Tablet: The Vatican and Women

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The Vatican’s trouble with women
23 January 2015 by Tina Beattie

It has been an interesting month for Catholic gender politics. First, the Pontifical Council for Culture announced that its 4-7 February assembly would be on “Women’s Cultures: Equality and Difference”. The council produced a short video, encouraging women around the world to submit a photo or make a one-minute video about their hopes and dreams. A fluffy blonde who looked as if she were advertising feminine hygiene products assured us that “we want to know”.

The video was greeted with derision for the timing as well as the style. Not only did it give each woman a minute in which to tell her story, it was also released on 23 December and the deadline for submissions was 4 January – the busiest time of year for many women. Moreover, the format limited it to women with access to the internet, ruling out millions of poor women. Doesn’t Rome want to know their stories too?

Then Cardinal Raymond Burke took time out from the ecclesial fancy dress parade to opine on manliness, radical feminism and “the dark confusion of gender theory” in an interview for a movement called “The New Emangelisation”. Apparently, the Church has been “assaulted” by radical feminism since the 1960s, which has left men feeling marginalised and misunderstood. Girl altar servers are partly to blame for the decline in vocations, given that being an altar boy was a traditional route to the priesthood. But, says the cardinal, “Young boys don’t want to do things with girls. It’s just natural.” The result of this is that men became confused, feminised and disordered, and when such men entered the priesthood, some of them sexually abused minors. So radical feminism led to the feminisation of the Church which led to the sex abuse scandal.

Pope Francis doesn’t share Cardinal Burke’s diagnosis of what is wrong with the Church. In the Philippines he told a gathering of mainly male students that they ought to include more women and girls, observing that society is sometimes too “macho” and doesn’t leave enough room for women. In an interview to journalists on the flight back to Rome he offered a pastorally sensitive interpretation of Humanae Vitae that avoided the moral absolutism of his predecessors regarding contraception. He has been widely quoted for saying that Catholics should not breed “like rabbits”, and for criticising a woman for “tempting God” by risking an eighth pregnancy when she had already had seven caesareans. Asked about the role of women in that interview, he replied, “When I say it is important for women to have a more prominent role in the Church, it is not just to give them a role, secretary of a dicastery … no, it is so that they can tell us how they perceive and see reality, because women look at reality with a different, a greater richness.”

Setting aside the problem of always referring to women as “them” (aren’t women included in the Church already?), Francis seems genuine in seeking to promote the role of women. However, the Synod on the Family in October will be his moment of judgement. Conservatives are said to be marshalling their formidable theological forces to launch an all-out assault on his reforming project, and he will need to be prepared to meet this with an equally robust theological defence. The strongest theological support for his vision comes from lay theologians – including women.

If Francis is to win the battle of the Synod, his best strategy might be to surround himself with such theologians. He recently described women theologians as “strawberries on the cake”. I do hope that there will be strawberries on the menu for the Synod on the family in October, and that some of them will be picked for their sharpness and not just their sweetness.

Tina Beattie is Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Roehampton

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This Tablet Blog article, by Professor Tina Beattie, highlights divisions in the Roman Catholic Church around the world on the subject of Women in The Church. While Pope Francis seems to be opening up towards a greater utilisation of women’s gifts in the life of the Church (he yet stops short of ordaining them), there are senior clergy – like Cardinal Burke  of Chicago in the USA – who are still militantly misogynistic in their opposition to any female presence in the sanctuary, as witness this statement in the above article:

“Then Cardinal Raymond Burke took time out from the ecclesial fancy dress parade to opine on manliness, radical feminism and “the dark confusion of gender theory” in an interview for a movement called ‘The New Emangelisation’. Apparently, the Church has been “assaulted” by radical feminism since the 1960s, which has left men feeling marginalised and misunderstood. Girl altar servers are partly to blame for the decline in vocations, given that being an altar boy was a traditional route to the priesthood. But, says the cardinal, “Young boys don’t want to do things with girls. It’s just natural.” The result of this is that men became confused, feminised and disordered, and when such men entered the priesthood, some of them sexually abused minors. So radical feminism led to the feminisation of the Church which led to the sex abuse scandal.

Cardinal Burke’s statement that “Young boys don’t want to do things with girls – it’s just natural” – might seem a little ingenuous. One wonders at what age Roman Catholic children are able to mix in society. Obviously, the good cardinal has never taken to heart St. Paul’s advice that “In Christ, there is neither male nor female”, otherwise he might be able to move into at least the 19th century understanding of complementarity of the sexes.

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

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About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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