Friday, 13 February 2009



The Catholic Church operates like a men-only club.

Last weekend the hierarchy of the Catholic Church intervened to block a lecture by the renowned feminist scholar Dr Carol Christ from being given on church property. The move was not wholly unexpected, given the conservative nature of Cardinal George Pell's governance of Catholic culture in Sydney.

While the pragmatic issue of finding another venue has been solved, the issue of Pell's authoritarian style is more difficult. It continues unabated for two major reasons.

The first is that the hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church allows a small group of celibate men to exercise ideological control; the second is that there are so few declared intellectual responses within the Church to Pell's theological stance to foster dialogue.

One function of theology should be to challenge orthodoxy and to encourage a dynamic interpretation of faith and culture. In this context, the censorship of Dr Christ is a concern. What danger does Dr Christ present to the Catholic hierarchy?

Is it because she suggests that the image of God as exclusively male does not and cannot reflect women's experience of the divine? Is it because she knows that in many societies the divine has been represented by the feminine? Is it because she argues that the continuing abuse of women's bodies is related to an exclusive male pantheon?

Are these such radical and dangerous ideas that they have to be quashed? That they are exposes a church that shores itself up by conformity rather than making a convincing case for Christianity.

So what is the nature of Pell's censorship? It represses free speech, debate and rational argument which are the hallmarks of understanding, diversity and intellectual rigour. Theology is immensely broad, with a magnitude of ideas and debates, making a significant contribution to understanding faith in the modern world. Why should this be restricted?

The statement banning Dr Christ from giving her address reads that "it would be inappropriate for a talk promoting Goddess worship and pagan spiritualities as an alternative to the basic tenets of the Christian faith".

This is a misreading of her work and indicates that the decision to ban her is not based on an informed reading of her book, She Who Changes, the subject of her lecture. This work is a critical engagement with process theology, the basic tenets of which hold that creation is a process of constant transformation and is not fixed to eternal laws of truth.

Originally argued by the theologian Charles Hartshorne, this view suggests that we can never fully know God because our understandings are constrained by the brevity and nature of our existence. We are a small part of a larger whole, and history shows that our ideas of God change constantly according to cultural, geographical and historical contexts.

Dr Christ takes these ideas into a feminist arena, arguing that it is only in the West over the past few thousand years that God has been exclusively imagined as male. One of the roles of feminist theology
is to shatter this theological mistake and allow the divine to be imagined in the multiple ways in which God/Goddess is experienced by humanity.

As a feminist theologian Dr Christ is only too aware that religions such as Christianity, which portray God as male, are damaging to women; hence the low status of women in the major religions.

What can be so radical about the suggestion that we could conceive of God in a feminine form? Plenty of theologians have suggested this before. It can only be a dangerous statement to a patriarchal church. And in that sense it becomes a radical statement.

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