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Feminist theology ‘must lead to action’

NCR Staff

Women of the Third World, often depicted as the group most victimized by global economic inequities and cultural customs, have a strong advocate in the Commission on Women Theologians of the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians.

One of the guiding principles of feminist theologians, said Benedictine Sr. Mary John Mananzan, is that theology must grow out of participation in women’s struggles. Mananzan, president of St. Scholastica’s College in Manila, Philippines, was one of three theologians on a panel held during the November national gathering in Milwaukee of Call to Action, the Catholic reform group.

Others on the panel were Maria Pilar Aquino of the University of San Diego and Teresia Hinga, a Kenyan teaching at De Paul University. The panel was moderated by theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether, who teaches at Garrett Theological Seminary and Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

The theologians’ group stems from 1976 and a meeting in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, when, according to Mananzan, “We saw right away that being a liberation theologian does not necessarily mean being gender sensitive.”

That realization began the stirrings that resulted in the founding of the commission in 1983 “with the help of our sisters form the First World,” including Ruether, who was present at the meeting, said Mananzan.

In that 1983 meeting with male theologians, “We disrupted the whole agenda. We said, ‘You guys can go anywhere, but we women would like to do something by ourselves,’ ” said Mananzan. So the group of women set an agenda for the next five years centered on figuring out “What is the meaning of doing feminist liberation theology from the perspective of the Third World.”

In the process, she said, the group adopted Ruether’s hermeneutical principle: “That which degrades or reduces the full humanity of women, that cannot come from God, and that which promotes the full humanity of women, that comes from God.”

From that principle, the women devised steps for methodology.

In Asia, said Mananzan, the first of five points is that “feminist theology is the struggle of women for full equality.”

In Asia, as elsewhere, she said, the struggle includes issues such as rape, incest, economic inequality, mail order brides, prostitution, sex trafficking, and, in a far more fundamental way, the struggle simply to survive.

The second step is to make a cultural and religious critique “because culture is not absolute.”

In India, for instance, males “would talk about dowry as heritage; people from Western Africa would talk about female circumcision as their tradition.” The theologians, however, would say, “OK, we may have done it for 2 million years, but if it is hurting people, hurting women, we have got to stop it. So culture is not absolute. It can be corrected, because we make culture.”

The third principle is “to read the Bible from the perspective of Third World women. For 2,000 years it has been taught, interpreted and translated by men.”

The fourth is development of a collective theology. So work is done not only by individual theologians, but by groups of theologians. In Asia, said Mananzan, it has become the practice among women theologians to critique one another’s theological articles, which are then rewritten and critiqued again, so that articles become “a collective production.”

Finally, she said, theology “must lead to liberating action. It must not be only academic.” While feminist liberation theology “has all the strength and scholarliness of anybody’s theology. … It is not to be left on the shelf.”

One criterion of being a feminist theologian, she said, is “to be involved in the struggle. You cannot reflect on a vicarious experience; you cannot look down on people struggling and then write about them. You have to be involved in that struggle and then you can write about your own experience,” she said.

National Catholic Reporter, December 17, 1999