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  • Feminist Christology: A New Iconoclasm?
  • Sara Butler, M.S.B.T.

IN ITS SOME OF ITS best-known expressions, feminist Christology1 is a contemporary version of iconoclasm.2 Several leading Catholic feminist theologians, in fact, explicitly claim their identity as “iconoclasts” (“image-breakers”) in their critique of Christian doctrine. They embark on a program of deconstruction and revision of Christian symbols because they believe that exclusively male representations of God and of Christ function as “idols” that legitimate male superiority over women.3 They object to the iconic argument for reserving priestly [End Page 493] ordination to men—namely, that it is fitting that a priest be male in order to represent Christ vis-a-vis the Church—by questioning the theological significance of Christ’s own maleness. Some conclude that granting this not only amounts to idolatry but also suggests that women are excluded from salvation.4

The idea that granting theological significance to Christ’s maleness constitutes idolatry is not entirely without precedent. There was a dispute over how to reconcile belief in Christ’s universal human nature with the significance of his concrete humanity, with its male character, during the iconoclastic controversy in the eighth and ninth centuries (726–843) in the Christian East.5 The iconoclastic controversy had to do with inanimate icons of Christ, images on wooden panels, and the legitimacy not only of venerating them but even of “writing” them at all. For iconoclasts, an icon of Christ either excludes his divine nature or attempts to circumscribe it. They deny that Christ is circumscribed by the flesh and object that since he assumed “man in general,” or flesh without distinguishing features, he cannot be portrayed.6 The feminist Christologies I have in mind are concerned [End Page 494] with which persons may be regarded as “icons” of Christ—males only, or both males and females.7 For feminists as well as iconoclasts, Christ’s humanity must be inclusive, so the claim that only males can function as his “icons” in the priesthood excludes females—not only from his humanity but also from salvation. Both, then, deal with purported deficiencies in visible representations of Christ.

These feminist and iconoclastic theologians both, in fact, raise questions about the reality, permanence, and character of the Incarnation.8 While iconoclasts were initially concerned only with the veneration of icons, the debate they initiated was eventually recognized as a Christological controversy.9 While feminist theologians were initially concerned chiefly with women’s access to the ministerial priesthood, their critique has also given rise to questionable Christological claims.10

Saint Theodore the Studite (756–829), the leading champion of icons during the second phase of the iconoclastic controversy, is one of the few Fathers of the Church who took up the question of Christ’s maleness.11 I hope to show that St. Theodore’s response to the iconoclasts of his day also meets the objections [End Page 495] posed by feminist Christology. His appeal to Christ’s birth from the Virgin Mary Theotókos, moreover, calls attention to the traditional way of claiming a role for women in the economy of salvation.

I. Feminist Christology12

I will take Rosemary Radford Ruether, Anne E. Carr, and Elizabeth A. Johnson as representatives of the feminist Christology that took shape in response to the iconic argument proposed to elucidate why priestly ordination is reserved to men.13 As expressed in the 1976 Declaration of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Inter insigniores,14 the iconic argument appeals to St. Thomas Aquinas’s teaching that sacramental signs “represent what they signify by natural resemblance.”15 The declaration (art. 5) explains:

The same natural resemblance is required for persons as for things: when Christ’s role in the Eucharist is to be expressed sacramentally, there would not be this “natural resemblance” which must exist between Christ and his minister if the role of Christ were not taken by a man: in such a case it would be difficult to see in the minister the image of Christ. For Christ himself was and remains a man.16 [End Page 496]

Advocates of women’s ordination charge that this...