Vatican Council on Women Would Be Funny Were it Not So Insulting

It may be Women’s Week at the Vatican, but you have to look carefully at the skirts to find many women. However well-intentioned Vatican officials may be, they embody Murphy’s Law when it comes to women: everything that can go wrong does go wrong. Maybe if women were more than bit players, things might improve.

The Pontifical Council for Culture in Rome, presided over by Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi and made up of cardinals and bishops who are all men, are discussing “Women’s Cultures: Equality and Difference” from February 4-7, 2015 in mostly closed-door sessions. There are enough contradictions in that sentence to end my analysis right here.

I persist, if only to encourage others to trust their intuitions about such dubious endeavors and to think about women when they sing the praises of Pope Francis. Women make up slightly more than half of the Catholic population, and many more than half of its active members. Only by ignoring women can Francis fans herald his achievements.

Only by setting aside the all-male priesthood, bracketing any mention of kyriarchal decision-making structures, and passing over outmoded notions of gender can one honestly say that Francis, who captains the ship, is any better than his immediate predecessors when it comes to half of the church.

His own unfortunate choice of women-related words like “Europe is now a ‘grandmother,’ no longer fertile and vibrant” and women theologians are “the strawberries on the cake!” reveal his personal limitations with regard to women. Let every praise of his papacy contain an asterisk until it is no longer necessary. Maybe that will motivate some people who want him to succeed to get working on women’s issues as well as poverty, war, the environment and the like, all of which have disproportionate impacts on women.

In a pitiful effort to solicit women’s input, the Council enlisted Italian actress Nancy Brilli to invite women to make one-minute YouTube videos that would explain their lives to the committee. The bumbling this time would be comical were it not the best these folks can muster when it comes to women. Saturday Night Live has nothing on this crowd.

I leave it to the reader to watch and decide, but for most Western women the piece is a bad parody of what not to do! The come-hither approach does not entice most women. It is no wonder that the Council took down the English-language video almost as soon as it went up. Nancy Brilli is probably ruing the fact that she cooperated.

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.

Adding insult to injury, the Council chose, as RD’s Patti Miller pointed out yesterday, Man Ray’s “Venere Restaurata” as the cover illustration for its study document in preparation for the meeting (Venus Restored, 1936). Art is always dicey, but for a notoriously patriarchal institution to feature a female nude torso bound in rope is simply too ambiguous for prime time. The Council has seven women Consultors (who have no vote) including art historian Micol Forti, who gamely defended the choice by claiming that the piece is a starting point for new ideas. I should say so! But unless the document writers are willing to concede (which they do not) that the Roman Catholic Church’s theology and policies on sex and reproduction tie women in knots (except for their Fallopian tubes), I respectfully suggest that this image, like the YouTube video, be retired before it causes more scandal.

Irish women’s ordination activist Solime Humbert identified the problem:

Like many other male Surrealist artists, Man Ray tended to objectify women and define them as subordinates…there is a recurrent sadistic streak in his artwork, as well as in his relationships with women, characterized by domination and aggression.

We can debate the fine points later, but I think the description applies quite well to the way the Vatican has long treated women. For too many people such imagery is not fifty shades of anything but violence and oppression.

The study document poses equally problematic content. It is unsigned except for the acknowledgement that “this text has been composed by a group of women in the light of pastoral considerations sent in by our Members and Consultors…” (p. 1) Maybe the various women Consultors were assigned just one of four sections because the document as a whole lacks any explicit methodology or coherent central argument. It is important to note that while it has no weight as official teaching, it is a clue to the kind of input the Council accepted (what it received we will never know) and how it parses and prioritizes the arguments.

The document opens with a gender binary affirmation by Edith Stein who died in 1942, well before the advent of contemporary gender studies. It continues with a remarkably essentialist and egregiously ahistorical view of global society:

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 the women belonged reproduction, education, and care of the family in the domestic sphere. (p. 1)

Historian Max Dashu thoroughly dismantles these old saws citing women clan heads, chieftains, and medicine women: “For a long time, it was possible to get away with claiming that public female leaders never existed, but too much documentation has piled up for this to fly anymore.”

In four rather disjointed sections, the writers try to square several circles. For example, in the first section they want to say that women and men are equal but different. They insist on proclaiming women’s maternal instincts (whatever those are) without ever mentioning men’s propensity to care and nurture. They cite a highly accomplished woman who, when asked what title she liked best, said “Grandma.” To prove their point about difference, the writers mused whether a man would respond in the same way.


As a scholar, it is hard to know where to start with such material. Given a similar paper from a college student or as a journal submission, I would point the writers to decades of careful, complex feminist study in myriad fields—notably psychology, sociology, philosophy, literature, and yes, even theology—that have led to far deeper analyses of these matters. Would the Vatican Observatory begin a conference on astronomy with such outdated science? If not, why here?

The second theme is generativity, a way to think about human activity. But gender straightjackets hijack its usefulness. A sample suffices to give the document’s flavor:

The physicality of women—which makes the world alive, long-living, able to extend itself—finds in the womb its greatest expression. (p. 5)

What about women’s brains? Would we say that men’s physicality finds “in the penis its greatest expression”? Sadly, maybe in some circles, but I hope not. Such objectification of persons, such reduction to the purely physical is never appropriate.

It seems to me that generativity is a human quality that some women at some moments in their lives choose to exercise in a physical way by giving birth. Why not simply say so and move on to the many other ways human beings are generative? Otherwise, men are excluded from generativity, and women who choose not to bear children are left aside.

Section three is on the female body, referred to as “the feminine body.” Decades of gender analysis that has offered alternatives to socially constructed binaries and produced a wide spectrum of ways human beings understand themselves gender wise is completely ignored.

Oddly, the first issue raised is plastic surgery, as if the Vatican were gearing up a campaign against it akin to its anti-abortion efforts. Oh, that pesky matter of choice again. There is much to critique about the medicalization/commercialization of women’s bodies that lines the pockets of unscrupulous surgeons. But I would advise this committee to debate the moral issues on the basis of male enhancements and not tummy tucks. That way, they could prove just how equal men and women really are; or, in Catholic terms, are not.

Imagine a similar discussion of the masculine body. I bet the mere suggestion of penis enlargements as a moral issue for men would stop more conversations than it would start. Try a simple substitute of ‘masculine’ for ‘feminine’ in this section of the document:

Plastic surgery that is not medico-therapeutic can be aggressive toward the masculine identity, showing a refusal of the body in as much as it is a refusal of the ‘season’ that is being lived out. (p. 7)

Add to that a little chat about the relative moral merits of birth control pills and Viagra and I suspect the subject would change in a hurry.

More troubling is what might be the best section of the paper on aggression toward women. Even in this part of the text, there is no clear analysis of kyriarchal structures that create the conditions of women’s servitude. Rather, there is victim blaming:

Women cowed by depression…who accept a level of presumed inferiority… (p. 8)

Tell that to children and teens trafficked by greedy men in prostitution. The question is not, “Why are women killed by a husband, fiancé, partner or ex-partner after years of life together…” but, “Why do men kill?”

Nor is it helpful to ask, “Why at the first physical act of aggression, or even at the first harsh words, do [women] not put distance between themselves and the men who threaten…?” (p. 9). Let’s start by talking about economics and whether women can afford to leave. Nevertheless, the question is: Why do men act violently and get away with it, and what are we going to do about it?

The final section is on women and religion. The much-needed feminist critique of Catholic structures, teachings, and policies is conspicuously absent. The heart of the matter is this: “Why with their great presence have women had so little impact on the Church’s structures?” (p. 10) Answer that question honestly and the Council would go out of business in a blaze of glory.

Instead, they protest too much about women’s ordination, saying statistically women do not want it. I would love to see the numbers. Since when did the Vatican worry about public opinion? Until and unless this very obvious example of Catholic women’s inferiority and marginalization is resolved, the organization is on thin ice to claim moral authority on much of anything.

On the substance of religion, the best these writers offer is a series of polite questions. By now several generations of Catholic women have given explicit answers. To help the Council along, I can sum them up as three simple matters: Catholic women want agency, transparency, and equality.

This week’s exercise reminds me of a similar one thirty years ago. On March 4, 1985, Catholic women held open hearings at Augustana Lutheran Church in Washington, D.C. (the pastor of St. Augustine Catholic Church panicked at the last minute and withdrew permission to use that space) on what are now familiar neuralgic issues: ordination, racism, sexuality, power, freedom of conscience. We did so because the U.S. Catholic Bishops were doing what the men in Rome are doing this week: discussing, debating, even voting on women’s issues without women being present, much less involved as equals. The U.S. men had women consultants too, several of whom resigned in the process.

I watched a video of the event recently with deep consternation about how little progress we have made on any of these matters, how much opposition the Vatican has put in the way of Catholic women. Moderators of the event included the talented Maureen Fiedler, now host of Interfaith Voices, and Carol Coston, the founding director of NETWORK: A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby. Speakers came from many walks of life. Feminist leaders from social justice organizations made their cases. More than four solid hours of testimony—complete with babies crying and audience participation—showed another way to be church, and it left an indelible impression. We lived the future and there was no going back.

The testimony proved that women want to be agents of our own lives, to make decisions in community, to have our autonomy and our abilities match our vision of justice. I have yet to see that operationalized in any aspect of kyriarchal Catholic life, beginning with the most personal matters of sexuality and reproduction.

Women also expect transparency of ourselves, one another, and our organizations. Let the structures and modes of decision-making in the Catholic community be laid bare, and then see if we all agree on how things work. I doubt it, and I know there are better ways to organize even a billion plus member organization. There are simply no excuses for duplicity, power grabs, and hierarchies, and none are accepted.

Thirty years ago women focused on equality in U.S. church and society. Today that expectation remains largely unfulfilled around the world. The institutional Roman Catholic Church is widely seen as the epitome of male privilege run amok, covering up some of its leaders’ criminal sexual behavior and illegal financial dealings by focusing on the perceived shortcomings of women. I fear this current discussion of women, and even the seemingly helpful efforts to eradicate sex trafficking that are being discussed in Rome this week may be more smokescreens than picture windows. I long to be proven wrong.