Friday, January 10, 2014

Latin American Feminist Liberation Theology: Taking Stock and the Future

by Olga Consuelo Vélez Caro (English translation by Rebel Girl)
Volume XXXV, No. 2013/4, October-December 2013, pp. 131-139


On the occasion of the celebration of the fortieth anniversary of the publication of Gustavo Gutiérrez's book, A Theology of Liberation 1, the question arises about a Latin American feminist theology in this liberating perspective and the challenges currently present.

As a starting point, it is worth noting that the urgency of the socio-political and economic reality that marked liberation theology kept the reality of women "invisible" until a later decade. "The experience of God in the poor and the oppressed" -- liberation theology's point of departure -- did not consider the issue of gender and, moreover, it was thought that this issue could distract from the fundamental theological task -- "the poor." However, from two distinct fronts -- on the one hand, the impact of women's movements globally 2 and, on the other, the incursion of women into liberation theology reflection 3 -- ways for the inclusion of women were opening up, even coming to express such a theology as "Latin American feminist theology." We will now address this journey and its pending challenges.

1. The Latin American feminist theology journey 4

Latin American feminist theology has grown through various meetings held on the continent. We can place the first one in Mexico at the Tepeyac Congress in 1979, involving women from different countries and various religious affiliations. Theological reflection focused on the efforts of women to be actors/subjects. In 1984, promoted by the Women's Commission of EATWOT (Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians), another meeting was held in Bogota to plan a variety of local and continental meetings that would boost women's theological work. In 1985, in Petrópolis (Brazil), the first meeting was held on the topic "Women in the Christian faiths." Here it was concluded that the starting point of theological reflection done by women was the experience of women's oppression and their faith experience. Awareness was raised that motherhood is not the only aspect on which to value women because they are also "mediators of the Spirit." The patriarchal world that limits women to the private sphere by extolling qualities attributed to women such as sensitivity, imagination, and intuition, while men are destined for the public domain where they appear as rational, objective beings forging the future, was denounced.

In 1986, the "First Latin American Encounter of Women Theologians", convened by EATWOT, was held in Argentina where, in addition to other issues such as spirituality, Christology, God, Mary, etc.., gender oppression that up until then had not been considered in liberation theology, began to be talked about. It was realized that socio-political oppression was not enough in thinking about gender equality. So it was necessary to introduce the gender perspective.

In the same year, the "Second Encounter on Women's Theological Production in the Christian Churches", organized by the "Women and Theology" program of ISER ("Institute for the Study of Religion") took place. Until then, one spoke of women's theology or theology done by women because there was mutual distrust between feminists and theologians. The former saw in the ecclesial institution one of the causes of the oppression of women and the theologians, following the liberating spirit, focused more on the socio-economic, starting from women doubly-oppressed because of their socioeconomic status and gender. On that note, theological work was done, seeing in the liberating God the God who sympathizes with the downtrodden and oppressed, recovering the role of women leaders in the Bible and who contributed to the liberation of the people and also that of those who went unnoticed or were killed, being innocent victims of the patriarchal system.

In December 1986, another meeting was convened by EATWOT in Oaxtepec, Mexico, under the title "First Intercontinental Theology Encounter from the Perspective of Women". This meeting reflected on the situation of women in the churches and on its theological implications for spirituality, the Bible, Christology, ecclesiology and theological method. Most significant was the introduction of the term "feminist", recognizing that despite the negative connotations that word could have because of being related to First World feminism (which had different concerns) and the suspicion it aroused within the churches, it expressed the break that we wanted to establish with the existing order and proposed a new way of being and living reality.

Other meetings were held in 1988 ("Third Encounter on Women and Theology"), 1990 ("Fourth National Encounter on Theology from the Perspective of Women"), and 1992 ("Fifth National Encounter on Theology from the Perspective of Women"). Also in 1992, some women theologians from the Centro Ecuménico Diego de Medellín in Santiago, Chile, who had already organized the "Theology from Women" program, created the review Conspirando ["Conspiring"] with the aim of convening a network of women in Latin America. In 1993, the "Second Encounter of Latin American Women Theologians" was held. In 1994, a meeting of "Women Professors of Theology" took place where the Argentine theologian Beatriz Melano Couch was honored for being the first woman professor of theology in Latin America. In the same year, EATWOT convened women theologians from South and North America in Costa Rica to address the theme "Spirituality for Life: Women theologians against violence towards women."

In 1999, a meeting convened by EATWOT was held in Bogota on the theme "New human relations for a new world order". In 2007, the "First Congress of Latin American and German Women Theologians" took place in Buenos Aires, under the title "Biographies, Institutions and Citizenship: Theology and Society from the Perspective of Women." The conference brought together more than 300 women theologians of the continent, recognizing the theological work of the pioneers. In 2008, the "Second Theological Symposium on Intercultural Feminist Theology" was held, at which the theme of "Broken Bodies-Holy Lives: The Sexuality and Human Dignity of Women" was addressed. 5 In 2009, in Bogota, another meeting took place on sexual violence, particularly in the Colombian context. Finally in 2012, the Continental Congress of Theology in São Leopoldo (Brazil) allowed the presence of many women of the continent and there it was noted that we are still a ways from fuller visibility of the contribution of women theologians in the Latin American theological journey. Therefore it remains urgent to join forces and build a true Latin American network to aid, promote, and disseminate theological reflection made by women from so many different spheres.

No doubt many other meetings, groups, and networks are in place in Latin America and are promoting the work of women in the field of theology. It is not always possible to know all the efforts, much less coordinate them. However it appears that it is an "irreversible" phenomenon because what is at stake is the dignity and social and ecclesial recognition of all women of the continent.

2. Achievements and pending challenges

The previous section allowed us to recover the "memory" of the theological journey of women on the continent. It's amazing to see the evolution that is taking shape over time and gladdening to see the sharper and more committed consciousness of that journey. Latin American feminist theology was defined by María Pilar Aquino in 2000 as "a critical reflection on the experience that we women and men have of God in our practices that seek to transform all institutions and systems that produce impoverishment and violence against women and men in order to move towards new social relations governed by justice and integrity of life, in a cultural environment free of patriarchal domination." 6 In the thirteen years that have passed, this formulation is still valid although it has acquired more diverse fields, incorporating new contexts, responding to new challenges.

From this perspective, talking about Latin American feminist theology is talking about "theologies" because across the continent the emphases and approaches that are being consolidated among women theologians are distinct and broad. First, one must note the contextual splits that have been made in fact in both the black and indigenous perspectives. In the first case the goal is "critically articulating the revelation of God in the daily lives of black women and the history of black people, seen as salvation-liberation history". 7 With respect to indigenous feminist theology, it must be noted that if on the one hand it has had the advantage of connecting the reality of women with Mother Earth and the possibility of enriching the experience of divinity with the identity of the ancient cultures, on the other it has had more difficulty incorporating gender arguments into this theological task because the indigenous worldview resists much more letting itself be permeated by the changes the gender category carries with it.

From this Latin American feminist theological journey, the question that arises for us is about the theological accomplishments achieved and the remaining challenges. What fruits can we glean from this task? What are the contributions that can be highlighted and incorporated into the universal theological task? Without claiming to name all the achievements, we can point out some fundamental principles that have come from feminist theologies and some biblical and systematic achievements that are being reached.

Among the basic principles we can point out is the fundamental assertion of equality between men and women, the ethical imperative to denounce any situation of subordination and violence experienced by women, the need to reconstruct the history of women, both in the biblical texts and in the history of our people, the appropriation of feminist critical categories of gender as an epistemological option in the theological task, incorporating interdisciplinary and intercultural studies to articulate emotional reasoning, aesthetics and wisdom from the popular imagination. Recently postcolonial studies are beginning to be incorporated, and so on.

Turning to refer to the content covered by the Latin American feminist theologians we should note the "Mujeres haciendo teologías" ["Women doing theology"] series, an initiative of "Teologanda" a program of studies, research and publications in Argentina that, since 2003 and under the auspices of academic institutions and local churches and with the support of Intercambio Cultural Latinoamericano Alemán ["Latin-German Cultural Exchange"], has brought out three books of which the first two offer a "basic dictionary" and an "anthology of texts" on the production of books and articles of pioneering women authors in Latin America, the Caribbean and the United States. It is consuming here to name the authors and publishers profiled, which total 217. But it is significant to be able to count on these efforts which, while unable to cover all the theological works of all the women theologians of the continent, do bear witness to a fruitful journey, an open path, to a theological labor that has its own identity and is irreversible.

Along this journey, it is important to highlight Latin American Biblical hermeneutics which is one of the most developed tasks of feminist theology. Women in the Bible and the role they have played in salvation history began to be recovered. Then the different biblical texts were interpreted from women's sphere, recovering the feminine images of God and God's saving action for women and men. This biblical work has been characterized by freeing itself from an androcentric and patriarchal way of expressing God, revaluing traits assigned to women as present in the very same God and therefore in the human gender -- male and female (motherhood, selflessness, tenderness), accepting the body and the everyday as hermeneutical categories, working fiestas, joy, the enjoyment of corporeality and sexuality (Song of Songs) as an integral part of theological development.

Besides this hermeneutic work, systematic work is becoming increasingly rich and touching all the classical treatises of theology. Issues of Christology, theological anthropology, ecclesiology, the mystery of God, pneumatology, Mariology, etc. are being addressed, contributing the results of these reflections to the universal theological heritage. However, the road ahead is still vast and wide. And therefore the challenges are immense because Latin American feminist theology still needs to gain more space to be recognized in the theological community itself, in universities and in the Church.

Latin American feminist theology, like all theologies of the continent, is fated to continue its development and respond to the challenges and the "signs of the times" that the present brings. In this sense we can make some observations and comments, always with the prior assertion that they are personal views formulated from the vista one has ahead.

With respect to the theological community, to cite a recent example, it was noted at the Continental Congress of Theology, to which we have already referred, held in October 2012 in São Leopoldo, Brazil, that it did not manage to make the theological reflection of women sufficiently visible. Some will argue that there was a female presence in the main speeches, panels and workshops. And that's true. But it was not enough because it was acknowledged that every effort necessary wasn't made so that more of the early women theologians might attend and occupy more equitable spaces with the men throughout the whole congress. This problem is repeated in many theological events because keeping in mind the ethical principle of not only expressing equality between men and women but implementing it, continues to be "bothersome". It is argued that there are not enough women theologians (it is true in a certain sense), that you can't invite them just because they are women (also reasonable) but it seems that the desire to give witness to an inclusive theological community that looks to being more like what Jesus wanted and therefore is disposed to seek all means to overcome the real obstacles that can be found to the ideal of an inclusive theological community, is not sufficiently strong. Needless to say, a good dose of "kenotic" attitude is required on the part of the men to take a back seat, knowing that the goal of such an action is bringing into practice the equality that is proclaimed in their speeches and writings.

With regard to the university environment, the presence of women is small yet and feminist theological discourse is still absent. Apart from the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico which has established the "Chair of Feminist Theology", there are no academic programs that have required courses on this subject.8 Yes, there are electives and extension courses in this area. In any case, they are few and don't reach a significant audience. Similarly, many men and women theologians fail to make a conscious choice to incorporate bibliographical references to women. They may argue that the literature is not yet extensive and possibly doesn't have the quality of "classics" on theological themes. There may be some truth in this but that is not enough. There is production and although it doesn't always meet traditional methods and epistemologies, it has sufficient methodological rigor and communicates contents that are essential for a theological journey that wants to match up to the era.

Other aspects need continuing work to further strengthen this feminist theological labor. Among these, we can point out the importance of recovering everyday life, the playful, the fiesta as well as a positive view of the body, sexuality and pleasure, because they are issues that have traditionally influenced the subordinate view of women and have prevented her full and integral development. There is also a need to articulate indigenous, black and ecofeminist feminist theologies further to make the theological work more clearly visible and influential in a more universal environment. Another important aspect is to further deepen feminist reconstruction of central concepts and themes in systematic theology such as God, Jesus Christ, the Church, spirituality, sacraments, grace, sin, life, etc.., and systematize feminist liturgical experiences and rituals that celebrate the resistance and victories of our communities for a reality free of sexism and sexual violence.

Moreover, feminist theological systematization today must contribute to building anew the relationship between the sexes. The new way of being and living out the female being, necessarily involves a reconstruction and adaptation of the male being. Gender as a category of analysis involves a comprehensive look at both genders and their joint search for possible ways to build a just society where functional difference doesn't allow any fundamental discrimination in any of them.

Also in times of recovering spirituality, a spirituality that promotes this new look at gender relations and enables new integrations of all human dimensions in liturgies and rituals is urgent. Spirituality must regain the richness of the many forms of human expression as well as its apophantic and mystical character that contemplates and is immersed in the divine mystery that is always "greater".

Not foreign to all this is to keep on looking for theological methods to ensure the depth and relevance of Latin American feminist theologies, able to integrate other rationalities and feelings, in other words, a more holistic and comprehensive vision that ensures this communion with God, with others, with oneself and with all creation.

3. Conclusion

Latin American feminist theology is a prophetic word for humanity because its message aims at building a new society where the inclusion of women gives back the original face of divine creation where God "then created the human being in His own image, in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them"(Gen 1:27). Feminist theology communicates the good news of the fundamental equality of all human beings. A statement that is not "theoretical", "universal" or "abstract" but considers the specific subjects -- women -- in their particular conditions of sex, race and social status. If at the beginning of this theology the need to look at human reality from women's perspective was proclaimed, now a redefinition of her being and mission is required, like that of men, and its work goes far beyond that initial stage. The whole theology is called to rebuild itself and let itself be enriched with new categories of analysis that this theology has incorporated and that allow a new, more comprehensive view of divine revelation and its current theological systematization.

Actually all theological work is an "action program". Latin American feminist theology involves an existential stance, a transformation of mentalities and structures, starting from women's reality, illuminating it from faith and returning to it to transform it. Its development and consolidation contributes decisively to returning the place denied women for centuries and favors their greater comprehensive development while incorporating men in that same search. It commits both genders to building a world that makes the Kingdom of God more clearly present, not only as an ethical requirement but as an imperative of faith in God the creator of the human species -- male and female -- to whom He entrusted the course of history. Only a human race that recognizes the fundamental dignity of all human beings, can carry out the saving plan of God to bring everything to its fullness, Christifying all reality in Him. It is important to note that this integrity being sought must maintain the validity of what is socioeconomic, integrating the cultural, emotional, personal, and the religious. This is stated explicitly because today in Latin American theological work, in order to attend to other important dimensions, one runs the risk of forgetting the starting point of this theological horizon -- the urgent need to ensure decent living conditions for everyone and real and effective coverage of their human needs.

Finally, it is important to note that Latin American feminist theology is not women's work. It must be a common endeavor, joining efforts and continually calling upon the human and gospel authenticity of our being theologians and people of faith because what is at stake is not a particular reality, a contextual theology or social movement but humankind called to be the image and likeness of God the Trinity.

Moreover, what we want is to re-create, give new meaning to, launch new gender relations to achieve a new world order where human dignity would be inviolable, communion with nature an inescapable requirement, respect for cultures the ambit to achieve the greatest development and religious experience a prophetic vista capable of opening paths of brotherhood and sisterhood that allow us to respond to those who ask "When will the kingdom of God come?" with the same words as Jesus, "The kingdom of God is not something that can be observed. They will not say it's here or there. Know that the kingdom is among you." (Luke 17:20-21). A feminist theological work that promotes the identity and full recognition of women at all levels is a sign of this kingdom that does not differentiate between "Jew and Greek, slave and free, between male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus "(Gal 3:20).


1. Gutiérrez, Gustavo, Teología de la Liberación. Perspectivas ["A Theology of Liberation"], Sígueme, Salamanca 1972.

2. In the broad sense, by "feminism" we mean the social movement that fights for all the rights of women. For a more detailed study of feminist critical theory, see Amorós, Cecilia, "El punto de vista feminista como crítica" ["The feminist point of view as criticism"] in Bernabé, Carmen, Cambio de paradigma, género y eclesiología ["Change of paradigm, gender and ecclesiology"], Verbo Divino, Estella (Navarra) 1998.

3. "Since its beginning, feminist theology done from Latin American women, adopted as a central principle the life of the poor and the oppressed, placing itself consequently within the canon of lberation theology. Latin American women's theological reflection concentrated its efforts on the transformational experiences of socio-ecclesial groups where social and personal themes interact and complement each other, as is the case of women." Tepedino, Ana María and Aquino, María Pilar (editors), Entre la indignación y la esperanza. Teología feminista latinoamericana ["Between indignation and hope: Latin American feminist theology"], ASETT/EATWOT, Indo-American Press, Bogotá 1998, 14.

4. We are basically following the contributions of Tepedino, Ana María, Aquino, María Pilar (Eds.), Entre la indignación y la esperanza, 15-40.

5. The collaborations of the theologians present at this gathering came out in Aquino, María Pilar and Rosado-Nunes, María José, Teología Feminista Intercultural. Exploraciones latinas para un mundo justo ["Intercultural Feminist Theology: Latin American explorations for a just world"], Dabar, México 2008.

6. Aquino, María Pilar, “El siglo de las mujeres teología latinoamericana” ["The century of women...Latin American theology"], in Christus, México, 720 (sept.-oct., 2000) 36.

7. Aquino, María Pilar, “El siglo de las mujeres teología latinoamericana”, in Christus, México, 720 (sept.-oct., 2000) 43.

8. This statement may be limited by my own perception which undoubtedly does not have all the information required.

Olga Consuelo Vélez Caro is coordinator of the EATWOT Women's Theological Commission and a professor at the Universidad Javeriana in Bogota, Colombia.

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