Thursday, October 15, 2009

Ivone Gebara: The Church Hierarchy -- An Obstacle to Women's Empowerment

Interestingly, this lengthy interview with Sr. Ivone Gebara, possibly Brazil's best known woman theologian, has come out just before Sr. Gebara is scheduled to give the Koch Chair Fall Lecture at College of Saint Benedict in St. Joseph, Minnesota, on the evening of October 19th. She will be speaking on “Longing for Running Water: Ecofeminism and Liberation.” Her speech is free and open to the public.

Adital (English translation by Rebel Girl)
October 9, 2009

It's a fact: the hierarchy that predominates in the Church and in traditional religious culture owes a very large debt to women. Strong in the Christian faith, hard-working, revolutionary, critical thinkers, this public is finding an echo in feminist theology and beginning to try a new way of being and experiencing the Church and faith.

In an interview with Adital, Ivone Gebara, nun and theologian, talks about the roads along which feminist theology must travel and also how difficult it is to still have to deal with the values of the hierarchy that remain increasingly distant from the reality of Christians.

Incisive and coherent, Ivone is clear about the role of theologians in facing the challenges raised by daily life. "Rather than an association of theologians, we should commit ourselves to, support and dialogue with the different movements in search of meaning and experience of human values," she says.

Adital - How do you analyze the status of women in the Catholic Church today? Are there real opportunities for positive changes for women in the Church?

Ivone Gebara - I confess that at this juncture I think the issue is complicated because the feminist movement is an issue that touches on power — the power of visibility of women in political, in economic leadership, for example, in the unions, the popular movements ... And that kind of leadership, unfortunately, is rejected not only by the hierarchy, but by the religious culture in the churches.

That culture, including women who are the majority, who are devout, let's say, has a sort of collective emotion around the figure of the priest. The priest performs several functions, not only the role of leader of the Church. In general, priests are more educated than the husbands or fathers themselves. It's like they also represent a male ideal, a respected man. And he also serves as an authority, a point of reference.

That is why there are women who are on the side of maintaining a hierarchical patriarchal image, but there is also the side of men, of the hierarchy itself. So I see the possibility of change within the institutions of the Church in the very long term. In the short term we will have some gains at the level of civil society and politics. The religious society is much more closed, more traditionalist. The points of reference have more of a, well, religious basis that goes so far back in history, that I find it difficult. But that does not mean one mustn't work at it. One must try to work.

Adital - Within all this hierarchical context, how is feminist theology asserting itself?

Ivone Gebara - It is asserting itself in Brazil, because in other countries like the U.S. and Canada, it's different. In Brazil it is consolidating itself, unfortunately, starting in the marginal areas. Starting with small groups of religious congregations who are interested in feminist theology. There are also some students from theology or philosophy schools or even in sociology who are interested in the sociology of religion.

Some social, popular movements, such as the Movement of Rural Women, the Movement for Housing, the Women's Movement Against Famine. Not the movements in their entirety, only some groups, some nuclei of seekers. Some groups of women who were educated in the Catholic Church or the Lutheran Church who, because of their feminism, feel distant. They see in feminist theology a chance to regain some values and Christian points of reference they had in the past. I think that's how it's going.

Adital - The feminist movement dawned within the social movements. How is the dialogue between feminist theology and the social movements?

Ivone Gebara - In today's conference [the Seminar on Feminist Theology, held on October 2nd and 3rd in Fortaleza], Isabel [Félix, a theologian] reminded us that it was necessary to resume that dialogue. I don't know how. I can only say that, for example, I am requested by feminists of different persuasions to make a contribution, to give an interview, to give a lecture. But I have the impression that because of the somewhat retrograde position of the Catholic Church in relation to the challenges proposed by women, feminists have lost interest in Bible study.

They are left wondering: how is a Bible study going to serve our cause?, and they end up being interested only at a critical moment, such as the termination of a pregnancy when it comes to certain anencephaly. Then everyone is in search of tradition, the Bible. Almost two years ago, when there was a debate and the Federal Supreme Court presented this problem, several judges began to argue. All of them used biblical texts and they used theologians, the priests of the Church as well as medieval theologians.

The interesting thing is that nobody used feminist theology. This is something that catches my attention, since even in those struggles that are feminist causes, feminist theology is not used very much. It is as if the authority came from theology done by men. I draw attention to this to say that I am not pessimistic about the work I do and the work that some companion women theologians have accomplished. But one notices that, in the current environment, any alternative that is open to something beyond a hierarchical conception of the world does not find adherents easily.

Adital - Feminist, as well as black and indigenous theology aims to bring the Church closer to different situations ...

Ivone Gebara - The point is that we do not consider the Church to be only the hierarchy. And when people, including politicians, speak of the Church, they consider it to be only the hierarchy. It may be a local or an international community of people who are connected by the Christian faith, by Gospel values, without necessarily being linked to the orders of the Vatican hierarchy. This is a new phenomenon. And I don't know what the delineations will be in the future. I think it's a new phenomenon to be a Christian without the Church. A Cristian without an institution, but like a community made up of friends who are reference persons without that worry of being a member of an institution governed by a hierarchy.

Adital - How do the communities in which you work perceive or assimilate this issue of feminist theology?

Ivone Gebara - I work with several popular groups. The working groups in which I am working now have, let's say, a political consciousness. They are aware, for example, of the relationship between socio-economic and political oppression and religious oppression. Just as they also realize that there are liberating policies and that there are dimensions of liberation in religious institutions. I see, for example, when I visit rural women, that they are seeking autonomy -- the desire they have to study and become empowered. They do not resonate with the Catholic Church. It's somewhat like what Mary Daly says -- they have the impression that in the Catholic Church they only need to be part of the procession, they have to follow what the priests and bishops say. They [the priests and bishops] are the ones who lead. And they [the women] don't want that anymore. They refuse to acknowledge that anymore. They want to be the leaders of their own searching.

Adital - Feminist theology places the problem of abortion in line with these important issues, the one with the most visibility. How do you view it?

Ivone Gebara - I would say that the issue of abortion is not the primary cause for feminism. It's one cause. Today we are dealing with extreme issues such as sexual violence against women in situations of war or in domestic situations. We are bringing up a tragic problem of the sexual exploitation of girls. It's horrifying, the large number of girls who have come to public hospitals as victims of violence within the home, of violence by parents, stepparents, or grandparents, or uncles, or brothers. Facts like these have become causes.

Another issue has been the education of women. Not just a social and political education, but also sex education. Abortion -- its decriminalization -- is also one of the issues.

What happens is that people come and ask, "But why are you so polarized? I think the polarization comes more from the media and also a kind of denial of the problems for open discussion created by the various churches and various social institutions.

Then it appears that the feminist movement is polarizing. But what I mean is that the polarization comes from conservative groups who use the abortion issue to waste energy, to throw stones at the women's movement.

Adital - Today we have different theologies. Is there a link between them?

Ivone Gebara - The link is small. There was a time when the Asociación de Teólogos y Teólogas del Tercer Mundo (EATWOT) sought a greater coordination in this work. Today I feel that in all parts of the world there is a kind of weariness of the organizations that were born in the past. The National Brazilian Bishops' Conference, the Confederation of the Episcopal Conferences, the CRB, the Latin American Conference of Men and Women Religious, the Associations of Theologians ... there is a weakening of these institutions. Why? I think the situation itself is leading to this, a kind of urgency to start a different kind of organization of a different mould and from other reference points. This is being discussed.

Adital - We have been talking here about all the hierarchical weight that still dominates the Church. In this scenario, what would be the path of feminist theology?

Ivone Gebara - Unpredictable. Very difficult. Efforts have been made to gather the women theologians again, to hold meetings on feminist theology, on new directions. I would say I'm supportive but wary. I put a lot more on theologians linking with social groups, with populist groups. I put a lot more on thinking about faith with the group of domestic workers, on thinking about faith with women's groups seeking alternative employment. I think many more of us theologians should be embedded in the social movements. Rather than an association of theologians, we should commit ourselves to, support and dialogue with the different movements in the search for meaning and living out of human values.


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