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.


  1. I applaud your concluding paragraph!

  2. The most fragile element in this whole discussion is the male ego.

  3. What do you expect from the church that chose a man as the patron saint of motherhood?!

  4. What would anyone expect from a male-dominated, celibate and increasingly isolated group of the Self-Righteous?

  5. Thank you. I am disappointed that despite the long heritage of Christianity, this pseudo-scientific twaddle is the culmination of Catholic scholarship.

  6. Received this in an email to post as a comment from Pippa.

    I agree with the posting about the image.

    I think the dualism presented as : men are strong and women are fragile never was the case. Although repressive societies usually have us women at the bottom of the pile. We are all- women,men, trans gendered, heterosexual, gay, bisexual, etc.- a mixture of sensitivity and strength depending on personality, culture, socialisation etc etc. It seems to me we each have an individual equilibrium of vulnerability and strength that we live with day by day and it can vary depending on what life throws at us...

    However, look at Calvary: the women stayed despite mob anger, threats, terrible weather. John, and the Centurion and Joseph of Arimathea also figure but otherwise I think we could say "ordinary" brave women stayed the course and many are not even named....
    No teacups there but strong tankards that have survived two thousand years already...

    1. Yes! Yes, that reality of the women at Calvary and the apostles running, except for John, says it all.

  7. I hope it’s not too late for me to offer a comment. I would take issue with your assertion that “vulnerable” is a synonym for “fragile”. While a lot depends on which dictionary you use, I would suggest that “fragile” means easily broken, lacking resilience, unable to cope with the setbacks and challenges that life chucks at us every day; on the other hand “vulnerable” means capable of being wounded, having some weak spot that is open to attack. Nobody with any familiarity with the story of the Trojan War would suggest that Achilles was fragile, but he was undeniably vulnerable in two particular aspects: his ego, and his heel.
    You yourself have pointed out in earlier blogs that Mary the mother of Jesus was a pretty tough cookie, but even she had her vulnerable spot — just look at Simeon’s prophecy.
    So I would restore the marks that you deducted for tautology; however, even with this concession, the Pontifical Council’s document doesn’t achieve the score needed for a pass.