Curia

The “atypical” theologian who starts from the people

(Wikimedia Commons photo)
05 February 2022

“Let’s not let ourselves be disciplined. Never. Let us continue to be passionate, seductive, to speak with the language of the word and the body. Let us continue to enchant. Now, more than ever, we need to return to enchanting the world. Sure, we’ll run the risk of being called crazy, as they did with the Beguines centuries ago. Nevertheless, it is worth it. That’s why I repeat: let’s not let ourselves be disciplined”. This is what women dream of, both inside and outside the Church, by Emilce Cuda’s, the “theologian who knows how to read Pope Francis”. This is what she is now called because of a review of her book Leggere Francesco [Reading Francis], published in Italy by Bollati Boringhieri. “That was Austen Ivereigh, a journalist, friend and profound connoisseur of Vatican affairs, who defined me in this way, playing on the words of the title”, she smiles. Emilce Cuda is the head of the office of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, appointed last July by the Pope together with the new secretary, the Mexican Rodrigo Guerra.  She is the first woman to hold the position. “A post with a strong symbolic value, regardless of the actual function and operational capacity. Her appointment confirms the Pope’s attitude towards the female world”.

Francis and women is an issue that has been debated since the beginning of his Pontificate. Some accuse him of transformism or immobility, others of excessive and dangerous openings. “The Holy Father initiates processes. That’s what matters to him”, says the theologian “who knows how read him”, “I have never had nor do I claim to ‘interpret'’ the Pope. With the essay and with my interventions on the subject, I only try to explain the social, cultural, ecclesial, political context of Argentina in which Jorge Mario Bergoglio was formed to readers, especially non-specialists. A sort of non-linguistic cultural translation so that the public can understand his words in depth”. Almost a moral duty for a “true” porteña - that is, born in Buenos Aires. And not just any porteña: Emilce Cuda is one of the leading experts on the Theology of the people, Peronism, populism, popular movements and trade unions. Her wide range of interests is in line with her academic curriculum, which is quite peculiar: the new head of the PCAL office, she studied Theology and Philosophy in parallel and then devoted herself full time to the former. She has also earned a doctorate in Moral Theology at the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina (UCA). “Social morality”, Emilce Cuda points out.

“Catholic morality is often circumscribed to bioethics. In reality, this is only one of the two areas. The other is social morality. Dedicating oneself to it implies studying politics, economics, society, and then pronouncing, from the point of view of Catholic doctrine, on these issues. When we do this, especially if we speak out in defense of the excluded, however, we are often accused of “playing politics. In reality, we are only doing what we are responsible for, which is theologians of social morality. This is what I specialize in”. Cardinal Bergoglio, who was at the time the Grand Chancellor of the UCA in Buenos Aires, moreover, undersigns Emilce Cuda’s title. One of the many red threads linking the “atypical theologian” and the first Argentine pope of Catholicism, along with their love for Buenos Aires, the tango, the frequentation of popular environments and the Church embodied in them. The religious sisters of the Divine Shepherdess taught the future academic how to read the Social Doctrine of the Church. “And this has marked my life - she emphasizes - I have always had the desire to make my knowledge available to alleviate the suffering of the most disadvantaged people. I myself come from a humble family, so I know well the sacrifices of the working people to survive day after day”.

“I don’t need them to tell me what it’s like to work with my hands, I’ve done that too”.  I know what it is like when your body hurts and you cannot stop. It is a different thing than intellectual work. Now I’m busy from Monday to Monday but it’s not comparable”, says Emilce Cuda who, before being a respected professor and researcher, was a seamstress and fashion designer, as demonstrated by her impeccable elegance and taste for clothes that are both somber and original. To the study of Theology, however, she did not arrive there only because of faith, but for her “disciplinary-scientific restlessness”. “I always distinguish the areas; on the one hand there is the creed, the pastoral and missionary work, on the other hand the studies”.

To enter the faculty of Philosophy, at the prestigious University of Buenos Aires (UBA), which is both public and free, it was necessary to pass an ultra-selective test. It was tailored to former students of public and private high schools, and reserved for the elite and not for those who, like Emilce Cuda, had attended Catholic schools in the suburbs. The alternative was to opt for studies in Theology at UCA, “but it was private and I couldn’t afford it”. The dead end, unexpectedly, turned into a double possibility. “I learned, almost simultaneously, that I had passed the admission test at UBA and that I had received, thanks to the intervention of Lucio Gera, a pillar of Theology of the People, a scholarship to UCA”. Instead of choosing, Emilce Cuda decided to double down, and attended both colleges. “This gave me a huge advantage. I had two libraries at my disposal. The ‘canonical’ one of the Catholic and the secular one of the UBA”. Only at the end of this dual path, the definitive option for Theology arrived as well as the long apprenticeship with masters of the caliber of Ernesto Laclau at Northwestern and Juan Carlos Scannone at the Colegio Máximo of San Miguel. “I could not, therefore, but deal with social morality”. A field that has led her to confront universes considered “masculine”, such as political movements and trade unions. As well as struggling to carve out a space for herself in ecclesiastical structures, which at the time were not very inclusive of women. “In the secular world, as a theologian they didn’t take me seriously. When I presented my project on the Theology of the People to Argentina’s main research institute, they rejected it out of hand, calling it a ‘self-help program’ rather than a scientific investigation”. From that study came one of the first articles on the figure of Jorge Mario Bergoglio after his election. In spite of the difficulties, Emilce Cuda believes that the alliance between genders is the key to a harmonious development of society, and of the Church. “The latter shares the same problems as society in a context of globalization.

 “The root cause of women’s exclusion is the same as the exclusion of the poor”, says the theologian. As with them, the first way in which they are discarded is to make them invisible. “Let’s consider the informal labor, a category that includes two billion people. Their work, done day to day to survive, makes a fundamental contribution to the economy but is not accounted for. In official statistics, they do not exist. For the same reason, it is often said that there are no women in the Church. Sometimes the women themselves say so, reinforcing a narrative that make them invisible. It depends on what we mean by the Church. If it is just the hierarchy we are referring to, that is true. However, if, as the Second Vatican Council states, it is the People of God, then women are very much there. They are in charge of transmitting the faith and materially supporting the Church too. To those who object that the absence concerns decision-making positions, I reply that there is a prior issue to be addressed: recognizing the many women workers already present, often without pay. Why do menial tasks always end up being done by women?”

Like the poor, however, for Emilce Cuda women have the theological virtue of hope. This is the dynamo that “sets them in motion,” the force that allows them to “heal and recycle life”. “They not only reproduce it, they keep it alive from birth to death. Therefore, I dream that women never stop being women. Their ability to seduce and enchant is important for redemption, in politics, in the Church, in society. We need to fall in love again with a common project. Who can make us fall in love again if not women?”

by Lucia Capuzzi
A journalist with the Avvenire national newspaper


EMILCE CUDA was appointed the head of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America (PCAL), in July 2021 by the Pope. She is the first woman to hold such an executive position. In the bulletin of the Holy See press office that gave the news, she was qualified as “professor of Theology at the Pontificia Universidad Católica Argentina and St Thomas University (United States of America)”, but Emilce Cuda’s biography includes something else as well.  Born in 1965 in Buenos Aires, married with two children, she is the first Argentine woman to have obtained a pontifical doctorate in Moral Theology and also has a political background, having studied Political Philosophy at Northwestern University, one of the most famous and prestigious universities in the United States, with the philosopher Ernesto Laclau. In addition, she is considered the woman who best knows the thought of the Pope from the end of the earth, since she is a disciple of the Jesuit Juan Carlos Scannone - theorist of Popular Theology and teacher of Bergoglio. She is the author of the book Reading Francis, the first in-depth analysis of the Argentine theological roots of the Pontiff’s thought.  With her appointment, contextual to that of Mexican philosopher Rodrigo Guerra López, as secretary, Pope Francis intends to relaunch the PCAL, an organ of the Curia established by Pius XII in 1958 to listen to and support the Churches on the continent. The Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, chairs the commission.