Faith and Reason: God does not change, but we do: Our series on Catholicism and feminism continues. Christina Rees, of the Movement for Women's Ordination, argues that the insights of feminism express God's love

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The Independent Online
THERE IS something about the relationship between the feminine and the divine that evokes strong negative responses in the supposedly mild-mannered faithful. A number of those who claimed theological reasons for questioning the validity of allowing women into the priesthood suddenly began to worry about menstruating or pregnant priests. Their theology gave way to expressions of deep fear and prejudice, feelings and attitudes that had nothing whatever to do with doctrine or ministry.

Catholicism means different things to different people. I am not concerned here with Roman Catholicism, the largest Christian denomination in the world, with over 600 million members. Rather, I mean the core of the universal Christian faith, an essential statement of belief to which Christians everywhere can assent. It does not include agreement on morals, ethics or doctrine, but has at its centre the rock of belief in Jesus, summed up in the affirmation, 'Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.'

The theologian Elaine Storkey has outlined four prominent strands of feminism: liberal feminism, which is concerned primarily with women's rights; Marxist feminism, with its emphasis on economic and class systems; radical feminism, attacking patriarchy and focusing on a women-centred ideology; and Christian feminism, with its concern for the weak and oppressed, based on a particular theological understanding of the nature of God and the nature of human beings.

There are further categories, such as post-Christian feminism, the brand that usually hits the headlines with outrageous statements guaranteed to make most conventional Christians see red. This feminism has moved beyond the generally held views of the Judaeo-Christian God, and it appears to throw the 'baby' of Catholic belief in Christ out with the murky 'bath-water' of unpalatable patriarchy and legalism.

Using these terms as defined for both 'feminism' and 'Catholicism' I submit that Christian feminism is indeed compatible with Catholicism, for three reasons:

The first has to do with the nature of the Christian God. God is a spirit, beyond time and space, and the creator, source and sustainer of all life, matter and energy. This primal, eternal and infinite God devised the system, made the rules and made all living creatures. Humanity is the crowning glory of creation having been made 'in the image of God'. Human beings exist in two sexes, and though the sexes have some different basic functions and characteristics they are complementary: maleness and femaleness both arise out of God and co-exist as equal parts of the divine nature. Any systems, beliefs or practices which treat either gender as inferior or subservient to the other are not respecting this view of God.

The second considers the dynamic of the Christian faith. Around 200 years ago good Christians argued vehemently with other good Christians about the rights or wrongs of slavery. Both sides cited the Bible and Christian tradition in support of their positions. In a similar way, numerous practices common at the time of Jesus's life and during the early years of Christianity are now no longer part of the Christian experience.

The Christian Church has changed its rules and traditions often over the last 2,000 years. What was one century's accepted practice became the next century's anathema. This development and change is explained as God revealing Himself to us in new ways. God does not change, but our understanding does. Of course Christians have not always got it right, but, without the possibility of making mistakes and of misunderstanding, there would be no possibility for change, growth and new insights. Most important of all, without the possibility of being able to reject God, there would be no genuine possibility of loving God, and the crucial understanding of the Christian faith as a relationship of love would be lost.

The third reason derives from the person of Jesus. For those confused by theology, or bewildered by church history and tradition, the words and actions of Jesus provide the most important clues as to what our attitudes towards women should be.

The four Gospels chronicle the events and key sayings of Jesus's life, and reveal that many of the recorded encounters with men and women alike were radical. Time and again Jesus met people and brought about profound changes in their lives. Repeatedly, he broke with the traditions and conventions of his time and culture, and some of the most startling examples involve women.

Jesus went against tradition in the case of the woman caught in adultery, an act which was punishable by death for the woman. He was good friends with Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary and Martha, and voiced his opinion that Mary, who listened to his teachings, had chosen better than Martha, who busied herself preparing food.

His relationship with Mary Magdalen was the most telling. She travelled with him, and along with Jesus's mother and John and a few other women, she stayed with Jesus throughout his crucifixion. Most importantly, she was the first person to see Jesus alive after the resurrection.

Looking at this relationship, as well as others, there is much to suggest that Jesus himself sowed the first seeds of true equality and partnership between men and women. Certainly, the picture of the God who emerges in Jesus is a God who firmly rejects the old order and more than hints at a new one, characterised and guided by the power of selfless love.

Feminism does not threaten the fundamental, universally held doctrines of the Church; but it has meant that the Church's understanding of peripheral issues has been changed, as in the past, by the ideas of an initially small group. Christianity is not about a set of doctrinal propositions or a strict moral code, fixed for all time. At its heart, Christianity is about our response to a loving God, and feminism is showing those with eyes to see new insights into God.

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