Peacocks in the headlights

This story appears in the USCCB Fall 2014 feature series. View the full series.

by Phyllis Zagano

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Who can help us think about the world, about women, about church? How about William Butler Yeats in his 1919 poem, "The Second Coming":


"Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
 Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,"

There is no explanation for the so-called Islamic State's claim at a worldwide caliphate, except history. "Soldiers" of the Ottoman Empire beheaded hundreds of thousands of Christians in the 14th century and murdered nearly 4 million Greek, Armenian, Syrian and other Christians at the turn of the 20th. Hundreds of thousands suffered deportation, forced conversion and death in the intervening centuries. Today, there is video of a multiracial force of thugs marching 15 Syrian Army captives toward their finish line. This newest entry to the annals of history has high production values and zero moral capacity. The marching thugs each took a short knife, lined up, and in unison beheaded their prey. Yeats wrote of things falling apart, of anarchy loosed upon the world just after World War I. We see the video in advance of World War III. The center cannot hold.


"The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;"

There is no explanation for the insane practice of infibulation -- female genital mutilation. The details are not for the squeamish. The objective is to eliminate any sexual feeling in a woman using a knife or a razor blade. Yes, some die. The United Nations now says it wants to end this ritualized mutilation within a generation. Hello? Within a generation? UNICEF says 125 million women in 29 African and Middle Eastern countries have been, as one says politely, "cut." That accounts for 91 percent of women of child-bearing age in Egypt alone, where the grand mufti pronounced the barbaric practice "un-Islamic" in 2007. A blood-dimmed tide drowns this obnoxious "ceremony of innocence."


"The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity."

There is a glimmer of hope within the boredom of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Baltimore meeting. Media presented it as a do-nothing gathering of most of the 266 active and many of the 181 retired U.S. bishops. The bishops, most wearing new silver or pewter chains and crosses, were nearly outnumbered by media, observers and staff. Some writers saw the group as uneasy and unsure of what to do in Francis' rock-star papacy. Their apparent confusion did not keep them from spending $199 night (plus taxes and fees) to be at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront Hotel or from traveling off in a chartered bus to Baltimore's Chinatown to eat, possibly have a drink, and certainly to be merry. They seemed like a nice bunch.

What to do?

The world is falling apart. Brigands roam the land in search of Christians to maim and kill. Women are routinely raped, enslaved, traded and cut, or murdered for the slimmest of reasons. Yet what did the bishops say -- directly or indirectly -- about the women treated as less than human, worse than animals, in poor and rich corners of the world?

The USCCB meeting was full of gentility and politesse. "Your Excellency," "Your Eminence," "My brother bishops" echoed in the meeting hall. The black-suited crowd listened to reports about Catholic schools, about hiring foreign priests, about the catechism now online. They voted on liturgy translations and approved nominating yet another man for sainthood.

Women and war were not on the agenda.

Do they even think about the connection? Do they even recognize that the way the church speaks of women actually supports the disgusting practice of infibulation, which was mentioned in a Vatican document quite possibly for the first time in August?

One bishop who agreed to be interviewed said it was "harsh" to say that until the church restores its practice of ordained women deacons and places a vested woman at the ambo in a papal Mass to proclaim the Gospel, the world will not hear anything Catholicism says about women.

The church needs to state and state quite clearly that women are made in the image and likeness of God, that women can and do image Christ.

On hearing that the abandoned "iconic argument" -- the ordained must physically represent Jesus -- was being used against restoring ordained women deacons in the church, the bishop stood his ground, then excused himself.

He did not seem to be one of the "peacock bishops" about whom Pope Francis has twice complained. There are still some of them around. And right now, the USCCB crowd seems to be stopping and starting, blinking and staring, like peacocks in the headlights. It should be OK. That blinding light is coming from the Gospel that Francis is proclaiming to the world. They'll figure it out.

[Phyllis Zagano is senior research associate-in-residence at Hofstra University and winner of the 2014 Isaac Hecker Award for Social Justice. She will speak Dec. 6 at Union Theological Seminary in New York; March 11 at University of Illinois, Chicago; and April 16 at Mary Immaculate College in Limerick, Ireland. Her newest books are Mysticism and the Spiritual Quest: A Crosscultural Anthology and Ordination of Women to the Diaconate in the Eastern Churches.]

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