Friday, March 27, 2015

"The Pope has good will, but he can't revolutionize the role of women in the Church": An interview with Ivone Gebara

by Paulo Emanuel Lopes (English translation by Rebel Girl)
March 13, 2015

The feminist theological movement in the world is gaining ground from the reformist winds driven by the reforms of Francis' papacy. For Ivone Gebara, theologian, scholar and national reference on feminist theology, we should not, however, expect changes in the male structure of the Catholic Church. "Pope Francis has good will (...) but, living within a male sacred tradition, he's unable to take revolutionary steps to in fact promote the innovation needed in today's world."

Ivone clarifies that it's even wrong to speak of "greater participation of women in the Church" as if women weren't among those who build it daily. "It isn't, therefore, about a reintegration of women in the Church, as if women would have to be integrated into a place that isn't theirs. It even gives the impression that the Church is a reality apart from us."

Beyond the discussion of femicide and other forms of violence against women in Brazil, the scholar shows that the analysis should not be superficial but get to the root of the matter. "[The states and religions] do not realize that the reproduction of violence against women is still very present in the educational process (...) What we feminist thinkers do is warn people not to establish theoretical and idealistic models and display them as absolute goals to be achieved. That doesn't work"

In relation to International Women's Day 2015, held on Sunday March 8, according to the theologian, despite the apparent regression observed in the world in these last years, we must recognize the achievements and progress of the feminist movement. "[This March 8, 2015] we must celebrate the political confrontations of many women who don't hesitate to raise their voices against the violence of the current 'political culture'. We should celebrate the countless feminist networks that continue their work of reporting abuses by the powerful and the exploitation of our bodies. We have to celebrate the women who attend churches and are able to tell the priest or pastor 'I don't agree with you.' "

Check out the interview that theologian Ivone Gebara granted exclusively to Adital.

Adital: We've observed Pope Francis' words in support of greater participation of women in priestly life, although we know that in many cases his will collides with the conservatism of the Roman Curia. Can we expect any concrete changes in this regard during his papacy?

Ivone Gebara: I think before talking about Pope Francis' statements on women, we must remember three points so that we have a little more clarity on the current situation of the Roman Catholic Church. The first aims to recall that the role of ecclesiastical laws and dogmas is also to exercise some restraint on the lives of the faithful. What should be the object of belief is determined in order to avoid the multiplicity of interpretations and conflicts that fragmented and are fragmenting the community of believers. However, you can't forget that laws, dogmas and interpretations are born in specific historical contexts. These are mutable and never should be established as absolute norms or divine will, as has occurred. Hence arises the second point, which refers to the fact that these new laws and beliefs are legitimated as God's or Jesus Christ's will. This will, according to many, is immutable. Thus an argument of authority stated or promulgated by the Magisterium of the Church is established. And the last point which can be clearly seen is that this Magisterium is male and, in general, old and celibate. Women do not participate directly in it, as if by divine command they should be excluded. This patriarchal structure and interpretation considered sacred, hinders the most significant changes in the current church culture transmitted to the people. From there, you can lay out the issue in relation to women.

The Pope Francis has good will, he's attempting to understand some of women's demands but, living within a male sacred tradition, he's unable to take revolutionary steps to in fact promote the innovation needed in today's world. He is the product of his time, his clerical training and the boundaries that encompass it. I dare say that it's the Christian community and in this case, the Roman Catholic one, scattered over so many places, that should be demanding of their leaders behavioral changes based on their experiences. Starting at the bottom -- although those above can also help, insofar as they are more sensitive and receptive to the signs of every time and place -- is a way to adjust ourselves to the current needs of the women and men of our time.

Adital: In his new book Evangelho e Instituição ["Gospel and Institution"], the monk Marcelo Barros says that the Catholic Church should return to its (first century) roots, when women exercised a more active role in the Church. In your opinion, how should that reintegration be?

IG: I think that the idea of "return", in this case a return to Christian roots, must be looked at, because often we fall into anachronisms, including involuntary ones. Reference to roots is a kind of nostalgia for something good one would like to have. It's a hope in the form of discourse about origins. In general, we believe that what came before, the past, the roots, are always more consistent and true. The return to the womb, for example, is an aspiration of alleged peace of human desire, as if 'in those days' everything might have been fine. In fact, at the roots, we can find many things, including aberrations and things unsuited to our times. Each period is one period and has its grandeur and poverty. The period called "today" is our real time and in it we must seek new forms of coexistence, conscious that this is, like others, a limited time. Therefore it's not about a reintegration of women in the Church, as if women were to be integrated into a place that isn't theirs. In addition, the ecclesiastical language and the language of many of us demonstrates the difficulty of recognizing the Church as a community of sisters and brothers living a variety of situations. Sometimes I have the impression that the word "Church" means for many, first of all, the hierarchy, the roles of power and authority.

It's necessary to state that what is happening today has to do with a world cultural and social movement that is showing female roles and protagonism different from what we knew until a few years ago. Being just a mother or daughter or wife and dealing with domestic things is no longer the current reality of women. Feminine identity is going through a very big mutation. Another important aspect is to perceive the limits of the question about in what church we want to integrate or reintegrate women. It gives the impression that the Church is a reality apart from ourselves. Therefore, many are affirming that "we are Church" and want to live out this statement. Could it be just rhetoric? In my opinion, yes and no. Yes, to the extent that the discourse of many doesn't match the behavior of daily living human relationships. No, to the extent that one notices the commitment of many to seeking ways of greater participation and equality in the relationships of the ecclesial community. The issue of equality among human beings is insoluble.

Speaking of equality means seeking in each new context and in each new moment of history to heal the visceral selfishness that leads us to always prefer our interests to the detriment of others. We create slavery of all types, we establish colors and ethnic groups superior to one another, genders superior to one another, some sexual orientations more normal than others. And whoever is on the side of power and normality doesn't hesitate to maintain exclusive relationships and blame the "different ones" for the many ills of the world. There is no pre-definition of equality. What we feminist thinkers do is warn people not to establish theoretical and idealistic models and display them as absolute goals to be achieved. That doesn't work. What seems to have had some effect is putting ourselves in a state of continuing education, an education that awakens in us the value of every being, without the temptation to want to justify it based on pre-established hierarchical views.

Adital: What is feminist theology? How does this current of thought understand the world today? What are the challenges at the beginning of the 21st century?

IG: The great effort of most feminist theologies has been to denounce the absolutism of past biblical and theological interpretations, still in force in most churches. Absolutist interpretations are those that use God and the Scriptures to justify their ideology of maintaining religious power and privilege, often cloaked in holiness and solidarity. This power is exercised in the name of God and controls female bodies, both individually and culturally and socially. Religious control of bodies happens, first, within the symbolic aspect of the symbolic life, that is, within the subjective structure in which values and guilt intertwine and make the person captive of imagery imposed from the outside in. Playing with God's will to manipulate bodies, wanting to maintain an imaginary order called divine, is inhibiting the right to thought and freedom.

Affirming God as masculine, asserting that there is a powerful pre-existing will, justifying the male priesthood based on the gender of Jesus, valuing the male body as the only one capable of representing the body of God, are still current theological statements that especially affect female bodies. These statements often produce violence, exclusion and the cultivation of relationships of naive submission to religious authority. Unfortunately, at the beginning of this century, the space given to feminist theologies is very restricted. Their access to the formal theological training centers in Latin America is quite limited. Therefore, a significant migration of the places of theological production away from official institutions is happening, as the means of ecclesiastical control seem to ignore the advances experienced by women at national and global levels.

Adital: The world still lives with femicides (many of which end up unpunished), genital mutilation, low female participation in politics ... What are the main obstacles to women's full dignity today?

IG: The production of cultural and social violence against groups considered inferior for the most diverse reasons is a constant in human cultures. The assertion of the superiority of some in relation to others, the hierarchies of race, gender, culture, knowledge and power, are part of human history. Women were and are, in many cultures, considered subordinate beings, dependent, objects of male desire, but now the official discourses of governments and religions speak of equality in difference. Many followers of egalitarian discourses are capable of denouncing, for example, genital mutilation -- definitely an aberration and a crime -- but aren't able to realize the production of violence against women's bodies in the discourses of kindness disseminated by the different expressions of Christianity. They denounce the murders of women, direct physical violence, femicides, but don't perceive that the reproduction of violence against women is still very present in the educational processes.

The exclusive hierarchical trait, present in our relationships, undoubtedly necessary for the continuation of the current form of capitalism, maintains that violence socially. It needs it and others to continue creating new forms of privilege and social exclusion. Women, despite the many achievements of recent years are still, in the imagination of the capitalist economic and social culture, good targets or scapegoats to be accused of incompetence in public affairs. This exclusive culture, present in social and cultural institutions, is definitely an obstacle to men and women building new relationships and recognizing their different gifts and knowledge.

Adital: Some feminist movements, to get space, use as a strategy to produce a shock in society, exposing the naked body, calling themselves "whores" ... How do you see this form of protest? Is it valid, valid with qualifications, or does it collaborate negatively with the feminist movement?

IG: There is a naivety in the analysts of social movements to the extent that they try to limit the protests and demands to their own conceptions of decency, of what is permitted and forbidden. Clearly we clash with the destruction of groups in street demonstrations and we complain when that hinders our daily lives. It's obvious that dialogue about the demands would be the best way. But the capitalist system doesn't always recognize the best way, and it itself incites uncontrolled violence, one that unleashes the worst of us against others, one that is able to bomb rice fields and destroy ancient works of art, one which leads me to steal from my best friend and order whoever hinders my political plans to be killed. Many radical forms of protest by women shock us because we are not accustomed to women's public behavior, especially when they expose their naked bodies as a form of protest.

Women's naked bodies continue to be exposed to sell male merchandise, to arouse desire, but that nakedness is bearable by the majority. That nakedness approved by the market gives money and favors economic enterprises; at most, it might be criticized by some religious purists. However, who wonders why this group of women are calling themselves "whores"? What is their story? What are they demanding with their irreverence? Google may even give a brief answer to these pertinent questions. These forms of protest, don't afflict the global feminist movement, I think, because it is diverse and has varied forms of expression.

Adital: In the recent Brazilian elections, some political analysts stated that one of the reasons [for the problems] faced by Dilma Rousseff for her reelection was due to the fact she is a woman. The statement sounds a bit strange, given the presence of women in the presidency of countries like Argentina, Chile, Germany ... In your opinion, does this statement make sense? Are we Brazilians still a chauvinist country?

IG: I think that in most countries, even strong conservative female figures such as Margaret Thatcher and Indira Gandhi experienced power limits imposed by gender. In fact, there is some fear of having a woman at the pinnacle of power of a nation. The journey from secluded within the boundaries of private life to public climbing is big too. Perhaps the title of queen might even be more bearable because it's wrapped up in all the fanciful aspects of past and the current actual decline of that power. In that sense, attributing deficiencies, weaknesses and other things like that to the government of a woman is almost spontaneous.

Like other women, Dilma Rousseff is facing the difficulties of being at the political top of the nation. However, what most people don't see is that the policy of a country doesn't depend only on the president, but also depends on economic and political forces at play, as well as the participation of citizens. Combining policies and perks, corporate interests and the common good, sectarian interest parties with the administration of a country of continental proportions is a difficult game of chess. In fact, sexism persists in Brazil, but the lack of character and vision of the common good is a much more widespread and dangerous disease. It plagues politicians and businessmen, spreads to the middle class and the working class, settles into social institutions and churches like a scourge to be fought daily.

Adital: Late last year, we saw the unfortunate declaration of a Brazilian member of parliament who said that "he wouldn't rape" a [female] parliamentary colleague just because "he wouldn't want to." How do you analyze this and similar cases?

IG: The lack of character and vision of the common good blinds men and women to any humanist view of respect for every human being in equality and difference in relation to each other. The Brazilian MP who used this and other expressions during sessions of the House remains in power because the Brazilian political culture allows it. It's conducive to 'anything goes', which can be seen in the actions and speeches of politicians. The lack of parliamentary decorum is the means of exchange of political privileges and satisfies those seeking justice and injustice by their own hands. In this situation, women are not exempt from these sins though they commit them with less public intensity. We are all this contradictory and paradoxical mixture and it's within it that we can find ways to make civic life a bit more respected.

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