I must speak (updated)

(While I have not changed this post, don’t miss some important updates at the bottom — Feb. 22)

So yes, in case you hadn’t noticed, I’m a very committed Catholic girl. My faith experience has grown a deep relationship with God in, with and through the person of Jesus. The sacramental life of the church has been a life-giving and love-giving source of spiritual water for my thirsting spirit. The deeper I grow in my Catholic faith, the bigger my heart grows towards all people of good will — Christian and otherwise.

Yes, my love for the Catholic faith and my thirst for learning and insight lead me to study the Holy things of God with fellow Christians of many other denominations, enriching me in unparalleled ways, resulting in my Masters in Theological Studies. It was then that I awoke to the realization that, while women’s faith witness is revered in my Catholic church, women’s voices are not considered in decision-making or having anything worthwhile to say in the public worship of the faith community. I readily admit that this has created much tension in my life and ministry. Yet at the same time it has also provided opportunities for challenging spiritual growth which may not have occurred otherwise. To my surprise, God has also blessed me with creative and life-giving ministry opportunities in both Catholic and ecumenical circles. O happy fault indeed …

So far so good, for the most part. Until now. I rejoiced this past December upon learning that the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Cultures announced a conference on Women’s cultures: equality and difference from February 4–7, 2015. I rejoiced when on December 28 this same Council invited women from around the world to submit short videos to share their experience of being a woman. The video posted on the Council’s website inviting submissions was rather strange to my way of thinking though  — a sexy blonde woman waving her curls back and forth with flair, looking more like a commercial for hairspray, quite unlike most women in the world. But what the heck, I thought, let it go. Then the timing and deadline for these submissions were a bit odd too: during the holiday season, deadline January 4. A minuscule window of communication easily missed by most of the world. Nevertheless I remained my natural optimistic self, always give the benefit of the doubt esp. to the men in Rome.

Until this week when my optimistic and trusting nature got a serious beating from the most shocking source. I abhor the image above; I almost threw up the first time I saw it this past Monday. It still hits me deep in the gut every time it assaults my eyes and makes a bee-line for my good-natured spirit. It speaks to me of the objectification of women’s bodies, of men’s brutal sexual exploitation of women, an exploitation that creates bondage and feeds lust, rape, prostitution.

So what then is it doing here, you might ask? Because I need readers of this blog to know … and this is the most embarrassing and painful part to share … that this is the image “gracing” the pages of the PONTIFICAL Council for Cultures at the moment. The image is accompanying a working document for this above mentioned conference at the VATICAN on Women’s Cultures taking place this week, a conference without the active participation of women (participating are 13 Cardinals, 5 Archbishops, 8 Bishops, 1 Monsignor, 1 priest, 3 laymen and at last, 7 women “observers” — seen but not heard?). Someone please tell me that a hacker placed the image on the Council’s website instead of chosen by the dear Council Cardinals. Alas, media reports this week have laid that hope to rest.

I am no flaming feminist, not by a long shot. I am a pro-life, natural family planning advocating, anti-euthanasia, pro-marriage, environmentally-conscious Catholic mother, spouse and grandmother, trying by fits and starts to live a faithful life. This week’s events at the Vatican, though, are pushing me too far. I don’t even want to go into the grossly inadequate content of the working document or the composition of the conference participants itself. Someone please tell me I got it all wrong, and that I’mNakedWomanNo grossly misinterpreting the good intentions of our church leaders. Someone please tell me I began with the wrong assumptions which lead me to this painful realization. But the image refuses to alter its message; it speaks a million painful words. As Jesus wept over Jerusalem, in profound sorrow for its refusal to accept Him, I cannot help but weep similar silent tears of grief, loss, sadness, embarrassment, shock and ecclesial alienation …

For more media coverage and commentaries on this subject, visit the following websites:

Vatican Effort Stirs Controversy

Spare Empty Words

Vatican Conference Funny

Update: I stand corrected — there are women addressing the conference currently underway in Rome. It would be so interesting to know the content of their presentations. See the conference schedule here.

Update on February 10, 2015: 
I had sent an email to Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, President of the Pontifical Council for Cultures, sharing my dismay at the controversial image used. This morning I, along with others who had sent similar concerns, received the following email in reply from Cardinal Ravasi: “I have received your objection to the use of “Venus Restored” by the artist Man Ray on the Pontifical Council for Culture’s website to illustrate the working document of the Plenary Assembly on“Women’s Cultures: equality and difference”. While registering your complaint, we have chosen not to remove the image, as we believe it speaks clearly for one of the central points of our document: many women, alas, are still struggling for freedom (bound with rope), their voices and intellect often unheard (headless), their actions unappreciated (limbless). Gianfranco Ravasi” 

Towards the end of my original reflection above I wrote: Someone please tell me I got it all wrong, and that I’m grossly misinterpreting the good intentions of our church leaders. Someone please tell me I began with the wrong assumptions which lead me to this painful realization. I’d say this is a prime example of the importance of checking assumptions and interpretations as close to the source as possible! This can be a lesson we can all take to heart every time we are tempted to judge another’s words or actions harshly.  However … as my own 28-year old daughter pointed out, the image remains objectionable as there is nothing that indicates why the woman is naked, bound, headless and limbless… And while these words might make Cardinal Ravasi look like a knight in shining armour, there is no acknowledgement of the “binding” of female voices in the church; after all, the voting members of the  Pontifical Council on Culture are all male and celibate … To be continued … 🙂

Update February 22, 2015
In many ways, we cannot ever know the real meaning of things. But we have to always make every effort to try to search the fullest meaning possible. So the Vatican had a conference on women without a lot of transparency and with some PR blunders, admitted by Cardinal Ravasi himself at a February 2 press conference. The PR blunders and the information vacuum quickly filled social media with a host of speculations and interpretations, mostly critical and negative, some no doubt justified but many others not. The extent of judging Vatican activities with either suspicion or hope depends not only on the Vatican’s actions, or lack thereof, but also on the fundamental trust or distrust on ecclesial affairs in the person making the judgment. I confess that I can vacillate between hope and joy on one hand, confusion and distrust on the other about activities, announcements and events in Rome, especially those pertaining to women’s role in the church.

Today I am happy to have found the first report from someone who not only attended the infamous conference convened by the Pontifical Council for Cultures, but who was also a presenter: Ulla Gudmundson. You can read her brief account here (make sure to bookmark this site as there will be more thoughtful reflections posted there leading up to the 2015 Synod on the Family). Gudmundson’s words help me swing from despair to cautious hope — are we making some headway, inch by inch? I know it’s Lent but I’m praying: Come, Holy Spirit, come …

Thank you for reading this reflection. For private comments, use the Contact Form below; for public comments scroll further down the page and use the space below “Leave a Reply.”


7 thoughts on “I must speak (updated)”

  1. Hi, Wow ! I was not aware of this poster. You wrote a good article . This is absolutely appalling. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Shirley



  2. good article! revealing again in 2015 that it is clerics and 3 men speaking for who and what of women, rather than asking them!! Who are the ones that need to be observing/listening for this upcoming meeting?


  3. Interesting photo and context. Wow! I do sculpture and art so the image did not repulse me but interested me. The symbolism for the male dominated church is astounding! The ropes are actually symbolic of the men’s bondage over the woman’s form. Their downfall, their struggle. The Lord liberated women time and time again in the Scriptures. Knowing that is our redemption. We can never take for granted that the men in our lives are liberated from who we are. It is a rare occasion when a man see’s a woman’s body and soul without the bondage so well illustrated by this photo. Only in our eternal glory will men truly see us as Christ sees us. There we will fully worship the One true God and not be bound by each other.


  4. Dear Marie-Louise,
    We have always shared in common our Roman Catholic upbringing. As we both know, I left the RC church at 19 after a personal encounter with Jesus that ignited my faith for the first time in my life. I have been a Baptist ever since. Since I married a Baptist minister, it sealed my “fate” and kept me Baptist even though I know I would be quite satisfied worshiping in many other “flavours” of Christian fellowship.
    Because of my background and the godly example of wonderful parents, and because of knowing you and meeting many other Roman Catholics who are devout Christ followers, my attitude toward the church I left has shifted over the years — in a positive way.
    That is why I read this article with a personal sense of sadness. I thought that Catholicism had moved beyond what you report in your blog. And perhaps it has in peoples’ hearts and practices in parishes all over the world. Sadly, the men at the top must be living in a bubble and are thus impervious (or unaware?) that women can and do have a voice in matters of faith. Not just a voice but leadership ability and a passion for service.
    I know that you came very close to abandoning ship and there were at least two faith communities who were hoping you’d land with them. But after a lengthy process of spiritual counsel and discernment you believed God was leading you to stay where you were and bring change from within. I have always admired your courage and dedication. It is for that reason that you are qualified to speak out as you have in this article. the old maxim that “I can insult my mother but you’d better not do it!” is at work here.
    I left the RC church years ago and have held my tongue because, by leaving, I felt I gave up the right to criticize. Instead I have spoken out for/against Evangelicals when I saw practices that were ungodly, ungracious or worse. But mostly I have kept silent because i lacked the courage to draw a line in the sand and to let others know where I stood. I don’t like being “unpopular.” Doesn’t Jesus, through John in Revelation, say something about spitting lukewarm people out of His mouth?
    You are definitely not lukewarm in this analysis Marie-Louise and I applaud you and, nervously, take a stand alongside you.


  5. Thank you for your heart-felt words. Embracing your faith, you share the heart of many women, globally. I just want to encourage you — despite the imagery, despite the shallow attempts to give women a voice — I believe God is working through all of this to give those of us [women] who speak faithfully, a voice in this dark and hopeless world. I, for one, am counting on that. Do not grow weary of doing good. In due time you WILL reap your reward, Loved One.


  6. Hello, Marie-Louise,

    My reaction? Either I manage to get words down and, therefore, out of my system, or I will spend the rest of the day dealing with a screaming migraine.
    Interesting choice of art, given that there are no arms. How on earth is she going to get all the work done? Puts me in mind of the fellow who explained to us at some seminar that in order to have more priestly vocations we need more men visible around the church – that the problem is women forming the choir, serving as lector, handling children’s liturgy, acting as Ministers of Communion. The problem is that the kids see men as only occupying pews.
    Unfortunately, the image I get from the art is of all the missing and presumed murdered Aboriginal women in Canada, all the battered women in Canada who are told, in many ways, that “it’s your fault” and, “if you would only do what he wants and keep him happy.” OK. Maybe I’m a little prejudiced, having been in that position at one point in my life, and someone did ask me why I didn’t work harder to keep him happy. (Yes, I believe in divorce and annulment.)
    I checked out Mary E. Hunt’s article on the subject. I have now read it three times. Knowing that there are at least three of us on this side of the concepts helps, marginally.
    But I was struck by this line which she pulled from document: “The physicality of women—which makes the world alive, long-living, able to extend itself—finds in the womb its greatest expression. (p. 5)” In 21 carefully chosen words, our Church Fathers have just discarded, as incapable of offering anything to the world, all the nuns, all the single laywomen, and all the women who, for one reason or another, including infertility on the part of their male spouse, are unable to bear a child.
    I was raised by Icelandic-Canadian parents and I come from sturdy stock, from a world where the men were much given to dying , either as a result of going a’viking or by drowning at sea as fishermen. Therefore, women had to be strong, capable, and very able. All the ancient Icelandic fairytales and folklore (1000 years old) have strong wise women who are the problem solvers. As a professional storyteller, I take huge pleasure in telling those stories and then, during question period, explaining that, no, I didn’t make them up myself, and, no, they aren’t brand new stories, and, yes, the old stories do reflect life as it was lived at the time. Go ahead. Try to tell me that I should find my worth as a human by emulating the character that Nancy Brilli portrays.
    So why am I still a Catholic? (I was born of Lutheran parents and raised in the United Church.) Well, as a friend, a nun, and I agreed one day, we are here because you can’t fight from outside and maybe, just maybe, you can fight from inside.
    And blessings on you, Marie-Louise, for your stark honesty.


  7. I hear you ML, I was excited at first and then heart broken that it is once again the men who will be making the decisions regarding women in the church. They just don’t get it. Cath


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