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.


  1. Thank you! Thank you!
    This is excellent!

  2. This is so beautifully said. I've left the church myself - I just didn't want to deal with the crap anymore - but I'm glad you're holding space for what I think of as true Catholicism. And you're too funny.

    Thank you.

  3. You can write! Another bull's eye, this one!

    Do you go to the Call to Action conference? I would love to meet you, and you'd be great leading some discussions at CTA or other Catholic reform meetings...

    in gratitude,
    Kathy Schatzberg

  4. Yes, I will be in Milwaukee in November. I am not scheduled to lead anything or speak. I would be very happy to meet you. If you send me a private email we can determine logistics. Thanks for the gift of your time and feedback.

  5. Another hard-hitting and dead-on post, Louise! Keep speaking truth to power (and maybe someday that power won't be all theirs anymore)!

  6. It helps that you are making me laugh Louise! Peace sister and rock on!

  7. It helps that you are making me laugh Louise. Rock on sister. Reading the Vagina Monologues....hysterical.