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The Faith We Love and the Facts We
Abhor: A Response to Lisa Sowle Cahill’s
“Catholic Feminists and Traditions:
Renewal, Reinvention, Replacement”
Stacey M. Floyd-Thomas
Since women and girls compose more than 50 percent of the world’s population, feminist theology quite rightfully should be considered the most important and influential theological movement in our lifetimes. While it is certainly
clear that feminism in religion and theology covers a broad spectrum of perspectives—Protestant and Catholic; conservative, progressive, and radical; female exclusive and male inclusive; straight or queer—feminist theology is not
a monolithic theological school without differentiation either implicitly or explicitly. As a response to Lisa Sowle Cahill’s “Catholic Feminists and Traditions:
Renewal, Reinvention, and Replacement,” this essay contends that Catholic
feminist theology has common emphases with its various analogues but has
its own inherent complexity and intrinsic debates that have to be reckoned
with in order to guarantee that gender equality and sexual justice are realities
in our time.
After reading Lisa Sowle Cahill’s “Catholic Feminists
and Traditions: Renewal, Reinvention, Replacement” I recalled the lyrics of
the Grammy Award–winning African American female a cappella singing ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock’s song “(Women Should Be) a Priority,” in
which they sing women “should be a priority / Respected and upheld in society
/ Given all the proper notoriety / Never used or abused by authority.”1 For
those of you who might not be familiar with the amalgam of musical artistry
and social activism that comprises Sweet Honey’s raison d’être, these lyrics are
a great encapsulation of the group’s sense of purpose. But what’s remarkable
to me is that, even more than twenty years after this song was written, the prioritization and empowerment of women within church, academy, and society
remains a matter of speculation rather than a certainty. Even now there are
those public reactionary voices that deem feminist views and values as heresy.
Stacey M. Floyd-Thomas, PhD, is SCE executive director and associate professor
of Christian ethics at Vanderbilt University Divinity School, 411 21st Avenue South,
Nashville, TN 37240; [email protected]
Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics, 34, 2 (2014): 53–60
54 • The Faith We Love and the Facts We Abhor
We have been mired in the so-called culture war for several decades, fixated
on issues of reproductive rights, gender-based discrimination in the workplace,
women in the military, distorted feminine images in media, sexual education,
and a host of other sociocultural issues. Yet it is disconcerting that we find
ourselves at a point when male leaders and lawmakers debate the nature of
“legitimate rape.”2
Feminist theology and ethics quite rightfully should be considered one of
the most critical theological movements in our time. While feminism in religion and theology covers a broad spectrum of perspectives—Protestant and
Catholic; conservative, progressive, and radical; male and female; straight and
queer—feminist theology is not a monolithic theological school without differentiation. As Cahill illustrates, Catholic feminist theology has common emphases with its Protestant and non-Christian analogues, but it also has its own
inherent complexity and intrinsic debates that have to be reckoned with as
we move forward to guarantee that gender equality and sexual justice become
realities in our time.
As a renowned ethicist and moral theologian, Cahill demonstrates her
deep-seated commitment and overall indebtedness to the Catholic Church’s
canonical teachings of the natural law tradition. She maps the intellectual
contours of the Catholic tradition where feminist Catholic scholars are a “part
of” and yet “set apart from” how the Church responds. Cahill diligently and
somewhat lovingly extols the compatibility of faith and reason and the possibility of arriving at objective if not always self-evident truths upon which
people of all faiths—and even those who eschew faith—might find common
ground and agree. As an adherent of this Christian social thought, Cahill
operates from core beliefs that all people have the capacity for reasonable
judgment and no one should be dismissed out of hand. Furthermore, for
­Cahill, her truth is not simplistically derived from abstract principles or ossified beliefs but from a commitment to the principle that experience must
inform theology. Ergo, a credible Catholic feminist theology does not emerge
from a wellspring of abstract truths but from the slow, steady accretion of
women’s power and perspectives.
Cahill’s essay raises two critical concerns: first, a matter of context; second,
an issue of essence. Regarding context, Cahill clearly engages the normative
perspective that feminist theology is contextual in nature, as it arises from
cultural specificity and particular history. Thus, the overarching portrayal of
Catholicism is the context where Cahill broadly maps women’s particular experience of sacred and secular arenas where they have been subordinated and
excluded from leadership and authority. Given culturally inscribed and theologically inculcated male domination, patriarchy and misogyny within Catholic
tradition have to be juxtaposed with the fact that women were also cocreators
and collaborators. How does Cahill reconcile the struggle against the systemic
Stacey M. Floyd-Thomas • 55
and historic injustices of patriarchy while also being committed to the Church?
Because this is not a Catholic women’s problem alone, how do we make sense
of the faith we love and the facts we abhor?
Conversely, Cahill broaches the issue of essence in provocative ways
throughout her essay. Essence within feminist scholarship is often framed in
terms of how society constructs and construes gender, as if women are the
only ones who possess it. Too often the grand presumption in contemporary
society is that women, whether we declare ourselves feminists, womanists, mujeristas, or some as yet to be determined kindred spirit, are the sole possessors
of gender and thus are the only ones who ought to be preoccupied with its
inner workings. Even though gender does not imply any inherent antagonism
between human beings who identify as male and female, Cahill has broached
complex issues where we are pressed to think about the essence of the feminist struggle for women of faith. For example, reflecting upon her intellectual and sociopolitical awakening during the mid-1960s, pioneering feminist
theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether comments that whereas “race and class
analysis was presumed as foundational to critical social thought, . . . gender
was ignored. Neither my black nor my white colleagues in the seminary, or in
social activism, thought women’s oppression was a worthy subject of discussion. Women with social justice concerns were expected to commit themselves
to the liberation of others, not to ask questions about their own exploitation.”3
Given that the desire to reclaim and redeem the importance of women’s existence and experience through the revelation of distorted and dehumanizing
views of womanhood articulated in Scripture, Christian theology, moral reasoning, and church history fuels the work of the feminist project in religion,
the crux of our concern becomes whether sexism and antipathy toward women
are innate to the Christian tradition. Even as the impact of postmodernist
discourse upon contemporary scholarship has rendered essentialism a largely
discredited concept, as ethicists, how do we confront Cahill’s notion that we
are addressing long hidden, ignored, or suppressed realities of women within
communities of faith in general and the Catholic Church in this instance by
reinterpreting Christian thought and praxis more inclusively? Moreover, how
does one transform the patriarchal and misogynistic dimensions within a faith
tradition that is also enmeshed in a larger web of interlocking realities such as
race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, and nationality without acknowledging their
full resonance? This is where we strike what is at the core of “retrieving tradition” being a so-called scare word for people like myself, who find ourselves
at the margins.
In classical Christian doctrine, tradition referred to the beliefs, practices,
and texts considered authoritative for Christian faith and practice. More recently, ethicist Alasdair MacIntyre defines tradition as a “historically extended,
socially embodied argument, and an argument precisely in part about the
56 • The Faith We Love and the Facts We Abhor
goods which constitute that tradition.”4 For the current conversation, we need
to consider tradition not merely as a fixed historical artifact but as a fluid process in which the practitioners engage one another by inheriting, imagining,
embracing, and claiming said tradition—in Cahill’s case, C
­ atholicism—that
they argue over and care deeply about being mutual stakeholders in the future
of a shared faith. Therefore, the feminist discussion of tradition has always
already centered on the question: “Can Christianity be mined for women’s
liberation, or is the power of Christian traditions hopelessly patriarchal?”
Feminist engagement with tradition has focused on whether the Christian
tradition can be mined for wisdom and practices that will further women’s
liberation. Feminist theologians Judith Plaskow and Carol Christ differentiate between “revolutionary feminists, who reject the Christian tradition as
inextricably patriarchal, and reforming feminists, who argue that the tradition
offers liberating insights crucial to the formulation of authentic theologies
and practices.”5
Feminist reformers tend to draw from within the tradition tools for critiquing patriarchy as it appears in doctrine, practices, and sacred texts. On
the other hand, feminist revolutionaries such as Mary Daly argue that women
should turn to their own lives to generate religious expressions free of patriarchy instead of a tradition bound to the sexism inherent in a tradition that
cannot get beyond God the Father.6 Even among reformers there is debate
over what constitutes the liberating content of Christianity. Feminist theologian Letty Russell delineates the patriarchal development of the tradition
from its 2 Corinthians 5:17 guiding theological principle that avows that in
Christ there is a new creation. For feminist theologian Rosemary Radford
Ruether, the Christian faith should be guided by what is for her the essence
of the biblical message, akin to Luke 4:18, that calls for the prophetic spirit to
usher forth justice and liberation.7 Instead of turning to theological principles,
feminist theologian Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza suggests that Jesus’s life and
ministry and the egalitarian practices of early communities of followers reveal
the essence of Christianity and, therefore, the historical reconstruction of the
Jesus life is the most viable way to retrieve any benefit of tradition as a source
for feminist theology.8
When we think of those who have upheld the Christian tradition and have
kept the faith, historically and presently, no group has exuded this trait better than women. When Augustine wrote, “Hope has two beautiful daughters.
Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage
to see that they do not remain the way they are,” we know that his inclination
was not to be inclusive in his language but perhaps to be honest.9 The hope of
the gospel has been that women are the ones who have prioritized what it takes
to keep the faith. “If it wasn’t for the women,” to use womanist sociologist of
religion Cheryl Townsend Gilkes’s words, we would neither have a Christian
Stacey M. Floyd-Thomas • 57
faith to talk about nor any churches to attend.10 Was it not a woman who made
the incarnation a reality? Was it not the women in the days of Jesus who helped
finance the ministry of Jesus and his disciples? Was it not a woman who took
her most precious ointment to anoint Jesus in preparation of his death and
resurrection, who, though refused by Jesus’s disciples, Jesus himself said would
be remembered throughout history? Yet do you hear her story during Lent or
Passion services? Was it not a woman who first received the words, “go and tell
the good news,” in all four Gospels?
Even today, within the United States—steeped in its own civic tradition that
claims justice and freedom as the entitled inheritance of the only country who
is blessed by God—hasn’t it been the legacy of the dispossessed and enslaved
who were sold into slavery, bound, beaten, and brought on slave ships called
Jesus and Virgin Mary, severed from their homeland and loved ones, considered
as chattel and heathens, who reclaimed the truth of the Christian tradition by
rightfully dividing the word of truth for themselves and thereby enfleshing freedom (to use the words of Catholic womanist theologian M. Shawn Copeland)
that only could come about through possessing liberating message of the gospel
of Jesus Christ?11 Wasn’t it Sojourner Truth who not only changed her name
and ordained herself to champion the elusive freedom for herself and others
but also served as a trailblazer who lent authenticity to the women’s suffragist
movement and the abolition movement?
In no uncertain words, the matter of reclaiming the tradition for ethical
living is simply living out a life of carrying on the faith not necessarily of our
forefathers per se but also and most especially of our foremothers. In the words
of Catholic womanist theologian Diana Hayes, to be Christian for so many
women of color is to “stand in the shoes [our] mothers made.”12 As a black
Baptist womanist, tradition for me is not a scare word because of its practice
but rather it is a warning signal because those who get to use the word often
wield power, divorced of practice.
While Thomas Aquinas was central to making inextricable the link between
Jesus and the Church as the means of human salvation, it was actually women,
and particularly women of color, who have been the ones to situate the faith
in a most tangible, nonbourgeois culture that has been reminiscent of actually
imitating the life of Jesus and the work of Christ.13 And it has been this womanist tradition of Christian culture, according to womanist theologian Delores
Williams, that “has traditionally reflected more egalitarian relations between
men and women, much less rigidity in male/female roles, and more respect for
female intelligence and ingenuity than is found in bourgeois culture” of high
church and the hollow and hallowed halls of the academy.14 Women of color,
“the bearers of many burdens, also have been—most importantly—the bearers
of Christian culture.”15 They remind those of us wedded to faith how we should
uphold and wave the Christian banner.
58 • The Faith We Love and the Facts We Abhor
However, the mystery of this tradition of which we speak is that those who
get to name and claim the tradition are rarely those who uphold it. The blatant
reality of the history of Christianity is that there is no Christ without the cross.
James Cone reminds:
We cannot find liberating joy in the cross by spiritualizing it, by taking away
its message of justice in the midst of powerlessness, suffering, and death.
The cross, as a locus of divine revelation, is not good news for the powerful,
for those who are comfortable with the way things are, or for anyone whose
understanding of religion is aligned with power. The religious authorities of
Jesus’ time were threatened by his teachings about the reign of God’s justice
and love and the state authorities executed him as an insurrectionist—one
who “perverts the nation” and “stirs up the people.”16
While the disciples ran, the women knew, prepared, remained, and witnessed
a new way of being was coming into existence.
Without question, my concern is with the marginalized, most especially
women of color who have been the culture bearers and believers of tradition
yet are treated as shadowy pariahs in a faith they have made whole. Much like
the notion of shadow used in Jungian psychology—which can be surmised as
“that which you actually are but you wish you weren’t”—there is a consistent
strain within Catholicism and much of Western Christianity that either rejects or remains ignorant of everything that does not fit neatly into patriarchal
modes of power, privilege, and prestige. The realities of women of color
have been systematically superimposed with Christianity’s least desirable aspects. In turn, the gatekeepers of this tradition castigate us for representing
everything that is deemed primitive, primal, profane, and problematic. And
yet with women of color having been rendered as the veritable bête noire of
this Christian tradition, I remain mystified by how it is feasible that we who
have been the mainstays of the faith and tradition are depicted as the marginal and even the monstrous in this Christian tradition to which we all lay
claim. Simply put, just what is tradition for Christian ethics and what needs
to be retrieved? For Professor Cahill, I invite an engagement of her notions
of appreciation, suspicion, and praxis via her six commitments of Catholic
theological ethics to mine the portals of tradition, which can then help us
visualize and perhaps be compelled to engage a liberative sense of renewal,
reinvention, and replacement.
In closing, the liberating gospel, life, and legacy of Jesus Christ is so amazingly similar to the lives of the women of color who have kept the faith that one
cannot help but wonder what blocks the American Christian imagination and
its related academic enterprise from seeing these connections. Ours now must
be the ethical commitment as the scribes of our times to bring these women
from the margins into the center of our attention by making their lives and
Stacey M. Floyd-Thomas • 59
stories a priority, which makes for a stronger understanding of Christian traditions, plural. Ours now is the moral mandate, to use feminist ethicist Beverly
Wildung Harrison’s words, to “undo what history has done” and truly endeavor
to make women—all women and their dispossessed communities—a priority.17
1.See Lisa Sowle Cahill, “Catholic Feminists and Traditions: Renewal, Reinvention, Replacement,” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 34, no. 2 (2014): 27–51; and Sweet
Honey in the Rock, “(Women Should Be) a Priority,” on In This Land, EarthBeat, 1992.
2. As an example, recall the comment of Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO) concerning pregnancy
as a result of rape. In an interview on Fox News, Representative Akin was asked whether
he believed abortion is justified in cases of rape, to which he replied, “If it’s a legitimate
rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down.” (Lori Moore, “The
Statement and the Reaction,” New York Times, August 20, 2012.) Such parsing of rape,
misogynist biological determinism, and inferior moral reasoning pares a woman’s moral
agency and intelligence to her vagina and womb. This way of thinking denies women any
virtue, volition, or value beyond their body’s ability to reproduce or be a vessel for men’s
control, rage, or pleasure.
3.Rosemary Radford Ruether, “An Intellectual Autobiography,” in Shaping a Theological
Mind: Theological Context and Methodology, ed. Darren C. Marks (Burlington, VT: Ashgate,
2001), 106.
4. Alasdair C. MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (North Bend, IN: University
of Notre Dame Press, 1981), 222.
5. Valarie H. Ziegler, “Tradition,” in Dictionary of Feminist Theologies, ed. Letty M. Russell
and J. Shannon Clarkson (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 301–2,
emphasis in original.
6.See Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation (Boston:
Beacon Press, 1985); Daly, The Church and the Second Sex (Boston: Beacon Press, 1985);
and Daly, Gyn/ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (Boston: Beacon Press, 1990).
7.See Rosemary Radford Reuther, Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology (Boston:
Beacon Press, 1993).
8.See Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction
of Christian Origins (New York: Crossroad, 1983); and Fiorenza, But SHE Said: Feminist
Practices of Biblical Interpretation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992).
9.St. Augustine, as quoted in Robert McAfee Brown, Spirituality and Liberation: Overcoming
the Great Fallacy (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1988), 136.
10.See Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, If It Wasn’t for the Women . . . : Black Women’s Experience and
Womanist Culture in Church and Community (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2001).
11.See M. Shawn Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being (Minneapolis: Fortress
Press, 2009).
12.See Diana Hayes, Standing in the Shoes My Mother Made: A Womanist Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010).
13.See Delores S. Williams, “Womanist Theology: Black Women’s Voice,” Christianity and
Crisis, March 2, 1987; Jacqueline Grant, White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus: Feminist Christology and Womanist Response (Atlanta: Scholar’s Press, 1989); Emilie M.
60 • The Faith We Love and the Facts We Abhor
Townes, ed., Embracing the Spirit: Womanist Perspectives on Hope, Salvation, and Transformation (Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis Books, 1997); Traci C. West, Disruptive Christian Ethics: When
Racism and Women’s Lives Matter (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006);
and Delores S. Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk
(Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993).
14.Delores S. Williams, “Womanist Theology: Black Women’s Voices,” Christianity and
­Crisis 7 (March 2, 1987).
15.Hayes, Standing in the Shoes, 165.
16.James Cone, “Legacies of the Cross and the Lynching Tree,” Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Christian Ethics, Chicago, IL, January 2013.
17.Beverly Wildung Harrison, “The Power of Anger in the Work of Love,” in Making the
Connections: Essays in Feminist Social Ethics (Boston: Beacon, 1985), 16.