The Inquisition of Today and U.S. Women Religious by Ivone Gebara

Statement from Ivone Gebara, writer, philosopher and theologian from Brazil on the Vatican action against U.S. religious women. 

Translated from Portuguese. Reprinted with permission. 

Once again, we watch dumbfounded as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith directs a “doctrinal assessment of” or a “calling attention to” or the “punishment of” those who, according to the CDF, break away from the proper observance of Catholic doctrine. Only this time, the CDF is not pointing an accusatory finger at a person, but rather at an institution that brings together and represents more than 55,000 women religious in the United States- namely, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, known by its acronym LCWR.

Throughout their long history, these women religious developed and continue to develop a broad educational mission which advances the dignity of many people and groups both within and beyond the United States. Most of these women belong to diverse national and international congregations.

In addition to their Christian and humanistic formation, they are intellectuals and professionals in various fields of knowledge. They are writers, philosophers, biologists, sociologists, lawyers and theologians. They have broad backgrounds and their expertise is recognized nationally and internationally. They also are educators, catechists and human rights activists. In many situations, they set their lives at the service of those affected by injustice or set themselves in opposition to the grave actions taken by the government of the United States. I had the honor of meeting some of them who were arrested and imprisoned because they put themselves at the forefront of demonstrations to close the School of the Americas, an institution of the United States government that prepares soldiers from our countries to act in repressive and cruel ways.

These religious are women of reflection and action with a long history of service not only in their country, but in many others. Today they are under suspicion and under the supervision of the Vatican. They are being criticized for disagreeing with the bishops who are considered to be the “authentic teachers of faith and morals.” In addition, they are accused of being supporters of radical feminism, of deviating from Roman Catholic doctrine, of complicity in the approval of homosexual unions and other charges which are surprising given their anachronistic nature.

Exactly what would constitute radical feminism? And what might be its real manifestations in the lives of congregations of women religious? Exactly what kinds of theological deviations are affecting the lives of women religious? And might it be that we are being scrutinized and punished as women because we can no longer be true to ourselves and to the tradition of the Gospel by means of blind submission to a male hierarchical order? Might it be that those responsible for Vatican Congregations are out of touch with the vast worldwide feminist revolution that has touched every continent and even religious congregations?

Many women religious in the United Statesand other countries are indeed the heirs, teachers and disciples of one of the most interesting expressions of worldwide feminism, specifically feminist theology which developed in the United States during the late 1960s. Its original ideas, critical analyses and liberating stances made possible a new way of doing theology which in turn continues to accompany movements of women’s emancipation. As a consequence, women religious have contributed to a rethinking of our Christian religious tradition by taking us beyond the invisibility and oppression of women. They also created alternative venues for education and formation. They wrote theological and inspirational texts so that the tradition of the Jesus Movement could continue to nurture our present and would not be abandoned by thousands of persons made weary by the weight of patriarchal religious structures and rules.

What actions can be taken given these curial and administrative examples of anachronism and symbolic violence on the part of the Roman Catholic Church? What are we to think of these rigid philosophical referents that ascribe to the masculine what is considered best in the human being? What can be said about a unilateral and misogynistic anthropological vision out of which the tradition of Jesus is interpreted? What are we to think about this administrative/ punitive treatment from which an archbishop is appointed to review, guide and approve decisions taken by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious as if we were incapable of insight and lucidity?

Are we simply a multinational capitalist enterprise the “products” of which should be in conformity with the dictates of a single line of production? And to maintain this enterprise, should we be controlled like robots by those who consider themselves the owners and guardians of the institution? Where is the freedom, the charity, the historical creativity, the fraternal and sisterly love? At the same time that indignation takes hold of us, a sense of fidelity to our dignity as women and to the Gospel as proclaimed to the poor and marginalized invites us to respond to this act of repugnant injustice.

In today’s world, the prelates and church officials use a double standard. On the one hand, there are high-level examples of the Roman Catholic Church being able to welcome back into its bosom groups on the far-right whose harmful history, especially with regard to adolescents and children is widely known. I think especially of Marcial Maciel, founder of the in the Legionaries of Christ (Mexico) or the religious followers of Archbishop Lefevre (Switzerland) whose disobedience to the pope and coercive methods of making disciples is verified by many. The same institutional church welcomes men who are interested in it for power and repudiates women that it wants to keep submissive. By means of this attitude, it exposes women to ridiculous criticisms that are voiced in the Catholic religious media in bad faith. Among these women, the prelates seem to formally recognize the merits of those whose actions are among those traditionally exercised by women religious in schools and hospitals. But is this all that we are? We know of very few instances in the United States where women religious were involved in the abuse of young children, adolescents and elders. No public denunciation tarnished their image. No one ever spoke of them allying themselves with major international banks for their own benefit. No complaints are found of insider-trading or the exchange of favors so as to preserve the silence of impunity. And yet, in contrast to men of power, so few of them have been beatified or canonized by Church authorities. Still, the recognition of these women comes from so many communities and groups, Christian and otherwise, who shared in the lives and works of so many of them. And of course, these groups will not be silenced by this unjust “doctrinal assessment” that touches them directly as well.

Plagiarizing Jesus in the Gospel, I dare to say, “I pity these men” who do not know the contradictions and beauties of life up close, who do not allow their hearts to be broken open by the joys and sufferings of the people, who do not love the present moment, who still prefer to enforce strict laws rather than to celebrate life. All they have learned are the fixed rules of a doctrine determined by an outdated rationality from which they judge the faith of others, especially women.

Perhaps they think that God approves of them and submits to them and to their lucubrations, so distant from those who hunger for bread and for justice, the hungry, the abandoned, the prostituted, the abused and the forgotten. How long must we suffer under their yoke? What attitudes and stances will inspire us as “the Spirit that blows where it wills” so that we may continue to be faithful to the LIFE that is in us?

To my dear sisters in the United States of LCWR, my gratitude, affection and solidarity. If you are being persecuted for the good that you do probably your work will produce good and abundant fruit. Know that with you, women religious from other continents will not allow them to silence our voice. But, if they silence us by a written decree, it will give us one more reason to continue in the struggle for human dignity and the freedom for which we have been created. We will continue to proclaim in countless ways the love of neighbor as the key to human and cosmic communion present in the tradition of Jesus of Nazareth and in many others, though in diverse ways. In this historical moment, we will continue to weave together one more part of the vast history of the affirmation of freedom, the right to be different and to think differently and in through all this endeavoring not to be afraid to be happy.

27 April 2012

Ivone Gebara is Brazilian and belongs to the religious order Sisters of Our Lady (Canoneses of St. Augustine). She had been a professor at the Theological Institute of Recife for nearly two decades, and worked among women in poor neighborhoods. Well known for her work on ecofeminism and liberation theology, her many books include Out of the Depths: Women’s Experience of Evil and Salvation (2002) and Longing for Running Water: Ecofeminism and Liberation (1999).

12 thoughts on “The Inquisition of Today and U.S. Women Religious by Ivone Gebara”

  1. Brava, brava, brava! What would it take to move the pope and his bureaucracy–not to mention in Inquisition–out of the Middle Ages and into a democratic (small-D!) modern world? What would it take to educate a pope? What would it take to convince the church fathers that mothers are equally human? The papacy, cardinals, bishops, et al. are possibly the best example of patriarchy in the world. Hooray for feminist-liberation theology.


  2. Barbara, I join you in the thrill on Professor Gebara’s defense of US women “clerics” before the history of idiocy and Vatican’s control limiting human potential in the most positive directions. But I feel saddened that as I ask myself the important questions that you bring to our attention, as feminists we need to do more for empowering Mothering as the single most important act of creation—Goddess & God in a dance where women are given the noblest task to embody and nurture identities. Too many women still need to acknowledge that early child development and its education is more than what is taught in the schools of Psychology (controled by patriarchy). As more women who are mothering societies receive the support of other women regarding how is it that we stop creating the future popes, hitlers, tyrants and capitalist terrorists, and instead raise, nurture and mother the future men and women who aspire to transform this society into an egalitarian society, we could end patriarchy sooner than later. Under the spell of a subaltern identity, many women still equate love with roles of subservience. And changing that requires re-education. Maybe what it takes is too domestic and quotidian, social transformation will take the efforts of feminists, womanists, mujeritas, ecofeminists, and most others in between, before we can put courses like “Mothering for Social Development and Better Human Relations” (but not limited to the aforementioned) in the Schools of Psychology, Women Studies, Theology, Ethics, Religion, Law, and others…

    Another question that I would ask from us is, what are we doing to help the present mothers, and young women contemplating mothering, to birth, educate at home, inspire and influence the Early Child Development and identities for unpatriarchy/anti-patriarchy today and in the near future? And I am concerned that much remains lost in the conversations and attention given to gender fluidity, or what percent women we are. Even when that conversation is necessary and extends on what percent of man is man or woman, it should not be an excuse for feminists to ignore the most honorable ancient unpaid job, which not being honored, keeps mothers raising monstrous sons to feed Patriarchy. I wholeheartedly feel that the moment when feminists make Mothering education in the academe a feminist priority, the end of Patriarchy will be assured in less than two generations. This is my hope.


  3. Dear Ivone,
    Your comments of the CDF’s actions regarding the LCWR are not only timely, they arise out of your own experience with this Inquisitional arm of the church. To say the magisterium masquerades in “Plagiarizing Jesus in the Gospel,” is to put their “ministry” and enactment of the Holy Spirt in its rightful place.

    The Vatican,, have completely removed themselves from all modern discourse surrounding feminism as it institutes the Kin-dom of God. The seduction of power as idolatry continues to convince these men (and some women as well) that they are the Church instead of the very women (LCWR) who enact the essence of Jesus in their anthropology and praxis.

    Thank you for your words of wisdom and hope because this latest assault by the CDF implicates all women who exercise freedom of conscious as they “defect in place,” or leave the church in order to live out the gospel values of Jesus.


  4. When are women going to create their own organizations free of all male control? When is this misguided idea that you can work within a male controlled / woman priest excluding institution ever a surprise? To paraphrase Bill Clinton, yet again…. it’s the patriarchy. Just imagine what 55,000 committed women could do with this kind of life experience if they served the cause of women 100% and never had to deal with those men again? Imagine? It’s the patriarchy, and nothing is ever new about it.


      1. and this is where their hatred comes from…. fear… big, cry-baby fear….

        “Women were the most dangerous class of all,” insisted Cato, “if permitted to assemble and consult with each other.” [in Livy, xxxiv, 2-3]


    1. Women have created a woman-only religion. It’s called Dianic Wicca, as founded by Z. Budapest and others. Rituals (led by Ruth Barrett and others) are for women-born women only. (Note that true Dianic Wicca is NOT the version being invented by transgender women who used to be men and who still think like men and want to be in charge of everything. Still.) Dianics do not hate men. Many are married to men. Dianics are fighting against patriarchy.


  5. What do you expect? Wake up women, there is no dealing with male supremacy, you can’t compromise with it, you can’t expect anything other than who they are, male supremacists who hate women, and that is true of all the major patriarchal religions!


  6. Radical feminist nuns were among the supporters of my speeches on my book She Who Changes in New Zealand and Australia. When the bishop of Sydney prohibited me from speaking on Catholic ground, one of them stood in the parking lot outside the original Catholic venue and directed people to the new venue. When I was asked what in my book or speeches the bishop might have objected to, I answered, “In my book I speak of God as love, I would have thought he would have agreed with that!”


  7. I really enjoyed this post by Ivone Gerbara as well as all the comments that follow. As a single mother/student, who has had to fight endless resistance to my insistance on completing my education from the controlling and invasive institutions that regularly intervene and regulate my life; my very existence is effected daily by the constant outpouring of legislation that seeks to destroy the very existence of single mothers and their children. I exist as representative of only one out of millions of single women on welfare in this day and age who can proudly say that they have made it to the University level of education. The number is slim to none. Surprisingly, as the system would have it, this is not acceptable, nor is it a supported activity by any of the programs that existed, that have been successfully destroyed, seemingly right behind me, as if “they” have used my success as a marker for drawing the line at any possibility for further incidents of accidental “slips through the cracks.” God forbid anyone on welfare should ever actually achieve such a level of success. It must be systematically prevented at all costs. Hence, the governor has proposed a cut to the already reduced lifetime limit from 60 months to 48 months, a removal of all supportive services such as domestic violence counseling, mental health, substance abuse, and childcare. If these budget cuts come to fruition, the amount of homeless mothers and children will reach record heights between the months of July 2012 and January 2013.
    As i stated, it is a miracle that I am where I am today because the restrictions, and requirements of the welfare to work programs paradoxically make it absolutely impossible for its participants to attend school and continue on aid, I am an exception to the rule, which I find to be extremely problematic. I never envisioned myself winding up in need of public assistance, but, in finding myself pregnant in the midst of a domestic violence relationship, with a man who made it clear that he would not assist me in any way, I had no choice. Being unaware and naive to the cruel and deceptive nature of the world of public assistance, I naturally believed them when they told me that the goal of their program was to assist me in becoming “self-sufficient.” I was naturally conflicted with understanding their contradictory policies that only allow for 12 months of vocational education as a primary activity and threats of the total loss of benefits for non-compliance with the imposition of 20 hours of work related activity required prior to to being allowed to participate in any type of educational pursuits. My intellect told me that the logical way to becomming self-sufficient would be through the direct pursuit of higher education, and obtaining at least a bachelor’s degree. I therefore struggled with what can be described only as the absolute deterrence from and opposition to such pursuits by agents and workers within the welfare system, as dictated by federal and state legislation, and prevented by all institutions involved. AS I continue the pursuit of my education, as well as involvement with the welfare system, I realize that the doors continue to slam shut behind me and before those women behind me who are not so fortunate. I find this to be a great failure of our legislature as it fails to provide even one legitimate attempt at suggesting any solutions to poverty, but offers plenty of added abuses to the already complicated lives of those in need of public assistance. State legislators continue to suggest legislation to drug test applicants to welfare, one even suggested criminalizing single motherhood, suggesting that it is child neglect, and seeks to arrest all single mothers and take their children away, and load them into the abusive foster system, which would, not surprisingly, generate more money for the state. I find that to be an outrageous example of overblown misogyny that is not so outrageous to our current legislators.
    Serious structural changes need to take place immediately if not sooner. The value of mothers and mothering needs to be restored as public opinion has been shaped by misleading politicians beginning 20 years ago with Ronald Reagan misleading the public with his overblown negative stereotype of the “welfare” queen that has 98% of the U.S. population believing the lies and despising single mothers on welfare as they believe them to be the cause of the economic crisis and view them as lazy freeloaders living off the tax payers hard earned money. Even these legislators don’t have all the facts as 1) welfare benefits are not generous although legislators portray them as so 2) family caps prevent women on assistance from increases in benefits no matter how many children they have 3) work requirements ensure that no one is sitting on their butts doing nothing while they collect a check 4) most welfare recipients work full time and even with this income added to their benefits do not rise above the poverty line.
    This article by Ivone Gerbara at least provides some comfort that there are some allies that will stick it out with us to the end as I intend on preparing for battle and doing what I can to oppose the current backslide on progress for the status of women. It is time to take a stand as not only are our rights as women under attack, but our Constitution is being compromised on a regular basis and no one seems to be taking notice, or doing anything about it. I am most concerned with the recent rulings that compromise our Constitutional rights to peaceful assembly, the new law that allows for the detention of people indefinitely without having been charged, and Justice Scalia’s latest “textualization” theory in which he sees fit to legitimize his Constitutional violation by changing the text of the legislation of U.S. 1983 with Fillarsky v. Delia, in which the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that a part-time government employee who is sued for an alleged federal civil rights violation enjoys the same “qualified immunity” that is enjoyed by full-time government employees who perform the same function. Justice Scalia had previously stated that: “Nothing in our Constitution grants any person immunity. Nothing in our Constitution grants any person the power to grant immunity to another person. Nothing in our Constitution grants any officer, dignitary, member of the government, elected official, or government subdivision immunity. Yet today, numerous government agents, officials and others claim to be immune from the same laws that you and I must follow.” Prior to 1996, there was no such thing as “qualified immunity” enjoyed by government employees and the text of the legislation applied to “Any peron” who violated the civil rights of another. This legislation needs to be repealed as government officials are not above the law and should not be granted immunity from violating our civil rights as we can see has become the new trend.


  8. And to think that in the 1980s in our very own country many of my students were single or single mothers on a variety of programs that helped them to get their college degrees and the fees were much lower than they are now.


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