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 …

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