In this well-written volume, Finnish researcher Elina Vuola compares Latin American Liberation Theology with Feminist Theology and critiques each for failing to address substantively the issue of sexual ethics. Vuola traces the reason for this failure to a weakness in the method of both theologies. She argues that the starting points, praxis for Liberation Theology and women's experience for Feminist Theology, are abstract and removed from the concrete experience of poor women in Latin America, for whom, she argues, issues of sexual ethics, in particular of reproductive rights, are daily a matter of life and death.
Chapters One and Two provide overviews of the history and development of Latin American Liberation Theology and Feminist Theology, both in North America and in Latin America. Chapter three compares these two forms of theology directly. Chapter four lays out Vuola's argument that neither Liberation Theology nor Feminist Theology in Latin America have dealt adequately with issues of reproductive rights, i.e. poor women's access or lack thereof to birth control and legal, safe abortion services. Chapter five provides a brief summary to the entire work.
Vuola argues that the "praxis starting point" for Latin American Liberation Theology, is incapable of attending to the real life issues of poor women in Latin America, because it has been articulated so far primarily in economic terms without attention to broader forces that negatively affect the lives of poor women, in particular gender ideology. She argues that Feminist Theology has in the past defined its starting point as "women's experience" in universalizing and abstract ways that are equally blind to the concrete experience of poor women. Neither of these insights is new, of course. Her discussion of Latin American Feminist Theologians and their context as part of both movements brings fresh considerations. Even though Latin American Feminist Theologians have not yet addressed reproductive rights explicitly, Vuola feels they are in the best position to do so, if they redefine praxis and continually hold themselves accountable to poor women's concrete experiences.
For Vuola that kind of accountability cannot ignore reproductive rights, because of the high numbers of women in Latin America who die of complications of childbirth or from illegal abortions. Vuola's discussion of this topic does justice to many of the complicated issues involved, including legalization of abortion, availability of birth control, and "first world" population control strategies that have at times forced methods of birth control or abortion on women in Latin America. Vuola clearly believes that birth control and legal, safe abortion ought to be widely available to and yet not forced upon poor women, and although she says it is for Latin American Feminist Theologians themselves to work out their position on the issues involved, she seems to hope that they will come to the same conclusion.
I would hope that Latin American Feminist Theologians, in their treatment of this topic, broaden the issue to sexual ethics in general. Although Vuola uses the term sexual ethics, she makes it clear that she is limiting her discussion to reproductive rights. A broader treatment of sexuality and sexual ethics is vital to a consideration of reproductive rights. Widely available birth control and abortion will not in and of themselves give women the freedom to make decisions about their sexuality and reproductive lives. What is needed are sexual ethics that can stand against patriarchal definitions of sexuality, women, and women's bodies in any given context, that can be articulated from within the concrete experience of the poor women it seeks to address, and that includes revolutionary strategies for creating relations among men and women that are just, freely chosen, and contribute to the well-being of men, women, and their children. A tall order, but nothing less will provide an adequate context for discussing reproductive rights.
I would recommend this book for use in course on Feminist Theology or Liberation Theology in general. Vuola's discussion of the history of the Catholic Church in Latin America helps to put Liberation Theology in its ecclesial- political context and to highlight the implications of and political allegiances associated with advocating for or standing against Liberation theology in Latin America today. Her discussion of the development of Feminist Theology lacks the same attention to historical development of feminist issues in North American and elsewhere, but does a fine job of locating feminist theology both in the context of women's and gender studies broadly, and at the same time, as a form of liberation theology. Vuola does justice to diversity within feminist theology and gets right to the methodological questions and challenges facing feminist theology today. All of this, and the fact that the provocative subject of reproductive rights is sure to fuel class discussion, make this book attractive as a textbook in a graduate level course. I look forward to teaching with it.