Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Pope Francis and the theology of women: some concerns

by Ivone Gebara (English translation by Rebel Girl)
Adital (Español / Português)

In view of the general acclaim and positive evaluation of the first visit of Pope Francis to Brazil on the occasion of World Youth Day (WYD), any critical essay may not be welcome. But, after so many years of struggle, "woe to me if I keep silent!". So, here are a few lines and brief reflections to share some insights from the place of women.

I don't want to comment on Pope Francis' speeches or the joy that many of us had when we felt the friendliness, affection, and closeness of Francis. I don't want to talk about some of the coherent positions announced in relation to the structures of the Roman Curia. I just want to knit together two brief commentaries. The first is about the Pope's interview on the plane returning to Rome, when he was asked about the ordination of women and answered that the question was closed, so NO. And he added that a "theology of women" needed to be done and that the Virgin Mary was superior to the apostles, so nothing of longing for a different place for women.

The second comment has to do with the identification of the new youth Catholicism with a certain charismatic trend very much in style in the Catholic Church today. This should lead us to very serious questions apart from our thirst to have inspired leaders who speak to our hearts and dispense with the rationalistic dogmatic theological discourses of the past.

How can Pope Francis simply ignore the strength of the feminist movement and its expression in Catholic feminist theology for more than thirty or forty decades, depending on the place? It also amazes me that he stated that we can even have more spaces in ministry when, in fact, in all the Catholic parishes, it's women for the most part who are carrying out the many missionary projects. I am aware that these words about women -- few words certainly, limited to a trip back home -- can not and should not overshadow such a successful visit. However, it's our stumbling, our faulty acts which reveal the hidden side, the dark side that is also in us. It is these small acts that open the doors of reflection to try to go a little beyond first impressions.

Feminist theology has a long history in many countries in the world and a long history of marginalization in Catholic institutions, especially Latin American ones. Publications in Biblical Studies, Theology, Liturgy, Ethics, History of the Church, have populated the libraries of many schools of theology in different countries. They have also circulated in many secular environments interested in the novelty so full of new meanings. But these texts are not studied in the major schools of theology, especially by the future clergy in training, or in the institutes of consecrated life. Church officialdom doesn't give them citizenship rights because women's intellectual production is still considered inappropriate for male theological rationality. And besides, it's a threat to male power existing in the churches. Most people don't know what alternative publications and organized training exist, just as they don't know the new paradigms proposed by these diverse contextual theologies. They don't know their inclusive strength or the call to historical responsibility for our actions. Most of the men of the Church and the faithful still live as if theology were an eternal science based on eternal truths and taught mainly by men and, secondarily, by women according to established male science. They deny the historicity of the texts, the contextuality of positions and reasons. They're unaware of the new philosophies that inform feminist theological thought, biblical hermeneutics and new ethical approaches.

Pope Francis, please, inform yourself through Google about some aspects of feminist theology, at least in the Catholic world. Perhaps your possible interest could open up other paths to noticing the diversity of genders in theological production!

As far as saying, perhaps as a sort of consolation, that the Virgin Mary is greater than the apostles, it is, once again, a male theological expression of abstract consolation. One loves the distant Virgin focused on personal intimacy, but doesn't hear the cries of flesh and blood women. It is easier to write poems to the Virgin and kneel before Her image than to pay attention to what is happening to women in many corners of our world. Meanwhile, if men want to affirm the excellence of the Virgin Mary, they ought to fight for the rights of women to be respected through the eradication of the many forms of violence against women. They even ought to be aware of the religious institutions and the theological and moral content they convey that might not only strengthen, but generate other forms of violence against women.

I fear that many faithful and pastoralists needing the figure of the good Pope, the spiritual father, the Pope who loves everyone, are yielding to the friendly and loving figure of Francis and reinforcing a new male clericalism and a new form of adulation of the papacy. Pope Ratzinger led us to a critique of clericalism and the institution of the papacy through his rigid stances. But, now with Francis, it seems that our ghosts of the past are returning, mellowed now by the simple and strong figure of a pope able to give up the luxury of the palaces and privileges of his state. A pope who seems to put a new public face on this institution that has made history, and not always a beautiful history, in the past. The moment calls for prudence and critical alertness, not to discredit the Pope, but to help him be more and more with us, the Church, a diverse Church, respectful of its many faces.

My second brief commentary is with respect to the need to identify the majority of the groups of young people present at World Youth Day and warmly acclaiming the Pope. What Gospel and what theology are they being trained in? Where are they coming from? What are they looking for? I don't have any clear answers. Only suspicions and intuitions with respect to the marked presence of a trend that is more charismatic, more conservative and celebratory along "Gospel" lines. The demonstrations of passion for the Pope, the sudden intense love that leads to tears, wanting to touch him, to experience sudden miracles, to dance and shake the body, are also common in the neo-Pentecostal movement in its many manifestations. Without wanting to engage in sociology of religions, I think we know that these movements seek social stability apart from political change regarding rights and justice for all citizens. I think it matches the current times in which we're living and responds to some of the immediate needs of the people. However, there's another face of Christianity that almost wasn't able to manifest itself during World Youth Day. The Christianity that still inspires the struggle of the social movements for housing, land, LGBT rights, the rights of women, children, the elderly, etc...The Christianity of the base communities (BCCs), of the initiatives inspired by liberation theology and feminist liberation theology. The latter, though present, was almost suffocated by the force of what the press wanted to strengthen and therefore was in their interest. All this invites us to think.

It hasn't been a week since the Pope traveled here and already the newspapers and the TV networks talk little about him. And what has been happening in the Catholic communities after this apotheosis? How are we continuing our daily journeys?

Beyond the Pope's visit and Francis' possible new form of papacy, we are being invited to think about life, to think about the current course of our history and regain what is most precious and strong in the liberating ethical tradition of the Gospels. It's not enough to say that Jesus loves us. We need to figure out how we love one another and what we are doing to grow in building more just and supportive relationships.


  1. Tell them to Wake UP!! http://youtu.be/TSjS4RAgqdY

  2. An LGBT presence, though small, was at WYD through the witness of Equally Blessed pilgrims and Diversidade Catolica


  3. There's a whole collection of representations of women in Biblical scenes here (http://eukleria.wordpress.com/galeria/multimedia/) including this painting which is identified as “La Cena de las mujeres con Jesús” (1999) de Adelia C. ("The Last Supper of the women with Jesus" (1999) by Adelia C.). Eukleria is a Basque group of Christians for women's equality in the Church. I also found a JPG of this painting on the private website for the alumnae of EFETA -- the Escuela Feminista de Teologia de Andalucia -- a Spanish feminist theology program. Your question gives me the opportunity once again to publicize EFETA's main bilingual website: http://www.efeta.org/EN/index.php.

  4. Thank you for that information!