CTEWC in Africa after Trento: Engaging the African Synod: The Third Day

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The Third Day

On 23 August, CTEWC sponsored public lectures on Feminism and on Sustainability at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa (CUEA).   The lectures were presented in two sessions, each with a panel of three experts, who addressed the topic for 10 minutes and were then able to enter into conversation with the audience in a Q&A session. 

The first session – on feminism - was chaired by Linda Hogan from Ireland, and was addressed by David Kaulemu from Zimbabwe, Philomena Mwaura from Kenya and Agnes Brazal from the Philippines. 

As first speaker in the session on feminism, Dr Kaulemu expressed his nervousness at addressing this painful issue.  He observed that if the world were more peaceful, just and reconciled, then there would be no need for feminism.  It is a symptom of a world gone bad, a response to injustices.  Since there are always alternatives to any present social forms, it is not possible to impose a single shape on society.  Those who try to do so, even within the church, do so with tragic results.  The vision of feminism in Africa, is of improved lives for girls and women in African societies.  As such, it is a legitimate impulse to liberate.  It is not a single political project, and it appears under a variety of styles.  This may cause some authorities discomfort, because it challenges the status quo of the invisibility of women.

Ecclesia in Africa 49 and 65 call for an openness to dialogue, … to be practiced within the family of the Church at all levels.  Hence feminists ought also to dialogue with church and society, as well as among themselves.  In this dialogue, some authorities have an ambivalent attitude towards feminist projects, espousing it, but killing it with a thousand qualifications.  The question remains of how appropriately to respond to the cry that feminism represents.

In her presentation, Dr Philomena Mwaura offered a case study of the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians, followed by an account of what women do in the church, and then a proposal for a framework to address some of the concerns of women.  She typified African women theologians as ‘activist’ theologians who raise awareness of gender injustice and transform patriarchy.  Preferring to avoid the term ‘feminist’ because of its baggage, Mwaura spoke of the role of women theologians as an extension of the women’s movement in the secular world.  They are conscious of the web of oppression and exclusion of the voiceless. Therefore members of the Circle have a contextual and communal methodology, returning to the villages and using a women’s narrative hermeneutic, helping women to discover what the Word of God says about their situation.  As they engage with wider structures that dehumanize society, and dialogue with women of other faiths, African women theologians can be considered to play a missiological role in the church. 

Dr Agnes Brazal’s presentation related African women’s theology to the context of the wider world church.  She identified some areas of dialogue between women theologians of the North and the global South.  In Africa, women theologians are part of the third wave of the women’s movement, attentive to differences among themselves, no longer as objects of white feminist theologians, but subjects of their own theology.  Among the contributions made by women’s theology in Africa, Brazal counted their women’s biblical hermeneutic, their discourse on HIV and AIDS which interrogates masculinities among other things, and their combination of best practices, including the grassroots sharing, creating a space for the voiceless, and collaboration with male feminist theologians. 

From her Asian perspective, Brazal observed that the most visible work was done by South African or Protestant women thelogians, and there is thus a need for more Catholic women theologians in Africa.  She said that Asian theologians could learn more from collaboration with women, and finally that Jairus’s daughter has indeed arisen and grown up among African women theologians. 

Discussion in response to questions from the audience touched on issues of narrative theology in situations of marginalisation and polygamy, work with street women in Nairobi and the challenge to restore their dignity, the term ‘feminist’, the relevance or otherwise of ordination for women theologians, the power exercised by women in traditional societies, and finally how men have become oppressors of their mothers and sisters. 

The second session – on sustainability - was chaired by Andrea Vicini of Boston College, and was addressed by Drs Peter Knox from South Africa, Jacquineau Azetsop from Cameroon and Edward Osang Obi from Nigeria. 

Peter Knox concentrated on the broad area of ecological sustainability, taking a preliminary definition of the concept from the UN’s Bruntland Commission which describes sustainable development as that which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.  From this followed a consideration of the distinction between needs and wants, an evaluation of the most basic needs, and a brief consideration of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  Touching on the Millennium Development Goals, Knox suggested that these could be good indicators of true human needs.  But other species on the planet also have needs which should be respected if ecological balance is to be found and maintained.  Considering that some resources which are consumed to meet human needs, are finite and others renewable, the lecture touched on the Five Capitals Model of the Forum for the Future and the interconvertibility of the capitals.  Finally Knox enumerated reasons why he considers the topic of ecology to be an issue of theological ethics, even in Africa where so many human needs are not being met.  These included the principles of holism and of solidarity, a reading of the 7th Commandment, of Genesis 1:28-30, and of African Munus 80. 

Dr Jacquineau Azetsop focussed on sustainability of health systems. His emphasis was on the importance and growing role of ethics in shaping healthcare policy and programme design.  Azetsop gave the particular example of healthcare in Chad, and specifically the care for people living with HIV/AIDS.  The programme, started in 2007, based on the WHO’s five pillars, had several limitations and a low rate of success.  Efforts to strengthen the system included a framework to analyse healthcare sustainability, which took into account contextual factors, a profile of activities and organisational capabilies.  Values which should shape the policies are: social justice (in terms of geography, gender and age), efforts at prevention, community participation, ownership of the programmes (as opposed to vertically imposed policies), accountability, leadership and governance.  However, in many cases ethics remain peripheral, when other factors determine changes in national healthcare policies. 

In his presentation, entitled “Just sustainability: A question of boundaries,” Dr Obi Edward Osang considered environmental damage to the Niger Delta caused by the petrochemical industry.  International society lacks the political will to confront the issue.  In principle, there should not be a conflict between economic development and ecological sustainability, but rather a natural synergy.  In practice, ecology is threatened by humans’ unmitigated extension of themselves, underscored by Cartesian dualism and the philosophy that ‘more is better.’  In order to change this trend, Osang proposed to construct a cosmology that reintroduces human persons into the natural ecology, attributing moral significance to other nature.  This applies in Africa as well, where people have traditionally felt bonded to the common other, but are devaluing their own personhood and losing reveretia personae.  Citing Magesa’s ‘mutual supplementation’ of humans and ecosystems, Calvin de Wit’s reading of a tripartite relationship between Creator, creature and other creatures in Job 40, and the warning in Genesis 3 of succumbing to the desire for omnipotence, Osang concluded that it is possible to live in peace with our people, with God and with other creatures.  We have to retain the perspective of our own finitude and the omnipotence of God the Creator.  In the incarnation, God chose to be subjected to the limitations of creation, thereby revealing created laws.  As a community, the followers of Christ should be involved in realising God’s plan for salvation. 

In the brief discussion after the three addresses the following topics were touched upon: the Roman Catholic position on reproductive health, Pope Benedict XVI’s reference to the many (spiritual) deserts in the world, the dialectic between mastery over and stewardship of creation, Africa’s performance vis-à-vis the Millennium Development Goals, whether Africans have a particular moral weakness that makes them suffer more from HIV/AIDS, resources that might be used towards ecological sustainability, a determinist notion of nature bringing balance to disturbed ecosystems, and the perpetual impetus towards greater industrial consumption. 

After the public lecture, Fr James Keenan launched and signed Catholic Theological Ethics Past, Present, and Future: The Trento Conference (Orbis, 2011).  For the purpose of the event, Sr Veronica Rop, one of the recipients of the CTEWC scholarships for the advanced training of African women in theological ethics, invested Jim as an elder of the Maasai tribe, armed with pen and book (representing spear and shield) with which to dispel ethical opponents.  James explained the significance of the CTEWC logo as representing the role of ethicists at the interface of church and world, where people are nervous to speak out on painful issues.  At this interface the cross emerges as the colourless background that emodies the suffering we see in the world and in the church.  The cross embodies love and hope and makes us resilient.  It is central to the vision shared by CTEWC, and makes members of the network collaborators and colleagues in Africa and elsewhere.  James signed and presented copies of his edited proceedings of the Trento Conference to the Vice-Chancellor of the university, to the library and to the faculty of theology of CUEA.

In return, the university presented gifts of books to James, as well as to the regional chairpersons of CTEWC – Orobator from Africa, Lucas Chan from Asia, Maria Teresa Davila from Latin America and Antonio Autiero from Europe. 

In closing, Veronica Rop thanked all the planners, the contributors, the benefactors and the visitors to CUEA, including Archbishop John Onaiyekan of Abuja and Bishop Eduardo Hiiboro Kussala from South Sudan, and everybody who had made the day a success.  

The participants then celebrated the Eucharist with hundreds of members of the university community. 

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