Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Thinking differently is a right": An interview with Ivone Gebara

By Mariana Carbajal (English translation by Rebel Girl)
Página 12
July 23, 2012

Why did you want to be a nun?

It's a long story. I had always studied in a convent school but had never wanted to be a nun. But suddenly, in the '60s, I went to college to study philosophy and met some nuns who were well connected politically and worked with the poor, and it began to take shape for me as an alternative lifestyle. It wasn't that clear to me, but it seemed a freer life than family life and having a partner.

It sounds odd that you went to a convent in search of freedom ...

It's that I've never felt locked in. Sometimes I went to lectures at the University of Sao Paulo, which was a hotbed of anti-dictatorship struggle, and I had the key to the house of the nuns. My story was a search for freedom. I hate being kept from thinking. Thinking differently is a right. And that's been the key to my life, with all the obstacles and contradictions, because sometimes one doesn't see clearly, one goes down a path and then it's not that way.

It really sounds contradictory for a woman to seek freedom within a patriarchal, sexist, and conservative structure like the Catholic Church. How do you see it?

Yes, very contradictory. When I entered religious life, it was in 1967 when I was 22. It was the time of great changes in the Catholic Church, just after the Second Vatican Council. Religious congregations were invited to aggiornamento. It was the time we left the institutions to live among the poor. And that has been a feature of the lives of women -- leaving the institutions and living in grassroots communities. For me, it was a life full of challenges. Since I was a student, I have wanted to change the world. It always seemed unjust that there were very, very rich people and very, very poor people. I thought something could be done. The life of the nuns seemed "one" way, not "the" way, one that fit somewhat with my family tradition, which had been quite protected and sheltered.

Was your family very religious?

No. I come from a Syrian Lebanese immigrant family, with all the fears that immigrants have especially for girls, which leads them to not let them go out alone. I'm the daughter of the first generation in Brazil. I fought a lot to go to college. My parents didn't want me to. Not because they didn't want me to study, but because they thought the world might be dangerous for me. These things never sunk in with me. I've always been a rebel. I've always been a feisty one within the family structure.

Didn't you feel limited in the convent with such a rebellious spirit?

I can't say there weren't things that limited me. Of course there were, as in all ways of life. But one feature of my congregation is that individual freedom must be respected. That is very strong. And sometimes it gets to be quite contradictory.

What's your congregation?

Sisters of Our Lord, a congregation of French origin, only women. We're in many countries -- France, Belgium, Holland, England, Vietnam, Hong Kong, and in Latin America, in Brazil and Mexico.

How is the bond between women's congregations and the Vatican?

Officially there's a bond of dependency in the sense that the organization of the congregations is approved by the Vatican. Some women have submitted, but we've wanted to do what we believe in, what was our interpretation of the Gospel. We've always fought, even with the Vatican, discussing our texts.

Is your congregation feminist?

No. There are very few feminist nuns in the congregation. I don't know if I can name more than four with me.

How did you begin to incorporate gender awareness?

I was part of liberation theology. I always worked from the perspective of the liberation of the poor, of the social and political movements. The focus was to change the world, starting from the poor. I knew feminism existed; I knew something of American, Brazilian and Argentine feminism. But in liberation theology, the most eminent men, above all, used to tell us that feminism was a North American thing, that feminism in Latin America was imported. As a liberation theology activist, I worked at the Theology Institute of Recife, giving talks. There was always suspicion in relation to feminism, always. Until my path and feminism's crossed in many ways. A first way was with a woman in a working class barrio where I went to give classes to the male workers on the Bible. I used to go once a month to the home of one of them, where eight to ten workers would meet. We studied the Bible from a social perspective, to provide a base for the strikes, the labor demands. I always had the reading of the Bible that confirmed workers' rights. The homeowner's wife never participated in the talks; she stayed in the kitchen or brought us coffee. Until one day I went to see her alone and I asked her why she didn't go to our talks. She said she had to take care of her daughters, that she had to make the coffee. We argued. Until she said to me, almost angrily, "You want to know why I don't go? Because you talk like a man." I tried to defend myself. She asked me, "Do you know the economic problems that we, the workers' wives, have?" No. "Do you know that Friday is the worst day for us because the workers get their wages on Saturday and on Friday there's almost no food?" No, I told her. "Do you know the type of work we do to take advantage of our husbands' salaries?" No. "Do you know the sexual problems we have with our husbands?" No. "You understand why I don't want to go to your talks, because you don't talk about us," she said to me. That woman opened my eyes. I didn't realize that she opened my eyes to my condition as a woman in the Church.

And how did you come to feminism?

I started to read the North American feminist theologians like Mary Daly. I read her work, Beyond God the Father. I just about died, because she criticized almost everything I believed. It got me in the gut; I started to think...I read Dorothee Sölle, a German, who talked about the complicity of the Christian churches with Nazism and even about a relationship between the figure of God the Father and the general. When I first entered the convent, I experienced repression close up. I was teaching philosophy in a public school and it was the time of the military dictatorship. A friend of mine who was a chemistry teacher and I were arrested together, but at two in the morning, the police let me go and she remained detained. My friend belonged to a political group. They tortured her and finally when she got out, when she saw the torturers on the street, she ended up getting sick and died. That article about Nazism opened the door for me to think about the dictatorship in Brazil and how religion was mixed up in all that too. The demonstrations in the public squares by Tradición, Familia y Propiedad ("Tradition, Family, and Property") with rosaries in hand -- I don't know if they also had them here -- to defend people against Communism and support the military. I also read many North Americans. That began to enlighten me. The key was that one day I met two feminists in Sao Paulo. One of them said to me, "You work in theology, but what's it about?" "Jesus Christ and other things," I told her. And she asked me what this had to do with changing women's lives, if I worked on the problem of sexuality, if I had dealt with the subject of abortion. No, I told her. And I realized I didn't know anything about women. That was the beginning. I approached feminist groups in Recife like SOS CORPO-Instituto Feminista para a Democracia. We decided to program three meetings between liberal feminists and women theologians in Recife, Sao Paulo, and Rio. From that moment on, I made my choice for feminism, around 1992.

What moved you to get involved in defending the legalization of abortion, one of the gravest sins for the Catholic Church?

There were many coincidences. The great changes in my life have come by chance. I supported the cause because of knowing women who had had abortions in my neighborhood and among the feminists. I supported them as an individual but I wasn't very clear about things. Until one day one of the feminists in Sao Paulo called me in Recife and asked me if could give an interview to Veja magazine about the Catholic Church and the formation of priests, and I accepted. I did the interview. At the end, the journalist asked me off the record if I had known cases of women who had had abortions. At that time, it just happened that a girl I knew from the neighborhood, who already had five children and had fallen in love with a man who worked at a service station, had become pregnant again after a night together. She had mental problems and she had had an abortion using misoprostol. I mentioned it to him. The journalist told me that in that case, abortion wasn't a sin. I said, "Of course, it isn't a sin." Then, breaking the "off the record", the reporter published the interview in the magazine, saying that a Catholic nun is against the Church's hypocrisy and in favor of abortion. It bothered me that he put it out.

Was that the first time you had expressed yourself publicly in favor of abortion?

Yes. It was a total mess. The subject echoed throughout the national and international press. They published my photo with a cross and the Virgin to sensationalize the issue. That was in '94 or '95. The bishop of my diocese asked me for a public retraction. I refused. I told him that I knew the pains of women. Suddenly, great courage came to me. But a second letter came, asking again for a public retraction. They wanted me to accuse the journalist of lying. I refused. In the third letter, they notified me that they were going to send a report to the Vatican to open a process against me. The Vatican reacted and I had to do a lot of things.

What was the punishment?

First, they wanted to remove me from my congregation. But they failed because the authorities of my congregation didn't support abortion, but they did support me. They proposed another alternative: leave Brazil and return to theological studies. I already had a degree and a doctorate in philosophy. They forced me to study again. The Vatican letter said I was a very naive person, that I hadn't reasoned from key points that the Church didn't agree with, and that because of my naivete, they were sending me to study to relearn Catholic doctrine. They wanted me to go to Europe. As I had studied in Belgium, we decided I would go there. People have been very good to me. I didn't have any problems. I did another doctorate there. The contradiction is this: they condemn you and then they even forget that they condemned you and give you a doctorate in the name of Pope John Paul II. It's almost funny.

What arguments do you use to advocate for the decriminalization of abortion in a structure like that of the Catholic Church, which so harshly condemns the practice even in the case of a pregnancy resulting from rape or that puts the woman's life at risk?

The Church doesn't even allow it in the case of anencephalic fetuses. It's awful. There's a metaphysical way of doing theology that naturalizes motherhood, that makes you dependent on a supra-historical being. I deconstruct that kind of thinking. In my activism in the cause of women -- not just abortion -- I work in feminist theology. They don't accept it. I've had a second process because of my thought too. I had to answer three pages of questions. If I believe in the Trinity, if I believe the Pope is infallible, that sort of thing. What I do is the deconstruction of the religious argument that justifies male superiority. That also justifies a supra-history that leads us; I deconstruct that it's nature. One bishop even justifies carrying a pregnancy with an anencephalic fetus to term because God wills it. It's primitive, even shocking. A simpler person doesn't say nonsense like that. My work is to deconstruct this and also the Bible as the Word of God. I say that it isn't the Word, it's the human word, where a person is put to whom some characteristic is attributed, depending on the texts. Sometimes God is vengeful, sometimes good, sometimes He orders prophets to be killed. I try to enter along the lines of humanism, where the pain of another touches me, provokes me. God is more than a word. I want to "diosar" [Translator's note: This word, which turns "God" into a verb, is original with Ivone Gebara. In another text she defines it loosely as "to be able to try to live out what we ask of God"], I want to feel your pain and I want you to feel my pain. There isn't a law from on high that says "don't do abortions" or "don't kill". The fact is that we kill each other in many ways, even by stating that you don't kill. Life in society is a life of life and death. My main work is the deconstruction of thought, of philosophy, of theology that maintains these stands against women's choices, against female bodies, against female suffering. And this bothers them a lot because they say, according to Saint Thomas, that the male soul comes first -- to demonstrate male superiority again -- and they argue that the soul created by God is there from the beginning of the union of egg and sperm. And now they're using DNA science to justify their positions.

How do you answer these arguments?

I say very simple things. The egg is the possibility of being a human being, but to be able to be a human being you need socialization, life. The Church values the life of the fetus much more than those of women, and so my question is why women's lives have less value. They talk about innocence. And I say, "What is innocence? Why do we talk about the innocence of the fetus and not the innocence of the woman who was raped?" These aren't arguments that persuade all Catholic women, but if I can do a training process, lights go on. Sometimes they say to me, "The one above wants this." And I tell them, "The one here, you, has to decide." What I do is always turn the responsibility back...not for the priest, the bishop, to God, to the Virgin...The one who decides, I say, is you. I also deconstruct certain things in Christianity. Christianity talks about reincarnation. They believe that only Jesus is incarnate. It's not like that. There are many streams. The divine is in human flesh. Here too I argue. I tell women that that belief must be changed. The divine lives in each one. It's a bit in that direction that I reconstruct theology and philosophies that hold this position.

And do those in your congregation support you?

They support me as a person. Let's make a distinction. I am very present when they need me, if someone is sick, if they ask me for a text for a retreat, for some elderly women, also in my barrio in Recife, with the simple people, who come to tell me they made a promise. I listen. But I also have another side, the face of the intellectual, the deconstructor of theories that dominate people, not just women -- they also dominate the poor. It pains me to see the number of neo-pentecostal churches on television that take people's money to perform miracles and cast the devil out of people -- that's not faith; it's a market, a business.

Why are voices like yours so isolated in the Catholic Church?

It's that they don't give us any space. The Vatican closed the Theology Institute of Recife where I worked because they said we were communists, and that it wasn't a serious institution for training clergy. After the shutdown and because of advocating for the legalization of abortion, I have no place in the institution as a teacher with two doctoral degrees, with more than 30 published books and so many articles, because I upset them. And there's also another problem that's very serious -- we don't have a place in the parishes, in the places where the people are, either. There's a convent of cloistered nuns near my house where they used to invite me to come and give talks so that I could tell them how things were outside, and the bishop -- not the current one, the former one --called them and told them I was a very dangerous woman, that they shouldn't invite me any more. The spaces to reproduce this thought are absolutely scarce.

Have you thought about leaving the Church?

No, out of consistency with a certain feminism and with Christianity. Because leaving also means disconnecting from the women, those who suffer the most -- they're all believers. I think feminists haven't worked the religious channels of popular media enough, which are channels that console and oppress at the same time. You can't be a feminist while ignoring the religious affiliation of women. If they aren't Catholic, they're in the Assembly of God, or the Church Universal, or candomble or spiritualism. And in each of those places, there are predominantly female bodies. Religion is an important component in the construction of Latin American culture and, to such an extent, that here in Argentina the connection between church and state is very strong. In Brazil, we have an official separation, but not in the culture. President Dilma has been pressured so much, in the culture, that she no longer talks about her position in favor of decriminalizing abortion. She has retracted. You have to change the Church from within.

2 comments:

  1. An important story, here. Important lessons.

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  2. Thank you for this and the translation (though I read Spanish, and went to the original at the link). It brings to mind many themes of the relationship between Christianity and abortion that I have been thinking of recently. First of all, I am not a woman, but I am a father and a husband. I know how much more women suffer and sacrifice themselves during pregnancy and birth, and how much more intimate women’s relationships can be with their unborn children. Because of this, I don’t feel qualified as a man to police a woman’s uterus, no matter what is happening in there. It just feels a lot like what Jesus condemns the Pharisees for in the Gospels: putting a yoke on others that you yourself are not willing to carry, and using the Law to make other feel bad about themselves while you get off scot-free. I am not going to carry that baby, I am not going to risk my life and well-being in childbirth, and thus I don’t feel morally superior enough to tell a woman what to do if she becomes pregnant.

    All the same, from that I don’t think one can use arguments stating that “science” proves when a human being is actually formed. That is trying to solve a metaphysical problem with a physical solution. It is true that the FATHERS of the Church stated that abortion is always on par with murder regardless, but the operative term there is FATHERS. You can’t pretend to still treat women like chattel on these questions when they can be president of Brazil and a whole host of other things now. You cannot refuse to give women a say in the question when the “theological principles” condemning abortion emerged in a society where women were basically considered property of their fathers or husbands. Besides, the “gut check” is worth more than most people on either side of the debate are willing to admit: a group of cells is no more a person than a seed is a sycamore tree. Any person with any sense without an agenda would see that quite clearly. So the term, “abortion pill” is a misnomer. It might be scary to admit it, but identifying real human life is like identifying pornography: you know it when you see it. Only the willfully obtuse refuse to admit that.

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