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Conscience Magazine

A Theologian of Courage

By Daniel C. Maguire December 3, 2015

BR-dan-review-quest-for-hope-and-meaning-RRRRosemary Radford Ruether is on my very short list of scholars of whom I would say that everything she writes is worth reading. That says a lot, since in this memoir she lists 36 bibliographic pages of her voluminous writings from 1967 to today.

This short memoir is not just a trinket on the corpus of her writings. Since theory is to a large extent autobiography, as Rosemary concedes, those of us who have gone to school on her writings will find illumination and completion in this honest and well-told memoir.

Some scholars focus on field work, ferreting out important facts in digs and empirical studies without elaborating on the theoretical roots and meaning of their work. Others do well-grounded theory, “poring through ancient scripts, gospels, archaeologies, the dank stacks of basement libraries,” as activist Renny Golden says in her poetic forward to this memoir.

Rosemary, in a way that sets her apart, does it all.

She doesn’t just write about social problems in Latin America, South Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere. She goes there to see and hear and smell and feel the pain, as well as the promise of the lands and peoples she studies with prophetic intensity. She doesn’t just do in-depth polyglot research—she sweats and risks and gets arrested putting her message into life.


Thomas Aquinas said that courage is the precondition of all virtue. If you cannot risk your neck for any justice-related cause, your neck is your god and your “virtues” are specious. Committed scholarship is a virtue, but only if it is courageous. Scholarship may be heavy with the appurtenances of laborious research, but if it cowers and never offends, if it does not open doors others fear to touch, it is not virtuous. It is liable to be a kind of strutting pomposity.

In Rosemary’s work, learning and courage kiss.

Spades are called spades. She wrote this memoir before Pope Francis condemned economic inequality and the greedalism of neoliberalism (though he still has not shuffled off the chains of Catholic fundamentalism and sexism). She accuses the Vatican of the last 45 years of being in “schism” and calls the supportive hierarchy “apostate” to the hopes of the Second Vatican Council. She does not find among today’s uninspiring bishops the likes of Archbishop Oscar Romero, Archbishop Hélder Câmara or Bishop Samuel Ruiz of Chiapas, Mexico, who traveled on a donkey through his diocese of poor indigenous people.

Rosemary writes powerfully against both Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. When, in her early writings, she condemned Christian anti-Semitism, she received many invitations to speak at synagogues. However, when she started to condemn the ongoing criminal ethnic cleansing and brutal occupation in Palestine, invitations to synagogues dried up instantly. As she says: “To be concerned about justice for Palestinians [one] was assumed to be hostile to Israel, hence anti-Semitic, and no friend of Jews.” This reaction comes from confusing Zionism with Judaism. Judaism is a classical and superb moral-religious tradition tracing back three thousand years. Zionism is a 19th-century fantasy that says “God” was into real estate distribution and intended Palestine only for Jews. It is both sad and anti-Jewish to conflate the two.


Like poor Cassandra, who was cursed with seeing the future but unable to convince anyone of what she saw, Rosemary Radford Ruether has for almost half a century indicted our species for the capital crime of ecocide. She excoriates silly soothsayers like economist Larry Summers, who hallucinated that “there are no limits to the carrying capacity of the earth.” As a matter of fact, the word “sustainable,” once the watchword of ecological ethics, is now passé and chimeric. The new watchword is “salvage.” But the oceans are coming for us. Islands are disappearing. Earth’s geography is being redrawn. We have double-basted this privileged planet with CO2. Irreversible melts have begun. Our poisons have penetrated into the once-immune depths of the oceans, doing irreparable damage. (Here, Rosemary’s realism is comparable to that of honest seers like Clive Hamilton and his Requiem for a Species, or Alan Weisman’s Countdown.)

These and other writers look squarely at what scientists are calling the Sixth Great Extinction—comparable to other occasions when the Earth lost the majority of its species—that we are precipitating as we autistically proceed pell-mell with overpopulation and overconsumption. And yet, without implying we can repair the irreparable, Rosemary ends her memoir with a hope-buoyed appeal for “building an alternative system of survival on a tough new planet.” With environmentalist Bill McKibben, she admits that this is not the old planet; it is a very new and very tough planet that demands cathartic and revolutionary changes.


This is a false dichotomy for Rosemary Radford Ruether. Her theory of ecofeminism does not see feminism as one separate issue and ecological ethics as another. She is deeper than that. Male and female were we made, sexually speaking, with many permutations on those themes. That is the human dyad. You cannot corrupt one half of a correlative. Denigrating the female, seeing her as misbegotten and subordinate, resulted in distorting the female. But it simultaneously distorted the male—even more so. This pitting of one sex against the other became a genetic fault that poisons the entire corpus, along with all human activity—social and ecological. It is humanity’s original sin, the root of our lethality toward one another and towards the Earth. However, feminism well understood is antidotal to a humanity skewed at its roots. To this truth Rosemary gives unparalleled service.


She is a Catholic. She calls herself a “progressive Catholic,” and she is right. Catholicism is a process in constant mutation. There are, of course, thousands of Catholicisms, just as there are multiple Islams and Judaisms. Rosemary breaks a lot of crusty shackles that have hamstrung many Catholic minds, and she pioneers a way of being Catholic that gives a shrinking Catholicism, the Catholicism of empty pews and bare ruined choirs, a chance to live anew.

Her Catholicism parts company with many dogmatic constructions, such as the idea of a personal deity who benignly rules everything from here to the quasars. Most Christians now believe in such a “God,” and in an immortal soul that keeps on living in some invisible alternative universe after the person dies. Says Rosemary: “For me, both of those ideas do not correspond to my own sense of reality….”

Rosemary Radford Ruether’s Catholicism is moral-centric. It has a creed, as she shows in her book Sexism and God-Talk. There, she says that “the prophetic norm” is “central to biblical faith.” The book’s main themes are a concern for the oppressed, a critique of the dominating power systems with their oppressive ideologies and a perception of the realistic possibility of a new age of justice ushering in genuine peace. With those values as core, all the heroes and heroines of Christian and Jewish history, all the poetry, art and rich and inspiring symbolism of the traditions can be embraced, re-appropriated and put to the service of justice-seeking and peace-making on a healing planet.

My Quests for Hope and Meaning: An Autobiography
Rosemary Radford Ruether
(Cascade Books, 2013, 210 pp)
978-1620327128, $23

Daniel C. Maguire
Daniel C. Maguire

is a professor of theology at Marquette University, where he specializes in religious, medical and ecological ethics and social justice. His most recent book is Christianity Without God: Moving beyond the Dogmas and Retrieving the Epic Moral Narrative (State University of New York Press, 2014).