The Vatican’s Council on Culture has started its discussion on “the woman question” today. No actual women were invited to the meeting entitled “Women’s Cultures: Equality and Difference,” which probably explains why this questionable image is being used to advertise it on the Pontifical Council for Culture’s website:
Now what do we have here? The bound, naked torso of a woman, with no head or mouth to protest her treatment and no limbs to fight or run away. Of course, the reproductive organs are intact, which is all that matters from a theological perspective, I guess (remember, the “feminine genius” says that women are entirely defined by their uteri). In other words, it’s the perfect female victim, ideal for the MRA or would-be patriarch in your life. The sculpture in question is by French artist Man Ray, a Dadaist with a taste for S&M in his professional and private lives. Given how conservative the Catholic hierarchy is in terms of aesthetics and sexual expression (I have a hard time believing that S&M would be considered “rightly ordered sexuality” according to Catholic social teachings), the choice of this image to head its website is an odd decision. Unless they’re trying to make some kind of ironic statement about the oppression of women, the use of this image to head the page on “women’s cultures” is just plain offensive.
Anyway, the working document of this meeting is online (available here: http://www.cultura.va/content/dam/cultura/docs/pdf/Traccia_en.pdf). The main points are listed below with a useful translation for those of you who don’t speak Vatican-ese:
- Between equality and difference: the quest for equilibrium (some uppity women aren’t satisfied with their natural Kinder, Küche, Kirche role and we have no idea why)
- “Generativity” as a symbolic code (everything women do is an expression of their womb potential, err, natural propensity towards motherhood)
- The female body: between culture and biology (women and girls are often treated poorly, but this has nothing to do with our promotion of patriarchy)
- Women and religion: flight or new forms of participation in the life of the church (the afore mentioned uppity women want more of a say in how the church is run, and while we’re willing to listen to them vent, we aren’t going to do anything to change the status quo)
To be fair, there’s a lot in the third point that I agree with, like the condemnation of domestic abuse, genital mutilation, and the use of women’s bodies to sell things. However, the authors of the document are unable or unwilling to see how patriarchal attitudes enables abuse against women. For example, the document mentions the selective abortion of female fetuses and the deliberate killing of female infants, a phenomenon that is particularly widespread in China and India. As one would expect, the problem is framed in terms of the wrongness of abortion, but that misdiagnoses the real issue. There are ancestral religious rites in Chinese Confucianism and in many manifestations of Hinduism that require a son to complete. Since daughters in traditional Chinese and Indian culture join other families when they get married, there’s really no point in expending a great deal of time in their care and education, since they won’t be the ones who take of their parents and they can’t engage in the necessary religious rites by virtue of their sex. Unless these societies can convince parents that a girl is just as valuable as a boy, femicide will continue, whether abortion is legal or not. This problem is rooted in patriarchal religious systems that devalue women and girls. Much like how the Catholic church says that only men can be priests, only sons can do the necessary religious rites for their parents in Confucianism and Hinduism. The authors of this document can wax eloquently about “complementarianism” all they want, but such thinking always leads to female degradation.
Like the recently completed Synod on the Family, where no actual families were invited to participate, this plenary assembly on “women’s cultures” is just a big Vatican circle jerk of ostensibly celibate male clerics congratulating themselves on how awesome Catholic teachings about women are and bemoaning how most of the laity ignores said teachings. In the past, women may have been satisfied with male clerics — and men in general — telling them how they were supposed to be, but that time is gone. If the Catholic church was serious about finding out “what women want,” it could not only would have invited some to participate in this conference, but the whole thing would have been lead and organized by women. That so much of the working document focuses on the religious significance of female reproductive biology says volumes about how the hierarchy sees women. That the website that hosts the working document is headed by such an offensive image also says something about the participants, but I think only Siegmund Freud would be capable of teasing it all out.