Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Women's presence in the Church: rhetoric without significant changes

By Patricia Fachin (English translation by Rebel Girl)
IHU-Unisinos/Adital (Português/Español)
September 10, 2014

"The achievements of feminism are manifested daily in public policies in favor of women, political fruits of their own struggles, and in a thousand and one activities in which respect for women is guaranteed," the theologian says.

The feminist theology adopted by Ivone Gebara comes from approaching "people's suffering and questions without having a tidy doctrinal response" and "the real life situations where people find themselves." This is how the Catholic theologian, from the Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady (Canoneses of St. Augustine), in the interview below, talks about her approach to feminism and how she "came to notice" how her "way of doing theology did not include the sufferings and dreams of women. " Therefore, it was necessary to conceive a feminist theology.

For Ivone, "there's a big difference between doing feminist theology and doing the traditional theology affirmed as the current theology of the Church." According to her, despite the "common statement" "God is God", reflecting the "thought of many people", there are "multiple meanings of the word 'God'." She explains: "Even when we say there is only one God, that statement is experienced in different ways. In the different Christian traditions and in the lives of common people, the word 'God', even though everyone uses it, doesn't mean the same thing for everybody because each person experiences this Great Mystery in his or her way. In that sense one could say that each one does his own theology even though we belong to the same Church. We all want to experience love but each one experiences it in his own way and according to his history and interpretation." Likewise, the Catholic theologian points out a distinction between feminist theology and the official theology of the Church. "Feminist theology stems from observing the complicity of a certain kind of Christianity with the oppression and domination of women, even within the Church...Therefore the God of feminist women who are seeking to liberate themselves from many forms of historical oppression doesn't have the same legalistic and controlling image as in other theologies," she explains.

In the interview below, granted to IHU On-Line via e-mail, the theologian also comments on the situation of the North American religious sisters who belong to LCWR and who are being evaluated by the Vatican. For her, "the situation of the North American women religious is an example of the current conflict between a part of the Catholic hierarchy and intelligent women, with excellent educational backgrounds and performance in various social environments."

Along the same line, she asserts that "existing feminist theologians were never the focus of Pope Francis' interest or that of others." In that sense, she mentions, the fact that Pope Francis doesn't allude "to the feminist movement that has had and has one of the most significant expressions in Latin America in Argentina" is seen as strange.

"In this stance, the pope has created some confusion in the news reports, especially when he states the need to rethink women's presence in the Church, their vocation and things of that sort, which is more rhetoric than positions that reveal significant changes. Clearly the omnipresent patriarchal tradition and bureaucratic machine of the Vatican as well as the local churches don't facilitate institutional changes for women. But they're moving ahead in spite of everything, claiming their freedom to exist and express their needs and their dreams," she concludes.

Ivone Gebara will be honored with the title of Doctor Honoris Causa by Faculdades EST for her contribution to the theological debate and training in the Brazilian and Latin American context, during Faculdades EST's 2nd International Congress, which will take place September 8 to 12. The title will be awarded on Wednesday, September 10th,at 19h, in São Leopoldo, RS [see video below].

Ivone Gebara holds a PhD in Philosophy from the Catholic University of São Paulo and in Religious Studies from the Université Catholique du Louvain, Belgium. She taught for 17 years at the Theological Institute of Recife - ITER, until its dissolution, decreed by the Vatican in 1989.

Check out the interview.


IHU On-Line: How did your career in the Church begin and when did you start to be interested in feminist ideas and advocate for a feminist position in the Church?

Ivone Gebara: It isn't the first time you've asked me this question. Probably, I'll repeat myself in the answer on the one hand, but on the other hand, each answer is a response given in a different time.

I like to say that several events contributed to my embracing feminism. In the late 1970s, because of work in alternative training in which I took part with other professors at the Institute of Theology of Recife, I came to realize how much my way of doing theology did not include the sufferings and dreams of women. Painfully, a woman awoke me to the fact that my examples always referred to the lives of men, and even though I'm a woman, I was unaware of the real lives of women, especially the poor. I say 'painfully' because I was used to doing situation analyses and had difficulty accepting the fact that I was not including the lives of women workers, peasants, and domestics in a special way in my approach. I managed to enter a conversion process and become open to a world that was mine, but that I hadn't seen or prioritized. I began to recover my personal history, that of women in my family, my coworkers, and to realize that my analytic tools were based on male keys, especially since they portrayed situations of male protagonism. Often they were also abstract and theoretical analyses.

Another path was the reading of books by Western European and American women theologians. I was impressed by their denunciation of the patriarchal world and its violent consequences for women's lives. I didn't used to use the expression "patriarchal world" or any of the others ones common to the feminism of that era. I gradually learned a new language that really was more of a new analytic tool for understanding physical and symbolic violence towards women. I began to sense and reflect on the differences, on what is public and private, on the use of images of God, on symbolism in religion. A new world was unfolding.

Latin American interaction

In those days, other women in Latin America also agreed about the complex problem of oppression of women in the churches, and we were able to get organized and participate in international meetings where we shared ideas and perceptions. This greatly expanded my feminist horizons.

I think that a decisive event in my life was meeting "Catholics for the Right to Choose" in Uruguay. That happened in early 1980. Their approach to the sexual oppression of women and their struggle for the decriminalization and legalization of abortion opened another window in my mind.

I remember a secular feminist who once asked me what I, as a theologian, had to say about the sexual violence experienced by women. What did I have to say about rape and abortion? How did my theology modify the misogynistic and sexist thinking of the Catholic Church? I confess that at the time I felt confused and didn't know what to answer. I realized immediately that once again the theology I had learned and taught lacked a radical transformation, an anthropological revolution, other references. Liberation theology had already taught me a lot. But a new step needed to be taken.

Challenges such as these were growing throughout my life and teaching me to approach people's suffering and questions without having a tidy doctrinal response. This is one theological method I call feminist, though not exclusively, since it starts from the real situations in which people find themselves, considers individuals more important than laws, rules or doctrine. We are invited to experience life before thinking about it. We are invited to listen without giving immediate answers. We are invited to seek together the way out for many difficult and complex life situations.

This methodology based on our lives becomes critical of predetermined hierarchical positions and therefore is not well accepted by the leadership of the churches. The fact of affirming the need for women to choose and decide their lives despite our limitations, generates inevitable conflicts up to the present day.

IHU On-Line: Are you following the situation of the North American nuns in LCWR who are being evaluated by the Vatican for not following Church doctrine? If so, how do you view their actions in the US?

Ivone Gebara: The situation of American women religious is an example of the current conflict between the Catholic hierarchy and intelligent women, with excellent educational backgrounds and performance in various social environments. It is these women who make up LCWR . The Catholic hierarchy has a hard time accepting the self-determination of these women religious who are aware, really, that they don't need the approval of a priest or bishop to live out the love and justice to which they feel called. They don't need to ask permission to read, study, help groups or invite people to their meetings according to the will of a bishop. They dared assume their right to be citizens and are being punished for it. In the Roman Catholic Church, women -- and nuns in particular -- don't have full citizenship. I have followed, to the extent possible, the complex process that these women religious are going through and they have my full support.

I'm struck by the fact that Pope Francis has not taken a more open position towards them. Two years ago, Cardinal Müller criticized them and accused them of promoting radical feminist issues. This accusation continues today, even if different words are being used. The Church leadership fears being accused of misogyny and they defend themselves, but their behavior is more than misogynist. Unfortunately they cling to an incredible biologism and the concept of anatomy as destiny. They've deduced from the fact that Jesus of Nazareth was male, arguments for the exclusion of women. And along this line, they give more importance to the priestly role which Jesus wasn't part of, at the expense of a more ethical understanding of Christianity where many inclusive aspects could be accentuated. Jesus was not of the priestly elite of Israel. Rather, he criticized it and distanced himself from it. Jesus lived a life close to men, women, children, Jews and strangers. With them, he preached the kingdom of God throughout his life through concrete actions that change people's lives. That earned him misunderstanding, abuse and crucifixion.

IHU On-Line: What differentiates feminist theology from theology, or what aspects does feminist theology add to theology, since God is God and this isn't an argument about gender even though we refer to God the Father?

Ivone Gebara: There's a big difference between doing feminist theology and doing the traditional theology affirmed as the current theology of the Church. The first thing I want to comment on is the common statement "God is God" that is present in this question and that reflects the thinking of many people. I would call attention to the fact of the multiple meanings of the word "God." Even when we say there is only one God, that statement is experienced in different ways. In the different Christian traditions and the lives of ordinary people, the word "God," although everyone uses it, doesn't mean the same thing to everyone because each person experiences the Great Mystery in their own way. In that sense, one can say each one does his own theology, though we belong to the same Church. We all want to experience love, but each one experiences it in his own way and according to his history and interpretation. To take examples from the Gospels, the theology of a woman suffering from an issue of blood is not the same as that of the Pharisee who enters the Temple and affirms that he is righteous. The theology of the Inquisition is not the same as the Human Rights one advocated today by many people.

Traditional theology vs. feminist theology

Along these lines, I want to distinguish feminist theology from the official theology of the Church. Feminist theology stems from observing the complicity of a certain kind of Christianity with the oppression and domination of women, including within the Church. It stems from the awareness that women are only formally "subjects with rights." It is born of the realization that oppression means thinking of women as having been created subordinate to men, and even when we're talking about "being complementary", it often means subordinate. We can't forget the myth of Adam and Eve created from one of his ribs. This all leads to the formulation of doctrines and interpretations that reinforce certain stereotypes that give men decision-making power even over our lives.

All feminist theologies stemming from patriarchal structures that are still very present among us are trying to propose personal and collective changes that can actually have an impact on the collective or life in society. The changes are slow, but in each situation it's necessary to review what we're wanting. Therefore, the God of feminist women seeking to liberate themselves from many forms of historical oppression doesn't have the same legalistic and controlling image as in other theologies. The very struggle of many women's groups justifies the existence of feminist theologies and their relevance, albeit as a minority, these days.

IHU On-Line: How do you assess the progress in debate about gender, considering that the initial discussions dealt particularly with women, but later moved to the defense of LGBT rights, also talking about transgender and even, more recently, a third gender? Moreover, Germany has created a third gender category for parents to register their children as "male", "female" or "undefined." Where is this discussion is taking us?

Ivone Gebara: This isn't the place to explain how the gender concept became an analytic tool of feminism. It's a long story. In general, when you used to talk about gender, you were thinking of the existence of only two genders: male and female. Other human experiences such as those of bisexuals, transgendered people and those of undetermined gender didn't come up. Some European and American physicians faced the reality of babies born with undetermined biological gender. You needed to wait a while until the parents, or even the child, would choose the gender through surgery or other treatments. Families and also birth records were affected by this unexpected reality. That's why countries like Germany introduced the "undetermined" sex option to allow the necessary time for an eventual decision.

Clearly, we are making progress on the issue as we discover new aspects of complex human sexuality that can't be reduced to a binary -- "either/or" -- scheme. But with the advances come new identity problems, new situations, new challenges. It's all part of the human condition and life in society that invites us every day to try to understand each other anew. And in this understanding, to adjust our language, our feelings, our political stances, and social laws.

IHU On-Line - Does feminism still have something to say these days?

Ivone Gebara: From what I've discussed above, my answer is yes, although I must agree that the form and the challenges of feminism are different nowadays. Often feminist struggles do not appear related to the early tradition of feminism. I'm referring especially to the new generations of women who are fighting for their rights. We saw, for example, the reaction of women to the serial rapes by a famous doctor in São Paulo, now in prison. Those who denounced him didn't actually call themselves feminists but they were aware of the dignity of their lives as women. In many universities, groups have been denouncing rape which, before, was considered something common that always ended with impunity. Today, at various universities, women are more clear-headed and are coming forward to denounce the perpetrators.

Today too, the trafficking in women and the exploitation of girls by national and international groups have received an alert response from NGOs, universities, governments and churches. This isn't called feminism but actually it has to do with feminist struggles past and present that helped raise awareness about various issues and affirmed the dignity of women. The achievements of feminism are manifested daily in public policies in favor of women, political fruits of their own struggles, and in a thousand and one activities in which respect for women is guaranteed

IHU On-Line: In general, how would you rate Francis' pontificate? Is there room for feminist theology in this pontificate?

Ivone Gebara: Generally and very quickly, it can be said that feminism and existing feminist theologies were never the focus of Pope Francis' interest, nor that of others. Of course my judgment is based on their public positions. It's strange that he has never alluded to the feminist movement that has had one of its most significant expressions in Latin America in Argentina. Likewise, he doesn't mention the existence of feminist theologians, either from Latin America or from other continents, when we know how much they have written, taught, and even been persecuted by the Catholic Church in the 20th and 21st centuries.

I don't think this silence is real ignorance of the facts, but a politico-ecclesiastical posture. Not speaking of someone or a worldwide movement, trying to ignore them, is not allowing them to appear in their historical strength. It's not giving them importance and not thinking of them as something that could bring any contribution to the Church. In this stance, the pope has created some confusion in the news reports, especially when he states the need to rethink women's presence in the Church, their vocation and things of that sort, which is more rhetoric than positions that reveal significant changes. Clearly the omnipresent patriarchal tradition and bureaucratic machine of the Vatican as well as the local churches don't facilitate institutional changes for women. But they're moving ahead in spite of everything, claiming their freedom to exist and express their needs and their dreams.

Ivone Gebara receiving her honorary doctorate (video)

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