Rosemary Radford Ruether, Feminist Theologian, Dies at 85

Rosemary Radford Ruether, a pioneering theologian who brought feminist, antiracist and environmental perspectives to bear on the traditional teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, died on May 21 in Pomona, Calif. She was 85.

Her daughter Mimi Ruether confirmed the death, in a hospital, but did not specify a cause.

Starting in the late 1960s, Dr. Ruether was a leading figure in a wave of progressive women theologians who, inspired by the feminist and civil rights movements, took on the church’s traditional male-centered doctrines.

Dr. Ruether, whose academic training was in patristics, the study of early church writings, argued that in the first few centuries after Christ’s death, the Catholic Church split into two parallel and often opposing tracks: the institutional hierarchy based in Rome and the faith’s global grass roots.

“To me Catholicism is a community of a billion people who represent a range of things, so I don’t identify with the pope,” she said in a 2010 interview with 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.”

She lost her first teaching job, at Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles, for writing an article for The Saturday Evening Post in 1964 in favor of birth control. And she remained staunchly in favor of abortion rights, insisting that a truly “pro-life” position meant giving women control over their lives and bodies.

Her interests and intellect ranged widely, encompassing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the climate crisis, and antisemitism among early Christians. She wrote or edited nearly 40 books and hundreds of articles, ranging from dense academic papers to current-events columns in The National Catholic Reporter, a liberal publication.

But it was at the intersection of feminist theory and Christianity where she made her most lasting mark, notably in her book “Sexism and God Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology,” published in 1983.

Dr. Reuther argued that beginning with the Gospel of St. John, Christian leaders had defined their faith, and the doctrines all Catholics should follow, through the experiences and perspectives of men — in the process distorting the true meaning of Christ’s teachings.

Her project, she insisted, was not to replace one perspective with another, but to destroy the singular patriarchal, hierarchical perspective that dominated church doctrine in favor of a pluralistic, liberating one that accommodated many types of experience.

“The point of feminist theology, accordingly, is not merely that women should have the right to name their experience,” she wrote, “but that the very conception and ordering of terms such as experience, humanity and universal rights can and must be questioned.”

Though she held important academic positions, including chairwoman of the religion department at Howard University and an endowed chair at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill., she was never fully accepted by either the Catholic or academic theological establishments.

ImageInspired by the feminist and civil rights movements, Dr. Ruether took on the traditional doctrines of the Catholic Church.Credit…via Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary

Not that she minded. She was more interested in working with women activists in developing countries, especially in Latin America. The result was a legacy that was ignored, if not reviled, by the church establishment, but revered within the progressive Catholic rank and file.

“She will rank, in my view, with Augustine and Thomas Aquinas; she was of that caliber,” Mary Hunt, co-director of the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual, said in an interview. “What she did will rank with their work.”

Rosemary Radford was born on Nov. 2, 1936, in St. Paul, Minn. Her father, Robert Radford, was a civil engineer, and her mother, Rebecca Cresap (Ord) Radford, was a secretary. After her father died when she was 12, Rosemary moved with her mother and two sisters to the La Jolla neighborhood of San Diego.

There she attended a school run by progressive nuns and found herself surrounded by her mother’s circle of what in her 2013 memoir, “My Quest for Hope and Meaning,” she called a “matricentric enclave.”

She entered Scripps College, in Pomona, intending to study art. But after taking a class with Robert Palmer, a classics professor, she switched majors, graduating with a degree in classics in 1958. The year before, she had married a fellow student, Herman J. Ruether, who was studying political science.

Along with her daughter Mimi, she is survived by Mr. Ruether; another daughter, Rebecca; her son, David; and two grandchildren.

She remained in Pomona for graduate school, receiving a master's degree in classics and Roman history from the Claremont Graduate School in 1960 and a doctorate in classics and patristics from the Claremont School of Theology in 1965.

By then she had given birth to her three children, and she had also lost her job at Immaculate Heart College; it was the last time she would teach at a Catholic institution. After a summer as a civil rights worker in Mississippi, she accepted a position teaching at Howard University, a historically Black institution.

While in Mississippi, she had first encountered the early stages of the Black Power movement. She engaged with it more fully at Howard.

“What you experienced in Mississippi was looking at the United States from the Southern Black side,” she told Conscience magazine. “You see the white dominance and the racism. That has always been very important to me in terms of social justice: that you put yourself on the other side and you see things from the context of the oppressed.”

Off campus, she participated in antiwar and civil rights protests, and more than once she ended up in jail. But her scholarship was of a sufficient caliber that she was invited to be a visiting professor at Harvard Divinity School in 1972, with the understanding that she was trying out for a possible faculty job.

That’s where she met Ms. Hunt, a first-year student. Ms. Hunt recalled being shocked to see Dr. Ruether in the cafeteria dressed in a purple pantsuit and carrying a briefcase emblazoned with a sticker reading “Question Authority.”

It was all too much for the Harvard Divinity School faculty, dominated at the time by white male Protestants. Rejected, she moved to Garrett, located on the campus of Northwestern University. It was a fertile spot: She stayed for almost 30 years and wrote her most significant work there.

She retired in 2002, but she did not stop teaching. She and her husband moved to San Diego, and she taught classes at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif.

Over the course of her long career, Dr. Ruether was often asked why she remained a Catholic, when many of her fellow feminist theologians had left the church in despair.

“As a feminist, I can come up with only one reason to stay in the Catholic Church: to try to change it,” she told U.S. Catholic magazine in 1985. “You’re never going to change it if you leave. So that’s why I stay around.”