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For feminist theologians, good job is hard to find


In the last year the Jesuit Institute of Boston College invited a number of American Catholic feminist theologians to give lectures in a series designed to honor the gifts and contributions of Catholic feminist scholarship to the church’s theology. I was one of those lecturers, as was Sr. Sandra Schneiders, Sr. Carolyn Osiek, Lisa Cahill and Sr. Elizabeth Johnson.

This gesture is a welcome one but all too exceptional in a church that seems bent on anything but respect for its feminist theologians. More common attitudes range from disregard to vilification. This ill-treatment threatens to make invisible an extraordinary reality: namely, that the Catholic community in the United States and worldwide has produced a generation of feminist theologians who have remade theological teaching in every field, from biblical study to historical and systematic theology to ethics, pastoral psychology and liturgy.

One thinks of the contributions of Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and Mary Rose D’Angelo in New Testament interpretation, Sr. Anne Carr, the late Catherine LaCugna and myself in historical and systematic theology, Sr. Margaret Farley and Cristina Traina in ethics, Sr. Sandra Schneiders in biblical spirituality, Sr. Miriam Therese Winters in liturgics, Latin-American feminist theologians such as Sr. Ivone Gebara and Maria Pilar Aquino, Africans such as Teresia Hinga, Asians such as Sr. Mary Jong Mananzan and Sr. Virginia Fabella. The list could go on.

Yet I fear not only that this contribution of a creative generation of Catholic feminist pioneers is going unrespected but also that the new generation of younger feminist theologians presently in training in seminaries and universities may find it even more difficult to find a base for their work.

Many feminists of my generation quickly discovered that Catholic institutions were unlikely to support our work. After a year of teaching at Immaculate Heart College in 1964-65, I was told that I could not be rehired because of an article I had written on birth control. Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza received tenure at Notre Dame and then found herself pressured to leave through the denial of tenure to her husband, Francis Fiorenza, on the assumption that if he had to leave, she would, also. The Fiorenzas now teach at Harvard Divinity School, and I have taught since 1965 at Protestant seminaries. Other Catholic feminist leaders also have found homes in Protestant seminaries, such Sr. Anne Carr at Chicago Divinity School and Sr. Margaret Farley at Yale Divinity School.

But this survival through ecumenical openness may be becoming more difficult. On several fronts, the options for jobs for Catholic feminist theologians seem to be narrowing. The first and obvious problem is that the Catholic hierarchy and most notably the Vatican have no wish to have feminist theologians working at Catholic seminaries. The last several years has seen a steady purge of those few Catholic women with some feminist leanings teaching at Catholic diocesan or order seminaries.

One thinks of Linda Maloney, fired from the Franciscan School of Theology, Sr. Carmel McEnroy from St. Meinrad’s School of Theology and Sr. Barbara Fiand from the Athenaeum in Cincinnati. Thus the likelihood of looking to these institutions for a base for one’s work is greatly diminished, although distinguished women theologians remain in some Catholic theological schools, such as the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley and Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.

However, the turn to Protestant seminaries may be less possible than it was a decade or two ago. Increasingly there is a re-emphasis in Protestant seminaries on teaching within the tradition of the denomination. In a recent search committee for a person in modern theology and ethics at Garrett Theological Seminary, it became clear that the unstated preference was for a Methodist. Although the outstanding applicant was a Catholic feminist scholar of impeccable credentials, she was not even considered because she was a Catholic.

On the other hand, Catholic feminist scholars are not finding an open reception at some secular universities, where a secular feminism hostile to religion reigns. Here the very fact of being a committed Catholic Christian is seen as incompatible with real feminist scholarship. The same excellent scholar turned down at our seminary as a Catholic is also under suspicion at her university because she is a committed churchwoman dedicated to retrieval of the Catholic tradition of moral theology.

Finally, there are the many Catholic colleges and universities that have a commitment to religious studies and need a strong staff of teachers. But some of these Catholic colleges have shown a tendency to hire Protestants rather than Catholics in religious studies to avoid the doctrinal censorship coming down on Catholics from Rome and the U.S. hierarchy. Thus lay Catholic theologians generally find a narrowing market for their talents, with Catholic feminist women in triple jeopardy.

What is to be done? I frankly do not know. But I think there needs to be careful research to find out if the trends I have flagged in this article are as severe as I think they are. Then there should be a concerted effort to appeal to Catholic institutions to follow the nascent example of the Jesuit Institute in Boston and not only hear from but hire their own! Meanwhile it behooves young Catholic women in theology to broaden their options with a clear understanding that they face a hostile world.

Rosemary Radford Ruether is professor of theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, Ill.

National Catholic Reporter, January 15, 1999