Theology and the Genius of Women

Interview With Professor Josep-Ignasi Saranyana

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PAMPLONA, Spain, SEPT. 30, 2005 ( Benedict XVI this week pointed out to some visiting bishops that a contradiction often exists between the theoretical exaltation of woman’s «genius» and the discrimination they face in daily life.

Father Josep-Ignasi Saranyana, director of the Institute of Church History of the University of Navarre, in Spain, explained to ZENIT that many differences about the idea of woman also exist in theological currents.

The priest is the author of «Teología de la Mujer, Teología Feminista, Teología Mujerista y Ecofeminismo en América Latina (1975-2000)» (Theology of Woman, Feminist Theology, «Mujerista» Theology and Ecofeminism in Latin America [1975-2000]), published in Costa Rica by Promesa.

Q: How is feminist theology distinguished from the theology of woman?

Father Saranyana: I understand that the theology of woman is built «from above,» from Revelation. It corresponds above all to the great tradition of the Church.

Feminist theology, on the contrary, comes «from below.» It does not skirt Revelation, but considers it a secondary theological element. It is, rather, a religious sociology, if not a pure psychological analysis of feminine experiences and feelings.

It is interesting, but it isn’t theology in the pure sense. Often, moreover, it has a vindicating and controversial character.

Q: There are Catholic feminists who move within the tradition. Why not call them feminist theologians instead of theologians of woman?

Father Saranyana: The adjectives are essential. There are two ways of thinking of woman: One is more proper of the new humanities, the other is more theological. The names may be changed, but the two disciplines must be distinguished with different syntagmata.

Q: What, in fact, is ecofeminism?

Father Saranyana: In a certain sense, it is a return to primitive forms of the religious phenomenon.

It considers that the earth, understood as the feminine, is the origin, or «mother,» of everything. God, who would be the culturally masculine, is stripped of his creator character.

It claims a certain dualism that reminds one of forms of primitive gnosticism. At times, it even tends toward a telluric monism. To my mind, it implies a subversion of the genuine religious sentiment.

Q: What do you think of that analogy, established by ecofeminism, between the exploitation of nature and the exploitations suffered by woman?

Father Saranyana: Ecofeminism is such an exaggerated radicalization of feminist theology, that it has little of theology in the proper sense of the term.

It goes beyond not only dialectical speculation on gender — feminist theology — but also the consideration of gender understood as mere social product — «mujerista» [womanly] theology. Obviously, it is in the antithesis of what I have called the theology of woman.

Q: Is the Holy See interested in these ecofeminist currents?

Father Saranyana: Please understand that it is very difficult to dialogue with such radical proposals, because there is hardly a common platform for understanding. Don’t forget, however, that the Pontifical Council for Culture and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue have studied some proposals of ecofeminism, in a document of 2003, entitled «Jesus Christ Bearer of Living Water.»

The ecofeminists would have to be asked if they accept the absolute transcendence of God above all creation and, in consequence, if they admit that God is creator.

Q: Doctrinal controversies aside, what can the Church do to ease the marginalization of woman, denounced by feminists, even the most moderate?

Father Saranyana: Already the Book of Genesis, with divine wisdom, prophesied as punishment of original sin, a sexist dialectic, which would lead to the violent subjection of woman by man. It is undeniable that woman has been marginalized even in cultures of Christian inspiration.

The Church has been energetic in revising that situation, preaching the commandment of fraternal love.

Little by little, without causing major confrontations, it has brought about the abolition of slavery, been influential in the eradication of torture, softened the laws of war, modified labor relations and greatly improved the feminine condition.

Q: Yet many feminists complain that the Church does not promote woman, because it excludes woman from the ecclesiastical hierarchy.

Father Saranyana: Marxism’s shadow is very long. Although the Iron Curtain has fallen, many dialectical approaches are still around. Because of this, it is difficult for some to understand that the Church harmonizes functional inequality with essential equality.

To recall this does not imply a return to the pre-modern estate society. It implies a deepening in the divine mystery of the Church.

The Church was founded by Christ. Her spousal condition is essential, as Revelation teaches: «Dressed as a bride adorned for her husband.» The Pauline tradition also repeats it. Christ is the bridegroom of the Church, because he makes her fruitful with his blood.

Consequently, those who participate sacramentally in a privileged way in Christ’s priesthood must be men. They are the sacramental continuity of that priesthood and, for the same reason, are also bridegrooms of the Church.

Q: One of the concerns of feminist theology is the image of God and the imprint of that image in each human person.

Father Saranyana: God is, in fact, the exemplar of all that exists. Every woman is the image of God, because she is woman; every man is the image of God, because he is man; every angel is also the image of God, because he is a pure spirit.

God is above the sexual condition. He is the cause, through creation, of the sexual differentiation itself. That is why he is neither man nor woman nor angel. The International Theological Commission spoke about all this last year.

Q: Yet religious language is «exclusive» with regard to the feminine gender. It says that God is Father. Do you think this might change?

Father Saranyana: That topic goes beyond the analytical possibilities of theology. I do not know if there is a language in which the feminine is inclusive and the masculine exclusive. It is obvious that such a possibility is not absurd.

However, at least in the Western world, languages have evolved so that ordinarily plurals are masculine when it is a question of a group of individuals of different gender, except in a few cases, as the well-known «Mensch» in German.

It could have been otherwise, but one must keep to what is, under the pain of «babelizing» ourselves. An artificial design of new ways of inclusive expression might complicate human communication infinitely, including theological communication.

Q: Pope John Paul II coined the term «feminine genius.» Do you think Benedict XVI will make some further contribution in this connection?

Father Saranyana: I take the liberty to recommend the reading of a little-known important document, the letter of May 31, 2004, signed by Cardinal Ratzinger, addressed to the bishops of the Catholic Church, on the collaboration of man and woman in the Church and in the world.

It is a document that offers clues on hypothetical gestures of the magisterium in the forthcoming years. One must not forget, of course, «Mulieris Dignitatem,» 1988, or the «Letter to Women,» 1995.

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