Sunday, August 01, 2004

On Catholicism

I am not a Catholic - raised Anglican and with a healthy scepticism towards the Vatican (the broad strokes of my critique might include sustained regressiveness - read attitude towards contraception, osbcurantism - read Galileo, hysteria - see The Inquisition, stigmatization of human sexuality - read paedophile priests, corruption - read World War II or the thing that gave us the Mafia). Now those might be unfair, stereotypical charges against an institution, it's not a commentary on religion. I get complaints that I am actually not in the least bit religious. I'd reply: undemonstrative maybe, and I certainly don't wear it on my sleeve - perhaps I lean more towards the Quaker tendancy for quiet contemplentation...

Leaving all that aside though, the Catholic church is forever fascinating and has come up 3 times recently. The first is that I've been reading David Lodge's comedy of manners How Far Can You Go? which is a wry look at how a group of 10 or so young catholics lived over a quarter century beginning in the 50s, through the increasingly permissive 60s ending in the jaded seventies and how the church informs their lives. The second is the Vatican's just released "Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and the World." The third is learning that a 95-year-old nun is France's favourite woman. Food for thought as always


A woman's place is to wait and listen, says the Vatican:


The Vatican yesterday depicted what it claimed were women's characteristic traits: 'Listening, welcoming, humility, faithfulness, praise and waiting.'

In its most important statement on the role of women in almost a decade, the Roman Catholic Church said these virtues of the Virgin Mary were ones that women displayed 'with particular intensity and naturalness'.

The 37-page statement, published in full yesterday, was written by the Pope's top theologian, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. As a statement of official doctrine, it would have been read, and very likely amended, by the Pope himself before publication.

The document, which will prompt a fierce debate about the attributes of women, added: 'Although a certain type of feminist rhetoric makes demands 'for ourselves', women preserve the deep intuition of the goodness in their lives of those actions that elicit life, and contribute to the growth and protection [of others]. This intuition is linked to women's physical capacity to give life. Whether lived out or remaining potential, this capacity is a reality that structures the female personality in a profound way.'

In his 'Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World', Ratzinger takes aim at 'currents of thought that are often at variance with the authentic advancement of women'. Chief among these is a tendency to 'emphasise strongly, conditions of subordination in order to give rise to antagonism'.

It implied that 'women, in order to be themselves, must make themselves the adversaries of men'. Such confrontational thinking was 'leading to harmful confusion ... which has its most immediate and lethal effects in the structure of the family'.

Gender war also encouraged a perilous blurring of the distinctions. 'To avoid the domination of one sex or the other, their differences tend to be denied, viewed as mere effects of historical and cultural conditioning.'

Such a view ignored qualities that arose from a woman's unique ability to give birth. This 'allows her to acquire maturity very quickly, and gives a sense of the seriousness of life and of its responsibilities. A sense and a respect for what is concrete develop in her, opposed to abstractions which are so often fatal for the existence of individuals and society,' says the first high-level pronouncement on gender issues since the Pope's 1995 'Letter to Women'.

Ratzinger uses the document to argue that, because they have something unique to contribute, 'women should be present in the world of work and in the organisation of society'.

The comments drew a mixed reaction from feminists and women writers. Erin Pizzey, founder of the international women's refuge movement, said: 'I don't think the Catholic Church, whose priests and bishops cannot marry, is in a position to make such statements. It is one of the most emotionally illiterate organisations I know, and it needs to put its own house in order first.'

But Catherine Pepinster, editor of Catholic paper The Tablet, said the comments would resonate with many women. 'For feminists to rubbish it is a knee-jerk response. It does make a distinction between the sexes, but it also points out that women have a big role to play in society.'

However, combining work and family has 'characteristics different from those in the case of men', says the document, which argues for a 'just valuing of the work of women within the family'. Ratzinger does not say how this is to be done, but it is clear he sees it as a way of encouraging women to spend as much time as possible in the home."

The Post's slant is slightly different: Vatican Letter Denounces 'Lethal Effects' of Feminism: Document Outlines Formula for Man-Woman Relationships
The Vatican issued a letter Saturday attacking the "distortions" and "lethal effects" of feminism, which it defined as an effort to erase differences between men and women -- a goal, the statement said, that undermines the "natural two-parent structure" of the family and makes "homosexuality and heterosexuality virtually equivalent."

The sharp critique was contained in a document issued by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a chief adviser to Pope John Paul II and head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the department in charge of defining Roman Catholic orthodoxy. The 37-page document also outlined the Vatican's formula for relationships between men and women, calling for "active collaboration between the sexes" and rejecting subjugation of women.

The statement was the latest Vatican salvo against trends it regards as undermining its teachings on sexuality and the family. Vatican officials have assailed abortion and contraception; politicians who support abortion through legislation; and legalized same-sex unions. The pope approved the document, titled "Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and the World."

Catholic feminists in the United States said the letter presented a caricature of feminism as antagonistic toward men and trying to deny any difference between the sexes. They said feminism seeks equal rights and respect for both genders.

"The demonization of feminism is most disturbing," said Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, an advocacy group for abortion rights, who said her blood pressure "shot up 20 points" when she read the letter.

"It takes extreme positions that may have been historically held by five people and casts them as if they were held by every woman," Kissling said. "The feminism I know is all for partnerships and is all for empowering both men and women. The feminism I know does not ignore the fact that there are sexual differences."

Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, a feminist theologian at Harvard Divinity School, said the document restated positions the Vatican has taken many times and that the only surprise was its timing. She said church leaders may be feeling some urgency to combat same-sex marriage, as well as renewed pressure to consider ordaining women in response to the worldwide scandal over sexual abuse by priests.

"It has some positive things in it, but the political function of the document is the same as the ones before," Fiorenza said. "It's trying to make a theological case, which they're really not able to make, against the full equality of women in the church."

Archbishop Angelo Amato, secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said on Vatican Radio that the aim of the letter was to critique two current strands in feminism: one that emphasizes "a radical rivalry between the sexes" and the other that seeks to "cancel the differences between the sexes."

The letter argued that "the obscuring of the difference . . . of the sexes has enormous consequences," including inspiring ideologies that "call into question the family, in its natural two-parent structure of mother and father, and make homosexuality and heterosexuality virtually equivalent, in a new model of polymorphous sexuality."

While assaulting what it said were the bases of feminist ideology, the letter tried to tackle the practical difficulties and inequities that feminists also decry. It appeared to attempt to strike a balance between a Catholic ideal of women raising children at home and the reality that many work outside the home.

Women ought not be stigmatized for desiring the life of a homemaker, the letter argued. "Indeed, a just valuing of the work of women within the family is required," it said. Women who choose to work in the labor force should be awarded a proper schedule and "not have to choose between relinquishing their family life or enduring continual stress," it said.

The Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the national Catholic weekly America, said in an e-mail message that "although most American feminists would express their ideology differently than the Vatican, on the practical level they are on the same page (in terms of equality in education, politics, workplace) except on abortion and women priests." If there are differences, he added, "it is probably on the relationship between men and women in the family, not in society. . . . For the Vatican, the ideal is that a father be paid well enough so that a mother can stay home and raise the kids."

The letter called for the Catholic Church to take advantage of "feminine values" that include listening, understanding, caring and faithfulness. Although women are banned from the priesthood, their role in the church is not "a passivity inspired by an outdated conception of femininity," the letter maintained.

Almost a third of the letter was devoted to biblical declarations about the sexes. "From the first moment of their creation, man and woman are different, and will remain so for eternity," it said. Tracing the story of Adam and Eve, it said original sin opened the way to relations between man and woman "in which love will frequently be debased into pure self-seeking, in a relationship which ignores and kills love and replaces it with the yoke of domination of one sex over the other."

In the afterlife, the letter stated, men and women will continue to be different, but sex will come to an end. "The temporal and earthly expression of sexuality is transient," it declared.


95-year-old nun is France's favourite woman

One might have expected Sophie Marceau to win, or perhaps the more establishment figure of Catherine Deneuve, or even the sultry Juliette Binoche.

Instead, the title of France's favourite woman was awarded last week - to the bewilderment once again of the country's film and television elite - to a 95-year-old nun who spent much of her life living alongside rubbish sweepers in the slums of Cairo.

This is the third year running that Soeur Emmanuelle has fought off more glamorous candidates to win - something that surprises even her. But she has a clear sense of perspective: 'They're not going to ask for my popularity ranking at the gates of heaven. No one is going to inscribe my score on my tombstone.'

Her supporters claim that her enduring popularity says much about the French nation's thirst for philanthropic values in a society swamped with consumerism and the trivia of reality TV.

A nun makes an unlikely partner for the French football captain, Zinédine Zidane, who was named France's most popular man in the same list published by Le Journal du Dimanche, researched by the polling organisation Ifop. Zidane, however, only made it to the top of the list because Abbé Pierre, an elderly charity worker and priest who was ranked first a total of 17 times, bowed out of the contest after his win last year.

The appeal of the bespectacled, hunched and wrinkled figure of Emmanuelle is not immediately obvious, even though her life story is as familiar to glossy magazine readers as the biographies of the nation's leading television stars. Born Madeleine Cinquin in Brussels in 1908, she spent her early childhood travelling between Paris and London with her parents, who were manufacturers of expensive lingerie. She was six when her father drowned - an event she witnessed. She went on to gain a degree in philosophy from the Sorbonne before taking her vows in 1929.

In 1971, on the brink of retirement, she was so revolted by the conditions of rubbish collectors in Cairo that she decided to make her home among them. Her domestic popularity began when she returned home in 1993, having become too elderly for slum life. She became a media hit, impressing talk-show hosts and audiences alike with her straight-talking approach and passion for her work.

'People are shocked when they hear her speak. There's a disconnection between her appearance as an old and fragile nun and her ability to shake the French nation's collective consciousness,' said Trao Nguyen, the director of her charitable foundation.

Her popularity is also tied up with France's latent Catholicism. 'It is very strange that at a time when France's churches are emptying and there's a serious deficit of people wanting to take orders, that the country should vote for a nun as its favourite female figure,' Jérôme Fourquet, the director of reseach at Ifop, said. 'But although the Church has much less influence, people still aspire to its values, which she embodies.'

Emmanuelle moved effortlessly from Cairo slums to the salons of Paris, where she charmed politicians and benefactors into donating money to her charities, which support deprived children around the world. President Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, the finance minister, have both found time to visit her in her nunnery in southern France.

Emmanuelle has also won hearts in France by her strangely secular approach to life. Her religious views are maverick; she approves of contraception and the idea of priests marrying. She is not interested in setting up a religious following, as Mother Teresa did, and is careful that her charity work should be independent of the church. Indeed, she dismisses comparisons between herself and Mother Teresa as 'ridiculous'. 'It's like comparing a mouse and a mountain,' she says.

Recently she branched out into philosophical tracts, and this April published What is Life For?, which has sold around 120,000 copies.

Emmanuelle came fifth in France's 50 most loved personalities, just behind the actor Jean-Paul Belmondo. Marceau was ranked ninth, while neither Binoche nor Deneuve made the list.

France's politicians fared poorly: the former socialist health minister, Bernard Kouchner, who helped to found the charity Médecins Sans Frontières, was the highest listed at number 34 - four ahead of Chirac.

It's interesting that the Church is still very relevant and can continue to make pronouncements on such weighty issues as 'the role of the woman' (although in much of the west, it's take on things like contraception divorce or abortion is mostly ignored. I wonder how changing mores mesh with the doctrine of papal infallibility.

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