Though spirituality is personal, governing religious bodies operate as the manifestation of God’s will on earth, and therefore have a measure of control over personal relationships with God as they interpret the teachings that form them. As a human-made infrastructure designed to propagate the will of the divine, religious bodies often act as an imperfect institution attempting to interpret and carry out perceptions of the perfect. Institutional change occurs as God becomes better understood. In light of the feminist push of the late nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries, critique of the male perception of God has been pushed to the forefront of spiritual questions in Roman Catholicism. Catholics have long perceived and spoken about God from an androcentric, or male-centered, viewpoint, unknowingly using language and practice as a tool for feminine oppression by making God less relatable to women. This approach has the effect of creating an infrastructure that considers men more like the divine, while also simultaneously obscuring parts of the divine itself. Women, in an age of liberation, wonder how they fit into the framework of a male-dominated religion in both practice and perception. Vatican II, the revolutionary council of Roman Catholic leaders that opened dialogues on longstanding Church teachings in the context of modern life, began the discussion of women within the Church. The increase in the discussion since then indicates that for the most part women feel they currently do not fit into such a framework. Spirituality addresses the highest of questions, asking why humanity is and how it should act. The lack of acknowledgment of the femininity of the divine and inherent equality of women in the eyes of the divine threatens gender equality independent of personal religious affiliation. Androcentric language and practices within the Church have resulted in negative effects for women and obscure understanding of the divine on three levels: the breakdown of personal relationship, the denial of aspects of God, and the oppression that results in the loss of a minority voice within the structure of the Church.
Viewing God through an androcentric lens inevitably causes a breakdown of personal relationship with God. Renowned feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson explains this by asserting that “The symbol of God functions, and its content is of the highest importance for personal and common weal or woe” (Johnson). The way the individual sees God dictates the nature of the relationship the individual has with God. A masculine, domineering, Old Testament God creates a dominator-to-subordinate relationship between the individual and God, corrupting the true nature of God’s love. However, the early Hebrews have already addressed this problem of perception. Harold Wells, a theologian at the Toronto School of Theology, describes the Hebrew use of ‘Sophia,’ an understanding of the wisdom of God perceived as a distinctly feminine being, in light of Johnson’s work. He states that “By ascribing the functions of the goddess to Yahweh, and of Yahweh to the female Hokmah/Sophia, they were able to speak of the one God of Israel in both female and male imagery” (Wells). The Yahweh and Sophia perception allowed for both male and female attributes within one God at the same time. Just as a child needs both male and female role models, the Israelites recognized that an exclusively male perception of God fails to fulfill the individual.
Just as the individual needs a more complete understanding of the divine to form a fruitful relationship, the use of androcentric practices and language denies a whole aspect of God. Church infrastructure condemned denials of the incarnation’s humanity and divinity in the case of the Arian heresy. Arians understood Christ, the incarnation of God, not as divine, but rather as man. The current accepted teaching acknowledges the mystery of Christ as all-human and all-God, while the Arian teachings denied the all-God aspect of Christ’s being. Church doctrine understands the mystery of the incarnation as conflicting natures in one being, similar to the discrepancy of a Creator God being all masculine and all feminine. Hilaire Belloc refers to the Arian controversy saying “the Arian heresy was, as it were, the summing up and conclusion of all these movements on the unorthodox side that is, of all those movements which did not accept the full mystery of two natures” (Belloc). The Arian teachings were condemned for not accepting the multifaceted nature of the divine. Though these heresies often lie in the dispute of the nature of the incarnation, or God becoming human, refuting aspects of the creator is also problematic. God clearly displays feminine qualities that the Church hierarchy denies through language and practice. Dr. Kenneth Boa, President of Reflections Ministries and Trinity House Publishers, articulates the dual nature of God supported by Genesis 1:27 as follows: “So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female he created them” (qtd. in Boa). He goes on to say, “If both men and women are created in God’s image, that leads to two important truths. First, it confirms what we have already seen, that God is not male. Nor is God both male and female: he is transcendent Spirit, neither masculine nor feminine” (Boa). The assertion of God’s masculinity by the Church is most clearly seen in the exclusive use of male language for the divine. Certainly God exists in a state of being that is beyond the limits of human language; however, this does not allow for the default to male gendered language. Academic theologians refer to God using the forms of God—Godself and God’s—as opposed to specific labeling of pronouns. This acts in two ways: by sidestepping the issue of assigning human constructed gender to a being that exists outside of such bounds and by reaffirming the divine nature of God. The use of such other terms reminds the speaker of the sheer otherness of God. By consistently placing God in a separate category devoid of human constructs, humanity better grasps the concept that God is, in fact, outside of such constructs. Elizabeth Johnson affirms this, saying, “Feminist theological analysis makes clear that exclusive, literal, patriarchal speech about God has a twofold negative effect. It fails both human beings and divine mystery” (Johnson).
An androcentric understanding of God also leads to an institution of patriarchal practices. These practices lead to oppression within the hierarchy of the Church that results in the loss of the active participation of a strong contingency of believers within the leadership structure. Without leadership positions, women are disenfranchised within the Roman Catholic Church. Though some remain active participants through writings and theological discourse, it is from behind an academic veil as they have no position within church hierarchy. Furthermore, the female positions that the church allows promote conventional gender roles and heteronormative expectations that limit individual identity. The presentation of the symbol of the Sophia God makes a dichotomous-gendered divinity more palatable; however, systematic theologian Edward Collins Vacek, S.J. uses the findings of Rita Gross to point out that the entirety of gender identity in the discussion of God is futile, as different societies ascribe different attributes to the genders furthering the notion that gender is a construct. Vacek asserts, “Rita Gross points out that ‘in Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism, compassion is said to be ‘masculine’ while wisdom is ‘feminine.’’ In the United States, the opposite is the case. Thus any strict assignment of virtues and roles to men or to women is likely to be mistaken” (Vacek). If the assignment of particular virtues and roles to specific genders is arbitrary, the exclusively male leadership of the Church is inherently unjust.
However, it can be hard to see an injustice when it is so deeply ingrained in Church teaching. The androcentric understanding of God is taught as the orthodox understanding of the divine within Catholic classrooms, a formative place for faith that sets the tone for future spiritual growth. Father William J. O’Malley, S.J. discusses the masculinity of God in his book Meeting the Living God, a work commonly used for instruction in Catholic high schools. He inquires into the nature of God using evidence of God’s manifestation, and advocates for the masculine image of God, when he states “My discomfort with those who want to ‘feminize’ God too much seems to deny that God is the ultimate ‘in charge.’ The God we hear from the thunderstorm in the Book of Job is in no way ‘feminine’!” (O’Malley 229). O’Malley’s argument rests in the assertion that God is ultimately more masculine than feminine. However, this assumption places more value on the masculine qualities of God as the most important manifestation of the divine, making O’Malley’s argument beholden to a patriarchal value system rather than objective fact. O’Malley also asks, “Can I plead, then, with men and women on both sides of this question to yield to the limitations of the language until the linguists come up with a solution?” (O’Malley 229). But O’Malley’s logic for the use of gendered pronouns for God could appease both sides by assigning male pronouns in instances when God ascribes to O’Malley’s masculine values and female pronouns when God ascribes to O’Malley’s feminine values. O’Malley’s current belief does not allow for a fluid perception of God. He says, “To quibble over pronouns is to miss the whole point,” but Johnson’s crucial assertion rejects this on the basis that the language used for God matters because the symbols and perceptions of God play into humanity’s day-to-day existence (O’Malley 229; Johnson).
Ultimately, the argument against increased female power within the Church is rooted in the misunderstanding of gender identity and the insistence of forcing the concept of God into societal constructs. It is the imperfect Church forcing the perfect God into an understandable package for the masses. Due to a patriarchal hierarchy and the percolation of androcentric societal values into Church structure, negative effects for women and the understanding of the divine have resulted on three levels: the breakdown of personal relationship, the denial of aspects of God, and the oppression that results in the loss of a minority voice within the structure of the Church.
To solve these problems, those in positions of authority, particularly those working in education, must put less emphasis on the kingly image of God within homilies and parochial school teachings, and place more focus on God as the everyday man and woman. Changing perception must happen in classrooms and homilies to give people a less androcentric view and more fruitful relationship with the divine. Within this setting there must be increased dialogue for a better understanding of gender identity, incorporation of the academic use of non-gendered language for God in day to day life, and the movement towards female representatives in leadership positions of the Church. Education is the foundation of the solution. The advent of women’s liberation opened a dialogue in all aspects of life, and spirituality is not a front that escapes equality. The continued efforts for equality require progress within the Church through continued conversation and education, ultimately revealing new insight into the divine and elevating the status of women within and beyond the context of the Roman Catholic Church.
Belloc, Hilaire. “The Great Heresies “Chapter Three: The Arian Heresy”” EWTN Global Catholic Network. The Catholic Resource Network, n.d. Web. 14 Nov. 2016.
Boa, Kenneth. “15. All About Eve: Feminism and the Meaning of Equality.” Bible.org. 27 Mar. 2006. Web. 18 Nov. 2016.
Johnson, Elizabeth. “Feminist Theology and Critical Discourse About God” from She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse. ARES. Web. 10 Nov.
O’Malley, William J. Meeting The Living God. New York : Paulist Press., 1998. Print. 226-230.
Vacek, Edward Collins. “Feminism And The Vatican.” Theological Studies 66.1 (2005): 159-177. ATLA Catholic Periodical and Literature Index. Web. 11 Nov. 2016.
Wells, Harold. “She Who Is: The Mystery Of God In Feminist Theological Discourse.” Touchstone 13.1 (1995): 37-44. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials. Web. 14 Nov. 2016.