On April 22nd, I interviewed Olga Rasmussen about religion (specifically Roman Catholicism and Hinduism) and women. Below are the questions I asked, and Dr. Rasmussen's answers. Enjoy!
Could you tell me a little about your background? What made you interested in religion?
I worked in Campus Ministry at a couple of universities and taught theology at various schools for 25 years. I have a Doctor of Ministry degree in Spirituality and Education and Curriculum from United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. I have an MA from St. Louis University in Systematic Theology and Spirituality, and a BA in Religious Studies and Psychology from Barry University.
I have always had an interest in Religion – but primarily in spirituality – and especially the spiritual practices of other traditions such as Buddhism, Judaism, and Hinduism and yoga.
For further information on me – check out my web site which details all this further:
Historically, how have women been involved in the Roman Catholic church? How has the church received them?
Women have been involved in the Church from the very beginning. There are references to women in the Pauline epistles, and the work of Paul himself, and his many journeys could not be undertaken without support from others. His journeys were underwritten by women. In fact, wealthy widows financed the activities of the early Church. It is also believed by many scholars – though refuted by others – that women were ordained as priests in the early church. In the catacombs in Rome there are paintings of what are discernibly women in the “orans” gesture – hands upheld while praying – which priests commonly do at Mass. We know for sure that women were ordained deacons in the early church – since scriptural references support this. There are also tombs and graves of women who are referred to as priests, buried in Rome. But as in everything, this is debated. However, there is a growing body of scholarship that supports much of this.
Historically, we have had prominent women, particularly Hildegard of Bingen in the 12the century, who as an abbess of a large monastery, possessed the power of a bishop. She wrote theological texts, composed music, catalogued herbs and their medicinal properties among other things. Had she been a man, she would have single-handedly shaped the theology of the church in a way that Thomas of Aquinas did.
There have been other significant women such as Catherine of Siena who was responsible for getting the Pope to move the papacy back to Rome from its exile in Avignon. And of course, there is Teresa of Avila, who is considered a Doctor of the Church along with Aquinas and Augustine.
After the Second Vatican Council in the 1960’s, positions of leadership opened up for women. When I studied theology in the early ‘70’s, everything seemed possible for women. Though there are women who run dioceses and parishes – they are still denied ordination on what I believe is weak theological grounds.
How has this changed in the past few decades?
See previous paragraph.
I would also add that from the 90’s on – a much more conservative movement has taken over the church and we’ve lost a lot of ground. I am not very optimistic about positive change and have chosen to distance myself from issues that were once very important to me.
What are the positive and negative aspects to Catholicism when concerning gender and equality?
Women are technically second-class citizens. They cannot currently be ordained. There are no women in power at the Vatican – only in roles of subservience. However, the church has had a very rich history of spirituality which has nourished women throughout the centuries – including the present era.
It will be interesting to see what happens in the future – since women have traditionally encouraged their sons to become priests – but generally no longer do so. I believe this will have a tremendous impact on the future.
How are women viewed in Hinduism? Has this also changed over time?
Women have had a similar role in Hinduism as they have had in the Catholic Church. However, like their Catholic sisters, there are many instances of women playing a more prominent role.
In excavations that have been done in India going back to 2600 BCE, in the cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro – there is evidence that the ancient cultures were matriarchal. However, with the rise of the Vedas and the Brahminical culture (that of the priests) the women faded into the background. You can see this all throughout history in all cultures with the rise of patriarchy.
There is some evidence that some women were wandering ascetics – though most were married off at the age of 10, and the texts, such as The Laws of Manu, dictated their role. So, Vedic culture and religion generally subjugated women.
Other works, such as the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutras, broke out of the Vedic stronghold and perspective – and were works for lay people that offered a wealth of techniques and practices for living rich spiritual lives. And, these works were more inclusive as well.
With the emergence of Tantra as a philosophy in the middle ages, we see a re-emergence of the Feminine. Tantra teaches the body is sacred and a place where one can encounter the Divine – that is viewed as Consciousness as an aspect of Shiva – and energy or power – as an aspect of Shakti – his consort. Thus, the Divine is both – Consciousness and energy.
Hindu philosophies are very complex and also interrelated. There is a renaissance going on in regards to these philosophies. Scholars in this country are translating and seeking to preserve ancient works for the future. There are many women today that are teaching some of this philosophy (such as myself) to a diverse population that often includes Indian women.
What are the positive and negative aspects to Hinduism when concerning gender and equality?
Historically, women did not have any powers or rights – and they generally went from being somebody’s daughter to somebody’s wife. At her husband’s death, a woman was often thrown onto his funeral pyre. Many of these attitudes still exist in rural areas, where a son is more highly prized than a daughter. However, with globalization and education, much is changing in India, particularly for women.
What are the leadership positions that women are allowed to hold in both religions?
I am not aware of any in Hinduism. Though there are many women who are regarded as living saints or manifestations of aspect of the Divine Feminine and being in their presence one receives darshan – or spiritual blessings or gifts. I have had the opportunity to receive such blessings from both Ammachi and Mother Meera.
Catholic women can hold positions of leadership in Chanceries, dioceses, and parishes.