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By Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen

The Feminist Question

"The Feminist Question: Feminist Theology in Light of Christian Tradition," by Francis Martin. Eerdmans, 461 pp.; $29.95, paper

"Sex, Priests, and Power; Anatomy of a Crisis," by A. W. Richard Sipe. Brunner/Mazel. 220 pp.; $24.95

In the preview edition of Books & Culture, William H. Willimon observed, "At its best, feminism is a critique of the ways in which our marriages with the culture have hurt us. At its worst, feminist theology is yet another chapter in the long story of how [the churches have] embodied American liberalism's exaltation of the self" (Christianity Today, July 17, 1995, p. 35). Between them, these two books by Catholic priests--the first a Dominican biblical scholar, the second a retired parish priest and practicing psychotherapist--attempt to deal with both aspects of Willimon's assessment. Francis Martin's book regards church tradition with more trust than suspicion and tends to damn feminist theology with faint praise, while Richard Sipe--writing about the hypocrisy and corruption of Catholicism's "sexual/celibate system"--leans toward the reverse approach, even though he does not invoke feminist theory or theology directly.

To Martin, the feminist question--namely, "How are women to move towards a more adequate expression of their dignity and rights within the Christian community?"--is a specialized expression of the modern concern for individual rights, which derives in turn from Judeo-Christian teaching on the dignity of the person. But he maintains that feminism in general, and feminist theology in particular, while presenting valid criticisms of contemporary culture, suffer from an emphasis on the individual over the relational (particularly, in his view, the relationship of "essential" masculine instrumentality to equally essential feminine receptivity), and on experience and reason over revelation and church tradition.

Martin's book is a scholarly tour de force that will remind Protestant readers just how much is missed by assuming that most ...

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