Religion, Faith and Sprituality

Where Are the Women?

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Women and Vatican Optics: What Happens in the Vatican Does Not Stay in the Vatican

painting by Münster’s Lisa Kötter

I often find myself asked how I can be both a feminist and Catholic. My short answer is that I am still “a believer.” Another is that I am an artist, and Roman Catholicism has always had a mysterious hold on artists within and beyond the Catholic Church. On a less ethereal plane are the pragmatic reasons to stay. If feminists like me all walk away, those who embrace or tolerate the systemic misogyny win. Feminists within the church know how dangerous the misogyny of the institutional Catholic church is. I’m not sure feminists outside the church do. This for me, suggests another possibly reason for remaining Catholic. The truth is that often it is when I am most appalled by the clerical hierarchy, the homophobes, the women mired in internalized misogyny, the integralists, and the fifty percent of my church in the United States who support avarice unchecked and white supremacist /white nationalist policy, the more I want to stay, because I have come to believe it is feminists driven by both belief and conscience who are best situated to cleanse the temple and beat back the misogyny which does not confine itself to Catholic women in the pews. In United States and throughout the world, Catholic teaching affects non-Catholics in critical ways, because what happens in the Vatican does not stay in the Vatican. It ramifies. So for now, I remain Catholic. I stay, I pray, but never do I pay.
I’m neither a “Vaticanist” (Yes, there is such a thing.) nor a “professional theologian.” But I am an insider who has studied the Catholic church both formally and informally for two decades. The Vatican is secretive, and the opacity of the Vatican’s operations creates great potential for misconduct behind its veil, so to speak. Catholic media is highly sophisticated and, by design, keeps Catholics and non-Catholics in the dark on matters of fiscal misconduct, and, of course, in the context of the clergy sex abuse crisis. The Vatican tends to circle the wagons when secular media outlets get a whiff of scandal, and the Vatican press people allow select Catholic media, organizations run by Catholics who take special interest in Catholic news, access. There is tremendous overlap among Catholic publications Catholic academics, many of whom are paid, whether directly or indirectly by the institutional church. This is one of the reasons so few people know, for example, that the much vaunted for its brutal honesty (2004) John Jay Report was commissioned by the institutional church. Its data was collected by Catholic clerics. The release of this was packaged and sold, in a sense, to the public, by public relations experts. Catholics rejoiced. At least one prominent Roman Catholic theologian I know believes the John Jay Report underreported incidences of child rape, as it was based on diocesan records alone, and thus discounted accounts of Catholics who had reported only the Police Departments or District Attorneys’ Offices and not to the dioceses in which the alleged sex crimes took place. There’s a reason half of the many Catholics with whom I discuss the report do not know this. Catholic publications depend, to varying degrees, upon the institutional church for economic support and readership. A de facto nihil obstat often applies. Many Catholic church-funded media outlets and universities exist in part, to fence in what gets reported and what gets taught in order to keep it in reasonable accordance with magisterial teaching. (The magisterium is the teaching body of the church.) The Vatican center of operations itself, Catholic media outlets (especially EWTN, one of the world’s largest multimedia corporations) and a network of Catholic universities comprise an informational fortress dedicated (again, to varying degrees) to releasing — and spinning — Catholic news and information. In many instances the very reason for being of these agencies is to evangelize, to keep Catholics in the fold and tithing. 50% of Catholics believe abortion should be legal, yet I cannot remember the last time I read a pro-choice opinion piece in a Catholic publication. Furthermore, several women theologians affiliated, whether as students or professors, have told me that Catholic women scholars, today, in 2019, are marginalized on the grounds of non-seriousness when they attempt to study the history/ecclesiology of women priests and deacons in the Catholic Church. Catholics who teach and write under the auspices of Catholic institutions lose their perches and posts when they report honestly on the church, and the institutional church dramatically limits access for secular reporters. Hence the great veil of opacity.

I recently discussed Catholic news coverage with a twenty-something non-Catholic journalist. “People who don’t have a stake aren’t as interested,” she said. She makes a good point, but she’s wrong. Non-Catholic women do have a stake, because what happens in the Vatican does not remain in the Vatican. Don’t like Trump? Traditional Catholics helped elect him. Did the Alabama Abortion bill shock you? Long before Roe v. Wade became federal law, the institutional Catholic Church was using parish donations to fund efforts to overturn it. Got a problem with Brett Kavanaugh? His conduct and his misogynist arrogance are an unofficially sanctioned, no — promulgated norm in secondary Catholic schools for white prosperous male students in the United States. Catholic white supremacy built those schools.

Once you start noticing the way the Vatican optics works, it becomes impossible to look away. It is never an accident, for example, when tender pontifical moments make the news just in time to push a slew of sex crimes involving children off of the proverbial “front pages.” The Catholic hierarchy’s tradition of secrecy and “Vatican optics” work in tandem to entrench a dangerous lack of transparency. The Vatican has the best publicity team its vast wealth can buy and a coterie of Vatican groupies ever jockeying for position.

Pope Francis has spoken more expansively than his predecessors about the need to increase women’s voices in the Catholic Church, but he has most energetically opposed to even cracking opening to “the door” to discussion of ordaining women. Like most of his brother bishops, Pope Francis defaults to sexist tropes of the feminine when he speaks of women. Despite this, multitudes of “liberal” women in Catholic world adore him, discounting, somehow, his choice to uphold misogynist and patriarchal doctrine. I have not been entirely immune to Pope Francis admiration, but there can be little doubt that the Holy Father, who has famously described women as “the strawberries on the cake,” is a sexist man promulgating sexism. He regularly reaffirms misogynist Catholic doctrine.
“It takes a long time to turn a big bus” is the misogyny-friendly liberal Catholic’s favorite argument. Even feminist Catholic theologians sometimes stoop to parrot this unfortunate rhetoric, most of whom would deem it abominable were it to be applied to any ethnic group. Every time the bishops convene, Catholic “journalists” announce the desire on the part of the hierarchy to increase “women’s voices in the church.” There’s a reason for this. The Vatican is in a sticky spot when it comes to women, and has little choice but to pay a certain amount of lip service in order to stay in business. Vatican optics around women in the church is complex. In the United States, and much of the world, women do disproportionate work of running Catholic parishes. Despite that the institutional Roman Catholic Church is likely the wealthiest businesses in the world, much (most, possibly) of women’s labor is done on a pro bono basis. In moderate and “liberal” Catholic families it is most often women who preside over the catechesis of children. (Some Traditional Catholics seem to be moving away from this.) The Vatican needs to counterbalance its misogynist by projecting an illusion of respecting women, while actively engaged in discriminating against and exploiting them (us). The new evangelization (code for increasing the fold) absolutely depends upon it.

Often Rome’s balancing act entails the strategic dangling the of the carrot of ordaining “deacons.” Here’s how it goes. Rome leaks news about the possibility of women “deacons” (deaconesses, really). “Liberal” Catholics in the know celebrate. Trad Catholics vituperate, and the whole thing quiets down until the Vatican needs it again. Think: Peanuts. The Catholic Church is Lucy. Charlie Brown is deeply believing, self-respecting Catholic women. Deaconesses are the football, and you get the idea. Coverage of the recent Amazon Synod in Rome was lousy with women deacon mania.

Another further complicating the way Catholics and “non-stakeholders” consume news of the church, is the prevailing ethos among Catholic experts that only Catholic experts, which is to say “professional theologians,” canon lawyers, and clerics, are competent to fathom, parse, analyze, opine and report on Catholicism. This “don’t try this at home” elitism extends beyond the media. Its tentacles reach into the pews. The Catholic Church has both a formidable intellectual tradition and a disgraceful history of conditioning Catholics in the pews to believe they lack the intelligence to understand their own faith and sacred scripture. Despite this, no Catholic in any pew anywhere has ever been asked to pass a pop quiz on Summa Theologica before tossing legal tender into that offertory basket on Sunday. Many well-educated Catholics, because they are well-conditioned, via generations of Catholic formation, not to probe, are unaware that their portions of their Catholic school tuition, diocesan appeal, and parish collection donations are funding efforts to systematically strip women and LGBTQ people of their rights in the United States.

Most sexually active Catholic women of child-bearing age use artificial contraception. More than 50% of United States Catholics support a woman’s right to a safe, legal, medical abortion. Despite this, many Catholic feminists in the United States contribute, each week, to efforts to strike down Roe v. Wade in United States Courts. Catholics who do not wish to fund such campaigns should consider skipping that offertory donation, and giving, instead, directly to persons in need, bearing in mind that parishes kick back to dioceses, and dioceses kick back to the Vatican.

“Get rid of those scruples that deprive you of peace,” wrote Phalangist Spanish priest Josemaria Escriva, the founder of the Opus Dei prelature. Opus Dei was founded in Spain, by (literal) fascists, under Generalissimo Francisco Franco, during the Spanish Civil War. Many Opus Dei and other traditional Catholics are “integralists”; they believe secular law should evolve in such a way as to aligned itself with Catholic doctrine. In recent years, Opus Dei has been quite successful in using their power and financial assets to infiltrate elite universities, financial institutions, and secular government. Like their “traditional” counterparts, most Opus Dei believers embrace the doctrine of “complementarity” (to define it broadly: a kind of theological “separate but equal”) views about men and women. Attorney General William Barr’s likely treacherous choice to erase most of Robert Mueller’s report on Trump makes perfect sense when one considers Barr’s ties to D.C.’s Catholic Information Center (located two blocks from the White House) and to the traditional Opus Dei “prelature.” Deceased Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was a traditional Catholic and a putative member of Opus Dei as well. To imagine that traditional, pre-Vatican II Catholicism has its hooks in the operations of the United States Government is not conspiratorial paranoia. It’s ongoing, at present.

This structural misogyny does so much damage globally. While a majority of women in North America and western Europe ignore Catholic teaching on contraception, premarital sex, abortion, and divorce and remarriage; Catholic women in the very poor regions of South America, Africa and Asia are often more compliant. Women being fed, educated and cared for medically by Catholic teams who caution women not contracept under penalty of eternal damnation are less likely to plan their families. (I want to say that many Catholic missionaries report that they decline by choice to promulgate misogynist and hateful teaching when they feed, heal, teach and that this is something of a norm among radical Catholics working in the developing world.) Still, at the church’s urging, many women living in very poor regions still give birth to more children than they can feed because church workers tell them they must. In regions in which the incidence of HIV/AIDS is growing, this teaching is especially pernicious. Women who cannot afford the medicine that cures the illness are still taught, via “Catholic teaching,” that to contracept artificially imperils their immortal souls.

I decided fifteen years ago to “boycott the basket,” but I’m still worshipping Catholic. I try never to give the institutional church money. I love my church, but I recently decided to add abstinence from donating “time and talent” to my boycott, for reasons of conscience. I do donate goods when possible, and I donate to select Catholic social justice organizations I support. But I never contribute to diocesan churches because I know that a diocese can seize any money it wants from a parish.
The institutional Catholic Church is in crisis, but I believe that my church might still find a way to cleanse and rescue itself. I do not believe this will happen without a bold move in the direction of ordaining women. This would have to happen during Pope Francis’s pontificate, and if he remains in his misogyny corner, the liberal church will lose out. Hence, one more reason to boycott the basket. So, for now, my plan is stick around, document from inside, and report, because I still love my church. And because I know that what happens in the vatican does not stay in the vatican. I plan to bear witness, to stay, to pray, and never pay. Not until there’s a woman celebrating mass on that altar, at least.

Michele Somerville 
May 24, 2019; Cambridge, MA
Revised: November 23, 2019, Brooklyn, NY