· Vatican City ·

Have faith in African religious women

24 October 2020

At the age of 43, Sister Solange Sia, a nun in the congregation of Our Lady of Calvary, is the first woman doctor of theology at the Catholic University of West Africa in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. With her we talk about issues and problems concerning women and the Church, from the study of theology to abuse.

Women and theology

“In an African Church where three quarters of the committed lay people are women, their presence in theology is almost insignificant in the geographical area of sub-Saharan Africa and in particular on the Ivory Coast. Only a few lay and consecrated women try to acquire rudiments of theology in short theological training courses for lay people. At the same time, some religious congregations begin, albeit timidly, to enroll their sisters in the Faculty of Theology. It is true that some men may suspect the intention of confiscating power by not facilitating the emulation and promotion of the study of theology by women.

However, it is also important to remember the difficulties inherent in women themselves. Underlying this is the fact that many women believe that the study of theology has the priesthood as its goal. They do not distinguish between seminary education and theological studies. They feel no interest until they meet a female theologian. Only then do they begin to question themselves! The other difficulty is economic. Even if they were interested, how could they pay for their formation? And, then if they are secular women, what authority can they have to put their acquired knowledge into practice?”

The role of women in the Church in Africa

“Talking about women’s problems in the African Church is sometimes difficult because it is complex to attempt an outline, a contour of women’s faces, which are multifaceted. Which categories of women are they? Married women, single, religious, women from urban or rural areas, businesswomen, illiterate, and others still. Without dedicating myself to this tedious exercise, I would say, based on my pastoral experiences, that African Christian women in my area have thoroughly assimilated a pyramidal and strongly masculine if not patriarchal ecclesiology. Although the presence of women has become indispensable to the Church, and this at all levels of ecclesial life, many women consider themselves ‘assistants’, and hardly ever take initiatives, a thing which they do willingly in civil associations. On a certain level, there is a tacit and subtle co-responsibility, but in most cases, women have not yet fully realized the quality of women’s contribution to the construction of the Church-family.

“Marked by a profound inferiority complex, many consider themselves incompetent in a very organized Church with her laws. They do not have the freedom to express themselves and are therefore careful not to be penalized or blamed by Church leaders. They are not yet fully aware that they are the driving forces in the proclamation of the Good News of Christ in Africa. Incidentally, while issues of women’s responsibility or decision-making power in Europe are the subject of major debates in the Church and civil society, this does not seem to be the concern of women in the Church in Africa for the time being”.

Women in the Church and for the Church

“I would like to make certain proposals. In the training facilities and institutes, universities, seminars, novitiates, we need to think about implementing dynamic strategies of mental and cultural transformation. It is also necessary to promote introduction courses for women’s studies in our faculties in Africa. More space should also be given to women in training centers, in the presbyterate. Whether they are present as teachers or as psychological counsellors.

“There is also a need to devise training programs in which men and women can participate together and which cover female and male psychology, the image of women in the arts and media, the family and marriage, the current problems of women in African history, women and religion, patriarchy and more, and to conduct more integrated reflection. Readings and interpretations of the Bible for women should be promoted as they are elsewhere. The way of living as a Church in a more evangelical way should be a dialogue between women and men. An evangelical complementarity in which the noble feminine interrupts the mechanisms of power and becomes the instrument of creative actions. If the Church in Africa comes to this multi-faceted, intellectual, human, spiritual organization, then the Gospel will truly take root in hearts”.

Abuses committed against religious women

“I am not sure I know the extent of the issue of abuse in religious life in Africa. Contrary to what happened in America, where the Church made statistics available, and later in Europe, with the testimony of former religious victims of abuse, religious life in Africa (and not of African religious living in the West) is still very reserved on the issue of sexual abuse. A lengthy process is needed to ensure that religious women talk to each other or with a psychologist about cases of abuse not necessarily experienced within religious life, but also while they were in the family. On the other hand, the most evident abuse in religious life is the abuse of power and trust. The factors are manifold.

“On the cultural and theological level, the misunderstanding of the sacred and consecrated man fosters a certain idealization of men and women of God and a sacredness of religious leaders. On the social level, one can recall the insecurity, material and financial poverty of the families of the Sisters and the religious institutes that receive them. At times, there can be great inequalities or even discrimination between the religious. In fact, it is not uncommon to see that within the same congregation the original members living in Europe can afford holidays, adequate care, a healthy diet, large houses that are sometimes empty, while their sisters in the African provinces, who are in reality suffering political and social injustice, do not even have anything to live on.

“At the level of the ecclesial institution one can also point to an injustice that has subtly crept in over the centuries. The Church in its organization is committed to offering young people who are interested in priestly life a very complete formation. While the Church is occupied with the training of priests, religious institutes, especially women’s, it is sometimes content to give only the few rudiments necessary for religious life. Although the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life recommends formation in religious institutes, it is noted that, as far as women are concerned, the decision is often left to the good will of the superiors. Thus, women with intellectual and spiritual talents who could dedicate themselves to theological studies do not have the opportunity to do so. A small survey carried out in some women’s religious congregations in Côte d'Ivoire, both local and international, has allowed us to note that of the fifty or so congregations present, very few register their members in a higher education institution”.

by  Marie Cionzynska