Extract from: Elizaeth Schussler Fiorenza’s Women's Liberation and the Transformation of Christian Consciousness from Christ, Carol and Plaskow Judith
1979 Womanspirit Rising, Harper & Row., New York. 136
Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza received her Ph.D. from the University of Munster, Germany, and is Krister Stendahl Professor of Divinity at Harvard
Divinity School. Active in various Christian feminist groups, she has written several books on New Testament exegesis and feminist theology, including Der Vergessene Partner, Priester fur Gott, and The Apocalypse;
her articles have appeared in Theological Studies, The Liberating Word, and Women Priests. She is cofounder and coeditor of the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion (with Judith Plaskow) and coeditor of the
feminist issue of Concilium (with Anne Carr). She is author of many books including In Memory of Her and Bread Not Stone. This essay was originally published in National Institute for Campus Minitries Journal (Fall
... As a biblical scholar, I have long ceased to think of theology in "confessional" terms. My experience of feminist liturgies and theological
dialogue, moreover, has taught me that feminist theology is truly ecumenical, since the Christian as well as the Jewish religious tradition and symbols share in the same patriarchal culture and language. If I
therefore refer here to the Catholic vision, I do not intend to imply that this vision is not shared by other Christian churches and other religions, but only to say that my approach to the topic is strongly colored
by my experience as a Catholic woman and theologian. As a teacher of women's courses in theology at a Catholic university, moreover, I am challenged again and again to explore the relationship between feminism,
Christian faith, and the Catholic community and tradition.
When our daughter Christina was baptized, one of my college students asked me: "How can you with your feminist consciousness baptize a girl child
into such a patriarchal and sexist community as the Roman Catholic Church appears to be?" The former Roman Catholic theologian Mary Daly spells out this question in the most radical way when she insists that
the myth and symbols of Christianity are inherently and essentially sexist. "Since 'God' is male, the male is God. God the Father legitimates all earthly God-fathers" and "the idea of a unique divine
incarnation in a male, the God man of the 'hypostatic union' is inherently sexist and oppressive. Christolatry is idolatry."' The assertion of some theologians that Christ was male and, therefore, that women
cannot be ordained as priests and represent Christ before the community appears to substantiate Dr. Daly's contention. Yet if maleness is the essence of God, and maleness but not humanness the goal of incarnation,
how could women have been saved and made in baptism full members of the people of God?
It is, however, not so much theology but my own experience as a woman having grown up in the Catholic tradition that leads me to question that maleness
is the essence of Christian faith and theology. Despite all masculine terminology of prayers, catechism, and liturgy, despite blatant patriarchal male spiritual guidance, my commitment to Christian faith and love
first led me to question the feminine cultural role which parents, school and church had taught me to accept and to internalize. My vision of Christian life-style, responsibility, and community brought me to reject
the culturally imposed role of women and not vice versa. What was this liberating vision that came through to me despite all patriarchal packaging and sexist theological systematization? What was the driving force
or spirituality that led me to question and to reject the cultural myth of femininity? A comparison between radical feminist spirituality and the Christian spirituality which understands the Spirit, not in a
platonic sense but in the biblical sense of the divine power and dynamic enabling us to live as Christians, can show that both are inspired by the same vision, even though radical feminist spirituality is often
formulated over and against a patriarchal theology and sexist praxis of the Christian churches.
Feminist spirituality proclaims wholeness, healing love, and spiritual power not as hierarchical, as power over, but as power for as enabling power. It
proclaims the Goddess as the source of this power, as the enabling context of human lives and of a nonhierarchical, nonauthoritarian, noncompetitive community. The Goddess is the giver and nurturer of life, the
dispenser of love and happiness. Woman as her image is therefore not "the other" of the divine. She is not body and carnality in opposition to spirit and soul, not the perpetuator of evil and rebellion.
Being a woman, living in sisterhood under the aegis of the Goddess, brings us in touch with the creative, healing, life-giving power at the heart of the world. In my opinion, the Goddess of radical feminist
spirituality is not so very different from the God whom Jesus preached and whom he called "Father." In ever new images of life, love, light, compassion, mercy, care, peace, service, and community, the New
Testament writings attempt to speak of the God of Jesus Christ, and of this God's life- giving power, the Holy Spirit. All the New Testament authors agree that Christian faith has to be lived in the very concrete
praxis of agape. In various ways, they spell out that Jesus rejected all hierarchical forms and power in his community of followers and explicitly warned that Christian leadership should not be exercised in the
"powet to lord over others" but in serving.
The traditions about the Goddess and those of the New Testament are conflated in the Catholic community's cult of Mary. The more the Christian
understanding of God was patriarchalized-the more God became the majestic ruler and the stern judge, the more people turned to the figure and cult of Mary. The more Jesus Christ became divinized, the more it became
necessary to have a mediator between the majestic-transcendent God or his Son and the Christian community. One could almost say that through the dynamics of this development of the gradual patriarchalization of the
God image, Mary became the "other face," the Christian "face," of God. All the New Testament images and attributes which characterize God as loving, life giving, compassionate and caring, as
being with the people of God are now transferred to the "mother of God," who is as accessible as was the nonpatriarchal God whom Jesus preached.
Even though any Catholic school child can explain on an intellectual-theological level the difference between the worship of God and Christ and the
veneration of Mary, on an emotional, imaginative, experiential level the Catholic child experiences the love of God in the figure of a woman. Since in later piety Jesus Christ becomes so transcendentalized and
divinized that his incarnation and humanity are almost totally absorbed into his divinity, the "human face" of God is almost solely experienced in the image of a woman. The cult of Mary thus grew in
proportion to the gradual repatriarchalization of the Christian God and of Jesus Christ.
The Catholic tradition gives us thus the opportunity to experience the divine reality in the figure of a woman. The Catholic cult of Mary also provides
us with a tradition of female language and imagery to speak of the divine. Christian theology has always maintained that we can speak of God only in an "analogical way" and has never identified any human
concept or image of God with the divine reality. God transcends all our human perceptions and language expressions.
Yet the Jewish and Christian traditions have spoken of God predominantly in patriarchal language and imagery. We all are used to hearing: "God the
Father loves you, and if you join the brotherhood and fellowship of all Christians you will become sons of God and brothers of Christ, who died for all men." Such masculinized God language has communicated for
centuries to women that they are nonentities, subspecies of men, subordinated and inferior to men not only on a cultural but also on a religious plane. The combination of male language for God with the stress on the
sovereignty and absolute authority of the patriarchal God has sanctioned men's drive for power and domination in the church as well as in society. If Christianity preaches a God of love who liberates every person
for new possibilities and for discipleship, then we have to speak of this God in nonpatriarchal, nonsexist terms. Language about God, if it is rooted in a living faith and a living community, can and does change.
The cult of Mary in the Catholic church provides us with a tradition of theological language which speaks of the divine reality in female terms and symbols. This tradition encompasses the myth and symbols of the
Goddess religion and demonstrates that female language and symbols have a transparency towards God. Only if we speak of God in male and female terms will our language about God truly become "analogical."
Yet this female-matriarchal language ought not to be absolutized if we do not want to fall prey to a reverse sexist understanding of God. The Christian language about God has to transcend patriarchal as well as
matriarchal language and symbols, while at the same time employing a variety of human expressions to reflect a pluriformity of human experiences. The truly Christian God language has to affirm mutuality,
fulfillment, maturity, and human potentiality not only in terms of gender but also in terms of class, culture, race, and religion if it is to be truly catholic and universal. Christian faith would then enable all
kinds of people to affirm themselves as whole human persons, chosen and loved by God, and partaking in the divine reality. Moreover, such a truly Christian and Catholic spirituality would empower all of us to take
on responsibilities for eliminating discrimination, oppression and the sin of sexism and for building a new community of mutuality and pluriformity which would mirror the universality of God's redeeming presence and
let us experience her power of life and love.
The other liberating experience which the Catholic tradition provided for me as a woman is the assertion that everyone is called to sainthood. Even the
vocation to the priesthood is superseded by the call to become a saint. ... The biographies of the saints are indeed different from the "total woman" propagated by the feminine mystique. ... Women, as well
as men, are not defined by their biology and reproductive capabilities but by the call to discipleship and sainthood. The early Christians considered themselves as those who were called and elected by God, the
saints of God. This call broke through all limitations of religion, class, race, and gender. ... This definition of Christian self-identity was derived by the early Christians from the call to become disciples of
Jesus and members of the Christian community. Unfortunately, this early Christian self- understanding did not inform the definitions of Christian self-identity and Christian community proposed by later theology.
Instead, theology derived the understanding of Christian identity from cultural anthropology and gleaned the structures of the Christian community from patriarchal societal orders. Instead of formulating a new
Christian anthropology in accordance with the call to discipleship and sainthood, it spelled out Christian vocation and discipleship in terms of a cultural anthropology embedded in patriarchy.
Catholic theology and anthropology has operated for a long time with the concept of the "two natures" of humanity, according to which women and
men are by nature and essence different from each other. This attempt to see human nature and Christian discipleship expressed in two essentially different modes of being human led in tradition and theology to the
denigration of women and to the glorification and mythologization of the feminine. Women are not only different from men but also inferior to them. Traditional theology combined this male-female dualism with the
body-spirit dualism. Women then represented sexuality, carnality, and evil. Whereas this tradition defines man by his mind and reason, it sees woman as determined by her "nature" and sexuality. Motherhood)
therefore, is the true Christian vocation of every woman, regardless of whether or not she becomes a natural mother. However, in the ascetic Christian tradition nature and body have to be subordinated to mind and
spirit, so woman because of her nature has to be subordinated to man. This subordination of woman is sanctioned by scripture. The official stance of the Roman Catholic Church on birth control is, moreover, based on
this dualism. Women are not allowed through effective means of control to integrate their reproductive capabilities into a life plan of discipleship and vocation, but they have to remain subject to
"natural" biological reproductive processes. Catholic women have either to fulfill their nature and Christian calling in motherhood and procreation, or they have to renounce their nature and sexuality in
virginity. Consequently, this traditional theology has a place for women in the Christian community only as mother or virgin. Since "the genuine" Christian and human vocation consists in transcending one's
biological limitations, the ideal Christian woman's vocation is represented by the actual biological virgin who lives in concrete ecciesial commitment. The Roman Catholic sisterhood is not open to all women but is
based on sexual stratification and on patriarchal anthropology. The most pressing issue within the church today is therefore, in my opinion, to create a new, inclusive sisterhood based on the Christian commitment to
discipleship and call to sainthood. The more contemporary theological aspect of the "two natures" concept of humanity is the assertion that women and men are equal but different. This "dual
nature" concept emphasizes the polarity and complementarity of women and men. Only women and men together achieve human wholeness. ... This theological anthropology corresponds with Jungian depth psychology,
according to which the masculine and the feminine represent archetypes or principles embedded in a collective unconscious. In the opinion of Jungian theologians, the archetypes express not only the given structure
of human reality, but also the structure of divine reality. The term archetype expresses the presence of a divine force within the human soul which manifests itself in all the typically human patterns of thought,
feeling, imagery and behavior.... So, when we say women are stuck in archetypal feminine roles, we must recognize that these roles are not simply human creations but that they also express an aspect of the divine.'
Many Christian feminists have found in the Jungian myth a "feminine religious identity." The thrust of this form of Christian feminism leads to
a glorification of the so-called feminine qualities associated with the emotions, the body, the unconscious, the tribal- communal, and magic. It leads also to the rejection of the predominant cultural so-called
masculine principle, associated generally with rationality, intellect, linear and hierarchical thinking, technology, and competitiveness. Whereas in traditional theological anthropology woman represented evil and
temptation, in this new version of the "dual nature" concept of humanity, woman is the source of wholeness, life, and salvation. Consequently, the Father God of patriarchal religion has to be replaced with
the Mother Goddess of matriarchy. In my opinion, this form of feminist theology is in danger of reintroducing into Christian faith and self-understanding a kind of gnostic dualism that maintains two ultimate
principles and creative powers. The "two natures" concept of humanity, in its negative as well as in its positive forms, reflects the myth of female power. Both the fear and demonization of women and the
mythic exaltation and praise of feminine qualities presuppose the myth of the magic life power of the female. This myth has decisively influenced the Catholic understanding of the sacraments and the priesthood of
THE MYTH OF FEMALE POWER
In cultures and periods when the mother was the only known parent and her pregnancy was easily attributed to the wind or to ancestral spirits, the power
of women to create life must have been awesome indeed. In his study The Masks of God, J. Campbell suggests that the power of the female to create life was understood as a magical force which gave to women prodigious
powers. In 'the very earliest forms of art, like the Venus of Willendorf, the swollen breasts, bellies, and huge buttocks of the female are stressed. Campbell believes that these earliest examples of the
"graven image" were the first objects of worship and religion.
Scholars of religion suggest that the myth of female power may have led to the celebration of religious rituals and to the existence of religion as such.
They interpret initiation ceremonies, at which one of the elders of the tribe confers adult status on the boys, as efforts by men to act out the rite of birth which nature denies them. Though women give birth to
children in the ordinary course of events, by enacting the sacred rites of passage men turn these unfinished creatures into adult human beings. In token of this rebirth, the initiates often take on new names and are
granted new privileges and dignities. The ceremonial religious act becomes as significant for the process of human maturation as pregnancy and birth. In the light of cultural anthropology, it appears to be no
accident that those churches which have a sacramental priesthood resist most strongly the ordination of women to the priesthood.
The Christian sacraments are all rites which convey life. Baptism is a rebirth to a new everlasting life, the eucharist is the "bread of life,"
catechesis and proclamation are compared to "mothermilk and solid food." The sacrament of reconciliation restores life to its fullness. The sacrament of marriage protects and sanctifies the source of
natural life. The sacraments, as rituals of birthing and nurturing, appear to imitate the female power of giving birth and of nurturing the growth of life. One would think that, therefore, women would be the ideal
administrators of the sacrament. Yet there appears to exist a deep fear in men that women's powers would become so overwhelming if they were admitted to the priesthood and the sacramental ritual, that men would be
relegated to insignificance. The demand of women to be admitted to the sacramental priesthood is, therefore, often not perceived as a genuine desire of women to live their Christian vocation and to serve the people
of God, but as an attempt completely to "overtake" the church. What men are often afraid of is that the change in role and position will not mean a mere shift in the relationship between men and women but
a complete destruction of any relationship or a fatal reversal of the patriarchal relationship. As long as the theology of church and ministry is based on a Christian anthropology rooted in the myth of female power,
women will not be accepted into the sacramental ordained priesthood. On the other hand, as long as women are not accepted as ordained priests, the sacraments will not completely lose their magical character in the
eyes of many people. As long as the sacraments and the priesthood are understood in magical terms, they are not nurturing, enabling and serving institutions, but they represent the male power over the spiritual life
of Christians. The male-female dualism of traditional Christian anthropology thus engenders the clergy-lay dualism of Catholic ecciesiology. This dualism is, however, not inherent in Christian theology, but was only
gradually introduced into theology and church.
A Christian feminist spirituality thus has as its theological presupposition our own and the Christian community's constant need for renewal and
conversion. Christian existence, church, and theology are caught in the middle of history and, therefore, are in constant need of prophetic critique.
A positive formulation of a feminist Christian spirituality and identity can, in my opinion, never prescind from theological and cultural critique and
demand of women that they forget their own anger and hurt and overlook the violence done to their sisters. In Christian terms, no cheap grace is possible. At the beginning of the Christian life and discipleship
stands metanoia, a new orientation in the life power of the Spirit. Christian theology and the Christian community will only be able to speak in an authentic way to the quest for feminist spirituality and for the
religious identity of women when the whole church, as well as its individual members, has renounced all forms of sexist ideology and praxis which are exhibited in our church structures, theologies and liturgies. The
Church has publicly to confess that it has wronged women. As the Christian community has officially rejected national and racial exploitation and publicly repented of its tradition of anti-Semitic theology, so it is
still called to abandon all forms of sexism.
An analysis of Christian tradition and history, however, indicates that Church and theology will transcend their own sexist ideologies only when women
are granted full spiritual, theological, and ecclesial equality. The Christian churches will only overcome their oppressive patriarchal traditions and their present sexist theologies and praxis if the very basis of
these theologies and praxis is changed. If women were admitted to the full leadership in church and theology, the need would no longer exist to affirm theologically the maleness of God and Christ and to suppress the
Spirit who moves women to full participation in the Christian church and ministry. Church leaders and theologians who do not respect the Spirit of liberty and responsibility among Christian women deny the church and
theology its full catholicity. Only if we, women and men, are able to live in nonsexist Christian communities, to celebrate nonsexist Christian liturgies, and to think in nonsexist theological terms and imagery will
we be able to formulate a genuine Christian feminist spirituality.