Friday, September 20, 2013

A Letter from a Ewe to Pope Francis

This blog is a response to an interview between Antonio Spadaro and Pope Francis.  In the interview, Francis said the following about women in the church:

“I am wary of a solution that can be reduced to a kind of ‘female machismo,’ because a woman has a different make-up than a man.  But what I hear about the role of women is often inspired by an ideology of machismo.  Women are asking deep questions that must be addressed.  The church cannot be herself without the woman and her role.  The woman is essential for the church.  Mary, a woman, is more important than the bishops.  I say this because we must not confuse the function with the dignity.  We must therefore investigate further the role of women in the church.  We have to work harder to develop a profound theology of the woman.  Only by making this step will it be possible to better reflect on their function within the church.  The feminine genius is needed wherever we make important decisions.  The challenge today is this: to think about the specific place of women also in those places where the authority of the church is exercised for various areas of the church.”

Dear Francis,

I write this as an open letter via my blog because it stands about as much chance reaching you this way as it would if sent via traditional postal service.  Additionally, I make it a public letter because many people tell me they take comfort in reading my expressed sentiments of angst and concern that they share.  So, I think perhaps this letter is mostly for them since the chances of you reading it are slim.

In some ways I feel that you are an answer to concerns expressed in my letter to Benedict XVI sent via my bishop during his February, 2012 ad limina visit and posted to my blog the day before my mother died on February 13, 2012.  When I read her that letter she told me that when she became Catholic she often dreamed that she should forcefully and candidly confront the hierarchy like her namesake, Catherine of Siena.  She continued by saying that perhaps instead, her role was to bear me to bring forth those messages.  Therefore, I write this also in tribute to her and in her spirit.

I read the English translation of your interview with Antonio Spadaro and am encouraged by many things you said but deeply grieved by your words about women.  It is difficult to know where to begin expressing myself because your words violated me so profoundly.  Yet I hold little hope that you will understand why your words abraded my soul because they reflect the male hegemony that is the Roman Catholic hierarchy in which you have chosen to live.  When one dwells within a hegemonic culture, the resulting hegemonic praxes and ideologies are often accepted as “natural.”

Also, you have chosen to belong to the “Society of Jesus”, a group that excludes women from its society though Jesus’ society was noted for the inclusion of women.  This only further reduces my hope that you will understand.  Yet, the Spirit directs me to write despite diminishing hope and so I write you.

Francis, “Who do you say that I am?”

A statement made in another part of your interview belies your approach for answering such a question.  You said, “This is how it is with Mary: If you want to know who she is, you ask theologians…”  No, if I want to know who Mary is, I ask Mary.  Then I ask people who are similar to Mary – women and mothers.  Theologians are on my list but pretty far down my list of potential sources for answering that question with any degree of accuracy.  Yet they seem the only inhabitants of your list.

There are some physical differences between male and female humans.  One of them is not the ability to speak.  Thus, please do not invalidate, negate or repudiate the expressions of self-knowledge God inscribes within any person – female or male.  This is their conscience.  It should be your first source for understanding who people are.  Yet historically in the church hierarchy and continuing with your recent words, it does not even rank as high as being the last source the hierarchy consults for understanding women because you often do not consult women at all.  This is an unacceptable violation of women and of God’s Spirit within them.

Your statement about “female machismo” is confusing at best.  I am a computer scientist and engineer by training and trade in addition to holding a master degree in theology from a Jesuit university.  Let me be very clear.  I entered my engineering and theology programs because God instilled gifts in me that God asked me to cultivate and share with God’s creation.   Yet, your words seem to dismiss these pursuits as “female machismo” – as though breaking sexist stereotypes only stems from a woman’s desire to be masculine?  Has it ever occurred to you that women are just plain and simply answering God’s call using the gifts God gave them?   Could the hierarchy please stop trying to re-direct the Spirit in women?  Jesus cites violation of the Spirit as the only unpardonable sin (MT 12:31-32).  Thus, it would be a really good one to avoid.

You say the church needs to ascertain women’s role in the church.  Why would my role be any different than yours?  Why would it be any different than a man’s?  Why do we even need to have this conversation at all?

Men and women have some differences but more similarities than differences.  Why does the hierarchy begin with, cultivate and fixate upon gender differences rather than similarities?  Furthermore, when is a difference just a difference versus a limitation?  In the case of men nurturing and birthing an in utero child, the limitation is quite clear because men lack a uterus.  Perhaps someday God will reveal to humans a way to remove even that limitation but God has not yet done so.  However, it has not been demonstrated that male reproductive organs are necessary to conduct priestly ministry.  Indeed history, archaeology, scripture and present-day examples demonstrate women are very capable in this regard.

If one reads modern biology and psychology or observes demonstrated capabilities, the assumption should be equal participation and equal roles regardless of gender unless proven otherwise.  Instead, the hierarchy approaches women’s roles, especially leadership roles, with the default of exclusion unless proven otherwise.  And then the hierarchy works to prove that the exclusion must stand.  Yet, Jesus praised Mary Magdalene for breaking social and religious gender-based stereotypes.  Can hierarchical members, whose treatment of women deviates so drastically from Jesus’ example, be credible Vicars for Christ?

The hierarchy’s arguments about banning women from ordination cannot stand unless one accepts as foundational “truths” sexist stereotypes or things that are simply not true.  This of course violates the 8th Commandment so it cannot be tolerated as “truth.”  Per Jesus, we must not break God’s commandment merely to preserve religious leaders’ traditions (MT 15:3). 

Rather than repeat them here I will just provide a link to a previous blog article that summarizes the abundant flaws associated with the hierarchy’s stance on ordaining women.  I ask that you read this article and reflect with humility – with a willingness to say, “Maybe we were wrong” rather than perpetuate the hierarchical arrogant insistence on “We are absolutely right.”

You say one should not confuse the function of women with the dignity of women.  Function and dignity are inextricably intertwined unless you subscribe to a “separate but equal” mentality that has been soundly rejected as sinful with regards to race. 

Where is the dignity for women or children in Canon Law equating the ordination of women with the sinfulness of clergy raping children?  The sexist dehumanization of that Canon rapes my mind and soul.  It has raped the souls of many women who left the church in disgust, unable to subject their souls to any further such violations. 

You say that a woman, Mary, is more important than the bishops.  Yet, your publicly acknowledged advisors, whether the bishops’ synod, Curial Dicasteries, or your special group of eight cardinals, are all men.  Francis, who are your prominent female advisors?  Do they look anything like the many women fleeing the church at accelerating pace?  Where is your collegiality with women?    

Canon Law excludes women from hierarchical leadership or voting on any hierarchical leaders.  Please help me understand how disenfranchisement and exclusion from leadership demonstrate women are more important than bishops?  By the way, I do not think women are more important than men or bishops.  I think we are all of equal importance.  When men like you say such things, I think they are just trying to ply women’s egos and pride in hopes of them remaining docile in their marginalized and discriminated state. 

Why does doctrine (Redemptionis Sacramentum) say boys are preferred for altar servers and girls are to be tolerated at the discretion of the bishops?  Please help me understand how this is anything other than sinful sexism.  By the way, my daughters’ first sexist discrimination came at the hands of the hierarchy.  In a previous diocese they were senior servers training all other servers but when they moved to our present diocese they were no longer permitted to serve weekend liturgies simply because they were female.  Imagine yourself in their shoes and then listen to yourself say that function and dignity should not be confused.  They should not be confused as being anything other than intertwined.

Terms like “theology of women”, “feminine genius” and “specific place for women” seem like a smokescreen to hide the internal carnage they cause within the souls and minds of many women.  Rather than repeat myself, please read my blog articles about theology of women and terms like “holy femininity.  Please stop using these insulting terms that only make sense if you assume women are frail, fragile creatures that are mostly different from rather than mostly similar to men.

If developing a theology of women is so critically important to the church as you suggest, how much of your day do you devote to talking to women?  How much room does this occupy on meeting agendas?  How many women are present to represent women when such agenda topics arise?

Does a theology of women require creation, validation or ratification by men?  Unfortunately due to the reality of the Catholic Church's male hegemony, there seems to be a need to gain male buy-in to do what is just with regards to women if one remains within the institution.  Perhaps that is why so many leave.  They have given up all hope that the hierarchy is capable of doing what is right and just.  

Also, please do not dismiss my expressed concerns as "angry rant" if you do not share my opinions.  Few things are as dehumanizing as telling another person how they do or should feel.  I am not angry; I am wounded and unwilling to subject myself to those who don't know or care that they inflict wounds.  Most wounded women leave the Catholic Church but I remain.  However, I have redefined the hierarchy's role in my life because the hierarchy's behavior has earned my distrust.  I am uncertain what they could do to regain that trust which they rightfully have lost  By the way, look at your pew counts and statistics on former Catholics.  I stand with the majority of the church - the people of God.  How has the hierarchy succeeded in wounding so many people to the point of departure?  When will it not only end but when will sincere efforts towards reparation and reconciliation begin?

As you mention, I have asked deep questions that need to be answered.  They appear in this blog and in an unpublished book manuscript of similar name sent to several members of the hierarchy including Benedict XVI.  Though some have acknowledged receipt, none have answered a single question.  I invite you into conversation via my blog to begin discussing these questions.  I also will send you a copy of the manuscript for “Questions from a Ewe to Her Shepherds” if you promise to read it and actually enter into dialogue regarding the questions.

I repeat, Francis, “Who do you say that I am?” If you wonder who I am, I suggest you begin by communicating with me rather than with theologians.   

I will be in Rome this November traveling with the Chancellor of my diocese.  I respectfully request a private discussion on these concerns about women.  I look forward to the favor of a reply though sadly, I do not expect one. 

Know of my prayers for you and those whom you hold dear.  May you walk in the peace of Christ, guided by the Spirit, rendering and receiving God’s love.


A ewe with a lot of deep questions

P.S.  After I published this letter I reflected more on what might be required for the hierarchy to regain my trust.  You speak in another part of your interview about acting as a father.  Please allow me to describe my real father's behavior by sharing a story.

When I was in school, my father took me to a very large mathematics competition.  While awaiting results of the mathematics test taken by participants, a male participant's father approached my father, pointing at me while saying, "Why did you bring her?  That's like letting a kid take a lick from a lollipop only to take it away.  She won't need math to be a wife and mother."

My father looked the man squarely in the eye and said very calmly and deliberately, "She is here because she belongs here."  It turned out I placed 7th in the competition.  My father found the other father, waved my award in the air, again looking him calmly and squarely in the the eye and repeated, "She is here because she belongs here."

This made a huge impression on me but my father barely remembers it because it is just how he conducted himself with regards to all his children and all women. When hierarchy members are willing to stand and look any critic squarely in the eye while they say, "She is here because she belongs here" about women in any church role, then they might regain my trust and earn the privilege for me to call them "father."

I feel Fr. Roy Bourgeois did this which is why he has earned the privilege of me addressing him as "father."  However, I am sure you are aware that Fr. Roy has been defrocked and excommunicated by the hierarchy simply because he imitated my father by saying, "She is here because she belongs here" about a female priest.  An act of good faith would be to reinstate him and any bishop forced into silence or retirement due to their advocacy for women.

Last night during dinner I read my dad this letter.  Several times he interjected saying, "that's right" to affirm points I made.  When I read him his quote contained in the post-script, I got choked-up and interjected, "Dad that really meant a lot to me" after he had softly but more firmly said, "that's right" yet again in response.  When I finished reading the letter he said, "Il papa should talk to la mamma.  I think someday we will have a 'la mamma' instead of an 'il papa' leading." (As a side note to those reading who don't speak Italian, "il papa" means "the pope" in Italian but it also means, "the dad."  "La mamma" means "the mom.")

I also read him the comment one of his 20+ grandchildren wrote.  You see it below signed by AW.  He solemnly nodded his head in agreement, exhaled another, "that's right" and added one of his most common and powerful parenting lines while switching to a disapproving nod as though addressing you directly as one of his children, "Francis, me; don't tell me.  Have you re-instated a single censured person yet?"

Monday, September 9, 2013

Holy Femininity, Batman!

Periodically I check my bishop’s Facebook page.  A few months ago he had a post saying he happened to read “The Vagina Monologues” and proceeded to review the script.   To save you the suspense, I’ll clue you in; he didn’t like it.  I still await a reply to my inquiry as to what prompted him to read the play. 

I continue to ponder the scenario which inspired him, a celibate man to say, “The thing I really need to do is read and critique ‘The Vagina Monologues’.”  Maybe there wasn’t anything good on TV that night?  Maybe he tired of reading Shakespeare’s plays?  Maybe he wanted to have fun but couldn’t Wang Chung that night whatever “Wang Chung-ing “ is?  Maybe Pope Francis scooped him on the “theology of women” idea and he was doing some research?  I do not know.

This week I again visited my bishop’s Facebook page.  He had a post supporting Pope Francis’ call for prayer and fasting towards peace in Syria and he asked all parishes in this diocese to hold prayer services Saturday night to pray for peace.  I attended the liturgy at the bishop’s church though the bishop himself did not.  Three monsignors in black cassocks led the people in prayer.  Again, to spare you the suspense, there was a lot of incense and Latin, the language spoken by absolutely no one in Syria.  There was also a lot of exhorting God to inspire people around the world to use dialogue rather than violence to resolve differences. 

The irony was inescapable: monsignors operating within a hierarchy that gets an “F” in dialogue, a “B+” in structural violence and an “A-” in bullying calling others to employ dialogue rather than violence.  I began wondering what might occur if Syrians emulated the church hierarchy’s peace-building practices.  Syrian victims of chemical weapons might expect the same treatment as clergy sexual abuse victims?  Syrians might be ignored by people in power?  Syrians might leave by the millions in disgust while those in power callously think Syria is better off without them anyway?  Oh, I see Syrian leaders are already using the hierarchy’s peace-building playbook!

This also is inescapable to notice: American bishops were mute when their anti-abortion favorite, President George W. Bush was in office and invaded Afghanistan and Iraq but now these guys are veritable peaceniks in opposition to limited use of force suggested by President Barack Obama, who just so happens to piss them off with his support for women’s healthcare and rights.  The fact that abortion rates are at an all-time low during Obama’s presidency after remaining stable during Bush’s presidency should not cloud the bishops’ decision to do everything in their power to demonize the man.  I do believe that ignoring facts in favor of demonizing some people is another one of their peace-building tactics.  I believe it was also used by the Hutus and Tutsis leading up to the Rwandan genocide.  Here’s another “spoiler alert”; it doesn’t foster peace at all and often instigates tragic unrest. 

So how do these two Facebook posts relate?  Violence comes in many forms, not just physical violence.  Structural violence is defined as inequitable life opportunities with reduced human potential for a segment of the population.  Women in the church, with or without their own theology, have reduced potential.  The reduced potential isn’t just because women are barred from one of the sacraments.  “Holy Femininity, Batman!” it comes from dehumanizing language, stereotyping, promoting reduced potential roles for women, demonizing women with strengths that don’t align with the hierarchy’s stereotype, etc….  Thus, women’s reduced potential is not only within the church organization but carries into secular life due to the church’s impact defining women’s secular roles.   

What does some of this reduced potential look like?  How do women with reduced potential fare in countries with large Catholic populations?  About 70%of people living in poverty worldwide are women.    About two-thirds of the 25 countries with highest poverty rates have sizeable Catholic populations of over 20% Catholics…lots of Catholic women in poverty.  50% of those countries have populations with more than 50% Catholics…even larger quantities of Catholic women in poverty.  Brazil, Mexico, the Philippines, the U.S., and Italy have the largest Catholic populations in the world.  Their poverty rates are 21%, 51%, 27%, 15%, and 16% respectively…boatloads of Catholic women in poverty.  Furthermore, 10 of the top 25 countries for maternal mortality have Catholic populations over 20% as do 11 of the top 25 countries for infant mortality…lots of prematurely dead Catholic women and their infants.  Given that 17% of the world population is Catholic, one might therefore hypothesize that women in Catholic-influenced countries often have more reduced potential than women on average globally.

A really high-ranking Catholic once said, “If you want peace work for justice.”  Who was that person?  Pope Paul VI in the late 1960s.  So, if the church hierarchy seeks peace perhaps they should seek justice for those suffering injustice, such as the disproportionate number of women in poverty, especially in countries with disproportionately high Catholic populations. 

Instead of true advocacy for addressing women’s issues we get Pope Francis calling for a distinct theology for/about/of women, Pope Benedict calling for “holy and courageous women” who I guess are just supposed to be courageous enough to obey without questioning, Pope John Paul II expounding “feminine genius”, the emergence of “women’s rooms” at parishes starting to emulate gender segregation a la ultra-orthodox non-Christian religions, and general discussions filled with fluffy euphemisms for returning women to traditional roles using terms like “holy femininity” and “dignity of women.”  Quite frankly, Pope Frank, the prevailing wind blowing out of Rome does not seem to carry justice for the breath-taking number of women (and especially Catholic women) living in poverty but instead wafts the scent of dousing the pigs of sexism and misogyny in perfume.  By the way, I am uncertain as to the specific definition of “feminine genius” but I do believe it somehow ties to the sentiments Tom Jones expresses in his song, “She’s a Lady”, sentiments which, by the way seem to predate the vintage of Tom’s trousers in this video.  (However, wow, that boy can move his hips.)

In the 1950s Betty Friedan wrote a book entitled, “The Feminine Mystique” which discussed the phenomenon that though living in material security and comfort, many housewives were extremely unhappy women because their worth had been reduced to the functionality of their reproductive organs.  Her research indicated the media were mostly controlled by men and their messages portrayed only women in traditional housewife roles as happy and fulfilled while women with careers were portrayed as narcissistic and/or neurotic.  But the messages were inaccurate as revealed by her research findings which showed rampant unhappiness amongst women in traditional roles.  Of course there were women who were very happy in traditional roles but they were the minority, not even close to the majority of happy women.

We fast forward 60 years and see hierarchical leaders touting the same messages about women that the media of the 1950s did.  “Feminine genius” seems tightly linked to child-bearing, child-rearing, unquestioned obedience, cookie recipes and how to get that tough stain out of your favorite shirt.  Women who espouse these values are honored and women who deviate are demonized.

One of my bishop’s criticisms against “The Vagina Monologues” was that it just focused on one part of the woman’s body.  Again, the irony is inescapable.  From my lived experience, the best I can discern, the hierarchy believes my value as a human is directly linked to one female body part also, my uterus, and its high-production usage. 

I think many people like Pope Francis because he says good things and undertakes symbolic gestures that make them feel good.  I wonder if his popularity is because his behavior mirrors the Christian witness of many people.  Words and symbolic gestures are much easier than substantive efforts.

Is the church hierarchy a credible voice for peace and dialogue in the secular world when it hasn’t demonstrated its ability to foster peace and dialogue within the church?  Can true peace in the church occur absent of justice for women?  If Pope Francis and the bishops seek peace, what are they doing to establish justice within their own ranks so as to shine a light to the nations?

What do we do to foster dialogue, justice and peace?  Do we embark on substantive efforts or exert only as much effort as assuages our consciences?

Finally, I must give credit where it is due.  The religious sisters have for centuries tried to reverse structural violence against women first and foremost by educating themselves and in turn educating other females.  Sadly there is a new trend afoot amongst some orthodox camps that devalues and discourages investment in educating females.  What is the proper response to that?

Well she's all you'd ever want,
She's the kind they'd like to flaunt and take to dinner.
Well she always knows her place.
She's got style, she's got grace, She's a winner.
She's a Lady. Whoa whoa whoa, She's a Lady.
Talkin' about that little lady, and the lady is mine.
Well she's never in the way
Always something nice to say, Oh what a blessing.
I can leave her on her own
Knowing she's okay alone, and there's no messing.
She's a lady. Whoa, whoa, whoa. She's a lady.
Talkin' about that little lady, and the lady is mine.
Well she never asks for very much and I don't refuse her.
Always treat her with respect, I never would abuse her.
What she's got is hard to find, and I don't want to lose her
Help me build a mountain from my little pile of clay. Hey, hey, hey.
Well she knows what I'm about,
She can take what I dish out, and that's not easy,
Well she knows me through and through,
She knows just what to do, and how to please me.
She's a lady. Whoa, whoa, whoa. She's a lady.
Talkin' about that little lady and the lady is mine.
Yeah yeah yeah She's a Lady
Listen to me baby, She's a Lady
Whoa whoa whoa, She's a Lady
And the Lady is mine
Yeah yeah yeah She's a Lady
Talkin about this little lady
Whoa whoa whoa whoa
Whoa and the lady is mine
Yeah yeah She's a Lady
And the Lady is mine.