Fourth panel – Religion and Sexual Politics
Afternoon – August 25, 2009
After the presentation and debate of the conference overview paper on religion and sexual politics, a panel was given by the following scholars: Jaris Mujica, professor of the Universidade Católica do Peru (Catholic University of Peru) of the Universidade Cayetano Heredia (Cayetano Heredia University), Reverend Elias Vergara, pastor from the Anglican Church of Brazil, Fernando Seffner, professor at the school of education at the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul (Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul), Maria Luiza Heilborn, professor at the Instituto de Medicina Social at the Universidade Estadual do Rio de Janeiro (Institute of Social Medicine at the State University of Rio de Janeiro) and co–coordenator of CLAM, Margareth Arilha, executive secretary of the Comissão de Cidadania e Reprodução, and Veriano Terto, coordinator of ABIA, made comments.
Jaris Mujica presented about the structure and action of ultra conservative Catholic sectors in Peru by identifying their main organizations, internal and external modalities of articulation, the strategies they adopt in relation to sexual and reproductive rights, and the profile and trajectory of their leadership. This explains how Peruvian conservative Catholic groups have, in recent years, developed intimate relations with state politics and intervene with great strength in democratic debates.
The strategies of the ultra-conservative Catholics sectors in Peru have been significantly modified in recent years. In the past, they were they were based on the premises of religious tradition, family cohesion, defense of private property and were mainly designed for local and national interventions at societal levels. Today, while their moral premises are the same, they have become globalized and politicized. This demonstrates that organic connections do exist between disparate organizations such as the Opus Dei and the Sodalicio de la Vida Cristiana – which are institutionally connected with the Catholic Church and international civil society organizations such as the Population Research Institute (PRI) or the Aliança Latino-americana para a Família (ALAFA).
While operating in society, these forces have increasingly penetrated into state politics and have mobilized legislative and juridical actions. They no longer have the goal of transforming behavior through religious and cultural interventions, but do so through the law. Their strategies go beyond colonizing the state as it happened in the past. Instead, they aim deeply at altering legal norms to establish long standing and wide platforms of action, which must recognized as grounded in democratic rules and rights principles. In other words, the political terrain in which these groups operate in the domain of biopower and consequently, their discourses and arguments systematically turn around the concept of “life,” its meaning and interpretation.
Rev. Elias Vergara shifted the focus to religious discourse itself and proposed a reconstruction of the story of the Garden of Eden. In this reconstructed story, the eviction of paradise is not interpreted as “the fall” but rather as liberation or the encounter with desire. Outside of the garden, Adam and Eve had sex and their first son was born out this love relation. Before desiring, Adam and Eve’s lives were boring, being naked with each other they did not feel their bodies. This castration was the effect of blind obedience imposed by Yaveh. Staying in the Garden meant, therefore, dying. As replenishment was beyond the boundaries of Eden, Adam and Eve’s rebellion must be interpreted positively.
Reverand Vergara remarked that it is not possible to make this interpretation if we remain attached to a dogmatic logic, which has always seen the snake as an impersonation of the devil, who is conceived as the one that opposes Yaveh. However, he says, in the same manner as the garden can be interpreted as confinement–the snake can be seen as another god who is disputing with Yaveh. The reconstructed myth of the Garden is aimed at teaching that whenever the rule of any institution is hegemonic or totalitarian there is always the possibility to break with this logic, and quite often, this is what should be done. To live under the internal logic of the Garden or break from it is the greater and perennial human challenge.
The Reverend finally underlined that when debating sexuality and religion, it is important to reflect about the encounter between the sacred and human experience that in his view, is undergoing deep transformations. As an example of this transformation, he recalled the increasing number of women priestesses and as well as discussions that have been evolving for many years within the progressive religious field about sexuality, gender and reproductive rights. He finalized his intervention affirming that from a reconstructed theological perspective, LGBT pride parades are to be seen and interpreted as a religious celebration of love without barriers.
Fernando Seffner, recaptured ideas developed in the overview paper and proposed that time is ripe for us to leave behind the simplified framework that conceives religion as regression, primitive morality and the denial of science that contrasts with modernity, which has always been seen as progress, scientific advancement, and enlightenment. He recalled that in Brazil, progressive sectors of the Catholic Church have advocated for the respect for human rights during the dictatorship and presently the Evangelic Universal Church of the Kingdom of God is distributing condoms through their missions in Africa.
In his view, it is very difficult to sustain a dogmatic classical position today, which says that religion is to be completely confined to the private domain and does not have a place in politics. There are both negative and positive examples in relation to this aspect. A study conducted in the state of São Paulo, for example, verified that family judges call for reconciliation sessions, which are not required by law, when a couple requests divorce. This case demonstrates how far Christian dogma has penetrated the Brazilian judiciary.
In contrast, there are few positive examples of religious institutions being open to non- dogmatic positions. A study recently conducted by ABIA (Associação Brasileira Interdisciplinar de AIDS) identified an organization whose leaders are monks and have developed theological guidelines for HIV prevention. They do not distribute condoms because this is prohibited by the Vatican. However, they make condoms accessible to their beneficiaries.
Therefore, Seffner considers that one main challenge we face is to politicize the religious phenomenon in ways that could take us beyond conventional progressive frames about religion. He also explained that a bulk of literature is currently available demonstrating that persons of faith in Brazil increasingly make decisions about their lives independently of their views of religious hierarchies and dogmatic doctrines. This greater autonomy of religious subjects themselves may also further discussions about laicité and prevent us from being captured by simplified and rigid visions in relation to the intersections between sexuality, religion and politics.
Maria Luiza Heilborn addressed the question of abortion, which constitutes a central theme of biopolitics predominantly framed in terms of biological assumptions to define ‘life’. She quoted the Italian feminist Paola Tabet saying that it is politically unsustainable to systematically advocate for natural fertility as a rule today. In all societies abortion is an extensive practice. Although pregnancy, Heilborn argued, may be described as the beginning of ‘life’ and invested with a plethora of meanings by certain social actors, in many cultures, pregnancy is no more than retained menstrual blood that will be released if certain procedures are performed. This indicates that there is no final definition or truth about abortion, as proposed by religious groups who affirm that life starts with conception.
Heilborn also called attention to the fact that today conservative religious voices increasingly resort to scientific arguments to ground their moral propositions. This has been successful, among other, because new reproductive technologies make possible the visualization of intra-uterine life and infuse a sense of reality and materiality into something, which until very recently was totally opaque. The result is an anticipation of ‘life’ experience that in the past took place just after birth. The scenario is therefore paradoxical. On the one hand, new reproductive technologies are to be welcomed because they ensure a healthy pregnancy. On the other, however, they provide a new status of truth to and individualize a group of cells that, in fact, remain totally dependent on the woman’s body to survive until a certain point of pregnancy.
She emphasized that what is at play in the abortion debate is the unequivocal tension between the woman’s body as a shelter and the increasing individualization of the fetus as a person. Heilborn recalled that Elizabeth Badinter, in her book, Wrong Path, said that feminists had taken the “our bodies, ourselves” argument too far and that the contradictions with the potential rights of the becoming person as well as with men’s right to paternity could not be evaded anymore. Lastly, she underlined that in our debates about the meaning of life, as a core question of biopolitics, we should also include systematic reflections about other difficult issues, such as euthanasia, dignified death and suicide.
:: COMMENTS ::
The first commentator, Veriano Terto, raised specific questions for each paper presented in the panel. Recapturing Jaris Mujica’s reflections about the debates around the meaning of life, he mentioned that in Brazil, as well as in other countries, Catholic priests and Evangelical pastors often do radical work to sustain “life” in communities where they act to protect and save persons, including HIV positive persons, who are judged and murdered by drug traffickers and other non-state actors. In addition, in both national and global debates about access to medicine, including anti-retrovirals, religious institutions are quite often active in contesting intellectual property rights systems, and therefore become natural allies of the HIV movement. In his view, people living with HIV and the movement itself quite often gain greater support from religious groups than from the state or liberal sectors. He believes it is very important to talk about these concrete examples because they trigger political dilemmas in respect to our allegiances, alliances and strategies.
In regards to Reverend Vergara’s presentation, Terto observed that it would also be interesting and necessary to recapture and rethink mythologies beyond the Christian tradition since there are other myths that conceive sexuality more positively, or at least not so negatively, as it is portrayed in the Bible. In Brazil, for example, it would be vital to recover the images and discourses on sexuality from the Afro-Brazilian and indigenous traditions. He also appraised the connection between sexuality and ecstasy, suggested by Vergara’s reflections, as it recaptures the radical imagination of the 1970s and 1980s, when making sex also meant to transcend, a political perspective that has, since then, been lost, particularly under the effect of HIV/AIDS.
In relation to Heilborn’s reflections, Veriano reminded us that abortion was and still remains a critical issue for women living with HIV/AIDS. In contrast to ordinary women that can not terminate a pregnancy, women living with HIV/AIDS are often induced by doctors and others to opt for an abortion. Lastly, he said that the experience of the AIDS epidemics suggests that the commitment to rights and possibilities “during life itself” is as important as to critically reflect about the beginning and end of life itself.
The last commentator, Margareth Arilha, reacted to the ideas presented by Rev. Elias Vergara e Fernando Seffner, highlighting that even when we recognize the contradictions and plurality within the field of religion we cannot forget that all religious institutions, be them conservative or progressive, aims for power. Therefore, it is always crucial to make explicit what is the project of power in religious actions and ask what may be its potential affects on the processes leading to the consolidation of democracies and the sexual and reproductive rights agendas.
Commenting on the analysis by Mujica in the Peruvian context, she remarked that the same pattern is also observable in Brazil, as we are also witnessing the increasing penetration of state institutions and legal norms by conservative agendas. An evident example, she said, is found in a series of municipal initiatives aimed at blocking the access to emergency contraception at local levels. These same forces are also extremely active at the Congress level as it can be illustrated by a wave of regressive abortion law provisions, which have been tabled in the last two years.
Finally, reflecting on the arguments about the balancing of rights developed by Malu Heilborn, she called for the need to emphasize that abortion is not exclusively a feminist or even a woman’s problem or dilema, it is an issue that should concern all. In her words, it is a problem of humanity at large. She also proposed that Heilborn’s analysis could be expanded if it also included information about recent abortion reforms in Portugal, Colombia and Mexico. Arilha, while agreeing with Heilborn that new technologies raise new challenges for the political agenda aimed at legalizing abortion, is also convinced that these recent legal reforms — that occurred in complex political contexts — indicate that it is possible to keep moving forward, despite many obstacles.