Sunday, February 8, 2015

"Women's Cultures" Reminds Us that the Catholic Church Is Still Out of Touch with Women

As of late, Catholic leaders have been showing their true colors regarding their attitudes toward women. For example, the 2014 Humanum conference was brimming with retrograde messages about gender complimentarity, marriage, and family. Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke drew ire earlier this year when he decried the "feminized" atmosphere of the church. Now, the Catholic Church is being ridiculed for a misguided conference on women's issues at the Vatican last week.

The Pontifical Council for Culture hosted a plenary assembly entitled "Women's Cultures: Equality and Difference" on February 4-7 in Rome, Italy. The gathering, which was limited to male Pontifical Council members and consultors (of which only a handful were female), explored the "equilibrium" between women's equality and difference. That is, the gathering discussed how women could "avoid the two risky extremes of this process: uniformity on one hand and marginalisation on the other", as if gender equality would somehow produce sameness among men and women. The gathering also discussed the role of women in the Catholic Church and whether women feel welcome in church spaces. I found it amusing that an all-male council within an all-male church hierarchy wondered if women felt welcome in the Catholic Church.

From the beginning, the event's outreach hit all the wrong notes. First, the cover image for the assembly's working document was Man Ray's 1936 sculpture, "Venus Restored", depicting a headless female torso bound up in rope. Bridget Mary Meehan of the Association of Roman Catholic Women priests called the image a reflection of the Vatican's "patriarchal, dysfunctional view that holds women in spiritual bondage", adding that "[t]he Vatican is clueless on women's issues." We Are Church Ireland argued that Man Ray's artwork denigrated women, wondering what this artistic choice suggests about the Pontifical Council. (Hat tip to the National Catholic Reporter.)

Second, the Pontifical Council for Culture invited women's input by releasing a promotional video starring Italian actress Nancy Brilli. Some observers found the video vapid and stereotypical. Writing for the National Catholic Reporter, Phyllis Zagano wondered why the Pontifical Council video didn't highlight well-publicized cases of violence against women. Zagano dismissed the video as misguided and condescending to its intended female audience.
"Aside from the obvious — sexy sell has long gone by the boards in developed nations and is totally unacceptable in predominantly Muslim countries — the fact of the matter is that highlighting a stereotypical spokeswoman is not the way to ask for women’s input. Or is the Vatican convinced women’s intellectual abilities rise only to the level of televised soap operas and cosmetics commercials?"
In a commentary piece at Religion Dispatches, Mary E. Hunt criticized the video's invitation to women to submit videos of their lives. Millions of women worldwide live in poverty, making it unlikely that they would know about or have the ability to respond to the outreach video.
"Moreover, what small sliver of the population has the time, energy, technology, and/or inclination to make such a video? Most of the world’s women are too busy finding potable water and safe food, too burdened with childrearing and economic survival to even know about this outreach, much less respond in the week they were given to do so. Those who are wise to these gentlemen know that if we made videos about our lives, our aspirations, or our critiques, they would be deleted long before the committee drank its first cappuccino."
It gets worse. The outline document for the plenary assembly overflowed with ahistorical assertions and sexist stereotypes. For instance, the document claims that men and women were always restricted to binary spheres, and that politics and war were the exclusive sphere of men.
"At the dawn of human history, societies divided roles and functions between men and women rigorously. To the men belonged responsibility, authority, and presence in the public sphere: the law, politics, war, power. To women belonged reproduction, education, and care of the family in the domestic sphere. In ancient Europe, in the communities of Africa, in the most ancient civilisations of Asia, women exercised their talents in the family environment and personal relationships, while avoiding the public sphere or being positively excluded. The queens and empresses recalled in history books were notable exceptions to the norm."
Hardly. If the authors had done their research, they would have discovered that women wielded considerable political power in many cultures. Iroquois women had considerable political power and were responsible for electing tribal leaders. History is littered with hundreds of powerful queens, empresses, and rebel leaders. Countless female rulers were also military leaders, with Ahhotep I, Hatshepsut, Fu Hao, Deborah, Semiramis, Mania, Cratesipolis, Amage, Boudica, Zenobia, Aethelburg, Olga of Kiev, Razia Sultana, Rudrama Devi, Yennenga, Yaa Asantewaa, Xiao Yanyan, and Pine Leaf/Woman Chief as a small sample of such women. History tells us of female warriors among the Scythians, Celts, and Dahomey, while archaeologists have unearthed the remains of women buried with weapons and armor around the world. Whoever wrote the outline document needs a serious history lesson!

The document frames women's lives in terms of family commitments, downplaying other areas of women's lives. It stereotypes all women as nurturing, claiming that even single and childless women "welcome, include, and mediate". The authors insist that men and women are defined by rigid, innate differences but provide no evidence for these assertions.
"Today, generally speaking, women seek to reconcile professional life and family commitments. They can renounce maternity, but those who do have children cannot avoid raising, educating and protecting them. In any case, women who are not married or have no children, welcome, include, and mediate; they are much more capable of tenderness and forgiveness than men. Beyond the different ways of being parents, there is a difference between the feminine and the masculine in techniques of problem-solving, in the perception of the environment, in models of representation and cycles of rest, to mention just a few categories. Cancelling such differences impoverishes personal experience. In this sense it is right not to accept an imposed neutrality but to value difference."
The document defines women's physical experiences in terms of childbearing, neglecting the many other physical experiences that shape women's lives.
"Generativity turns, without doubt, on the bodies of women. It is the female universe that – due to a natural, spontaneous predisposition which could be called bio-physiological – has always looked after, conserved, nurtured, sustained, created attention, consent and care around the conceived child who must develop, be born, and grow. The physicality of women – which makes the world alive, long-living, able to extend itself – finds in the womb its greatest expression."
To be fair, the document contained some positive content. For example, it laments the very real problems facing women (gender-based violence, exploitation, and poverty), asks questions about the spaces available to women in the modern church, and acknowledges the fact that women are leaving the Catholic Church. Nevertheless, these positive elements do not erase the negative elements, which belittle women's historical achievements and shoehorn women's lives into trite, stereotypical boxes.

At the event itself, even Pope Francis demonstrated problematic attitudes toward women. In his February 7th address* to the assembly, Pope Francis drew much-needed attention to violence against women, the female face of poverty, and women's valuable contributions to the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, he could not transcend gender stereotypes while praising Catholic women.
In questo ambito, ho presente e incoraggio il contributo di tante donne che operano nella famiglia, nel campo dell’educazione alla fede, nell’attività pastorale, nella formazione scolastica, ma anche nelle strutture sociali, culturali ed economiche. Voi donne sapete incarnare il volto tenero di Dio, la sua misericordia, che si traduce in disponibilità a donare tempo più che a occupare spazi, ad accogliere invece che ad escludere. In questo senso, mi piace descrivere la dimensione femminile della Chiesa come grembo accogliente che rigenera alla vita.

"In this context, I encourage the contributions of many women who work in the family, in the field of education in the faith, in pastoral activity, in scholastic training, but also in social, cultural and economic. You know women embody the tender face of God, his mercy, which translates into more than willing to donate time to occupy spaces, to welcome rather than exclude. In this sense, I like to describe the feminine dimension of the Church as a welcoming womb that regenerates life."
Pope Francis stressed the importance of women's participation in the Catholic Church, arguing that the church must open spaces for women. However, women cannot become Catholic clergy and therefore cannot hold real power in the church. As long as the Catholic Church remains a male-dominated institution, how much space do women have to participate in church life?
... Le donne e la religione: fuga o ricerca di partecipazione alla vita della Chiesa? Qui i credenti sono interpellati in modo particolare. Sono convinto dell’urgenza di offrire spazi alle donne nella vita della Chiesa e di accoglierle, tenendo conto delle specifiche e mutate sensibilità culturali e sociali. È auspicabile, pertanto, una presenza femminile più capillare ed incisiva nelle Comunità, così che possiamo vedere molte donne coinvolte nelle responsabilità pastorali, nell’accompagnamento di persone, famiglie e gruppi, così come nella riflessione teologica.

"... Women and religion: fleeing or seeking participation in the life of the Church? Here believers are challenged in a special way. I am convinced of the urgency of offering spaces for women in the Church, taking into account the specific and changing cultural and social sensitivities. Therefore, a more extensive and incisive feminine presence in the community is desirable, so that we can see many women involved in pastoral responsibilities, in the accompaniment of persons, families and groups, as well as in theological reflection."

"Women's Cultures: Equality and Difference" is a hilarious example of what happens when celibate male clerics from a patriarchal institution discuss women's issues. The gathering was convened by and for men, and with the exception of a handful of female consultors, female input was conspicuously lacking. The assembly's outreach materials and documents were rife with gender stereotypes and backwards assumptions about the sexes. The voices of real women, and the challenges faced by real women, went unheard. In short, the gathering was a laughing stock.

Answers to these questions are staring the Catholic Church in the face. If the Catholic Church truly wants to respect women, instead of merely give them lip service, it must listen to women and afford them real positions in church leadership. It must let go of outmoded stereotypes and recognize that women are complex individuals. It must stop reducing women to fertile wombs and start respecting women's reproductive rights, an area in which it has an atrocious track record. It must take women seriously.

* - The original document is in Italian. The English translation above was adapted from Google Translate.


  1. Strange that Pope Francis is willing to be (somewhat ) open minded in his dealings with gays, but still stuck in the past when it comes to women.

    1. Donna -- His words regarding violence against women were positive, but until he encourages policy change and enlightened attitudes in the Vatican, his words will remain hollow.

  2. I just don't see a major cultural change coming from the Vatican. I can't imagine the Pope would be able to do it alone. I have a friend who spoke of her life as a nun to be a glorified cleaning lady for the priests. A system that entrenched will only be able to change in the smallest ways.

    1. Jono -- You may be right. Catholics who want change will either have to wait a VERY long time or leave the Catholic Church for fairer climes.


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