My Thoughts on the Mary McAleese Affair

As a theologian I found myself particularly interested in Mary McAleese’s statement about the hierarchy having reduced Christ “to this rather unattractive politician who is just misogynistic and homophobic and anti-abortion”. This has been misinterpreted by the usual suspects as meaning that McAleese is attempting to singlehandedly change Church doctrine. That this is not the case is clear from her most recent statement that she has not yet decided how she will vote in the abortion referendum due to the complexity of the issues involved. McAleese’s point refers to the depressing habit that the hierarchy has of remaking Jesus of Nazareth into their own misogynistic, dogma obsessed image and likeness, something that couldn’t be further from the truth. I defy any woman to read the Gospels and not be struck by the revolutionary attitude of Jesus towards women, all the more remarkable considering the time and place in which he lived and the notably patriarchal and sexist attitudes towards the female sex displayed in the Old Testament. Indeed his treatment of women was so radical that it transcends time and place.

I also defy anyone, man or woman, to read the Gospels and not be struck by the fact that as regards moral teaching, Jesus was in no way judgmental, nor did he leave behind a list of ‘thou shalt nots’ . On the contrary, his emphasis was positive, concerned with love of others, especially those on the margins of society, or considered ‘other’. This included the very kind of women who have been so mistreated in Ireland for falling foul of Ireland’s deeply embedded double standards towards women, women who all too often found themselves shunned or even worse condemned to places like the Magdalene Laundries or Tuam style mother and baby homes. In misrepresenting Jesus in this way, the hierarchy is, as McAleese pointed out, “keeping Christ out and letting bigotry in”. I have no doubt that Jesus would have opposed abortion in non-medical circumstances, but he would also have strongly condemned the way in which women are universally made to carry the can for male sexual irresponsibility. The ultimate answer to the problem of abortion is not to penalize women, but to transform male/female relationships for the better.

McAleese also makes a very important point about the clericalism endemic in the Church, and the exclusion of women from all authority and decision making. While I personally am not hung up on the view that the only solution to this is to ordain women to the priesthood (which could exacerbate clericalism since women would have to fit in with male power structures) it would certainly be possible to create forms of authoritative ministry that would unleash female gifts and female perspectives into the hitherto male-dominated Church. This could only have a revolutionary effect for the good. For me, equality between the sexes should not mean sameness, but complementarity. Equal representation of women in the Church should ideally bring about a harmonious balance between the best male and female characteristics, with women keeping male clerical egoism and arrogance in check. I am also of the opinion that it is time for feminist theological insights into the life and ministry of Jesus to be brought to the fore. It was his female disciples who stood bravely and loyally with Jesus during his passion and crucifixion, while his male disciples including even Peter deserted him. The men were incapable of seeing strength in weakness, whereas the women fully understood his sacrifice in a way that I’m convinced only women can. I am therefore fully in agreement with McAleese’s opinion that the Church cannot move on and progress without female insights and authority, and I would extend this to the theological sphere.

Interestingly, the fact that McAleese has the power, influence and status to mount such a critique of the institutional Church is due to the great political gains that Western women have made, albeit that there is a long way to go. Women’s voices are being heard publicly, and this can have a significant impact on the Church, as our former President is demonstrating. Ironically, this raises the astounding possibility that the Church could be the new powerhouse as regards the true liberation of women. It has the power to appoint women to influential positions, they don’t have to be voted in. If such a process was undertaken in good faith, Catholicism could be a beacon to the world in demonstrating what a world in which women have an equal voice could look like. As McAleese said, quoting Ban Ki -Moon, it is ‘the pulpit of the world’, powerfully influential. Guided by authentic Gospel values, it could transform itself from acting as “a powerful brake in dismantling the architecture of misogyny” into the direct opposite, and become a vehicle for defeating women’s oppression that would be a true reflection of the spirit of its founder. The liberation of women from unjust structures will also of course bring about the liberation of men, an important feminist goal. Hard as it may be to imagine now, we may be on the brink of a politically inspired ecclesiastical revolution that will have a reciprocally transformative effect on the political domain.

Religious Indoctrination Irish Style (Part 2)

If you read part 1 here’s part 2

So what exactly is religious indoctrination? Well first of all it’s important to note that such a thing wouldn’t have been possible prior to the rise of modern science that properly began in the seventeenth century with Galileo’s championing of heliocentrism. Most notably, the rise of science precipitated the development of secularism in the Western world. In particular, the new power over nature effected by machine production had a profound impact on religious and theological thought. Natural phenomena that had previously been attributed to the inexplicable workings of a divine mind were now known to be governed by laws that could be harnessed and used for the benefit of humanity. Philosophers were enabled to imagine humanity as self-sufficient, no longer dependent upon an all-powerful deity. Their opinions soon spread to the general public and were quickly assimilated. Belief in a God or gods became optional in the West and with it the possibility of atheism.  Prior to this great leap in understanding of material reality brought about by science, religion was as much about superstition and magic as it was about genuine spirituality. Indoctrination into belief in a transcendent dimension of existence was unnecessary, since nature itself was thought to be permeated with its own magic and mystery.

In the modern era therefore religious indoctrination is associated with the presupposition that there is a supernatural dimension to existence, and that a God or gods exist.  Denominational religious education that focuses  on faith formation is often criticised for being a form of religious indoctrination.  In Ireland most schools are denominational, with Catholicism being the biggest denomination due to our history as a nation. To understand what the specifically Irish form of religious indoctrination is, a quick look at the historic rebellion of Martin Luther will put us on the right path.

As is well known, it was Luther’s criticism of Church corruption that sparked the Wars of Religion and the Reformation, although the appetite for reform had been growing in Europe during the previous centuries. He was brought up during the outrageously corrupt papacy of the Borgias at a time when Christianity was characterised by a strong emphasis on hell, damnation and how to avoid it. During the medieval era in Europe Christianity was rather like what Islam is now, a political and powerfully cultural force as well as a religious one. The safest route to salvation was held to be the religious life, at that time considered vastly superior to all forms of lay existence. Luther, a sensitive child, suffered from religious terrors. As a young man he showed no desire to enter the religious life; he was exceptionally clever and enrolled to study law at the university of Erfurt. His father, a miner, expected that the young Martin would do well and support him in old age. Fate, however, intervened and Luther’s life took a dramatically different course. Returning to university after a weekend visiting his family, Luther was struck by a bolt of lightning. Terrified that he would die, he prayed to St. Anne, the patron saint of miners, to save him, and promised to enter the religious life if she did. Having survived the lightning bolt, Luther swiftly entered a strict Augustinian order and began to study for the priesthood. His religious terrors did not leave him however, and he was dogged by a constant sense of unworthiness before God.  Years of spiritual struggle followed, which even included a trip to Rome to gain an indulgence.

Luther was eventually saved from his torment when his confessor and the vicar of his Augustinian order encouraged him to study theology and take the chair of Scripture at the university of Wittenberg  At that time Bible study was not an important part of theological formation and it was inaccessible to the vast majority of Christians due to the fact that it was written in Latin. His studying of the Bible would change Luther’s life for ever, and was the catalyst for his posting of his 95 theses on the Castle Church door at Wittenberg. But it was his encounter with the humble, compassionate and socially radical Jesus that reassured Luther and healed him of his spiritual travails.  It also caused him to cast a critical eye on his Church, which now struck him as falling very far short of the Christian ideal epitomised by Jesus, since it instilled fear rather than love. Perhaps most of all, Luther developed a heightened awareness of the hierarchical nature of the Church especially in relation to the clerical-lay divide. At that time the monastic/clerical state – largely due to the requirement for  celibacy – was considered to be both spiritually and morally superior to the lay one, which gave rise to an elitist clerical caste and a passive, religiously inferior laity.  Luther’s encounter with the Bible also convinced him that every individual Christian should have access to it and via the text to God, without the need for a priestly intermediary. This powerful conviction led him to translate the Bible into German (creating modern vernacular German as he did so) and to abolish, in his reformed version of Christianity, celibacy and along with it religious orders both male and female. Liturgical celebration became a Service rather than a Mass, the priestly celebrant a minister or pastor, and there was a greater emphasis on the word of God and the preaching of it than on the Eucharist. Luther still held to the real presence of Christ, but his theological approach was that this occurred due to the action of the entire congregation rather than the celebrant alone. Drawing on scriptural texts such as 1 Peter 2:5 (“You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation…”)  Luther in fact declared the priesthood of all believers. The idea that every Christian believer is a priest means that there is no hierarchy with regard to a person’s role in life; laypersons and clergy have equal rights and responsibilities to proclaim the good news of the  Gospels. God calls us all according to our gifts so it is not necessary to work in ordained ministry to bear witness to Christ.

Long before he initiated all of these changes, however, Luther’s calling out of the Church hierarchy on the corrupt practice of selling indulgences along with his new theologies brought him to the attention of Pope Leo X and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. When he refused to recant his writings, he was excommunicated by the Pope and declared an outlaw of the Empire by Charles. This meant in effect that anyone who wanted to could kill him without threat of punishment. Fortunately for Luther he had a powerful ally in his sovereign Elector Friedrich the Wise of Saxony; the latter staged a false kidnapping of Luther and the beleaguered monk was enabled to recover from his trauma in Wartburg Castle where he remained for about a year. In standing up to the two most powerful men of the era at the risk of his life and reputation, Luther had certainly embraced the risks that authentic Christian faith can entail.

Vatican 2 was, in many ways, a belated recognition of Luther’s reforms. This can be seen above all in its new emphasis on Christology, on the importance of the Bible  in religious education, its abandoning of the Latin Mass in favour of Masses said in the language of the people, and in its permitting the laity to be ministers of the eucharist and to hold the host. Prior to Vatican 2, only the priest was allowed to touch the host, which meant placing it on the tongue of the recipient. Lumen Gentium, a document of Vatican 2, highlights the importance of the role of the laity in the Church and emphasises the priesthood of all believers. The main difference between the Catholic Church and Protestant Churches on the matter is that the many of the latter reject the ordained priesthood. Overall, the trend initiated by Luther in the medieval period harks back to the early Church, when there was no clear demarcation between priests and bishops on the one hand, and laypeople on the other. The former tended to live in the same way as everyone else, tending to their livelihoods, marrying and rearing families. It was only when the Church became the state religion of the Roman Empire under Constantine that strict demarcation between both classes emerged along with elaborate ecclesial structures.

Due to its mix of Christian denominations, the U.S. is perhaps the best present day example of what Luther had in mind. My first trip there was an eye-opener for me as well as something of a culture shock. The sight of lay preachers on tv – even female ones – almost made me feel that I had arrived on another planet. Protestant denominations like Methodism, for example, have male and female lay preachers,  a revolutionary development that goes back to its founder, Wesley; In the States evangelical Christianity also fields lay preachers and then, of course there are the televangelists. These ministers can be attached to a Church or self-proclaimed, and many of them – like Billy Graham, Gerry Bakker and Jerry Falwell – become very famous, even if not always for the most wholesome of reasons. There are also famous female televangelists,  such as Joyce Meyer, Marilyn Hickey and Aimee Semple McPherson. The latter, who became famous in the early 20th century, was a pioneer, especially in the use of modern media, and even founded her own Church. Founding one’s own Church in America is not unusual; indeed most of the first black churches founded before the 19th century were begun by free blacks.

My visits to the US, which included two summers spent at Fordham, a Jesuit University in the Bronx, introduced me to a kind of dynamic Christianity that I had never before encountered. This includes the Catholic denomination also; as one of my lecturers, the leading religious education theorist Gabriel Moran explained to us, in the US Catholicism has been so influenced by the denominational mix in the country that it is something of a hybrid in practice. No doubt the strict separation of Church and State where religion is concerned has also contributed to the unselfconscious, non-pious enthusiasm regarding Christianity that I found so refreshing and so different to what I was used to here in Ireland where proclaiming and/or preaching about one’s religious beliefs  is considered to be the exclusive province of professional religious and is generally restricted to liturgical settings.  To understand the difference between here and somewhere like the US, you only have to think of the sensation caused when Marty Morrissey recently gave an inspirational talk  at a Knock novena, an event that became a national talking point and sparked a great deal of outrage. In the US, no one would have batted an eyelid at such an occurrence.

As should by now be clear, religious indoctrination where Christianity is concerned relates, not to the religion itself, but to Christian ecclesial institutions when they become ends in themselves. As Christians, our faith should be in Jesus of Nazareth and not in an institution. Jesus himself lived simply and dressed as others did. Is there really a need for the elaborate costumery that characterises some  Christian denominations, most notably perhaps Catholicism? Whenever  I see yet another newspaper article on the Church that is illustrated by pictures of red hatted and elaborately dressed cardinals I feel like saying “With all due respect to the good and necessary administrative and liturgical work that you do, could you move aside please? This isn’t really about you, we’re here to see someone else”.

As regards the legalistic straitjacket of rules and norms which is as closely associated with Catholic Christianity as are its elaborate ecclesial structures, in this area too the Church is very far removed from the simplicity of the Nazarene. Jesus delivered an uncomplicated message which can be briefly articulated: love others, be kind to the less fortunate, stand up for the underdog, be peaceful, honest, humble and forgiving. He saw himself as a reformer of the ultra legalistic Judaism of his era, and preached against the tyranny of overly strict rules. This is not to say that Jesus was an anarchist or dismissed rules as unimportant, in  his own words he had come ‘not to abolish the Law, but to fulfil it’. This means living by the spirit, not the letter of the law, avoiding petty restrictions,  and knowing when it can be transcended and when exceptions can be made. It also means that the emphasis is a positive one; doing unto others as you would have them do unto you will make negative ‘thou shalt not’ rules  redundant.

In Ireland,  as a result of our colonial history which involved the oppression of the overwhelmingly Catholic population, the Church gained far too much political power and influence for its own good after independence was achieved. There has also always been an institutional opposition to theological speculation here, the powers that be preferring a passive, acquiescent laity. The Irish Universities Act of 1908 prohibited any state funding to be directed towards theological studies depriving generations of Irish people of any intellectual engagement with theology. Most European countries provide financially for faculties of theology and in the US college students are expected to take either philosophy or theology as a minor. Imposed intellectual passivity along with a homogenous religious environment, has engendered a strong perception here of the institutional Church and Christianity as one and the same thing. The backlash now occurring against it is not against Christianity as a religion, but against an institution that for too long had too much power.

 Change however, despite perceptions, is well underway. Although we have yet to see ‘the age of the laity’ heralded by Vatican 2 emerge in any meaningful way, the tide is turning. A whole generation of young people has grown up in Ireland with a religious education programme that emphasises the person of Jesus, and in an environment that is no longer theocratic and overly authoritarian. The backlash now occurring will die out with the present baby boomer generation. By then, the lack of vocations throughout the Western world will have created an existential necessity for lay involvement in the Church, and this trend will contribute to the changes already occurring in the Irish Church. Who knows what the shape of the future Church will be? One can only hope that it will be simple and non-censorious like its founder, with clergy and laity united as one people of God. It should go  without saying that women will have to have a far stronger presence in the Church of the future, but  this will probably be the greatest battle of all and the most crucial one.

 Such a transformation would dispense with any form of religious indoctrination. For a Christian Church that is truly representative of Christianity, indoctrination  is impossible. A Christian has to be prepared to take social risks that can involve real loss and sadness, and even share in the contempt suffered by Jesus himself if called upon to do so. The emphasis will turn to the person of Jesus and the question of his divinity.  (“Who do you say that I am?” Peter answered “God’s Messiah” ). Religious adherence will then result from critical reflection for those who need it, and choice as well as faith.

The Dual Face of Western Christianity: Is the Church of Jesus Christ Gradually Defeating the Roman Empire?

Please be aware that this is an opinion piece which takes an informed but personal view of the historical progress of Christianity and which is grounded in a perspective of faith.


The great seventeenth century philosopher Thomas Hobbes once wrote “The Papacy is not other than the Ghost of the deceased Roman Empire, sitting crowned upon the grave thereof”. Two centuries later James Joyce echoed this comment when he wrote “Oh Ireland my first and only love/Where Christ and Caesar are hand in glove!”. With the attainment of independence from Britain, Roman Catholicism gained an inordinate amount of political power and influence in Ireland; this made the country an uncomfortable place for freethinking literary geniuses such as Joyce, who felt compelled to go into exile. Yet up until its establishment as the state religion of the Roman Empire by the Emperor Constantine in the early decades of the fourth century, Christianity had been a persecuted religion. Indeed at the first ecumenical Council of the Church (Nicea 325), called by Constantine to settle a highly divisive controversy over the doctrine of God as Trinity, many of the bishops present bore the marks of torture.

In its first two centuries, there were no serious disputes over doctrine because there was as yet no orthodoxy; church communities were allowed to have differing perspectives on the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth since such differences were then treated as differences of opinion. Hence there were no heretics or heresies. With its new supreme status in the Roman Empire, however, Constantine – a great believer in unity – absolutely prohibited what came to be considered the assemblies of heretics. As Roman Emperor, Constantine also held the title of Pontifex Maximus, or High Priest of the state religion. Constantine took this role very seriously in relation to Christianity, so  that decrees of the Church automatically became imperial decrees and attained the force of law. Anyone who refused to abide by these decrees was likely to be subjected to the sanctions of the law. Bishops who disagreed with Church policy could be removed from their sees or banished. In this way political intrigue and jockeying for power and status inevitably became intertwined with doctrinal formulations and disputes. It was the great Augustine of Hippo, however, who declared that dissension against the Church was synonymous with dissension against the state, a stance that would later lead to the brutal activities of the Inquisition. Augustine, in fact, is often thought to be the father of the Inquisition since he advocated the use of Roman methods of torture to assist the Church in its efforts to maintain uniformity. The first recorded execution for heresy was carried out in 385 under the Emperor Maximus. The Church, formerly separate from and persecuted by the Roman Empire, was at the start of a process that would place it in the strange position of being simultaneously the Roman Empire and Christianity; it had begun to persecute itself.  From St. Augustine onwards most theologians agreed that heretics should be persecuted and even killed.

The Fall of the Western Empire and the Rise of Christendom

After the fall of the Western Empire late in the fifth century, the Bishop of Rome was regarded by many as a natural successor to the Emperor. As well as political involvement, intellectual leadership in the West was, from that time onwards, provided by Christianity. It was the Church that envisaged and founded the first universities in Paris, Oxford and Cambridge in the medieval era. In the eleventh century, the much needed Church reforms and reorganisation carried out by Pope Gregory VII gave rise to the renowned unity of medieval Western Christianity which gave rise to the term ‘Christendom’. The reforms of Gregory are sometimes referred to as ‘the first Reformation’, but with definitions of heresy sharpened up and the implementation of even more vigorous punishment of heretics, it also led to the emergence of ‘a persecuting society’. In addition, Gregory’s claim that the Pope, as the vicar of Christ on earth, should be the leader of a God-given universal monarchy, led to centuries of struggle between the papacy and the holy Roman Emperor for political domination.

With its greater power and unity, the two opposing faces of  the Church became ever more polarised: with all the rigour and discipline of the Roman Empire, the Church taught Christianity, and this led to a new form of heresy. Many devout Christians began to rebel against the wealth and political power of the Church, which they perceived as unchristian. Arnold of Brescia, a pupil of Abelard, shared his teacher’s critical view of the Church and also embraced the republican ideals of Ancient Rome. He held that papal power was a usurpation and that the wealth and power of the Church was unchristian. He led a movement to re-establish a Roman republic and return the clergy to apostolic poverty. Arnold was hanged and burned as a heretic in 1155 by Pope Adrian IV.

The Persecution of the Cathars

By this time, all manner of activities constituted heresy. It was heretical to eat meat on Friday, to read the Bible, to know Greek, to criticise a cleric. The obsession with punishing heresy reached its gruesome peak with the crusade launched against the Cathars of Provence by Pope Innocent III in 1209 and intensified by his successor Pope Honorius III. The Cathars flourished in the Languedoc region of Southern France and in response to what they perceived as the corruption of the local clergy embraced an extremely ascetic form of Gnostic Christianity. Gnosticism was a religious movement that had originated in the ancient world and parasitised many religions. Gnostics considered the body to be evil and the soul  good; hence mortification of the flesh was encouraged. The Cathars identified themselves as Christians although they disagreed with the Roman Church on many points. They denied, for example, the validity of clerical hierarchies and of ordained intercessors between man and God; on the latter point they anticipated Luther. Crusaders against the Cathars were accorded the same privileges as those who fought against Muslims, including the attainment of the highest place in heaven. By the end of the fourteenth century the Cathars, along with their culture – which had engendered the traditions of courtly love, poetry, romance, chivalry and the troubadours – had been virtually wiped out.

Despite persecution by the Church authorities, however, outbreaks of so called heresy inspired by Gospel values continued unabated throughout the centuries that followed. Under Pope John XXII (b. 1316) and later 14th century Popes, Franciscan spirituals were burned at the stake for pointing out that Jesus and the apostles had not owned property and preaching absolute poverty. The members of a sect known as the Apostolicals, founded in 1300,  aimed to live like the apostles. The more fortunate among them were burned at the stake; others were not so lucky. Dulciano of Novare, successor of the sect’s founder, was publicly torn to pieces with hooks along with his wife. It was only a matter of time before schism would occur as a result of such severe persecutions, and the outbreak of radical Christianity we now know as the Reformation tore Christianity asunder for two centuries.


Martin Luther’s early life unfolded during the outrageously corrupt papal era of the Borgias; it was also a time during which the emphasis on strict adherence to dogma led to threats of hell and damnation for those who fell short in any way. Luther, a sensitive soul, suffered religious terrors from childhood. His entrance into the monastic life was not due to a religious calling but to a brush with death. He was a law student on his way back to university after a visit home when he was struck by a bolt of lightning. Terrified he would die, Luther prayed for help and promised that if he was saved he would become a monk. Having survived the lightning strike, he promptly gave up his law studies and entered an Augustinian monastery.The religious life only exacerbated his fears at first; on the day he was ordained and said his first mass, he was so overcome by terror at the thought of the majesty of God that he almost fled the altar.

Years of spiritual anguish followed, with Luther continuously beset by feelings of unworthiness before a God whom he perceived as harsh and  judgemental. This was perhaps to be expected considering Luther’s extreme religious sensibilities and the dogmatic emphasis of the times on the threat of hell and damnation. Luther was finally rescued from his spiritual travails when he was appointed to the chair of Scripture at Erfurt university. This necessitated intense study of the Bible, which was not encouraged at the time even for monks and priests. Lay people were not allowed to read it and couldn’t have even if they were allowed since it was only available in Latin or Greek. In reading the Bible Luther was astonished and gratified to discover a different God to the one he had encountered in dogma and in medieval culture. The Father God of the Bible, and especially of the New Testament, was kindly and merciful; once a person had made up his or her mind to strive for moral improvement, this kindly Father put them on a kind of probation, watching over and guiding their efforts. Most surprising of all for Luther was his encounter with the loving and compassionate Jesus; in the medieval era even Jesus was principally portrayed as a judgemental figure who would consign to the flames of hell those deemed to have died in a state of sin. The Jesus portrayed in the New Testament was non-judgemental, humble, unconventional and more concerned that his followers would love all, even enemies, than that they should adhere slavishly to laws and norms. Moreover, he lived his life as a wandering healer and preacher, with no possessions and no home; he was largely dependent for financial support on those who travelled around with him. This Jesus was a man prepared to take dangerous social risks which, due to his immense popularity, brought him to the attention of the religious and political authorities and led in due course to his execution for blasphemy.

The impact on Luther of his biblical studies was seismic. The promulgation of a new indulgence promising a complete remission of sins in return for money  by the then Pope  Leo X in order to raise funds for the completion of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome was the direct catalyst for his rebellion; the sermon of indulgence vendor the Dominican John Tetzel, which included the notorious slogan “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs” was particularly provocative to Luther. Tetzel dispensed with the usual condition that the purchasers of the indulgences for remission of their sins and those of  the souls in Purgatory should demonstrate their own contrition. Luther’s criticisms of the Church were not just confined to its pursuit of political power and wealth, or what he considered to be clerical confidence tricks however. His transformed image of God and of  God’s Son Jesus had convinced him that individual Christians should be allowed to read the biblical texts by themselves without needing priestly intermediaries between themselves and God. His views of morality were similarly transformed;  he now believed that just as individuals should be allowed their own unique encounter with God, so they were entitled to consult their individual consciences on moral issues rather than being ordered what to do by the Church authorities. Luther’s emphasis on individual religious and moral autonomy  is considered to have been a significant factor in the emergence of Western liberal democracy along with its separation of church and state and emphasis on individual rights and freedoms. Indeed the ongoing conflict and dialectic between the Church authorities and the Christians educated and influenced by them would appear to have given rise to  what is undoubtedly the freest society the world has ever known. It is within this context that we now return to the remarks of Hobbes and Joyce and the common sentiment that the establishment of Christianity as the state Church of the Roman Empire was not to its moral/spiritual advantage.

The Evolving Kingdom of God

With the benefit of 2000 years of hindsight we can now respectfully  allow ourselves to take a God’s eye view of the history of Western Christianity up to the present.  All Christians know the story of the life and cruel death of Jesus of Nazareth and its causes. As many of his followers would do after him, the unconventional Jesus took huge social risks in his championing of those considered sinners – or as we would now understand it ‘other’ – in the Jewish culture of the time. As we also know, Jesus did not perceive himself as the founder of a new church (Christianity as we know it was the creation of St. Paul) but as having been sent by the Father to reform Judaism. For Jesus, Judaism had become far too legalistic and had lost sight of the spirit of the Law which ought to, he said, prioritise love over rules. Authentic interpretation of the law and the achievement of right proportion between love, mercy and compassion on the one hand and codified law on the other would bring about a kinder, more just and more generous world which Jesus described as the Kingdom of God. To the disappointment of his many disciples, this was not the political kingdom of Jewish messianic hope that would overthrow the Roman Empire and liberate Israel from Roman occupation: Jesus used storytelling and parables throughout his ministry to try to convey what his kingdom would be like and the kind of love that would be necessary to achieve it. It was his unconventional behaviour and radical love that made him so popular and brought him to the attention of the Roman and Jewish authorities. It was ultimately a combination of religion and politics that brought him down.

Barbaric practices of one sort or another, whether religious, political or cultural  would, of course, have been part and parcel of  ancient and medieval societies in Europe as elsewhere whether or not Christianity was the established religion. Preoccupation with maintaining a stringent doctrinal orthodoxy is something that pertains to religion as a phenomenon, and not to whatever unique form a particular religion takes. Indeed it was exactly the idolatory of laws and norms for their own sake that Jesus criticised and sought to reform in the Judaism of his day. With the passage of two millennia we can now postulate that the establishment of Christianity as the  state religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century was no catastrophe but something that was fated to be. If we consider the authorities of the Christianised Roman Empire to symbolise the authorities of all civilised societies and the various populations ruled and educated by them to be the source of individuals prepared to emulate the radical and risk-taking behaviour exemplified by Christianity’s founder, we can see that Jesus’s battle with the authorities and his efforts to reform Jewish legalism were continued on in successive waves. In such a context we can postulate that the establishment of Christianity in the Empire was the second move in this battle. It took  1800 years to reach the event  of the Enlightenment; the latter phase in Western history began with an intellectual revolution that exploded into  the French and American physical revolutions, and gave rise to Western liberal democracy. The causes of the Enlightenment were a combination of the Reformation and the achievements of science,  which emerged from medieval scholasticism as a new field of knowledge. It was therefore successive  movements engendered by Christianity – both lay and religious- that gradually transformed the West into the society and culture it now is. It is always a mistake to perceive Reformation and Enlightenment as events that happened in opposition to the Church; rather the Church, in its upholding of and teaching of Christianity generated these events due to the supremely high ethical standards it has always preached, and the calibre of the education that  it provided.

The Rise of Islam

This becomes crystal clear if we try to imagine what would have happened had Constantine not embraced Christianity as the religion of the Empire. No event during the first millennium was more unexpected and critical for Christianity than the rise of Islam. Indeed it’s hard to believe now that by the seventh century the region east of Jerusalem which included Syria, Jordan and Iraq were Christian.  Christianity was  also of course established throughout the Roman Empire, flourishing from Spain and North Africa in the West to Egypt and Syria in the East as well as Asia Minor (now Turkey) and the Balkans. Interestingly at that stage of its history, the global centre of Christianity was not in Europe but east of Jerusalem. By 750 however, at least 50% of the world’s Christians found themselves under Muslim rule and in the early eighth century Islam also advanced into Western Europe, with its conquest of Spain, Portugal, part of Sicily and what is now the Languedoc – Roussillon region of Southern France. It took until the late fifteenth century for the invaders to be banished from Europe, by which time Constantinople had fallen to the Ottoman Empire, signalling the final collapse of the Eastern Roman Empire. By the sixteenth century Islam had a new political centre in Constantinople and was establishing itself in southeastern Europe where it persists to this day.

In the face of such a rapid expansion, it is logical to suppose that had Constantine not made Christianity the religion of the Empire, Islam would also, sooner or later, have put down roots in Western Europe. Indeed the fall of Constantinople and the spread of Islam into Eastern Europe might have been a particularly vulnerable time for Western monarchies, since the Byzantine Empire had always acted as a bulwark between Christendom and the territories ruled by Islam. The presence of the papacy in Rome, as well as its long association with the monarchies of Europe and especially the Holy Roman Emperor, ensured however that the combination of religion and politics that was Christendom provided the strength and unity to keep the invaders at bay, up to and including the defeat of the Ottoman Turks in the late seventeenth century, when they were driven from the walls of Vienna by King John III Sobieski. The latter was hailed by the Pope as the saviour of Christendom, and of Western civilisation generally.

Had Islam  at any stage during its periods of vigorous expansion established itself in the West there would have been no Reformation, no Enlightenment, no liberal democracy and none of the rights and freedoms that Western women in particular take for granted. It was the continuous dialectic between the authoritarian Roman Empire dimension of Christianity and the radical ideas of its founder that engendered Western moral, legal and cultural progress. Muhammad of course, unlike Jesus, inextricably intertwined the religion he created with politics and warfare: the Islamic notion of a universal Caliphate is one that sees religious law as the law of the land, so that Sharia rather than secular, civil law predominates in most  Muslim countries.  Yet it is also Islam’s political and military dimensions that have propelled its expansionary success. Unlike Christianity, where Islam is established it seldom gets displaced. Christianity in itself does not have territorial or political ambitions; indeed its founder preached a spiritual kingdom of love, peace and justice rather than the political kingdom which his fellow Jews – including the apostle Peter – expected their longed for Messiah to inaugurate. It is only due to Constantine’s action in making Christianity the religion of the Empire that Christianity is now the world’s largest religion, having spread relatively peacefully from its European base to the Americas, Australia and, latterly, southern parts of the African continent.

Before proceeding further I’d just like to briefly mention a viewpoint that has become quite popular in post Enlightenment Europe. This is the atheistic viewpoint that religion, because of the superstition and violence that are often associated with it, is overall a force for evil rather than good and that we’d be better off without it. To this charge I would reply that up until the relatively recent past religion was not an optional extra since human knowledge of the natural world together with the practical achievements of science had not reached a level at which  people felt that they could dispense with the need for a God or gods. It is also generally acknowledged that modern scientific method  emerged from medieval scholasticism, especially the work of  Thomas Aquinas, Robert Grosseteste and his pupil Roger Bacon. Through its emphasis on rationality and intellectual rigour, scholasticism evolved into empiricism.  Without the emergence of scholasticism from the medieval universities along with the interplay between the two aspects of Western Christianity we have been discussing, it is unlikely that we would have attained the perspective from which we can have such a discussion. Without a doubt, the combination of Reformation and the new kind of knowledge engendered by science led to the Enlightenment. Indeed I would go so far as to say that Christendom and the culture it has generated is further revelation, occurring in historical time,  that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God. So where to for Christianity now? This brings us to the the question which is contained in the title of this essay: is the Church of Jesus Christ gradually defeating the Roman Empire?

The loss to Roman Catholicism in particular of the immense political power and influence it wielded up until the Enlightenment period is still considered regrettable by many in the Church, particularly those in authority. I would argue however that the current situation is as it is meant to be, the culmination of a series of moves between Jesus Christ and the Roman Empire (understood as a metaphor for civilisation), the first of which culminated in his execution by its officials and the second of which was the establishment of the Church he founded as the religion of the  Empire. In order to understand the full significance of what has happened and what the future holds, we must now remind ourselves of what  the stated mission of Jesus actually was.

Gospel Values

The ministry of Jesus opened with the famous Markan statement “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news” ( 1:15). In contrast to the Davidic Messianic hope of the Jews, the kingdom that Jesus preached was not a political but a spiritual one. This is a kingdom that will be rooted in the hearts and souls of his followers, whose Christian praxis will transform our  unjust and unequal world into a warmer, kinder one. It is what we call theologically an eschatological kingdom ; the word ‘eschatological’ refers to the Christian belief  that with the commencement of the ministry of Jesus it is ‘already’ here, if ‘not yet ‘ fully realised. The Banquet parables (most of which can be found within chapters 14 to 16 of Luke’s Gospel) recounted by Jesus are particularly evocative, promising as they do an inclusive kingdom whose people will not only enjoy the pleasures of the table, but also convivial warmth and friendship: there will be no hunger or deprivation, either physical or emotional, for those who enter the kingdom. But how is this kingdom to be achieved? It will require the desire to attain Christian repentance rather than the desire for power, wealth and prestige that constitute the values of human society and  which are symbolised by  the Roman Empire.

That opening statement of Jesus’s mission sets the tone for everything that follows. Repentance requires a change of heart (metanoia in biblical Greek), a recognition of past moral failure. Jesus follows squarely in the Old Testament tradition of relating moral lapses to failures of love and compassion. In a famous passage from Ezekiel, for example,  the prophet reveals God’s word to his people: “I will give you  a new heart and put new  spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (36:26). In the writings of the prophet Amos, we hear God say “I hate, I reject your festivals and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies” (5:21). Hosea tells us that God desires “mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgement of God rather than burnt offerings” (6:6). Solemn religious assemblies can be a way of substituting ritual for authentic morality, a way of keeping God at one remove in order to avoid the close relationship that will transform hard hearts into hearts of love, compassion and mercy. Jesus develops this theme in a radically new way when he talks about Jewish Law which by his cultural era had become bogged down by an array of petty rules added by the Pharisees; these rules were concerned with the minutiae of the law and imposed unnecessary burdens on people.  Jesus broke some of these petty rules as when he healed on the Sabbath and was criticised for it by the religious authorities. At a dinner to which he was invited by a Pharisee, Jesus challenged  his host by refusing to engage in the elaborate hand washing rituals that had become customary. To the shocked reaction of his host Jesus replied “Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness………Woe to you Pharisees! For you love to have the seat of honour in the synagogues and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces. Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without realising it” Lk  11:39-44. At that another guest, an expert on the law answered “Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us too” (v. 45). To which Jesus replied “Woe also to you lawyers! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not lift a finger to ease them” (vv. 45-47).

What Jesus is warning against is the belief that moral goodness resides in external actions, particularly those designed to win public praise and approval. But it is a mistake to think that moral responsibility ends with obedience to external commands. This is well illustrated in Matt 5: 21-22 when Jesus says “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times ‘You shall not murder’ and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgement’. But I say to you that if you are angry to a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement”. What Jesus is saying is that God sees behind our external actions to our hearts and motivations, and that it is necessary to have a heart in order to follow God. He regularly criticised the legalism that had come to predominate in the Jewish moral law of his era; a legalistic  approach to ethics tends to place the main emphasis on externals and neglects the internal. Jesus clearly felt that an important part of his mission in bringing about the kingdom of God was to reform Jewish law . Yet he in no way detracts from the importance of the law, saying that he has not come “to abolish the law or the prophets…. But to fulfill”. Developing a heart, however, enables the individual to go by the spirit rather than the letter of the law when required, and also to be able to discern when exceptions can be made, as when Jesus himself healed on the Sabbath and allowed his disciples to eat grain on the Sabbath.

From this we can deduce that a defining feature of the  kingdom of God will be an internal transformation of hearts that will not be externally visible in individual cases but will work its way upwards to be manifested in a warmer, more compassionate, just and harmonious society. It will of course also be a well ordered society, and one in which people obey external laws not just to avoid public disapproval or to impress in the manner of the Pharisees, but simply because they wish to do the right thing. It will also be a society in which unjust laws will be much less likely to be instituted. Continuing our conceptualisation of the authorities of the Roman Empire (one of the greatest civilisations the world has ever known) to represent the authorities of all ordered and  civilised societies, and the kingdom of God to be the just and humane society portrayed in the words and parables of Jesus, we can see how the internal dialectic operating within Christianity has been largely responsible for what, as I argued above, is the freest, most educated and most civilised society in the world. So is the Church of Jesus Christ in the process of conquering the Roman Empire? My answer would be in the affirmative, while pointing out that we have a very long way to go before the kind of society that Jesus envisaged can come into being. To paraphrase Churchill, after two thousand years we have not reached the end of our task as Christians nor even the beginning of the end; rather we are perhaps at the end of the beginning. And we must never forget or overlook the downside of our progress in all fields, which includes the terrible events of the twentieth century and our exploitation of large swathes of the globe. How then are we to progress further? Is it time now for the Church, especially Roman Catholicism, to renounce all political power and leave its ‘Roman Empire’ dimension behind? We turn now to a consideration of   the challenges  confronting our Western civilisation, which is so firmly rooted in Christianity.

Christianity and Islam

It is often remarked that the 21st century will see a renewal of the clash between Christianity and Islam. If its first two decades are anything to go by, this would certainly seem to be the case. However it would be an error to perceive this clash only in terms of Islamic extremism and its avowed aim to conquer the West by violence and subsume it into an Islamic caliphate. Islam has, for example,  made a strong and peaceful resurgence in Turkey’s political sphere through democratic means,  almost one hundred years since  Kemal Ataturk imposed political secularism on his country and transformed it into a secular state.  Then there is the Muslim diaspora in the U.S. and Europe, where a clash of cultures is certainly now taking place. These relate principally to the status of women and the relationship between religion and politics. In countries such as France, which prides itself on its secular culture,  the expectation that Muslims should integrate with French culture and be assimilated is causing much controversy. In Islam, politics and religion are basically two sides of the same coin; this goes back to Muhammad who was a politician and warrior as well as a prophet. Christianity, on the other hand, was neither political nor territorial due to the attitude and behaviour of its founder who famously said “Render unto God what is God’s and unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” and resisted the temptation to take up arms and become the political messiah his disciples wished him to be. It was entirely fortuitous, as we have seen, that Constantine established it as the religion of the Roman Empire and hence gave it a political dimension. Christianity has both engendered and survived the Enlightenment with its separation of Church and State throughout the Western world. So well established is our secular culture now that there can be no going back for Christianity into theocratic mode as there was for Islam in Turkey; Islam has not been through an Enlightenment and moreover is wedded to politics in a manner alien to Christianity. As a result the greatest clash between Islamic culture and that of Christianity in the West is and will continue to be the former’s desire to maintain its allegiance to Sharia law even in Western liberal democracies. If this is allowed to happen, it will undoubtedly have a knock-on effect on hard won Western freedoms, especially where women’s rights are concerned. It may even herald the beginning of a slippery slope back to theocracy via Islam, which flourishes among European Muslims in a way that serves to highlight the corresponding decline in the practice of Western Christianity. If European birth rates continue their rapid decline it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that Islam may at some future time achieve political power through the democratic process.  It is imperative therefore that Christianity renew itself and move forward along with the great civilisation it has engendered. How then might a Christian revival be achieved? It is my opinion that the developing clash between Islam and Christianity will not be physical or cultural so much as theological, for the arrival of significant numbers of Muslims into the West brings to the fore a question that goes back to the very beginning of Christianity, and was asked by Jesus himself: “Who do you say that I am?”

Who Was Jesus?

It is not generally known that Islam’s sixth century prophet Muhammad, before he founded a new religion, was a member of a Christian sect which held Jesus to be a great prophet, favoured in the eyes of God, but not divine. The status of Jesus in relation to God had been formally defined at the Council of Nicaea (325). That Council, the first ecumenical Council ever held by the Christian Church, was called by the Emperor Constantine as an emergency measure to quell the many theological controversies that had erupted over the question of the divinity of Jesus and to restore unity to the religion of the Empire. At that time there were many different Christian sects and each had their own perspective on the events recorded in the Gospel and on the question of whether or not Jesus was divine. Events had come to a head in the year 318 when Arius, a priest of Alexandria, quarrelled with his bishop on the relationship of Jesus to the Godhead. Arius’s basic argument was that Christ was an intermediary between God and humanity, subordinate to God and neither properly God nor properly man.  It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss how this issue was dealt with theologically, and it took a further Council (Constantinople 381) for resolution to be achieved thanks mainly to the brilliance of the Cappadocian Fathers who lived and worked in what is present day Turkey. The latter were three theologian/priests who brought to fruition the Trinitarian theology of the previous two centuries. Arianism was the most well known of of the early heresy known as Subordinationism, the view that Jesus was subordinate to the one God, either through being a lesser divinity or a mere human, albeit an exceptionally great one. The Arian/Subordinationist heresy, however, was never completely eliminated and tended to crop up regularly in various locations throughout Christendom.

Muhammad, whose first wife Khadijah’s  uncle was a Christian bishop, was for a time a member of a Christian sect which taught that Jesus was a man upon whom the power of God had descended at his baptism, but left him at the time of his crucifixion. Muhammad honoured Jesus  so highly as a prophet that he adopted the view that Jesus did not actually die on the cross but was assumed alive into heaven. Muhammad was in fact a theological descendant of Arius, and due to its spread into the West, Islam is raising once again the status of Jesus: the challenge posed by Islam to Christianity may yet prove to be a theological rather than a territorial one; in a worst case scenario it could be a combination of both. Indeed the theological unity established in the West first by Constantine and then by Charlemagne may, once again, be under threat; the doctrine of the Trinity  could very soon be as hot a topic as it was in the fourth century, hard as that may be to believe in our secular culture. Each of the three Abrahamic faiths is monotheistic, believing in one God. In Judaism and Islam, however, this one God is a strict monad while  in Christianity the one God is  a triad composed of Father, Son and Spirit.

The great 20th century German theologian Karl Rahner once remarked that if the doctrine of the Trinity were to be abolished from Christian theology, the average Christian would probably not notice, so unaware is he or she of its existential relevance. This theological ignorance is related to a similar lack of knowledge concerning the Incarnation; there is a widespread misconception among Christians that the divinity of Jesus turned him into a kind of religious superman/miracle worker. In contemporary times this unintentional heresy causes orthodox Christology to be rejected as a mythology of sorts, with no existential relevance to life as it is experienced by Christians. With the advance of Islam in its ‘soft’ theological form, the question asked by Jesus “Who do you say that I am?” will, I predict, become as challenging to future Christians as it was to his disciples and to those early theologians whose task it was to make the Christ event intelligible to the intellectuals of Greek and Roman antiquity. In the face of Islam, the divinity of Jesus assumes a radically new significance; if Christianity is to survive and thrive in this changed environment, Christians will have to learn to understand how Jesus was simultaneously God and man and, even more importantly, what relevance this has for their daily lives. The most pressing task for the Church now is to confront the challenge of Islam to foundational Christian beliefs; the only way this can be successfully achieved is to focus on improving the theological literacy particularly of its adult members. The reward for working towards strengthening and deepening the religious beliefs of its members may very well be twofold, generating both a deeper spirituality and a stronger sense of Christian identity.

Moving forward from Enlightenment with its separation of church and state, I would suggest that the next move of the Church of Jesus Christ should be to renounce altogether its Roman Empire dimension.  Roman Catholicism, the largest denomination, is the one that remains most attached to its imperial past. Quite apart from the Vatican’s formal status as a political state, it still contains at its authoritarian core the fearsome cruelty that the Empire displayed towards those it perceived as a threat to its religious and political unity. In contemporary  times we have seen the expulsion from Catholic universities of theologians of the calibre of the American Charles Curran, the German Hans Kung, and the harsh treatment of South American liberation theologians such as Juan Luis  Segundo, Gustavo Gutierrez,  Jon Sobrino and Leonardo Boff. In Ireland we have witnessed in the recent past the silencing of Frs. Brian Darcy, Tony Flannery, Gerard Moloney, Owen O’Sullivan and Sean Fagan. A renunciation of its political power would also involve an end to the related  persecution of its own committed members, whose motivations are generally of the highest. Catholic Christianity certainly needs to acknowledge, for example, its great good fortune in having produced Christians of the calibre of  Martin Luther, the most famous ‘heretic’ of Roman Catholicism.

The Roman Church has a seat in the UN and is known to cultivate ties with  government wherever it is established. The Vatican II vision of the Church as the people of God (derived from the thought of Martin Luther) wherein there would not be a sharp divide between the clerics and laity would certainly lend itself to a less authoritarian, more spiritual Church. It would also be an ecumenical move as it would vindicate the vision of  Luther. A more united Western Church, shorn of political power, could renew its spiritual roots and continue its transformation of society from a purely spiritual base; this would surely be a significant step in the evolution of  the Kingdom of God. Christianity would then influence politics from outside institutions of power  rather than as an institutional political power in itself.  It would also lead, as we have seen, to a renewal  of  Christian identity and strengthen it in the face of Islam’s growing impact in the Western world. Islam may soon be poised once again to conquer Christian Europe. Whether the fresh attempt at conquest is of the hard or soft variety, or a combination of both, Christians will have to be motivated to fight for their religion which is inseparable from Western civilisation. It must never be forgotten that there are significant similarities between Islam and Christianity: to perceive it simply as our enemy would be a mistake. While it has been our enemy on many historical occasions it, like Christianity and Judaism proclaims the one God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.The first and greatest sin listed in the ten commandments is the sin of idolatry, namely to substitute worship of the gods of sex, power and wealth before worship of the one God.  In  the pagan polytheistic cultures of the past, these gods were believed to really exist; in cultures engendered by monotheism they are no longer personified as gods, but can still be idolised and substituted for worship of the one God. The significant similarities between Islam and Christianity – the two junior religions of the three Abrahamic faiths – could attract and even lead to conversions, as Islam still has a vigour of devotional practice that we have lost, especially in Europe. Although we are now living in an increasingly atheistic culture in which science is generally held to be the generator of the highest form of knowledge it would, I believe, be a serious mistake to underestimate the need most people have for a religious/spiritual dimension to their lives.  Indeed a best case outcome of the confrontation between Islam and Christianity would be that they would mutually influence one another so that Muslims could see the benefit of the separation of church and state, while Christians could reawaken to the existential benefits of devotional practice. Indeed it may be a possiblity that, in the future, the religions of the West – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – will find themselves united against scientism and the  dystopian political culture it is even now well on the way to engendering. The unbridled power of science is capable of doing as much harm as good; it could lead to a world in which human beings are considered as no more than economic units and potential objects of scientific experimentation,  one in which science dictates the moral agenda. Be that as it may, however, Christianity  will first have to fashion, within the parameters of the secular cultural conditions of the twenty first century, a new, more spiritual version of Christendom which will be characterised by a renewed focus on the divinity of Jesus and the significance of the triune God for Christian living. This can only happen if secular Christianity  gets back in touch with its Judeo-Christian roots, the aim of which would be to encourage a stronger sense of Christian identity in the West. The challenge posed by Islam may, ironically, be the catalyst that propels Christendom into the next phase of its development into the Kingdom of God. As we have already seen, this will be a warmer, kinder, more inclusive and compassionate place to inhabit than the world of Empire; it will also be a world that embodies the values of what is, in the opinion of many, the most radical statement on equality ever articulated. This is the famous passage in St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians, revolutionary in the context of its time and place dealing as it does with the human tendency to exploit and enslave,  with racism and sexism: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (3:29).


Sources and further Reading. Robert Louis Wilken, “First Things: Christianity Face to Face With Islam”

Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations (Series)



For International Women’s Day: More Confessions Of a Politically Incorrect Feminist Theologian



As I explained in previous posts, the difficulties involved in being a feminist in a religious, patriarchal environment can at times seem insurmountable. And, while I have found it quite easy theologically to reconcile the maleness of Jesus and the Father God with even the most radical of feminist principles, as my theological studies progressed I found myself completely abandoning one of them and capitulating to a form of what, in relation to feminism, would be considered extreme political incorrectness.

In the context of the Judaeo-Christian tradition of hospitality, and Christian teaching on what the ‘Kingdom of God’ will be like, something that I had resented and avoided as much as possible began to assume a different appearance: namely, what is known in feminist theory as ‘women’s traditional work’. There are three main strands of feminism, each with its own theory of why women are oppressed and how this oppression should be overcome. These are liberal feminism, socialist feminism and radical feminism. We’re going to have to take a little detour through feminist political theory before I can explain its relevance to theology.

Liberal feminism’s view of the role of women in society has been shaped by liberal, capitalist theory generally, which in turn has its roots in the work of philosophers such as Descartes, Rousseau, Kant, Hobbes, Locke, Mill and, latterly, Rawls. Liberal philosophy and political theory came to the fore during the eighteenth century Enlightenment with its intellectual and physical revolutions, although it emerged initially from the confrontation between capitalism and feudalism that began in the seventeenth century. The rising merchant class had revolted against restrictions placed on travel, manufacture and finance by the feudal system, and against the claim of monarchs to authority by divine right.

Liberalism is grounded in the notion that human beings are essentially rational agents; indeed from Aristotle to the medieval era, the notion of rationality as a defining feature of human nature has been prominent in the Western philosophical tradition. The liberal ideals of freedom, equality and justice for all are based on the conviction that all individuals have an equal potentiality for reason. The liberal perspective on reason, however, presents liberal feminist activism with serious problems. This is because, influenced by Descartes’ famous dictum “I think, therefore I am”, liberal theorists assume that rationality is the defining human characteristic, while the body is inferior to our mental capacities and not a part of the human essence (what makes us human).

This has led to a mind/body dualism in Western society in which occupations requiring ‘mental’ labour are perceived as superior to those requiring mainly physical labour. Non-liberal feminists (socialist and radical feminists for example) criticise the mental/manual distinction since it leads to a dismissive and even contemptuous attitude towards women’s work, which is traditionally physical work carried out in a domestic setting. The elevation of the mind at the expense of the body also militates particularly against women, since it reinforces the hostility toward the body apparent throughout the long Western philosophical tradition. In that tradition women, because of their child-bearing capacities, have always been more closely associated with nature (particularly non-human animal nature) than men, who are identified with culture and mind. Indeed, it is doubtful that any woman could, as Descartes did, base an entire philosophical system on the dictum “I think, therefore I am”. For most of history most adult women have had little time to think. The liberal denigration of the body and its corresponding stress on the importance of a disembodied reason is generated by a male conception of reality; it contains an inbuilt androcentric bias to the effect that women are inferior to men.

Liberals treat morality and rationality as synonymous, and base their political theory on desires which they identify as universal. The most important of these is that, since humans always inhabit environments of relative scarcity, they will be motivated by the desire to gain as large a share as possible of the available resources. Hobbes and Locke maintain that humans are motivated by the desire for almost unlimited acquisition, and Locke regards this desire as moral and therefore rational. Liberal theory also asserts that people generally try to maximise their individual wealth, status and prestige, and that this is rational, and therefore moral. As a result, liberal political theory can be said to contain an implicit assumption of the existence of a universal egoism.

From a Marxist, as well as a feminist perspective, socialist feminists question the liberal account of rationality. Firstly, Marx considered the body to be of equal importance to the mind, and physical labour just as important as mental labour, meaning that there is no sharp distinction or relative importance between mind and body. Secondly, Marxists believe that rationality is most effective when it is operating at the societal and collective rather than the individual level; finally, in Marxist theory  competitive individualism is considered irrational precisely because resources are limited. Marxists believe that humans have a boundless capacity for cooperation, but that this capacity is suppressed and discouraged by a political system which protects and legitimates human selfishness. Under socialism, of course, the means of production would belong to the country as a whole; such a revolutionary societal transformation would, according to Marx and Engels, give rise to new developments in human nature. Cooperation would replace competition, egoism would be replaced by generosity, and work would become a vehicle of self-realisation rather than a burden. This general increase in human well-being would also have a trickle-down effect into the family; working men, for example would no longer ape their bosses and behave like petty tyrants towards their wives. Marxists also strongly dispute the liberal ethos that conceptualises human happiness in terms of wealth and social prestige.

Liberal feminists believe, however, that in contemporary society the treatment of women violates the three main principles of liberalism: equality, liberty and justice. Their main grievance is that women are unjustly discriminated against on the basis of their sex; they argue that since rationality is the essential human quality, and since women are also rational agents, women are as capable as men in all fields, and must not be discriminated against on the grounds of sex. They argue that women are, in fact, subjected to several forms of discrimination, the most obvious of which is legal discrimination. Liberal feminist activism has therefore been directed mainly at the repeal of laws perceived as unjust towards women, and the passing of laws which formally grant women equal rights to men with regard to the franchise, education and job opportunities. However, liberal feminists also believe that most discrimination is informal and based on custom. Informal discrimination is typically manifested both in assumptions that women are not suited to certain sorts of work and, conversely, that they are particularly well-suited to other sorts of work. They maintain that feminist progress notwithstanding, even in contemporary society there are strong expectations – often shared by women themselves – that women should take primary responsibility for the work involved in raising children and running the home. These assumptions are carried over into the labour force, where women are expected to provide all sorts of nurturing and menial services to men, women and children. Liberal feminists, influenced by the male philosophical perspective, believe that the work typically performed by women in both the private and public spheres is of little value, since it services the body as opposed to the mind. They conclude that women can be liberated from their oppression only by entering the public sphere and successfully competing with men for highly-paid jobs in business, in the professions and in academia. They fully buy into the liberal capitalist agenda of universal egoism and the equating of happiness with wealth, status and prestige.

Throughout its three hundred year history, the goal of liberal feminism has been the achievement of formal equality in law for women. It was hoped that once all legal barriers were removed, women would rapidly gain substantive equality with men, and any residual prejudice could be overcome by rational argument. While it is undoubtedly true that the liberal strand of feminism has been the most effective in transforming the lives and expectations of women, socialist and radical feminists argue  that liberals have gone as far as they can within the existing political system in improving the lot of women. They question the liberal conviction that public legislative campaigns can change private attitudes; the fundamental problem for liberal feminism, as they see it, is its failure to challenge the mental/manual distinction which structures the world of work in contemporary society. The liberal feminist desire for what amounts to an androgynous society devalues women’s traditional work, and accepts the androcentric bias of liberal philosophy in which male values are normative. In maintaining the mental/manual distinction liberal feminist theory, they argue, actually helps to rationalise and perpetuate women’s oppression and domination.

Socialist and radical feminists conclude therefore that women’s oppression cannot be ended without a revolutionary transformation of contemporary political systems, albeit that socialist feminist theory is also androcentric to a certain extent. In Marxism, as in liberalism, the solution for women’s oppression is for women to enter the workforce. This is because Marx and Engels argued that women’s subordination results from the institution of class society and has persisted into the present because the unwaged labour of women suits the interests of capital. As to the historical origin of women’s oppression, Marx and Engels make the assumption that in every society there has always been a sexual division of labour “which was originally nothing but the division of labour in the sexual act”. This ‘natural’ division of labour is replicated in the split between household work, carried out by women, and the work involved in producing the means of subsistence, which is traditionally the sphere of men. For Marx and Engels the sexual division of labour is related to the biological constitution of men and women, and therefore biologically determined. Under a socialist regime, the ‘natural’ gender distinctions of the private sphere could be abolished in the market place by drawing women into paid employment in the sphere of production. This would make women independent of men and ultimately transform the ‘sexual division of labour’ in the home. Thus the Marxist solution to the problem of women’s oppression is ultimately the same as that of the liberal approach: androgyny in the public sphere.

Socialist feminism has expanded upon this by arguing that the family should be taken out of the private domain and become an institution primarily under the control of the state; in classical Marxism the family is considered to belong to the private sphere. To effect this theoretical change, socialist feminists have attempted to  redefine the family as an economic unit, or – in Marxist terminology – a system of production. Socialist feminists justify this by arguing that humans have material needs other than food, shelter and clothing. Equally fundamental to human survival are the social and individual human needs for the bearing and rearing of children, for sexual satisfaction and  emotional nurturance.  Since these needs are fulfilled by human labour, the system developed to satisfy them must be a system of production, even if it does not always produce tangible results.

Socialist feminists also point to the fact that the means of  satisfying these needs have, throughout history, been distributed and exchanged through the social institutions of marriage and prostitution; such transactions involve, either overtly or covertly, payment with money. Traditionally, wives are financially supported by their husbands in return for housework and the raising of children. Socialist feminists conclude that sexuality and procreation, areas considered in all previous political theory as ‘natural’ and biologically determined, fall within the domain of Marxist political economy and can therefore be transformed through collective decision-making regarding changes in social practice. Sex, as well as gender, they argue, is socially constructed. This is of vital importance to socialist feminists, who believe that women’s oppression can only be ended when ‘the division of labour in the sexual act’, reconstituted in male-female relations throughout the whole of society, is itself abolished.

The political goal of socialist feminism is therefore to destroy “the social relations that constitute humans not only as workers and capitalists but also as women and men…Women and men will disappear as socially constituted categories”. This goal will be achieved by the abolition of normative heterosexuality, marriage and the family as traditionally understood.

It was however twentieth century radical feminism, the most recent of the three strands, that popularised the use of the term ‘patriarchy’. Radical feminism also appropriated the Marxist notion of class, arguing that women are a class defined by sex. The definition of women as a class carries the implication that men gain material benefits from their domination and exploitation of women; within the sex-class system, the ruling class is called ‘the patriarchy’, a term originally used by anthropologists to refer to primitive nomadic societies. Radical feminists use it in a broader sense to refer to a universal system of male domination. Their critique of patriarchy has not only become a focus of academic research, but has also been assimilated into public consciousness via the media and best-selling works of non-fiction and fiction such as  Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room. Radical feminists maintain that owing to the universality of women’s subordination, it is the first and fundamental form of domination. It is also the cause of and model for all other types of oppression. They conceive patriarchy as “a total system of domination. Through imperialism, racism, and class society, groups of men seek to dominate each other. Most of all, however, they seek to dominate women….”

The radical feminist political solution to the evils of patriarchy is a drastic one, involving the separation of women from men in order to facilitate the development of a ‘womanculture’. In contrast to liberal and Marxist feminist goals, the ‘womanculture’ would celebrate female values and female qualities such as nurturance, empathy, intuitiveness, flexibility and spontaneity. This would be in marked contrast to the patriarchal culture which typically has prided itself on military prowess, sexual aggression, analytical thinking and emotional ‘cool’. While there is much to recommend the idea of a ‘womanculture’, it would surely be far better for radical feminists to challenge the dominant patriarchal conception of reason, emotion and the relationships between them and instead to develop new conceptions of these relationships in order to transform patriarchy rather than abandon it.

Each of the three strands of feminist theory described above has made important contributions to the understanding and overcoming of women’s oppression: liberal feminism has, thus far, been the most effective, while socialist feminism has been the most culturally influential in challenging our presuppositions about gender. Meanwhile, radical feminism has checked the excesses of the other two strands by rejecting androgyny and gender deconstruction and celebrating what is distinctly feminine.

Now that we have looked at these feminist perspectives on women’s traditional work, it is time to turn from political notions of the ideal society to the predominant values of the Kingdom of God preached by Jesus. In all of the ways in which the Nazarene tried to describe what the Kingdom would be like, the ‘banquet’ parables are, for me, the most evocative. The Old Testament background for these parables is found in Isaiah 25: 6-9 which describes a lavish banquet prepared by Yahweh:


On this mountain the Lord of the hosts will make for all peoples

a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,

of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines

strained clear.

And he will destroy on this mountain

the shroud that is cast over all peoples,

the sheet that is spread over all nations;

he will swallow up death forever

Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces…..


The derivative Gospel story of the Great Banquet (Lk. 14: 15-24 par) must be considered as part of a significant collection of parables set within chapters 14-16 of Luke’s Gospel that are either given within the context of Jesus’ table talk, or inspired by his love of table fellowship; they reveal that the virtues associated with hospitality, especially generosity, humility, and inclusivity, are relevant to salvation and will characterise the warmer, kinder world of the developing Kingdom which will focus on relationships rather than power or prestige. In the Kingdom, everyone will be physically and emotionally satisfied, because everyone will have a place at the table; plenty to eat and drink, conviviality, no loneliness, no one who is considered an outsider. Hospitality and its myriad pleasures are most associated with women, and therefore taken for granted; not all that important in the world at large as compared to, for example, politics, business or the military, which are largely male domains. In God’s Kingdom, however, the female sphere as traditionally understood will be more important and transformative than the male one. Indeed it is within this feminine, domestic context that all differences will be overcome and a universal love and harmony will be achieved. Of the three strands of feminism, therefore, it is radical feminism with, firstly, its insistence that all forms of oppression are interlinked and, secondly, its celebration of the female genius, that is closest to the biblical evocation of the Kingdom of God. The Gospels also validate radical feminism’s insistence that androgyny is not the way forward for women in their attempts to overcome oppression.

This is not to say that women must be confined to their traditional roles; the hope is that the feminine gifts for relationships, nurturing, and conflict resolution will be as transformative in the public sphere as they have been quietly powerful in the sphere of domesticity. Yet the real key to women’s liberation will lie, surely, not in getting women to ape men, but in getting men and, even more importantly, women themselves to appreciate their own gifts rather than take them for granted. What radical feminism calls the ‘womanculture’ must not develop in isolation from the ‘manculture’ but be woven seamlessly into it in a way that will transform existence. How can such a seemingly miraculous transformation occur? I would argue that political activism, while certainly necessary to overcome prejudice in all of its manifestations, is not enough for a task that will demand of us the generous love of neighbour depicted in parables such as the story of the Good Samaritan: the overcoming of the hatreds and suffering caused by prejudice and bigotry is a religious as well as a political matter. The Banquet parables depict an inclusive world in which all who accept God’s invitation into his/her Kingdom are loved and cherished. They bring to mind St. Paul’s Christian manifesto which is radical and revolutionary  beyond anything dreamed up by Marx: “….for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew nor Gentile, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:26-28).

And so, as a result of my studies in biblical theology, I gained a new perspective on the kind of work I had previously despised and began to immerse myself in the – for me – new found joys of homemaking and domesticity in general. I could do this safe in the knowledge that despite appearances, women’s work in all its forms is somehow transforming the world: no matter how thankless and taken for granted it may often seem in comparison to much more highly valued male achievements, God is using it for his/her purposes in building up the Kingdom. God ensures that not one iota of the love and sacrifice that characterises women’s traditional work goes unnoticed or is wasted; it is all being taken up and constantly incorporated into the developing Kingdom of God. If, indeed – as Christianity teaches – God can bring good out of evil, how much more can he/she bring infinite goodness out of our finite, limited efforts at love and sacrifice. Somehow, in a way that we can’t yet understand, women’s traditonal work has an essential role – even, I would suggest, the most important role- in the building up of God’s Kingdom, in which male and female qualities and virtues will be truly complementary and equally treasured and effective in both the public and private spheres. Right now, it is hard to imagine what such a world might look like, but it certainly won’t be one in which the desire for wealth, status and prestige predominate as now, suppressing the development of harmonious and joyful relationships.


Coda: The history of political feminism begs some important questions, especially in an evolutionary context. Christian tradition talks about some sort of one off ‘primal sin’ that is the cause of all the world’s problems. Due to developments in science, specifically evolutionary biology, we now know, however, that the Genesis story is in large part mythological. Evolutionary theory in fact supplies plausible answers to the causes of women’s oppression, with the debate centering on whether male domination is primarily a cultural or genetic phenomenon. My own research has convinced me that it is mainly cultural and therefore at least partly rectifiable through politics and the social sciences generally. From a theological perspective, of course, there is another question: is there a spiritual dimension to the world’s prejudices and hatreds? Within the theological context of origins it may be asked whether or not moral decisions were made by early humans that had a detrimental effect on our cultural evolution.

Evolution, which is relevant theologically to both creation and morality, is one of those fascinating meeting points between religion and science where common ground has caused much controversy. Many of today’s leading theologians are currently exploring this common ground, especially in relation to evolution and behaviour. Significant progress is being made in this interdisciplinary area –  which is the hottest and most cutting edge field of research in the academic humanities – although as yet there has been no doctrinal change or adjustment even in institutional Christianity which is favourably disposed towards evolutionary theory. I am pretty sure, from my readings in both theology – as in the biblical stories discussed above – and in evolutionary biology, that there is indeed a spiritual dimension to the world’s travails.

Resources: Alison M. Jaggar, Feminist Politics and Human Nature (Totawa, NJ: Rowman and Allenheld, 1983), pp. 64, 135, 255.

“Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy” in Marx and Engels, Selected Works (New York: International Publishers, 1968), pp. 182-183.

Niamh Middleton “Sacramental Spirituality: The Feminine Dimension” in Spirituality (Dublin: Dominican Publications), Vol. 21, pp. 156-159.

Niamh Middleton: “Faith and Feminism Can Make Strange Bedfellows” in On Religion, Issue 12, Autumn 2015, p. 6.





















What We Can Learn From The Cologne Incident: Political Feminism Is Vindicated, and Religion is Highly Relevant to Culture


The mass sexual assaults in Cologne by North African migrants have elicited criticisms of the relatively muted reaction by feminists. The sound of silence in this case, however, is most likely the result of stunned shock as much as political correctness. Women who identify as feminists and are conscious of the various ways in which the patriarchy oppresses women naturally identify and empathise with other  oppressed groups. Hence feminists will generally lend their support to those who suffer from other forms of oppression, whether it be associated with race, religion or economic circumstances.

I believe, however, that in this instance feminist identified women (and men) must show moral courage and stand together in solidarity without fear  of the inevitable accusations of racism. This is because the Cologne assaults clearly demonstrate that multiculturalism is a deeply flawed doctrine and not for the most obvious reasons.

Firstly, this was not an event that can be blamed on either the race or nationality of the perpetrators, though it cannot be denied that there is a religious/cultural dimension to it. Religion, whether we realise it or not, significantly impacts on a culture even in the secular West where church and state have been pretty well separate since the revolutions of the eighteenth century. These influences can be both healthy and unhealthy; Irish people, for example, were indoctrinated to feel guilty about sex up until the 90s, and certainly any Irish person over 40 bears a fair share of the burden of that renowned phenomenon known as Catholic sexual guilt. So it is perhaps easier for us Irish than the people of other Western cultures to understand the cultural mentality that Islam fosters in its adherents since we lived until the 90s in a society that was as close to a theocracy as made no difference. In addition, of the three Abrahamic faiths, the two more junior religions – Christianity and Islam – are noted for particularly strict sexual mores. Judaism, from which the latter are derived, has a more positive attitude towards sexuality. Of the three, Islam has by far the strictest sexual mores and the most stringent norms where female modesty is concerned. Does this mean that the inevitable sexual frustration caused to men in a society where women are covered from head to toe and sex outside marriage is strictly forbidden can be held responsible for episodes such as the one in Cologne or the dreadful mob assault perpetrated on American reporter Lara Logan in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011? If this is the case, then the underlying cause of such behaviour is at least partly  religious/cultural. Let’s turn for a moment now to the mindset of the men who perpetrated the assault and try to understand that mindset.

I  argued above that race and nationality cannot be blamed for the assaults: now I am going to suggest something that at first glance might seem controversial. This is that, strictly speaking, these were not sexual assaults as commonly understood in the West though this is irrelevant to their heinousness. Why do I say this? Well, underlying the religious/cultural scenario is, I would suggest, simple sexism in the form of the double standard, which is best conceptualised in terms of the distinction between women who are professional prostitutes and the majority who bestow their sexual favours on a man or men they have chosen. Men who go into a brothel in search of sexual gratification will not treat the women they encounter there as they would treat female family members or prospective wives and girlfriends. They will feel free to eye up and touch what to them is the ‘merchandise’: these women are openly touting for sex. Just because a woman is not a professional prostitute, however, doesn’t mean she can’t be treated like one. Women have to run a social gauntlet, unknown to men, to avoid being typecast as ‘sluts’, which means to behave in a way perceived as whorish  even though you are not a professional prostitute. If a woman habitually dresses in a way considered overly revealing, or is considered ‘easy’, men may consider her suitable for sex or affairs, but not as a potential wife. Men, of course are exempt from having to walk this sexual tightrope since the longer their list of conquests, the more they will be admired and celebrated by their peers .  Until very recently in Ireland, women who had children out of wedlock could be stigmatised for life, and worse. It goes without saying that one of the main aims of political feminism in the West has been to challenge such stereotypes in order to ultimately destroy them. Political feminism in the West, which properly began with Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in the eighteenth century, has succeeded in gaining sufficient rights and freedoms for women to greatly dilute – if not fully defeat – the effects of the double standard, as we will shortly see.

Now consider the Muslim immigrants who have been conditioned to believe that Western women are decadent and immodest in comparison to ‘their’ women. To such men, the West must appear as one vast brothel, full of females who are dressed in ways and behave in ways that would be unimaginable in their societies; to them, Western women are, literally, asking to be groped, touched up, and treated in a lewd manner.  What we are actually seeing is sexist behaviour that is universal and occurs in all cultures only here writ large: this fact is both highlighted and confirmed by the police and media cover-up of the assaults, and the victim-blaming articulated by the female mayor of Cologne (shame) when she advised German women how to dress and behave in such a way as not to attract the attention of over-excitable migrants. Once again women are instructed to modify their behaviour in response to overt male sexual aggression and called to a higher level of behaviour than that which is expected of men. While it would be unthinkable for Western men to assault women  just because, relatively speaking, they have a great deal of freedom and can dress as they please, when sexism and fashionable, politically correct multiculturalism clashed in Cologne, women came out of it as the lesser humans who must make way for and adjust to the alien behaviour of strangers in their land; those women experienced a double dose of the double standard.

This clash of cultures does, however, have one very important lesson to teach us about the current state of our Judaeo-Christian Western civilisation, and indeed provides a snapshot of its progress: where the treatment of women is concerned, ours is the superior one, and this has implications for the doctrine of multiculturalism.  The general outrage sparked by the Cologne incident  was a reaction to the attitude of the perpetrators as much as to what they actually did. Ironically, those who protested most loudly against the attacks are the very kind of men who, in times past, would have disagreed with women getting the vote and all the other freedoms we have gained. They are also the kind of men who will now be the most likely to defend and protect ‘their’ women , which is something for which we should definitely be grateful. Yet even they can now see, in this clash of civilisations, that the Western one is the more civilised where the treatment of women is concerned. I believe that the Cologne incident will one day be considered  a watershed moment in Europe’s embrace of politically correct multiculturalism; it will be very difficult from now on to convince  the German electorate, for example, that all cultures are equally moral and civilised and can easily coexist with one another. A related implication is perhaps even more important for morality; if multiculturalism is false, so also is the doctrine of moral relativism. There are moral absolutes after all (as is held by all the major religions), and secular society needs to take note.

The superiority of  Western culture to Islamic culture in its attitudes towards and treatment of women begs an interesting question that relates to the religious component of culture as mentioned above: granted that the double standard in the West is generally described in terms of the biblical Madonna/whore divide ( see, for example, my article “Piers, Madonna, and the Double Standard” and that Christianity in most of its forms has exacerbated it in terms of the sexual standards to which it holds women, but not men, is it possible to argue that Christianity has had a role in the undoubted fact that Western women’s lives are the freest and most progressive in the world? Before attempting an answer there’s no harm in pointing out that in feminist theory, religions are considered to be generally repressive in their treatment of women and indeed Christianity has produced its own versions of the Taliban down through the centuries. In order therefore to answer that question, it is necessary to go back to the sources, namely the sacred texts and the attitude of the founders towards women. These attitudes must, of course, be understood within the context of their respective eras. Within the context of his time, Islam’s prophet Muhammad is considered to have been notably enlightened towards women, though some of the texts (such as the ones where he gives husbands permission to lightly slap their wives and to have sexual relationships with their female slaves) strike us in the West as unacceptable to say the least. Yet it must be remembered that the great theologian and saint, Paul of Tarsus, approved of slavery and ordered women to obey their husbands, keep silent and cover their hair at mass. What is not in doubt, however, is the the fact that Jesus of Nazareth’s attitude towards women was not only revolutionary for his time and place, but remains radical way beyond anything we have yet achieved either culturally, politically or religiously (see, for example,”Mary Magdalene: The Most Misunderstood Woman in History?”, The theologian Rene Laurentin, in his seminal article “Jesus and Women: an Underestimated Revolution” ( argues that the revolutionary attitude to women shown by Jesus led, among other things, to the participation of women on an equal footing with men in the fledgling religion’s liturgical services. In other religions women and men tend to be segregated during the liturgy, and this is notably the case in Islam. For Laurentin, this was the beginning of and catalyst for the emancipation of Western women. My years of research in the fields of theology, religious studies and philosophy, together with my gut instinct, convince me that  Laurentin is correct; for similar reasons I am also convinced that the emergence of democracy as a viable political system in the West has its roots in  the Christian assertion that everyone is equal in the eyes of God.

One way or another, a strong argument can now be made that multiculturalism is a deeply misguided doctrine, and that we should be both proud and protective of our two thousand year old Judaeo-Christian culture. This will have implications for future European immigration policies and for the development of suitable strategies to encourage the integration of refugees who have already arrived into their new cultural environment. Right now, post-Cologne, German women are being encouraged by the authorities to adjust their behaviour to suit Islamic norms when it should be the other way round; this appeasement must stop, or we will soon find ourselves in a situation where women in the West will start down the slippery slope to losing the freedoms they have gained at such great cost. This is why Western women must stand together in solidarity to protect those hard-earned freedoms; in this instance  the ongoing battle against sexism and the double standard must take precedence over fears of being thought of as  or criticised for being racist. It is up to the new arrivals to integrate into our culture, and not vice versa. This does not mean that we have to abandon our humanity where refugees in dire straits are concerned; what it does mean is that there can be no pussyfooting around or walking on eggshells with regard to protecting and defending our culture; there are, after all, very good reasons why the refugee traffic is flowing in our direction rather than vice versa.  The current situation may, in fact, be a golden opportunity both to influence Islamic cultures for the better and also to make yet more progress in our own Western feminist politics.

The Swiss performance artiste Milo Moire seized the moment when she protested nude outside the cathedral in Cologne (scene of the assaults) making the point that even a naked woman is not fair game for male sexual overtures and that there is nothing disrespectful about a tasteful display of nudity in such hallowed environs. Moire’s protest had the effect of celebrating the beauty of the female form and showing that it has value in and of itself. Such an in-your-face demonstration of female bodily integrity was probably a step too far for many Western men, in particular – and predictably – those who would be most critical of the Muslim attacks. In the circumstances, however, it may just have given them pause for thought and even moved them forward a jot where their prejudices against women are concerned. In this way, Moire was simultaneously shocking and educating both Muslim and Western men albeit that the latter have certainly made a quantum cultural leap where women’s autonomy and freedom is concerned.













Confessions of a Politically Incorrect Feminist Theologian (1)


Faith and Feminism Can Make Strange Bedfellows

 Published in On Religion Magazine Issue 12, Autumn 2015

Twitter: @OnReligionMag


As someone who was once an atheistic feminist but became something of a ‘born-again’ Christian in my late thirties, I now understand all too well why pioneering feminist theologians like Mary Daly gave up on patriarchal religion altogether. In my youth I believed that all religion was composed of myths and fairy-tales that stereotype women in one way or another, and that institutional religion in particular is simply another means of social control of women. I agreed with the Marxist view that religion is a tool of oppression wielded by elites, and that we’d all be better off without it. I could never understand why women of Daly’s intellectual calibre would seriously engage with religious doctrines and beliefs.

Fast forward twenty years or so, and I found myself teaching Theology and Religious Studies at university level in a denominational institution. How and why that happened is a whole other story, though a typically ‘born-again’ one. A consequence of my late conversion was that I would never again be able to look down my nose at women like Daly who had chosen to engage intellectually with Christianity; I also had to learn the hard way why so many had tried and finally given up. I was far from having lost my feminist principles, and the collision of a somewhat evangelical Christian faith with political feminism led to a situation that was – and continues to be – extremely uncomfortable for me at times. For, in addition to working in such an authoritarian male environment, I have had to confront the inescapable fact that no matter how attractive and unconventional a character Jesus was, no matter how remarkable the way he, a first century Palestinian Jew, related to women, he was male and he referred to God as Father. Feminists generally have serious problems with the idea of a male God almighty (whether Allah, Yahweh, or God the Father) since this God is all too often invoked by men to justify war, tyranny and persecution.

How have I dealt with the latter difficulties? Well, dealing with them is an ongoing theological task. It is helpful that, theologically speaking, God does not have gender; God is neither male nor female, nor some combination of both. The most we can say is that we are made in the image and likeness of God, and that God seems to have some female and some male characteristics. Reading the work of pioneering feminist theologians such as Daly and Elizabeth Johnson also helped. Johnson’s “She Who Is” (International Journal of Orthodox Theology: Issue 1: 2 (2010), with its scholarly highlighting of the many female images and metaphors of God in the Old Testament, has been particularly comforting and enlightening as have the three principles she articulates that must form the basis of all attempts at understanding the nature of God: the incomprehensibility of God, the non-literal nature of religious language, and the need for many divine names. Johnson presents a myriad of biblical texts that depict the ‘Father’ God as female, of which the most striking to me are those that depict God as a woman in labour (see, for example, Isaiah 42:14: Thus says God, the Lord…… “For a long time I have held my peace, I have kept still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labour, I will gasp and pant.”)

What, however, can be said about the incontrovertible maleness of Jesus? Plenty, as it turns out. Interestingly, the Trinitarian, creedal depiction of Jesus as ‘begotten’ of the Father is – as the well-known chauvinist St. Augustine pointed out – analogous to the female generation of a child from his or her mother’s womb; Augustine sees it as an intellectual/spiritual version of the physical birth process. Added to this is the fact that according to tradition, Jesus was brought into the world by his mother Mary without any contribution from a human male ‘by the power of the Holy Spirit’; the third person of the Trinity is closely associated with the Old Testament concept of Sophia or God’s Wisdom, a personalised, female figure. So, while Jesus himself may be male, his eternal and human generations are accomplished in a way that is feminine on multiple levels and without any analogous male role. As we understand it in human terms, Jesus actually doesn’t have a ‘Father’. So in using the biblical concept of the Father God it must be remembered that we are using limited human language to describe a God who transcends our limited notions of gender. Yet imaging the divine in a female/feminine way is, in my opinion, one of the two most important tasks for feminist theology today; the other is to present scriptural, theological and pastoral justification for female ministry and authority in all Christian denominations, especially the largest one, Roman Catholicism.

“Imagine… religion” sang John Lennon back in the day; but can you imagine a world in which our concepts of the divine have been broadened out to encompass the feminine, one in which conventional images of a stern, authoritarian father figure God have been expanded to include non-hierarchical female behaviours; a world where women exercise religious authority equally with men and in accordance with their female gifts? Ecclesial Christianity in the third millennium may well evolve into a place in which men and women can fully express themselves, with men being able to display their capacity for empathy and compassion, and women allowed to fulfill their administrative and leadership abilities. I don’t believe I’m being over optimistic in my hope that the clash between political feminism and patriarchal religion which gave rise to feminist theology may yet be the defining event of the twenty-first century for religion and, by example, politics.











It’s Not as Bad as You Think: Women in Catholicism

imageIt’s Not as Bad as You Think: Women in Catholicism

The discovery of blogs and blogging has opened up a whole new world for women working and writing in the religious domain. This is due to its openness and speed, the fact that it provides a platform for ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, and the ease with which it facilitates the mutual interpenetration of religious feminism with mainstream, political feminism. It also encourages a dynamic combination of lively narrative non-fiction writing and scholarly research, as various women transform their daily and religious experiences into feminist theology.

It is the latter aspect of online feminist blogging that, as a theologian, I have found most necessary and fulfilling. Reading and writing blogs provides a much needed outlet for the intensity of the experiences of women who are new to the religious domain. Within Christianity this category includes ordained ministers and female theologians. In my own Roman Catholic denomination, the opening of the seminaries to women post Vatican II has allowed female theological input for the first time in two thousand years. We are also beginning to understand the inner workings of this patriarchal organisation; I have no doubt that Pope John XXIII knew exactly what the impact on the Church would be of allowing lay people and lay women in particular into the seminaries. This has brought about a radically new situation as regards relationships between the clerical dimension of the Church, and the laity; the encounter between the male clergy and women within an academic context has, and will continue to have, ever more radical implications. The Irish situation is, in my opinion, a sort of microcosm of Catholicism as a whole since Vatican 11. This is because Catholic Ireland has had no tradition of theology as a university subject, meaning that when it became available to the laity, it necessitated the opening of the seminaries; this proved to be the catalyst for what I can only describe as a new type of encounter between clergy and laity, as well as between male celibates and women of all ages and types. As someone who spent several years studying theology in St. Patrick’s Seminary in Maynooth, I can vouch for the impact on the institutional Church of its encounter in this new context with lay Catholics and particularly with lay women Catholics. From a laywoman’s perspective, it was interesting to observe the mutual adjustments that had to be made; it was also reassuring to see the high calibre of the dedicated and idealistic young men who were training for the priesthood. While some of the older priests found our presence a bit uncomfortable, the overall result was greater mutual understanding and a relaxing of the boundaries between the clerical and lay groupings in the Church, one of the main aims of Vatican II. And even though there seems to be no question at the moment of women being admitted to the Catholic priesthood, the growing impact of female and feminist theologians should not be underestimated; I also believe that the entry of women into seminaries and Catholic universities where they are meeting and interacting with seminarians has made the eventual relaxing of the celibacy rule inevitable, though I know from experience that there are many in the clerical realm who have the gift of celibacy and would prefer not to marry. If the rule is relaxed, however – and again I think Pope John XXIII had this in mind when he opened the seminaries – it will provide another gateway for women to be assimilated into the institutional Church and exert influence within it. I have no doubt that the bestowal of religious authority on women in some major Protestant denominations is partly due to the fact that male priests and ministers were allowed to marry, hence making their institutions more comfortable with female input and gifts.

As regards women in the academic sphere, the theology of pioneering feminist theologians is all the more effective and authentic because it has been informed by the difficulties associated with being a woman in such a dense patriarchal space.  Experience has always been a popular theological category, and women’s experiences in religious universities and departments not only affects their theological and political opinions, but also constitute a powerful catalyst for both theological speculation and activism in the feminist cause.

The cumulative effect of women’s experiences in religion has now given rise in fact to what amounts to a tidal wave of feminist scholarship and activism in the religious domain. Blogging in particular has the power to break through all boundaries and I have every hope that it will soon burst through the ecclesiastical dam behind which institutional gatekeepers – both ecclesiastical and scholarly – who fear change are keeping their fingers grimly plugged into the ever-widening channels through which the healing water is ready to gush. After two thousand years of male dominated Christianity, I am convinced that feminist theology and scholarly feminist blogs have the alchemic power to transform women’s experiences in the religious and secular domains into theological and ecclesiastical gold. Theology is being formulated by women now at a very fast pace, and online blogs allow it to be communicated almost instantly. It is giving us the means to make up the ground that we have lost over the past two millennia.

Non-Religious Women in the Church: In my last post I mentioned that, as a feminist theologian, I often find myself between a rock and a hard place. The same could be said of all or most women who spend a significant amount of time within an environment where male power and authority are even more pervasive than in the secular world.

However, female theologians from the secular sphere face their own particular challenges, and these challenges are both new and unique in the context of Church history and indeed history in general. We are a type of hybrid who must, at least some of the time, come across as upstarts in an environment that has managed to do without us for two thousand years. We are not bound by the strict vows and rules  of obedience by which those in the religious life must abide; yet we feel free to comment upon,  and criticise  (negatively as well as positively) the theological doctrines and speculations of some of the greatest minds that Western civilisation has produced. To return to our hybrid status, if we sometimes come across as impertinent to our colleagues in the religious life we are influenced by them and by the theology and philosophy we have studied. This can cause changes in our behaviour and outlook on life that spouses, children, relatives and friends can find disconcerting.

I am often surprised by the media focus on the question of women priests, as though this is the only role that women can play within the Church. Most Irish theologians are now women, and far more female than male students are studying theology. The opening of the seminaries to lay (or secular, a term I prefer) Catholics on foot of Vatican 2 was revolutionary, especially in relation to female participation in the life of the institutional Church. It has been a quiet revolution so far, probably out of respect for our colleagues who devote their whole lives to God and the Church. It is a revolution nonetheless; despite criticism that Vatican 2 has not borne the fruit that was expected of it, the genie is well and truly out of the bottle. Who can say how things will look in a few generations as a result of the pioneering work of this one?

See Joys and Hopes, Grief and Anxieties: Catholic Women Since Vatican II by Susan Ross in New Theology Review (available online).

The X Factor Pope


When I read in the New York Times that Rolling Stone magazine had premiered a pop/rock track from an album to be released shortly by the Pope, I assumed it was a joke. Having checked it out, however, I discovered it to be true (see here). It seems that our Western celebrity culture has engulfed everything, even the Vatican: Simon Cowell has a lot to answer for.

I find it a little disappointing that the Pope should seek to bask in the reflected, superficial glow of showbiz. It would be far more meaningful and popular in the best way if he were to make real, doctrinal changes in relation to, for example, the requirement for priestly celibacy and the need for female religious authority within Catholicism. At the upcoming Synod on the family, he will be presented with the opportunity to relax stringent Church moral norms regarding contraception, homosexuality and divorce. Will he be prepared to make the hard choices, or is a nod to celebrity culture as far as he is prepared to go in keeping up with the zeitgeist? Francis talks the talk, but will he walk the walk?

Of course there is always the chance that the Pope’s pop debut is a shrewd and calculated effort to get public opinion behind him before attempting doctrinal change. If this is the case, then the Pope will have transcended anodyne pop culture: is this the precursor of meaningful change? Now that would  be real rock’n roll!