Doing theology is a human activity, but we are learning that it is an activity hampered by useless and unproductive divisions that compromise its validity and value. I grew up in an age where the activity of doing theology changed in remarkable ways. The Second Vatican Council formed the background of my early religious education. The Church’s normative theology underwent radical changes during that time, even though that is still roundly denied by various conservative and traditional groups.
What didn’t change, unfortunately, was that the object of worship continued to be described as a male deity, who offered humanity a male son as “His” earthly manifestation. The Holy Spirit continued to be described in male language as well, or described as proceeding from the male deity and His Son, which essentially made the Spirit male by inference.
After Vatican II, theology underwent more radical transformations and different modes of doing theology began to be explored and taught. The new theologies included Liberation theology, Ecological theology, Ecumenical theologies, and perhaps the most controversial theology – Feminist theology. Elizabeth Johnson was a pioneer in articulating the earliest challenges to the patriarchal bias of the Roman Catholic Church. She still finds herself in a position of controversy as she presses the Church’s hierarchy to take the feminist challenge to its theology seriously.
While the new Pope, Francis I, has given a nod to most of the theologies that have developed over the past decades, he has not given his blessing to any aspect of feminist theology. He has upheld the long-standing bias that the Roman Catholic Church has exhibited in male language for God and in the Church’s absolute ban on ordaining women. Instead, Pope Francis has declared that we need a “deeper theology of women,” which presumably would be quite unique and separate from the theology currently endorsed by the Church.
Francis’ beliefs seem to be grounded in the teachings of former Pope John Paul II about the theology of the body. This theology suggests that the fact that women are biologically and physiologically different from males makes it impossible for human beings to develop a theology that would apply equally to both men and women. Each gender needs its own theology. First of all, we must understand what theology is in order to understand why this is a fallacy. Theology is “faith seeking understanding,” in the words of Thomas Aquinas. Put simply, theology is what occurs when human beings study the nature of God and report back to their communities on what they learn.
Or, at least, that is good theology. Good theology is open to discussion, dialogue, criticism, demands for proof, contestation, challenge and revision. It leads to justice in the community, to compassion, mercy and forgiveness, to change for the better. Bad theology is theology that people can easily set aside because it doesn’t seem relevant to their lives, or it is an understanding of God that is imposed upon people in rigid and controlling belief systems. It almost always endorses forms of elitism and can be recognized by the entrenchment and protectionism of its promoters.
Theology began to be of interest to people who faced different challenges. They needed to express what they learned about God in order to understand better how God could be encountered by human beings in their world. That is why we began to encounter theologies about the planet’s sacredness. People were concerned about the ecological devastation they were becoming aware of and began to speak of how they were encountering God in new ways as they faced the escalating spiritual outcry of a planet in peril. Many new theologies have been integrated into the overall theology of the Church – although there are still many pockets of resistance to non-traditional ways of speaking about God.
It is time for a new way of doing theology for human beings – one that is relevant, meaningful and valuable to the whole People of God. It should be grounded in the study of human beings, since what God reveals is revealed to the whole people and not simply to men or to women separately. We need a theology of the human being that includes all human beings. Maybe feminist theology was a prelude to this, but the real object of doing feminist theology was always headed this way when it was aiming for human equality.
If whatever can be said of the Church’s theology cannot be considered equally true for men and women, we have a problem with bias in favour of a certain group of people. Even more unfortunately, we have a problem with the relevance of theology for all human beings. If the theology of the Church continues to promote maleness over femaleness in its desire to reserve certain male attributes to God in its theology, it becomes a theology that is increasingly irrelevant to the entire People of God.