Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Women and Spiritual Equality in Christian Tradition

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Women and Spiritual Equality in Christian Tradition

Article excerpt

Women and Spiritual Equality in Christian Tradition. By Patricia Ranft. (New York: St. Martin's Press. 1998. Pp. xii, 307. $39.95.)

According to the blurb this book is the "first lengthy study" to document the fact that for a millennium and a half Christianity posited "women's equality in any aspect." Actually, this thesis was argued in 1973 in my own Woman in Christian Tradition. The new book simply brings more evidence to bear on the question; it dwells at length on the medieval period; and, more questionably; it draws much more than I did on the often ambiguous references to the Virgin Mary that have abounded in writing and devotion since the Council of Ephesus. In twelve chapters the story of spiritually free Christian women is taken from the Scriptures (half a dozen pages only) to the enlightenment, when interest veered away from the spiritual, and the tradition was generally lost. Four chapters cover the patristic period, six the Middle Ages. The last chapter is a hurried survey of the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, and the Enlightenment. The general thesis is undoubtedly right. However, some points deserve more discussion. Chief among them is the question why spiritual equality, like the political superiority of empresses and queens, had no visible effect on the social status of ordinary women. One could also ask: What was the theological motivation for the promotion of virginity? Does Syriac literature truly illustrate the position of holy women in Byzantium? What was the exact status of women deacons in patristic times? Has the effect of Marian piety and doctrine been positive or negative for Christian women? …

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