Women in Christianity

KungTheologian Hans Küng

(1)  Whatever happened to the women?

Women have been part of Christianity from the very beginning, but through the centuries most women’s lives were lived in silence, and their stories are still hidden from our view.

In the 1980s, renowned Catholic theologian Hans Küng worked for five years to compile a history of women in Christianity, from the very early church through the 20th century. Küng’s report was released in 1987, but was ignored by the Catholic Church. And so in 2001 Küng published Women in Christianity, concluding, “Since 1987, much has changed, as far as individuals, married couples, communities and theological faculties have been able to change it. But much for which the hierarchy is responsible has not changed.”

How does the church need to change?

In the book’s conclusion Hans Küng sets forth specific demands (see pages 98-102)

  • Affirm that the church is meant to be a fellowship of equals;
  • Include women in all decision-making bodies of the church;
  • Accept the legitimacy of contraception;
  • When faced with the question of abortion, consider the rights and needs of the mother as well as the rights and needs of the child;
  • Abolish the requirement of clergy celibacy;
  • Reintroduce the diaconate for women;
  • Introduce the priesthood for women;
  • Commit to serious progress in ecumenism.

Women from a number of faith traditions have joined this discussion.  We hope

+  to learn more about the women who were always part of church history
  to imagine what the church could be if women were fully equal members
+  to build mutual support among women and men who pray for change
+  to strengthen the efforts of people who continue to work for change
+  to identify ways we ourselves can become more effective agents for change

Presented by the Hollister Institute at St. Benedict’s Episcopal Church
More discussions on May 8, 15, 22, 29 & June 5 (10-11:30 am)
Discussions led by Donna Ross and Carol McPhee

ChittisterSister Joan Chittister

(2)  A crossover moment for women in the church

 by Joan Chittister (National Catholic Reporter, December 11, 2013) *

The 20th-century Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote: “The only task worthy of our efforts is to construct the future.” My concern today is how to construct a new future for women around the world through the global outreach of the church.

The 6th-century philosopher Boethius reminds us that every age that is dying is simply a new age coming to life. A second insight that gets my attention comes from Woody Allen 15 centuries later: “I’m not afraid of dying; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

Both messages are clear: First, continuity can go too far. Second, to fail to face the moment we’re in can fail the future that’s coming with or without us and whether we like it or not.

Point: This is a crossover moment in history.

This is the moment when history discovered women.

In fact, intelligent men as well as intelligent women realize now that feminism is not about femaleness. It’s not about female chauvinism either, or feminismo machismo. And it’s definitely not about women wanting to act like men.

Feminism is about allowing every member of the human race to become a fully functioning human adult, to make choices at every level of society, to participate in the decision-making that affects their lives, to be financially independent, to be safe on the streets, secure in their homes, to have a voice in the courts and constitutional bodies of the world — to enjoy, in other words, full and equal civil rights.

It is about bringing to public visibility and public agency the agendas, the insights, and the wisdom of the other half of the human race.

It is about taking their ideas and plans seriously. No! Correction: It is about taking the theology of creation seriously.

It is, in other words, about this century’s “emancipation proclamation” of women.

And since it is 2,000 years after Jesus himself modeled it, it can hardly be argued that we’re rushing things.

Pope Francis, clearly sensitive to the issue, has himself brought up the notion of launching a study of women, the very thought of which coming out of Rome is at least as earth-shaking as seriously expecting Rome to do something serious about it.

Three issues in particular will measure the authenticity — the morality — of the church’s response to the women’s issue. The issues of maternity, human agency and poverty are key to the way we’ll be seen on this issue for years to come.

First, the question of the role of women in church and society is not one of the 39 areas of concern listed in the questionnaire the Vatican sent to the world’s bishops in October seeking wide Catholic response to questions about family life. So how really important are the roles and rights of woman-as-woman seen in shaping even the family? Really.

Second, the pope’s recent statement on women to a meeting of the Women’s Section of the Pontifical Council for the Laity in Rome concentrated almost entirely on women’s maternity, which occupies — at best — about 20 years of a woman’s life. Most modern women, demographic data indicates, live at least another 35 to 40 years after the youngest child leaves home. And after that? What is her role then? Is maternity her only value, her perpetual definition? What does she do now with her personal talents, her insights, her gifts that, they tell us, are given for the sake of the world?

And how does the world make up for the loss of such experience, intelligence and wisdom of the other half of the human race if women are not expected, not welcomed to its shaping?

But without the input of women, humanity sees with only one eye, hears with one ear and thinks with only one half of the human mind.

And — read the newspapers — it shows.

Or, more, why is a woman defined by maternity whether she is a mother or not when a man is rarely, if ever, defined by his paternity rather than by his job, his genius, his leadership, his heroism?

Pope Francis says in his now-famous interview with the Jesuit magazine Civilta Catholica, which was shared worldwide in September, “We have to work harder to develop a profound theology of the woman. Only by making this step will it be possible to better reflect on their function within the church.”

Right. But the question there is who will do this study? The same clerical, patriarchal types who have been doing it for the last 2,000 years when church fathers first said that women “have the malice of both dragons and asps,” among other things.

Or when Thomas Aquinas called women “misbegotten males.” Not the gold standard of the human race, apparently.

And medieval theologians declared that women were by nature subservient, secondary in the order of creation, more emotional than rational.

And today, here and now, a Vatican Document can say, “Forms of feminism hostile to the church are among matters of deep concern” but never even mention male chauvinism or the very structures of patriarchy itself as any kind of concern at all.

And yet, the church never treats women as fully independent adults, let alone as fully baptized disciples of Jesus. And this despite centuries of deaconesses, a chorus of women saints and hundreds of years of women religious administrators who built the larger part of the social service systems of the church.

Most important of all, on what anthropology and theology and science from what century will they ground their ideas about women this time? What feminist writers, feminist researchers, feminist philosophers, what scientists, theologians and canonists, both women and men, will shape this theology in this era?

Will it simply be another round of “men do this” and “women do that,” a dual anthropology that sees women as caregivers alone and men as world builders exclusively, an anthropology that denies our common humanity, our joint human nature basically and entirely? Despite the work of our own Dorothy Days and Raissa Maritains, our Mother Joneses and Rosemary Haughtons as national leaders and bona fide theologians?

And if so, what can possibly be done to save the world such division has made?

The fact is that religion — all religions — has been used to justify the oppression, the servitude, the invisibility of women for century after century. Indeed, religion after Jesus has a historic lot to repent where women are concerned, Catholicism and Christianity among them.

As a result of such poor study in the past — “religious,” as it may have called itself, sincere as it possibly was — everywhere on the planet women are still, today, at this hour, as the United Nations Development Fund for Women reports, two-thirds of the illiterate of the world. Women are still two-thirds of the hungry of the world. Women are yet two-thirds of the poorest of the poor everywhere in the world. Even here; even now.

That can’t be an accident. That is a policy. Someone somewhere has decided that women need less, deserve less, and are worthy of less than men.

And all in the name of God.

By the time those apologists get done, God is the only sexist left in the room.

Pope Francis has won the heart of the world by being humble, simple and pastoral — the warm and caring face of the church, a man like Jesus who is a man of the poor.

But clearly, no one can say they are for the poor as Jesus was and do nothing, nothing, nothing for the equality of women. To address classism does not begin to resolve the problems that come with sexism.

Yet when the membership of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious commit themselves again — as they have so often in the past — to do for women what must be done for the sake of the Gospel, and the good of the church, it’s called “radical feminism” and they are investigated for heresy.

The full humanity of women, human anthropology, and our efforts to eradicate poverty are indeed among the issues that will measure both this papacy and this church as it moves again from an age that is dying to a new age that is coming to life.

Otherwise, when death comes, we may all be there to see it.

In 1998, Pope John Paul II instructed the bishops of Michigan and Ohio in their ad limina visits to Rome: “The genius of women must be evermore a vital strength of the church of the next millennium — just as it was in the first communities of Christ’s disciples.”

Which, from where I stand, leads directly to the question women find continually more wearying: If not now — 15 years later — when?
* The American Academy of Religion and its companion association, the Society of Biblical Literature, is known for gathering forward-thinking theologians across denominations for the sake of cross-pollinating the best of religious research and thinking. At last fall’s conference in Baltimore [November 22-24, 2013] part of the agenda was a panel of speakers, whose own interests might give us all a snapshot view of Pope Francis and the challenges he faces in dealing with various current questions. The sweeping composition of the panel – both lay and religious, Catholic and not, male and female – highlighted specific issues facing the church and the early responses of this present pope to areas of ecumenism, liberation theology, tradition, spiritual formation and, in my own case, women’s issues and religious life. In today’s column [December 11,2013], in the interest of broadening the conversation, I share the remarks I made as part of that panel.

Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister is a frequent NCR contributor.


ParadigmShift road sign

(3)  What is a paradigm?

A paradigm is a world-view, a way of thinking about the world, a set of common assumptions based on accumulated knowledge.

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Thomas Kuhn, was one of the most influential books of the 20th century.  Kuhn pointed out that scientists don’t simply gather ‘facts’ – about biology, geology, astronomy, human beings, etc. – to build up a model of how the world works. Rather, as new information emerges, scientists try to fit it into an already-established world view – the common paradigm almost all scientists share. When new information that doesn’t fit the old paradigm builds up, the old paradigm cracks open and eventually a paradigm shift – a shift to a new world view – will occur.

In Women in Christianity, Hans Kung finds five paradigms – basic world-views – over the two millennia of Christianity, and he concludes that we are now shifting into a sixth paradigm.

In science, old paradigms are discarded and new paradigms adopted (eventually) by everybody because the proposed new paradigm is better (it fits the data better, or it explains and predicts more things). But in theology old paradigms are never completely discarded – rather, they tend to lie on top of each other like the layers of a cake, because new paradigms are adopted only by a subset of Christians.

As he began his analysis of women in Christian history, Hans Kung and his team of researchers asked, Where did women fit in each of these paradigms? And, as we move through our discussions, we’ll ask the following question again and again:

In each period of history, was women’s full humanity acknowledged by the current paradigm?

Hans Kung’s paradigms:

I   The Jewish-apocalyptic paradigm (1st century)

This is the paradigm of the New Testament. Living within this world-view, the first Christians expected Jesus to return very soon. (But if people are living in daily expectation of the end of the world, should they marry? Should women have children?)

II   The ecumenical-Hellenistic paradigm of Christian antiquity (2nd–6th centuries)

This is the paradigm of the Creeds we still proclaim in Sunday worship. The paradigm arose out of the first Jewish Christians’ encounter with Greek philosophy and thought. Human beings have minds as well as souls, and so thinking about religion is as important as believing. (But if women’s minds are seen as inferior, can they do philosophy?)

III   The Roman Catholic paradigm of the Middle Ages (11th–15th centuries – present)

This paradigm arose out of the early church’s encounter with Roman organization and discipline. The charismatic, Spirit-led community of the early church now became increasingly hierarchical, and truth was dispensed from the top of the hierarchy. (But if women are never part of the hierarchy, what happens to their experience of truth – and is their experience even remembered?)

IV   The Protestant-Evangelical paradigm of the Reformation (16th century – present)

This is the paradigm of the Renaissance and Reformation, when the Bible was being translated into various European languages. Just as the Roman liturgy and organization had given Christians confidence through the middle ages, so now Protestants found a similar confidence in the words of Scripture. At the same time, the stories of the Bible were interpreted more and more literally. (But if we interpret Scripture literally, how do we incorporate new scientific discoveries into the paradigm?

V   The modern paradigm of reason and progress   (17th–19th centuries – present)

This paradigm is often called ‘liberal Christianity’ – a Christianity which is not literalist in its interpretation of the Bible, which accepts the contributions of modern science, and which has a strong emphasis on social justice. (But how does faith in God, in a risen Christ, and in the presence of the Holy Spirit in human life fit into the rationalism and skepticism of this world-view?)

VI    The ecumenical paradigm of postmodernity (20th–21st centuries)

Richard Holloway, formerly Bishop of Edinburgh, Scotland, comments on this emerging paradigm. *

It is a paradigm about paradigms: No religious expression is ultimate… Each historic expression will have some enduring aspects and qualities. Parts of each paradigm will endure… But every paradigm must be seen as ephemeral in relation to the vast reaches of time through which humankind journeys.

It is post-modern: Humanity is increasingly uneasy with any words and concepts claiming to be set in concrete… We are no longer comfortable with sweeping, absolute claims to verity…. While our religions claim to hold absolute truth, perhaps religion should be talked about with modesty and humility.

It is post-hierarchical: The ancient pattern of top-down power and authority is less and less workable… An increasingly important characteristic of our times is a deep suspicion of power… But previous Christian paradigms all rested on the foundations of previous, profoundly authoritarian cultures. They need to be radically revised.

It recognizes religion as a human construct… The sixth paradigm does not necessarily reject the possibility of a transcendent reality. To admit that no one religion is God-given, and that all derive from the fount of human need is not to proclaim the death of God…. But old, worn out paradigms can be discarded, just as decrepit human institutions inevitably give way to the new.

It recognizes the primacy of the creation…  The natural, physical, and animal world is beginning to be recognized by Christians as the sixth paradigm takes hold of our imagination. Human beings are no longer seen as the pinnacle of creation, any more than the Earth is believed to be the center of the Universe….

* To read Richard Holloway’s full article, go to


Luke 1:46-55
: a 21st-century translation

(4)  The Song of Mary

Can you hear Mary’s Magnificat through a new paradigm?

My soul magnifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.
For You have looked with favor on the lowliness of Your servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for You, the Mighty One, have done great things for me,
and holy is Your name.
Your mercy is for those who fear You
from generation to generation.
You have shown strength with Your arm;
You have scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
You have brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
You have filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
You have helped your servant Israel
in remembrance of Your mercy,
according to the promise You made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and Sarah, and to their descendants for ever.


2 thoughts on “Women in Christianity

  1. Dear Donna, This blog and class, and you, are an answer to prayer! Thank you so much for giving me so much to study and pray about. I feel that things will be very difficult to change until we can convince people to interpret the Bible differently. Blessings to you, see you tomorrow, Sue

  2. Tomorrow we’ll be looking at the women in Scripture and in the earliest church. (They were there, but we’ll see how most of them were ‘edited out’ – or the meaning of their stories changed – by succeeding generations of historians.) I’ll also be coming with a ‘Lending Library’ of books and reprints you can take home (to spend more time with the women you think are especially interesting).

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