Rosemary Radford Ruether: Fearless Leader and Changemaker for Progressive Catholic Feminism

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FEW PEOPLE HAVE MADE THEIR mark on modern Catholicism as decisively as feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether. From her early days in the Civil Rights movement to her groundbreaking critique of the Catholic hierarchy's patriarchy and re-envisioning of Christian theology to her pioneering work in eco-feminism, Ruether has made unique contributions to progressive Catholicism. Her influential book "Sexism and God Talk," among many other major works, helped usher in modern Christian feminism.

Conscience sat down to talk with Ruether recently in Atlanta, were she was attending the American Academy of Religion conference, about her career and work with Catholics for Choice as she prepares to depart the CFC Board of Directors, which she has served on since the early 1980s. A career spanning nearly 50 years and the conclusion of her role on the CFC board notwithstanding, Ruether remains engaged in the study of theology, enthusiastic about feminist scholarship and deeply committed to her vision of Catholicism. She was on four panels at the conference addressing topics as diverse as decolonial interpretations of Mary and Christian Zionism.

Ruether's life was imbued with the contradictions of Catholicism from the start. Her mother was Catholic and her father Episcopalian and she was raised, as she puts it, "Catholic in an ecumenical context." It was perhaps inevitable that she herself would become a scholar of the classics and church history and one of the hierarchy's most constructive critics. "My mother took seriously what she thought of as the high intellectual tradition of Catholicism bur she was also critical of what she saw as superstitious, dogmatic Catholicism," notes Ruether.

After receiving her BA in philosophy and history from Scripps College and marrying political scientist Herman Ruether in 1957, she entered Claremont Graduate School, where she earned her MA in ancient history in 1960 and her PhD in classics and patristics--the study of the early church "fathers"--in 1965. Despite her academic interest in church history, reproductive rights were never far from her mind. In 1964, when the question of whether the Vatican would officially approve of contraception was on everyone's mind and she herself was a young mother balancing family and a career, she wrote a piece for the Washington Post Magazine entitled "Why a Catholic Mother Believes in Birth Control." It eventually cost Ruether her first teaching job at Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles. "I had been hanging around with the Immaculate Heart Sisters because the priest I was working with on Greek stuff was out there. And they asked me to teach. But some trustees rose up in wrath and said 'you can't hire her' because of the Washington Post article," Ruether recalls. "I remember the mother superior coming to me at the end of the first year and saying 'I feel really terrible, but we are not going to be able to hire you for another year.'"

Ruether already had another job offer, teaching at the Howard University School of Religion, so it wasn't a major career setback. But ir did teach her a valuable lesson. "It gave me the basic message: don't work for a Catholic institution," she says.

Teaching at the historically black Howard wouldn't seem like a natural fit for a white woman schooled in the classics. But like other young progressive activists in the early 1960s, Ruether had become involved in the Civil Rights movement. "The chaplains at Claremont Colleges were involved in civil rights, so I got involved though them," explains Ruether. "They developed a summer immersion program in Mississippi in 1965--the summer after the 'Freedom Summer' when those civil rights volunteers were killed. I was there that summer with the Delta ministry."

The experience would shape her work in profound ways. "I got involved in feminism though the Civil Rights critique of male dominance," she notes. …