

But were not the Gnostic Gospels heretical? Our lecturer assured us that their authors had not believed they were in heresy. It is just that the books were omitted from the Church's official list of writings.

I could only admire Dr Gilligan's easy-going approach to the Bible.

I continued to learn. In a discussion group a theological nun revealed that she found portrayals of the Crucifixion disgusting: "All that masochism." She shuddered. Convent parlours for her were a particular trial, with their pictures of the Madonna and Child. "How can a celibate woman identify with that?" she cried.

Just then the great bell of the nearby church tried in vain to call us to the Angelus.

Overall, the participants in the course appeared much gratified by the teaching. On different days they expressed their particular appreciation for a quotation provided by Dr Gilligan: "Self-realisation for women is a higher duty than self-sacrifice." They resonated profoundly with this sentiment.

I am not at all clear what "self-realisation" meant here. However, it is commonly said to involve loving oneself. If so, it possesses all the advantages of antiquity, for St Paul in 65 AD seems to have been familiar with it.

"For people will be lovers of themselves ... lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God ... Have nothing to do with such people. For among them are those who make their way into households and gain control over weak women burdened with sins and swayed by various impulses who will listen to anybody" (II Timothy 3: 1-7), (Fr Raymond Brown's translation).

But nothing aroused such intensity of sisterly feelings as the quotation, "Women are the night watchers of hope waiting for the dawn". The room was hushed whilst the magic of the words penetrated every heart.

I glanced at the painting of St Thomas Aquinas, patron of the Aquinas Academy.

He winked.

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