Thursday, August 7, 2014
Theology and Church: When women write to the pope
August 1, 2014
The contribution women are making to theological reflection in the Catholic sphere has become increasingly important in Italy. One particular sign of this was the International Theological Congress in Rome organized by the Coordinamento Teologhe Italiane [Coordination of Italian Women Theologians] on the 50th anniversary of the start of Vatican II, from 4 to 6 October 2012 on the subject "Female theologians reinterpret Vatican II: Accepting history, preparing for the future."
Two hundred and twenty five women theologians from 23 different countries participated in it. Now the proceedings have been published by Paoline editions (Avendo qualcosa da dire ["Having something to say"], Milan, 2014, edited by Marinella Perroni and Hervé Legrand, with the contributions of several theologians, including Cettina Melitello, who examined "La teologia delle donne: quale incidenza ecclesiale?" ["Women's theology: What impact on the Church?", pp. 48-60].
Lately, other books by Italian women theologians have been published that we should mention because of the richness and depth that characterize them, such as Le ribelli di Dio. Donne e Bibbia tra mito e storia ["The rebels of God. Women and the Bible, between myth and history"], by Adriana Valerio (Feltrinelli, 2014); and two books by Benedetta Selene Zorzi: Antropologia e teologia spirituale. Per una teologia dell'io theology ["Anthropology and spiritual theology: Towards a theology of self"] (Ed. San Paolo, Cinisello Balsamo, 2014); Al di là del gênio femminile. Donne e genere nella storia della teologia cristiana ["Beyond feminine genius: Women and gender in the history of Christian theology"] (Ed. Carocci, Rome, 2014).
However, the impetus for reflection that I intend to propose, comes from a smaller initiative, but one rich in significance. It is an expression of the enthusiasm stirred up by the gestures and words of Pope Francis, which have encouraged hope for renewal and opened a flood of petitions to the Church.
The book Caro Francesco. Venticinque scrivono donne al Papa ["Dear Francis: Twenty-five women write to the Pope"] (Ed. Il Pozzo di Giacobbe, Trapani, 2014) brings together 25 letters written in a confidential manner by 25 women. The subjects are summarized in a single word and develop quite varied reflections, in alphabetical order, from "A" for ambiente ["environment"] to "V" for vita religiosa ["religious life"].
The only male interjection is the introduction requested from the emeritus bishop of Caserta, Raffaele Nogaro, because of his social sensitivity and the support he has given to the innovative pastoral options made in Caserta by the Ursuline nuns, who seem to have originated the initiative.
The women writers bring together a variety of memberships and professions in search of new forms of solidarity and justice. The great diversity in training and origin shows the various ways in which womanhood can be lived out in convergent ways.
There is also an echo of the painful choice of 17 nuns who were expelled from their order in 2010 and are still living "in exile and with all its related precarity, thanks to stronger fraternal love and with help from Above and Below, the dynamic fidelity of the 'first times' ... With all the 'experience' of pain and joy that entails." (Maria Stella Fabbri, "Vita religiosa", p. 150).
The term that returns many times in these pages is "fear", "fear of women". Daniela Esposito, in the item titled "Liberazione" ["Liberation"], laments that in the preparatory document for the Synod on the Family, there is total silence about "gender violence, whether physical, sexual, economic (...) within the family. This scandalous blindness (...) is worrisome because the massacre of women, minute by minute, is demonstrated by statistics and only reinforces the idea that the 'concealment' of the feminine derives from men's fear of it. I believe it was this fear, natural to men, that, over time, became responsible -- not consciously -- for everything. Thus it is a necessary priority to free the world and the Church from fear of women." (Liberazione, ibid., p. 74). The question addressed to the Pope is clear: "Don't you think the time has come for the Church to open its arms to women in a gesture of love, for it to finally break free of fear and be a witness to Jesus' teachings?" (ibid., p. 75).
Therefore, others ask that "the clergy also [be] trained and educated. Seminarians will be afraid of women if they see in them a possible tempting Eve, who runs the risk of taking them away from their path of celibacy. If sexuality is freed from legalistic oppression, it could help candidates to the priesthood appreciate the otherness and difference of women as values to be acknowledged and welcomed..."
"Dear Pope Francis, the Church should not be afraid of women; help her in this way, continuing in your courageous decisions and, above all, giving confidence to women." (Donna, Adriana Valerio, ibid, p 44). It is precisely fear that leads to exclusion and marginalization.
Furthermore, when a woman is abandoned or a fugitive, she becomes a person one should be afraid of, whom one should fear (p. 122). The pages devoted to trafficking in women for prostitution very well express the passion and the enthusiasm with which some women religious "have tried to give concrete answers to the many female victims of human trafficking, especially for sexual exploitation." (Eugenia Bonetti, Schiavitù, p. 129).
What emerges most often from the letters is a lament for lack of power within the Church. That is, the fact that decisions relating to women are made by men, and women have no possibility to decide whatsoever.
With an incisive expression, echoing a quote from Sartre (Nausea, 1938), Anna Carfora invokes "the paradox of religion as a woman's thing run by male priests" (Clero, p. 27).
This phrase is even more significant because it was written by an educator of future priests as professor of church history at the Theological Faculty of Southern Italy, the S. Luigi di Napoli branch.
Carfora specifically takes up the denunciation of "the insidious and subtle temptation to careerism." "In fact, the clergy-power combination still persists. The clergy entrusts to itself the responsibility for, and management of doctrine and orthodoxy, of liturgy and ecclesiastical organization, law and government." (p. 27)
The Pope has spoken of "authority of women in the Church -- an authority, therefore, that doesn't come from being a priest." She wonders if "the scope of this statement" has been fully understood, "the decisive blow to the heart of clericalism that it entails." (Clero, p. 27)
There is spontaneous gratitude to Pope Francis for the path undertaken -- the path of inclusiveness, "the ability to enter into a relationship simply of human beings with other human beings", and "overcoming the fear of dissolving like yeast in dough. The yeast disappears, it isn't recognized, but thanks to the yeast, the dough becomes better."(p. 28)
The women are asking to be heard, demanding that space be created in the Church "for a presence that isn't decorative or advisory, but speaking and decision-making in all bodies in which the faithful leadership of the people of God is implemented." (Adriana Valerio, Donna, p. 43).
"The traditional ecclesiological models, therefore, should be revised according to the principles of communion and apostolic co-responsibility." (ibid., p. 43)
Marinella Perrone, starting from Pope Francis' December 13 homily last year, drew the contrast between clericalism and prophecy. The prophet has "piercing eyes" (Profezia, p. 116), but this is not "a gift, but a skill that is acquired through listening to the Word of God. Not a quality reserved for some, but the vocation of all the baptized, prophecy comes from the discipline of listening."(p. 116)
"It's the church as a whole that needs to regain prophetic strength -- every believer must be called to his or her commitment to witness, every theologian must find the courage to think about the faith and speak words of encouragement and incentive, every bishop must take responsibility for building and looking out for the communion of God's people." (p. 117)
The proof suggested by the pope in his homily is significant: "When there is no prophecy among the people of God, the void it leaves is occupied by clericalism." (quoted on p. 118) Perrone comments that, "Clericalism, that is, that lethal mixture of power and the sacred, has become a real plague. It distorts the mind, affects behavior ... It's hard, but that's how it is, and we have all seen this in recent years -- clericalism has grown in proportion to the decline of prophecy. Through this -- and only through this -- true reform of the Church will come." (ibid., p. 118)
Quoting the Pope that "those who have fallen into this worldliness look on from above and afar, they reject the prophecy of their brothers and sisters, they discredit those who raise questions, they constantly point out the mistakes of others and they are obsessed by appearances" (Evangelii Gaudium 97), Marinella Perrone notes that "in Europe there have been two ecumenical councils of women ... But all of this ... is looked down upon by those who feel they hold the keys to legality. Looking at our Church with "piercing eyes", then, means to me today believing that finally it is possible that attention be paid not only to the prophecy of the brothers, but also the prophecy of the sisters."
It is this hope that she, on behalf of all women, has entrusted to the Pope "with great gratitude." (ibid., p. 119)
Carlo Molari is a priest and former professor of theology at the Pontifical Urbaniana and Gregorian universities in Rome. He is past president of the Associazione Teologica Italiana. This article was originally published in Rocca, 7/15/2014. It is available in the original Italian here and in a Portuguese translation by Moisés Sbardelotto on Adital.