By Joyce Meyer
We need young female theologians if women’s voices are to carry on the legacy of those women who began the work of breaking through patriarchal theological barriers and to continue contributing to the theological development of our Catholic Church.
This is the goal of Women of Wisdom and Action, which began seven years ago as a collaboration of the U.S. province of the Verbum Dei Missionary Fraternity and the Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara University, particularly for women religious of Asia. (The program is sponsored by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, which also funds Global Sisters Report.)
I had the wonderful fortune to participate in the fruits of this initiative Jan. 14-18 in Bangkok. A colloquium, “Without a Vision, the People Will Perish,” gave opportunity for female Asian theologians to share with one another theological insights from their studies.
Thirty-one sisters, three laywomen, a layman and six Jesuit priests* from the United States and seven Asian countries gathered to keep alive the vision and passion that Women of Wisdom and Action has engendered since its founding and to reflect on how to sustain its momentum for the future.
For four days, the sisters — 12 from China, seven from India, four from Vietnam, three from Myanmar, two from the Philippines, one from Taiwan, one from Singapore, one Korean-American, and two doctoral candidates from tribal communities in India — participated in panel presentations joined by former mentors or teachers from the universities at which they studied. A group of nine sisters held a discussion of theological issues that arise in spiritual direction. Papers reflected research, prayer and study on themes in Old and New Testaments, the church in the world and feminist theologies. After each panel, groups organized according to age to raise important perspectives on questions that emerged from the presentations.
Discussions raised points about the importance of nurturing critical thinking and questioning skills that keep theology alive and reminded us all that theological thought needs to be holistic and contextual. The scholars also agreed that dialogue helps develop theology; thus, communities of theological thinking are necessary today.
There was also agreement about the importance of language in theological discourse. We discussed how cultural language can create narratives about our lives as women and consequently as women religious that in turn influence our images of God in today’s cultural contexts.
One example given was from Vietnamese culture, where Thi, meaning “pregnant,” is the middle name for all women, whereas the middle name for all men is Van, which means “men with high education.” Another example from Vietnam but originally from China is their word for women, phu nu, which means “modest” or “subordinate to men.” These words remain with Vietnamese women when they enter into religious life and have influenced the way they are regarded in the church.
An example of a positive alternative narrative about women in theology was noted in answering the question, “Who is a theologian?” Rather than giving in to the patriarchal narrative that only priests or those women and men with theology doctorates can hold this role, women who have bachelor’s or master’s degrees in theology can also claim the title in ministries of teaching social work, administration or others.
The panel presentations included both academic and practical theologians. Some are clearly more attracted to deep research and writing while others feel called to practice theological perspectives in their ministerial lives. Both make important contributions to theological life.
This was apparent in papers that reflected on ministries with refugees and displaced persons fleeing from the violence of war that elicited deep feelings of sorrow in presenters and listeners. They reminded us that theology without heart is not holistic.
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[Global Sisters Report: Joyce Meyer is a member of the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and is GSR’s liaison to women religious outside of the United States.]