A couple weeks ago, a friend in the Netherlands sent me a recent book (a Dutch translation from the original Portuguese) by Ivone Gebara, the Brazilian Catholic, woman religious, philosopher, and feminist theologian. (Photo attached.) I had a chance to meet Ivone a few years ago when she was on a lecture tour and have always had great respect and appreciation for her and her ministry.
Today a bit of background information about Ivone Gebara and then some reflections about her key theological focus: “ecofeminism.”
Ivone was born in São Paulo and, as a young woman, joined the Augustinian Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady. She holds two doctorates: one in philosophy from the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo and another in theology from L’Université Catholique de Louvain.
For almost seventeen years, Ivone Gebara taught at the liberation theology Instituto Teológico do Recife in close collaboration with the institute’s founder Archbishop Hélder Câmara (1909 – 1999), called the “bishop of the slums.” He was well-known for his social and political work for the poor and the struggle for human rights and democracy during Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964 – 1985). Government authorities began to harass Câmara actively in 1968, interfering with his ministry in the slums and condoning machine-gun attacks on his residence. The Instituto Teológico do Recife existed from 1968 until it was closed in 1989, during the pontificate of Pope John Paul II (1920 – 205), under direction of then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, John Paul’s Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, once known as the historical Roman Inquisition. From the very beginning of his pontificate in 1978, Pope John Paul II had built a case against ”liberation theology.”
The closing of the Instituto by the Vatican had a major impact on Ivone Gebara’s role as an educator and her own philosophical and theological viewpoints. She was uncomfortable with the church’s resistance to change and with a liberation theology that ignored the patriarchal power structures in the church. In the church, she saw an oppressive hierarchical worldview that categorized people in terms of gender, race, and class.
In 1995, Gebara was tried and convicted by the Vatican for defending the decriminalization of abortion and stating in an interview in the Brazilian weekly magazine Veja that she did not believe that abortion was always a sin, based on her observations and reflections about the life experiences of poor women throughout the Brazilian slums. In the United States, the National Catholic Reporter (1995:24) reacted to her Vatican condemnation by proclaiming: “Ivone Gebara Must Be Doing Something Right.” She was punished with the penalty of “silence” and ordered to “reflect” on her ideas for two years in Europe. It was during this time that she completed her second doctorate at L’Université Catholique de Louvain.
Today Ivone Gebara is a key leader in the Latin American ecofeminist movement, writing, teaching, organizing, and working with marginalized and impoverished women. The term “ecofeminism” was created in 1974 by the French writer and civil rights activist Françoise d’Eaubonne in her book Le Féminisme ou la Mort (Feminism or Death).
Ivone Gebara Is the author of over thirty books and numerous articles published in Portuguese, Spanish, French, English and German. One of her books in English which I strongly recommend is Longing for Running Water: Ecofeminism and Liberation (Fortress Press 1999).
Gebara’s commitment to social justice for women has shaped her understanding of what the theological task ought to be and has contributed to the development of her methodology and feminist theological vision. Ecofeminism is a movement that sees a connection between the exploitation and degradation of the natural world and the subordination and oppression of women. It explores the connections between women and nature in culture, economy, religion, politics, and literature. It takes from the Green movement a concern about the impact of human activities on the non-human world and from feminism a view of humanity as gendered in ways that subordinate, exploit, and oppress women.
Ivone Gebara’s pioneering feminist work and her own life ministry and witness, have inspired Christian women in Brazil and globally to challenge and oppose an androcentric theology that diminishes women’s place within the church and within society. She is indeed a wonderfully prophetic woman theologian.
In Ivone Gebara’s book Longing for Running Water, there are many observations I have underlined. Here is one that strongly resonates with my own theological sense of purpose and meaning: “I think it is always important to understand our need to refashion our beliefs and their particular formulations in each new moment of history…..Theology will have to carry out its social role with greater humility and openness. Its truths will always need to be open-ended…. They will be mere approximations of the Divine Mystery: attempts to grasp the meaning of our existence, if only in a tentative way. We will need to leave behind absolute statements and “ex cathedra” truths, and learn to live in the midst of the extraordinary….Religious experience is polyphonic and multicolored, despite the fact that in the depth of each of us we hear something of the same note or perceive something of the same choir. It is a search for the meaning of our existence, a groping for that “mysterious something” that is within us and at the same time surpasses us.”
The Divine Mystery still speaks to all of us. Our response is our challenge….