by Kochurani Abraham

(First published in Word and Worship Vol.30, no.3, May-June 2007, pp143-153.)

The liberative dimension of theology is significant against the backdrop of where women find themselves today. The Indian Theological Association said on ‘The Concerns of Women’: “The task before Indian Theologians is to reconstruct a humanity that reflects the image of God. It will succeed when women are restored to their true personhood. We are challenged to weave new patterns into our theological imagination that compel us to “friends of God and prophets” in the daring adventure of articulating the knowledge of God with a new vision.”[1]

The biblical imagery of the woman searching for the lost coin is an appropriate hermeneutical tool to articulate the theology of womanhood today. For many peoples and cultures throughout history, the way one’s body is dressed and adorned display many aspects of self-identity such as social status, gender, age and the like.[2] For the woman of the Gospel story, the loss of the coin was tragic and unacceptable because the loss of a coin in her necklace or headdress meant losing something of her identity.

In the woman’s search to find what was lost, – the broom, a symbol of her place under the roof of patriarchy, is transformed into the instrument of her liberation.[3] Traditionally theology was used to keep woman ‘in her place’ and it had become a symbol of oppression. Now in women’s search for their true self, their identity, theology is transformed into an instrument of liberation, and this gives us reason to celebrate. It is a celebration of women’s survival, in spite of millennial oppression, and a re-memory of their struggle.[4] It is also a celebration of where women have reached on their life-journey today, their emerging from eclipse to agency, which means their ‘moving from margin to center, from invisibility to presence, and from silence to the praise of God.’[5]

The matrix of our theologizing is where women find themselves today. There is a global movement of women coming to a new consciousness of who they are. It is a movement which has consistently affirmed the full humanity of women as thinking, speaking and acting persons.

In the opinion of scholars, the category of ‘woman’s voice’ denotes the subjective, experiential viewpoint of women.[6] Women’s viewpoint did not matter as long as men remained the sole cultural definers of society, because, as Reuther observes, the male monopoly on cultural definition made women the object rather than the subject of that definition.[7]

Women finding their voices has had a direct impact on the theology of womanhood because it meant questioning the many premises of conventional theology which did not promote their full humanity. Scripture and tradition have been the customary pillars of catholic theology. The scriptural injunctions advocating women’s subordination and silence (Eph. 5:22-23; 1Cor 11:3, 8-9; 1Cor 14: 34-35; 1Pt 3:1-6; Tit 2:5; 1 Tim 2:11-15; Col 3:18) have kept women subjugated. Pauline injunctions on women’s submission served to justify women’s suppression, exclusion from leadership and domestication.[8] The biblical myth of Eve, the woman considered responsible for the fall of humanity formed the theological basis for the denigration of women as expressed by Clement of Alexandria in his remark that “woman should be covered with shame when she thinks of what nature she is.”

While Christian thought affirmed the equality of maleness and femaleness in the image of God, there has also been a tendency to correlate femaleness with the lower part of human nature in a hierarchical scheme of mind over body, reason over passions.[9] Consequently, women can never as fully represent the image of God as man, who is seen as representing the rational and spiritual part of the self.[10] Even though Augustine concedes to women’s redeemability and hence her participation in the image of God, he argues that woman cannot image God by herself, but only with her husband.[11] Thomas Aquinas adopted the Aristotelian definition of woman as “a misbegotten man” based on the Greek dualistic philosophy which identified rationality and the mind with man and the body with woman. [12]

The theology articulated through a patriarchal appropriation of scripture and tradition succeeded to a great extent in subjugating womanhood. Women internalized this theology and it has shaped their perceptions, cognitions and preferences. As observed by Steven Lukes, it may be because they see or imagine no alternative to it, or they see it as natural and unchangeable or even divinely ordained and beneficial.[13] Through the internalization of the dualistic thinking pattern, women ‘lost’ their capacity to be thinking subjects, resulting in low self-esteem and a sense of inferiority in relation to men.

Even though the theology of womanhood has been through some very dark phases, the ‘search’ for a life-giving theology in the context of women’s changing role in society, is clear from the Magisterium of the recent popes. In his 1963 Encylical, Pacem in Terris, Pope John XXIII wrote: “Women are gaining an increasing awareness of their natural dignity. Far from being content with a purely passive role or allowing themselves to be regarded as a kind of instrument, they are demanding both in domestic and public life, the rights and duties which belong to them as human persons” (no.41).

Pope Paul VI in the speech at the close of the Vatican II, spoke of ‘the hour…when the vocation of women is being acknowledged in its fullness, the hour in which women acquire in the world an influence, an effect and a power never hitherto achieved”[14] The Council document Gaudium et Spes acknowledged the involvement of women in almost all spheres of activity and referred to discrimination based on sex as contrary to God’s will. (Cf nos.29,60). In the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, the Council urged developing the participation of women in the various sectors of the Church’s apostolate as women are taking an increasingly active share in the whole life of society. (Cf.AA9).

The Magisterium of Pope John Paul II made significant contributions to the theological developments regarding women’s identity in God’s plan for creation. In Mulieris Dignitatem (1988), the Pope asserted that “both man and woman are human beings to an equal degree, both are created in God’s image”(no.6) and added that men and women are equal as witnesses and actors ‘in regard to the mighty works of God’(no.16). The Pope encouraged the women’s movement as “one of the great social changes of our time” and argued that it is “profoundly unjust” to prevent women “from developing their full potential and from offering the wealth of their gifts.”[15]

While the post-Vatican II deliberations show a positive shift in comparison to the patristic times, there are some ambiguities yet to be resolved. Catholic teaching tend to see virginity and motherhood as key elements of women’s identity. (Mulieris Dignitatem no. 17; Letter on Collaboration no.13). In the Open letter to Women 1995, women are addressed by the customary gender stereotypes of wife, mother, daughter, sister and consecrated women/good sister ( 2). The identification of woman primarily with the roles of mother and wife betray a biological essentialism that informs Catholic theological thinking. This essentialist understanding of woman expressed also as the glorified “feminine” is often combined with an anti-intellectual stance. The perception of women’s role as ‘different yet complementary’ demonstrates a patriarchal bias which takes the male as the norm who plays the leadership and decision-making roles whereas women are expected to be the nurtures and care-givers. This theological outlook based on an anthropology of cultural stereotyping serves to justify women’s subordination in the Church and in Society.

As pointed out by feminist scholars, the process towards essentialization has its own telos. The need to characterize an individual in one particular way than another is rooted in the prevailing interests, perceived problems and anticipated solutions. An entire structure of values, norms and standards is constructed to guard those interests. The internalization of these values through socialization at times appear so complete that the perception of one’s identity from within matches totally with its artificial construction from without. [16]

The ‘search’ for a theology that affirms the full humanity and personhood of women has become more intense over the last three decades thanks to the feminist theological discourse. In the process of searching and finding what they have lost, women are beginning to articulate the truth of how they see themselves, the world, their insights into the mystery of God and their concerns for the wellbeing of the whole of creation. Feminist theology takes women’s experience as the criterion of truth[17] and engages in a “critical, contextual, constructive and creative re-reading and re-writing of Christian theology.”[18]It regards women- their bodies, perspectives, and experiences- as relevant to the agenda of Christian theologians and advocates them as subjects of the theological discourses and as full citizens of the Church.[19] The theological re-thinking about body, sexuality, marriage, and Mariology,- to name a few areas- explains the liberative import of the feminist theological discourse.

As regards sexuality, the sexual dualism that marked much of the Christian tradition informed by the Greek dualistic philosophy, perceived the spirit as a higher and superior faculty of the person as opposed to the body, assumed to be lower and inferior. The body/spirit dualism found expression in the sexuality/spirituality divide leading to a highly suspicious and negative view of sexuality in early Catholic theology. The identification of the spirit with man and body/sexuality with woman, the evident outcome of the patriarchal interpretations, resulted in women being considered the “devil’s gateway.”[20] The traditional portrayal of Eve as disobedient, sinful and corrupt and of Mary as holy, virgin and mother, ‘free from every stain of sin’ also put women, the daughters of Eve, into greater confusion about their sexual and spiritual identity.

While a positive appraisal of sexuality has evolved in the post Vatican II phase,[21]Christian feminist theologians have made a break through challenging the traditional dualisms, and by reclaiming the sacredness of women’s bodies as sexual beings. They do not see sexuality and spirituality as two opposing poles but of the same Divine essence. As expressed by Niloufer Harben, they are powerful, elemental, shaping forces, deeply intertwined partners in the cosmic dance of life, with the goal to receive and express love in union and communion.[22]

With regard to Mariology, feminist theologians critique the paradigm of Mary presented as the model of the Church particularly in her faith understood mainly in terms of obedience and self-surrender. Such a model of Mary, they fear would lead to legitimizing women’s subordinate position and reinforce their role as silent, submissive, patient and suffering members of the Church and society.[23] The Eve- Mary polemic is also seen as obstructive in the evolving of a healthy theological identity of womanhood. As feminist theologians observe, to exalt Mary at the expense of Eve, is to do so at the expense of all women. To place her on a pedestal as the holy virgin and mother, and contrast her with sinful Eve, the symbol of all ordinary women, makes it difficult to bridge the gap between ordinary women and Mary. Then Mary becomes the great exception.”[24] Feminist theology finds meaning in the liberative discipleship of Mary as proclaimed in the Magnificat, the good news of Jesus for the marginalized.

Women’s identity and status in marriage is another area that is being theologically re-defined. In the traditional view of marriage, woman’s position was always subordinate to that of the man.[25] Woman’s subjection to man was considered divinely ordained as a consequence of sin, but also taken as natural on grounds of the predominance of reason in man as argued by Aquinas.[26] But fortunately we hear a new language in the official teaching of the Church since Vat II. In the Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio, Pope John Paul II affirms “the equal dignity and responsibility of women with men” (no.19) instead of speaking of the subordination of women. In Mulieris Dignitatem the argument is on the same note, where the Pope insists on “mutual subjection” of husband and wife in marriage.(no.24)

The emerging Christian women of today see themselves in marriage, not as subjects of their husbands but as partners. Partnership is a relationship of mutuality and inter-dependence. It implies setting right gender relations and power equations through a greater sharing of responsibilities and resources at the different levels of functioning. It is founded on the scriptural truth that man and woman share equally the image of God (Cf. Gen 1:26) and a greater partnership between men and women is imperative today for the Church to become a more credible sign of gender-justice in society.

What is yet to be resolved is the edgy relationship between Christianity and feminism. As observed by Ursula King, Christianity is a vast religious tradition which possesses an amazingly rich heritage of great abundance, yet also of ambiguities and contradictions, especially for women.[27] The ambiguities and contradictions become apparent in the affirmation- exclusion dialectic still prevalent in Christian teaching and praxis. While there is a deep affirmation of the equality of maleness and femaleness in the image of God, there are also doubts about how women could represent Christ.[28]

Recent Catholic teaching has expressed strong reservations about feminism as brought out in the 2004 Letter on Collaboration between Men and Women. There are fears over ‘women seeking power’ and of ‘making themselves adversaries of men when they emphasize conditions of subordination.’ The question of gender, an important tool in feminist analysis is taken for the obscuring of the difference or duality of the sexes.[29] The conflict has resulted from certain mis-conceptions about feminism. Perhaps, what is not yet clear for the official Church is what feminism is basically about: “a radical notion that women are people” as pointed out by the catholic feminist theologian Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza. [30] At this juncture, a healthy dialogue between Christianity and feminism, is crucial in view of letting the liberative theology of womanhood evolve further. This dialogue, as the Letter on Collaboration has rightly pointed out, could facilitate ‘a sincere search for truth and a common commitment to the development of ever more authentic relationships.(no.1)

The theological voice of women is still very feeble in our country even though there are hundreds of women, mainly women religious who are theologically trained. Probably we lack critical thinking which enables us to ask the right questions as to why there is still so much exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, systemic violence, silencing, vilification and trivialization of women. [31] The socio-economic, political and religious contexts of the struggling women of our country need to inform our theological discourses and for this we need a ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ that will help us recognize the ‘domination which is made natural and common sense by cultural-religious texts and symbols.’[32] We need to become theological subjects whose concern is not to maintain the status quo but to bring about a liberative transformation and for this a feminist theological consciousness is imperative.[33] As argued by Rosemary Radford Reuther, whatever denies, diminishes or distorts the full humanity of women, must be presumed not to reflect the divine or an authentic relation to the divine or to reflect the authentic nature of things, or to be the message or work of an authentic redeemer or a community of redemption.[34]In other words, orthopraxis is the litmus test of orthodoxy.

In conclusion, a liberative theology of womanhood is not something exclusive for women’s wellbeing, the women’s question is seen as the human question of the century.[35] It is the catalyst for the reimagination of human society on an egalitarian agenda bringing greater wholeness and meaning to human relationships. Women becoming thinking and acting subjects and equal partners with men in all areas of life, brings a new power and fullness to human life and enhances the integrity of creation. But this calls for an on-going task of ‘searching’ and ‘finding’ of women’s identity, and with it, the kairos of women becoming true celebrants of Life!


[1] Statement of ITA, no.16, in Evelyn Monteiro and Kochurani Abraham (eds) Concerns of Women: An Indian Theological Response, Bangalore: Dharmaram Publications, 2005, 220.

[2] Cf. Audry Bandsgarrd, University of Pennsylvania: Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology referred by Antoinette Gutzler, M.M. in her paper “Shadow Lives and Public faces: Women, Marriage and Family Life in Taiwan” presented at the 3rd Conference of Ecclesia of Women in Asia, Colombo, 20-24 January 2007. She also refers to the art work of Louis Glanzman in Edwina Gateley, Soul Sisters: Women in Scripture Speak to Women Today, Maryknoll,N.Y: Orbis Books, 2002.

[3] Antoinette Gutzler, Ibid.

[4] An expression borrowed from the book The Struggle for the Past; Historiography Today , in the original context used in relation to Dalits, but applied here for women. See Felix Wilfred and Jose D. Maliekal (eds) The Struggle for the Past; Historiography Today Chennai, Department of Christian Studies, University of Madras, 2002,6

[5] See Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, But She Said: Feminist Practices of Biblical Interpretation, Boston: Beacon Press, 1992, 199.

[6] Cf. Sally J.Sutherland Goldman, “ Speaking Gender: Vāc and the Vedic Construction of the Feminine” in Julia Leslee and Mary Mc Gee (eds) Invented Identities, New Delhi Oxford University Press, 2000,70.

[7] Cf. Rosemary Radford Reuther, Sexism and God Talk: Towards a Feminist Theology, Boston: Beacon press 1983, 73-74.

[8] Some of these texts are now taken as a post –Pauline interpolation as clear in the similarity between 1Co 14:35 and 1Ti 2:11,12,which says: “Women should listen and learn quietly and submissively…” Scripture scholars conclude that Paul wrote the bulk of what was in 1 Corinthians but he did not write 1 Timothy, and that around 115 AD, the writer of 1 Tim added the 1Co 14:33b-36 pericope to the body of letters that later became 1 Corinthians. In this scenario this would have been done in part to lend further authority to a later (or more culturally acceptable) teaching.

[9] Reuther, Sexism and God Talk, 93.

[10] Ibid., 94.

[11] Cfr. Augustine, De Trinitate 7.7.10.

[12]Cfr. Summa Theologica pt.1,q.92,art.1.

[13] Steven Lukes calls the most insidious form of power as that which shapes people’s cognitions in such a way that they accept uncritically their role in an oppressive system. See Steven Lukes, Power a Radical View, London: Macmillian Education ltd, 1974, 23-24.

[14] The Council’s message to Women (8 December 1965): AAS 58 (1966), 13-14.

[15] See John Paul II, “The Feminine Genius” in The Genius of Women, no.1 as cited by Edward Collins Vacek, “Feminim and the Vatican” in Theological Studies, 66(2005) March no.1

[16] [16] See Meena Kelkar and Deepti Gangavane, “ Identity, Freedom, and Empowerment: Some Theoretical Reflections in Meena Kelkar and Deepti Gangavane (eds) Feminism in Search of an Identity: The Indian Context, Jaipur/New Delhi: Rawat Publications, 2003, 21.

[17] See Rosemary Radford Reuther, Sexism and God Talk: Towards a Feminist Theology, Boston: Beacon press 1983,12.

[18] Natalie K. Watson, Feminist Theology, Cambridge, U.K: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 2003, 2.

[19] Ibid., 3

[20] Tertullian, de Cult Fem 1.1 as cited by Rosemary Radford Reuther, Sexism and God Talk167.

[21] The theological deliberations on the body by Pope John Paul II has helped overcome to a great extent, the earlier association of sex with evil in catholic theology. See The Theology of the Body: Human Love in the Divine Plan (Boston: Pauline Books Media, 1997). See also Maria Teresa Garutti Bellenzier, “ The identity of women and men according to the teaching of the Church” in Men and Women: Diversity and Mutual Complementarity, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2006, 106-114. The recognition of eros as a positive energy and the affirmation of the non-dualistic nature of the human person in Deus Caritas Est, the first Encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI is also of import in this context.

[22] Niloufer Harben, “Dancing towards the light: Some perspectives on sexuality and spirituality”, In God’s Image, 3 (2001), p. 8-19 as cited by Astrid Lobo “ Mothering God” in Evelyn Monteiro and Kochurani Abraham (eds) Concerns of Women: An Indian Theological Response, Dharmaram Publications, Bangalore 2005, 142.

[23] See Elizabeth A. Johnson, Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints, New York, Continuum, 2003 as cited by D. Alphonse, “ From Semi-Divine Mother-Mediatrix to our Sister” in R.K Samy (ed) Mary In Our Search for Fullness of Life, Bangalore: NBCLC 2006,31.

[24] See Kathleen Koyle, “ Marian Tradition: A Re-reading” as cited by Jacob Parappally “ Marian Images and Devotions Through the Ages” in R.K Samy (ed) Mary In Our Search for Fullness of Life, 39.

[25] Leo XIII, in Arcanum Divinae Sapientae,( 1880) argued that the wife” must be subject to her husband and obey him”, but the Pope was kind enough to add that “she obeys him not indeed, as a servant, but as a companion (no.11). The 1930 Encyclical Casti Connubi of Pius XI, reiterated the authority of the husband over the wife, but with a clause in favour of women: “This subjection, however does not deny or take away the liberty which fully belongs to the woman” (no.27).

[26] Thomas Aquinas argued that the subjection is twofold. “One is servile and began after sin. The other kind of subjection is where the superior makes use of his subjects for their own benefit and good… By such kind of subjection, woman is naturally subject to man, because in man the discretion of reason predominates.” See Summa Theologica,1.q. 92, article 1 and 2 as cited by Maria Teresa Garutti in “ The identity of women and men…”,114.

[27] See Ursula King, Christianity and Feminism – Do they need each other? Anne Spencer Memorial Sermon, Thursday 14th March 2002University of Bristol Anglican Chaplaincy Church, St Paul’s, Clifton. See

[28]The question of women representing Christ is a Christological issue. Feminist theologians advocate a Christology that coheres with the liberating impulse of the gospel, valuing women as full participants in the mystery of redemption with capacity by nature and grace to represent Jesus the Christ. As Elizabeth Johnson argues, if maleness is essential for the christic role, and constitutive for the incarnation and redemption, then female humanity is not assumed and therefore not saved, see Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1993, 151-154.

[29] Cfr. Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the collaboration of men and women in the Church and in the world, Vatican, 2004, nos. 1-4.

[30] Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Sharing Her Word,3.

[31] These expressions of oppression helps to ascertain how much a given social group is oppressed. See Iris Marion Young, “ Five Faces of Oppression” in Justice and the Politics of Difference ( Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 38-65 as cited by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, in Sharing Her Word: : Feminist Biblical Interpretation in Context, Boston: Beacon Press,1998, 29-33.

[32] Fiorenza explains the hermeneutics of suspicion as deconstructive practice of enquiry that denaturalizes and demystifies linguistic-cultural practices of domination. See Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Wisdom ways: Introducing Feminist Biblical Interpretation, Maryknoll N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2001,165-205.

[33] In Gramscian terms, the ‘organic intellectual’ questions the existing state of affairs from a subaltern perspective as against ‘traditional intellectuals’ who maintain the status quo. The feminist theological task in India needs more ‘organic intellectuals’.

[34] See Rosemary Radford Reuther, Sexism and God Talk: Towards a Feminist Theology, Boston: Beacon press 1983, 19.

[35] Joan Chittister, Heart of Flesh: A Feminist Spirituality for Women and Men,

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