Jul 9, 2012

The Vatican: Men Behaving Badly

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

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The gender war in the Catholic Church appears to be heating up. Major battlefronts have opened up with American nuns -- including one who dared to write about s-e-x -- and the many Catholic women who are tired of being scolded for using birth control. Now one of the Vatican's own journalists has leveled a charge of "misogyny in the Church."

Lucretia Scaraffia edits a new women's supplement for the Vatican's own newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano. It was a risky venture for the paper to add a prominent, female voice, and it would seem that it hasn't exactly gone smoothly. In a recent interview with Agence French Presse (AFP), Scaraffia bemoaned the "indifference" with which her endeavor has been met. And she railed against a male-centric culture that she blames for the scandals that currently imperil the Church.

"The paedophilia scandal was almost exclusively male," she told AFP, at her book-lined apartment in the Parioli quarter of Rome.

"If there had been women in positions of power they would not have allowed those things to happen.

"Women have long been reputed as sexually dangerous. But it's clear that the danger lay with men and children," she said.

When I first read about Scaraffia's public call for women in the Church ranks, I felt a little thrill. Here is a woman who has made real inroads into the Vatican hierarchy, and whose involvement reportedly has the support of Pope Benedict himself, who is publicly naming the sexist elephant in the vestibule. But her argument is simultaneously poignant and wrong-headed.

Scaraffia is not just a feminist. She is one of the founding voices of Italy's feminist movement in the 1960s.

The 66 year-old academic -- a Mason's daughter who became one of Italy's founding feminists in the '60s and described herself as a "heretic" before a conversion experience two decades ago -- marked out an iconoclastic path from her first major column, a September 2008 prod to rethink the church's teaching that brain death does not constitute the end of life.

While the front-page piece promptly spurred a clarification from the Holy See Press Office that its author's views did not reflect any authoritative "position of the Magisterium," Scaraffia's profile has only increased since, perhaps as an echo of the Pope's own 2010 statement that Catholic newspapers should "encourage authentic dialogue between the various members of society" and serve as "training-grounds for comparison and loyal discussion between different opinions."

In a piece that year for the Papal Paper, Scaraffia said that the Vatican's 1994 permission for girls to become altar servers -- still a topic of heated debate in some church circles -- proved a watershed for women as "entering into the area of the altar signified the end of an attribution of impurity to their sex."

I believe Scaraffia is sincere in her feminism. I believe she's working very hard at the Herculean task of bringing gender equality to the Catholic Church. I just think she's walked boldly into a well-laid trap.

Scaraffia is at cross purposes with herself. On the one hand she wants to say that women should stop being blamed for men who are unable to control their own appetites. And on the other, she says that women in more powerful positions would be just the cock-blocker the men of the Church need. It's an internal contradiction that has played out in feminist thought for decades. Women don't want to be blamed for the uncivilized behavior of men. We don't want to have to dress differently so as not to lead men into temptation, or, dear Goddess, be blamed for harassing men with our cleavage. So, no, we don't want be viewed as "sexually dangerous." But we seem loathe to give up our status as exactly the civilizing influence men need.

Scaraffia even goes so far as to claim that a stronger female presence would have prevented the Vatileaks scandal.

"If there were women with authority in the Church, nothing would be leaked," she said. "Women are freer because they do not have such thoughts of power."

It's an idealized view the feminine and one that has trapped women from time immemorial. It runs dangerously close to the "Angel in the House" with which Virginia Woolf fought her life and death struggle. Hell. It puts us on course to be the bloody Giving Tree, again, with all that that entails. But this idea that women embody the better nature of humanity is one that refuses to die -- in part because feminists like Scaraffia are keeping it alive.

It's a seductive idea. On the surface, it's a positive message about the quality of women. And it is usually accepted uncritically by women and men, alike. Indeed, all of the coverage I've read of Scaraffia's comments has focused on what a sharp indictment of the Church hierarchy she has made with statements like this one and seemingly accepted the idea that women with some actual authority would make priests act better.

"It's not possible to go on like this," said Scaraffia. "Women in the Church are angry!"

Near the end of this segment of Real Time on the sex abuse scandal at Penn State, Bill Maher says, "Does it strike anybody that anywhere there are no women present -- football, the Vatican, the Middle East -- things go to shit?... You really do need women around as a moderating influence." It's a point I've heard him make more than once. Maher is a funny guy and an astute political analyst but I don't think anyone could mistake him for a feminist. Which is not say that he's wrong.

That's the worst part of this whole conundrum. I'm not even saying that it isn't true that the presence of women checks the worst excesses of masculine behavior. I'm saying that that's not a good thing. And feminists need to stop encouraging men to depend on women to make them act like grown-ups. It excuses some of the most reprehensible behavior and sends men the message that they don't ever have to take responsibility because we're up for the challenge of acting as their conscience.

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