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Ivone Gebara must be doing something right.

There is a saying among progressives in some of the violence-plagued countries of Latin America: If you are getting death threats, you must be doing something right.

When the structures that wield economic, political and military might attempt to shut someone up, it is usually because the person has been voicing important truths.

The silencing of Brazilian theologian Ivone Gebara, which begins Sept. 1, reveals a similar dynamic within the ranks of the Roman curia.

As Gebara heads to Belgium, mandated by Rome to "correct her theological imprecisions," we must ask an important question: Why does the Vatican fear Ivone Gebara, a 50-year-old nun who lives and works in a Recife slum?

Gebara's silencing comes in the aftermath of comments she made on abortion in 1993 to a reporter from the Brazilian weekly Veja. The publication quoted her as saying abortion is not necessarily a sin for a poor woman psychologically incapable of confronting pregnancy. In a written defense in Brazil, Gebara responded: "For me, as a Christian, to defend the decriminalization and legal regulation of abortion is not to deny the traditional teachings of the gospel of Jesus and the church. Rather, it is to welcome them within the paradoxical reality of human history and to aid in diminishing violence against life." She signed another document confirming her defense of life in all its forms.

The Vatican opted to silence her, claiming her theology was problematic. With this sanction, Rome is attempting to hush up a woman who has addressed a myriad of issues distressing the church, especially in relation to power and to the role of women.

Gebara has gained a position of prominence in many theological and philosophical circles worldwide. As the only woman on the editorial committee of the Latin American Theology and Liberation Series, some of her contemporaries include Leonardo Boff, Gustavo Gutierrez, Enrique Dussel and Jon Sobrino.

Working with this group of liberation theologians, many viewed unfavorably in hard-line Vatican circles, would be cause for initial caution from Rome. But Gebara, through her scholarly and prophetic theology that is rooted in the lives of poor women, has opened even more of the windows that the curia, ever nervous about winds of change in the church, has been trying to keep shut and caulked.

A sampling of Gebara's text, Mary Mother of God, Mother of the Poor, coauthored with Brazilian theologian Maria Clara Bingemer and published in English by Orbis Books, offers some insight into this tension.

Foremost is Gebara's option for the poor, especially for poor women, which resounds unfailingly through her life and writing.

In the text on Mary, Gebara and Bingemer challenge a male-centered church. They root their reflections in a historical moment of "women's theological awakening," a moment "when women along with the oppressed in (Latin America), are stirring to win their rights."

This awakening, the authors admit, "affects men's hold over the sacred as private property; it concerns the right to a form of expression not stamped in a male mold; it touches on the urgent need for power to be divided and shared in church institutions; indeed it affects all theology, insofar as theology must revise the way it addresses itself to men and women, who are both equally and historically dwelling places of God's Spirit."

Sensitive issues, indeed.

Gebara and Bingemer question traditional Mariologies based on Platonic anthropology, which "entails a deep separation between men and women ... (in which) men are regarded as the thinking beings par excellence, the ones closest to the ideals of perfection, while women are seen as second-class beings, with little affinity for the things of the spirit or for thinking ... remote from true ideas and from divinity."

The "male human," the authors insist, "is not the only mediator, but simply a mediator in the relationship between God and humankind."

By presenting a rereading of the life of Mary, Gebara and Bingemer also present a "rereading of the foundations of the patriarchal system," an exercise, they admit, that will cause consternation among "leading figures of the patriarchal religious system."

Gebara and Bingemer question the limitations of the writers of biblical texts.

The book also challenges justifications for denying women full ministry and leadership in the church simply because biblical accounts highlight the lives of men.

For example, during the "explosion" of the early Christian church following Pentecost, the authors assert that "Mary is present ... in this great innovating movement. We could not imagine it any other way even if the texts written at that time speak essentially about movements and groups led by men. ... Mary was at the core of the foundation of the early Christian communities as the mother, sister, colleague, disciple and teacher of a movement organized by her son, Jesus."

These are exciting and challenging perceptions that cast new light on a church that excludes women from leadership. And there is more. In the act of the incarnation, the authors remind us, "God takes flesh of man and woman. ... From this point onward, there is no room for male-centeredness or any kind of dualism, since any kind of anthropological or theological reductionism cedes to the confession of faith that the Word became flesh in human flesh, flesh of man and woman, in the actuality of history and within its limits."

With the assumption, the "female body is rescued from all the humiliation that Judeo-Christian civilization has laid on it," bringing "a new and promising future for women," they state.

"Excluded from Jewish initiation rites because of their anatomy, banned from full participation in worship and the synagogue by their menstrual cycles, for a long time women -- even in Christianity -- subtly or explicitly have been second-class citizens in the world of faith because of the 'inferiority' and the 'poverty' of their bodies," they assert. "Mary's assumption restores and reintegrates woman's bodily-ness into the very mystery of God. ... (T)he dignity of women's condition is recognized and safeguarded by the Creator of that very bodily-ness. In Jesus Christ and in Mary the feminine is respectively resurrected and assumed into heaven -- definitively sharing in the glory of the trinitarian mystery from which all proceeds and to which all returns."

There are challenges to the male-domination of theological discourse. "To do theology rightly is tenderly to touch the mystery of divinity present in man and woman," they write. "It also means changing somewhat a hierarchy of patriarchal values that has left a strong imprint on our theology and our churches."

Then there are reflections on dogma. "What is important for the people (of Latin America)," they assert, "is saving life -- their own individual, collective and cultural life. What is important is saving their right to exist with at least a minimum of dignity. Hence dogmatic details laid down from within another cultural world do not count for much."

And Gebara's individual study of the Trinity is equally strong. "Evil is the claim that some people know the will of God and are commissioned to teach it as irrefutable dogma, while others are obliged to humbly recognize and accept their own ignorance," she wrote in her book Trinidade: Palavra Sobre Coisas Velhas e Novas (Trinity: a Word on Things New and Old). A revised version of this text will be available in English in March 1996 when Orbis publishes Women Healing Earth: Third-World Women on Ecology, Feminism and Religion, an anthology edited by Rosemary Radford Ruether.

None of these are melodic words for the ears of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who heads the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. But they are like a homecoming for millions of Catholic women who have been "out of sight, nameless" in the records of the history of the church. It's no wonder the men in Rome are feeling discomfort.

We must remember, though, that discomfort and fear are essential to change. As Gebara and Bingemer remind us, "It is so hard to be reborn." The wonderful counterpart of the pain Gebara must feel as she leaves behind her people to fulfill Rome's dictates, is that the sanctions have made people worldwide -- especially women -- more acutely aware of the importance of her theology.

The Spirit does work in peculiar ways: By trying to silence Gebara, the curia is making her voice resound more powerfully among the people of God. The sanctions from the Vatican mean Gebara cannot engage in public speaking, teaching or publication. They do not mean the faithful cannot embrace her work.
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Title Annotation:Latin American nun
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Aug 25, 1995
Words:1404
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