Roman Catholic theologian and academician Rosemary Radford Ruether won the respect of progressive Catholics with her groundbreaking women’s liberationist and antiracist viewpoints beginning in the late 1960s. She passed away May 21 in Pomona, California. She was 85.
Ruether’s ground-breaking ideas were shaped by the feminist and civil rights movements. Since the late 1960s, she became one of the central figures among progressive women theologians who challenged male-focused doctrines in institutional Catholicism and whose academic work on everything from feminist theology to colonization and globalization influenced generations of scholars.
Trained in patristics, the branch of Christian theology that studies the lives, writings, and doctrines of early Christian theologians, Ruether argued that following the death of Christ, the Catholic Church split into two polarized factions—what she called the stratified Rome-based establishment and the faith’s worldwide grassroots following.
“To me Catholicism is a community of a billion people who represent a range of things,” she said in a 2010 profile in Conscience, a liberal Catholic magazine. “My Catholicism is the progressive, feminist liberation theology wing of Catholicism. That is the Catholicism that I belong to, that I am connected to around the globe.”
Ruether taught at Howard University, the historically African American institution in Washington, D.C., where she chaired the religion department in the 1960s. She also taught at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, where she was a professor of applied theology from the mid-1970s to the early 2000s.
Born on November 2, 1936, in St. Paul, Minnesota, Ruether completed her undergraduate studies at Scripps College, a women’s institution that is part of the Claremont Colleges in Claremont, California.
“The chaplains at Claremont Colleges were involved in civil rights, so I got involved through them,” Ruether said in her Conscience profile. “They developed a summer immersion program in Mississippi in 1965—the summer after the ‘Freedom Summer’ when those civil rights volunteers were killed,” she said, referring to more than 700 mostly white activists who joined African Americans protesting voter intimidation and discrimination.
“The direction I am going in is not only ecumenical Christian but increasingly interested in gathering perspectives across ethnicities and religions,” Ruether said in an article in 2010.
Ruether taught at the Claremont School of Theology, from which she earned a Ph.D. in classics and patristics in 1965. She also taught at Claremont Graduate School (now Claremont Graduate University), where she completed a masters in classics and Roman history.
Ruether is noted for her work in Latin America, where she influenced generations of feminists. She attributed her activism there to the fact that her mother was born in Mexico, “and I felt I had been robbed of a certain heritage, particularly the Spanish language,” she said. “Somewhere in my thirties I started going to Mexico to do Spanish and became involved in Catholic liberation theology circles.”
Impressed by Ruether’s scholarship, Harvard University invited her to be a visiting professor at Harvard Divinity School in 1972—a prelude to a possible faculty job. But she was ultimately rejected for the position after a first-year woman student spotted her in a cafeteria on campus, dressed in a purple pantsuit and carrying a briefcase displaying a “Question Authority” sticker. “It was all too much for the Harvard Divinity School faculty, dominated at the time by white male Protestants,” wrote The New York Times in a May 27 tribute to Ruether.
Undeterred, Ruether moved to Garrett, which proved to be “a fertile spot,” the Times noted. “She stayed for almost 30 years and wrote her most significant work there.”
Ruether retired in 2002, but never stopped teaching.
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