Not sure how I missed this, but radical Latina feminist theologian Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz passed early last month from cancer at the age of 69. Ada Maria developed a cogent critique of the Catholic Church in the mid-80s, identifying the concept of “structural sin” for those enjoying the privileges of inequality, and developing a “mujerista” theology as an alternative frame of reference.
Ada María Isasi-Díaz would have become a Roman Catholic priest, she told friends, if not for the church’s ban on ordaining women. Instead, she became a dissident theologian who spoke for those she considered the neglected spiritual core of the church’s membership: Hispanic women like herself.
Dr. Isasi-Díaz, who died of cancer in New York on May 13, was widely known in North and South America as the chief theorist behind Mujerista theology — she published a book of the same name in 1996 — which extols the role of Hispanic women, especially the poor, in personifying Christian faith in the everyday struggles of life. She was 69.
Her death was announced by Drew University in Madison, N.J., where she was a professor of ethics and theology from 1991 until her retirement in 2009.
In part, Dr. Isasi-Díaz conceived of Mujerista, or “womanist,” theology (from the Spanish word mujer, for woman) to distinguish her ideas from those of feminism — a term “rejected by many in the Hispanic community,” she wrote in 1989, “because they consider feminism a preoccupation of white, Anglo women.” She hoped that “Mujerism,” which she considered a spiritual branch of the reform movement known as liberation theology, would help delineate the special identity shared by poor, Hispanic, Catholic women.
“Hispanic women widely agree that, though we make up the vast majority of those who participate in the work of the churches, we do not participate in deciding what work is to be done,” she wrote in 1989 in Christian Century, “Mujeristas: A Name of Our Own!” “We do the praying, but our understanding of the God to whom we pray is ignored.”
Dr. Isasi-Díaz argued that poor women, by the nature of their roles in their families and communities, “exercised their moral agency in the world” more profoundly than any other group of the faithful. They did that in the small daily choices they made, she said: between bus fare and a 40-block walk to work, for instance; or between breakfast for oneself and one’s child. Those choices embodied immense moral power, and deserved to be honored in the form of greater roles for those women in their church.
She called for a radical reorientation of church philosophy. “Hispanic women’s experience and our struggle for survival, not the Bible, are the source of our theology and the starting point for how we should interpret, appropriate and use the Bible,” Dr. Isasi-Díaz wrote in “Mujerista Theology.”
The Vatican never acknowledged her suggestions. Her support for admitting women to the priesthood made her a polemical figure on the lecture circuit. Administrators at Catholic institutions frequently canceled faculty invitations to her. In March, Christian Brothers University in Memphis, citing Dr. Isasi-Díaz’s officiating at a nephew’s same-sex wedding in 2009, disinvited her just two weeks before she was scheduled to give a keynote address at a campus event.
Ada María Isasi-Díaz was born in Havana on March 22, 1943, one of eight children of Josefina Díaz de Isasi and Domingo G. Isasi-Battle, a civil engineer. The family left Cuba in 1960, settling in Baton Rouge, La., where Mr. Isasi-Battle found work as an engineer in sugar refineries. Her survivors include her mother; a brother, Jose; and five sisters: M. Lourdes Perez-Albuerne, Graciella M. Isasi-Díaz, Mari Isasi-Díaz, M. Teresita Ysasi-Díaz and Gloria M. Ysasi-Díaz.
After arriving in the United States, Dr. Isasi-Díaz became a novitiate in the Ursuline Order, in Santa Rosa, Calif., which sent her for undergraduate studies to the College of New Rochelle and later dispatched her to work as a missionary in Peru.
She left the order in 1969 before taking her final vows and became involved in the Women’s Ordination Conference, which supports the ordination of women as Roman Catholic priests. After stints as a teacher, she enrolled at Union Theological Seminary in New York, where she earned a doctorate in theology in 1990.
Dr. Isasi-Díaz experienced a regular if unofficial role as a church pastor beginning in 2007, when the Archdiocese of New York shuttered Our Lady of Angels Church in East Harlem, the parish church she adopted when she moved to New York to attend the seminary. A group of parishioners began holding prayer meetings on the sidewalk outside. Initially it was a protest. Eventually it became a neighborhood institution, complete with folding chairs and tent.
Until a few weeks after she became ill, Dr. Isasi-Díaz had delivered the sermons there on most Sundays for five years.