Planet Vatican

by Phyllis Zagano

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You don’t have to speak Italian to understand the Vatican’s recent “Women's Cultures” events, but it could help. (It was all in Italian.)

The Pontifical Council for Culture touted its meetings as analyses of the status of the world’s 3.5 billion women. (About 43 million of them speak Italian.)

The council’s offensive Christmas-week infomercial was supposed to crowdsource a video for its opening event, which did flash a few (unreadable) submissions toward its end. The avant garde production in Teatro Argentina, a Roman opera house, included a jazz trio, professionally produced videos and scripted declamations. (All in Italian.)

What are we to make of all this? The Pontifical Council for Culture seems to be the Vatican’s faculty of arts and letters. Like all Vatican councils and congregations, it is predominantly male. It includes 13 cardinals, 14 bishops and four “men of culture.” It has 35 consultors, including seven women. Its 16-person staff has male professionals and four female secretaries. It is headed by four clerics: a prefect, a delegate, a secretary and an undersecretary. Such is the crowd that set out to advise the pope on women. (In Italian.)

The statistics are important. The council’s erudite president, 72-year-old biblical scholar Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, put together a group of female advisers (all Italian but one) to create a working document and a presentation for the full council’s meeting. The document’s website included a photograph of a woman’s headless torso bound in ropes, “art” by the bondage aficionado Man Ray.

The written materials are pretty disturbing, too. Did you ever see a Vatican document without footnotes? Take a look. The paper belies its content -- equality and difference, generativity, the female body, and women in the church -- and the overall impression is quite serious: Women don’t cite facts.  

Let’s focus on one statement in the working document: “There is no discussion here of women priests, which according to statistics is not something that women want.”

You read that correctly. Forget the fact of multiple women’s ordination organizations and of the worldwide Roman Catholic Womenpriests movement. Forget the fact that, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, there are 13,219 women (58 percent of the total) in Catholic ministerial studies in the United States. Forget the fact that, according to the Pittsburgh-based Association of Theological Schools, there are 181 women studying for the professional Master of Divinity degree in its 52 Catholic member seminaries. Forget the fact that, at least according to a small sampling of nondenominational Christian seminaries, more than half their Catholic M.Div. students are female. In fact, statistics demonstrate that nearly 60 percent of Catholics in ministerial studies in the United States are female.

So again, according to the working document: “There is no discussion here of women priests, which according to statistics is not something that women want.”

What statistics?

We know what the church teaches about women priests. But at the end of their meeting, when the pope spoke to the group, he again called for a more widespread and incisive presence of women in the church. Did they expect that? Did they hear that?

What, exactly, did they talk about in the sessions on women in the church?

The proceedings of the council’s few days of meetings are unpublished so far, but its interventions on church came from Anne-Marie Pelletier, the first woman to win the Ratzinger Prize, Sr. Mary Melone, rector of the Pontifical Antonianum University, and Lucetta Scaraffia, a relatively outspoken supporter of women's causes -- within limits. Did their papers -- no doubt delivered in Italian -- represent the other 3.5 billion women on Earth?

Back at the sparsely attended opening event at the 700-seat Teatro Argentina, the final words were from St. Catherine of Siena, a patroness of Italy and of Europe. They quoted Catherine as writing: "If you are what you should be, you will set fire to the entire world.”

That is not what Catherine wrote in Letter T368. What she wrote was: "If you are what you should be, you will set fire to all of Italy.”

Italy, not the entire world. That was the perspective, start to finish.

We must ask: What about the rest of the planet?

[Phyllis Zagano is senior research associate-in-residence at Hofstra University. She will speak March 11 at University of Illinois, Chicago; April 16 at Mary Immaculate College in Limerick, Ireland; and April 18 at the Cork Theology Forum in Ireland. Her newest books are Mysticism and the Spiritual Quest: A Crosscultural Anthology and Sacred Silence: Daily Meditations for Lent.]

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