Monday, August 26, 2013

"Getting out of the clerical and papal concept of the Church": A special interview with Ivone Gebara

This interview was originally published in Portuguese on August 17, 2013 on the Instituto Humanitas Unisinos website. English translation by Rebel Girl.

"I think there's a change that's happening in the clergy, the episcopate and many of the faithful, especially women, towards a new sexual ethic. The leaven is in the dough. It's necessary to wait for it to slowly rise," the theologian says.

"The pope used a tactic of not clearly touching on the contentious issues in the Church on the first visit. (...) He wanted to be accepted as a pope with a new, closer, and more affectionate way of being and without the trappings that characterized the lifestyles of his papal predecessors," says Ivone Gebara, in an email interview with IHU On-Line. For her, Francis acts "as if he believed that with himself a new era in the Roman Catholic Church could be inaugurated. But we can't forget that Pope Francis is the same Cardinal Bergoglio of Buenos Aires and his positions against gay marriage, abortion, and contraceptives are well known to the Argentine people." And she points out: "What's more, the official sexual theology and ethics of the Catholic Church still refer to a pre-modern world where scientific advances hadn't affected the culture and morality of the people."

The theologian states that the Pope's answer to journalists regarding the ordination of women "surprised" her. "The surprise was not the 'no' in relation to ordination, but when he stated the need for a 'theology of women' in the Church," she says.

And she clarifies: "With that answer, he showed an ignorance of women's struggle and theological production for decades. This is what is worrisome for a pontiff who's at the head of a mostly female Church. I don't know whether the ignorance is real or where it's a political stance in relation to the women's movement in the world and in the Church. In that sense I would evaluate the visit [of the Pope to Brazil] as leaving something to be desired, especially since most of the young people attending World Youth Day were women."

Ivone Gebara has a PhD in Philosophy from the Universidade Católica de São Paulo and in Religion from the Université Catholique de Louvain, in Belgium. She taught for 17 years at the Instituto de Teologia do Recife - ITER until its dissolution in 1989 by a Vatican decree.

IHU On-Line - How do you assess the Pope's visit to Brazil?

Ivone Gebara - When we make an assessment of someone, especially a public figure like Pope Francis, we realize the partiality of our assessments. Every person evaluates the other from a point of view or an expectation or frustration. Basically no evaluation is complete, even those that claim to be general evaluations. I'm no exception to the rule. Like many other analysts, I'll repeat that the figure of Pope Francis is very friendly, and his proximity to people and his effort to use simpler and more understandable language are noteworthy. Also, he has taken important positions in relation to the governance of the Church, especially in response to the Vatican scandals, as well as significant positions along the lines of denouncing social injustice, such as when he was on the island of Lampedusa in southern Italy. Anyone's positions are always linked to past and present actions.

My evaluation also touches on my commitment to the cause of women that is expressed in different ways in various contexts. The answer he gave to the journalists on the way back to Italy when asked about women's ordination surprised me. The surprise wasn't the "no" regarding ordination, but when he stated the need for a "theology of women" in the Church. With that answer, he showed an ignorance of women's struggle and theological production for decades. This is what is worrisome for a pontiff who's at the head of a mostly female Church. I don't know whether the ignorance is real or where it's a political stance in relation to the women's movement in the world and in the Church. In that sense I would evaluate the visit as leaving something to be desired, especially since most of the young people attending World Youth Day were women.

IHU On-Line - Unlike the other popes, Francis didn't address gender and moral issues in his speeches, for example. What does the Pope's silence indicate?

Ivone Gebara - I think the Pope used a tactic of not clearly touching on the contentious issues in the Church on the first visit. As I see it, though I could be wrong, he wanted to be accepted as a pope with a new, closer, and more affectionate way of being and without the trappings that characterized the lifestyles of his papal predecessors. It's as if he believed that with himself a new era in the Roman Catholic Church could be inaugurated. But we can't forget that Pope Francis is the same Cardinal Bergoglio of Buenos Aires and his positions against gay marriage, abortion, and contraceptives are well known to the Argentine people. What's more, the official sexual theology and ethics of the Catholic Church still refer to a pre-modern world where scientific advances hadn't affected the culture and morality of the people. For example, the Church's insistent advice against condoms and contraceptives reveals how that advice is anachronistic in relation to today's world. Moreover, this kind of requirement gives rise to dubious behavior in many people with regard to sexual morality. Each one acts according to their needs and beliefs and the institutional Church acts based on principles while ignoring the real lives of the people.

IHU On-Line - When asked about not having mentioned these issues in his speeches, Francis said that young people already know what the position of the Church is on such topics. How do you view this response? Do you glimpse any change in Church doctrine or the way of addressing these issues?

Ivone Gebara - I think in the heat of the great spectacle of the Pope's speeches and the convivial environment of the young people, these important issues weren't touched on by Francis and there wasn't any demand from the young people for that either, at least publicly. I think that the pope isn't ignorant of the fact that the above-mentioned problems are fundamentally problems of the young and not of older people. The same could be said about drugs. However, if the answer wasn't given directly by the Pope -- an answer that, moreover, would be quite well-known -- it was given by some Church groups perhaps even supported by episcopal authorities.

In many of the bags given to the young people, there was a manual on sexual morality in various languages and, incredible as it may seem, a small fetus-shaped doll as well as a small rosary in which each bead represented a tiny fetus. I almost didn't believe it. I had to see it with my own eyes to confirm it. They wanted to teach young people against abortion in that realistic, violent way that was disrespectful of human bodies and pain.

I feel we need to grow in humanity; we need to approach the issues and pain of others in a disarmed way. With the legalistic system of purity presented by many groups and people in the Church, we run the risk of provoking various kinds of violence and lies in human relationships.

Despite that, I think there's a change that's happening in the clergy, the episcopate and many of the faithful, especially women, towards a new sexual ethic. The leaven is in the dough. It's necessary to wait for it to slowly rise.

IHU On-Line - Thinking about Pope Francis' actions during the first months, what is it possible to glimpse about his pontificate?

Ivone Gebara - I think he's starting on a positive note. There's undeniable acceptance of him and hope for reforms in the Catholic Church. But we know well that while leaders are important, power structures and other things only change through collective effort. In that sense, I believe that Catholic groups around the world should express themselves more, make proposals, and face the diverse reality of the Church. I believe that this diverse reality should have a respected right to citizenship. It's hard to say that when we've developed over the centuries the idea of the one, holy and apostolic Church. The invitation to respect differences, the call for inclusion seem to be appeals launched in many different institutions in our century. And religious institutions can not fail to hear them.

IHU On-Line - Do you wish to add anything?

Ivone Gebara - I'd like to reinforce the idea that we are the Church too. That means getting out of a clerical or papal concept of the Church. In other words, the Church isn't just the bishops or just the Pope. They aren't the ones who deliver faith to us. They aren't the ones who give us Jesus Christ. They aren't the ones who lead us to adhere to the values that sustain life. They have a function, no doubt, but the reality of faith is inscribed in every person, then it is sustained in the community of people of faith who are able to be justice, mercy, compassion, and mutual aid in the maintenance of life for one another. Getting out of valuing hierarchical schemes and seeking collective responsibility in great and small acts is a real challenge for all of us.

2 comments:

  1. "...we are the Church too" - exactly right.
    This is both a liberating idea ... it is o.k. to discount the Hierarchy when it pretends it produces what it at most facilitate ... and a call to responsibility ... one cannot simply sit back and let someone in a vestment make all the decisions.
    God bless us all, and especially the author of this post.

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