Monday, April 17, 2017
Consuelo Vélez: "The situation of women in the Church still hurts me, even with Francis"
March 19, 2017
Consuelo Vélez defines herself as a Colombian theologian interested in contributing, as a layperson and a woman, a faith involvement with the reality we are experiencing, to energize a more and more inclusive, committed and solidary Church. A defender of women's rights, their situation in the Church hurts her, even with Francis, and she asks for their "full recognition."
We talked with her during the 1st Ibero-American Conference of Theology which was held in Boston approximately one month ago. In her brilliant lecture (see video below), she talked about the challenges of theology and exclusion. About geographical and existential peripheries.
Consuelo, how long have you been a professional theologian?
I did my doctorate in Brazil from '96 to '99 so since '99. It was the definitive platform for me to feel that I could write, speak, communicate, and teach. But since '87 I had already been teaching in the Faculty of Theology of Javeriana University. First, in the Theology courses that are given to the different students of other tracks there are at the University. Then, in what was called the Religious Studies track, where there were more women religious and lay people. And I used to give the odd class in the Faculty of Theology itself.
When I came back with the doctorate, many more doors were opened. In fact, I was named director of the Theology track, which was a total novelty, because I was a woman and a layperson.
Were you one of the first women theologians?
Yes, I was one of the first women theologians with "a doctorate in Theology" (maybe the 4th or 5th, I don't remember well.) What I was was the first woman director of the Theology track at Javeriana University. That was in the year 2000 until 2008. Nine years have passed and they just named another woman; she would be the second.
Why are there so few women theologians?
I don't think it's easy to study theology because, for a woman, then there's no clear field of work. In the faculties -- church or public -- traditionally priests are preferred in principle. And if the faculties are those of religious orders, priests from those orders are preferred.
There are also many women's religious orders, however those women don't have many theology outlets.
No, because traditionally, just as happens in Rome, nuns in Colombia would study Religious Studies in the afternoon. And in the morning one studied Theology, addressed to those who were going into the priesthood.
There's always been the odd nun and some laywomen, although very few. The Faculty of Theology has always been for the priests instead. It's not that the doors were closed but let's say that the primary interest in the life of the women religious was not being theologians but responding to their schools, their hospitals, their social works...
Studying Theology, which implies studying Philosophy first, is too much for the plans of religious communities. It's intended that the nuns have some theological training, and hence they do it in the Religious Studies track.
But also, underneath all this, there's something more structural.
When I was track director, I tried to motivate -- but I think I failed -- the women's religious orders to think about what the difference is between studying Religious Studies and Theology. That there shouldn't be this difference between the two disciplines and that they, who were devoted to evangelizing, should study Theology.
But there was a fundamental problem: women religious were not given as much time to study as the men, to study their Theology. The nuns were already doing enough with studying Religious Studies because in the morning they had to work in the school and in the afternoon they went to study. And at night, taking hours away from sleep, they did their homework.
I used to ask them why they couldn't be like the men who come to study in the morning, do their homework in the afternoon, and on the weekends maybe they do some apostolate. They answered that they didn't because they didn't want to live comfortably like the men. That life had to be of devotion, of service, etc. Something which is laudable but is also questionable.
I believe if you don't understand that studies are also an apostolate and a service to evangelization to do it well, horizons are cut back. And I think that behind it is also the image of the self-sacrificing woman who must give of herself until the last breath. And that if you don't say that, it seems like you're going against the Gospel, or women, or the role of generosity and self-giving that should characterize women.
But I think that while taking care that our lives be ones of devotion, following and faithfulness, we women have the right, like men, to have time to study and form ourselves, to work at being theologians.
I have to acknowledge that there are some nuns in Colombia who've studied Theology, like Carmiña Navia, Marta Inés Restrepo, some Dominicans...
No, there aren't many.
And a sort of window-dressing? That is, structurally men have been there forever. And the nuns, well, they're nuns and they're devoted to service.
Really, when I was studying Theology, some professors would make fun even of the nuns who studied Religious Studies. Some priest, who taught that discipline, treated them poorly. It was contempt. Not from all but some, yes.
Yesterday you shook up the 1st Ibero-American Conference a bit with your theses on women. Does the situation of women in the Church, even with Francis, still hurt you?
Yes, I think for the Pope, at the moment, women's concerns are not his and, sometimes what he says is worse than what he doesn't say. Because improving women's situation isn't him saying, "Look, since the Virgin Mary is a women, you all stay calm." Or, "I'm now going to name more women for X commission or the other..."
That might happen and has to happen but the question is more fundamental: How do we free the Church (and the Pope has said this) from clericalism? To which should be added: and reach the full recognition of women's role in the heart of the Church.
At this event itself yesterday they were saying,"But look, we've invited ten women..." Like they were doing us a favor. It's already a lot, they made way for ten women...And I don't know if there are ten of us but let's say there are.
These phrases are the ones that have to go. The responsibility is to see what we'll do to enrich ourselves with different voices. And those distinct voices are those of women, of laypeople (men and women) and they're those of the poor. In this conference, I was thinking yesterday, we're talking a lot about the poor but we haven't invited them to hear from them first-hand.
Theology must be listening to the poor, talking with them and living with them. We were saying all that yesterday: how do we change the structures so that they're a little more open to those experiences. Then everyone, in their pastoral work, might possibly be very close to and friends with the poor. But there are doubts one has about what we do to change this mentality.
Until women's right to go up to the altar is granted, will you always be in second place? Is that the big goal? Or what is it?
No, I don't think it's the goal or the end point, although it might possibly pass through there. But I'm not interested at the moment in fighting or not fighting over this point.
For me the important thing is freeing ourselves from this clerical mentality and this link between ministerial priesthood and total authority, at all levels, in theological teaching and in Magisterial teaching, that is totally united. The word of laypeople, men and women, doesn't have authority. I think it should be recognized and that it doesn't necessarily come together with the priesthood.
That then we would get there, yes. But now it's not my primary fight because I don't want to contribute to clericalism although I would like there to be much more participation.
When I was track director, I wrote: "Let's hope this 'first woman director' stuff ends soon. But I finished my directorship in 2008 and we're in 2017. Nine years passed before a woman was named again. It's a lot. Not just in this track director position, but as director of postgraduate studies or anything else, because at the Faculty we have different positions...Nine years without another woman being in these decision-making spheres.
And why? Well because always, if there's a clergyman and a clergyman from the order, it seems he's more important. And I'm not talking about women here but men too.
But now, we women are a small step behind laymen because for better or for worse we're in a patriarchal society. And in a patriarchal society, men still have the word of authority while women still have the word of: "Oh, what a lovely contribution! How wonderful that you're giving us this feminine touch!" There's a little something there that never changes in the mentality.
And in the current mentality, that gap is a tremendous anti-testimony. The Church is one of the few institutions where there's still real practical and theoretical discrimination.
I believe it's an anti-testimony, that's why yesterday I talked about the law of positive quotas [affirmative action law]. And some always protest when I do because they think it's discrimination.
But it's positive discrimination.
It's positive discrimination and I think it should be a provisional law. While these laws are not taken into account, we aren't going to achieve equity. If I were the director of the Faculty or of some church body, I would try to give testimony. I would actively seek to, at least, to give testimony that the thing is more shared, that there are men and women at all levels.
Because there are women who are prepared, even in Theology, aren't there?
Yes. In our Faculty we're a small group, and in other Colombia faculties too. We're not many. Many women don't study Theology because there isn't a field of work, given that it's still a field reserved for men. Imagine how expensive it is -- because at the Javeriana University it's very expensive -- to then not have an outlet; it makes it hard for you to choose.
They've tried. The University has its aid and scholarship programs, and some women have been favored. The faculty doesn't discriminate when paying for the doctorate for women or men when we're professors. In that case no discrimination exists. That must be acknowledged. But let's say that another kind of scholarship that exists in this world is reserved for clerics. So to do a post-graduate in Theology -- you either have a lot of time and money or you don't do it.
This aid is also reserved for religious orders.
The religious orders, as I said before, do finance it sometimes, but then they don't give the nuns time to devote themselves to the Faculty because they always have things to attend to in their apostolates.
Are we paying for this dynamic? Are we paying for the fact of preaching outside what we aren't achieving within, in this specific case, with women?
I think so. You have to recognize that since the whole society is patriarchal, the people of God experience the same syndrome without realizing it. Only people like your daughters appreciate it, for example. Some young people remark about it.
In Spain, it's very common that there are "zipper" lists in the parties, woman-man-woman-man. There is positive discrimination.
In my country, it may be that some political parties are trying it. But let's say that we can say that among the people of God, in the Church, that doesn't exist. That's why it's still normal, for example, in the Eucharist, that faced with a woman minister of Communion and another male one, the people go to the man. And if there's a clergyman, they go to the clergyman.
As for the students, I think we're gaining more influence and they're beginning to esteem us more, and value us. In this sense, I'm in a time of harvest. There's now a student community that values you. But it hasn't been easy.
It's not that it's perfect and things are going super well. The fact of being a woman means they demand more from you, they criticize you more, and they're more capable of rebutting you strongly. There are students who wouldn't say the same thing to a priest professor as to a woman professor. That still exists. But at the Faculty, I think there's now a tradition of respect, even though the mentality is still a bit chauvinist.
Does this meeting show that Hispanics are now in style, including in the United States, and that somehow, they're beginning to show themselves at the theological level too?
I know that here, in Boston specifically, with this school of Theology and catechism, much importance has been given to Hispanics and publicizing Theology among them. But it's a first approach; I wouldn't say it's in style.
Mutual effort has been made so that the work that's been done here is publicized and that effort to connect with other realities now is a first step. A step in that we're getting to know one another.
In your opinion, are Hispanics still marginalized and undervalued in the United States, ecclesiastically?
I can't start talking about that reality because I don't know it.
Does Trump scare you?
Well, yes. It seems to me that the statements he's made from the beginning are to be feared because they come from a selfish rather than an open attitude. They're more about personal identity than about concern for the future of the world and the poorest.
He scares me, without knowing the dynamics of the United States from within but with no room for doubt. The messages, from my point of view, dismiss a greater humanism of collaboration between countries and a collaboration for the least. All these are realities that frighten me.
Is he likely to make us cry, and make Latin America, which is what they use to call "the backyard", cry?
Yes, it's possible. But as this world is so strange, one can't predict what will happen. Sometimes, in what seems like a winter that's going to end badly, suddenly something new arises, like when the Berlin Wall fell, like when we were talking about an ecclesial winter in the Church and suddenly spring emerges...And in politics, I hope that if this gentleman hardens certain measures, we countries that have been dependent on the United States, will be able to look away.
For example, if there's a United States colony in Latin America, it's Colombia. On account of the drug trafficking and armed conflict, we've been dependent on the United States to help us. An aid that's ambiguous, because it's aid in weapons that we buy from them. Now we're in a different time in Colombia, and hopefully this thing that seems frightening to us now, causes something else to spring up that surprises us.
On the other hand, the current political dynamic in Latin America specifically seems to be a return to more liberal regimes or governments.
That's the tragedy we're experiencing that one just can't understand.
The efforts for alternative governments to neoliberalism, from my point of view with a thousand faults but also with a lot of good things, aren't valued.
I'm talking about policies; I'm not talking about individuals. Because I see that people confuse the individual with the political programs. They tell you, "I don't like such and such a person as president..." But they don't say, "I don't like this or that policy."
They don't criticize the policy, or they criticize it when it affects the upper classes. So they don't value all those policies that have favored the poorest.
We are in this reality that in different ways, making alternative plans has been tried and there is resistance. That's the colonized mentality -- we're not even capable of positively assessing the efforts that have been made to counter this extreme neoliberalism. I think those countries have tried to value what is national, put in measures to ensure that the internal is vindicated.
Something that not even the Church hierarchy itself has valued in many of those countries.
Yes, so it is. I'm not going to talk about the other countries because I'm Colombian. I'm going to refer to the peace process that is being carried out in Colombia, although it's not precisely what we were talking about.
Part of the Church supports it and still does. But at a crucial moment, such as the plebiscite, the Church, under apparent neutrality, didn't collaborate positively for it to come out ahead. And when we lost the plebiscite then the Church spoke and said that the plebiscite didn't have gender ideology...Gender ideology was one of the reasons why it lost. But not the only one. The Church said it afterwards, not before.
The question is why many times the Church as an institution, under the layer of neutrality, really supports what we traditionally call the right-wing side, keeping the status quo. Why isn't it able to risk valuing the positive things of what we call the left, change, transformation?
And this when the Vatican itself and the Pope himself are still involved in that process.
Yes, of course. And I think that the Colombian Bishops Conference, especially the president, has been a positive player in this peace process. The Church has designated a representative, Father Darío Echevarría, and many bishops have participated actively in peacebuilding and in the talks.
But even though there's been a presence, it isn't the forceful presence one would hope for the kind of realities we're experiencing. On the other hand, to demonstrate against gender ideology, they're there. Even -- and it's very amusing -- a photo came out in the newspaper of a bishop and the crowd that flooded the streets to protest. And so one doesn't understand why such a photo doesn't come out of some hierarchs with all the people to support the peace process, or to stand up for the rights of the poorest.
But yes there are voices in the Colombian hierarchical institutional Church too that have been engaged in the peace process.
Is the peace process irreversible? Is it going to culminate? Do you have hope that it will set once and for all?
I have hope, but here, we do have to have that historical patience, and assume in advance that many failures are going to happen along the way.
And if we talk about the media, they're selling us that everything bad that's happening now in the country is because of the guerrillas, the dissidents, and the failures in the peace processes.
But the good thing is that the guerrillas are arriving and the people are receiving them. That you can see buds of hope. And this doesn't happen through the larger media. We have the problem that there aren't any media that go with what's positive but they magnify the negative. The path, therefore, is arduous and difficult. It's having to assume many failures...
But I think that it is irreversible. And I'm betting that, even having to overcome many difficulties that are going to present, it will continue forward. Now we're hoping that talks will begin with the other guerrilla group, with the ELN, which I don't know if they started yesterday, February 7th.
Let's hope so. May God hear you. Thank you very much.