Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Reflections on Theology of the Body



My last blog highlighted some profoundly sexist and misogynist quotes from church doctors in the 4th and 13th centuries.  A few people dismissed my concerns as being ancient church history long since corrected.  So, for the edification of those who think sexism and misogyny are a thing of the past in the Church, please direct your attention to John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body.”  This is a series of lectures JPII delivered between 1979 and 1984 during his weekly Wednesday pope pep-rallies, also called “papal audiences.” 

WARNING: this material may cause adverse side effects.   Tell your priest, bishop or pope if any of these symptoms are severe or do not go away after consuming this material: nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, heartburn or gas, consternation, decrease in appetite, dizziness, drowsiness, exhaustion, headache, confusion, anxiety, uncontrolled sudden body movements, shaking of a part of your body that you cannot control such as in laughter, frequent or urgent need to urinate especially when accompanied by uncontrolled laughter, or dry mouth.



Some side effects can be serious. If you experience any of the following symptoms, call the pope immediately: hallucinations, fainting, chest pain, shortness of breath, or difficulty swallowing this material.



People with exposure to Vatican II or suffering from severe critical thinking skills may have a greater risk of developing side effects than people without exposure to Vatican II, hyper-Vatican II resistance, or impaired critical thinking skills.  Some people reading this material and other similar materials have developed fibrotic changes (scarring or thickening) in their minds.  It is not yet known whether this problem is caused exclusively by “Theology of the Body”. Talk to God about the risk of consuming this material.

O.K., with that warning clearly labeled, let us proceed.  By JPII’s 5th lecture in Theology of the Body we learn that God created women because men were in solitude, and in the 6th lecture we read, “You can’t understand the creation of woman unless you understand man’s solitude.”  JPII does acknowledge that the word “adam” actually means a genderless “human being” not a “male” as is oft mistranslated in modern biblical texts.  And he even acknowledges that God created man and woman as equals.  It’s just that as you continue reading you realize he’s a bit Orwellian with “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

By lecture #8 JPII explains that woman is man’s helper and in the 9th lecture that woman is made for man.  He then provides protracted explanations as to why God created female humans.  Male and female cats, dogs, elephants and dik-diks (African antelopes) all can just be accepted as givens, but not male and female humans, I guess.  Evidently that one is a tricky problem that JPII needs to help us understand almost as though he thinks creation of male humans is assumed but the creation of female humans is not. 

In lecture #10 we learn that “femininity finds itself in the presence of masculinity while masculinity is ‘confirmed’ through femininity” and that women are to submit their whole humanity to “the blessing of fertility.”  We also learn that a woman’s motherhood “has origin” in men though this defies human biology.  Evidently according to JPII, a woman can’t be a woman unless there is a man to define her as such and a man does this by impregnating her and making her a mother.  This in turn, makes him a man.  Wow, fascinating sexism based upon nothing other than JPII’s imaginative interpretation of a few verses in the book of Genesis. 

The next few chapters continue the sexist themes, sexist language and sexist assumptions of other lectures so I won’t bore you with details.  However, we soon arrive upon lecture #17 where JPII explains that woman is a “gift” to man therefore she is forever to be “received” by man and “discovers herself because she was accepted by man.”  “Man above all else receives the gift.”  “Woman is entrusted to his eyes, consciousness, to his sensitivity, to his heart.”  Well my, my…evidently I was just created to sit by the roadside like a pretty little rose waiting to be picked by some gent who will give my life meaning.   

It not only seems to escape JPII that he spouts degrading sexism, he seems to think that women should just be leaping around him sprinkling flowers at his feet thanking him for giving us this definition of ourselves.  Oddly and ironically, in other writings like Mulieris Dignitatem, JPII keeps referring to women as “a mystery.”  How is it that women like me are supposed to be defined by men like him who find women so mysterious?  By the way, being one, I don’t find women mysterious.  It seems fitting that I write this on “Columbus Day”, a U.S. holiday that commemorates a European man “discovering” a continent that existed with inhabitants for hundreds of years before this guy arrived. Similarly JPII seems to have "discovered" women kind of like Marlin Perkins on Mutual of Omaha's "Wild Kingdom."  "Here we observe the female in her natural habitat..."

The 21st lecture is a veritable treasure trove of sexism.  JPII repeats, “The mystery of femininity is manifested and revealed completely by means of motherhood.”  I guess he thinks that women without children aren’t women.  This would come as a surprise to many fine women.  But fear not, in several later lectures he tells us that virgins are actually superior to women who have sex; I guess he thinks they are "superior" but just aren’t really women.  Again, “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal.”

Here are a few other charmers from the 21st lecture.

“The one who knows is the man, and the one who is known is the woman-wife. It is as if the specific determination of the woman, through her own body and sex, hid what constitutes the depth of her femininity.”  There she goes hiding her femininity again until some man boinks her so she can know she’s a real woman.

I like to call this next quote, “JPII must have flunked biology.”  “The constitution of the woman is different, as compared with the man. We know today that it is different even in the deepest bio-physiological determinants. It is manifested externally only to a certain extent, in the construction and form of her body.”  According to JPII men and women have practically nothing in common from a bio-physiological standpoint but the woman just hides all these wild differences by having an outer shell that reveals this “only to a certain extent.”  By this I’m assuming he means enlarged mammary glands.  Regardless, according to my family and friends in the medical profession, that bio-physical assertion is a lot of bio-physical bull excrement.

JPII continues his lecture by adding, “Maternity manifests this constitution internally, as the particular potentiality of the female organism.  With creative peculiarity it serves for the conception and begetting of the human being, with the help of man.”  Best I can conclude from this lecture, JPII thinks that the existence of female reproductive parts is the dead give-away that the entire internal workings of a woman are very different from that of a man.  “Bones” from Star Trek used to say, “My God, Jim, I’m a doctor, not a <fill in the blank>!”  But I think in this case we would have to say, “My God, John Paul, you’re a priest not a doctor!”

But really, we should stop having so much fun with JPII because someone might rightfully say that his Theology of the Body lectures ended in 1984, almost 30 years ago.  We could have more fun reading Mulieris Dignitatem, “Dignity of Women” written by JPII in October, 1988 but that still is 25 years old.  So, let’s fast-forward to today’s papal darling of the press, Pope Francis.  On Saturday October 12, 2013, we have Pope Francis uttering these humdingers:

He ties the entire existence of women to maternity and women's entire identity to it. "Many things can change and have changed in cultural and social evolution, but there remains the fact that it is the woman who conceives, carries and gives birth to the sons and daughters of men.  And this is not simply a biological fact, but also gives rise to a wealth of implications both for the woman herself, for her way of being, and for her relationships, for the way in which she positions herself with regard to human life and life in general.  In calling the woman to the role of maternity, God has in an entirely special way entrusted the human being to her."

Francis explains that the church is a woman and I guess he believes this should make women feel just super and elevated.  He says, "And it pleases me to think that the Church is not ‘il Chiesa’ [‘the Church’, masculine]: it is ‘la Chiesa’ [feminine]. The Church is a woman! The Church is a mother! And that’s beautiful, eh?"  

Well, a fork is also called "la forcella" (feminine article) not "il forcella" (masculine article) in Italian.  Should I feel elevated or degraded by that?  How about a whore which in Italian is called "la puttana" (feminine article) not "il puttana" (masculine article)?

I find calling an institution "female" which bars female ordained leadership, which bars females as official voices, downright insulting.  It's like saying, "The Church is a woman and mother and I, a man, speak for the Church but love the Church; so you too should be content that I love you but I will do all the speaking for you while you are off birthing children like a good mommy."  With all male ordained leaders, with all male official voices, no matter what gender article one uses, the Church is masculine because it is a festoon of male hegemony.

He also said that the “type of emancipation” allowing women to enter traditionally male roles "mortifies" women and their vocations.  Women, "...in order to occupy the spaces subtracted from the male, abandons the female, along with her valuable characteristics."  Ah, I guess Frank thinks me being an engineer “done ruined me.”  Clearly, I will not fetch a good bride price.

But, the really comical statement is this, "And here I would like to emphasize that women have a particular sensibility for 'matters of God', especially in helping us to understand mercy, tenderness and the love that God has for us."  This is ridiculously sexist, painting women as fluffy clouds billowing around giving all the hugs, rainbows and smiley faces of the world.  But, it also makes one question if he thinks women are so gosh-darned superior at "matters of God", why aren't they priests?  Seems like they are the natural choice if you accept Francis' statement.

O.K., this is all a bunch of sexist claptrap and we can laugh about it or groan and roll our eyes.  However, Theology of the Body is what is being taught to an abundance of Catholic school children.  It is what is being taught to Catholic religious education students.  It is what is being taught to couples in marriage preparation.  It is the new Holy Grail housing the “updated” version of Catholic sex education. 

With 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide, this is a concern not only to the church but to society because it is an organized effort to re-enslave women into subservient roles and sexist stereotypes.  What is the proper response to Theology of the Body?  What is the proper response to Francis’ perpetuation of the same sexist stereotypes and ignorance?  If you suffered any of the adverse side effects mentioned in the warning statement, what will you do?  Will you permit your sons and daughters to be fed this sexist ignorance and label it as truth?  Most importantly, what witness do you give in your treatment of women and men?  Are they "equal" or "equal with some being more equal than others?"

And Francis, my kids have a great expression that you might want to heed, “Quit while you’re not too far behind.”  If you can’t say anything about women except sexist platitudes, please just be quiet.  If you espouse these sexist stereotypes as “truth” please do women and society a favor and don’t develop that “deep theology of women” that you suggested.  We already have enough sexist statements from male clergy.  By the way Francis, I’m still waiting for a response to my letter.  Tick, tick, tick, I will be in Rome in less than a month.  I would be very happy to chat in person about women and sexism in the church. 

*****
I edited this article since original publication after seeing a more complete transcript of the pope's comments. 

17 comments:

  1. Sad to admit: It is just this sort of sexist claptrap that ensures I no longer attend Mass except for special occasions. After suffering in an attempt at marriage with a spouse who BELIEVED this claptrap and acted upon it by continually disrespecting me [at best] and emotional and sexually abusing me I realized the horribly corrosive effects on my spiritual well-being. I'm still recovering from that 20+ years later. I simply can't listen anymore to the attitude that women are nothing more than walking uteri and should be content with the position. There is absolutely nothing special or dignified in this position. It gives women absolutely no way of protecting themselves from abuse - except prayer of course. And that prayer is always aimed at coercing her to accept her position. It is inhumane.

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    1. Thank you for your comment and I am glad you have moved beyond an abusive situation. I echo your comment about being a walking uterus. When I had mine removed, more than one pious Catholic person told me that my body was in morning because my uterus was part of my identity and losing it was traumatic to my person and spirituality. Actually, my uterus was causing all sorts of problems and I have not for a moment mourned its loss. And I feel no less human or female because of it's loss. I do feel a heck of a lot healthier.

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    2. I still have my uterus, but I had my thyroid removed a few years ago. Just as important to the health of my body. Plenty of hormone possibilities and the like. I too feel no less human because of that surgery. Funny how no one tells me that my body and spirit are in pain from the trauma of it.

      I found your blog recently, by way of another blog that I've been reading for quite some time. I do appreciate your writing. Thank you. You've found a patience for the problems in the church that I wish I could emulate.

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    3. I enjoyed your article . . . and its humour. just one thought . . . the sexist claptrap you talk about will not ring true to the kids in catholic schools, as it does/did not to their parents. The problem for the church is that these intelligent kids will make the jump from "This sexist junk is crap" to "Everything the church says is crap". It is a very short step from one to the other.

      So, like you say, Frank should shut his mouth on this subject as should all RC clergy. As one who (officially at least) has limited experience of women, he is lecturing beyond his field of expertise. BUT Pope Francis is at least human and acknowledges the existence of feelings. I don't think JPII was capable of that . . . he appeared to spend his life and teachings in a realm of theoretical possibilities. How else could he have seriously delivered the lectures you quoted?

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    4. I agree that Francis has a more congenial style but he convened the conference this weekend to praise what JPII had written about women. So to me, when it comes to women, they are two peas in a pod.

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    5. right on! So sick and tired of the Church's need to focus on the physical and not the Spiritual.

      I believe in the teachings of Christ, but that book is not theology at all! It separates humans from God, it doesn't draw us closer to God. And it also explains why my husband suddenly thinks sex is a way for him to be more confident. Thanks for the sudden neurosis my husband developed pope JP2. The Church brainwashing worked, now to undo it.

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  2. Dear Ewe, this quotation from your brilliant text, made me think: "The one who knows is the man, and the one who is known is the woman-wife." I realized that this is the very influence of the old Polish language, in old Polish romans or poems, and above all in the Polish translation of the Bible. The word for a woman in such text is "niewiasta" (an old word, which has almost disappeared from the Polish language). But why do I write about it? Because the ethymology of the word comes from a negation of the verb "wiedzieć" (to know), which would sound in Polish "nie wiedzieć" and for a woman it would be "ona nie wie" (she doesn't know). She is "niewiasta" because she doesn't know while a man knows. But from the other side in the Polish biblical texts there is no confusion between a male (mężczyzna) and a human being (człowiek). So it is much clearer in this context than the English "man".

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    1. Wow, thank you for that insightful information. Clearly his writing reflects JPII's context as a man from Poland with Polish as his primary language.

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    2. That's what I think as well. I suppose there is even something more than the language. A few hours ago I read an article about Karol Wojtyła's mother, Emilia (as a biography of her had been published in Poland). The future pope lose her mother at the age of 9, just a few weeks before hi first communion. Apparently she was sick for many years, starting from the time she had given birth to Karol. Moreover, during the pregnancy medics were of the opinion that this pregnancy was dangerous for her and adviced abortion. Emilia Wojtyła rejected such suggestions and little Karol was born. A survivor, one could say, thanks to his mother's brave decision. But he must have believed that all women are, or should be as brave and heroic as his own mother was.
      And there is a third element. Polish myth of a mother-heroine. During all struggles of the Polish nation in the 19th century (while Poland lost its independence) men were in constant fight with occupying countries, so were arrested, killed, sent to exile. And a Polish mother had to be a real heroine: raise children, educate them as good patriots, take care about the whole household and property, be ready to send her sons to the same fight their fathers did before - and when men were back home, she had to stay in the shadow. And the generation of Karol Wojtyła was the first generation being born in the independent country again so this mythology was still very strong and influencial. I can really see it in his writings about women.

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  3. Sadly, this is also pushed on most of the online Catholic singles websites and at the Catholic adult singles conferences I've attended. There is a whole cottage industry built up with grooming single Catholics with TOTB, and I started seeing the familiar names and faces with running it.

    I also got very annoyed hearing the same cliches recycled again and again. It seemed that the men were always given a seminar at these conferences about the dangers of internet porn while the women were segregated to learn NFP. I wondered why the women never get any seminars about porn , and I was told that men are visually stimulated and wired differently than women. So I guess women don't have libidoes and are asexual and only look forward to maternity. Only men have to regulate their libidoes while women have only their fertility to regulate. Sorry, the whole TOTB thing started to alienate me.

    John Fremont

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  4. My wife found a card that might relate ...
    "Next time you accuse a woman of overreacting, remember that a bunch of men shut down the government because they weren't getting their way."
    As always ... Thank EWE.
    Dave Martin

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  5. I found myself reacting with annoyance as I read your comments about JPII's Theology of the Body, but you've raised some real questions for me.

    I considered myself a feminist from the time I was 17, and when I became a Catholic at age 23 (in 1987), I never saw a reason to change. But I had discovered the TOTB by then, and was fascinated by it. My initial exposure was through several magazine articles describing it; I also read a few of the original talks, but they were so difficult I had trouble understanding them. Even so I became an advocate, and for years I interpreted, and accepted, the Church's teachings on sex through that framework. Yet I never considered myself to have rejected feminism. And however screwed up my thinking was, I was always horrified by any attitude that relegated women to second class status.

    So when I read your descriptions of JPII's teachings, I kept saying to myself: But that's not at all what he meant!! You're ignoring the context and the overall purpose and method of the argument!

    Is that really the case? I'm not sure. I went back and looked up a couple of the sections you allude to. My initial impression is, yes, you are distorting JPII's words. For example, in the quotes and summaries of the 21st audience, you present the JPII as if he is simply declaring eternal truths about femininity. But in context, he is clearly meditating on the biblical text. In some cases his words are nothing more than summaries of that text. Does that make his words sexist? Is the biblical text itself sexist?

    Yet I can also see it's not that simple. JPII's way of meditating surely goes far beyond the literal content of the text -- he seems to be treating the text as a source for exploring the symbolism of masculinity and femininity, and in so doing he speaks in very broad strokes.

    A lot of it makes me, at best, very uncomfortable. I can't help feeling he's painting on a bigger canvas than your quotes suggest. But that doesn't mean the bigger canvas isn't just as sexist as you say these quotes are. I'd really like to see an exploration of what JPII is doing in these talks that accounts for both the kind of objections you make, and addresses the pope's larger philosophical, hermeneutical, and theological goals.

    I realize I accepted a lot of bullshit when I swallowed the TOTB whole. I'm still working out where I went wrong, and discerning what was in it of real value that attracted me in the first place.

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  6. Thanks for your reflections. As you note, though JPII speaks specifically of Gen passages, he takes huge leaps to interpolate and extrapolate extensively from those texts (written as allegory) to paint femininity in very broad strokes. His lectures and writings about women start from very sexist points: creation of men is a given but women’s existence needs explanation; and women's roles need him, a man, to define them, understand them and declare what is appropriate.

    Many women find it insulting to have a celibate man call us "a mystery." We're not a mystery to ourselves. But JPII seems to find women a curious novelty in need of his thoughts and opinions before we are affirmed at what we do or who we are. To me, he is solving a “problem” that only exists because men like him created it. JPII could have just talked to women to understand them.

    TOTB primarily defines women’s roles and temperament based upon their sexual organs. JPII seems to believe that since women have a uterus, it defines them and they should place it on a pedestal and make it their most important organ. Yet, we tend to think a man who fixates on his reproductive organs is imbalanced, immature, etc....

    A man can be a father and have different vocations and temperaments. But JPII's writings and now Francis' comments suggest that because women have a uterus and can bear children, their primary vocation should be motherhood and they’re supposed to have a serene docile temperament. That's b.s. Why can a man be a father and have any occupation but a woman should be restricted in the occupations that are "appropriate" for her? Francis saying certain roles for women "mortify" them mortifies me more than me being an engineer.

    Throughout Church history, clergy use this Virgin Mary/whore dichotomy. Women either should imitate an unrealistic portrayal of the Virgin Mary as some romanticized, fluffy, perpetually smiling, cooking and cleaning creature or they are "sinning whores". So, JPII at least progresses from that by saying sex is within God's plan. But he says that not having sex is better... sex within marriage isn’t a sin; it's just not as holy as not having sex.

    JPII cleaved to his predecessors’ unrealistic, romantic image of Mary. However, she was a young impoverished, unmarried, pregnant girl. My parents living in poverty helped me realize how much grit Mary must have had. I don't see her as a flaky Stepford wife.

    Being a mother further opened my eyes to the church’s sexist and unrealistic assumptions about women. An example: When Mary visits Elizabeth it says Elizabeth's baby leaped for joy and Elizabeth cried out. When this is a homily topic, priests talk about it like this joyful cry came from Elizabeth because she felt life. When my children leaped (not just kicked but leaped) in my womb for joy or any other reason I cried out too....in PAIN. Imagine an 8 lb kid making a sudden major shift inside your body. I was very aware of life but I usually cried something like, “OOOOOOWWW!!”

    I am honored to be a mother but I do not degrade my pregnancies by wrapping them in romantic departures from reality so as to comply with somebody else's notion of what my pregnancy should have been or how I should have felt. And, btw, telling another person how they should feel is very insulting and potentially damaging because it attempts to invalidate the person's deepest experiences.

    My mom had 9 kids, loved being a mom and thought TOTB to be profoundly sexist, unrealistic, backwards and “pious nonsense.”

    One last example: When I first listened to TOTB lectures by Christopher West, I about wet myself in laughter. He used a protracted analogy equating Christ bleeding on the cross to save lives with women's monthly menstrual bleeding. Um, when women bleed every month, it means....there is no life. What a comical connection that could only be drawn by someone far detached from a woman's reproductive cycle.

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  7. Great post Ewe. I too have waded through most of TOTB and didn't know whether to laugh, throw up, or just plain break my computer screen. JPII makes a number of fundamental errors about female reproductive biology, starting with the fact the uterus is not part of a woman's sexual response. He totally ignores the little 'happy spot' that is all about sexual response and that biologically is the embryological starting point for the male version of the same organ. I keep wondering if our clerical men are ever going to deal with the fact women can have orgasm without anything having to do with reproduction. In fact, women can have orgasm during their infertile periods. I keep hoping the some day one of these popes will actually get that there are serious differences between men and women when it comes to sex and reproduction. I may wait in vain.

    Francis is not making me a happy camper when it comes to his views of women. And you are absolutely correct, if women do indeed have a special ability in the spiritual realm, why is ordination then denied them? In the end I doubt any of these pathetic gender definitions will evolve until the Church stops equating sexual activity with the profaning of the sacred.

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  8. Great thoughts. I have to admit that I haven't paid much attention to TOTB. I can tell you that a lot of women that I know are far from fitting the archetypes in TOTB. Evidently the theologians can't bring themselves to admit that the outdated Aristotelianism that underpins the Church's theology badly needs an update.

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  9. Have you read JP II "Love and Responsibility" it seems to me that you reach some conclusions that JPII speaks to in his earlier work. It can be easy to misinterpret not fully understanding the larger context of his life's work. It of course is a limit of his TOB that you need to read earlier works to fully understand his perspective. Though I agree there are some concerns with what seems like a purely essentialist arguement I think reading his earlier work will reveal his thinking is far more nuanced and far less essentialist revealing that the word mystery is far lass dualistic and reductionist then you suppose. The word "mystery" is actually a high complement when you look at his and the churches overall treatment of the word. It is a word that is used to refer to the nature of God and his work. Wow!

    I am a protestant who has been studying the TOB for 7 years now, and while I may not agree with everything, I am humbled by his depth of thought and prayer and insight into the subject of being human and the desire to make us more so. It is a very subtle work and difficult to understood fully. It certainly takes intellectual and spiritual humility to do so. My experience with it has been that it brings life to people, not death, and I am a feminist! It really does take years to understand. I feel I don't and I have two masters degrees and am a professor. I study for a living!

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    1. Thanks for your thoughtful reflections. I began reading JPII's works in 1995 when he published, "Crossing the Threshold of Hope." I began studying TOB about 8-10 years ago.

      I realize that he intended calling women a mystery to be a compliment. But I find it insulting. It kind of reminds me of when I was a kid growing up in a large Catholic family of 9 children with a sub-poverty household income and people would intend as a compliment when they told my mom, "Wow, you have all these kids and you keep them so clean." The intention was to be a compliment but it was not received as such. It was received with my mom rolling her eyes at their ignorance and arrogance emerging from their limited worldview stereotyping what it meant to be an impoverished mother of 9...as though somehow that altered either her parenting skills or standards.

      It sounds like perhaps you are a professional feminist theologian and thus approach things from a different context than me. But, I have read a lot of what JPII wrote and more importantly, I am Catholic and am witnessing firsthand how those writings are being interpreted. They are being used more and more to marginalize women kind of like pre American Civil Rights era "separate but equal." It would be like someone saying that segregated water fountains were a "benefit" for those relegated to their own "special" water fountain because they were "so special" that they needed to have their own "special" water fountain. It is just a masquerade for discrimination.

      I do not agree with the notion of placing women on a pedestal any higher than that of men - regardless of if that is from a feminist perspective or from the traditionalist view that women are just so gosh-darned "special" that they need to be put on a pedestal rather than letting them be the regular old humans they were made to be. I think either stance romanticizes what it means to be female.

      I do appreciate that JPII took a shot at improving the Catholic hierarchy's view of women. But, there is a long way to go. And, I do not disagree with all that he writes. But, there are many things he writes that just make me laugh or roll my eyes and groan.

      In general, I think JPII took women in the church back to pre-Vatican II days...which means back centuries though VII was only 50 years ago. He turned his head to flagrant criminal sexual abuse of children by his priests too. He did some good things in his life but that does not excuse the very, very bad things that he did. In my book, he is not a "saint" but an un-convicted criminal for aiding and abetting child rapists, especially his buddy and founder of the Legion of Christ - Maciel.

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