Studying women and
The purpose of this reading is to highlight principles that have
guided the Instructional Team of Catherine of Siena Virtual College in
selecting the gender courses on religion that we offer.
Our gender studies address mainly the needs of women
Because of the discrimination against women in society and
religion, feminists [= women and men who champion the cause of
women] initiated womens studies that analysed the plight
of women from a womans perspective. This approach was unavoidable and
helped to put women firmly on the academic agenda.
But, on reflection, the approach proved too narrow. The exclusive
concentration on women risked to miss the wider picture, and so create unwanted
distortions. That is why womens studies have evolved into gender
studies which are wider in scope. The critical analysis in gender
studies involves a three-fold shift in focus:
- the focus includes both women and men in their
- the focus falls on how gender identity, for
both women and men, is socially constructed within any given society;
- the focus falls on the human liberation from
all forms of oppression and injustice--a liberation that benefits women and men
and all their children.
However -- and this is an important observation -- because of the
special situation of women, many of our gender courses still highlight
specifically the plight of women.
We can illustrate this approach in the example of a great woman
pioneer of the 20th century: Dr Anna Dengel.
|Dr Anna Dengel
Anna Dengel, born in Austria in 1892, saw the need of women doctors.
Since prejudice in her own country made it difficult for women to study
medicine, she migrated to Cork in Ireland where she completed her studies as a
Following the example of a Scottish Doctor, Agnes McLaren, she
established a medical practice in Rawalpindi, which was then still part of
India (1920). When she discovered the appalling plight of Muslim women who
could not be seen to by male doctors, she realised the need of bringing in more
trained women. She travelled to America where she found support. This led to
the foundation of the Medical Mission Sisters.
This new community was unique in the Catholic Church because it
required its members to be trained as fully professional doctors. At that time
Church Law forbade religious women to exercise the medical profession
because of the risk to faith and chastity. Eventually Church Law
was changed and the Medical Mission Sisters were acknowledged as religious
The point I want to make is that, though the need of women triggered
the Medical Sisters mission, Anna Dengel refused to concentrate
exclusively on women. She states this clearly in her books Mission for
Samaritans (Milwaukee 1945) and Thirty Years of the Holy
Experiment (New York 1955).
Of course, women are our first priority since they often
are most in need of healing and care. But our ministry as doctors is dedicated
to all the sick, both women and men. In fact, without looking after the men too
we cannot improve the health of families upon which the health of women
Womens needs are a priority because women lag behind men in
many crucial areas of life. The latest UNESCO Report on the Gender Gap paints a
Globally women between the ages of 15 and 44 are more likely
to be maimed or die as the result of male violence that through cancer,
malaria, traffic accidents or war combined; about half of all women who are
killed worldwide die at the hands of their partner; 80 % of all war refugees
are women and children.
Two-thirds of the world's illiterates are women ;
fewer girls than boys attend school; in developing countries three times
more boys than girls enter tertiary education.
Most of the world's 1.2 billion
poor are women; world wide women average less than 78% of men’s
wages, even in developed countries.
One third of all women have to support and bring up
their children alone, without the benefit of a second family income. Women
suffer more unemployment than men and are discriminated against regarding job
Women are underrepresented in governments, political
parties and at the international bodies; world wide, women have only a 15%
representation in democratic Houses of Parliament.
While the immediate causes of such discrimination lie in the social
and cultural field, discrimination is often deeply anchored in religious
Our course on A
Prophetic Spirituality of Justice shows that a true of
understanding of Christian faith requires removing discrimination wherever we
Domestic Violence (in preparation) analyses the
causes of violence against women. Unfortunately, religious convictions often
justify the abuse of women by their husbands.
We combine critical study with respect for religion
|Professor Romila Thapar
When following an academic methodology it is easy to clash with the
traditional views of an established religion. This happened to Romila Thapar,
Professor of History in New Delhi. She is specialized regarding ancient India.
Her research showed her that the orthodox Hindu interpretation of the origin
and development of some Indian institutions was unscientific and based on
religious material that distort's the truth. She questioned the
historicity of the Ramâyâna (see
reading on organised religion) and opposed
the insertion of tendentious material into the history textbooks of school
The controversy on my work involved some textbooks I had
written for middle schools, where I had talked about the lives of Aryans as we
knew it from the Vedic texts. I had mentioned, for instance, that the early
Indians ate beef the references in the Vedas are clear, and there is
archaeological evidence for this. The Hindu right wing extolled the Aryans as
the great model society for ancient India, and were opposed to any criticism of
them. When they objected to this and other statements of mine, I provided
evidence from the texts as proof. But they insisted that children should not be
told that beef was eaten in early times. My reaction was that it was
historically more correct to explain to school children why in early times beef
was eaten, and why later a prohibition was introduced.
Once we accept one religious groups agenda and beliefs
to be taught in the public schools, it opens the door for every other group to
do the same thing. As educators, we have to make a distinction between history
on the one hand, which involves questioning existing knowledge about the past
where necessary, and faith on the other hand, where even myths are acceptable.
The two have to be kept separate. The first is the domain of the historian and
the second that of the priest.
Professor Thapar published many classic books on Early India.
Her scholarship was recognized by honorary doctorates conferred on her by
universities in Chicago, Paris, Oxford and Cambridge. But her frank criticism
provoked vehement opposition from orthodox Hindu movements. On 27 January 2005
the Indian Government offered her the prestigious Padma Bushan Award,
but she declined probably because she believes that State Awards can be
tainted by political bias.
Can we combine a rigorous academic method with respect for religious
The answer is not simple.
The movement from : simply, the belief that Bible is man's only
source of truth and governs defines all areas knowledge. Biblicism often used,
derogatorily falsely, to those who believe work from this premise, they are
narrow-minded do not value other sources knowledge (especially, natural
revelation) use theology. True uses knowledge, but always allows Scripture be
controlling authority. >biblicism:> to
Think of Sacred Scripture. Through many centuries Christian faith
has firmly adhered to the doctrine of inspiration. God wrote the
Scriptures. He preserved them from error and falsehood. The medieval theologian
(1542-1621) gave expression to traditional Christian belief when he said:
|Bible by Vincent van Gogh
God himself is the author of Scripture. It is true: the
prophets and the apostles wrote. Yet, they were not, properly speaking, its
authors, but as it were the pens which God used in writing. Saint Peter the
apostle himself states: It is under inspiration of the Holy Spirit that
the holy men of God spoke (2 Peter 1,21). And his colleague in the
apostolate, Saint Paul, testifies: All Scripture is divinely
inspired (2 Timothy 3/16). The holy King David adds: My
tongue is the pen of a deftly writing scribe (Psalm 45/1).
If God takes full responsibility for these writings, then no error may
be admitted in them. God is Truth itself. God could not be the author of
Bellarmine does not hesitate to draw this conclusion with unmistakable
Scripture contains indubitable truth. In it we find no
falsehood, no doubt, no uncertainty; everything in it is true, everything
certain, everything without a doubt.
Galileo Galilei, who
was born in Pisa, Italy, in the year 1564, became one of Europes leading
scientists after studying and teaching in Pisa, Padua and Florence. He was the
first scholar to use the recently discovered telescope for the study of the
planets. His observations supported the theory of Copernicus (d. 1453) to the
effect that the earth revolves round the Sun, and not the Sun round the earth.
Up to this point, the theory of Copernicus had been accepted as a "calculating
device" that determined the length of the solar year to within seconds. This
supreme advantage was brought to good use by Pope Gregory in 1582 when he
reformed the calendar relying upon court astronomers who accepted the work of
Copernicus. Galileo, however, refused to allow that Copernicus was only a
"calculating device"--he insisted that the earth moved. Thus, for Galileo the
seeming "appearances of the rising and the setting of the sun" were to be
explained by the earth's daily rotation on its axis, and the annual change of
seasons were to be explained by the yearly rotation around the sun. As yet,
however, there was no compelling scientific evidence that the earth actually
did move. Furthermore, the philosophers of the day insisted that the ancient
Greek authorities, Aristotle and Ptolemy, demonstrated that the earth was
immovable and fixed at the center of the universe and that the sun, stars, and
planets rotated around the earth. Galileo, on the other hand, refused to accept
the authority of the ancient Greek philosophers on the grounds that they had
made errors in other matters and were surely wrong when it came to describing
the movements of the heavenly bodies.
Galileo could refuse to accept the authority of the Greeks; when it
came to the authority of God, however, the case seemed to be firmly shut
against him. Here are a few of the texts bearing on this controversy:
"The LORD set the earth on its foundations; it can
never be moved" (Ps 104:5; cf. Isaiah 45:18).
"The world is firmly established, it cannot be
moved" (1 Chronicles 16:30; cf. Ps 93:1; 96:10).
"And the sun rises and sets and returns to its
place" (Ecclesiastes 1:5).
The enemies of Galileo accordingly contrived to convince Cardinal
Bellarmine that the popular writings of Galileo were deceiving the masses
(since he, unlike his contemporaries, published in Italian) and leading them to
call into question God's truth as found in his revealed Word (the bible).
Galileo defended himself against the papal theologians by affirmed that it
would be unfitting for God to propose something for our religious assent that
his gift of reason demonstrated to be false. Sacred writings, accordingly,
should not be expected to contain modern scientific views since they were
written with an eye toward harmonizing with the pre-scientific worldview held
by the ancient people of Israel who first received them:
With regard to the standing still or the movement of the sun and
earth, the inspired Scriptures must obviously adapt themselves to the
understanding of the [ancient] people . . . otherwise the people, with their
limited imagination, would easily be brought into [scientific] confusion, and
would not be ready to accept those [religious] truths which are far more
important as the direct object of faith.
Galileo's point is well made. In effect, Galileo is arguing that if
God had spoken of the movement of the earth, this would have been a stumbling
block for the ancient people of Israel. If God spoke of scientific absurdities
regarding the earth, how could he be trusted as reliable when it came to the
religious content of his message?
||While Cardinal Bellarmine was sensitive to Galileo's
point, he found no reason to suspect that the science of the bible was just as
reliable as its religious content. Thus, in 1616, Cardinal Bellarmine, in the
leading role assigned to him by the Office of the Inquisition accused Galileo
as promoting a theory that was "false and altogether opposed to Holy
Scripture." Galileo was accordingly required to desist from any public defense
of his position. Meanwhile, his books and the book of Copernicus were put on
the Index of
Forbidden Books. In 1633 Galileo Galilei was tried before the Inquisition
and convicted of grave suspicion of heresy for "following the position of
Copernicus, which is contrary to the true sense and authority of Holy
Scripture." Being in poor health, he recanted his belief that the earth moved
in order to forestall being burned at the stake as a heretic. He was placed
under house arrest for the rest of his life.
for further details.
Don O'Leary in his recent historical study, Roman Catholicism and
Modern Science, summarizes the impact of Galileo's condemnation in
The physical sciences went into sharp decline after the death of
Galileo. The institutional church had the resources to police the faith and
repress unacceptable ideas. These included magic and astrology, and their
condemnation led to action being taken against those who practiced chemistry
and chemical medicine. Nor surprisingly, very few Catholics undertook research
in these branches of science (4).
With time, scientific evidence for the movement of the earth began to
accumulate, and even Catholic scientists began to accept the Copernican theory
as a confirmed and reliable theory. Even the Holy Office of the Inquisition
began to soften its harsh condemnations of 1616 and 1633 for, in 1741,
permission was given to publish the collected works of Galileo. Even though the
Vatican slowly back-peddled in an attempt to minimize its tragic error in
regard to Galileo, this did not offer any overarching wisdom for encountering a
long line of difficulties that were to follow.
Consider, for example, the story of Noah's worldwide flood. As
European ships of exploration revealed the immense scope and variety of animal
life on the planet earth, it seemed more and more implausible that kangaroos
and ostriches from Australia were somehow available and loaded onto Noah's ark.
Furthermore, the volume of water needed to flood the whole earth up to the
height of the highest mountains exceeded the available water on the face of the
earth by a factor of nearly 10. Where did all this extra water come from, and
where did it all disappear to as the flood receded? More and more, reputable
scholars were prompted to conclude that the flood narrative may be more of a
parable bent upon explaining the origin of rainbows as a sign of God covenant
with Noah (Gen 9:13f) or that it might universalize what was, in fact, a
terrible flooding that menaced the entire Middle East.
In the early 1800s, evidence for ordered geological layers of rock
began to accumulate. George Lyell's Principles of Geology (1830)
provided massive evidence that the formation of rock layers and the
subsequent buckling of these layers due to what we now know as "plate tectonics"
reguired millions of years. Using the genealogical data of Genesis,
James Ussher already figured that Adam was created in 4004 BCE. The new
geology, accordingly, required that the first five days of creation covered an
expanse of time 1000 times greater. Between 1844 and 1863, over sixty books
were published in English with the prospect of reexamining Genesis on the basis
of the new geology. A few of these books endeavored to repeat the events of
1616 and to use the biblical authority to disprove and condemn the new geology.
The findings of modern science could not be so easily dismissed in the 1800s as
they had been in the 1600s. Hence, responsible theologians began to explore
whether the Hebrew term "day" could be taken to mean a "geological period" of
thousands of years. Others, however, reaffirmed the suspicion of Galileo (as
quoted above) that the events of Genesis 1 intend to convey good theology
rather than good science. Clearly, the six-day creation enforces the note that
the Creator rests on the Sabbath--a point that would be obscured if six epochs
rather than six days were intended. As in the case of Noah's flood, it remained
possible that Genesis 1 was never intended to be a chronological history of the
geological epochs of the planet earth.
Many Christians, however, continued to be uneasy with any concessions
regarding the complete historicity of the whole of Genesis. This was all the
more the case, when in 1848, Charles Darwin published his Origin of
Species. Up to this time, both the philosophers and theologians had
generally assumed that every living creature and plant on the face of the earth
was directly and immediately created by God.
A quick look at Genesis might appear to confirm this. When examined
closely, however, Genesis says more than is normally expected. According to the
narrative of Genesis 2, Adam is presented as intensely lonely following his
creation "from the dust of the ground" (2:7). Thus the Lord God seeks to find
Adam "a helper as his partner" (2:18). Before there is any thought of Eve,
however, "out of the ground, the Lord God formed every animal of the field and
every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call
them" (2:19). Here one has the Lord God motivated to find a solution to Adam's
loneliness and thus he explores the option of forming sea gulls, monkeys,
wolves--hoping thereby to discover what Adam will see in them. But, in the end,
this exploration fails for "there was not found a helper as partner" for the
man. Clearly none of these birds or animals were regarded as "food," because,
according to Genesis, the trees alone were intended to produce Adam's food
(2:16) and, only after the flood, does God give permission to kill and eat
bird, animals, and fish (Gen 9:1-5).
According to the
rabbis, God then created "out of the ground" the first woman, Lilith. As
things turned out, however, the two got into a dispute and Lilith disappeared.
Adam was thus again frustrated. Then the Lord God put Adam into a deep sleep
and brought form his side (rib?) the raw material to form Eve. When Adam
awakes, he finally recognizes this latest creation as "flesh of my flesh"
(2:23). Genesis then says: "Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother
and clings to his wife" (2:24)--a midrashic reflection that abstracts from
Adam's situation and applies it to us. Genesis 2, consequently, might well have
more to say about how it is that a man's bond with his wife originates and how
it is stronger than a man's bond with his father and his mother (or with his
dog, for that matter). Again, therefore, the possibility exists that we might
well be encountering a religious parable rather than a historical event. In
fact, since the narrative from this point introduces snakes that talk and trees
that have magical fruit--one promising that "your eyes will be opened and you
will be like God" (3:5) and another that you might "live forever" (3:22f)--one
must suspect that one has here a mythological wisdom narrative and not just
history as such.
for further details.
The few examples indicated above can only touch the surface of how our
ability to read and interpret the bible has gradually become more nuanced and
informed. In any case, it is worthy to note that not everyone was able to
travel this path. Right after World War I, a
coalition of Protestants
declared themselves as committed to defend the inerrancy of the Scriptures in
all areas--faith, science, and history. This movement has been called
Fundamentalism and, esp. in the United States, it has taken the stance of
publically challenging science whenever it goes against the clear teaching of
Roman Catholics, on the other hand, after a brief period of dogmatic
fundamentalism that took place during the same period when Protestant
Fundamentalism originated, gave way to a much more nuanced notion of biblical
inspiration. Just as formerly Catholics overplayed Jesus' divinity and obscured
his humanity, scholars like Cardinal Bellarmine overplayed the divine origins
of the bible and obscured its human origins. The bishops of Vatican II declared
that the books of Scripture "Teach firmly, faithfully and without error that
truth which God wanted to put into the sacred writings for the sake of our
salvation" (Dei Verbum 3:11). The emphasis must be placed upon the words
"for the sake of our salvation." Inerrancy of the Bible is relevant only
insofar as it teaches us the truth about God and God's plan for our lives. The
bible is not to be read as divinely revealing truths of natural science or of
ancient history. This helps explain why, in a U.S. survey of seminary
professors, 31% of Protestant professors either questioned or dismissed
evolution while only 2% of Catholic professors did so (M. Conrad Hyers, The
Meaning of Creation: Genesis and Modern Science, p. 5).
Accordingly, under the direction of John Paul II, the Pontifical
Academy of Sciences undertook to reexamine all the proceedings regarding
Galileo. Guided by this reexamination, John Paul II spoke positively of Galileo
and negatively of those who mistakenly condemned him:
Thanks to his intuition as a brilliant physicist and by relying on
different arguments, Galileo, who practically invented the experimental method,
understood why only the sun could function as the centre of the world, as it
was then known, that is to say, as a planetary system. The error of the
theologians of the time, when they maintained the centrality of the Earth, was
to think that our understanding of the physical world's structure was, in some
way, imposed by the literal sense of Sacred Scripture (Pope John Paul II,
L'Osservatore Romano N. 44 (1264) - 4th November,1992).
2000, Pope John Paul II issued a formal apology for all the errors of the
Church and for the violence, persecution and blunders committed, not only
against scientists, but against Jews, heretics, women, Gypsies and native
peoples as well.
In sum, Roman Catholics want to affirm creation without falling into
Likewise Catholics want to affirm evolution without allowing biological
evolution to solely define the human condition. In a series of homilies on the
first chapters of Genesis, the then archbishop of Munich, Cardinal Joseph
Ratzinger, wrote in 1981 as follows:
The exact formula is creation and evolution, because both respond to
two different questions. The account of the dust of the earth and the breath of
God, does not in fact tell us how man originated.
It tells us that it is man. It speaks to us of his most profound origin,
illustrates the plan that is behind him. Vice versa, the theory of evolution
tries to define and describe biological processes. However, it
does not succeed in explaining the origin of the
'project' man, to explain his interior provenance and his essence. We
are faced therefore with two questions that complement, not exclude each other.
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