Rosemary Radford Ruether, a pioneering theologian who applied feminist, anti-racist, and environmental viewpoints to the Roman Catholic Church’s traditional doctrines, died on May 21 in Pomona, California. She was 85 years old at the time.
Mimi Ruether, her daughter, confirmed her mother’s death in a hospital, but did not disclose the cause.
Rosemary Ruether was a major role in a wave of progressive female theologians who, inspired by the feminist and civil rights movements, challenged the church’s conventional male-centered beliefs beginning in the late 1960s.
Ruether, who studied patristics, the study of early church literature, maintained that the Catholic Church broke into two parallel and frequently conflicting tracks in the first few centuries following Christ’s death: the institutional hierarchy headquartered in Rome and the faith’s worldwide grassroots.
In a 2010 interview with Conscience, a liberal Catholic journal, she remarked, “To me, Catholicism is a community of a billion people who represent a spectrum of things, therefore I don’t identify with the pope.” “The progressive, feminist liberation theology side of Catholicism is my Catholicism.” That is the Catholicism to which I belong and to which I am connected all across the world.”
She was fired from her first teaching job at Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles in 1964 after writing an anti-abortion essay for The Saturday Evening Post. She also stood firm in her support for abortion rights, claiming that being really “pro-life” meant allowing women autonomy over their lives and bodies.
Her interests and talents were diverse, ranging from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the climate catastrophe to early Christian antisemitism. She authored or edited roughly 40 books and hundreds of articles, ranging from complex academic works to current-events editorials for the liberal journal The National Catholic Reporter.
But it was at the crossroads of feminist philosophy and Christianity that she made the greatest enduring impact, as seen by her 1983 book “Sexism and God Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology.”
Beginning with St. John’s Gospel, Ruether claimed, Christian leaders defined their religion and the principles that all Catholics should follow through the experiences and views of men, misrepresenting the actual meaning of Christ’s teachings.
Her goal, she claimed, was not to replace one perspective with another, but to replace the patriarchal, hierarchical vision that dominated church theology with a pluralistic, freeing perspective that welcomed a wide range of experiences.
“The aim of feminist theology, therefore, is not just that women should be able to identify their experiences,” she said, “but that the fundamental notion and ordering of categories like experience, humanity, and universal rights may and must be questioned.”
Despite holding major academic posts such as chair of Howard University’s religion department and an endowed chair at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill., she was never completely embraced by the Catholic or academic theological institutions.
She didn’t seem to mind. She preferred to work with female activists in impoverished nations, particularly Latin America. As a result, the progressive Catholic rank and file treasured a heritage that was neglected, if not loathed, by the church leadership.
In an interview, Mary Hunt, co-director of the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual, remarked, “She will rank, in my opinion, alongside Augustine and Thomas Aquinas; she was of that level.” “Her work will be on par with theirs.”
Rosemary Radford was born in St. Paul on November 2, 1936. Robert Radford, her father, was a civil engineer, and Rebecca Cresap (Ord) Radford, her mother, was a secretary. Rosemary relocated to the La Jolla district of San Diego with her mother and two sisters when her father died when she was 12 years old.
She went to a progressive nuns’ school and was surrounded by her mother’s network, which she referred to as a “matricentric enclave” in her 2013 book “My Quest for Hope and Meaning.”
She enrolled to Scripps College in Pomona with the intention of majoring in painting. She switched majors after taking a lesson with Robert Palmer, a classics professor, and graduated with a degree in classics in 1958. She had married a fellow student, Herman J. Ruether, who was studying political science, a year previously.
Herman Ruether, another daughter, Rebecca, her son, David, and two grandchildren survive her, in addition to her daughter Mimi.
Rosemary Ruether continued her education at the Claremont Graduate School, earning a master’s degree in classics and Roman history in 1960 and a doctorate in classics and patristics from the Claremont School of Theology in 1965.
She had given birth to her three children at that time, and she had also lost her employment at Immaculate Heart College, which was the last time she taught at a Catholic institution. She took a teaching post at Howard University, a historically Black college, after spending a summer as a civil rights worker in Mississippi.
She had first experienced the early beginnings of the Black Power movement in Mississippi. At Howard, she became more involved with it.
“What you saw in Mississippi was the United States from the perspective of a Southern Black person,” she told Conscience magazine. “You can see the white supremacy and prejudice.” That has always been essential to me in terms of social justice: putting oneself in the shoes of the downtrodden and seeing things from their perspective.”
She took part in anti-war and civil rights rallies off school, and she was arrested several times. Her work, however, was of such high quality that she was asked to be a visiting professor at Harvard Divinity School in 1972, with the knowledge that she was auditioning for a teaching position.
Hunt, a first-year student, was there when she met her. Ruether was dressed in a purple pantsuit and carrying a briefcase emblazoned with a sticker reading “Question Authority,” according to Hunt, who was taken aback when he saw him in the cafeteria dressed in a purple pantsuit and carrying a briefcase emblazoned with a sticker reading “Question Authority.”
All of this was too much for the Harvard Divinity School faculty, which was dominated by white male Protestants at the time. She relocated to Garrett, which is located on the Northwestern University campus, after being rejected. It was a productive area for her: she stayed for about 30 years and produced some of her most important work there.
Although she retired in 2002, she continued to educate. She and her husband relocated to San Diego, where she taught seminars at Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union.
Ruether was frequently questioned why she stayed a Catholic despite the fact that many of her fellow feminist theologians had left the church in despair over the course of her lengthy career.
In 1985, she told U.S. Catholic magazine, “As a feminist, I can come up with just one reason to stay in the Catholic Church: to strive to reform it.” “If you go, you’ll never be able to fix it.” So that’s why I’m still here.”