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Clashing With Her Church : Religion: Theologian’s scathing attack on the Catholic hierarchy is selling fast. Cardinal John O’Connor calls the book ‘dirty’ and ‘preposterous.’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As a light rain falls, Uta Ranke-Heinemann ascends the stairs of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and quietly gives thanks.

Thanks . . . to thousands of readers in Germany and other European countries who have made her feminist polemic against the Roman Catholic Church, “Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven,” a runaway bestseller.

Thanks . . . to the millions of Catholics who, she says, agree with her that the church degrades women, glorifies a twisted cult of celibacy and interferes in the sexual lives of married couples.

But thanks most of all to Cardinal John O’Connor of New York. In December, he attacked the dust jacket of Ranke-Heinemann’s book as “dirty” and “preposterous,” although he had never read the book itself. The ensuing controversy has sparked brisk U.S. sales of her angry manifesto--and turned the little-known German theologian into something of a media star.

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“In America, the sales will go up,” says the grinning 62-year-old author, jerking her thumb heavenward during a photo session in front of the cathedral. “It is all because of O’Connor. He is one eunuch I could kiss!”

Ranke-Heinemann laughs at her own joke. In the midst of a U.S. publicity tour, she seems delighted by the outrage her book has stirred up in Catholic circles, saying it is a small price to pay for 2,000 years of male-dominated theology.

Shooing away a beggar and clutching her brown handbag, Ranke-Heinemann, a professor of religion at Essen University in Germany, looks like any other tourist who comes to visit St. Patrick’s, where O’Connor preaches every Sunday. A small, animated women who speaks in a thick accent, she is alternately solemn and sardonic when discussing the book that has pitted her against one of the titans of American Catholicism.

“We are talking about bachelors and celibates who have twisted the original meaning of the Catholic faith,” says the author, descending the cathedral steps. “Today, there are many people who laugh at them, who no longer believe what they say. And I ask you, whose fault is that?”

The words might seem blasphemous to some, but it’s just another controversy for Ranke-Heinemann, who in 1969 became the first woman ever to hold a chair of theology at a German university.

The daughter of former West German President Gustav Heinemann, she caused a scandal in her Lutheran family in 1953 by converting to Catholicism. Since then, she has increasingly challenged the dogma of a church that until the middle of this century did not allow women to study theology.

In 1987, the maverick professor triggered an uproar when she disputed the biological basis of Jesus’ virgin birth. Appearing on a German television show, she suggested that only the “spiritual semen” in Mary’s womb came from the Holy Spirit. Church officials stripped Ranke-Heinemann of her theological post, compelling her to accept the independent university job she now holds.

It was all a warm-up, however, for her most recent clash with the faith. Although she relishes a good fight, the quick-tongued author seems surprised by all the attention her book has received from the U.S. media.

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Blending meticulous research with sarcastic asides, “Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven” (Doubleday, $21.95) is an eye-opening compendium of feminist grievances with the Catholic Church. It takes on church leaders from St. Augustine to Pope John Paul II, accusing them of treating women like second-class citizens and denigrating their sexuality.

There is a disturbing link, the author says, between medieval church policies banning intercourse with menstruating women and current church rules against a couple’s use of condoms--even if one of the partners is infected with AIDS. Over the centuries, she contends, Catholicism has been twisted by men into something quite different from the humane faith preached by Jesus.

The author notes, for example, that the title of her book is drawn from a statement by Jesus in the book of Matthew. Traditionally, theologians have used it to justify the celibacy of priests. But in its original context, she says, the statement refers to adultery and has nothing to do with priests.

Since its publication in 1988, “Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven” has sold more than 300,000 copies in Germany, where it was the best-selling nonfiction book of the year. It rose to the No. 1 position in Italy and has also been published in France, Britain and the Netherlands. Despite its provocative tone, the book has not become a target of European church leaders as it has in the United States.

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“Here in America, we are distressed with Cardinal O’Connor’s comments,” says Thomas Cahill, director of religious publishing for Doubleday. “It is an unfair attack, and one that seems to have an opposite effect. A religious spokesman can make a pronouncement, but then someone else will think, ‘That’s what you say, Buster, so where can I buy the book?’ ”

Doubleday originally printed 10,000 copies of the book. But now, driven by the unexpected publicity, there are 35,000 copies in print. The company expects to double that amount this month and may have more than 100,000 copies in U.S. stores by the end of the year, Cahill says.

As the controversy grows, opinion has divided along predictable lines. Leading Catholic feminists say Ranke-Heinemann has given them an international boost. But O’Connor, perhaps the most powerful Catholic official in America, charges that the author is guilty of Catholic bashing.

In a column titled “A Seed of Hatred,” published in the archdiocese’s weekly newspaper, O’Connor conceded he had only read the dust jacket of the book and was not calling for censorship. But he wrote that “it is time we stopped buying the line of purveyors of hatred and scandal and malice and libel and calumny,” adding that he was “sick of their perversions.”

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O’Connor criticized Doubleday for publishing the book, likening it to “scrawling dirty words about the church on bathroom walls.” He has declined further comment, but other church officials are not so reticent.

“These days, you can’t dump on the Muslim or Jewish faith in the media, sensitivities being what they are,” says Msgr. William Smith, a professor of moral theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary in New York. “Yet it’s fashionable to beat the living daylights out of the Catholic Church, especially when it’s done by a Catholic who unravels in public.”

Smith suggests that the author’s research is one-sided and questions her premise that the faith can be reduced to a debate about human sexuality.

“She believes in the absolute freedom of the individual to choose and links that to the abortion issue,” he says. “In doing this, she sounds like the ACLU. But the ACLU, to its credit, doesn’t claim a theological basis for what it advocates, like this gal does.”

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To her allies, Ranke-Heinemann is more than a gal with a gripe. Frances Kessling, who runs the Washington-based Catholics for a Free Choice, suggests that the author has given feminists a much-needed historical context for their arguments against 2,000 years of patronizing church dogma.

“Her contribution is very important,” says Kessling, who notes that the heart of the Catholic feminist movement has been rooted in America but is now spreading to other nations. “Normally, the book would have reached an elite audience of women involved in feminist theology, largely academics. But because of all this publicity, more people will know about it.”

Most important, Kessling says, “Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven” disputes the notion that Catholic feminists are mainly spoiled American women who do not represent the mainstream faith. Ranke-Heinemann, she notes, has European credentials, academic credibility and a long history of activism.

During the 1960s, the author helped drum up German opposition to the Vietnam War, and she later organized support for the nuclear freeze. Political to the core, she is angered that the church bans condoms and birth-control pills out of reverence for life but tells believers that some wars are just.

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“I am a complete pacifist,” she says during an interview in her publisher’s offices. “So I cannot understand a church that says it believes in the rights of the unborn, but does not try to stop something like the Persian Gulf War, which is total madness.”

Looking back on her life, Ranke-Heinemann says her notoriety is not much of a surprise. She converted to Catholicism at age 24 and recalls feeling a spiritual kinship with Catholics, who she felt were treated unfairly in German society.

“For me, it was going from the frying pan to the fire, but I could not have known that then,” the author says. “Since then, I have felt an alliance with those people who are persecuted, who are treated unfairly in life.”

In 1954, she married Edmund Ranke, a religion teacher. The couple has two sons, and she has encouraged her children to question authority. But Ranke-Heinemann is surprisingly conservative when it comes to her own faith.

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She disapproves of abortion, for example, but concedes it would be difficult for her to tell another woman what to do. Although she is pessimistic about the future of women in Catholicism, she has no thoughts of abandoning the church.

“I have made my statement, and I will live with it, fight for it,” she says. “But these are not the easiest times for people who believe as I do. As long as we have this Pope, it will be a long time before there is change.

“I do not mean to sound so sad,” the author says with a shrug. “But it’s like Dante said--for this church, ‘Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.’ ”


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