Inside the women’s movement, and not only Catholics

We Christian feminists

 Noi femministe cristiane  DCM-008
02 September 2023

In 1924, Elisa Salerno, a Catholic modernist, when asked, “How many kinds of feminism are there?” She answered: “True feminism is only one: Christian feminism”.

In 2018, bell hooks, an African-American feminist activist, stated that only “a feminist vision of spiritual fulfilment is naturally the foundation of an authentic spiritual life”. Two women, two radical secular feminists, between them an ocean and a century of history, of struggles, of women's movements, of “Christian feminism”.

This is Christian feminism asserted in freedom, without servile reticence, and not a contradiction in terms, nor a marginal issue to be treated with caution, or a reality to be confined among the many existential peripheries.

There are many narratives on these last hundred years of life and history of so many women believers, rebels, visionaries, heretics, active thinkers, practitioners of relationships, weavers of networks, who have lived and live the experience of this feminism for everyone.

Without any obvious pretense of speaking “on behalf of”, I refer here to the experiences I have gone through, in the dense network of groups, associations, and dual relationships that innervates and brings fresh air to women’s movements, and not only Catholic in Italy. From the initiation with the Women’s Promotion Group of Milan, to the current long journey with the Women’s Groups of the grassroots communities and the many others, passing through the Ecumenical Synod of Barcelona in 2003 and the relationship with the Coordination of Italian women theologians, to the encounter with the youngest realities. Women for the Church, We are the Change, Interreligious Observatory on Violence against Women, all the way to the stimulating construction of a Network of women and men in the synodal path of the Italian and universal Church, in which “without asking permission” we tried to offer our contribution as feminists for a reform of the Church.

In reality, in official representations, particularly of the Catholic Church, there remains an attempt to relegate this contribution to the margins of ecclesial life in an elitist confinement, all too often even with authoritarian delegitimisation. Certainly, this remains an expression of the patriarchal drifts that afflict ecclesial circles that are still stubbornly affected by clericalism and misogyny. However, I believe it is important to question our positioning as Christian feminists too. For if it is true that patriarchy has placed us on the margins of history and the Church, and we have chosen to inhabit that place as a place of resistance, freedom and creativity. This ‘place’ is an inclusive space in which to find ourselves, but at the same time we have sought to redefine it, so as not to remain trapped within the margin/centre binomial, a margin in which to stay separate or a decision-making centre to be conquered. Today, to avoid the fascinating polyhedron/periphery binomial too, it is interesting for questions of justice, ecology, equity, dangerous if taken as a possible metaphor for a positioning of feminism.

Feminine strength comes neither from crystallizing at the margins nor from placing oneself at the centre (cf. Italian philosopher Chiara Zamboni), but in moving along a mobile border, a border like the horizon that skirts the sea. This border allows us to be more attentive to welcoming the differences between the two “shores”, and not to compromise ourselves with one side and to become an open place of reference for others. (cf. Spanish theologian Mercedes Navarro Puerto).

A shoreline where the rhythm is dictated by the advancing and retreating water, that changes with the wind, but also a threshold to cross in order to go to an elsewhere, even beyond the boundary of the field where God speaks, to leave the space in which our relationship with the divine had been authoritatively confined (cf. Baptist pastor Elizabeth Green).

Che cosa ha significato essere donne sulla soglia del divino e mettere "il dio patriarcale al margine"? Quale vuoto ha creato, quali impalcature ha smontato, quali strisce di futuro ha aperto per le nostre appartenenze o non appartenenze, anche in rapporto con la Chiesa?

What has it meant to be women on the threshold of the divine and to put “the patriarchal god at the margin”? What emptiness has it created, what scaffolding has it dismantled, what stripes of future has it opened for our belonging or non-belonging, even in relation to the Church? For some, living outside institutional places has been an opportunity for awakening and awareness that allows them, without waiting to be authorized from above to change, to become “ministresses of prophecy” even within the church, to rewrite its scenarios with the contribution of female authority and freedom. For others, the search continues to find signs, gestures and ‘incarnated’ words, through a corporeal theology and new liturgies too, to inhabit the void, to unveil and pronounce the divine, through a dis-ordained ministeriality. For many, it was a matter of practicing that commuting of women, that nomadism of inside-outside that allows us to cross borders and dissolve the margins, even those of a Church that we may have helped to transform into a multi-centred, asymmetrical and... Magdalene Church! For all of them it is a matter of fidelity to the double yes to Christianity and feminism.

By Grazia Villa
Advocates for people's rights, grassroots women's groups and the many others