Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Vatican acts...


I have been remiss in not acknowledging the Pontifical Council on Culture’s change in artwork for its outline document on women’s culture.  Without fanfare, explanation or apology, the council switched the cover art a few weeks ago.   We may never know what swayed the seemingly recalcitrant Pontifical Council leader, Cardinal Ravasi…  Was it the uber-orthodoxy’s concerns about female nudity or those expressed about female bondage conveyed by Man Ray’s “Venus Restored,” their original cover art choice, that tipped the scales?

I waited to write about this because I’m still uncertain if the new artwork is an improvement or not.  Instead of a nude, headless woman’s torso in ropes, the report cover now sports Petrus Christus’ 15th century painting, “Our Lady of the Dry Tree.”  Yes, it is now the Virgin Mary…the clergy’s default, prevalent, unrealistic image of women.  Instead of celebrating the councils’ action, I shook my head and sighed at the predictability: women were first portrayed as naked “T & A” and then as the Virgin Mary.

Many if not most clergy imprison themselves to seeing women as either a virgin or a whore with no middle ground in how they identify women.  Therefore, I’m not surprised that their mental limitation manifested itself in their art choices.  Should we call it a “win” that they didn’t leap to the Marian image first?

However, their mental limitations also manifested themselves via their writings.  The council’s working document speaks about the body as a key factor in one’s identity.  It continues by describing feminine identity thusly: “So the feminine identity is the point of convergence of daily fragility, of vulnerability, mutability and multiplicity between emotive interior life and exterior physicality.”

Putting this in everyday language, the council believes that feminine identity is a combination of being fragile (on a daily basis), being vulnerable, being changeable, and being varied … all intermingled between internal emotions and external physical appearance.  I’m not sure if using less academic language helps in the statement’s understandability.  But it perhaps helps one determine if the statement reflects a convergence of the clergy’s daily misogyny, pseudo-chivalry, immutability, and hegemony harbored in their interior thoughts and manifested in their exterior actions more than it describes feminine identity.

Let’s start with “daily fragility.”  What exactly is that?  The definition of “fragile” is “easily destroyed; not strong or sturdy; vulnerable.”  I don’t know what women the council members interact with, but regardless of poverty or wealth, sickness or health, most women I know possess and exhibit tremendous strength and grit.  To portray women as egg-shell thin porcelain dolls constantly on the brink of being smashed to smithereens…every single day…perhaps projects how the council members wish women were but does not reflect who they actually are.  Aha…now we’re getting somewhere with regards to women’s identity.  It’s not what council members desire it to be and they can’t unfetter themselves from being enslaved to their own ideas long enough to confront truth.

“Vulnerable” is a synonym for “fragile” so I have to deduct points for redundancy, repetition and saying the same thing more than once.

Not sure where the council was going with the “mutability” angle.  Yes women change over time…as do men…but it’s not like women are the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or anything.  Oh, that’s right; we couldn’t be because the TMNT are kick-ass crime-fighters not dainty little teacups that need to be packed in bubble-wrap. 

Maybe the council was thinking more “go-go Gadget” kind of mutability but alas he’s a guy so that’s doubtful.  From the report the only noteworthy physical change for women is plastic surgery…not puberty, not menstruation, not menopause, not pregnancy.  These are perennial clergy favorites so they really caught me off guard with the plastic surgery thing.

Tip of the hat on “multiplicity.”  However, I’d appreciate if the Catholic hierarchy (and its cheerleaders) would stop trying to shoe-horn all women into the same mould.  That's kind of anti-multiplicity.  Other than including the word “multiplicity” this document did little to break from centuries old stereotypes that hinder the variance implied by “multiplicity.”

Here’s the thing, and granted I’m a woman and thus ineligible to be a member of this august group of men pontificating about women.  Nonetheless, I’m very capable of telling you about my identity.  Why?  Because the bodily component that most influences my identity is not my uterus, not my breasts, not my hair, not my face. It is my brain…you know that biological entity that you completely did not mention in your section about women’s biology.

Newsflash: the average human female uterus is about 102 cubic centimeters and weighs about 200 grams (about .44 ounces) while the average human female brain is about 1130 cubic centimeters and weighs about 1.5 kg (about 3.3 lbs).  I’m trying to figure out why you think ½ pound of flesh should influence my identity more than something in my body that is 7.5 times larger.

So, no, my identity is not my naked torso; It’s not the inner organs housed by my naked torso; it’s not me scrambling to be the Virgin Mary; it's not me sitting in a dry tree; it’s not a frail frightened little bunny; it’s not even that of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello, Rafael of TMNT fame, or Inspector Gadget.  My identity is quite simply this.  I am a child of God, endowed with many gifts and a functioning brain, who walks with God, and walks as God not the hierarchy sees fit.  I am equal to – no better or worse than – any other child of God and my possibilities should not be limited by humans.  The fact that the church hierarchy limits or tries to limit my possibilities is something for it to address within its ranks.  And as long as the hierarchy continues to limit women’s possibilities, I am called to assert my non-fragile self upon their hegemonic praxes to reject what is insupportable within Christianity.  That is my identity and you are welcome to include it as an addendum to your little report.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Vatican responds...


Several women complained to the Vatican’s Pontifical Council on Culture about using the sculpture “Venus Restored” (see previous blog article for a picture) as cover artwork for its working document on women’s culture.  One of my friends received the following response today signed by Cardinal Ravasi, the Council’s head.

I have received your objection to the use of “Venus Restored” by the artist Man Ray on the Pontifical Council for Culture’s website to illustrate the working document of the Plenary Assembly on “Women’s Cultures: equality and difference”.   While registering your complaint, we have chosen not to remove the image, as we believe it speaks clearly for one of the central points of our document: many women, alas, are still struggling for freedom (bound with rope), their voices and intellect often unheard (headless), their actions unappreciated (limbless).
Gianfranco Ravasi

First, I appreciate that Cardinal Ravasi at least responded to my friend, though he has not yet responded to my complaint.  But let’s look at his response for a moment.

He defends using the artwork saying it speaks clearly to the issue of women’s voices and intellect often being unheard…  kind of like the intelligent women’s voices being ignored by him on this very topic...

In two simple sentences Cardinal Ravasi encapsulates the hierarchy’s historical role in binding women, ignoring their voices and under-appreciating them.  We objected but our voices were unappreciated and ignored in favor of being bound to his decision.  Richer irony there never was than him dismissing intelligent women’s concerns as unfounded at the same time he envisions himself as some sort of knight in shining armor advocating for greater appreciation of women's intellectual contributions.

My 50 years of experience and observations indicate the intellectual contributions from women the hierarchy most appreciates tend to be ones that echo, promote, adulate or enshrine the hierarchy's contributions.  Women's intellectual contributions that challenge the hierarchy's ideas and worldview usually suffer dehumanizing non-acknowledgement, dismissal, scorn, censure or are outright demonized.  Currently the hierarchy often ascribes the term "radical feminist" to women offering intellectual contributions differing from those of the hierarchy.  Unless women grab their pom-poms and perform perky cheers about the hierarchy's intellectual contributions, they stand little chance of being heard and even less chance of being appreciated. 

Cardinal, you have no women members on your council.  Why?  If the plight of unheard female voices troubles you, the council should be led by a woman and have a majority of women members.  The total absence of women members immediately nullifies the council’s and your personal credibility because you chose to continue the hierarchy's male hegemonic praxis of excluding women.

Rather than include women you make this strange comment that women are “directing the dance” which male council members will perform.   Cardinal, your response to intelligent women’s concerns punctuates that women are not directing any of your dance steps.  If we were, that statue would be gone and an apology would be posted.  But, no, you send what comes across as condescending patronizing statements instead, “There, there you ignorant woman…what do you know of your own plight?  Me and my fellow male celibate buddies know women’s plight much better than you do.”

Sir, many intelligent women are shouting at you, “THAT STATUE IS OFFENSIVE!  STOP USING IT!!”  Help me understand why you think your opinion should carry more weight than ours?  Please elaborate on your credentials as a woman and if you have none, then your opinion is secondary to ours.  Furthermore, if you insist that your opinion must prevail, then you have gag and rope firmly in your hand, twisting and tightening them around women. 

Yes, Cardinal Ravasi, we understand that this statue expresses demeaning treatment women endure now and have endured throughout history because, you see, we have experienced it often at the hands of the church's hierarchy, of which you are a high-ranking member.  Our dilemma as second class citizens has many roots in the male hegemony of the church's hierarchy that espouses in the church and endorses in society the marginalization of women. The lack of women members on your council exemplifies how at ease the hierarchy is with discriminatory and degrading practices. That's what makes the artwork so offensive.  Women have long suffered at the hands of the hierarchy the very injustices you say the artwork in question provocatively portrays.

The wounds the hierarchy inflicts and has inflicted upon women are too numerous and raw to endure abiding it, as a primary source of injustice, to use artwork that gut-wrenchingly captures the state to which such injustices reduce women.  Furthermore, the hierarchy’s lack of self-awareness as perpetrator of injustices against women and delusional self-portrayal as benefactor and defender of women adds to the artwork's absolute and infallible contextual offensiveness and inappropriateness.  It is time for admission, penitence, apologies and altered behaviors, not perpetuation of the hierarchy's sins by marginalizing women's voices on this topic.Your inability or unwillingness to hear women on this accentuates what progress we can expect to arise from any council about women led by you, does it not?

If a group of slaveowners held a conference about the culture of slaves and depicted slaves in chains with lash marks from the whip to promote their conference's proceedings, would you expect the slaves to appreciate the artwork?   Would you think it was contextually appropriate?

Monday, February 2, 2015

Happy Irony Week!!!


It must be “happy irony week” in the Catholic Church because what else explains all this? 

Let’s first enjoy the "America" magazine article’s irony in and of itselt.  However, I will preface my comments with this thought: I work in the secular world as an executive and I’ve also done a lot of volunteering in the Catholic Church.  “Career advancement opportunities for women” just has never been a phrase I use when describing the Catholic Church…never…not once. 

Sr. Mary Ann’s article highlights statistics indicating the percentage of women CEOs for Catholic affiliated organizations such as hospitals is higher than for secular companies.  She fails to mention that those institutions cannot call themselves “Catholic” without the approval of the reigning bishop, the CEO of the local diocese.  How many of those bishop/CEOs are women?   The answer is “the empty set.”

Furthermore, many of those Catholic institutions were created by religious sisters – the same women who of late have been labeled by the reigning (male) hierarchs as being “radical feminists” as though they suffer from some incurable terminal disease.  So, I’m trying to get this straight… Women who lead Catholic institutions are not radical feminists when they can be used as decoys for diverting attention from the church’s stifling sexism and discrimination?  But when those women try to act in any way with which the local bishop/CEO disapproves, then they are labeled “radical feminists" and fired?  Way to showcase those female leadership opportunities the church offers…

There’s also irony that an article about the virtual cornucopia of church female leadership opportunities appears in “America” magazine, a Jesuit periodical…because the Jesuits have precisely zero women in their organization.  ‘Tis true; the Society of Jesus…an organization named after a guy whose society carried signature inclusion of women…does not itself permit women to join.  Instead they adhere to a pre-US civil rights era segregationist’s mentality of “separate but equal.” 

And then there’s the irony that the woman who wrote the article takes a check working for the Society of Jesus.  But then Sr. Mary Ann also works as the Media Relations Director for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops…another group which has had precisely zero female CEOs.  Therefore, in both of her communications roles, Sr. Mary Ann answers to men.  I guess it’s actually more a case of tragic irony than comical irony that she whose public voice requires male approval wrote an article boasting about the church’s advocacy for women.  That perhaps signifies the extent to which male hegemony can impact some people’s thinking.

But, the most exquisite irony comes from the timing of the article’s publication - the same week that the Pontifical Council on Culture holds a four-day Plenary Assembly to discuss women’s culture.  The council’s members include how many women?  Oh, that would be zero again!  See, women have advanced so far in church leadership that a Pontifical Council can gather...completely straight-faced...without women members and feel they are qualified to make decisions about women.  Nothing says “we really value you gals” like excluding them from the pontifical council that’s going to discuss them. 

I don’t mean to complain or be fussy but let me just give a quick demographic run-down on the council’s members and you decide for yourself just how in-touch these guys are with women around the world…  There are 13 Cardinals, 5 Archbishops, 8 Bishops, 1 Monsignor, 1 Rector (yes, he’s a priest; did you even need to ask…) and 3 Laymen.

Since these guys are…well guys…and they wanted to get together for four days and do nothing but talk non-stop about girls…they had a bright idea.  No, it was not to invite women to join their council as members…what, are you drunk?  No, they had some Italian actress make a video asking women to submit one minute or shorter videos about who they are…because evidently they believe nothing of importance about women requires more than a minute to explain.  By the way, I sent them a link to my blog but I did not get an invitation to participate in their meeting. 

The irony of the 31 all-male membership writing the following statement as the opening salvo of their working document about women just kind of says it all…“In our Plenary, the invaluable contribution of our Members and Consultors will allow us to gather some aspects of women’s cultures in four thematic stages, in order to identify possible pastoral paths which will allow Christian communities to listen and dialogue with the world today in this sphere.”  You see, they’re going to “listen and dialogue” about women by not listening to or dialoging with them.  This is clearly miracle fodder. 

That’s really the high-point of the working document.  It just goes downhill from there with sexist ideas and language.

In fairness, I must mention that 7 of the 35 Consultors are women – 2 religious and 5 laywomen.   So the members are 31 men and then there are 28 more male consultors bringing the male attendee count to 59 as compared to 7 women consultors.  I just have this sneaking suspicion that those 7 women have been carefully vetted and chosen based upon their parrot-like ability to repeat what the hierarchy says about women.  I am not expecting them to contribute in a way that represents me or women like me or pretty much the majority of women in the world.

The four themes they will discuss are:
Theme 1: Between equality and difference: the quest for equilibrium
Theme 2: “Generativity” as a symbolic code
Theme 3: The female body: between culture and biology
Theme 4: Women and religion: flight or new forms of participation in the life of the church

As a woman, albeit one whose voice is not desired to contribute to this discussion since we have those 31 male council members who are way more qualified to talk about being female than me, the themes tell me more about the men who wrote them than about women.  Are you really struggling with the concept that equality can exist within a diverse population?  Do you really think that women who leave the church (often with the kiddies in tow) are forming a new way of participating in church when they say, “this place has a toxic sexist culture that I can’t tolerate anymore?”  By the way, there are women who are doing this; they’re called women priests.  You’re not too keen on them the last I recall.

The theme regarding the female body doesn’t mention anything about correcting the mountains of theological conclusions drawn from scads of inaccurate understandings about human biology.  Instead it talks about that really pressing woman’s issue…plastic surgery???  And quite frankly, I’ve read and re-read the section about "generativity as symbolic code" and it truly beats the ever-loving shit out of me as to what that’s supposed to be about.

So, I wish the council well in its discussions.  I imagine its meeting outcomes will be more a source for entertainment than theological insight about women because it begins on faulty ground: it’s a meeting about women called by men in a council with exclusively male membership to provide guidance to an exclusively male clerical population.  If this truly were about listening to and dialoging with women, it would be led by women, with a majority of council members as women.  It would consider new ways of being church including female ordinations.  It would talk about more substantive topics related to female human biology than plastic surgery.

Well, I better get off this merry-go-round of irony lest it make me any more dizzy than it already has. But my parting thoughts are these.  What were you thinking when you chose the headless woman's figure with breasts and pubic region tied up in ropes as your report cover artwork?  Just exactly what message are you trying to convey?  Are women's minds so inconsequential to you that a beheaded woman was ok provided her reproductive parts were on full display?  Could I please get a psychological analysis read-out on each council members' attitudes towards women because that image on your report cover makes me wonder if you all start from a very, very twisted sick mental attitude towards women.

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Radical Feminist Blues...


I spoke with a bishop friend this week and asked him to explain to me just exactly what a, “radical feminist” is.  He said he didn’t have the foggiest. 

Since I wrote my last blog article, I’ve been thinking a lot about poor Cardinal Ray Burke.  He would have been a young adult during the Second Vatican Council when Catholics’ proverbial cheese was moved.  Being from Wisconsin where people take their cheese seriously enough to adorn their heads with it during sporting events, I realized that cheese moving is no easy thing for poor Ray.  So, on this whole “respect women” and “women’s equality” thing, he’s just stuck – culturally incapable of moving his cheese.  After all, there’s a Green Bay Packers game this Sunday and that cheese needs to be firmly affixed to his head, like for any good Wisconsin native.

In all seriousness, Ray's father died when he was very young.  I have to wonder how that loss was handled and how all that impacted his development, including his views on gender roles.  He speaks of the importance of manly male fathers forming their children properly, yet it seems his own father was gone long before Ray hit adolescence.  Could he be projecting his romanticized notions of fathers (and mothers) upon the world as ideal based upon a void from his own life?  His words certainly seem to come from an alternate reality than the one I know, but then my father is still with me.  I do not have to imagine what it's like to have a father; I just experience it.

Nonetheless, sometimes when you so insistently remain in one place as Ray tries to do, you wind up moving in comparison to others.  If they move forward, you move backward in comparison.  Similarly one’s actions or inaction can result in unintended consequences.

In my last blog article, I indicated that Ray’s insistence to retain the church’s historical sexist and misogynist culture by declaring the female church was too feminine, he created unintended consequences.  By saying the female church was too feminine he opened the possibility to saying the church’s clergy was too masculine.  Thus, he theologically opened the door for female ordinations. 

Upon further review, he actually created a second more likely unintended consequence.  Ray’s probably going to insist that the clergy must remain male.  And so, by advocating for a more masculine church (which is supposed to be a female married to Christ and his proxies, the clergy) while insisting that the clergy remain 100% male, he is in fact saying that he advocates for the male hierarchy to marry the male church…a model for same sex marriage.

Now I realize these unintended consequences from his vociferous protection of the church’s historical sexist and misogynist attitudes might not be easy for a guy from Wisconsin…it’s more cheese movement.  So, I got to thinking that Cardinal Burke also spent four years as archbishop of St. Louis, Missouri – an historical home of blues music.  With that in mind, the Spirit again moved me to compose a song on behalf of Ray.  I call it, “The Radical Feminist Blues.”

Here’s a link to the YouTube vocal recording of the song.

Here are the lyrics:

The Radical Feminist Blues

Now poor Ray, he ain’t got a clue
What radical feminists actually do
He’s got the radical feminist blues, radical feminist blues

Now poor Ray, says it ain’t o.k.
For women to do stuff ‘cept pay, pray, obey
He’s got the radical feminist blues, radical feminist blues

Now poor Ray, thinks it’s absurd
For women in the church to actually be heard
It gives him the radical feminist blues, radical feminist blues

Workin’ and prayin’ and fashion displayin’, he’s got the radical feminist blues

Now poor Ray, he thinks it’s a fright
If women should have equal rights
It gives him the radical feminist blues, radical feminist blues

Now poor Ray, thinks it’s pretty shoddy
That women might know what’s best for their body
It gives him the radical feminist blues, radical feminist blues

Now poor Ray, finds it silly
Unless women dress like him, really frilly
It gives him the radical feminist blues, radical feminist blues

Workin’ and prayin’ and stylin’ and brayin’, he’s got the radical feminist blues

Now poor Ray, He doesn’t find it funny
When women help the poor but don’t send him money
It gives him the radical feminist blues, radical feminist blues

Now poor Ray, feels the earth falter
Whenever he sees a woman on the altar
It gives him the radical feminist blues, radical feminist blues

Now poor Ray, it makes his hair curl
To even think of an altar girl
It gives him the radical feminist blues, radical feminist blues

Workin’ and prayin’ ‘til his hair is grayin’, he’s got the radical feminist blues

Now poor Ray, feels his manhood decline
Unless he’s surrounded by men of his kind
He gets the radical feminist blues, radical feminist blues

Now poor Ray, says genders complement
As long as the women stay in their own tent
Or else it’s the radical feminist blues, radical feminist blues

Now poor Ray, he likes women a lot
Just not to hang with, that's moral rot
It gives him the radical feminist blues, radical feminist blues

Workin’ and prayin’ and fashion displayin’, he’s got the radical feminist blues
Workin’ and prayin’ and stylin’ and brayin’, he’s got the radical feminist blues
Workin’ and prayin’ ‘til his hair is grayin’, he’s got the radical feminist blues, radical feminist blues

His cheese got moved; it cramped his groove
Poor Ray…