Religion Confronting Women’s Human Rights: The Case of Roman Catholicism as found in North South. Gendered Views from Norway Special edition of Kvinneforskning (Journal of Gender Research in Norway) © 2004
by Kari Elisabeth Børresen
Dr. philos, dr. theol. HC, senior professor
Faculty of Theology
University of Oslo
This summary article is based on my research, undertaken since 1961, concerning formative Christian anthropology. Conflicts between normative religion and women’s rights are already well analysed concerning Islam , but rather unexplored concerning traditional Christianity. Here the case of Roman Catholicism is highly significant, since the Catholic Church is, according to 2001 Vatican statistics, the world’s largest branch of Christianity, comprising 17.3 % of the global population or 1.050 billion human beings.
The Roman Catholic Church has a privileged status at the United Nations and has been able to wield a corresponding international influence. Since 1964, the non-territorial administrative body of the Catholic Church, the so-called Holy See, enjoys the status of a Non-Member State Permanent Observer . Representing the pope’s spiritual and temporal government through his Roman Curia, the Holy See participates in UN conferences with full voting rights, whereas other religious entities can only operate as non-governmental organizations. In consequence, the Holy See has become a leading actor on the international stage opposing women’s human right to control their own fertility .
Acting in accord with Muslim states against female reproductive autonomy at the UN conferences on Human Rights (Vienna 1993), Population (Cairo 1994) and Women (Beijing 1995), the Holy See has invoked a corresponding androcentric sexology, also advocated by so-called evangelical Protestantism . Reproductive autonomy is an indispensable condition for women’s socio-cultural equivalence with men, and therefore a fundamental human right . In order to clarify the rationale of this retrograde alliance, it is essential to analyse traditional Christian doctrine.
Contemporary Catholic theology and anthropology are still based on androcentric paradigms, formulated from the Graeco-Roman Late Antiquity through the European Middle Ages. It follows that institutional Roman Catholicism refuses women’s right to reproductive autonomy (Humanae vitae
1968) and negates women’s cultic capability (Ordinatio sacerdotalis
Kari Elisabeth Børresen (30.01.2004) The gender of religion
Following the collapse of Marxism and the enhanced visibility of Islam, the impact of religion as a fundamental socio-cultural factor has become evident. In consequence, sociological gender roles are shaped by theological gender models and vice versa
. So-called higher religions define fully human status in terms of possessing a potential cultic capability, that is a capability to mediate between the Godhead and humanity. This prerogative is mostly reserved for men and based on male religious experience. No historically known society has abolished women’s subordinate status by way of recognizing Goddesses and priestesses .
Female autonomy is, in fact, alien to all major religious systems. In Hinduism and Buddhism, women are placed between men and beasts through successive reincarnations and the wheel of rebirth. The same ontological gender hierarchy appears in the creation myth of Plato’s Timaeus
(41e-42d). Here, immortal souls are initially set in heavenly stars, to be incarnated as human beings in male bodies, then reincarnated as women or animals according to the moral quality of previous existence. One God and two sexes
In Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the monotheistic Godhead is described as manlike or metasexual, human Godlikeness is correspondingly defined as male or asexual. Given the interaction between the concept of divinity and the definition of humanity, this fundamental incompatibility of Godhead and femaleness is negotiated by shifting inculturated exegesis of biblical texts. Traditional Christian anthropology builds on two contrasting axioms: Female subordination is established by God’s creative order and therefore normative in this world. Human equivalence in the sense of women’s parity with men results from Christ’s redemption, to be fully realized only in the coming world . During two millennia of Church history, the resulting incoherence between creational gender hierarchy and eschatological gender equality is gradually overcome by attributing fully human Godlikeness also to women . This doctrinal process is elaborated in three main stages:
- A. Based on literal exegesis of biblical texts, early Christian anthropology excludes women from being created in God’s image (Gen. 1,26-27a; 2,7; I Cor. 11,7). Nevertheless, women can achieve salvational equality with Godlike men through incorporation into Christ’s perfect maleness (Gal. 3,28; Col. 3,10-11; Eph. 4,13). Consequently, Christian women are “becoming male” by ascetic renunciation of female sexuality .
- B. Based on combined Stoic and Platonic anthropology, ancient Graeco-Roman Church Fathers redefine human Godlikeness in terms of the sexless soul’s rational capacity, which is also found in women. Initiated in the 3rd century by Clement of Alexandria and further elaborated by Augustine (died 430), this new exegesis allows backdating women’s imago Dei from redemption to creation, in spite of non-Godlike femaleness (sexual differentiation in Gen. 1,27b disconnected from fertility blessing in 1,28 and linked to image-text in 1,26-27a). The second stage became normative in medieval theology, whereas the first stage persisted in medieval Canon Law.
- C. Anticipated by medieval Northern European Church Mothers, like Hildegard von Bingen (died 1179) and Julian of Norwich (died after 1416), who used female metaphors describing God, the third doctrinal stage considers both women and men to be created in God’s image qua male or female human beings . This holistic definition was explicitly formulated by 19th-century feminist exegesis, first by the Norwegian Aasta Hansteen in 1878 . Superseding traditional concepts of male or sexless Godlikeness, inclusive imago Dei became normative in 20th-century Western Christianity. Soon adopted by Protestant exegetes and endorsed in Catholic anthropology after the II Vatican Council (1962-65), it is of note that the second stage persists in Eastern Orthodox doctrine.
In conclusion, the recently inculturated concept of holistic Godlikeness, now accepted by Catholic theology, provides the necessary doctrinal foundation for promoting the rights of women as fully autonomous human beings. Traditional sexology
Despite the current updating of theological anthropology, institutional Roman Catholicism opposes women’s reproductive autonomy. In order to explain the doctrinal rationale of this Vatican obstruction, it is necessary to outline the main themes of traditional sexology. In ancient Christianity, the two basic human drives of religiosity and sexuality are axiomatically considered to be antagonistic. In consequence, the perfect human prototype is defined as male or pre-sexual, so that sexual differentiation or more precisely, femaleness, is interpreted as a cause or a consequence of primeval sin. This theme appears already in Hesiod’s Works and Days
(around 700 B.C.), where the female prototype Pandora is created as a curse for mankind, by bringing sexuality and death into the world.
Therefore, ascetic Christian movements practiced sexual abstinence in order to restore humanity’s pristine immortality. In this context of dualistic anthropology, where bodily death is caused by the original fall, the leading Greek Church Fathers Origen (died ca. 254) and Gregory of Nyssa (died ca. 395) elaborate a twofold scheme of creation: First, a purely spiritual human prototype is created in God’s image. Secondly, God introduces male and female physicality in order to counteract death by sexual fertility .
The leading Latin Church Father, Augustine, contests this double creation, where gender differentiation is linked to humanity’s loss of immortality. He strongly insists that female humanity is established by God’s unique creation. Consequently, Augustine refutes the early Christian belief that women will resurrect in male or genderfree perfection, boldly stating that women will be restored as human females .
It is important to note that liberal Church Fathers, like Clement of Alexandria, invoked Stoic sexology against extreme ascetic rejection of sexual activity for all Christians. Still praising virginity as a most Godlike way of life for the Christian elite, they considered married sexuality to be legitimate for the common multitude, but only if practiced as a means of procreation.
Unfortunately, Augustine’s androcentric explanation of original sin, where humanity’s collective guilt is propagated from Adam via paternal seed, enforced the traditional connection of death and sexual activity. His ambivalent moral rule is succinctly expressed as bene uti malo
, to neutralize bad orgasm by good fertility. Augustine also tolerated marital intercourse as a remedy for concupiscence, thereby mitigating the Stoic prohibition of coitus with pregnant, nursing or menopausal women.
Nevertheless, he condemned contraceptive avoidance of female fertile periods, as a method used by Manichees to impede the imprisonment of divine sparks in material bodies. It is noteworthy that Augustine had embraced dualistic Manichaeism for at least ten years and that his concubine bore only one child during more than fifteen years of cohabitation.
As a converted Manichee, Augustine insists that fertility belongs to God’s creation. In this perspective, Eve’s formation from Adam’s rib (Gen. 2,18, 21-23) is interpreted in terms of derived femaleness, created to serve as instrument for men’s procreation. It follows that women’s specific raison d’être
is motherhood, defined according to androcentric biology, to receive and nourish the potential embryo contained in the male seed . In fact, Augustine’s sexology, reshaped by Thomas Aquinas’ (died 1274) Aristotelian finality of male generative power, survives in the Vatican’s current ban on contraception . Vatican sexology
Efficient fertility control, introduced by 20th-century medical technology, represents a revolution in human history. In pre-modern societies, population growth was mainly determined by extensive infant mortality. Contraceptive means were inefficient, provoked abortions were dangerous, so birth control was often practiced by coitus interruptus
. Before the discovery of the female ovum in 1827 by Karl Ernst von Baer, dispersion of male seed was condemned as destroying potential embryos, and therefore confused with abortion in traditional sexology.
It is significant that this biological shift was first negotiated in a Protestant context, by approval of contraception as legitimate in marriage, cf. the 1930 Lambeth Conference of the Anglican communion. Pius XI reacted against this novelty with a rehearsal of traditional doctrine in the encyclical Casti connubii
Challenged by the growing debate within the Catholic Church, John XXIII in 1963 nominated a pontifical commission of theologians and lay experts to examine the validity of current teaching. The global demographic explosion was taken into account, but without focus on female reproductive autonomy. Among progressive members were the leading moral theologians Bernhard Häring and Josef Fuchs, who in the 1950s had introduced a positive evaluation of sexual activity in marriage as expressing love . This holistic approach represents a major reform of Christian anthropology. Traditional doctrine considers married intercourse and marital love to be antagonistic. In consequence, ancient Church Fathers regularly exhort pious married couples to actualize their loving union by sexual abstinence. Conservative members were afraid to endanger the Church’s authority by changing established doctrine. Their invocation of traditional sexology apparently ignored the fact that voluntary conception is a new option, resulting from the 20th-century biological revolution, and therefore not addressed in previous moral discourse. To Paul VI’s consternation, the commission’s final reports of 1966, leaked to an American Catholic newspaper in 1967, showed that a strong majority (60 of 67 members) recommended allowing contraception in marriage .
It is important to know that the archbishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla, strongly supported the small minority, encouraging Paul VI to publish the contested encyclical Humanae vitae
in 1968 . Based on a pre-modern concept of natural law, this document reaffirms that the biological finality of procreation is normative for each single conjugal act, thereby condemning so-called artificial contraception as intrinsically evil .
Insisting on the absolute inviolability of biological functions in every so-called use of marriage, the encyclical affirms that all acts of sexual intercourse must remain open to procreation, whether or not causally responsible at the given moment. In consequence, the only licit method of fertility control is conjugal abstinence during female fertile periods (previously condemned by Augustine!)
Intended to safeguard the pope’s teaching authority concerning faith and morals, the encyclical proved counterproductive by provoking widespread dissent. In their comments on Humanae Vitae
, leading Catholic theologians like Karl Rahner and Yves Congar pointed to the historical inculturation of Christian tradition, which has proved viable through reception by the faithful, not by pontifical diktat
. It is significant that only 17% of episcopal responses to the encyclical expressed unmitigated acceptance.
In developed countries, where women enjoy full civil rights and contraception is normal, like Scandinavia, France, The Netherlands, Belgium, Austria and Canada, the bishops expediently referred to the moral judgment of individual conscience .
Since cardinal Wojtyla became John Paul II in 1978, he has used every opportunity to reinforce the doctrine of Humanae Vitae
. Aptly co-opting the new inculturation of sexual union as an expression of conjugal love, he confirms the biological purposiveness of coitus by transforming procreative purpose into an essential part of love in marriage. The apostolic letter Mulieris dignitatem
in 1988 condemns contraception as degrading women from their specific dignity of motherhood . The encyclical Veritatis splendor
in 1993 reiterates that every contraceptive act constitutes a violation of the God-given law of nature . Pontifical censure
The Roman Church’s institutional blockage under John Paul II follows from his imposition of assent to Vatican sexology, including the opposition to women’s priestly ordination, as the indispensable prerequisite to become a bishop. An oath of loyalty to the papal magisterium
is imposed on teachers of theology at Catholic universities (Professio fidei
1989, Ad tuendam fidem
1998). By virtue of concordats such Vatican control also extends to state universities, as in Germany and Austria. In fact, when the II Vatican Council approved religious freedom (Declaratio de libertate religiosa
1965), this new doctrine primarily envisaged corporate liberty for the Catholic Church in Communist societies. In consequence, the human right to religious freedom for individual Catholics within the institutional Church remains unresolved .
Considered in the context of Church history, the current ban on contraception has a privileged position among many fateful errors committed by the Roman papacy. Often concealed by contemporary apologetics and rarely known except by scholars, some mistakes are still operative, as the excommunication of the Greek-Orthodox patriarch in Byzantium in 1054 and the excommunication of Martin Luther in 1520.
Commenting on John Paul II’s recent retraction of the Holy Office’s process against Galileo Galilei (1633), a noted Italian politician, Alberto Ronchey, succinctly states that the Vatican obstruction of fertility control to solve the global demographic crisis, with growth from 3.5 billion in 1968 to 6 billion in 1998, can never be exonerated: la condanna di Galileo sarà coreggibile, sia pure dopo secoli, ma questa no
In conclusion, since the concept of female autonomy remains alien to all global religions, women’s human right to control their own voluntary fertility represents a fundamental challenge to traditional gender models, and not only in Roman Catholicism. Recently forced to admit the socio-economic necessity of so-called responsible paternity (paternitas conscia
), the Vatican advocates sexual abstinence or avoidance of female fertile periods as the only licit method of voluntary control of fertility.
Biologically inefficient and harmful to the psycho-physical equilibrium of couples, this clerical solution has proved to be impracticable. Invoking marital love and parental responsibility in order to restrict sexual intercourse, the traditional rejection of orgasmic coitus as sinful is here obfuscated by inverted apologetics. In fact, most Catholics in socially advanced societies no longer respect Vatican sexology, thereby producing a healthy criticism of ecclesiastical theocracy. Unfortunately, the Holy See’s privileged status at the United Nations strengthens its political influence in underdeveloped countries. Androcentric typology
The 20th-century collapse of androcentrism represents a more fundamental challenge to traditional theology than the previous collapse of geocentrism (Kepler) and anthropocentrism (Darwin). Upheaval of gender hierarchy shakes the core of Catholic and Orthodox doctrinal symbolism, where androcentric gender models are transposed from God’s creation to the order of redemption. Godlike Adam prefigures Christ, who as new Adam and divine Redeemer is incarnated in perfect maleness. Non-Godlike Eve prefigures the Church/Mary, who as new Eve represents dependent and therefore womanlike humanity (Rom. 5,14; Eph. 5,32). Based on the early Christian concept of male Godlikeness, this asymmetrical typology remains fundamental in Catholic and Orthodox Christology, ecclesiology and mariology.
Thus excluding femaleness from description of the Godhead, typological gender models serve as prime obstacle to women’s cultic capability in the non-Protestant majority of Christendom. According to Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventura (died 1274), Christlike maleness is an indispensable prerequisite for the sacramental signification of priestly eminence . It is important to observe that this refusal to ordain women as priests and bishops issues from the preservation of a traditional incompatibility of Godhead and femaleness. In medieval Canon Law, women’s cultic impedimentum sexus
is explicitly justified by men’s exclusive imago Dei
, in accordance with the first stage of Christian anthropology. In line with women’s legal incapacity in civil society, termed infirmitas sexus
in Roman Law, this cultic incapability remained unchallenged in all institutional churches until the 20th century .
Previously, all mainstream Christian denominations were firmly opposed to women’s civil rights, considered to violate God’s order of creation. Enforced by the socio-cultural consequences of new Western ideals like democracy and citizenship, female suffrage was first accepted in Protestant countries (New Zealand 1893, Australia 1902, Finland 1906, Norway 1913), and several years later in Catholic countries (France, Italy, Spain 1945). A similar Protestant precedence concerns women’s cultic capability to be ordained as priests and bishops, (Lutheran Denmark respectively 1948/1995, Sweden 1958/1997, Norway 1961/1993, Anglican Great Britain 1994).
In Roman Catholicism, the recent acceptance of women’s Godlikeness qua
female human beings, entails a contradictory mixture of premises discarded and conclusion preserved. Simultaneously upholding the mutually exclusive doctrinal tenets of early androcentric typology and holistic Godlikeness, the institutional Church decrees that Godlike women cannot be ordained as Christlike priests. The Codex Iuris Canonici
of 1983 (canon 1024) repeats the formula from the Codex
of 1917 (canon 968,1): Sacram ordinationem valide recipit solus vir baptizatus
. (Only a baptized male can receive valid ordination).
At the initiative of the bishops’ synod in 1971, Paul VI in 1973 nominated a pontifical commission to study the status of women in society and Church, with 25 members, among them 15 women . It is significant that only one of these, a female medical doctor, had professional expertise in theology, natural or social sciences; such expert knowledge was reserved for the male members. The question of ordaining women was deliberately excluded from their mandate and left to the papal biblical commission, which held male theologians only. According to a secret report from 1975, published in 1976 by so-called indiscretion, the commission unanimously considered that referring to New Testament texts only could not solve the question of ordaining women. In fact, the Church’s clerical hierarchy and monarchic episcopate were structured from the 2nd/3rd centuries onwards. Hence, a majority of 12 exegetes (against 5) found that the Church could ordain women without opposing Christ’s initial intention.
Nevertheless Paul VI in 1977, overruling the majority of experts as he had done in 1968, sanctioned a doctrinal document against women’s ordination, Inter insigniores
. The main argument is that the Church’s constant tradition of excluding women from the priesthood is not based on socio-cultural androcentrism, but on the indispensable conformity between Christ’s incarnate maleness and the priest’s male sex. The courageous theologian Karl Rahner’s critique of this Christological rationale is pertinent: “The mere fact that Jesus was of the male sex is no answer here, since it is not clear that a person acting with Christ’s mandate and in that sense (but not otherwise) in persona Christi
must at the same time represent Christ precisely in his maleness” .
Like Humanae Vitae
, this declaration provoked a lively theological debate in the Church, giving rise to growing awareness among Catholic laypeople, especially educated women and nuns, of the untenable arguments invoked to preserve the cultic impediment of femaleness . Incidentally, Communist authorities in Czechoslovakia were conveniently duped by several women who were ordained to the Catholic priesthood before 1988, in spite of their canonical impedimentum sexus
. This stratagem served them to perform forbidden pastoral work secretly, for instance to administer the sacraments in prisons . Vatican feminology
In Orthodox Christianity, the question of women priests is still marginal, debated only in Westernized context, as in France and the United States. In Protestant churches, priesthood is not defined in terms of androcentric typology, with axiomatic conformity between Christ’s incarnate manhood and the priest’s Christlike maleness. Christology does therefore not contravene women’s ordination. Inversely, John Paul II invokes the typological gender models of Christ as new Adam, and Mary as new Eve, to justify the cultic incapability of femaleness. Combining women’s Mariotypic motherhood with the new concept of female Godlikeness in Mulieris dignitatem
, he mixes the first and the third stage of Christian anthropology, that is: an androcentric typology and an updated imago Dei
. When Mary is proposed as the exemplary role model for women, this exhortation tends to obscure that Christ’s mother as the new Eve has an instrumental and subordinate function vis-a-vis the Godhead, incarnated as the new Adam .
In fact, the current incoherence between discarded male Godlikeness and upheld female cultic impediment is manifest by John Paul II’s apostolic letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis
from 1994, where he refers to Inter insigniores
and Mulieris dignitatem
, concluding that the Church cannot ordain women because Christ called twelve male apostles and did not ordain his mother Mary. The traditional exclusion of women from the priesthood is therefore in accordance with God’s plan for his Church (congruenter statuit mulierum exclusionem a sacerdotio convenire cum consilio Dei pro sua Ecclesia
). Since this invocation of divine androcentrism did not silence the persistent demand for women priests in the Catholic Church, the pope’s doctrinal chieftain, cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in 1995 issued a Responsio
, certifying that the disputed apostolic letter pertains to the normative deposit of faith (ad fidei depositum pertinens
In conclusion, it is certainly not a human right to be ordained a priest or a bishop in the Catholic Church. Nevertheless, it is a fundamental right for all human beings to be attributed a fully Godlike humanity, equally able to mediate between the Godhead and humankind. Preserving the canonical impedimentum sexus
of femaleness, the institutional Church decrees that God is impeded from calling women to the priesthood because of their Godgiven cultic deficiency. Since the 20th century, such an attribution of androcentric incapability to the Godhead has become perfectly unconvincing. Feminism and Christianity
The Vatican’s efforts to counteract the current androcentric collapse have been succinctly described: “The Catholic Church ... is writhing in knots around feminism like a worm impaled on a hook” . It is essential to observe that women’s claim to bio-socio-cultural and religious autonomy results from the epistemological revolution of feminism, where women and men are defined as human beings of equal dignity: “Feminism is concerned with the shift in roles and the question of rights that have been unjustly denied women. But all of that, however important and essential, is secondary. The main event is epistemological. Changes in what we know are normal, changes in how we know are revolutionary. Feminism is a challenge to the way we have gone about knowing. The epistemological terra firma
of the recent past is rocking, and, as the event develops, it promises to change the face of the earth” .
From an historical perspective, the relationship between feminism and Christianity is radically ambivalent . In Western civilization, the ideal of female autonomy is based on the Christian concept of women’s equivalence with men in the order of salvation. The feminist revolution starts when redemptive inclusiveness is backdated as normative for the present world, thereby superseding creational gender hierarchy. In the European history of ideas, this process coincides with the transformation of human Godlikeness, from exclusively male to equal privilege for both sexes. Women’s gradual achievement of autonomous humanity is realized through the stages of stratified communality in the Middle Ages, religious individualism in the Age of Reform, universal human rights for men in the Enlightenment, and the 20th-century shift from droits de l’homme
to inclusive droits humains
, when human rights are equally attributed to women .
In consequence, this recent Western inculturation represents a fundamental challenge to traditional gender models in Roman Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity, where the core doctrine and symbolism are structured by androcentric typology. In conformity with Islam, traditional Christian discourse axiomatically connects creational gender differentiation to the Godgiven division of male and female roles in Church and society. In European perspective, the 18th-century asymmetrical polarity of male and female functions (Rousseau and Kant) is in the 19th and 20th centuries redefined in terms of so-called complementarity of the sexes, where the subordinate character of female roles becomes strategically obscured. It is significant that the Northern European partnership model, where women and men collaborate in all fields of society and Church, precisely because of and not despite their sexual difference, proves to be alien in Mediterranean civilization.
The impact of Scandinavian State feminism and the Scandinavian welfare system, in which a strong participation of women in political government is correlated with a high voluntary birth rate, is striking . In contrast, the lack of feminist welfare policy in Catholic countries, like Spain and Italy, generates feeble participation of women in political government and a voluntarily reduced natality. It is of note that Norway did not join the European Union because of a significant gender gap in the referendum of 1994, in which 62% of the female electorate voted against membership, presumably in large measure to protect the feminist welfare system. From this point of view, it is regrettable that prospective new members from Eastern and Central Europe are not required to fulfil Western juridical norms for equality of the sexes and women’s reproductive autonomy before entering the Union. Enforcement of Canon Law in civil society is especially problematic, as in the case of Malta’s concordat with the Holy See from 1995. Sex and gender
Feminist epistemology presupposes a 20th-century anthropology, where the human being is defined as a sexually differentiated psycho-physical unity. It is essential to note that this holistic concept is completely different from the Platonized anthropology of Christian tradition, where the human being is defined as a sexless rational soul in a male or female body.
This dualistic concept of humanity has shaped theology and philosophy from Late Antiquity until the 19th century. It is therefore paradoxically counterproductive when Gender Studies in the Social Sciences often persist in presupposing an anachronistic dichotomy of sex, as biologically programmed, and gender, as socially constructed. In fact, this division corresponds to traditional androcentric dualism, thereby inadvertently imitating the Church Fathers’ promotion of women to Godlike manhood in sexless intellect and virtue, despite bodily femaleness. The same strategy was repeated in 17th century French salon feminism, with the Cartesian adage: l’âme n’point de sexe
, and still echoed by Simone de Beauvoir: On ne naît pas femme, on le devient
. Among the humanistic disciplines, Gender Studies in Religion are at the scholarly forefront by applying human, that is male or female “genderedness” as a main analytical category . This holistic approach highlights the connected interaction between psycho-physical sex and socio- cultural gender, which is equally fundamental for women and for men. Applied to the Christian tradition as in feminist theology, human Godlanguage is consequently understood in terms of verbalized male or female experience.
The epistemological clash between Godgiven specific complementarity of the sexes and post-modernist deconstruction of gender was striking in the dialogue des sourds
between the Vatican delegation and feminist activists at the 1995 United Nations conference in Beijing . Both parties apparently ignored the historical construction of their respective agendas, in fact equally resulting from millennia of androcentric socio-biology.
Fervently fighting feminist efforts to strengthen women’s human rights, the Holy See tactically abused less sophisticated variants of feminist constructionism. The demagogical confusion of abortion and contraception on both sides proved particularly counterproductive. The practical social reality that abortion of a healthy fetus generally presupposes involuntary conception, makes the Vatican a causal agent of abortion in societies influenced by its ban on contraception. The Holy See’s condemnation of condoms to protect against HIV and AIDS is a scandalous consequence of pontifical bio-theology .
When feminists advocate women’s right to safe abortion in case of enforced pregnancy, their undisputed primary goal is to make the biological revolution of efficient contraceptive technology operative in underdeveloped areas. Female reproductive autonomy is first and foremost to be realized by voluntary conception, in order to prevent subsequent abortion . Inversely, the Holy See fiercely opposes women’s control of fertility because the Vatican is fully aware that worldwide feminism presupposes reproductive choice and vice versa. Discourse and reality
The argumentation of contemporary Vatican discourse on contraception and prevention of HIV/AIDS is clearly vicarious. My present summary of doctrinal construction shows that the historically shifting inculturation of traditional theology and anthropology has been logically coherent. The majority of Church Fathers and scholastic theologians were well-educated aristocrats; the socially mobile Augustine is a significant exception. This thorough knowledge of ancient and medieval learning made their articulation of the Christian tradition meaningful in a given socio-cultural context and therefore viable. In fact, the current doctrinal incoherence between outdated premises and preserved conclusions, which affects the main themes of theological sexology, is a new phenomenon in the history of Christianity, resulting from the recent collapse of androcentric or dualistic axioms. In consequence, no longer able to control Catholics by condemning sexual activity as transmitting original sin, the pontifical castigation of so-called “hedonism” insists on condemning contraception.
Christianity’s traditional conflict between love of God and sexual love is no longer axiomatic, but upheld by the obligation of cultic celibacy. Male priests must keep away from women and femaleness constitutes cultic incapability. According to Vatican statistics as of 2001, the number of nuns in the Catholic Church (801.185) doubles the number of priests (405.178) and non-ordained monks (55.057). This peculiar situation helps explain why the Vatican invokes women’s impedimentum sexus
in order to exclude them from participation in the hierarchical government of the Church, reserved for the pope and his Roman Curia of male cardinals.
During the theocratic pontificate of John Paul II, the collegial decision-making of bishops, envisaged by the II Vatican Council, has been reduced to consultative status. In consequence, restoring episcopal collegiality on the model of the ancient Church, and recognizing women's cultic capability, will be urgent tasks for a III Vatican Council . A decisive influence of male and female lay people has to be codified in concordance with recent norms of political democracy. The Catholic Church can no longer be governed on the model of the Roman Empire, with a majority population of illiterate serfs.
As a Nordic Catholic feminist historian of theology, I find it paradoxical that Christian feminism has first been accepted in Protestantism, where the literal Bible is invested with a sacramental function as God’s instrument of revelation, akin to the Islamic concept of the Koran as a divine revelatory medium. In this context, it is interesting to note that contemporary Islamic feminist theology emulates the strategy of previous Protestant feminist theology, by criticizing the subsequent interpretations of sacred texts, not the androcentrism of revelatory Scripture ad litteram
. Inversely, I argue that indispensable instruments for a feminist Reformation of Christianity are to be found in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions. A dynamic interpretation of incarnate Scripture, that is historically shaped revelation, and an optimistic anthropology, in terms of Christ’s redemptive divinization of humanity, are essential means for this new inculturation . Divested of androcentric typology, the ancient Graeco-Roman Church Fathers’ inculturation, emulated by the medieval Northern-European Church Mothers’ holistic Godlanguage, are exemplary models for reconstructing a viable Roman Catholicism! 
Vatican Documents published in Acta Apostolicae Sedis
, Città del Vaticano: Casti connubi
= AAS 22, 1930, 539-592. Humanae vitae
= AAS 60, 1968, 481-503. Inter insigniores
= AAS 69, 1977, 98-116. Mulieris dignitatem
= AAS 80, 1988, 1653-1729. Veritatis splendor
= AAS 85, 1993, 1133-1228. Ordinatio sacerdotalis
= AAS 86, 1994, 545-548. Responsio
(Ordinatio sacerdotalis) = AAS 87, 1995, 1114.
Tore Lindholm et al., eds., Facilitating Freedom of Religion or Belief
, The Hague 2002. 8
. Ann Elizabeth Mayer, Islam and Human Rights. Tradition and Politics
, Oxford 1999. Shaheen Sardar Ali, Gender and Human Rights in Islam and International Law. Equal Before Allah. Unequal Before Man?
The Hague, London, Boston 2000. Jonas Svensson, Women’s Human Rights and Islam. A Study of Three Attempts at Accommodation
, Lund 2000. 2. The process of entry into the system of international organizations started in 1929 when the Vatican City joined the World Telegraph Union and the Universal Postal Union. Since 1957, the supreme organ of government of the Roman Catholic Church is uniformly termed the Holy See. As a legal entity, the Holy See obtained status as a Non-Member State Permanent Observer at the United Nations in 1964 when the Secretary-General U Thant accepted its self- designation as such. (Switzerland had obtained this status in 1948). Cf. Josef Kunz, The Status of the Holy See in International Law, in American Journal of International Law 46, 1952, 308-314 (arguing the case for sending a US ambassador to the Holy See). The attribution of statehood to the Holy See appears somewhat anachronistic, since the Papal State in central Italy, restored to the Roman pontiff at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, was finally conquered and annexed by Italy in 1870. In 1929, the Lateran treaty, signed by Il Duce Benito Mussolini and cardinal Pietro Gasparri, recognized the papal sovereignty of the Vatican City (0.44 square kilometers or 108.7 acres), in compensation for the loss of the Papal State. Cf. Anika Rahman, Church or State? The Holy See at the United Nations, in Conscience, 20, 2, 1999, 2-5. Report article, The Catholic Church at the United Nations: Church or State?, in ibid., 21:4 20-24.
1213. Female reproductive autonomy was established as a human right in international law by the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in force since 1981, as of 16 July 2001 ratified by 168 states. Article 16, para. 1 reads: “States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in all matters relating to marriage and family relations and in particular shall ensure, on a basis of equality of men and women: … (e): The same rights to decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children and to have access to the information, education and means to enable them to exercise these rights.” The Holy See along with eight Muslim states, has not signed this Convention, nor the 1952 Convention on the Political Rights of Women. The US has signed, but not ratified, the CEDAW, mainly because of political pressure from Protestant fundamentalism.
1415. Elissavet Stamatopolou, Women’s Rights and the United Nations, in Julie Peters, Andrea Wolper, eds., Women’s Rights, Human Rights. International Feminist Perspectives, New York, London, 1995, 36-48. Rebecca J. Cook, International Human Rights and Women’s Reproductive Health, in ibid., 256- 275. Susan D. Rose, Christian Fundamentalism: Patriarchy, Sexuality, and Human Rights, in Courtney W. Howland, ed., Religious Fundamentalisms and the Human Rights of Women, London 1999, 9-20. Ann Elizabeth Mayer, Religious Reservations to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women: What Do They Really Mean, in ibid., 105-116.
16. Margaret E. Galey, International Enforcement of Women’s Rights, in Human Rights Quarterly 6, 1984, 463-490. Noreen Burrows, International Law and Human Rights: the Case of Women’s Rights, in Tom Campbell et al., Human Rights. From Rhetoric to Reality, Oxford 1986, 80-98. Kevin Boyle, Stock- taking on Human Rights: The World Conference on Human Rights, Vienna 1993, in Political Studies 43, 1995, 79-95. Katerina Tomaševski, Women’s Rights, in Janusz Symonides, ed., Human Rights: Concepts and Standards, Aldershot, Burlington, Singapore, Sydney 2000, 231-258.
17. Kari Elisabeth Børresen and Kari Vogt, Women’s Studies of the Christian and Islamic Traditions. Ancient, Medieval and Renaissance Foremothers, Dordrecht, Boston, London 1993.
18. Cf. the pertinent article by Joan Bamberger, The Myth of Matriarchy: Why Men Rule in Primitive Society, in Michelle Z. Rosaldo and Louise Lamphère, Women, Culture and Society, Stanford CA 1974, 263-280.
2021. Kari Elisabeth Børresen, Subordination and Equivalence. The Nature and Role of Woman in Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. A Reprint of a Pioneering Classic, Kampen 1995.
2223. Kari Elisabeth Børresen, ed., The Image of God. Gender Models in Judaeo-Christian Tradition. Minneapolis MN 1995; Italian edition: A Immagine di Dio, Roma 2001.
2425. Kari Vogt, Becoming Male: A Gnostic and Early Christian Metaphor, in Børresen, ed. 1995, 170-186. Elizabeth A. Clark: Ascetic Piety and Women’s Faith, Lewiston NY 1986.
2829. Kari Elisabeth Børresen, Ancient and Medieval Church Mothers, in Børresen and Vogt 1993, 245-275. Julian of Norwich: A Model of Feminist Theology, in ibid. 295-314.
3031. Aasta Hansteen, Kvinden skabt i Guds Billede (Woman created in God’s image), Christiania 1878, 2nd expanded edition Christiania 1903.
3233. Giulia Sfameni Gasparri, Image of God and Sexual Differentiation in the Tradition of Enkrateia, in Børresen, ed., 1995, 134-169.
3435. Kari Elisabeth Børresen, Patristic “Feminism”: The Case of Augustine, in Augustinian Studies 25, 1994, 139-152.
3637. Erna Lesky, Die Zeugungs- und Vererbungslehren der Antike und ihr Nachwirken, Mainz 1950. Aline Rousselle, Porneia. On Desire and the Body in Antiquity, New York 1988.
3839. John T. Noonan, Jr., Contraception. A History of its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists, Cambridge MA 1986.
4041. Ambrogio Valsecchi, Controversy. The birth control debate 1958-1968, London 1968.
4243. The Majority Papal Commission Report is reprinted in Daniel Callahan, ed., The Catholic Case for Contraception, London, 1969, 149-173; where the core rationale is spelled out at page 161: “The reasons in favor of this affirmation are of several kinds: social changes in matrimony and the family, especially in the role of the woman; lowering of the infant mortality rate, new bodies of knowledge in biology, psychology, sexuality and demography; a changed estimation of the value and meaning of human sexuality and of conjugal relations; and most of all, a better grasp of the duty of man to humanize and to bring to greater perfection for the life of man what is given in nature.” The Minority Report, in ibid., 174-211, is a pathetic example of male celibate isolation from human reality.
4445. Jan Grootaers, Humanae Vitae, encyclique de Paul VI, in Dictionnaire d'Histoire et de Géographie ecclésiastiques 25, Paris 1994, 328-334. Wojtyla’s conservative stance favored his papal election in 1978.
4647. Charles E. Curran, Natural Law and Contemporary Moral Theology, in Charles E. Curran, ed., Contraception. Authority and Dissent, New York, 1969, 151-175. Cf. Charles E. Curran, Richard A. McCormick, eds., Dialogue about Catholic Sexual Teachings, New York 1993. Charles E. Curran, The Catholic Moral Tradition Today. A Synthesis, Washington DC 1999.
4849. Karl Rahner, On the Encyclical ‘Humanae Vitae’, in Theological Investigations XI. New York 1974, 263-287. Yves Congar, Reception as an Ecclesiological Reality, in Concilium 77, 1972, 43-68.
5051. John Maloney, The impact of Humanae Vitae, in The Making of Moral Theology. A Study of the Roman Catholic Tradition. Oxford 1987, 259-301. William H. Shannon, The Bishops and the Encyclical, in The Lively Debate. Response to Humanae Vitae, New York 1970, 117 146.
5253. The definition of motherhood as women’s specific dignity corresponds to Islamic sexology, see Kari Vogt, Catholicisme et Islam: Une rhétorique apologétique commune à propos de la femme, in Børresen and Vogt 1993, 359-365.
5455. Joseph A. Selling, Jan Jans, eds., The Splendor of Accuracy. An Examination of the Assertions Made by Veritatis splendor, Grand Rapids MI, Kampen, 1995. Cf. Charles E. Curran, Richard A. McCormick, eds., John Paul II and Moral Theology. New York, 1998. For a pertinent critique of the papal concept of God as a super-impregnator, who creates new life through the biological finality of human sexual organs, contradicting human autonomy as being created to God’s image, see Christian Duquoc, Procréation et dogme de la création, in Lumière et Vie 187, 1988, 51-65.
5657. James H. Provost, Freedom of Conscience and Religion. Human Rights in the Church, in Michel J. Verwilghen ed., Culture Chrétienne et Droits de l'Homme, Bruxelles, 1991, 35-61. William Johnson Everett, Human Rights in the Church, in John Witte, Jr., Johan D. van der Vyver, eds., Religious Human Rights in Global Perspective. Religious Perspectives, The Hague, Boston, London 1996, 121-141.
5859. The condemnation of Galileo could be corrected, if only after centuries, but not this one (i.e. not the Vatican’s obstruction of fertility control). In sei milliardi stretti e caldi, in Corriere della Sera 270, Milano 14 November 1998, 1.
6061. Kari Elisabeth Børresen, The Ordination of Women: To Nurture Tradition by Continuing Inculturation, in Studia Theologica 46, 1992, 3-13.
6263. Haye van der Meer, Women Priests in the Catholic Church? A Theological-Historical Investigation, Philadelphia PA, 1973. Roger Gryson, The Ministry of Women in the Early Church, Collegeville MI 1976. Ida Raming, The Exclusion of Women from the Priesthood, Divine Law or Sex Discrimination? Metuchen NJ 1976. Priesteramt der Frau – Geschenk Gottes für eine erneuerte Kirche, Münster, Hamburg 2001.
29. In 1974, 5 women members were refused to present their minority report, which contested the commission’s submissive final document. They did not dare to publish this report before several years later, see Maria del Pilar Bellosillo et al., Women Appeal to the Pastors of the Church, in Pro Mundi Vita Bulletin 108, 1987, 1-36.
6465. Karl Rahner, Women and the Priesthood, in Theological Investigations XX, New York 1981, 35-47, cit. 43.
6667. Walter Gross, ed., Frauenordination. Stand der Diskussion in der katholischen Kirche, München 1996.
7071. The Vatican prefers to keep these women priests underground, but they appear in Hans Jacob Stehle, Geheimdiplomatie im Vatikan. Die Päpste und die Kommunisten, Zurich 1993, 20, 428.
7273. Kari Elisabeth Børresen, Image ajustée, typologie arrêtée: Analyse critique de Mulieris dignitatem, in Børresen and Vogt 1993, 343-357.
7475. Kari Elisabeth Børresen, Anthropologie mediévale et théologie mariale, Oslo 1971. Mary in Catholic Theology, in Concilium 19, Edinburgh, 1983, 48-56.
7677. Andrew Brown, The future of the papacy, in The Spectator, London 25 April 1998, 13-14.
7879. Daniel C. Maguire, The Moral Revolution. A Christian Humanist Vision, San Francisco, CA 1986, 122.
8081. Kari Elisabeth Børresen, Christianisme et féminisme, in Fiorenza Taricone, ed., Maschio e femmina li creò. Verona, 1998, 83-99.
8485. Cf. Jerome J. Shestack, The Philosophical Foundations of Human Rights, in Symonides, ed., 2000, 31-66. Arvonne S. Fraser, Becoming Human: The Origins and Development of Women’s Human Rights, in Human Rights Quarterly 21, 1999, 853-906.
8687. One indication is the differential total fertility rates 1995-1999 for Norway, Denmark, Finland and Sweden compared to Italy and Spain: Norway 1.85, Denmark 1.72, Finland 1.73, Sweden 1.57, Italy 1.20, Spain 1.15.
8889. Ursula King, Gender and the Study of Religion, in King, ed., Religion and Gender, Oxford 1995, 1-38.
9091. Doris E. Buss, Robes, Relics and Rights: The Vatican and the Beijing Conference on Women, in Social & Legal Studies 7, 1998, 339-363.
9293. Cf. the statement of the Holy See concerning the Declaration and Platform for Action of the United Nations Conference on Women in Beijing 1995: “The Holy See in no way endorses contraception or the use of condoms, either as a family planning measure or in HIV/AIDS prevention programmes.”
9495. It is important to note that the widespread selective abortion of female fetuses in Asia mainly results from the axiomatic inferiority of femaleness. This discrimination is in Hinduism and Buddhism explained by the ontological hierarchy of reincarnation and rebirth, placing women between men and animals. The current euphemism of blaming cultural relativism instead of androcentric religion is here especially fallacious. Cf. the widespread practice of direct or indirect female infanticide, well documented from classical Antiquity to early Modern Europe.
9697. It is of note that a majority of leading feminist theologians are Catholics. Their contribution as experts will be important in a III Vatican Council. Influential scholars are in Europe: Elisabeth Gössmann (München), Anne Jensen (Graz), Ursula King (Bristol), Cettina Militello (Roma), Janet M. Soskice (Cambridge). In the U.S.A. (significantly all nuns): Anne E. Carr (Chicago), Margaret A. Farley (Yale), Elizabeth A. Johnson (New York), Sandra M. Schneiders (Berkeley).
9899. Examples of similar approaches, with a significant time lag, are: Letty M. Russell, ed., Feminist Interpretation of the Bible, Philadelphia 1985, and Amina Wadud-Muhsin: Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective, Oxford 1999.
100101. Kari Elisabeth Børresen, Donne e Teologia dopo il 1960: L’esperienza di una protagonista, in Cettina Militello, ed., Donne e Teologia. Bilancio di un secolo, Bologna 2002. Cf. Christine Amadou, An interview with Kari Elisabeth Børresen, in Børresen 1995, XXII-XXIX. Rosemary R. Ruether, Women and Redemption. A Theological History, Minneapolis MA 1998, 190-193, 338.
102103. Kari Elisabeth Børresen, Religious Feminism and Female Godlanguage: From Hildegard von Bingen to Thérèse de Lisieux, in Marie-Louise Rodén, ed., Ab Aquilone. Nordic Studies in Honour and Memory of Leonard E. Boyle. O.P., Suecoromana VI, Stockholm 2000, 197-222. © 2004 North South. Gendered Views from Norway. Special edition of Kvinneforskning (Journal of Gender Research in Norway). Article published January 30, 2004
http://kilden.forskningsradet.no/c18372/artikkel/vis.html?tid=18287 ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Kari Elisabeth Børresen
Faculty of Theology
University of Oslo
Kari Elisabeth Børresen is Senior Professor (emerita) at the Faculty of Theology, University of Oslo. International pioneer of Gender Studies in Religion, she started her research already in 1961. She is a specialist in historical Western theology from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance and has analysed the interaction of androcentric anthropology and Godlanguage in the formation of Christian doctrine.
post edited by Sophie - 2008/08/10 03:20:53