Linda HOGAN and Agbonkhianmeghe E. OROBATOR, editors, Feminist Catholic Theological Ethics. Conversations in the World Church. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2014. Pp. 300. $42.00 pb. ISBN 978-1-62698-078-5. Reviewed by Grégoire CATTA, S.J., Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, Chesnut Hill, MA 02467
This collection of essays – the second volume of the series edited by James Keenan in Catholic Theological Ethics in the World Church (CTEWC) – gives a colorful and lively echo to the variety and riches of feminist Catholic theological reflections in ethics across the world. The twenty two contributions come from Africa, Asia and Latin America as well as from North America and Europe. They give voice to young scholars as well as already well-known names such as Maria Clara Luchetti Bingemer or James Keenan. They are varied in topics, goals, and styles, ranging from case studies such as the practice of dowry in India seen as a structural sin (Shaji G. Kochuthara), the Marian images’ role for Zimbabwean women (Lilian Dube), or lessons to be learned from child abuse scandals in the USA (James Keenan), to more general reflections about women’s education in Africa (Veronica J. Rop), the virtue of resistance as a feminist virtue in the Indian context (Kochurani Abraham) or a latina vision of justice in which inter-personal and political aspects are intimately connected (Nichole Flores). Other essays review historical developments of feminist theology outside its Western birth place, in Latin America (Maria Clara Luchetti Bingemer) and Asia (Sharon A. Bong) or offer powerful inspiring figures to reflect on such as 13th century Saint Gertrude of Helfta (Teresa Forcades i Vila). In a very helpful introduction A. E. Orobator highlights key points and questions brought to the fore by each essay. He then suggests, as does L. Hogan in her concluding remarks, some lessons to be learned from these Conversations.
Indeed, the subtitle Conversations in the World Church reflects very well the content and main interest of the book. We are dealing with the ongoing lively conversations which the context of a globalized world church is shaping. Through all the contributions, there is of course a common trend of promoting the equal dignity of women and men created in the image of God, of celebrating difference, and of fighting against all forms of gender injustices in society and in the church. However the striking feature brought about by this book is what Hogan calls “a new phase of the evolution of feminist theological voices.” The discussion widens through the integration of the cultural diversity embedded in local Catholic Church contexts. Womanist or Mujerista reflections had already brought diversity and debate into the North American women’s movement since the end of the previous century, but we are now at the stage where voices from the Global South make themselves directly heard. The result is a growing discussion with multiple arguments strengthening each other but also challenging each other. For example, building on the power-beauty dialectic in Philippine culture, Agnes Brazal challenges patriarchal patterns of power-as-domination but she also rejects a radical feminist argument which sees the valuing of female beauty as always a contribution to maintaining unequal relations of power between the sexes. Lilian Dube’s phenomenological inquiry into the usage of white westernized images of Mary rather than African enculturated ones by organized groups of women highlights also differences in feminist hermeneutics between the Global North and Africa.
Another striking aspect of the conversations is the multiplicity of sources on which the contributors rely and the dual role played by traditions both as objects of and sources for critique. Such is the case for cultural myths, practices and narratives but also for the theological tradition. Some aspects of the institutions, practices and teachings of the church are challenged. However, theological sources and many official hierarchical statements are also highlighted as inspirational for a feminist critique. For example, after the Bible, Pope John Paul II is the most often quoted source! In her contribution, Elizabeth Bucar has a provocative argument about the role played by women in moral knowledge thanks to their “shifting” usage of traditional rhetoric and moral teaching. This is well illustrated by the way a lot of essays refer to church documents.
Finally, these papers powerfully reassert that feminist theology is certainly not limited to women neither for production nor as the intended audience. Three essays are actually from male theologians but, more importantly, issues, questions and attempts to address them concern both men and women as part of the same humanity and turning to the same God whose all-encompassing love makes no difference of sex, class, or race. While reading these pages, there is a strong sense that making “unheard” voices to be heard– in this case, especially new women’s voices from the Global South – is an invaluable contribution to the discipline of theology and more broadly to the life of the church because it gives new opportunities to be seized by what Rahner calls “the ineffable holy Mystery who God is.”
Undoubtedly Feminist Catholic Theological Ethics is an important contribution for stirring further scholar conversations in Catholic ethics and beyond. Its format - a collection of short 10 to 15 page papers - makes it also a resource easily usable for the classroom at undergraduate and graduate levels.