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Celebrating Elisabeth and Francis Schüssler Fiorenza

by Julie Hanlon Rubio

JST Awarded Elisabeth and Francis Schüssler Fiorenza Honorary Degrees at 2021 Commencement

At its virtual Commencement in 2021, JST awarded honorary degrees to two theologians who are top in their respective fields and married to each other. Elisabeth and Francis Schüssler Fiorenza spoke to graduates, faculty, family and friends on May 22. Their addresses centered on themes of feminist theology and Vatican II, both of which are central to the mission of JST.

Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza is the Krister Stendahl Professor of Divinity and Francis Schüssler Fiorenza is the Charles Chauncey Stillman Professor of Roman Catholic Theological Studies at Harvard Divinity School, where they have taught for over thirty years. She is a pioneer in feminist biblical studies. He is a senior Catholic systematic theologian.

As Francis Schüssler Fiorenza noted in his address, the couple met as students in Germany and bonded arguing about theology. “I would not say it was love at second sight,” he said, “but it was clear to me I had met an intellectual and theological ‘soulmate’ from whom I have learned much and came to admire and love.” The great German theologian Karl Rahner, SJ, under whom Francis was studying, presided at their wedding.

Francis Schüssler Fiorenza published more than 150 articles and several books on fundamental theology, theological hermeneutics, 19th and 20th-century Catholic and Protestant theology, and political theology. His Systematic Theology: Roman Catholic Perspectives volumes, edited with John P. Galvin, have grounded the historical and systematic theological studies of countless graduate students for decades, becoming an authoritative source for theological education and research in the US and throughout the English-speaking world.

Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza forged new horizons in biblical interpretation and most especially in feminist theology. Her teaching and research on biblical epistemology, hermeneutics, and rhetoric prompted unprecedented shifts in the discipline of biblical studies. She was co-founder and co-editor of the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion and the first president of the Society for Biblical Literature. Among her more than 20 books, In Memory of Her stands out. Translated into 13 languages, it reclaimed Christian history as women’s history and paved the way forward for the subsequent ground swell of studies in feminist biblical interpretation.

Francis Schüssler Fiorenza spoke of his vocation as a lay theologian and of the impact of Vatican II on the study of theology. Having watched JST’s 2020 graduation, he noted how impressed he was at the breadth of JST graduates and their interests. He recalled an address of Karl Rahner’s on Vatican II as the beginning of a world church, in which Rahner argued that this identity had not yet been realized. Yet, Schüssler Fiorenza said, JST embodies what Rahner understood as the future of the church as a world church, and has the challenge of contributing to ongoing work of balancing unity and diversity in the church and working for justice in a pluralistic world.

In her remarks, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza said that she favors the ironic bumper sticker definition, “Feminism is the radical idea that women are people,” which underscores the radical nature of feminism as well as its fundamental claim that remains unrecognized. She spoke of the history and development of feminist biblical interpretation and its relation to second wave feminism. She noted that in the 1960s when feminist theology began, she could read everything in the field. By the 1980s, this was no longer possible and today feminist studies in religion is a well-established discipline that continues to expand globally, and intersectionally. By questioning androcentric and sexist interpretations of biblical texts and recovering the lost voices of women in early Christianity, feminist scholarship offers a great gift to Christian believers. For, Schüssler Fiorenza said,“If the scriptures were seen to be like the ‘deep powerful waters of the ocean dancing with the spirit of G*d,’ they could become divine power and nourishment for life, again and again.”

This year’s commencement speakers are powerful witnesses of Catholic scholars who shaped their fields and generations of students, including JST faculty who studied with them and JST students who continue to read their texts and carry their insights into ministry. They traced the histories of feminist theology and the theology of Vatican II, both of which mark JST. In their historical careers as theologians, the Schüssler Fiorenzas embody JST’s vision of “living theology and transforming our world.”

A recording of JST’s 2021 graduation is available here.