InsightOut: Female pioneers in theology and our chance to imagine the future

Fiona Li is a proud alumna of St. Michael’s Christianity & Culture program as well as of the University of St. Michael’s Faculty of Theology (MTS 2015; ThM 2018). She is now a PhD candidate at Regis College and Associate Director of the Fraser Centre for Practical Theology. Her dissertation seeks to propose an inculturated understanding of Mary for Canadian-born-Chinese Roman Catholic women, such as herself.

In celebration of Women’s Day on March 8, the Regis St. Michael’s Faculty of Theology (RSM) will be hosting a Liturgy of the Word in remembrance of Dr. Ellen Leonard, CSJ. Sr. Ellen was one of the first women to study theology in Canada and taught for many years at the University of St. Michael’s College Faculty of Theology. She taught courses on Roman Catholic Modernism, feminist theology, and ecological Christology. She also founded the Catholic Network for Women’s Equality (CNWE), which continues to work towards “justice and equality for women in the Catholic Church and in the world.”  

Along with Sr. Ellen, we also say goodbye and thank you to other female pioneers in theology who walked so we can run: Sr. Margaret Brennan IHM, the first female theology professor at Regis College; Margaret O’Gara; Rosemary Radford Ruether; Delores Williams, Sallie McFague; Mary Daly; and many others. 

In remembering the past, we are also given the chance to imagine the future. Since this is the first official year of the RSM federation, it is the perfect time for all those involved—students, staff, faculty, and alumni—to dialogue with one another regarding what they envision the future of RSM to look like.  

Like many students, faculty, and staff, my hope for RSM is that it not only survives but thrives; that it becomes a beacon of light and hope for theology. What this means, especially in a city like Toronto, is that RSM will need to speak to the contemporary and systemic issues in society. RSM is situated in a very advantageous position, both within Canada and, more specifically, in the city. Toronto is one of the most culturally diverse cities. With many first- and second-generation Canadians calling Toronto home, RSM is in a privileged position theologically to speak on topics that emerge from the encounters between different cultures and religions with one another. For example, with a great number of Catholics identifying with non-Western cultures and countries of origin, the Western normative systems of thinking about God and theology will need to be renegotiated. And what does it mean to be a Catholic in a multi-religious society such as Toronto? Moreover, as Toronto is home to many persons of colour, RSM is also constantly reminded of intersectionality. RSM can become a leader in decolonizing theology and thinking of theology intersectionally: how does theology written by white males affect persons of colour differently than their white peers? How has the traditional mainstream theology been used to subjugate vulnerable groups of people in society?  

To this point, my second hope for RSM is that there will be more women of colour in the student, staff, and faculty populations. By appealing to and preparing women of colour for ministry or further theological studies, RSM will be providing the Toronto Church with competent workers for the harvest. But it is not enough to have women of colour in the student population. It is also important to have representation in the faculty population. Out of all the listed faculty members at the Toronto School of Theology, there are approximately eight women of colour, and only three are regular faculty members. Representation matters because it visually demonstrates to the female students of colour that they belong in academia; that their voices and experiences matter in Theology. As one of the groups that have been historically marginalized due to intersecting systems of power, women of colour have much to contribute to discussions of faith and how Theology can be reclaimed to help and empower people in vulnerable positions.  

I think–especially in celebration of International Women’s Day– it is proper to say that the future for RSM is women of colour, along with other marginalized groups, with male and white women’s voices as allies.  May we, those who identify as women and in Theology, follow in the legacy of all the women who have come before us, and run, so that those who follow us can walk.  

The March 8 Liturgy of the Word takes place at 1:30 in chapel in the Cardinal Flahiff Basilian Centre at 81 St. Joseph St., Toronto. 

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