Feminism Below the Surface

God or Goddess? Feminist Theology: What Is It? Where Does It Lead? by Manfred Hauke; translated from German by Dr. David Kipp (Ignatius Press, 1995, 343 pp., $17.95)

In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, we saw the rise of “the second feminist movement.” In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, we saw, in the United States and most of the First World, its triumph-in secular society at least. In the Catholic Church, there has continued to be a certain resistance and a conflict-over the refusal of the Church to agree to the ordination of women. For the most part, however, the world has moved on from “political” to social issues. We are seeing a new interest in “what went wrong” with the response to the feminist movement and “what lay behind” that movement-feminist ideology and theology.

Manfred Hauke's book God or Goddess? is one of the best available road maps to what we are now dealing with. To all appearances, feminist theology has made a major contribution to the disintegration of family life and to confusion about what it is to be a man or a woman.

To that contention, many nowadays would say, “guilty as charged.” But according to Hauke, a professor of dogmatics in the Catholic Theological Faculty at Lugano, Switzerland, we cannot just deal with the results, but must address the underlying problem. The bad results come from the way feminist theology undermines not only Christian belief, but even more, how it undermines the understanding of what it is to be a human being.

In the English-speaking world, Hauke is known almost exclusively as the author of Women in the Priesthood (Ignatius, 1988), probably the leading study by a pro-Vatican Catholic theologian on the ordination of women. His approach is a bit “softer” than the more recent statements by Pope John Paul II and the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, but for most practical purposes is the same.

God or Goddess? is concerned with the origins behind the ongoing feminist theology debate in the Church. Most of the book is an evaluation of feminist theology as compared with the key points of Catholic doctrine: scripture and tradition, God, Christ and redemption, Mary, Church, liturgy, and eschatology. At all these points, leading feminist theologians prove to be hardly orthodox-in fact, hardly theist.

Hauke concludes with one of the more insightful evaluations of feminist theology from the point of view of an orthodox theologian. He puts his finger on the key point-what he calls anthropology in the sense of our understanding of human nature. Underlying feminist theology is a non-Christian ideology that “shatters both the human personality and cooperative social order.” The result is an approach that not only calls into question traditional Catholic teaching, in dogmatic and moral areas as well as pastoral and social areas, but also leads to harmful proposals for restructuring human life.

Hauke's book is clearly written and well translated. While its conclusions end up casting feminist theology in a negative light, the book is analytical rather than polemical. He lets the feminist positions speak for themselves. He treats the main line of American feminist theology, with which he seems to be conversant. For Americans he has the added advantage of giving a treatment of feminist theologians in the German-speaking world and giving the Marxist background to the whole movement, a background to which many Americans are oblivious. Hauke doesn't address the vigorous evangelical feminist movement, which proceeds somewhat differently from its parent, the feminist movement in the Catholic and mainline Protestant Churches.

One significant question is whether the word ‘feminism’ can be rescued.

There isn't another book in English quite like God or Goddess? Father Francis Martin's The Feminist Question also treats feminist theology, but it is more a discussion of the nature of theology than an overview of the feminist take on it. While Father Martin would substantially agree with Hauke that the movement as a whole is not orthodox, his concern is more with the methodological underpinnings of the issues raised. As an overview of what orthodox Catholicism faces in feminist theology, Hauke's book is more useful.

A third valuable study of feminism is Donna Steichen's book Ungodly Rage (also Ignatius Press). For those unfamiliar with the outworkings of the theology that Hauke treats, Steichen's book should be eye-opening. It, however, is concerned mainly with feminism in practice in the Catholic Church, not with providing a theological analysis of feminist theology. It makes an excellent companion study to God or Goddess? The two together provide an orthodox treatment of “Catholic” feminism that covers the main bases in an effective way.

We are, according to Hauke, dealing with a theology that “presents opportunities for the Church, but that also poses a preeminent danger, which pertains to the substance of being human and of Christian belief.” In an ironic way, Hauke is making clear that we are dealing with an extensive and influential group of people who usually call themselves Catholic, who identify their writings as Catholic theology, and who occupy many Church positions and instructional positions. They are, however, not only not orthodox but, for the most part, not Christian in any recognizable sense.

Speaking of certain types of feminism, John Paul II once said: “It is not merely a matter of some people claiming the right for women to be admitted to the ordained priesthood. Where this issue is carried to extremes, the Christian religion is itself in danger of being undermined. Sometimes forms of nature worship and the celebration of myths and symbols take the place of the worship of God revealed in Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, this type of feminism is encouraged by some people within the Church, including some religious whose opinions, attitudes, and behavior no longer correspond with what is taught by the gospel and the Church. As pastors, we must oppose individuals and groups holding such opinions.”

One significant question is whether the word “feminism” can be rescued. Those now in possession of the word are not likely to subscribe very readily to the Pope's view that ‘in civil society and in the Church too, the fact that women are equal and different has to be recognized.” Nor are they likely to agree that “the true promotion of women consists in promoting them to that which is proper to them and suited to them as women-that is, as creatures different from men.”

There seems to be a new recognition in society of the innate differences between men and women and the need to find an approach to human life that recognizes and builds on those differences. The Church certainly could help in that task. To do so, however, modern Catholics will have to recognize and understand feminist theology, its preponderant role in so many Church situations, and what it leads to. For this, Hauke's book is, for the moment, the best source available.

Steve Clark writes from Dexter, Mich.