Sunday, April 24, 2016

Theologian Ivone Gebara talks about the new apostolic exhortation "Amoris Laetitia"

By João Vitor Santos (English translation by Rebel Girl)
IHU On-Line (em português)
April 17, 2016

Philosopher and theologian Ivone Gebara doesn't hide her disappointment with the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia: "I had naively hoped that it would be addressed first to Catholic families, especially those who want to be, as far as possible, within a practice of following the papal guidelines."

Ivone highlights both the difficulty of absorption of the writings for the laity and the need for mediating action by the clergy. "The poor who want to understand something of the document won't be able do so directly, but always through the interpretive mediation of bishops, priests, deacons, etc.," she points out.

In the following interview, granted by e-mail to IHU On-Line, Ivone develops a critique of the way the exhortation expresses the conservative, hierarchical, and male Church thinking about families and their multiple configuration possibilities. "Once again, the Church appears as being first a celibate male hierarchy, a hierarchy that isn't constituted as a family according to the model indicated, but that criticizes behavior and defines life guidelines as if it were a master of the complex intricacies of human love," she analyzes.

Ivone Gebara is a philosopher, woman religious and theologian. She taught for almost 17 years at the Theological Institute of Recife - ITER. She has devoted herself to writing and giving courses and lectures in various countries in the world on feminist hermeneutics, new ethical and anthropological frameworks, and the philosophical and theological foundations of religious discourse. Among her most recently published works are Compartilhar os pães e os peixes. O cristianismo, a teologia e teologia feminista ("Sharing the loaves and fishes: Christianity, theology and feminist theology" -- 2008), O que é Cristianismo ("What Christianity is" -- 2008), O que é Teologia Feminista ("What feminist theology is" -- 2007), As águas do meu poço. Reflexões sobre experiências de liberdade ("The waters of my well: Reflections on experiences of freedom" -- 2005), among others.

Check out the interview.

IHU On-Line - To whom is the exhortation directed? How do you explain the addressee problem?

Ivone Gebara - The direction of the exhortation is clear, though it deals with the family and Christian marriage. It addresses, in hierarchical order, the bishops, priests and deacons. It follows the same style of the letters, encyclicals and exhortations of previous popes. However, due to the subject, I had naively hoped that it would be addressed first to Catholic families, especially those who want to be, as far as possible, within a practice of following the papal guidelines.

The fact that Pope Francis, wanting to be so close to poor people and reiterating various times that we need to go to the streets, listen to the poor, embrace their cause, has once again written or signed a document that is so vast and so inaccessible to the poor as well as to the common people, astounds me. This means that the poor who want to understand something of the document won't be able do so directly, but always through the interpretive mediation of bishops, priests, deacons, etc. We're faced anew with the problem of subtlety of religious powers and their ability to keep minds and hearts submissive to their claims, considered 'truths' according to God or according to the Bible.

The much-vaunted personal and collective responsibility is reduced to words or rhetoric without significant efficacy in life. Also, once again, the Church appears as being first a celibate male hierarchy, a hierarchy that isn't constituted as a family according to the model indicated, but that criticizes behavior and defines life guidelines as if it were a master of the complex intricacies of human love. A malaise invades readers who were expecting simpler and more direct reflections that could help in the contemporary formation of consciences, respect for differences and collective responsibility.

IHU On-Line - Isn't the title of the exhortation an invitation to love?

Ivone Gebara - The beautiful title of the exhortation "The Joy of Love", more than an invitation to love, is an invitation to thinking from the daily life of our relationships. We know that while there is joy in love, the title seems to hide the sorrows of love -- the annoyances, the many frustrations, the inevitable disagreements, breaches of trust, the human cruelty manifested in everyday life. In the end, hidden through a powerful and subtle 'paternal' attitude, the subjugation of the faithful to an idealized world that is not ours, a world where the spiritual powers tend to mask the complex mixture of our lives.

The worst in all this is the justification of the guidelines and interpretations given through what they understand by "power of God", not hesitating to subordinate consciences to their "opinions" often identified also with freedom. There is an ambiguity that runs through the whole document, especially in the use of imagined concepts such as the "quiet acquisition" of the community of the faithful or as evident in the experience of many. There is also a kind of defense of the Church hierarchy that appears as the side that knows and is right in the complex history of the world today. It's a side that doesn't speak like consumerist advertising or like the great of this world, nor like those who slide along paths that seem contrary to the order established by God. The bishops reassume their magisterial role even on subjects that seem to escape their competence.

IHU On-Line - At first glance, could this document be an inspiration to change in the local churches?

Ivone Gebara - The document is difficult and monotonous reading. The structure of the document and the allusion to the Synod Fathers confuse the reader who wonders if the ideas even come from Pope Francis or whether he felt compelled to express some ideas that were discussed at the Synod on the Family. In addition, there are several current issues of our world that are considered very generally and the treatment given them appears like an easy solution, often depending on individual will and following the Church's teachings.

Issues such as poverty, lack of employment, housing and health conditions, family violence, massive emigration that make family life difficult, are addressed often amid biblical and theological trappings and ecclesiastical document citations. Such a process, far from clarifying it, obscures the problem and doesn't give it the proper value in the current context of our history. The document, full of citations justifying the traditional stances of the Catholic hierarchy, doesn't allow readers to have a more comprehensive view of the issues or even the possible new developments addressed in the Synod.

I don't think this exhortation can change a lot in the practice of religious hierarchies in relation to the concrete life of the faithful. Similarly there are no major changes in the document either in form or in content, to respond to the new challenges that we are experiencing. So I'm not sure that the document can help, unless through the methodology of inviting people to think differently about the challenges that life presents today.

IHU On-Line - How does the mediation of the Bible seem in the document?

Ivone Gebara - It's astonishing to note that the use of the Bible as the first foundation of the positions taken by the Church government in relation to the family appears to ignore the work of many scholars of the documents considered "sacred." A pre-critical interpretive reading is captured in the exhortation, idealizing and concording the narratives, ignoring the efforts not only of the historical-critical interpretations, but of the many hermeneutic and materialist, popular, feminist and postcolonial readings of Scripture. We often have the impression of the presence of "the Bible is right," a pastoral method used especially in the 19th and early 20th centuries by fundamentalist groups.

Moreover, a disconnect is often noted between the traditional meaning of the document and the use Pope Francis makes of it. For example, in paragraph 23, he justifies the importance of human labor (Genesis 2:15) talking about it as a divine command and ignoring other allusions to work as punishment for Adam and Eve's disobedience. In other words, the documents and interpretations are often removed from their literary context and used to justify naive positions on the human family. In the same vein, he uses the family of Nazareth as an icon for all Christian families, idealizing it even when he's talking about the suffering endured by Mary and Joseph because of the persecution of Herod and the flight into Egypt.

From this idealization, he affirms the Church's teaching on marriage and the family founded on the indissolubility of the marital bond. And along this line he naively affirms the ability of each family to face the vicissitudes of life and history (paragraph 66) based on the maintenance of the sacramental bonds and consideration of the family of Nazareth as the icon of the Christian family. This kind of simplistic approach, in fact, hides the power to control that the institution, especially the prelates, want to have over the lives of the faithful. It covers up and mutes the reality of human relationships, the difficulty of current times, and the new ways of living and conceiving human relations. What's more, he reasons by always contrasting an ideal world "willed by God" to the real world of everyday relationships marked by our multiple passions and weaknesses. He values a kind of definitive vision of marriage and the family at the expense of the ability we have to begin new ties, without the latter therefore being frivolous or seeking only selfish satisfaction.

IHU On-Line - And does this theology in the document present new challenges?

Ivone Gebara - A more accurate analysis would be needed to capture the different theologies present in the document. However, a quick view allows me just to say that the theology of the exhortation takes up the same tradition of the Church expressed by previous pontiffs, especially since the Second Vatican Council . In addressing the different problems experienced by families, it gives primacy to charity and mercy before judgment. This seems to me a good thing. However, the theological parameters of the document are limited almost exclusively to the Church's Magisterium sources with particular reference to the documents of the last two popes.

IHU On-Line - Also at the beginning of the exhortation, in paragraphs 54, 55 and 56, the Pope reflects on "women" and criticizes the so-called "ideology of gender." How do we understand that in the current social context?

Ivone Gebara - Paragraph 54 begins by affirming the rights "of woman" and the importance of her participation in the public sphere. At first glance this affirmation might be commendable, but it isn't without many problems and difficulties. Again it begins by the abstract "woman," as if the multiplicity of women's faces would become a problem. In fact, talking about women in the plural, as feminism does, is an obstacle to the abstract and monolithic thinking of the hierarchy that often works on concepts distant from actual historical experiences.

When talking about "rights," the exhortation seems to exempt Christianity from the responsibility of having kept women inferior to men up to the present day through its theology/ideology. Moreover, it seems to hide and silence what the many claims of women's groups in many parts of the world reveal about the complicity of the Catholic hierarchy in maintaining the lack of women's rights.

Along this line, the paragraph continues talking about "forms of feminism that we can not consider appropriate*," but doesn't clarify the forms of feminism that seem appropriate to them. What would they be? Where are they? What do they ask of the government of the Church? The exhortation again ignores the worldwide historical efforts of different groups of women in achieving rights and respect for their dignity at the various social, political and cultural levels. It ignores or omits historical struggles such as the universal suffrage one that are still present today in many countries.

In paragraph 56, the crucial issue of gender appears as a challenge to be considered. According to the document, it is stated that "an ideology of gender" "denies the difference and reciprocity in nature of a man and a woman and envisages a society without sexual differences, thereby eliminating the anthropological basis of the family."

What is meant by "reciprocity in nature?" What we actually know is non-reciprocity in nature. However, we know something of historical reciprocity. This is an arduous acquisition of some groups that recognize the rights of their peers and seek to affirm them in social and family relationships. Moreover, in criticizing the "ideology of gender," the document talks about foreseeing a society without gender differences ... What would be foreseeing a society without gender differences? What do the writers or writer mean by this? Is it a matter of rights, of ethics?

I confess the confusion and absolute lack of clarity that this paragraph causes in any more critical reader. Precisely so-called gender theory and not "the ideology of gender" with all the limits admitted by feminist theorists is a statement against the absolutism of a culture that denies differences and makes us go into and submit ourselves to the world of "male" norms pre-established as "nature" and the divine order. It makes us go into behavior models and identity content defaults, blaming ourselves if we don't fit into them. The notion of "nature" proposed by the document is a stunning oversimplification. He seems to believe in a kind of already made natural human being, directly born from the hands of God and in the image of how they (the writers of the document) conceive him.

However, the belief in this kind of ordinary materialism coming from a anthropomorphized God leads them to say, in the same paragraph 56, that the ideology of gender doesn't allow us to "protect our humanity,... accepting it and respecting it as it was created." Once again, what do these statements mean?

Concepts like theory and ideology, natural and unnatural, cultural constructs, rules and symbolic codes, plural identities are not reflected on from our contemporaneity. Monolithic identities appear as the work of divine creation from which we can not escape. This appears to provide a solid foundation of 'truth' and respond to the insecurities, including identity ones, of today's world.

In the exhortation, there is a fixist anthropology that determines what men are and what women are sustained by a gender hierarchy and by often compulsory heterosexuality turned into "nature." So we are invited to be understanding and tolerant of those who are different, to help them in their needs and understand their limits. But surely they don't enjoy the status of being an ideal family model. They can not be a historical expression of the icon of the holy family of Nazareth.

We find in the exhortation some negative criticism of the notion of gender, but not a serious questioning from which we are invited to reflect about and, above all, to love each other based on our differences. Deep down we only know the differences, the diversity ... We only exist as diverse and interdependent life ... Unity is really a construct along the lines of interdependence and the inevitable conflicts present in our family life or in society and, therefore, in relation to all that exists.

However, there are for the Synod Fathers or for the Pope, as it appears in the document, foundational categories of sex and gender raised to natural truths established by God. But what happens when different social groups live out other relationships, other beliefs based on their bodies? The Church hierarchy should condemn them and invite them to normalization according to the parameters it establishes. Wouldn't this be an attempt doomed to ineffectiveness? Wouldn't it be a way to discredit the institution and the services it can still offer? In the exhortation we can perceive the presence of tolerance toward people considered victims, but at the same time an intransigence toward theories and philosophies that would shake the foundations of Catholic philosophical idealism so strongly present in the document.

IHU On-Line - To what extent could the exhortation help families in today's world?

Ivone Gebara - I have doubts, many doubts about documents that aren't based on the authority of life with its precariousness and its contradictions. Being based on life isn't just taking a few examples drawn from here or there to support our preconceived ideas, to justify what we think. Being based on life is to recover other ways of inspiration that the Bible and Tradition can offer us, less normative ways, more realistic and poetic at the same time.

For example, the beauty and plasticity of that story in Genesis 2, one of the biblical myths of human creation from earthen humus mixed with divine breath that could be read as a poem about the human mystery, always a mixture of clay, earth and creative breath. Of course, I'm using biblical documents, documents of our tradition, but I'm not giving them unquestionable authority over us ... Being based on life is evoking senses, memories, analogies, as if we wanted to ask people to do the same based on their lives ... as if we wanted to invite them to recover pieces of their lives and learn from them as Paulo Freire used to do in his adult literacy method. Recover diverse and fundamental words and experiences that awaken in us new tenderness and new possibilities to feel good about simply being human.

Therefore it's necessary that every Christian community write its documents, its policies, its present goals ... You have to shift the Magisterium to the people and allow them to write their letters about their lives and how they are being lived. Universal or universalizing knowledge, despite its importance, doesn't always help small groups to grow inside and out. It's true that in a globalized world we need some global analysis, but we need, above all, to learn from the locality, to make analyzes based on our own experiences, creating the tradition of thinking about our lives, valuing our history and our knowledge.

IHU On-Line - Would you like to add anything else?

Ivone Gebara - I would like to end this conversation by saying that I believe in the good will of Pope Francis, recognize the value of many of his initiatives, and admire his efforts in the introduction of behaviors and attitudes indicating ethical and gospel options for our time. But I also notice in him, as in many of us, the "nostalgia of perfect origins." And that nostalgia is ambiguous and leads us to want a more or less perfect present in view of a future or perfect life end.

What I'm saying sounds complicated but it's quite simple. Limiting myself to the proposed life present in Christianity, we believe that we come as a perfect being from God and we will "be perfect in that God" after this life. There is a semi-obscure idea of perfection that inhabits us and makes us seek the perfect man, the perfect woman, the perfect family, the perfect community, as if the ideal of life were the realization of some projected perfection that we don't know what it is.

I believe that, although we have many sorts of dreams, we're living in a time when life in its different expressions and dimensions appears to us as a mixed reality. And this mixture expresses greatness and smallness, beauty and ugliness, kindness and cruelty, belief and disbelief in different doses and diverse perceptions present in human beings and in all that exists.

Therefore, far from destroying our humanity and diversity, many current theories have helped us to believe that we are more than the definitions, measurements and classifications we make of ourselves. We can't forget that this diversity can also be found in the Bible, for example, in many documents that speak of God. The Latter One  appears with an immense diversity of faces ... S/he's a potter, has an artist's hands, has a uterus, breasts, sadness, anger, is a father, is a hen who gathers her chicks, is a champion of the oppressed, is a warrior, is a chastiser, is an avenger, slow to anger, full of love and mercy, a gentle breeze ... As paragraph 313 of the exhortation says, love "takes on different hues ...".

This plasticity of images and symbols  reflects the effervescence and mixture of life well, this intense movement of diversity and difference that constitutes us. Therefore, we are called to love our neighbor, the fallen one on the road, the smelly, the different, and not just those who think the same or like the same things. Maybe we should try to be artists more, inventors of ourselves, poets able to play with words, to share the bread, fish and fruits of the renewed daily dance. Get out of the rigidity of the same, the fixed structures of documents, slogans and masterful theses ... Get away from advice in view of unknown or imagined perfection ... Realize that there is more goodness than we imagine and much, much beauty that can not be contained in the old wineskins of our theologies.

*Translator's note: The Vatican English version of Amoris Laetitia mistranslates the original Spanish "inadecuada" as "inadequate" when "inappropriate" would be a better translation, given the context.

1 comment:

  1. Although this blog seems to be focused on issues relating to gender, sexuality, politics and economics in Catholicism, I would be very interested in knowing your views on the following propositions, concerning which I find truly alarming how they are not discussed or questioned even by the most radical or marginal movements: