Thursday, July 3, 2014

Anne-Marie Pelletier: "We're lucky to be Christians in an era of great popes"

By Laurence Desjoyaux (English translation by Rebel Girl)
La Vie (en français)
June 19, 2014

The French woman, a renowned exegete, will be the first woman to receive the Ratzinger Prize on November 22nd "for her work in hermeneutics, biblical exegesis, but also for being dedicated to the issue of women in Christianity and in the Church," said Cardinal Camillo Ruini, president of the Scientific Committee of the Ratzinger Foundation. This 68 year-old mother of three children, with a degree in Modern Literature and a PhD in Religious Studies, is the first woman to receive this award which is sometimes called "Nobel of Theology." She has taught Scripture and hermeneutics since 1993 at the Studium of the Faculté Notre Dame, now the Collège des Bernardins. She has also been a lecturer at the European Institute of Religious Sciences in the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes (EPHE). In several books, she has addressed the issue of women in the Church: Le christianisme et les femmes ("Christianity and women" - 2001) and Le signe de la femme ("The Sign of Woman" - 2006).

The Ratzinger Prize you just got rewards your atypical course, from literature to biblical hermeneutics... What motivates you?

My career as a teacher and researcher is crossed deep down by two thrusts. The first is literature -- the "love for Letters" to use an old expression -- which grabbed me in adolescence and led me to study literature which resulted in a degree. In the 70s, language science experienced a very exciting boom. I practiced and taught linguistics and poetry at the university joyfully, discovering new avenues for reading. I liked making students feel the pleasure of the written word and the power of literature that puts into words and questions the life and history of individuals and societies.

The second thrust through these decades of my life is an even more radical passion: Biblical scripture. It's an old passion, perhaps very modestly rooted. I think back to those evenings around the Bible, in a parish in the suburbs of Paris. We were a small group of teenagers. A priest, who was a man of great culture, accompanied us and welcomed our passionate debates involving Sartre, Camus, Beauvoir, and Biblical texts. There I started to learn to savor the Scriptures, their ability to vibrate in our present time, including where the Christian faith is alien. Since then, I've kept the lesson! Including at the University when, in the 90s, I formed a plan to propose that the Literature students study the Bible. A project that was not a foregone conclusion since the Holy Book was banned in academia due to secularism. In any case, it has been since then that, in my work, literature and biblical exegesis have been able to start to converge through what has become a major focus: the question, both literary and philosophical, of interpretation of Scripture.

You have taught and still teach both at the public university and in the ecclesial world ... What do these different worlds bring you?

Indeed, I love opening the Bible before various audiences. Each new audience makes me discover it differently, or go a little further than what I had understood. So I recently proposed some lectures at the European Institute of Religious Sciences, in the École Pratique des Hautes Études (EPHE), which professes punctilious secularism. At the same time, I was working and continue to work for religious audiences. Some are monastic, others are those of a seminary studium, that of the Collège des Bernardins in Paris. This "flexibility", in some way, is a fact of my life, partly the fruit of circumstance. But it gradually became a choice, an intellectual and spiritual option that seems very meaningful to me. It takes me back to the biblical figure of Wisdom whom the book of Proverbs describes as posted at the gate of the city, at the crossing points and meeting places, where exchanges are made in crossing relationships. In this sense, I actually like crossing borders, experimenting or creating the link between worlds that coexist without necessarily talking to each other. The Bible is a remarkable interface!

You're a woman, a teacher at two institutions -- the University and the Catholic Church -- where many men occupy the positions of responsibility. How do you experience this virtual uniqueness?

I am fortunate to be officially in charge within an ecclesial world that is unquestionably males first. Obviously, I've experienced being granted confidence, including in the tasks of spiritual "authority" once reserved for clerics. I don't personally feel that marginalization suffered by many women in the Church. This doesn't prevent me from seeing the problems and hoping and praying for change ... Still, I find myself uncomfortable with militant Christian feminism. Simply because I don't see how it could fit with the spirit of the Gospel!

I'm convinced that major changes come deep down at a slow pace, certainly slower than our impatience! And I note that in recent decades, for those who want to see clearly, the changes have just gotten on the road. They obviously still haven't solved all the problems. But they should make us confident. I'm impressed by the number of women engaged in theological studies, alongside men. Obviously there remains ensuring that they are then associated with the work of the Church, with real positions of responsibility which allow them to be truly effective. But I think I've heard that this is Pope Francis' concern! Hence, again, my confidence.

That being said, it's clear that on the gender issue, we are faced with a problem that has an anthropological depth that goes beyond simply functional solutions. The Scriptures express it with remarkable foresight. At the beginning, in the book of Genesis, the relationship is labeled "very good". But it also shows that, in life as we live it, this relationship is a knot of problems! The Church is caught up in this challenge to find and show the way to a fair experience of man-woman relationships. It has never been easy, but that's also why it's a touchstone of the proclamation of Christian salvation. Pope Francis forcefully reminds us. "Whatever has already been done, a project remains open," he says. In other words, the task is before us.

You yourself have written about the place of women in the history of Christianity...

My thesis on the Song of Songs made me experience how generously Biblical scripture can treat the feminine. A happy experience, because the same scriptures can also often be copiously misogynistic. I think it's the same in the history of Christianity. There is, I believe, this mixture of esteem and disparagement of women, which occasionally turns to contempt. One finds the coexistence of models of submissive and bullied women's lives and examples of fiery, bold lives, engaged in history. It must also be somewhat true at the level of the bigger story. I have a great admiration for women in general. Saying this does not detract from my esteem for men! On the contrary, it's about being aware of this immense life history, often underground but so real, that women have built and maintain in day to day society. In this sense, there isn't a lost history of women. But there is certainly a need to free the potential for invention, for creativity at the service of the future, of which women are the bearers and of which our societies are depriving themselves whenever they mistreat or humiliate them.

You just received the Ratzinger Prize. What does Benedict XVI's theology bring to you?

First, I think we're fortunate to be Christians in an era when great popes are succeeding each other. Their profiles are certainly different. And that's good and a rather good sign. About Benedict XVI, I'm especially struck by the impressive vigor of an eminent Christian throwing himself completely into the debate between faith and reason, so necessary in our present cultural situation. He has left us great texts that reflect his passion to implement what John Paul II's encyclical Fides et Ratio already designated as a task. We must hold fast to this dialogue of faith and reason, as we must be alert to put faith in dialogue with culture. This is an important lesson, too, from Pope Benedict XVI, this time in his address to Collège des Bernardins, during his visit to France in 2008. He reiterated especially the need for rootedness, not to repeat the past, which would be deadly, but to keep us in the present and find the path to a future that is truly human. And that, despite what we perceive as threats, and even though times are sometimes confusing, even if the future is not very predictable. This program also seems essential to me. We shouldn't doubt the novelty of the Gospel, its energy resources!

After this prize, do you have other projects?

The coming year is already largely programmed! My project: keep trying to be a Christian, so thinking as a Christian, as much as possible, about the realities of our world, as they come to us.

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