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Margit Eckholt {*}

Creative on New Ways

Women Theologians in Latin America

 

From: Herder-Korrespondenz 10/2007, P. 515-520
webmaster's own, not authorized translation

 

    The issue of women's rights in the Latin American church and the theological work of women have not lost in importance. Women Theologians, who are practice-oriented and increasingly interlaced, face the current church and social developments and changes on the by now no longer so Catholic subcontinent.

 

They are today just as topical as thirty years ago, the questions and inquiries to church and theology emerging since the seventies of last century on the Latin American continent, the arguments over poverty and violence in its complexity, which gave also just to the Latin American church a new face as a church that gained status in standing up for human rights and fighting poverty. Despite the macro-economic progress in some countries of southern Latin America the scissors between poor and rich have widened. The numbers of the economic refugees are frightening, national economies such as the Ecuadorian or the Central American live on the reflux of the money of their citizens who emigrated to the USA. At the same time a new wall is being built between North and South America at the border between Mexico and the USA, which has replaced the in 1989 fallen wall between east and west as global symbol.

 


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The not solved poverty problem in the countries of South America in the slum areas of the large cities as well as in rural and indigenous municipalities has a large potential of violence and imperceptibly leads to changes in the religious landscape. Just also in Latin America the rapid increase of sects opens a wide field for fundamentalist movements. Sociological investigations show that religious fundamentalism - which increases in all religions, also in Christianity - finds its largest breeding-ground in the poverty zones of the world society and here particularly appeals to young people and also women (see Martin Riesebrodt, Die Rückkehr der Religionen. Fundamentalismus und der "Kampf der Kulturen", München 2000). From there the importance of the "Option for the Poor", made by the Latin American church and theology since the seventies cannot be underestimated at all also for the present.

 

The Look at Latin America does also Help the Women Research in Germany

In this wide political and religious connection special explosiveness is attached to the issue of women's rights in the Latin American church and the theological work of women in Latin America, as it has developed since the seventies first in the context of liberation-theology and then increasingly with feminist-theological profile (see also HK, March and July 1995, 141ff. and 367 ff.). In comparison with it in the German language area the feminist theology has lost the echo it had met with in the eighties and nineties of last century. Theological woman research has been ousted. When it is done the feminist-theological research works do not become present in the media; young women theologians are not interested in feminist work.

At the same time in practice in all generations of laymen an awareness of the issue of women's rights and the presence of women also in the church and in church leading positions has grown. Young women, also women theologians as a matter of course demand their rights, without seeing themselves with it as "feminist". In view of that - for the German university work and the highly differentiated areas of science and pastoral and social practice probably also characteristic - distance between theory and practice the look at the developments in the Latin American theological work of women can be helpful.

It is just the various social, economic, political inequalities between men and women, the massive question of violence and the poverty, which have above all a female face, which in the theological work in Latin America in a different way link theory and practice, the work at the university and the pastoral and social practice, connect the theological work of women with everyday life, and let them discover new creative ways.

The perspective of human und women's rights and the "dangerous memory" of the creation-theological basic axiom that God created the human being in the difference of man and woman as His image and likeness, and that in it His and their dignity and equality are founded (Gen 1, 27; Gal 3, 28), is a central key for the Latin American feminist theology and a way on which the answers can be found to the current challenges of the religious, Christian fundamentalism and the increase of sects.

Paradoxically above all women in poverty contexts in sects often find a place for their liberation. From the Catholic perspective only the encouraging of the identity and the self-confidence of women can steer against it. To take not seriously the theological work of women and feminist-theological approaches will push the Catholic Church more and more into the offside; also that is why one is to listen to the voice of women and why their "empowerment" in church and society is further a necessary "sign of the times".

It is interesting that in Latin America - so e.g. in Argentina, Chile and Colombia - at present a younger generation of women theologians appears on the scene, which is looking for a clear position in the changing situation of Christian faith, church and society and on that occasion concerns itself with the theological work of "pioneers" like Elsa Támez (Mexico/Costa Rica), Maria Pilar Aquino (Mexico/San Diego), Maria Clara Bingemer (Brazil) or María Teresa Porcile (Uruguay). The look at that history of Latin American feminist theology is also promoted by centres of theological woman research in the USA, England and Spain. By the translation of publications in English by Spanish publishing houses such as Trotta Latin American women theologians become on the other hand acquainted with the thinking of their pioneers.

 


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A special event is here the first publication of an anthology in Latin America itself. This year in the San Pablo Publishing House /Buenos Aires three of five volumes of an anthology with the title "Mujeres haciendo teologías" appear, edited by the Argentine group of women theologians "Teologanda".

The first volume, a "Diccionario de Obras de Autoras" represents - as the joined work of thirty five above all Latin American women theologians - books and articles of Latin American authoresses. The wide panorama of women's theology in Latin America as well as that of North American women theologians influencing it becomes apparent by detailed reviews on books (see Virginia R. Azcuy/Gabriela M. Di Renzo/Celina A. Lértora Mendoza [editors], Diccionario de Obras de Autoras. En America Latina, el Caribe y Estados Unidos).

 

Poverty and Violence were from the Outset Starting Point of Theological Reflection

Feminist theology in Latin America developed in the seventies of last century. The Year of Women proclaimed by the United Nations in 1975 was an important milestone for a cross-linking of women and an awareness of the explosiveness of the issue of women's rights also in Christian circles. It is interesting that first impulses came from the Cono Sur, from Uruguay and Argentina, but also Brazil, which beside the Central American countries, above all Costa Rica, soon developed to one of the centres of feminist theology.

From the outset the work of women was basis-oriented, concrete challenges of the pastoral and social practice, poverty and violence were the starting point of theological reflection, which was particularly oriented towards the Biblical texts and in them was on the trail of the liberating God and the God of life. In those years the methodology of the women's theological work was close to the developing theology of liberation. The suppression of women was analyzed with sociological and economic instruments.

Centres that were active on the field of development policy and were also in contact with relief organizations in the USA and Europe, as for instance in Chile the Centro ecuménico Diego de Medellín, the in 1976 created Departamento the Ecuménico de Investigaciones (DEI) in Costa Rica, the Instituto Bartolomé de las Casas in Lima/Peru and others promoted the theological work of women. In the training of women catechists and of nuns active in the pastoral care the liberation-theological hermeneutics was connected with the women's rights perspective.

The eighties and nineties were the heyday of women's theology in Latin America. Women engaged in pastoral, human right and woman's work enrolled for the study of theology and began to gain also scientific qualifications, often at European universities such as Madrid or Louvain. More and more also the contact to the feminist theology in the USA and Europe became important. By the cross-linking of the theologians and women theologians of the "Third World" made possible by EATWOT (Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians) and by the in 1984 established "Comisión latinoamericana de mujeres" the issue of women's rights was promoted in church and theology on the whole Latin American continent and a wide awareness of the necessity of feminist Latin American theology was created.

In 1985 in Buenos Aires the first congress of Latin American women theologians took place, promoted by EATWOT, in which 28 women theologians took part; in 1986 there was a further intercontinental conference in Oaxtepec (Mexico). In the first years of theological work of women in Latin America the relationship to explicitly feminist approaches was disputed. But at the second by EATWOT organized congress of Latin American women theologians in 1993 in Rio de Janeiro (published in 1998 under the title "Entre la indignación y la esperanza. Teología feminista latinoamericana") women theologians such as Ivone Gebara formulated their approach as a feminist theology of liberation. Thus the theological work of women in Latin America found a profile of its own, also in critical distance to the theology of liberation.

 

The Mission Offensive Decided in Aparecida and the Issue of women's rights

In this second phase feminist theological work remains closely connected with the basis work and sharpens its hermeneutics by the analysis of the various situations of injustice and violence that women are exposed to. It finds its profile by a liberating look at the life possibilities in women's everyday life.

It is just about imparting women the faculty of speech by discussing Biblical texts and feminist-theological works, and so to formulate their own personal God experience: the God of life in the fragmentary character of everyday life, in the experience of liberation in the tenderness of little gestures, and in the daily experiences of resurrection in the strengthening living and working together.

It is certainly characteristic that only a few women, as for example Maria Clara Bingemer who works at the Jesuits' University in São Paulo, found after their scientific qualification a job at a theological faculty. Thus the issue of women's rights is not present in the training of future priests; just as little women theologians with feminist-theological approach find work in research projects of theological faculties. Most of them remain active in centres of the basis or find a new sphere of activity at a US-American university, as for instance the Mexican María Pilar Aquino in San Diego.

 


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The church and social developments and changes in the pastoral work of the last years leave the theological work of women in Latin America not uninfluenced. The collapses the liberation-theological pastoral work has experienced and still experiences - certainly from local church to local church in different ways - affect also the feminist liberation theology.

Secularization processes and lessening confidence in the institution church do not stop before the Latin American local churches. The face of a church siding with the poor becomes vaguer, no longer the great topics of the church's social doctrine, the protest against violations of human rights set the tone, rather topics from the socially and politically disputed areas of marriage and family. The structures of the popular church are breaking down also in Latin America; sects are gaining ground in the rural population and among the workers.

In view of these changes in the religious landscape the importance of the issue of women's rights in the Latin American local churches is not to be underestimated, but de facto it is underestimated by church circles. Women often find in sects - paradoxically also such orientated toward fundamentalism - the possibility of taking responsibility and forming their own, also religious self-confidence. When at the last general assembly of the Latin American episcopacy in Aparecida in May 2007 the missionary task of every Christian was considered, this is certainly the right way also to give an answer to the challenge of Christian sects and other religious movements (see HK, September 2007, 450ff.).

That is only possible by taking notice of the specific biographic experiences of women and thereupon by the religious "empowerment" of women. Just here lies a new and still too little discovered link between church and feminist liberation theology and pastoral work. A special importance and responsibility is here due to nuns who are theologically qualified and work in different areas of pastoral and church educational work, in training catechists etc. Many women's orders in Latin America still work at social focuses and have adopted also questions and inquiries of the feminist liberation theology. So they can be one of the necessary places where feminist theology in Latin America can develop further.

 

The Special Responsibility of Catholic Universities

The universities, above all the Catholic universities are another place that can offer women's theology in Latin America a framework and also a certain protection and free space for further developments. Since the nineties of last century gender programs and -perspectives have gained great importance at Latin American Universities. They are interdisciplinary and mostly socio-politically orientated; the perspective of justice is often the lodestar. Social, political, economical and cultural injustice and inequalities that concern above all women are taken as themes.

 


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At Catholic universities also theology is included into those programs, and exactly that is the chance of a new publicity and visibility just also of feminist theology. A red thread that runs through the various gender programs from Mexico to Chile is the connection of the question of the sex difference with the great justice problem of the Latin American societies. The look at the sex difference cannot be separated from the social and economic situation of women, the daily experiences of violence in the private and public area, the often low educational level, and the precarious work situation.

Exactly here the impulses of the feminist theology of the eighties and nineties, its option for the poor woman, and its liberation-theological perspective meet with the new emphasis and widening horizon the gender studies mean for the universities, and this point of intersection is a helpful moment to give the theology of women room also at the classical centres of theological work: the Catholic universities.

Such ways have been pursued in the last years for example at the Jesuits' University in Bogotá, a new beginning begins to emerge at the Jesuits' College San Miguel in Buenos Aires. Since 1998 at the Theological Faculty of the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana there has been a working group about "Teología y género", which meanwhile belongs to the institutionalized main topics of research of the university, and in which the two theologians Olga Consuelo Vélez Caro and María del Socorro Vivas and further six professors of the theological faculty work. The results of the project are communicated beyond the academic sphere into educational work into pastoral care and schools.

Since 2003 in Buenos Aires a circle of about 40 women theologians has been active that has chosen the name "Teologanda" - "Programa de estudios, investigaciones y of publicaciones" (www.teologanda.com.ar). The group is led by Virginia Azcuy, who teaches at the Theological Faculty of the Pontificia Universidad Católica Buenos Aires and the Theological Faculty of the Jesuits' College in San Miguel/Buenos Aires as professor of theology (dogmatics and spirituality) and tries to open these places for women's theology. It is interesting that the women theologians who begin to interlace themselves work at various church, social, and theological places also "move" between those places. They are women who already teach, others, who gain qualifications, write their doctoral or licentiate thesis, who pass through a "classical" theological career, who on their own initiative concern themselves with the work of pioneers of feminist Latin American theology (but also with developments from the North Atlantic area).

"Teologanda" is laid out ecumenically, cooperates with the Protestant "Forum for Theology and Gender" at the Instituto Superior de Estudios Evangélicos (ISEDET) in Buenos Aires, and it is open for other scientific disciplines. To the twice annually organized conferences philosophers, sociologists, historians, psychologists etc. are invited; interdisciplinary working characterizes the "intellectus fidei" of the theology of women. Aim is to be scientifically recognized and taken seriously, to be present on congresses, to publish; but beyond that to present the results of the work also on the level of church educational work, in parishes, communities etc. The planned publication of five volumes "Mujeres haciendo teologías" about the "The Way of Women in the Theology of Latin America, the Caribbean and the United States" has included a larger number of younger women theologians and acquainted them with the feminist-theological work.

 

Keeping the Political Dimension of Theological Work in Min

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Promoting and accompanying younger women theologians is certainly an outstanding characteristic of the various activities of "Teologanda". On the way of working out the great topics of Latin American feminist theology it is about creatively opening new ways into the future: apart from the analysis of the various contexts of violence and poverty and the perspective of human and women's rights they are: the question about God and of a (women)specific theological language doing justice to women, the creation theology, eco-feminism, questions of lastingness, and a new approach to fundamental questions of the theological anthropology, above all time and again the Biblical embodiment of the theological topics.

To those ways just the thinking in dialogue form belongs, the learning at the crossroads and at the many fractures of the world society. "Teologanda" has its origin in the dialogue with German women theologians, perhaps that too is a "sign of the times" just for theology in Germany. A crucial moment of foundation was the first conference of German and Latin American women theologians, which in October 2002 was organized as co-operation meeting by the Catholic Academy "Wolf Castle", by "Agenda - Forum of Catholic Women Theologians", by Adveniat as episcopal relief work for Latin America, and the scholarship work Latin America - Germany about "Breaking Borders - Noticing Others. Options and Fields of Action of Latin American and German Women Theologians". In November 2004 the second common conference took place about the topic "Option for Life. The Breaking In of Biographies in Church and Society", in April 2007 a third common meeting.

 


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Now a first common congress of German and Latin American women theologians is being planned, which will be held in 2008 in the week after Easter in Buenos Aires. Under the heading "Biographies - Institutions - Citizenship" it will be about opening - in the exchange of various cultural contexts and generations, also in the exchange of women and men - new ways of theological work in the intersection of church and society, and then to keep just the political dimension of the theological work in mind.

 

    {*} Margit Eckholdt (born in 1960) is professor of dogmatics at the Philosophical-Theological University of the Don Bosco Salesians in Benediktbeuern; Chief of the scholarship work Latin America Germany inc. and member of the executive committee of AGENDA. From further contributions to the topic: The same and Sabine Pemsel Maier (editors), Räume der Gnade. Interkulturelle Perspektiven auf die christliche Erlösungsbotschaft, Stuttgart 2006.

 

Link to 'Public Con-Spiration for-with-of the Poor'