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Women in the Church

Women in the Church

Interpreting the past, envisaging the future

(Draft paper) Megan Walker October 1991
given to the Catholic Theological Society of South Africa
Published on our website with the necessary permissions


The original title of this paper, which Sue Rakoczy was supposed to give was “Women’s role in the church of the future”. I don’t know what she was planning to talk on but I feel that I must broaden the title out and hence I intend speaking on how we interpret the past as well as how we envisage the future. There are three reasons for this.

Firstly, I don’t have the necessary practical and strategic experience and/or knowledge to be able to suggest how women can, should or will be able to fulfill meaningful roles in the foreseeable future at the level of structural ministerial recognition, nor at what the best ways to achieve this are. My experience of practical feminist lobbying in the Catholic Church is minimal!

Secondly, I’m actually not terribly optimistic about the future. While I have a deep-seated belief that ultimately things must change, because I have a deep belief that ultimately right will prevail, the future in this regard is an unknown and dependent on so many things. Moreover, what do we mean when we talk about things changing? Change means so many things - and certainly more than having women dressed in clerical collars perfectly imitating “Father”.

Thirdly, although it is a truism to say that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it, and although we do need to look to the future and not constantly harp on the injustices of the past, I do believe that our attempt to come to terms with the past will profoundly affect the type of future we envisage. How we interpret the past and the nature of our accountability to it, will inevitably determine how we deal with the future, whether we are conscious of it or not. But the past is important not simply because it has power over us but also because it contains resources that are important for our task today. Resources we are often unaware of because they have been silenced and marginalised by the dominant in the Church. Resources offered to us by past communities of struggle as they call us to commitment and solidarity. Our foresisters, whose memories have been co-opted and deformed to make them serve the interests of patriarchy.

Therefore what I will seek to do in this paper is to provide a brief overview of the ways in which patriarchy, androcentrism and sexism have distorted the Christian tradition. I will then

look at hermeneutical options open to women who seek to interpret their tradition in a way that is liberating and life-giving and at the extent to which this demands accountability to the tradition itself. Out of this I will tentatively suggest what such a reading of the tradition has to say about the future of women in the Church.

I should perhaps note at the outset my dual commitments to the Christian (and Catholic) tradition and to certain feminist principles. I am operating within what is called a reformist feminist position which seeks to remain within the Christian tradition as opposed to what is termed revolutionary feminism which rejects the entire Christian tradition as hopelessly patriarchal and seeks alternative sources of spiritual nourishment. (See McFague 1983:152ff) As such I do not see the patriarchal distortions of the tradition as definitive but believe that there is that within the tradition that is life-giving and that it is ultimately redemptive. However, I recognise the need for a hermeneutic of suspicion when approaching the tradition, for the tradition is likely to have been distorted by the interests of the dominant. Likewise I recognise that the critical principle of feminist theology must be the promotion of the full humanity of women. (Ruether 1983:18)

Women in Christian tradition

It is impossible to give a substantial overview of the role of women in Christian tradition in one paper. However what I propose to do in the rest of this paper presupposes some appreciation of the extent to which the tradition has discriminated against women. The very fact that people are talking about “Women in the Church” today implies that this is an issue and that something has been wrong with our past understanding of the relationship between “women” and “the Church”. However this is not simply a matter of the Church being dominated by men and women not being allowed to be priests or popes or whatever. It goes much deeper.

So, to give a very brief introduction to those who are unfamiliar with such issues I am going to refer you to a cartoon booklet entitled “A Short History of Women in the Church”. (Walker & Wittenberg forthcoming) Although extremely brief and in a popular format, it is nevertheless based on sound scholarship.

What are we to say in response to this? Firstly, we need to realise that Christian history and development did nut drop from the sky as a God-given package deal unaffected by social, political, economic and sexual realities. Christian history - and before it the history of Israel -did not take place in a vacuum in which its protagonists acted in perfect conformity to the will of God! The Church is a human and social organisation and as such has been subject to the same influences as have other human and social institutions. (Gustafson 1961: Ch 1) It is one sphere, if we are to follow theorists such as Habermas, in which the dominant in society have been able entrench their own interests under the guise of rationalisation in order to distort the truth. (Ricoeur 1981a: 79ff)

We can identify three social forces that were pretty influential with regard to Christian views of women. These were:

• Patriarchy which refers to a social system in which social, economic, political (and ecclesiastical) power is in the hands of men and in which men rule.

• Androcentrism which refers to an attitude that identifies the human with the male and assumes the male to be normative.

• Sexism which refers to an exclusive ordering of life by way of gender. (King 1989:28)

Having briefly noted the forces active on the Church we can summarise some of the negative developments that took place with regard to women.

Firstly, while social structures and gender hierarchies varied during the different biblical periods, there was an overwhelmingly patriarchal influence and Israel’s growing knowledge of Yahweh and of his will for them was understood in terms of this. Thus the development of monotheism, in supplanting the Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Near Eastern Religion, although it incorporated certain aspects of these deities into itself, gave rise to a predominantly male view of God, a development that came to reinforce existing societal patriarchy.

Secondly, while the early Jesus movement was undoubtably egalitarian and provided quite unheard of scope for women, this did not last. The early Christian communities gradually came to accommodate to the expectations of the Greco-Roman world so that by the time of the Pastoral Epistles socially weaker parties in the patriarchal household were being encouraged to submit to and obey the socially stronger party. (Fiorenza 1983: Ch 7-8) This obviously included women.

Thirdly, with the rise of the ascetic ideal and the influence of gnostic ideas in the patristic period, human sexuality came to be viewed with deep suspicion and the virginal ideal was held up as the only state that was really pleasing to God. The views of Jerome in this regard became particularly influential and clearly show such influences to be not only anti-sexual but profoundly misogynist, for it is female sexuality in particular that is seen as particularly dangerous and which must be rejected. It is women who are seen as closer to nature and the flesh and must therefore be shunned. It is women who come to be seen as the source of sin. As Ruether says

Women, as representatives of sexual reproduction and motherhood, are the bearers of death, from which male spirit must flee to “light and life.” (1983:80)

Moreover, fourthly, although women could attain a certain degree of autonomy and could even come to be seen as male by adopting the virginal state, they could never really achieve equality for the Church limited the extent to which they could function as leaders. Not only could they not be ordained but they could also not be regarded as public teachers of the Church, nor could they write. For, according to patristic anthropology, women could never represent the image of God as fully as man who is seen as representing the rational and spiritual part of the self. It was Augustine who said that

a woman, together with her own husband, is the image of God, so that the whole substance may be one image, but when she is referred to separately, in her quality as helpmeet, which regards the woman alone, then she is not the image of God, but as regards the male alone, he is the image of God as fully and completely as when the woman too is joined with him in one. (Ruether 1983:95}

Thus we can see that what we are concerned with is not just the fact that women have been denied certain roles in the Church, but rather that a whole range of our theological and anthropological understandings have been distorted and have served to further deny the full humanity of both women and men. This can be seen in our views of God which depict God as a patriarch legitimising patriarchy, in our views of Christ which depict him as a reigning monarch legitimising human rulers, in our views of Mary which show her as holding up to women an unattainable ideal of both virginity and motherhood and as subtly (or not so subtly) advocating female dependency, with our views of the Church as both feminine and dependent on a dominant (male) God thereby legitimising traditional relations of dominance and dependency. And, of course, in our views of the human by which we really mean our views of the male as normative.

Of course this is not the whole story however, for there have always been countervoices within the tradition. We need to acknowledge that the record which we have received of women’s participation in both the political, economic and religious affairs of Israel and of their roles in the history of the Church is not necessarily accurate. Just as history is written by the historical winners to legitimate the present, so our texts of faith serve not only to record the past, but also to endorse the present. They are clearly ideological and feminist biblical scholars such as Meyers and Fiorenza seek to move from the text to their socio-historical context to uncover what is behind the text to provide us with a knowledge of our foresisters who were both victims and subjects, participating in patriarchal history. (West 1990: 3ff; Fiorenza 1983: 27ff)

However even in the dominant texts that have come to us there are countervoices which contain an alternative vision. The work of Phyllis Trible in particular has shown how the Old Testament record itself contains critiques of patriarchy and ways of imaging God which draw on mothering imagery. (West 1990: 8ff) Certainly we can see something of the alternative vision of the early Jesus movement in the gospel accounts of Jesus and his followers which must surely hold a privileged position in the Christian tradition. And despite the ambiguities and misogyny associated with the rise of virginity the monastic movement did offer a real alternative to women, albeit within definite limits, an alternative which the Protestant Reformation, incidentally denied them even though it did, to its credit, reassert the value of marriage and sexuality.

Thus the history of the women in the Church is not only one of marginalisation and suppression, but also one of determination and struggle, much of it unrecorded. In certain periods too women were allowed a greater scope and came to be seen as having greater authority. For example, in the middle ages women mystics such as Hildegarde and Mechtilde, and the various communities of Beguines, were highly respected and offered a vision of reality that was largely lost by the later Church and is only now being recovered. Obviously the extent of women’s freedom was greatly influenced by a variety of social factors and was always limited. But the fact remains that there are memories that need to be recovered.

Interpreting the tradition

What we have seen thus far would suggest that the Christian tradition regarding women is at best ambiguous. While it is not necessarily irretrievably patriarchal (there would of course be feminists who would contend this), it has nevertheless on the whole served to distort our vision of humanity in such a way as to deny the full humanity of women. How, we may well ask, may such a tradition be seen as authoritative? We are left with the question of the extent to which present formulations ought to be, or even can be, determined by that which has gone before them. It may be helpful to look at legal paradigms of interpretation which shed light on the different extents to which tradition is used in interpretation.

Cady has used Dworkin’s legal typology to shed light on how the past functions theologically, especially in a feminist context, (Schneiders 1989:5f; West 1991: 81ff) Dworkin distinguishes between three major approaches, namely, conventionalism, naturalism and instrumentalism. Conventionalism is an essentially positivist approach which seeks a past precedent for the present case. If such a precedent exists, then it is applied to the case; if not, a new precedent is created. Such a legal position can be compared to a theological position that holds that what the tradition says on any particular issue is absolutely determinative. This is contrasted by the instrumentalist position which does not allow the past to delimit decisions in any necessary way. (Schneiders 1989:5) This position can be compared to those theologians who feel that the past should not impose any limits on their activity.

Between these two extremes we find what Dworkin calls naturalism. According to this position there must be continuity between past and present. However, a precedent is not determinative in isolation but must be interpreted within its broader moral and political context. Thus the past does constrain the judge but it is a past that is interpreted as a whole in the light of what is presently considered to be a just society. (West 1991:83) This position can be compared to that of theologians who interpret the tradition in terms of the whole experience of the Church and in the light of current perceptions of Christian discipleship. (Schneiders 1989:6)

It is this third, naturalist, position that I find most helpful in dealing with the question of the scope of tradition. Whereas the conventionalist position involves accepting the whole tradition as authoritative and thus involves a surrender to oppressive texts, the instrumentalist one removes us from a position of any accountability to that which has gone before us and makes the decision about what is and what is not liberating in the tradition a fairly arbitrary one. While the tradition is clearly problematic, it is also, I believe, a crucial part of ourselves and contains resources that are profoundly liberating as well as oppressive. In terms of this position, while we need to recognise that while the tradition has distorted, and continues to distort, the truth, we can nevertheless maintain that the tradition is also, perhaps at the same time, disclosive of truth.

The question remains, however, as to how we are to interpret the tradition. How do our present commitments relate to our interpretation of the tradition? It is here that hermeneutics becomes important.

While the discipline of hermeneutics is usually associated with the interpretation of written, and particularly biblical, texts and while most feminist and liberation hermeneutics has been developed in the context of Biblical studies, I am concerned here with a broader understanding both of hermeneutics and of texts. Ricoeur argues that while the primary meaning of the term ‘hermeneutics’ concerns the rules required for interpreting written documents, it may nevertheless also be seen to include the human sciences in which a similar interpretive process occurs. (1981d: 197) For, he argues, their object displays some of the features that constitute a text as text, and their methodology develops the same kind of procedures as those of text-interpretation. Therefore Ricoeur argues that what he terms meaningful action should be considered as a text. (1981d: 197ff)

Thus my use of the word text in this paper is not limited to the notion of text as written document. Although the texts of the Church include written documents, these are not the only, or even the primary means, through which its meaning is conveyed. Instead it is a whole host of practices, actions, visual images and orally transmitted beliefs that are often more influential, particularly in a semi-literate context.

It remains a fact however that it is primarily within the field of literary, and specifically biblical, hermeneutics that the most work has been done in terms of outlining different hermeneutical options and relating these to concerns about ideological domination and struggles for liberation. We therefore need to look at these.

It is becoming increasingly clear to biblical scholars that the biblical text has a decidedly ideological nature. It is not, in Mosala’s words “an innocent and transparent container of a message” but is rather the product and record of various historical struggles which are reflected in it. (West 1991: 2f) This is an insight which is particularly obvious and indisputable when the text is viewed from a feminist perspective. For both the Old and New Testaments are undoubtably the products of the patriarchal and androcentric worlds which gave rise to them and reflect the views of these worlds. The question which feminist scholars are faced with is the one put by Schneiders: How can a text which is oppressive of women function as both foundational and normative for its readers? (1989: 3)

West outlines three different types of hermeneutical responses that have been made by feminist biblical scholars and others committed to theologies of liberation. However all feminist readings begin with a hermeneutic of suspicion. They are also united by a common commitment to social change and an accountability to communities of struggle beyond the academic realm. (West 1990: 2; see also Fiorenza 1983: xxff)

The first response is what West calls “behind the text” readings which have their focus behind the text, in the historical and cultural world which gave rise to the text. Such a response can be seen in the work of people such as Meyers and Fiorenza which we have seen above who • seek through historical and sociological research to uncover the role which women played in the social, economic and religious affairs of the period. They also seek to analyse the ways in which women’s roles have been marginalised by the text. (West 1990:2ff; Fiorenza 1983:29) Such a reading does not see itself as accountable to the text but rather to those communities of struggle behind the text the identity of which the text attempts to distort.

The second response, that of “reading the text” is particularly associated with the work of Trible. For Trible what is important is the text itself as literature and so she is concerned with interpreting it in terms of itself. It is within this emphasis on the text that Trible distinguishes a “depatriarchalising principle at work”. (West: 1990: 8ff) In terms of this reading the focus is on the text itself and one is accountable to listening to the actual text, and particularly to the countervoices within it The third response is that of reading “in front of the text”. This can be seen in the work of Schneiders as well as in the liberation hermeneutics of Croatto. This approach, which I want to explore more is based on the work of Gadamer and Ricoeur and locates the meaning of the text in the world which it opens up for its receivers. In this, Schneiders argues, even an intrinsically oppressive text can function in a way that is liberating for its receivers. (West 1990:12ff; Schneiders 1989)

Such a position recognises that we are inevitably part of a tradition. Gadamer’s rehabilitation of the notions of prejudice, authority and tradition argued that tradition and authority may indeed be disclosive of the truth. (West 1991: 99) As Ricoeur has commented: “History precedes me and my reflection; I belong to history before I belong to myself.” (198 la: 68) However, according to Gadamer, we must reclaim the past not as that to which we abdicate our own critical reason but as that which has the power to unmask our prejudices and disclose new truths. (West 1991: 99) Thus there can be no objective unconditioned knowledge outside of history; there is only historically conditioned reality which bears within itself the possibility of self-criticism and liberation.

Unlike Gadamer, who held that the distanciation that occurs between the original formation of a text and contemporary reception was a scandal, Ricoeur argues that such distanciation is productive and is necessary for any liberatory interpretation. Indeed it is a condition for any interpretation. For Ricoeur the various texts of tradition assume a certain autonomy with respect to the intention of their author, their original cultural situation and the social conditions that affected their production, and their original addressees. (198la: 91)

Thus the texts become freed from their original context in such a way that they can take on new meaning as they are interpreted in new contexts. Here we find the possibility, according to Schneiders, “not only of multiple valid interpretations but of the text’s exploding the very world out of which it came and whose prejudices and errors it ineluctably expresses.” (1989: 7) As Ricoeur says,

An essential characteristic of a literary work, and of a work of art in general, is that it I transcends its own psycho-sociological conditions of production and thereby opens itself to an unlimited series of readings, themselves situated in different socio-cultural / conditions. (1981b: 139)

Thus, for him,

A hermeneutics of the power-to-be thus turns itself towards a critique of ideology, of which it constitutes the most fundamental possibility. Distanciation, at the same time emerges at the heart of reference: poetic discourse distances itself from everyday reality, aiming towards being as power-to-be. (1981a: 94)

We can see that for such a hermeneutic the real referent of the text is located in front of the text in the world which the text opens up for people. Ricoeur says that “what is sought is no longer an intention hidden behind the text, but a world unfolded in front of it.” (1981a: 93) It is this world that the text is finally about. (Schneiders 1989: 8)

It is this world, also, that has to be appropriated by the reader. The text which has been decontextualised by the process of distanciation becomes recontextualised as it is appropriated by contemporary readers who explore and exploit its surplus of meaning. (Schneiders 1989: 7) This appropriation does not involve the projection of oneself into the text but rather receiving an enlarged self by apprehending the proposed worlds which are the genuine object of interpretation. (Ricoeur 1981c: 182)

It has to be emphasised that such a hermeneutic cannot be seen in isolation from the others outlined above. Although it clearly has a different point of departure it can still make use of the insights of both behind and on the text hermeneutics. However it does not see the primary focus of the text as either behind or on the text and is therefore able to envisage the text’s liberation both from its original context and from its own internal meaning. It is with the lives of contemporary people with which it connects that constitutes its primary meaning.

Such a hermeneutic provides us with a way of dealing with tradition that both takes tradition seriously but which is also committed to liberating us from that which is oppressive within tradition. Indeed it recognizes that such an urge towards liberation comes from tradition itself. However it also recognizes that there is much within tradition that is oppressive and so its orientation is towards the future, a future that the past is essentially orientated towards but which we need to continue to draw out of the text.

Envisaging the future

Thus the future is part of the past just as the past is part of the future. It is our reading of the past that already determines how we are to envisage the future. Our envisaging of the future is dependent on the dominant metaphors and themes which we receive from our past. Here we can single out two inter-related themes, namely a deep belief in God’s project of liberation and transformation, and a preferential concern with those who are marginalised and oppressed.

From the formative experience of the Exodus from Egypt, through the Hebrew prophets to the early Church’s understanding of the death and resurrection of Christ, the theme of human and cosmic liberation has been central to the Jewish and Christian message, which has looked for fulfillment in the future. While it is true that such a vision has not always included women, Ruether speaks of a feminist radicalising of the prophetic tradition which goes beyond the letter of the prophetic message to apply its prophetic-liberating content to women. (1983:31f) Women need to claim the resources of the past and apply them in our contexts today. Thus the themes of Exodus, of liberation and of transformation take on new meaning as they are applied in new contexts today.

Likewise the theme of God’s preferential love for the marginalised and oppressed takes on a new and expanded meaning when we recognise not only that women are the poorest of the poor and the most marginalised in society, but also that women are marginalised and oppressed in the very Church that speaks of God’s preferential love for the marginalised! Such a recognition demands the development of a spirituality that enables us to find God’s suffering presence with us. But it also demands that we remain true, in a sense, to the margins, that we remain in solidarity with all people who suffer any kind of oppression in any context.

Therefore the context for our continued interpretation of our Christian tradition, and the appropriation of its liberating resources, cannot just occur, or cannot even primarily occur, in privileged academic contexts but needs to intersect with the lives of ordinary people, particularly women, and particularly those women who are politically and economically oppressed. If we wish to really take a liberationist commitment to the epistemological privilege of the poor seriously, then we need to really listen to what the poor, and particularly poor women, are saying. We need to take popular religion seriously. This obviously does not mean that we will find totally liberating interpretations in these contexts for the faith of the poor and marginalised has clearly been distorted by the ideological interests of the dominant. It does not mean that we suddenly drop our hermeneutic of suspicion. But it does mean that we recognise the possibility, and even the privilege, of those on the margins finding liberating and transformative understandings of the Christian tradition as it intersects with their contexts. And it means that, as theologians, we have to be prepared to enter into dialogue with them and to recognise them as what Frostin terms our primary interlocutors. (1988: 6)


Thus the future that I’m envisaging in this paper is really an extended process rather than a final reality. And that’s okay because the process is as important as the goal, and necessary for the goal. And the goal is distant - it’s something like the reign of God! The Church isn’t going to change overnight although obviously we will need to keep pressing for strategic changes. But it is only as we appropriate the liberating resources of our tradition, as we come to identify with the struggles of the past and with the struggles of our sisters and brothers who are suffering and struggling around the world, as we recognise and own God’s presence in us, that we will be able to discern and own and keep struggling towards the liberated and transformed future.

List of sources

Fiorenza, E. 1983. In Memory of Her. A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins. N.Y. Crossroad.

Frostin, P. 1988. Liberation Theology in Tanzania and South Africa. A First World Interpretation. Lund: Lund University Press.

Gustafson, J. 1961. Treasure in Earthen Vessels. N.Y.: Harper & Bros,

King, U. 1989. Women and Spirituality. Voices of Protest and Protest. London: Macmillan.

MacFague, S. 1983. Metaphorical Theology. Models of God in Religious Language. London: SCM.

Ricoeur, P. 1981b “Hermeneutics and the critique of ideology” in Thompson, J (ed). 1981. Hermeneutics and the human sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 63-100.

Ricoeur, P. 1981b. The hermeneutical function of distanciation" in Thompson, J (ed). 1981. Hermeneutics and the human sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 131-144.

Ricoeur. P. 1981c. “Appropriation” in Thompson, J(ed). 1981. Hermeneutics and the human sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.182-193

Ricoeur, P. 1981d The model of the text: meaningful action considered as a text" in Thompson, J (ed). 1981. Hermeneutics and the human sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 197-221.

Ruether, R. 1983. Sexism and God-Talk. Towards a Feminist Theology. London: SCM.

Schneiders, S. 1989. “Feminist Ideology Criticism and Biblical Hermeneutics” in Biblical Theology Bulletin, 19: 1, 1989. pp. 3-10.

Walker, M. Wittenberg, G. Forthcoming. “A Short History of Women in the Church” in Ackermann, D, Draper, J & Mashinini, E (cds). Forthcoming. Women Holdup Half the Sky: Women in the Church in Southern Africa. Pietermaritzburg: Cluster Publications.

West, G. 1990. “Hearing Job’s Wife: Towards a Feminist Readme of Job”. Paper presented at OTSSA Congress and at a seminar of the department of Religious Studies and Philosophy, University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg.

West, G. 1991. Biblical Hermeneutics of Liberation. Modes of Reading the Bible in the South African Context. Pietermaritzburg: Cluster Publications.

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