What Women Want: Rome Ponders

Controversy and confusion surrounds the Pontifical Council for Culture’s Plenary Assembly, "Women’s Cultures: Equality and Difference," as it convenes in Rome.

Yesterday the Pontifical Council for Culture convened its Plenary Assembly: “Women’s Cultures: Equality and Difference.” In charity, one hesitates to pen a post of doom about the Vatican’s effort to engage women’s issues. I am spared —National Public Radio reached the same conclusion, “Vatican’s Women’s Initiatives Gets Off to a Bad Start.”

A month before the four day meeting was to convene, the Council promoted its theme with a controversial video that drew fiery responses from English speaking nations. The video featured a sultry Italian actress whose manner was flippant and flirtatious. So rancorous were the reactions that the Pontifical Council quickly removed the English language version of the video (the Italian video remained online). This unfortunate miscalculation of what women want continues. What is the message of the 1936 work of art, “Venus Restored,” a headless cast of Venus bound in ropes, that was chosen as the cover of the official Outline Document for the Plenary?

Some have speculated that the image suggests that women have been held back from rightful opportunities, or, that women have been “reined in” by patriarchy. One blogger quipped, “A woman’s torso trussed like a chicken? That’s inviting.” A gaggle of women’s ordination groups view the image as a depiction of female bondage. No one apparently perceives “Venus Restored” as restoring confidence in the Pontifical Council’s ability to address what women want.

Micol Forti is the curator of contemporary art for the Vatican Museums. Forti tried to explain, “It’s not a headless or armless body, but a reflection on classic tradition and the possibility of rediscovering a role in contemporary life.” Not according to women who see patriarchy behind every miter. For them it portrays woman as “intellectually decapitated and physically dismembered, like this statue of Venus (the ‘divine feminine’ impulse dismembered and rendered obsolete by patriarchal religion).”

Dismemberment may yet take the day. Pieces of women’s issues have been flung far in wide with headlines that heralded the Assembly, such as this from the Huffington Post, “Vatican Report Calls Cosmetic Surgery a ‘Burqua Made of Flesh,’” and, from the Vatican Insider,Women Don’t Want to Be Cardinals.”

This is awkward. And unfortunate. The goal of the Pontifical Council’s Plenary Assembly is to address crucial issues that impact women, and therefore, the health of society. How is it that more attention was not given to careful, precise communication? Instead we have the Plenary Assembly metaphorically aborted, torn limb from limb by smirking headlines and petulant dissidents before its very serious purpose ever sees daylight.

Access to the Assembly is limited to members and invited consultors of the Pontifical Council. The heart of their effort is to examine “some aspects of women’s cultures…in order to identify possible pastoral paths, which will allow Christian communities to listen and dialogue with the world today in this sphere.” The four outlined themes are:

1) Between equality and difference: A quest for equilibrium

2) “Generativity” as a symbolic code

3) The female body: between culture and biology

4) Women in Religion: Flight or new forms of participation in the life of the Church?

Urgent issues, including the commercialization of women’s bodies (human trafficking, surrogacy) will be lost to the world’s headlines, out-shouted by frenzied demands that women do have the right to be cardinals or to seek transgender surgery. May I propose a hard truth and modest change of tone for the Plenary Assembly?

The truth: You will never be popular with “the world today.” Dialogue won’t make it better.

The tone. Be authoritative. What the world needs now (and what women want) is to know how truth defends humanity. Nobody else will tell us.

State the true anthropological and sociological facts about the male and female sexes, marriage and family.

Teach the One True Faith, gently, but without apology. Don’t worry about false charges of “patriarchy”—tell them you are under the protection and guidance of the Matriarch of the Universe

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About Mary Jo Anderson 31 Articles
Mary Jo Anderson is a Catholic journalist and speaker whose articles and commentaries on politics, religion, and culture appear in a variety of publications. She is a frequent guest on EWTN's "Abundant Life." She was appointed to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops National Advisory Council (NAC), 2010-2014 and served as member of the NAC Executive Committee in 2011. Follow her on Twitter @maryjoanderson3.