Tuesday, February 16, 2016
Martha Zechmeister: "Francis is a typical Latin American patriarch, but open to learning"
February 12, 2016
Determined to see the world from a perspective outside of Europe, Austrian theologian Martha Zechmeister was first in Latin America in 1999, when she reports having experienced a "shock" in relation to the social context of El Salvador. In what she calls a "sabbatical year," Martha got to know the Latin American tradition, as well as Jon Sobrino [Jesuit priest and theologian], the story of Monseñor Oscar Romero [recently beatified by the Vatican] and Jesuit theologian and priest Ignacio Ellacuría. In an exclusive interview with Adital, the theologian explains the differences compared to the European context, revealing the conflict between theory and the practice of "seeking and finding God in all things," Ellacuría's watchword.
A PhD in Theology, for more than 30 years Martha has been a religious of the Congregation of Jesus, an organization founded by Mary Ward. She is currently professor and director of the Masters in Latin American Theology program at the Central American University "José Simeón Cañas" (UCA) in El Salvador, being a specialist in political theology, theological anthropology and Ignatian spirituality.
A student of Johann Baptist Metz, one of the founders of political theology in Europe, Martha acknowledges that she was trained in a theological current that is very much in harmony with liberation theology. From the central perspective of Metz, who argues that, "for the Christian, there is no suffering that doesn't affect them," the Austrian woman stresses that this theological current helped her break away from self-sufficient European narcissism, and be open to experiences of suffering in Latin America too.
Assessing the context of women in the Church and in El Salvador, the theologian reveals her surprise at Pope Francis, "a typical Latin American patriarch," and she also reflects on the issue of abortion in the country and the context of violence that exists in Central America.
Adital: How do you assess the differences between the European and Latin American theological contexts, since you went to live in El Salvador?
Martha Zechmeister: From the theological current in which I was trained, there wasn't such a sudden change. I see a lot of harmony between the theology of Johann Baptist Metz and that of [Ignacio] Ellacuría. For example, Metz talks a great deal about the authority of those who suffer, how God speaks to us in situations of suffering and, from there, we should determine our praxis. And in that I see a lot of consonance with Ellacuría's theology. But of course the European ecclesial situation and the Salvadoran situation, and also the social and political ones, are very different. It doesn't mean that in Europe there are no poor people, that there are no marginalized people, but they are a minority. I participated in Vienna, in a movement that tried to include the homeless, but in Vienna that percentage is small, and one is left with the illusion that, with good will, this can be solved. Currently, however, a different situation is occuring with the arrival of thousands of Syrians. Everything then becomes complicated, which shows that in Europe the situation is changing too.
In El Salvador, I first had a big scare. I come from Ignatian spirituality and one of St. Ignatius' themes is "seek and find God in all things," which means that, in all reality, God is present. However, coming to El Salvador, I realized that my spirituality was a little naive, because it isn't hard to feel, to taste the presence of God, in the goodness of life, of nature, of friendship. It's important to learn to have that awareness of the wonder that is life, but coming to El Salvador, my first experience was in the center, when I ran into a big Third World city. In 1999, one felt the consequences of the civil war, many men maimed by the war, a lot of alcoholism.
Currently the situation hasn't improved, but it has changed -- prostitution, drugs, increased gang violence. For the first time I was exposed to a situation, pardon the rudeness, but before I had the impression that, with goodwill, we could humanize the world if we wanted to. And moved by that situation, I thought, "this world has no solution." And in that moment, I realized that that phrase -- "seek and find God in all things" -- is not cheap romanticism or cynicism. One must learn to find God even in situations that seem to deny Him.
For me, what has always been most important has been a sort of scream spirituality, because I realized that we can't see that reality and say "That's the way it is" without letting it affect us. I believe that prayer, in those circumstances, means screaming, "It can't be that way!". This is a deep, loud scream for God, "It can't go on like this!".
Adital: About the context of women in the Church, how do you assess the challenges and progress during Francis' papacy? And how is it being a woman theologian in El Salvador?
Martha: I think we're all happy that Pope Francis is as he is. Jon Sobrino has an expression that I like, that talks about "atheists as God intends." What does that mean? There are atheists who are atheists, but they are just -- for fighting for human dignity, for example. Applying those words another way, I always say that Francis is a patriarch as God intends. I think you can't hide that he is a typical Latin American patriarch.
On the flight back from World Youth Day in Brazil, I think an Italian reporter asked about the ordination of women. The Pope replied that that question isn't up for discussion and that there is already a definite answer. That didn't surprise me much because he is a patriarch. On another occasion, he said, "See, the Madonna, the Virgin, is much more important than the apostles." I don't know if he meant to talk about dignity of women within the Church, about a vocation for women to be an icon of the Virgin, but I was confused.
Recently I commented to a friend that, when they tell me I have to live like an apostle, like a disciple of Jesus, I know what to do. I always know I'll fail because it is too high a requirement, but I know where to take action. However, when they tell me that as a woman I have to live like an icon of the Madonna, of the Virgin, I don't know what to do.
Many of the Latin American patriarchy's categories are burdensome relative to women. I think that, because of bad conscience, because of machismo, an elevation of women soon comes too. But these two attitudes -- either machismo that tramples women or that lifts them up -- are two sides of the same coin, which is the inability to have an equal to equal relationship, to be comrades in the same struggle.
In my view, the Church has a long way to go. For a while, I've thought we could expect a lot from this pope, and I'm now a big fan of him. I'm thrilled, because he's giving the Church a face that is closer to Jesus'. However, on the subject of women in the Church, I've felt a little strange, although on the other hand, I've been really surprised, for example, by the American women religious issue.
I participated in an audience with the Pope and 800 superiors of the Congregation, the year of his election, in 2013. There, tension was already being felt when he talked to us about obedience to the bishops and the Holy Church. I was like "aarrgh." However, this pope always surprises us. I thought, "no one could be more conventional" and immediately afterwards, he received CLAR (Confederation of Latin American Religious) in an open, fraternal atmosphere and saying things like, "Don't be afraid; be bold," "Don't be afraid of getting a letter from the Congregation [for the Doctrine] of the Faith; go ahead." It was very encouraging.
The high point of all this, what surprises me most about this Pope, is that he comes from a certain context of Latin American patriarchy but nonetheless he is very able to learn. After everything that happened with the North American women religious, punished by the Vatican, by the Congregation [for the Doctrine] of the Faith, now the Pope is saying publicly that he admires the courage of these brave women who are fighting in the front lines. The faces of the bishops were petrified because the clash with these women religious was largely a clash with the US bishops, who opposed the reform of health care centers, arguing that in those places abortion would also be practiced. And the women religious supported health care reform, not because they were in favor of abortion, but because they understood that this left the poor unprotected, without access to health care. So when the Pope publicly congratulated the courage of those women, this for me was a big step, his ability to learn on the fly.
We have experienced many years of stagnation, exclusion. Now is a historic moment in which it's important not to miss the Kairos [opportune moment]. There's an atmosphere of openness, but the danger is that we expect all this from the pope. Before, we were paralyzed by fear, exclusion, etc. Now, we're so fascinated with the Pope that we may forget that we need to get moving. He's opened a breach, but we have to wake up.
Adital: And what do you think of the abortion issue?
Martha: I think that life is holy. They tell me that anyone who's in favor of abortion is an idiot. It happens that we're persecuting women who, in an extreme situation, choose abortion. In Romania, for example, I met older women who, in the days when there was no other method of planning, and because of social destitution and already having many children, underwent abortions, and now, at 80, 90 years of age have been condemned to hell for that. Promoting abortion is one thing, which for me is not an option, but it's another thing to criminalize women who, in extreme situations, choose abortion.
The Pope says, "Who am I to condemn a mother who has been told by her doctor that her child will be born with a serious deformity, which will make her suffer?". I am not in favor of abortion, but who am I to judge a mother who makes a choice because of this? It's necessary to protect the mystery of life, but criminalizing abortion is something else. And I'm certainly against criminalization.
Adital: Is that what's happening in El Salvador, where women are criminalized for any type of abortion?
Martha: Yes. This seems to me an intolerable double standard, starting with planning methods. It's offensive to men to talk about condoms, it's unthinkable to talk about it, but it's not obscene that, in health centers, injections with hormones for three months are applied that cause hormonal disorders in young women, which has consequences for women's health. That's a double standard.
Adital: What does the beatification of Oscar Romero mean for El Salvador?
Martha: In March 2015, we held a Congress at UCA, not knowing that in the same year the beatification would take place. In Christianity, memory is essential, celebrating death and resurrection, and life that bursts forth here and now. We can commemorate nostalgically, remembering a glorious past, and miss the current Kairos. The tragedy of Jesus, for example, must inspire us, not to stay in the past but to act here and now. So too the memories of the beatification of Monseñor Romero.
Ignacio Ellacuría said that with Monseñor Romero, God passed through El Salvador. In this world that's done in by the economic situation, the violence, the corruption, the drug mafia that's scourging a large part of the Central American people -- 60%, that is, two-thirds of the population are subjected to it -- Monseñor Romero's clear love, so profound and prophetic, is the irruption of God in this world.
The Church must obey the faith of the people; it can not deny it. The faith of the people had already made Romero a saint long before the beatification, and we don't have to wait for the canonization. It's something that gave many people hope and joy, because of now being officially recognized by the Church. There is a large part of the Salvadoran people who are deeply Catholic and now there's no need to go against the hierarchy, as the highest authority of the Church has declared this saint of the people a saint.
For me, the text of the beatification letter is beautiful, which speaks of Blessed Romero, "bishop and martyr, father of the poor, heroic witness of the kingdom, a kingdom of justice, love and peace." It's something very powerful that summarizes the faith of the people, even though it's sad that, at the local church level, in the bishops' conference, that was played down a lot. Romero is a model of holiness, what it means to live like Jesus, who stands unconditionally on the side of the victims, and therefore denounces the victimizers. He's a discomfiting saint, not a gentle, spineless saint who allows cheap reconciliation.
Adital: And who are the martyrs of today?
Martha: The goal is not to produce more martyrs, please, no more dead. The question I wonder about is that in the times of conflict, Monseñor Romero denounced state terrorism. He was never a friend of violence, but said that there are situations where violence, always as a last resort, may be legitimate because it's in defense of life. And he recognized that the violence of oppression by certain interests is what comes first, and the revolutionary violence of the guerrilla is secondary in this, and has some legitimacy. Why did they kill him? Because that bothered the powerful.
Now, in El Salvador, a clear word from the Church and also a clear political proposal is needed. We have a leftist government, but what you feel is that there is a clear response that falls into the trap of previous administrations, of implementing a strong-arm policy against the gangs. Currently, the situation is complex; we don't know how to interpret it and discern what is happening. That gang violence is made up of humiliated young people who were robbed of a future and became victimizers who, for their part, exert terrorist violence and impose fear. Powerless, the only way for them to feel their power is to impose themselves on the weakest. At the time of the guerrilla, terrorist acts were also questioned, but there was a goal in that struggle. The current struggle is irrational, self-destructive. I compare it to an autoimmune disease that destroys the body itself -- the poor who kill their poor brethren.
Also at the time of Monseñor Romero, he said, "Brothers, stop killing your own brothers, soldiers of the guerrilla." However, the guerrillas had a political goal, the gangs don't. It's a desperate, irrational, very destructive and dangerous cry. And the people who are scourged by the terror start crying out for lynching, with slogans like "the mice must be fumigated."
Monseñor Romero's words, in his situation, used to give light, guidance. Now shepherds with a clear analysis are lacking. The bishops go on with their press conferences, but don't offer a word of guidance. I hope and pray for an irruption of the spirit, but I don't see that moment. Martyrdom is a result of an unconditional yes to life. None of those martyrs had a self-destructive pathological disease, seeking martyrdom. They were fighting for life. I'm not asking for more martyrs, I'm asking for more fighters passionate for life, who are daring. Jon Sobrino has often quoted a Salvadoran peasant who said that Monseñor Romero defended the poor, that he told the truth, and that's why they killed him. That was decisive.
Currently, the complicated thing is that there's no clear line between where the victims are and where the victimizers are. A sustainable social solution for El Salvador is needed, and there's a strong desire to recognize the gangs as part of a crucified people, those young people whose future has been stolen, who are humiliated because nobody needs them. One night, I slept very badly thinking about what it means to decipher this context. Jesus included marginal people; he used to share the table with sinners. What does Jesus' attitude mean in face of this youth violence in El Salvador?
I don't want to justify any of these acts of violence, it's not that, but what is the good society? I understand when a person suffers violence from a marginal person. I don't share it, but I can understand psychologically when a person who loses his relatives, cries out for lynching. However, those who take advantage of this situation socially, politically and economically, are shouting that it's necessary to "fumigate mice," which, to me, is an unforgivable sin against the spirit. And as a real violence situation exists in Central America, the question is, "Where is there redemption?."