It is an honor and a joy to welcome all of you to this conference of Asian women theologians organized by the Ecclesia of Women in Asia. Our theme for this gathering is: Body and Sexuality: Theological-Pastoral Perspectives of Women in Asia. One of our main aims in this conference is to explore how body and sexuality have been defined or constructed in various Asian contexts and to critically reflect on these in the light of our faith tradition.

Many people used to think of the body as something given, and with a divinely pre-ordained meaning, a meaning that Marxists, feminists and post-structuralist discourses have revealed to be basically socially constructed. Body is produced… shaped by power dynamics in society.[1] Bodies have been named, contrasted/linked with each other, with nature, with sources of social and supernatural powers, and ranked accordingly. Normal/abnormal, pure/impure, beautiful/ugly…these labels on bodies have been used to establish the dominance of particular social groups.

Patriarchal societies in general have produced docile, decorous and useful women’s bodies. But the meanings inscribed in women’s body and sexuality have also varied depending on class, race, caste, age, sexual orientation and religious status. Christianity and the other religions of Asia have been major constitutive forces in the history of Asian women’s bodies. Colonialism, neo-colonialism, and the networked world are other significant forces in defining bodies of Asian women.

But this body is not just acted upon… it is also a medium of action in the world…a medium of power and resistance. Thus it is important as well to recover the stories of women both in the past and today who resist oppressive discourses to “unloose the body”; stories of women defining their own bodies and sexuality in alternative humanizing ways. These stories, including those hidden in the “interstices” of sacred texts and heritage, will be like strands of thread, which with our hands and creativity, we can use to re-weave the faith that has been handed down to us, in fresh novel ways.

Significance of the theme

While internationally, theological publications have increasingly dealt with the topic on Body and Sexuality, this is still an issue many Asian theologians would try to skirt around or not directly write and talk about. This gathering is therefore significant in its successful attempt to challenge Asian women theologians to come out and write on this theme, as we can see very well from the EWA 2 compilation of papers we now have.

Some of us are also aware that the Federation of Asian Bishops’ conference, in its 8th plenary assembly last August 2003, focused on the theme “The Asian Family towards a Culture of Integral Life” (FABC Papers No. 111). FABC will devote its energies and resources to promoting this thrust in the next four years. It is our hope that the papers that were produced in this conference will contribute towards deepening or challenging Asian churches’ theological reflection on women and sexuality in relation to the issue of “family”.

Conference process

Two papers will be presented as plenary lectures: Dr. Christine Gudorf’s “Body, Self and Sexual Identity: Reflections on the Current Evidence” and Dr. Pushpa Joseph’s “Revisioning Eros for Asian Feminist Theologizing: Some Pointers from Tantric Philosophy.” The rest of the papers will be discussed and peer-reviewed in workshops. These have been categorized as follows: Body and Sexuality: Society/World, Body and Scripture, Sacramentality of Women’s Body, Sexuality and Church Leadership, and Image of God’s Body.

We have invited as well three sisters from other Christian denominations, who will each give a short response to the papers from a philosophical perspective or from the standpoint of their respective faiths. In the latter, our ecumenical exchange will have a two-fold focus. On the one hand, we shall look at the similarities in our theologies or situation of women in our churches thus highlighting our interconnectedness. On the other hand, we shall also discuss some differences in the way our traditions had developed in order to see the richness of our particularities.

Non-paper presenting participants in this conference were also asked to bring with them a story, poem, ritual or artwork related to our theme. These will either be used in our liturgies/rituals, posted for display or shared in the evening of cultural presentation.

I invite all of you to consider this conference as a “laboratory of ideas”, a free space, where you can express your thoughts without fear, discuss a topic that is still considered a “taboo” in some places in Asia, as well as, critique or challenge one another.

Introducing EWA

A second major aim of this conference is to introduce to you the Ecclesia of Women in Asia (EWA) in the hope that you too will share our Vision-Mission and would enthusiastically become part of our network of friends.

We are aware that theology in the past has been largely articulated by and from the standpoint of White Western males. While we have witnessed in the previous decades the development of contextual theologies from the perspective of Asian males, the voice of Asian Catholic women remains largely muted. In a conference on the post-synodal document Ecclesia in Asia in Pune, India, only four women were present. Where are the other women theologians, they asked? A year after, in 2002, about 55 women theologians from 17 Asian countries gathered for a four-day conference entitled “Ecclesia of Women in Asia: Gathering the Voices of the Silenced.” This conference aimed to bring together Catholic women theologians in Asia, so that they may be seen and heard. It was there that EWA was born.

EWA is a forum of Catholic women doing theology in Asia on the academic, pastoral and grassroots level. [Presentation of EWA’s Vision-Mission-Programs and Activities followed]…Link to Information on EWA

In the past two years, aside from organizing this conference, setting up a website and a yahoogroup, and clarifying our Vision-Mission, we in EWA have also published a book containing the essays that were presented at the EWA 2002 conference. A selection of 16 articles from this collection had been translated into German and will be published in Germany in 2005, courtesy of Missio, Aachen. Lastly, Evelyn Monteiro and I have participated as EWA representatives in the 8th FABC Plenary Assembly on “The Asian Family: Towards a Culture of Integral Life” not only to share women theologians’ perspective on the issue, but also to make the bishops aware of the existence of this forum of Catholic women theologians.

It all started in Pune, India…where the dream for EWA was conceived. But it is not enough to simply dream…EWA would not have lived on without women of kindred spirits who not only would share the dream but would contribute to re-weaving it. I am referring here to the members of the Continuity Committee who have worked to keep EWA alive and make this conference possible: Dr. Pushpa Joseph, 2003 EWA Coordinator; Atty. Andrea Si, PRO/Webmistress; Dr. Evelyn Monteiro and Dr. Antoinette Guztler, editors of EWA 1 book; Dr. Christine Burke, EWA 2 Program Coordinator; Ms. Nunuk Murniati and Ms. Intan Darmawati, EWA 2 hosts; Sr. Sanae Masuda, care-taker of our funds; and Dr. Theresa Tsou. Also acting as our consultant is Dr. Annette Meuthrath, in-charge of Asia desk, Institute of Missiology, Missio. Thanks to the wonders of information technology, we were able to sustain friendship, solidarity, and sense of mission mainly through emails.

Towards the end of this conference, we shall likewise invite you to reflect on how you too may contribute towards promoting the Vision-Mission of EWA in your own milieus. We also hope that some of you can more actively work with us by becoming members of the new Continuity Committee.

In the spirit of Gaudium et Spes

I would like to end with a note that it is a good coincidence that we are holding this conference as the Church prepares to commemorate the fortieth year of the Vatican II documents. In the document Gaudium et Spes (Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World), the conciliar bishops clearly expressed the Church’s commitment to dialogue with the modern world, a radical departure from its previous anti-modernist stance. Along this line, they encouraged theologians to engage in new theological inquiries in dialogue with recent studies and findings in other disciplines (GS 62) and in response to the changing situation. In terms of methodology, they mandated it as a duty of the Church to read the signs of the times and to interpret these in the light of the gospel (GS 4). As the editors of the book Vatican II and its Legacy rightly noted, “Vatican II clearly said no to those who would say no to dialogue with the world. At the same time, however, the council also said no to those who would say no to a dialogue with faith.”[2]

The world has changed a lot after forty years. We are now in the period of late or post-modernity,[3] but the teachings of Gaudium et Spes about the role of theologians and how to do Christian theology remain relevant for our times. Let us participate in this conference of the Ecclesia of Women in Asia imbued with the same spirit that animated Gaudium et Spes – openness to dialogue both with the changing world, as well as, with our faith tradition.

Thank you!

Agnes M Brazal is is full time faculty member of the Maryhill School of Theology and vice-president of the Catholic Theological Association of the Philippines (DAKATEO). She obtained her doctorate in sacred theology (STD) at the Katholiek Universiteit Leuven. She is the 2003 winner of the MWI (Institute of Missiology, Missio, Aachen) international academic essay contest for Contextual Theology and Philosophy on the theme “Religious Identity and Migration”.

[1] Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980), 51-52, 58-59.

[2] M. Lamberigts and L. Kenis, eds., Vatican II and its Legacy, (Leuven: Peeters, 2002), x.

[3] Anthony Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age (Stanford, California: Stanford University, 1991), 11-34; Zygmunt Bauman, “A Sociological Theory of Postmodernity,” in Intimations of Postmodernity (London: Routledge, 1992), 187-204.

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