In this second chapter, Johnson argues that the methods and results of feminist research can reinterpret the symbol of the communion of saints to life-giving effect, and begins to explore “Friends of God and Prophets” (Wis 7:27) as a beautiful, inspiring, and relevant guiding metaphor.
After a brief but devastating critique of the erasure and distortion of women’s holiness under the current system of sainthood, she summarizes the results of a number of scholars who have retrieved stories of women’s holiness throughout church history, not incidentally correcting a number of common misperceptions along the way, and emphasizes that the goal of feminist research is “a critical revision of the overarching story” rather than merely adding women to the existing narrative. She observes that feminist theologies must be not only fundamental and ethical, but also pluralist: an important point given the history of first and second wave feminism. Finally, she rejoices over her guiding metaphor as grounded in scripture (not only the book of Wisdom, which is apocryphal for Protestants, but also the gospels) and thoroughly feminist in its mutuality and its devotion to justice.
Given the lamentably still-controversial nature of feminism in the ecclesial discourse of the Catholic church, I will present her discussion of this topic in a bit more detail here.
Change occurs in women’s consciousness when they become aware of the contrast between their own human worth and the subordinate status they are assigned by patriarchal systems in public and private realms. Then all theory and praxis, all institutions and laws, all traditions and structures come under scrutiny for the overt or subtle ways they either promote or block the realization of the full humanity of women. (25)
This description of the basic feminist impulse, which I would expand slightly by replacing “subordinate” with “subordinate and/or marginal status”, is immediately followed by an assertion of the basic doctrine (taught by Vatican 2, but stated in Johnson’s own words before she quotes the conciliar teaching) of the “equal dignity of both women and men created in the image of God, redeemed by Christ, and graced by the Spirit.” (25) Here is a statement of theological anthropology, which I believe is reasonably uncontroversial. The controversy enters in the interpretation of “equal dignity.” Proponents of gender complementarity argue that women and men can be ontologically complementary while at the same time being of equal dignity: an interpretation that many find counterintuitive, and counter to the plain reading of the text.
Feminism, in Sandra Scheiders’s definition, is a comprehensive worldview that “engages in a critique of patriarchy as an essentially dysfunctional system, embraces an alternative vision for humanity and the earth, and actively seeks to bring this vision to realization.” Christian feminism does this within and towards the tradition and community of the church, while feminist theology is that aspect of the endeavor that seeks to interpret the intelligibility and accountability of the faith through the lens of women’s flourishing. (34)
So feminism is a sociological and structural critique of patriarchy, and Christian feminism applies that critique to the church. I suspect that this critique enters the church already garbed in controversy because the story of Christianity begins with patriarchs and church fathers: hard not to get defensive in response to a critique of patriarchy if that is your foundational story!
Feminist theology asserts that “women’s flourishing” is an appropriate yardstick by which to measure church doctrine and practice. We hear clear echos of “human flourishing,” which is a widely accepted and uncontroversial yardstick for defining “good” in Catholic moral theology. The specific move to “women’s flourishing” can be justified based on both the teaching of equal dignity (anthropology) and the broadly accepted theme that the gospel is “good news.” Note that Johnson does not explicitly appeal here to the somewhat more controversial idea that the gospel should be “liberating”: a wise move in 1998, given the cloud hanging over liberation theologies until quite recently.
The point of greatest tension with Catholic teaching arises when she begins to address the topics of power and equality. This reading of the communion of saints
…aims at the liberation of women as valued human persons in their own right and, not incidentally, the emancipation of men, freed from gender-determined expectations of dominance. The goal is ultimately a renewed Christian community in service to the world according to the vibrant, life-giving Spirit of Christ, and a transformed society of mutuality and respect, both among human beings and between human beings and the earth. (40, emphasis mine)
Now personally I think this sounds wonderful, entirely consistent with the equal dignity of women and men and with the goal of human flourishing. But the Second Vatican Council explicitly affirmed the Vatican 1 teaching “on the hierarchical structure of the church
and in particular on the episcopate,” which is the title of Lumen Gentium, chapter three. Many scholars agree that this teaching was softened by its placement after the chapter on the People of God, which delves deep into scripture and piles biblical metaphor upon biblical metaphor to explore the nature of the church.
Nevertheless, that hierarchical teaching is still firmly in place. And there is no way that a hierarchy can be described as a “society of mutuality” or as a circle of friends gathered around and indwelt by the Holy Spirit. A hierarchy cannot be made into a circle, and feminist relationships tend towards circular, mutual, reciprocal relationships precisely as a critique of patriarchal hierarchies and dominance relations.
Even more than the anthropological questions about the nature of women and men, I believe this question of patriarchal hierarchies vs feminist circles is the primary source of the Catholic church’s institutional neuralgia with regard to feminism.
Discussion questions for chapter 2
Q2a: What were your favorite bits of this chapter? Were there lines that made you tear up, or particularly resonated for you? Were there parts that you strongly disagreed with?
Q2b: What do you think of her argument that the communion of saints, and feminist theology (and Christian feminism more generally), can be usefully correlated to shed light upon each other?
Q2c: Does her discussion of the wisdom tradition being grounded in everyday life make sense to you? Does it resonate with your own pursuit of holiness or those of your friends, family, parishioners?