The Anniversary
Twenty years ago, in the presence of a notary, the CTI was founded. This is how female/feminist theologies entered the theological debate in Italy

The female theologians’ wager

 La scommessa delle teologhe  DCM-004
01 April 2023

A cartoon rises over the crowd of bishops and cardinals diligently seated before the Pope: “Ça manque de femmes” [There is a lack of women]. Fulminating and effective, more than dozens of reports, Plantu’s cartoon - published in Le Monde November 23,1985, on the occasion of the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on Vatican II - has become a kind of manifesto for the Coordinamento delle teologhe italiane [Coordination of Italian Women Theologians]. This year, the CTI is celebrating its 20th anniversary.

It was June 26, 2003 when nine women - Stella Morra, Renata Natili, Marinella Perroni, Maria Luisa Rigato and Manuela Terribile, from Rome; Serena Noceti and Nadia Toschi from Florence; Adriana Valerio, from Naples; Cristina Simonelli, from Verona - the pioneers of theology in Italy, uncorked a bottle of sparkling wine under a notary’s office in the Prati district of Rome. At that moment, the biblical scholar, Marinella Perroni and her intuition, - a connection that would allow women to give a different point of view to theology, interdisciplinary, plural, female - became a reality. “We had already made some preliminary attempts and I had even gone to Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the archbishop of Milan, to see how we could relate to the CEI, the Italian Bishops’ Conference. He wanted to know why we were thinking of adding another reality to the existing ones, - Entia non sunt multiplicanda! [Entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity]- I explained our perspective to him. And we went ahead”. At the beginning, Perroni recalls, the CTI was met with some perplexity, hilarity, and accusations of separatism. “Soon after, colleagues also understood and appreciated our work. The relationship with the Italian Bishops’ Conference has always been excellent”.  Perroni, who is a member of the editorial board of this newspaper, was the first president of CTI, followed by Cristina Simonelli (2013-2021) and today by Lucia Vantini is at the helm.

The CTI did not mark a beginning, but was established to register the maturity of a thought - feminine/feminist theologies - and the need for their entry into the Italian theological debate”, Perroni adds. A thought that rests on the rediscovery of female subjectivity in the Bible, with a path that has its beginnings in the publication of the Womans’ Bible in 1885 all the way to 1993 with the document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission on the Interpretation of the Bible in the Church. In short, it took a century for “the Catholic Church, amidst certain doubts and, above all, many fears, to legitimize feminist exegesis as an ecclesiologically valid interpretation possibility of the Christian Scriptures”, Perroni concludes.

Today, the CTI has about two hundred members, all of whom are registered for academic degrees. In addition, it is interesting to look at the Coordination's anniversary from the perspective of those who joined in more recent years, such as Alice Bianchi, 29, a doctoral student in Fundamental Theology at the Gregorian; “I got to know the CTI in my first year of theology, and I studied another seven years almost always surrounded by men and often priests. For me, being part of the CTI instantly meant that I did not feel alone, and I think that was the biggest relief for a young student, especially a lay one. To know that someone has taken the road before you, which was often littered with more obstacles than you may have, and that they are now willing to tell you what has changed, why, and what can still change. You see that there is an alternative to an individualistic way of working, according to which in the academy if you want something done, it is best to do it yourself. The people in the Coordination showed me that one can be a theologian in common, that those who practice theology cannot overlook differences. Moreover, that stories count a lot, and that ecclesial passion is not generic; it has precise names and faces”.

For the young theologian from Brescia, therefore, the originality of the Coordinamento lies in the fact that it is “not an association with a programme to adhere to, but a space for open dialogue, a laboratory of ideas that are also very distant from each other and that therefore always tend to broaden the comparison. It is precisely for this reason that it is an intergenerational, ecumenical and transdisciplinary place. In addition, it is an association that has no difficulty in networking with other realities; this is because their method of cooperation between differences internally also becomes there approach with external relations”.

The CTI, according to the official definition, brings together female theologians from the different Christian traditions who have a PhD or a theological sciences license and teachers from the Faculties of Theology, the Schools of Theology of Seminaries, Religious Congregations and Higher Institutes of Religious Sciences. In addition, it aims to enhance and promote gender studies in the fields of theology, biblical, patristic, history, from an ecumenical perspective. 

Compared to other international “sister” realities, the Italian one has its own specificity. “In some Countries, such as Austria and Germany, the theological faculties are state faculties, and therefore the teaching of theology does not have a close link with the Vatican, as happens in Italy. In Countries abroad, there is greater research freedom and in talking about certain hot topics, but there is also a distance from the dioceses, from the pastoral dimension, from the life of parishes. “They are different worlds”, comments Adriana Valerio, a founding member and one-term president of the European Women’s Association for Theological Research, editor of La Bibbia e le Donne. Collana di Esegesi, Cultura e Storia [The Bible and Women. Series of Exegesis, Culture and History] (Il pozzo di Giacobbe).  “The CTI has its own autonomy, it was set up precisely to give strength to these studies, it has given itself autonomous frameworks that have managed to set up not only seminars and conferences but also four series of texts, where we try to publish the studies that women are doing in Italy, in various fields. In the Exousia series, published with the San Paolo publishing house, a theologian and a female theologian reflect together, trying to work out an alternative not only to how theology is formulated but also to the life of the Church”, Valerio concludes.

A theology, -the one produced by the CTI-, which has its own specificity: “It is a theology of gender”, says the president, theologian Lucia Vantini. This means “that we start from the awareness that there is no such thing as a neutral discourse on God: all our experience - including the theological one - is marked by sexual difference and the web of differences that intertwine with it. Within this framework, the CTI attempts to unearth the cultural and spiritual fruit of women involved in various ways in the history of the Gospel, in order to generate a new and just covenant between the sexes. Moreover, being ecumenical, the CTI also thrives on the stimuli of women theologians belonging to other Christian denominations”.  

For Don Riccardo Battocchio, president of the Italian Theological Association (ATI), the specificity and originality of the CTI in the Italian theological-cultural panorama can be located specifically. He elucidates, stating it lies in “allowing many women to make their work known and encourage others to engage in a decisive sector both for the quality of life and mission of the Church, of the Churches, and for the promotion of a civil culture with broad horizons”. Battocchio emphasises wholeheartedly, “the inter- and trans-disciplinary approach, the ability to collaborate with other subjects and associations, linked through the Coordination of Italian Theological Associations (CATI)”. 

However, the CTI’s most important contribution has been to help with the declericalisation of theology in Italy. “The CTI has effectively responded to a need of which the Church, in Italy, has become progressively aware, slowly and laboriously, since the 1960s: overcoming the idea that theological commitment, inside and outside academic institutions, is reserved for the clergy, whether religious or secular”. The taking of the floor by women in the theological sphere, adds Battocchio, is significant “not only for the gender issue, as a possibility for women to access places that for too long have been exclusively male, but also for the contribution it offers to the process of declericalisation of theology”. Monsignor Francesco Savino, Bishop of Cassano allo Ionio, who has often invited certain Italian women theologians to his diocese, agrees: “I must say that it has always been a very fruitful experience for my Church and for me personally. Each of them have opened up new perspectives of theological elaboration for us. For competence but also for originality of approach. It is not easy today to find historical depth and theological farsightedness combined with indications also pertaining to pastoral choices”. In particular, Savino emphasises that “the secularity of theology is an indispensable requirement to enter into dialogue with everyone and for dialogue to be able to generate ecclesial belonging, given that our local Churches are made up of a majority of lay people”. The secularity of women theologians, he adds, does not only depend on the fact “that they do not belong to the Church hierarchy, but that they have developed a theological thinking free from apologetic aims, which is open to critical and wide-ranging thought”.

Looking back on the journey of these twenty years, according to the prelate, there have been three particularly interesting acquisitions. “The competence and serious and committed research in the various theological disciplines; the openness to the most advanced feminist theology in the Reformed Christian denominations, a way of promoting ecumenical ecclesial collaboration as well; the dialogue with the secular intellectual world on anthropological, biblical, ethical, political and ecclesiological topics”.

With regard to the CTI’s contribution to the journey of the Italian Church, Vantini emphasises the importance of a number of historical theologians, and, keeping to the “team register”, indicates the various fronts on which the CTI is engaged. In the discussion on the reform of the Church in the context of CATI, it produced the text Per una Chiesa povera, dialogica, umile [For a Poor, Dialogical, Humble Church]; it took part in the Synodal Network by collaborating on the document Ma lei replicò gli replicò [But She Replied To Him]; it is involved in the Small School of Synodality in Bologna; and for the synod in Naples, one can read the document Donne al servizio del Vangelo [Women at the Service of the Gospel] for the promotion of an inclusive Church in Naples. In its wake, Don Battocchio would see as opportune, for the future, “the continuation of collaboration with other associations and institutions to rethink together certain fundamental theological themes – for example, creation, evil, the language- with which we speak of God, the meaning of biblical witness, the nature and purpose of the Church, the sacraments, ministries ... - in a trans-disciplinary and ecumenical perspective”.

On April 15 and 16, the annual CTI seminar will be held in Rome, entitled Towards a Public Theology. Stories, Conflicts, Visions”.  A theme that looks back to its origins. “The CTI was founded because there was a public word, a word of the common good, that was up to women theologians, to them and only to them”, says Bianchi, who is part of the Presidential Council.

As for the future, Monsignor Savino’s wish is direct: “I expect them not to succumb to banality. People bring up questions and want theologians to be able to intercept and discuss them. This is the task of a non-clerical theology and this, I hope, that Italian theologians will always be able to propose to the ecclesial communities”.

A journalist with the San Paolo Magazines “Credere” and “Jesus”