The last half century has seen a global revolution in the self-understanding of women, a dramatic change that poses many challenges to historical institutions, cultures and religions. The Catholic Church has played a major role in the empowerment of women through education, and it remains a major provider of education and health care to poor women and girls. Nevertheless, women are still subordinate to men in all the Church’s institutions and structures. The contributors in Part One consider some of the ways in which women who engage with the Church’s theological and biblical traditions are questioning existing paradigms of Catholic thought and practice.
Cettina Militello offers a broad overview of women in the Bible and the history of the Church, focusing on the Church since Vatican II to examine how it has responded to the changing roles and expectations of women in western society. She argues that Christian baptism is a sacrament of initiation that is identical for both sexes. This theological reality calls for full and equal participation of women in recognition of “the new awareness that God’s design is fully inclusive.”
Ursula King explores the riches of the Catholic intellectual tradition in the context of her own theological development. She speaks of women “tearing down an invisible wall of silence” to discover an authentic theological voice as part of this “gloriously rich intellectual inheritance.” Reflecting on her experience of studying theology in an academic environment consisting almost exclusively of men studying for the priesthood, she appeals for more resources to be made available for women to study and teach theology.
Janet Martin Soskice explores the complex question of sexual difference, from interpretations of the Book of Genesis to the theology of the conciliar and postconciliar Church. She suggests that the Trinity offers a way of understanding sexual difference as being “good in itself,” because it expresses difference in terms of the “creativity, reciprocity and generation … of the creature made in the image of God.”
Elizabeth Johnson reflects on the New Testament account of the encounter between Jesus and a woman bent double with infirmity (Luke 13:10-13), to offer a vision of the liberating love of Jesus for women. In the face of continuing inequalities, women theologians turn to the Jesus of the Gospels to discover a promise of liberation, consolation and friendship, calling for a “conversion of hearts, minds, and structures so that the reign of God may take firmer hold in this world.”
Anne Arabome also focuses on Jesus as a liberating figure for women, this time in the context of African women’s lives. She points out that an African Christology is emerging so that “Jesus is now very present in Africa.” However, in a Church where women’s voices are still not heard and their struggles are still not fully acknowledged, the question remains: “Who is Christ for African women?”
From a different cultural perspective, Carolina del Río Mena explores the ambiguity of Mary in the lives of Latin American women in the context of machismo and marianismo. While Mary is a model of womanhood for many, for others she “has been the explosive source of deep rebellion and internal ruptures.” Women theologians are recovering in Mary “the current and prophetic paradigm of a reconciled and actualized humanity,” to create life-enhancing role models in the quest for justice and equality between the sexes.
Cristina Lledo Gomez also seeks to bring a more realistic model of motherhood into theological discourse, focusing on the motherhood of the Church. She argues that the image of Mother Church needs to reflect the realities of mothering in order to foster a more mature understanding of faith in the context of the maternal Church, in which all the People of God are called “to become mothers to others themselves.”
Finally in this section, Trish Madigan describes how Catholic and Muslim women learn from one another in dialogue, discovering in their different religions sources of both exclusion and liberation. When women study their own traditions and scriptures – the Bible and the Qur’an – they encounter models of human flourishing that enable them to challenge established traditions and to seek the same opportunities within their religious worlds as are now offered in the secular world.
These essays offer fleeting but inspiring glimpses of the transformations taking place in many different Catholic cultures and contexts, as women move “from silence to speech, from invisibility to presence, from submission to co-responsibility” (Militello). They bear witness to the fact that the Church already has a wealth of women’s theological reflections to draw upon as it seeks to develop a more inclusive and representative theology of what it means to be male and female, made in the image of God and bodily redeemed in Christ. This theological endeavour can only succeed if women theologians and biblical scholars are fully incorporated into the Church’s process of theological reflection and doctrinal development.