Friday, March 7, 2014

Placing Pope Francis's Remarks about a Theology of Women Against the Backdrop of Ivone Gebara's Real Theology of Women

Sister Ivone Gebara

One of the themes that emerged in Pope Francis's anniversary interview this week was the question of the place of women in the Catholic church. As readers will know, this has been a persistent theme of Francis as pope: we need a theology of women, he said last summer. But to a great extent, what he has said in this vein is echoed in what he suggested in his interview this week: namely, that women's place in the church is to represent the feminine, Marian nature of the church, and not to usurp positions of authority that the tradition has assigned to males.

Males active and dominant. Females passive and receptive--like the Virgin Mary, as the male-dominated tradition likes to imagine her.

As I think about Francis's observations about the role of women during the first year of his papacy, observations that do not advance the conversation about the role of women in the church very far at all, but which reiterate tired tropes that confine women to passive and ornamental places in the church, I find myself wishing he'd actually read real women theologians. Like Ivone Gebara.

Here's Ivone Gebara in her book Out of the Depths: Women’s Experience of Evil and Salvation, trans. and intro. Ann Patrick Ware (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002), on what the church has historically done to women and their contributions:

It is striking how many official texts of the Catholic church insist on the maternal role of women and the governing power of men, conferred on them by Christ. This dogmatic theology, quite apart from even traditional dogma, leaves no room for women to be worthwhile in and of themselves or to speak about their experience and observations (54).

Women have, effectively, been reduced to silence in the Catholic tradition (as well as in many other religious traditions), Gebara insists. They are expected to receive and to listen as the male authority figures of the tradition do and dictate. They have been expected to accept the definition of who they are and what they have to offer handed down by those male authority figures, since the authority to do and dictate belongs to them alone, and excluding women from this authority is viewed as essential to maintaining a gendered hierarchy on which the order of the world depends:

An analysis of gender reveals that control over knowledge and the accepted wisdom is truly men’s power and privilege. Women are intruders, usurpers of something not belonging to them. They do wrong when they desire to know, and as an answer to this wrong, society must restore harmony by chastisement, silence, torture, or death. In this way the hierarchy of the world and of humanity is maintained (43).

And so women in the Catholic tradition have been expected by its all-male leadership caste to receive an image of God crafted for them by men, an image of God made in the image of men, and to remain silent about their own experience of God:

Just as all cultures have left women out of important historical decisions, artistic creation, and literary production, in Christianity women have not been able to express publicly their experience of God. They have received the image of God set before them or taught to them by men or by the dominant culture. This does not mean that they have not re-created these images in the course of their life and context, but this re-creation has stayed in the "little" world inhabited by women. These experiences have not been considered as any contribution to the teaching of the church (165). 

The effects of the skewed gender perspective on which the all-male leadership caste of the Catholic church hinges, well, everything, are lamentable for the entire church, since the experience of one sector of the human race and of the church is presented as the experience of everyone, and the church is therefore robbed of perspectives arising out of the experiences of the many other kinds of human beings--notably, women--who live in the world alongside the all-male rulers of the Catholic church:

All epistemology can be seen as ethics, and all ethics is epistemology. Knowledge that scorns the contribution of women is not only limited and partial; it is an exclusionary knowledge. The fact that it claims to be universal already shows its limits. We can say that at the concrete level of feminist analysis such knowledge is not attentive to the ethical dimensions of justice, equality, and respect for the plurality of beings and their experience. It reduces the other to oneself and does not even ask whether the contribution of others who are different is important (73).

As a result, women pay an enormous psychological price in the Catholic tradition, as they are expected to pretend that images of the divine crafted for them by men, and made in the male image, somehow suffice to reflect the experience of women, too:

Note that male symbols are presented equally to men and women as models for conduct. But while men find in them images that speak to their actual experience, something that corresponds to the language they know, women must disavow their own experience in order to adjust to men’s experience and male ideals. Women’s psychological investment in the process of patriarchal religions is much greater than men’s (105).

The power arrangements--arrangements of male dominance and control and female subordination and  passivity--on which the all-male leaders of the Catholic church insist as divinely ordained mirror the power arrangements by which the powerful of the world always project their own experience (and self-interest) as universal, and then seek to impose that experience on everyone they subordinate in the name of their "divine" authority:

The powerful of this world need the omnipotence of God or universal salvation in a unique way to consolidate their power. The universalization of salvation, by the models and language imposed, proves to be a trap today for the daily life of the poor, for indigenous peoples, for minority groups in every culture, and particularly for women’s search for autonomy and dignity (129).

As I say, it would be nice if Pope Francis actually read some theology of women, as he talks about the need for a theology of women in the Catholic church. If he did so, he might find it illuminating. 

There's a danger, though, in reading the theology of real Catholic women like Ivone Gebara, as one talks about the place of women in the Catholic church and the need for a theology of women. This is the danger of discovering that, for real Catholic women who have studied and thought long and hard about gender issues in the church, citing a conservative male theologian like Hans Urs von Balthasar to sum up the "Marian" role of women in the church--as Francis did in his interview earlier this week--runs the risk of appearing more than a little dismissive of real women and what they have to offer the church. What they have already offered the church . . . . 

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