June 10, 2022
"In Memory of Her"
Mary E. Hunt
“If human beings are like stars, Rosemary Radford Ruether is a constellation. So many are her dimensions, so bright her light.”
That was my contribution to a collective poem organized by her friends and colleagues in 2016. Her death on May 21, 2022 in Pomona, California, means that the sky may be dimmer, but the light endures especially in academic circles.
Rosemary Radford was born on November 2, 1936, in St. Paul, Minnesota and grew up in Washington, DC and LaJolla, CA. Her father died when she was twelve. She was raised by her mother, aunts, and her mother’s friends, so it was no wonder that she had early interest in matriarchies.
She studied Religion and Philosophy at Scripps College; Ancient History for a masters at Claremont Graduate School; and Classics and Patristics for a doctorate at CGS. She taught at numerous institutions, most notably Howard University School of Religion (1966-76) and Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northwestern University (1976-2002) where, as the Georgia Harkness Professor of Applied Theology, she was the first woman to hold an endowed chair.
She taught at other institutions as well--Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and the like--but the only Catholic one was Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles where she began her career. Rosemary was largely persona non grata in Catholic institutions because of her scholarship on contraception, abortion, same-sex love, and ordination of Catholic women to the priesthood, all of which are now widely accepted views among U.S. Catholics. Well after she retired, Dr. Ruether was offered a lectureship at the University of San Diego that was disgracefully rescinded. The Catholic Church’s loss was the world’s gain.
From 1965-1999, she reported “approximately 900 speaking engagements at major universities and church conventions” with “international speaking engagements and teaching” in 24 countries. I would guess that in the following 15 years of her astonishingly productive career--47 books, hundreds of chapters and articles, lectures beyond counting--those numbers jumped substantially. Many people thought she wrote easily, but she clarified that writing took time and research. A lot of her work predated the Internet and word processing making her accomplishments all the more amazing.
It is easier to mention the AAR Program Units that Rosemary Reuther did not speak in than to catalogue her many and varied contributions to the guild. Her name is synonymous with Feminist theology, Liberation theology, Ecofeminism, and Roman Catholic theology. Her contributions to Palestinian rights and her discussion of Goddesses were controversial but taken very seriously. She presented often at the Annual Meeting and she was a popular and generous respondent, leavening her erudition with legendary humor.
Rosemary’s early civil rights work and her decade at Howard University grounded her intersectional analysis early in her career. Anti-racism predated even some of her work on gender-focused feminism. Experience, not abstraction, was the basis of her intellectual work. Social change was an essential element of her methodology. She took on systems and structures from churches to the U.S. mental health system, always seeking practical as well as theoretical changes.
Her first scholarly foray into modernity, after a long immersion in the Patristic period, was occasioned by being a woman of childbearing age in a Christian denomination that banned contraception. It was not long before poverty and colonialism were in her focus; concern for Earth was always foundational.
She realized that women of color in the north and women from the global south had theological voices that were silenced or excluded and needed to be amplified. She produced anthologies, edited encyclopediae, encouraged conferences and networks, and published in the popular arena as well as in academic outlets. Her work was all in the service of empowering many voices and expressing new ideas. Rosemary’s multiple commitments assured that the days of gender-focused feminism were short-lived. She played a major role in empowering feminists of all races, genders, sexual orientations, and religious persuasions.
Stories of her quiet, unshowy kindness are as plentiful as her publications. Many of her graduate students recount her care for them, her nurture and encouragement as they found their way through academic thickets. Women of my generation who had few role models learned from Rosemary how to be professional without being elite, how to be supportive of one another, how to keep family and friends in the foreground while engaging in a world-spanning career, and how to enjoy our work and one another. One colleague who was having a tough day on campus found that Rosemary had left her a beautiful sweater handknit by women in the country where Rosemary had recently lectured. She wore it feeling embraced by Rosemary, one of many people who shared that sense.
I predict a cottage industry of Rosemary Radford Ruether scholarship. Dissertations will abound and discussions will rage about her contributions to academia and church. Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology (1983) is probably her most popular book because of its style and content. But among the others there is an intellectual scope that few religious scholars approach.
One book that invites my particular attention is Women-Church: Theology and Practice of Feminist Liturgical Communities (1985). It showcases the analysis and creativity that Rosemary brought to so many topics. She wrote “Christian feminists cannot wait for the institutional churches to reform themselves enough to provide the vehicles of faith and worship that women need in this time” (p. 4). So, she sketched, literally, some models.
The book includes not only the history and ecclesiology that undergird a movement of women who are “suffering from linguistic deprivation and eucharistic famine,” but also the liturgies and rituals, music and architecture (down to the blueprints) in which a new expression of an ancient (Christian) faith could be re-imagined. This work, along with the invaluable contribution of her colleague feminist biblical scholar Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza (for example, Discipleship of Equals: A Critical Feminist Ekklesia-ology of Liberation, 1993), grounded the global exodus of many Catholic women from a patriarchal institution and offered models of inclusive, feminist ways of being religious that expanded Catholicism into a ‘catholic’ faith community focused on equality and justice.
It is hard to ‘locate’, impossible to pigeonhole Rosemary who was in a class by herself. But I think of her in the ranks of Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th century Benedictine in Germany who wrote theology, music, and poetry. Hildegard shared wisdom about herbs and medicine, and insisted on the greening of everything. Rosemary was that kind of versatile--painting and gardening along with her prolific scholarship, insisting on ecology before it was fashionable, and leaving aside narrow, parochial images and symbols in favor of eclectic and aesthetically complicated ones that united rather than divided.
Perhaps, like Hildegard, though it was hardly her aspiration, Rosemary will eventually be named a Doctor of the Church, someone who brought about a deepening of the tradition. In her characteristic modesty, I suspect she would rather be remembered as world-class scholar and professor, a cooperative colleague, a courageous intellect, and a wonderful sister. Whatever history decides, this is how we, her contemporaries, knew and appreciated her.