Two years ago, when Cardinal Gerhard Müller criticized the Leadership Conference of Women Religious for promoting radical feminist themes, the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith offered a stark reminder that feminism has no place in the Roman Catholic church.
In his most recent interview in L'Osservatore Romano (the Vatican's "semi-official" newspaper), Müller further indicates that any suggestion of misogyny on the part of the hierarchy is a claim best answered with a punch line.
Sadly, it's a comedic lesson Müller likely learned from his boss, the pope.
Back in July, when journalist Franca Giansoldati asked Pope Francis whether the pontiff's tropes about the "church as a woman" and the "the church as a feminine word" were misogynistic, he responded with a joke about women as Adam's rib. The pope then went on a roll of sorts, making another zinger about priests coming under the authority of female housekeepers.
Now Müller is taking his turn as the court jester. In his interview Monday (featured, by the way, in a special pullout section on "Women Church" in L'Osservatore Romano), when asked about the doctrinal congregation's ongoing "reform" of LCWR, the cardinal insists, "We are not misogynists."
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"We don't want to gobble up a woman a day," he then quips. ("Non vogliamo mangiare una donna al giorno," for those hoping something was lost in translation.)
Is this the progress on women in the church that we've been hoping for? With both Francis and his doctrinal watchdog yukking it up about misogyny, it becomes harder to imagine that any substantive treatment of issues related to women is on the horizon.
Sure, the pope has mentioned in interviews the need for a deeper theology of women or a more incisive role for women in the church. But 18 months into his pontificate, these remain little more than sound bites. (Even John L. Allen Jr., earlier this week, named the role of women in the church as the No. 1 question on which the pope should be pressed.)
Müller goes on in the interview to echo the pope's understanding of the role of women in the church. The "presence of women in the church must be understood in its own context," he says, and not as an "imitation of the male model." (Müller's phrase, of course, evokes one of the pope's other wisecracks about feminism as "chauvinism with skirts.")
If Sid Caesar is right that "comedy has to be based on truth," then what is unmasked in these jokes is that members of the hierarchy not only fail to understand women's experience, they do not even know how to talk about women.
Worse still, it reveals the scotosis in the minds of two of the most powerful men in the Roman Catholic church. Scotosis is a censoring of the mind against unwanted wisdom, or a self-imposed blind spot. Often, scotosis happens in communities where placing limits on intelligence somehow benefits the group and its biases.
In their jokes about feminism and misogyny, the pope and Müller show a deep need to deflect any wisdom that has come from women's suffering at the hands of patriarchy. Is it any wonder that the women religious Müller has censored are among those who have best articulated feminist theological wisdom?
Rather than exhorting Catholics not to read Mercy Sr. Margaret Farley's latest book, Müller should have read her definition of sexism, written in the New Catholic Encyclopedia, as a "belief that persons are superior or inferior to one another on the basis of their sex. It includes attitudes, value systems, and social patterns which express or support this belief."
And rather than blasting the LCWR for giving St. Joseph Sr. Elizabeth Johnson an award, Müller might have wanted to consider Johnson's idea, stated in She Who Is, that feminist theology sees clearly that the sin of sexism "has debilitating effects on women both socially and psychologically, and interlocks with other forms of oppression to shape a violent and dehumanized world."
Because the truth of the matter is, women are indeed being "gobbled up" by poverty, lack of education, inadequate health care, slavery, and sex trafficking. They and their children bear a disproportionate burden of the hunger, violence and discrimination that shatter this world every day.
And all of these injustices are rooted in the misogynistic idea that women are not of equal value, ability and dignity to men, an idea that the hierarchy, with its blind insistence on preordained gender roles, perpetuates.
Women are being eaten alive, and it is only a feminist understanding of the genuine equality women and men that will save them from the jaws of death.
The time has come for the hierarchy to stop making jokes about gobbling up women and to start talking turkey about the ways in which the church's structural sins exacerbate the suffering of women globally.
[Jamie L. Manson is NCR books editor. She received her Master of Divinity degree from Yale Divinity School, where she studied Catholic theology and sexual ethics. Her NCR columns have won numerous awards, most recently second prize for Commentary of the Year from Religion Newswriters (RNA). Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.]
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