By June Fernández (English translation by Rebel Girl)
January 28, 2014
"I'm leftist, working-class. I've always had to move in hostile and contrary environments. I'm on the border. I make many people uncomfortable." That's how Ernestina Ródenas, president of Col·lectiu de Dones en l’Església ("Collective of Women in the Church") which brings together some 200 believers (nuns and laywomen, a few men too) in Catalonia who are committed to gender equality, introduces herself. They incorporate feminist thinking with liberation theology, debate women of other faiths and lay feminists, support the argument of the Second Vatican Council that "the Church is not the only space for salvation, but one of the doors."
Once a month they celebrate the memorial of the Lord, giving training on the Eucharist as "catechesis illustrated from the gender perspective." "It's forbidden by the Church, but we don't care. Well, the nuns have less freedom. One woman, who's responsible for her order, told us during an action, 'I don't care if I come out in the photo but I've already taken many blows.'" Rodenas is quite clear that the Church is not synonymous with a hierarchy that opposes women's rights, but one that builds a community of believers for which the Gospel is not an instrument at the service of power, but a source of liberation.
Do you identify different spiritual needs in women than in men?
We women are very close to life, to the necessities of life that we learn in community. We have a great need to express ourselves; we aren't solitary people. Men, on the other hand, have linked spirituality with solitude and isolation. Traditionally, churches have been full of women because it was a space where we could go alone without anyone making us feel guilty, even a way of escaping the home environment. Also, we women look for answers to our life experiences in religion. We create life; we care for life. We easily understand religious messages such as the incarnation of Jesus, a God you can hug in your arms. We also feel a greater need to seek answers to suffering, due to the duties and roles we have been assigned. The gospel can be liberating. Jesus always leaned towards women and the weakest, as non-misogynist interpretations of the gospel that have been done recently indicate.
Many atheists don't understand how churches, being institutions with a patriarchal organization and a discourse opposed to women's rights (such as their reproductive ones), go on having a feminized base. What makes women keep on participating in these institutions?
For me, the Church isn't the hierarchy. We are the community of believers. We meet, we read the gospel that contains words of liberation, that can be interpreted from the gender perspective. There's hope for a while. For example, the story of the bent over woman whom Jesus healed because he couldn't bear to see her like that (Luke 13: 10-17). She symbolizes oppressed women who can't life their eyes from the ground. Jesus makes her straighten up. She stands, walks, praises God, sings and dances. Religion understood as the practice of the gospel message that doesn't want to see any woman bent over. It wants us standing, happy...It never condemns.
In research on women and religion, I found the following statement: Women have indicated that religions impose their moral standards more rigorously on them than on men, they're aware of this moral double standard but they don't have the tools to question it. What do you think?
The man who makes her pregnant doesn't exist, just the pregnant woman. They load all the suffering, the exclusion, the guilt, the penalizing on her. The woman remains alone and accused by everyone. The pimp and the john receive less condemnation than the prostitute. The moral double standard is blatantly present. To the single mother and the prostitute Jesus says, "I do not condemn you."
The criminalization of abortion is another example of this ideology that is crushing women. But there are tools. On the anniversary of Vatican II, let's advocate for free conscience, so everyone can discern their fundamental choices. And let's leave blame aside.
Popularly, we talk about Christian guilt. Isn't it an emotion inherent to Catholicism?
Guilt has permeated a lot. European civilization comes not just from Christian theories but from Aristotelian ones too that weren't conducive to women having a prominent place in society. European Christian culture has gone through many periods when women were freer. We're dragging along the stigma of Franco's sharp clericalism. Guilt isn't inherent in the authentic message. To hold power, the hierarchy has fostered Christendom and has forgotten the Kingdom of God -- peace, justice, equality. Governments have used religion as an instrument of domination and power. The weakest suffer.
But, in matters of sexual morality, are there any insurmountable mandates? Can one question all of them?
The secular feminist movements did us a big favor by rediscovering the meaning of pleasure, of joy, as opposed to the idea that we've come into the world to suffer. Catholic women had internalized that. Women in Spain couldn't study theology, but in other countries they could, and there were feminist theologians from whom we are learning. We know that God can be both Mother and Father. S/he can't be labeled. And that, where there is love, God is there.
That's the slogan of a campaign for diversity by the Movimiento Feminista de Nicaragua ("Feminist Movement of Nicaragua") whose image is of two women kissing each other. What do you think?
Well, fine. It's not that love is something perfect that can bear everything, but it seems a good message to me.
So, what's sin?
Sin is an invention. It's the denial of life, the denial of the possibility to be happy. It's a social construct. Sin is a disorder that you provoke yourself, but you're the first victim and you have a load that you carry on your back. Jesus spoke of sin because it was the language of the time, but he didn't rail against sinners. We are seeing a very totalitarian theology of sin. The easy recourse is to blame women, load more weight onto the bent over woman. Confession is an instrument of power. It's been years since I went to confession. So women are abandoning the churches. The workers left the Church because of injustice in the early twentieth century, the young in mid-century, women in the 21st century. We want to change things and we also want men to change their model of masculinity.
But how can a woman from a small town have access to these alternative arguments to those of her parish priest?
Before, it was impossible. Either you left the village, or you went into a religious order. Now the village women have resources. There are means of communication. They write letters, send e-mail, express opinions. If necessary, they make denunciations. Let's abandon the notion of the poor little woman who doesn't know. They've lost the fear of speaking out. Patriarchal discourse comes from ancient times. It's not just emitted by the Church but by all of society -- from the media to the pulpits, women are told what to do. It's difficult to escape this monolithic mindset. To the extent women organize into groups, there's strength there.
The [Spanish] Bishops' Conference has gotten upset over abortion but it hasn't spoken out against male violence, against femicide.
The Church has one fault: it is very obsessed with the end and the beginning of life. It reserves only to God the right to decide. That marks its position on euthanasia and abortion. So killing each other in wars is apparently inevitable and, in effect, the measures to protect victims of male violence are not developed. The hierarchy confuses the power of God with its own power to influence. But there are farsighted people within the Church who are denouncing it, like Teresa Forcades.
The book Cásate y sé sumisa ("Marry and be submissive") has become a bestseller. Do you think that the female submission mandate prevails in the hegemonic discourse of the Catholic Church?
They could have spared that book. I'm not even going to bother to answer. We won't discuss nonsense. It's a desperate attempt at wanting to save what they see as threatened. They feel that with Pope Francisco, everything is getting out of their hands. A monolithic mindset apparently gives security. You sell your free conscience in exchange for that false security.
What do you expect from Pope Francis?
He's in our line, about removing unnecessary contrivances, opening the way for the Gospel to be read more clearly, blessed be. But I'm not a mythomaniac. His is a voice like ours, except that from the Vatican loudspeaker it sounds louder and carries farther.
Do you advocate that women who are bumping into the chauvinist discourse of the Churches live their faith without intermediaries or in alternative spaces?
That's what we're doing. We women are teaching. We're learning theology, history, the Bible. We're working in solidarity networks with other women to gain equality, we're critical of how men are ruling. We're thinking of strategies to dismantle exclusionary myths and language. We are discussing ecofeminism, queer theology (the theology of the margins that recognizes God in the subjects society rejects -- black people, homosexuals, transsexuals,...). We're recovering the indispensable contributions of biblical and historical women. For example, we talk about how Saint Jerome, who translated the Bible (represented in a cave, undressed with a skull), relied on a group of women from Trent who had power (because the men were at war) and who were a key source of support for his work.
We are building the Church we dream of. We don't want to be the same as them. We don't want them to make us priests or to get to be popes. That doesn't matter to us. There wouldn't have to be either a pope or the Vatican.
Photo: A Mass in Girona celebrated by Rev. Genevieve Beney, a Roman Catholic woman priest from Lyons, France.