The Long View: God or Goddess?

Burning graves

Burning graves

Another book review written more than twenty years ago that couldn't be improved upon much by subsequent events.

However, it does bring to mind Pope Francis' suggestion in May of 2016 that he would setup a commission to study women deacons in the early Church. Then, in June he joked 'We had a president of Argentina who used to say, and he would give this advice to presidents of other countries, “When you want something to remain unresolved, set up a commission!”'

God or Goddess?
Feminist Theology: What Is It? Where Does It Lead?
by Manfred Hauke
343 pp., $17.95
Ignatius Press, 1995
ISBN: 0-87870-559-2

Let my initial reluctance to review this book be a lesson to you. The author is a German priest who teaches theology at the University of Augsburg. (Back in the '80s, he wrote a definitive treatment of the Catholic position on women's ordination.) Physically the book is thick, with an austere cloth cover done in black and deep green. It looked like the kind of book a German professor would write, the kind that have titles like The Ontology of the Elephant (9 Volumes). This one seemed even less inviting, since at least the elephant book would have pictures of elephants in it, whereas the only amusement Fr. Hauke's book promised was a 47 page bibliography. Since a quick look showed that I probably agreed with its thesis already (the subtitle in the original German is "Feminist Theology in the Dock"), I really did not see why I needed to read yet another exposition of the question.

I was wrong. The book is lucid and tersely persuasive, not least because its tone is fair and nonpolemical throughout. Better than any other source I know, the author shows through logic, scripture and tradition just how the fashionable systems of feminist theology undermine the basic dogmas of Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. The book makes a good companion volume to Donna Steichen's Ungodly Rage, also published by Ignatius Press. The Steichen book is an excellent source of documentation; it damns Catholic feminism by letting it speak for itself. Fr. Hauke's book provides more complete analysis for this material. Among other things, he shows how feminist theology fits into the larger trends in 20th century philosophy, from Whitehead's "process" metaphysics to Sartre's existentialism. (He also makes clear the often overlooked point that feminist analysis is simply Marxist class analysis applied to gender.) Between them, the two books show pretty conclusively that feminist theologians (who are as likely to be men as women) do not want the Church reformed. They want her dead.

The debate over feminism in theology has become clarified to the point where it is hard to see how any informed person can be innocently deceived on the matter any longer. As Hauke makes clear, feminist theology is pantheistic in its essence. It rejects a transcendent God, because such a God would be in a position of hierarchical domination over this world. (Feminists depict this as a metaphysical projection of the system of "patriarchy," whereby men tyrannize over women.) It rejects Jesus as the incarnation of God, partly because feminists hold God to be already incarnate in the world, but mostly because the idea that history could turn on the life of a historical male human being is intolerable to them. Similarly, they reject the principles of the apostolic succession and of ordination as a sacrament because these things seek to extend this intolerable incarnation to the present day. The proposal to ordain women, in the minds of the people who have been most active in making the case for it, is a device for undermining the incarnational model of the priesthood. It is as simple as that.

Of course, there is a great deal else to be said about the specific schools of feminist theology and their tenets. Having rejected the teaching authority of the Church, feminist theology is fracturing in typical sectarian fashion, a process that feminists dignify with the formula of a "quarrel among sisters." Still, there are some nearly universal elements in the feminist critique of Christianity, such as the claim that the Church teaches the inferiority of women and the sinfulness of the body. Fr. Hauke explains the Church's true position on these matters with great clarity and freshness. However, the most important question, as he also makes clear, is more fundamental than the often spurious "justice" issues on which feminists prefer to dwell. If you believe what the feminist theologians say, then you no longer believe in a God worth praying to. Feminist liturgies seek to make it impossible to believe in such a God. That is what the arguments about things like "inclusive language" are really all about.

Among the interesting features of "God or Goddess" is the international perspective it provides on feminist theology. Even from Europe, it is clear that the phenomenon is predominantly American. Much of the book recounts the ideas of the "weird sisters" of American theology: Mary Daly, the post-Christian ex-nun, Rosemary Radford Ruether, the "moderate" who would retain the Church as a front for social liberation of various kinds, and Elisabeth Schuessler Fiorenza, who edifies her readers by rewriting Gospel passages to say what they should have said. These people seem to be almost as well- known in academic circles in Germany as they are in the United States, but their effect there has not been the same as here. Perhaps the most striking difference is that orders of female religious in Europe seem to have little use for feminist theology, in striking contrast to their American sisters. Indeed, feminist theology is less influential generally in the Catholic Church in Europe. Feminist theology is probably even more important than in America, on the other hand, in Protestant churches. In Germany, this means mostly the state Lutheran churches. Judging from this account, the effect is rather like that to be found in some of the more demented corners of the American Episcopal Church. (Doubtless the celebration of Walpurgis Night in a real Gothic cathedral has more historical resonance than when such things happen at St. John the Divine in New York. Plus there are better acoustics for the witches' choir.) However, German Protestantism is not without resilience: some of feminist theology's most committed critics are to be found in the evangelical churches.

Fr. Hauke provides a rare, cross-lingual discussion of "inclusive" language, its forms and rationales. While I have several philosophical objections to inclusive language, my primary problem with it is practical, since I work as an editor. Language that seeks to be gender- neutral clutters up sentences with unnecessary syllables. They break up the normal rhythm of English, so that the sentences become hard to say out loud. (Inclusive language is also an Overclass dialect marker, like saying "between you and I," but that's another story.) However, after learning what inclusive language does to the intricate clockwork of German grammar, I can no longer feel so sorry for myself. German is a highly inflected language, one in which "grammatical gender" plays an important role. If you start making arbitrary changes in the gender of German nouns, you will soon lose track of where the nouns fit in the sentence. Perhaps this is yet another consequence of the basically American provenance of feminism. At least among Western nations, the notion that language could dispense with gender entirely could not have occurred to anyone but an English-speaker, whose language almost does so already.

Feminist theology continues to enjoy many institutional successes. In the Catholic Church in the United States, it has the effect of driving the people in the pews to the evangelical churches, while politicizing the archdiocesan and national bureaucracies. However, no matter how depressing we may find these things at times, we should remember that the fundamental tenet of feminism is wrong: it simply is not true that ideas are no more than constructs that express social power relationships. Ideas are either true or false, and if you act on the assumption that false ones are true, then your projects will miscarry. Feminist theology is false, and it lost the intellectual debate some time ago. It can still corrupt people and institutions, but it cannot really remake them in its own image. As the truth reasserts itself, even its power to corrupt will gradually diminish. Fr. Hauke's book should prove instrumental in the long process of repair.

This article originally appeared in the May 1996 issue of Fidelity magazine. Please click on the following line for more information:

Copyright © 1996 by John J. Reilly

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  God or Goddess?: Feminist Theology : What Is It? Where Does It Lead? By Manfred Hauke