Rosemary Radford Ruether. 1936 – 2022
“The reimagining of families by progressive people of faith demands more than just protest against these consequences of Christian Right views. It calls for the articulation of alternative values that promote a more authentic ethic of human relationships.”
There are hundreds of Ruether’s words which I could quote which speak such strong truth or inspire so deeply, but I have chosen a handful which in particular stand out in describing her life and her theology. These are some words which have spurred me on through my studies and make me smile despite the sadness of her loss.
I remember the first time I read anything by Rosemary Radford Ruether thinking ‘I’ve never read anything like this before’. I couldn’t believe a woman was saying, out loud, things which I had been feeling in my soul for years. She was a scholar, a well-respected woman who was not only saying these things out loud but having them published in books. It was like a huge lightning bolt of inspiration. Thank you, Rosemary, for saying out loud what I had been too scared to say for so long! Statements like those below were so bold and direct and, despite stating what I felt was the obvious, do not sit very comfortably with a more mainstream or conservative viewpoint.
“The assumption that the male- headed nuclear family is normative and God-given justifies a fierce rhetoric of homophobia and misogynism, spilling into physical violence against family – planning clinics and gay people in a gun–saturated culture.” [i]
Her inspiration has never gone away and the fire that I, like many other Catholic women and theologians, felt in our souls when we devoured her work, brought me back to Theology and to study and scrutinise the church’s view on women. In particular, it is Ruether’s interest in the family which has inspired my PhD research and driven me to listen to women’s stories about their family lives in the light of their Catholic faith and how that faith may have changed throughout their lives.
Ruether saw the family very much in terms of community and absolutely not something which can be prescribed by the church or state. It is also in statements like the above that we see Ruether’s strong belief that theology on the church’s teaching on the family reaches far beyond the church and has much wider consequences on the human family. Ruether’s explicit expression that church teaching could not just offend people but also damage them was revolutionary to me and added fuel to my internal flame.
Something which I touch on in my research is a conflict which Ruether highlighted long before me. A potential conflict in the Gospels of the importance of family to Jesus. At the start of Christianity and the Making of the Modern Family, Ruether highlights this conflict when she quotes a fundamentalist Christian group called “Focus on family” who call Jesus Christ the ‘founder of homes’, and then goes on to quote Jesus in the Gospel of Luke saying “If anyone comes to me and can not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brother and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:25-26).
Ruether describes the ‘type’ of family which “Focus on Family” describe as being one which was created by Victorian, white, western society. This was a model of a man as the head of the family, with a submissive, child bearing woman as his wife. The point Ruether wants to make by mentioning this apparent and at first shocking contradiction in the description of “family” is because the way in which Jesus, and the New Testament, talks about family is so much broader and more nuanced than just societal ‘norms’. We have to look beyond what we see as our idea of family to understand the message that Jesus was taking about. In Matthew 12 Jesus is talking to a crowd of Pharisees and teachers and someone comes to him to tell him that his mother and brothers are waiting to speak to him, he says “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers? Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mt 12: 46-48).
Unlike the pharisees and law makers, Jesus wants us to see family as something beyond legal and social constructs and Ruether highlights this because she believes that the community of family is wider than our constructs and goes further than blood. And, like the Pharisees, for many conservative western Christians, this is a challenge to hear.
This is just one of the examples of her beautiful, sensible yet deep theology which made her so popular with all of those who read her work or heard her speak. Since the news of her sad passing last week, the words ‘pioneering’ and ‘ground-breaking’ have been used to describe Ruether and whilst sometimes the media can go over the top with flowery, exaggerated language, these words perfectly describe her. In a beautifully written piece in the National Catholic Recorder, Mary E Hunt says:
“Her contributions to feminist scholarship, Catholic theology, Palestinian rights, ecology, anti- racism, peace work and so much more will be the subject of dissertations for generations to come.”
It is undeniable that Ruether has been an inspiration to thousands of theologians including myself and will continue to be so. She was a prolific writer and speaker and published over 35 books. The one which ‘started me off’ if you like was the 1983 “Sexism and God Talk. Toward a Feminist Theology.” At the tender age of 20 in my second year as a Theology undergraduate, I had never heard of feminist theology! I was horrified that I had not come across or been taught about it yet! This was entirely glossed over in a Theology A Level in a Catholic School. From this moment I was hooked! It was not only the introduction to feminist theology which blew my mind when I read “Sexism and God Talk”, it was Ruether’s teaching about God being among, and alive with us that reiterated my own personal beliefs that theology can live and be experienced. For Ruether, God and the Holy Spirit continue to speak to us and that we continue in dialogue with them. This means that God and theology are not an ancient historical event but a vibrant living entity with which we can continue to engage. Ruether had an incredible gift, bringing theology to life in the multiple contexts which we encounter every day. She highlighted that theology can come from our experience, and that this has value. For me, this was revolutionary. I believed that theology was more than just stuffy old books and that, like Ruether, there is endless sources of theological truth in our everyday lived experience.
She was passionate about social justice and also justice within relationships. She said in an interview in 2006 that “Basically I don’t like injustice and I don’t like to see religion used to justify injustice and oppression.” She saw injustice in the world, in politics and in religion and she spoke out about it, called people out on it and actively worked against it. I am sad that I never got to hear her speak in person but feel eternally grateful for her work which will continue to inspire me. I have written this piece, not in personal remembrance, or as a resume of her life and career, but as a short thank you to her and to all of the men and women she inspires. I want to thank her for her words and their power which will carry me forward through my studies, and my life. I want to end though with a quote from the announcement of her death from someone who knew her well.
Rest in power Rosemary.
“Dr. Ruether was a scholar activist par excellence. She was respected and beloved by students, colleagues, and collaborators around the world for her work on ecofeminist and liberation theologies, anti-racism, Middle East complexities, women-church, and many other topics,” the statement said.
“Her legacy, both intellectual and personal, is rich beyond imagining. The scope and depth of her work, and the witness of her life as a committed feminist justice-seeker will shine forever with a luster that time will only enhance.” Mary E Hunt 
 Ruether, Rosemary Radford, ‘Christianity and the making of the Modern Family’, SCM press, London 2001. Ch 9.
 Ruether, Rosemary Radford, ‘Christianity and the making of the Modern Family’, SCM press, London 2001.Chapter
 Hinton, Rosemary 2006. “A legacy of inclusion: An interview with Rosemary Radford Ruether”. Crosscurrents 52: 01, pp. 28-37.