· Vatican City ·

This month. The intervention

The disturbing theologies of women

02 January 2021

We do not need to be reminded of the uncertainty of this time. However, in the otherwise plainly evident, not everything goes without saying. Among the things we cannot take for granted is our bearing on the flow of events. Although silenced, it does not stop us giving voice to experience; though unseen, it continues to shape history, and though ignored, it insists on generating knowledge. Consequently, words and practices are transformed in a way that is not always transparent and shared; for we do not know where they come from or what effect, they are having on us.

One of the observable points of these transformations revolves around the lives of bodies and their narratives. Indeed, the forms in which the distances between bodies are regulated always produce theories, imaginaries, discourses and habits. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected these distances, and at times shortened them too much in our homes and expanded to its maximum in workplaces, schools, stores, and public spaces.

In churches, safety protocols have been upheld, but there is a strange mix in the air between the fear of contagion and concern of how the people of God can experience their faith well without coming together to celebrate in person. Be that as it may, precisely because there is an important change regarding the distance between our bodies, something profound and indecipherable is happening to our experience, and which touches at the heart of its relational vocation. In sum, we could say that it is our image of proximity that finds itself summoned and shaken, for it is difficult to reorder our thoughts, words and actions. A conflict of interpretation has opened up about what it really means to experience relationships well in a time in which economic, social and political tensions are increasingly exasperated. In addition, it is also difficult to take seriously and honor the vulnerability that marks us all, while unmasking the many hierarchies we have always lived with. In Christian communities, the same issue is effectively summed up in the term fraternity, a category that cannot immunize itself from the tensions of the world we inhabit together, as Pope Francis’ most recent encyclical also bears witness.

Listening to Women

Nevertheless, in order to safeguard this opportunity to reframe history, we must also listen to women. Not in general, for women are not holders of the truth -nor of falsehood- by nature. Rather, it is a matter of listening to the many women who - amidst infinite perturbations - turn the discourse to the meaning of sexual difference, the differences in which it historically declines, and the fictions that accompany them.

These women have learned from experience to distrust universal, neutral, ahistorical and disembodied discourses. These women are well aware that injustice has no shame and that it often disguises itself in the garb of equality. They continually remind us that it will not be enough to discuss social justice or brotherhood to transform the world into a truly hospitable place for everyone. They confront us with the fact that programs of good deeds will slip over the surface of history without becoming part of its actual fabric unless we look at concrete singularities, and what actually reaches them in the silence of their lives.

Listening to these women, one learns about the urgency of questioning the imagery of sexual difference, because something unjust is often hidden there. Herein lies the reason contradictions in the world, which raise unresolved questions. For example, why is it that in a civil order which does not permit discrimination linked to sexual difference, women are the first to lose their jobs; are usually paid less; often find themselves burdened with the arduous management of the home; feel ill-suited to scientific tasks; rarely reach top positions; and, if they are victims of violence, tend to blame themselves and/or be blamed? In addition, how is it that, in an ecclesiological version centered on baptismal dignity, the bonds between the sexes turn out to be imbalanced in the many ways we know, swinging seamlessly between demonization and an idealization of the feminine?

This cannot be answered without plunging into the shadowy realm of cultural fictitiousness in which sexual difference is expressed.

This is not a suggestion to turn our attention away from the plane of explicit and political discourse.  Instead, it is rather an invitation to sharpen our gaze, because "explanations" also apply to the unspoken and to the passions that stir it. After all, as the psychologist and neuroscientist Micheal Gazzaniga has well illustrated, we tend to produce many reasons to justify our “yes” and our “no” to life, but these are often confabulations: the reasons for doing this are elsewhere, hidden by cover up speeches put in place to govern the imbalance of difference.

In this complexity, a feminine wisdom, which is recognizable in the philosophical thought of difference (Diotima), and in the gender theologies of the Coordinamento delle Teologhe Italiane [Coordination of Italian Women Theologians] (CTI) can guide us.

An ancient, yet new removal

The patriarchal storyline, which disrupts the forming of correct ties between women and men -whether they be affective, interpretative, legal, symbolic, or on a practical level-, is full of contradictions that the unconscious can permit itself. Without being able to carry out an in depth examination, we would like to underline how a patriarchal fiction that exalts and despises the feminine is often contemporaneously established upon it. The woman portrayed in this manner is paradoxically too angelic and too demonic to be listened to for what she has to say, or permitted to act.

The impression of a natural incompatibility with the sacred and with public space hangs over women, which renders them incompatible and out of place in both contexts. This incompatibility is made up of both “too much” and “too little”. On the one hand, they are too maternal, too affective, too relational and too corporeal, and on the other, not very rational, systematic, political, or spiritual. A woman becomes irrelevant on the level of the concrete exchange of perspectives of the world, even theological ones. The removals enacted come from this contradictory storyline, although the arguments often employ the bright side on only that part which it idealizes. Instead, demonization is hushed, either because it is unacknowledged, or for strategical reasons.

However, because the storyline neutralizes everything that questions the unitary sense of reality, it is deleterious. In fact, as we know, this is what women do: they express discomforts and desires that unmask the partiality of traditions that have not foreseen them and do not yet want to meet them and, in this way, open the discourse to many other differences.   

From this perspective, women’s theologies are disturbing because of the demand they bring with them, which is to save the specific. They speak of bodies, of feelings, of oppressions, of lives and stories, perhaps because they are less concerned with what is going to end and much more drawn to what is going to be born.

Thus, they walk the paths of the paschal processes that traverse existence. In this sense, these are not progressive theologies, for it is not the new that attracts, but the flowering of being.

The feminine dream is not only for women

This brings to mind what the philosopher María Zambrano wrote about the ruins in an article dating back to 1949, probably written in Rome, during one of the phases of her very long exile forced upon her by the Franco regime.

In front of the Roman Forum, Zambrano experienced the pathos that emanates from the ruins. For her, ruins are always a metaphor for the hope that persists even in crises and failures. There is something sacred that remains in the air.  This is the trace of the past that has been lost, but it is also the song of that which, having been won has not ceased to launch its own appeal. So the ivy, the moss or the grass that makes its way through the cracks of the remaining stones, which so enchanted Zambrano, are also an image of that stubborn hope of the women within our communities, which in the end is nothing more than the delirium of life itself that expressly asks to be shared.

by Lucia Vantini
Professor of Philosophy and Theology at the Higher Institute of Religious Sciences and Theological Study of San Zeno in Verona.
Member of the philosophical community Diotima. Vice-president of the Coordination of Italian Women Theologians.