The wrong kind of papal 'ribbing'

by Phyllis Zagano

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I'm sure Pope Francis did not mean to insult half the human race the other day. In his first-ever interview with a woman journalist, he "joked" that women are taken from Adam's rib and that women have power as rectory housekeepers.

OK, so he's old, he's tired, and he's got a million things on his mind. But, hello, Holy Father -- the world is watching.

Franca Giansoldati, Vatican correspondent for the Rome daily newspaper Il Messaggero, asked the pope about women in the church. At first, he gave what seems to be his stock reply: Women are beautiful, "church" is a feminine word, we cannot do theology without femininity, we should work more on a theology of women.

She responded: "Don't you see a certain underlying misogyny?"

Francis replied: "The fact is, woman was taken from a rib." Giansoldati reports Francis laughed heartily as he called his comment a joke -- "una battuta" -- the same word he used months ago to characterize the idea of women cardinals. Continuing, the pope agreed that "we" should go deeper into the issue of women, because without doing so, "we" cannot understand the church itself.

Ignoring the insult, Giansoldati asked whether to "expect from you historic decisions, such as a woman department head, I am not saying of the clergy ... "

To which the pope continued his "ribbing": "Well, priests often come under the authority of the housekeeper."

What a riot.

Where to start? I can't help but wonder whether rectory housekeepers are root or result of clerical tone-deafness. I cannot believe that a world-class person like Francis, who seems so much in touch with individuals and their suffering, is capable of making remarks such as these. Yet I know he lives in a society where the ordinary needs of clerics are often taken care of by unmarried women or religious sisters who cook, clean, do laundry, order supplies and serve as receptionists, often on nights and weekends. Just like Mom.

That still seems to be the case in much of the clerical world. Do an Internet search for "rectory housekeeper" and you will find job descriptions from coast to coast. Even new rectories have a room with a bath or a suite just off the kitchen or laundry room for the woman who runs the rectory household and, if Francis is to be believed, the priests.

Sometimes it's a little more than that. From my school days, I recall a housekeeper who followed the pastor to each new assignment. They finally got married when I was in graduate school.

Now, I know Francis is a religious and that he lived simply and did his own cooking back in Argentina. I know he does not live like King of the Vatican. I know he objects to high-living clerics. Yet his comment about housekeepers ruling the priests must come from someplace deep within the clerical society to which he belongs.

Unfortunately, remarks like his are not all that unusual.

When you catch some priests or bishops making similar comments, they chuckle, "Oh, no, ha ha, just joking." Other clerics, the ones who buy their own groceries and cook their own chicken, may smile wanly and say nothing when such wisecracks fly past. Only a very few will man up to the fact that these words hurled in jest have insulted a woman, thereby all women, thereby half the body of Christ.

That, after all, is the bottom line. The men who think like this just don't get it. Will they ever? How can the church move forward when the "we" is all male, all the time, and women are the "they" to be both ridiculed and theologized about?

[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 Sept. 18 at the University of St. Francis in Joliet, Ill. Her newest books are Mysticism and the Spiritual Quest: A Crosscultural Anthology and Ordination of Women to the Diaconate in the Eastern Churches.]

Editor's note: We can send you an email alert every time Phyllis Zagano's column, Just Catholic, is posted. Go to this page and follow directions: Email alert sign-up.

A version of this story appeared in the July 18-31, 2014 print issue under the headline: Clerical mindset underlies papal 'ribbing'.

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