Susan A. Ross, America Magazine

January 1, 2022

“A recent headline for an article in my local paper read ‘Vicar “Would Shoot” Women Priests.’ The article described the outburst of a Church of England priest who, enraged over the imminent ordination of women in England, declared that ‘I would burn the bloody bitches . . . Let these bloody women go off and form their own politically correct church and religion.’ The paper noted that his superior had written him ‘a firm letter of rebuke.’

The issues of women’s ordination and participation in the church arouse strong passions, and I have no doubt as to how this cleric might respond to Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s remarks in her new collection of essays, Discipleship of Equals. Schüssler Fiorenza is the Krister Stendahl Professor of Divinity at the Harvard Divinity School, the author of a number of works on feminist hermeneutics and one of the leading Catholic feminist theologians writing today. This book, a collection of essays and lectures given over the last 30 years, is both a chronicle of the women’s movement in religion and a ringing indictment of hierarchical church structures. One of the earliest essays in this collection asks the question, ‘Should Women Aim for Ordination to the Lowest Rung of the Hierarchical Ladder?’ Her answer in this 1967 essay is ‘No.’ Only the office of bishop, and not that of deacon, would assure women of equal rights within the church. One wonders what comment the English priest would make to that.

Schüssler Fiorenza describes this collection as ‘the cartography of my feminist theological struggles’ and what a wide map this is. Trained both in pastoral theology and biblical scholarship, she tackles the issues of apostolic succession, women’s forgotten and hidden ministries, the meaning of the saints, women’s ordination, liberation theology, women in early Christianity and feminist spirituality. More recent essays include her interpretations of challenges made to (white) feminist theology by women of color and the contributions of postmodernism. In all this, she never minces words. Her criticisms are aimed not only at the obvious—those opposed to women’s ordination, hierarchical processes and structures—but also at the more subtle ways in which women also participate in our own oppression. One 1981 essay, ‘We Are Still Invisible,’ takes the Leadership Conference of Women Religious to task for their ‘support of the patriarchal church.’

But Schüssler Fiorenza’s strong words are not only for the opponents of the women’s movement in the church. Some of her strongest words are reserved for academia, both for its claim to ‘objective’ scholarship as well as its persistent, if often subtly disguised, sexism. Her 1979 essay, ‘Toward a Liberating and Liberated Theology: Women Theologians and Feminist Theology in the United States,’ castigates institutions of academic theology and the (overwhelming majority of white) men who lead them for their failure to humanize and liberate themselves from ‘their own privileges and practice as men in a male-typed clerical profession.’ These themes recur nine years later in her Harvard Divinity School Convocation Address.

Here she goes on to challenge the ‘conversation model’ of theological discourse (one advocated by the Rev. David Tracy of the University of Chicago, among others) as ‘giving the impression that we all enter the conversation on equal terms.’

Writing as one who is a generation after Schüssler Fiorenza, with 14 years’ experience of teaching theology in Catholic institutions, I find her remarks on the resistance of the academy to feminist theology to be solidly on the mark. My own colleagues in biblical studies have expressed their admiration for Schüssler Fiorenza’s scholarship but question her ‘agenda.’ It is those theologies that question the traditional paradigms that are seen to ‘have an agenda,’ while the predominant models do not. There is still strong resistance to hiring feminist, not necessarily women, scholars, out of concern for their failure to ‘know the tradition.’ Simply to know the tradition in this way is, of course, to perpetuate it, and Schüssler Fiorenza points out how all of us can be co-opted by privilege. She lets no one off the hook in her zeal to transform theology.

But zealots and prophets, as important as their clarity of vision is, ought not to be let off the hook either. While I do not question either Schüssler Fiorenza’s erudition or dedication, I have wondered ever since the publication of In Memory of Her why a feminist historical-critical interpretation of early Christianity ought to hold the weight that it does. Even if this community were as radically egalitarian as Schussler Fiorenza maintains (e.g., the essays in this volume ‘You Are Not to Be Called Father’ and ‘The Twelve and the Discipleship of Equals’), why is this interpretation normative for the present where others are not? Does the existence of an egalitarian community in early Christianity necessarily justify one today? Can we not argue for such a community on other than historical terms?

By appealing to criteria derived from an interpretation of the biblical message itself, Schüssler Fiorenza reveals herself to be first and foremost a theologian, and not a biblical scholar whose interests are solely, and ‘objectively’ historical-critical. Her vision here, as the title indicates, is a community of liberation, and in a time when the ordination of women leads to rhetoric of shooting and burning, this vision is needed more than ever.”

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