The Pontifical Council for Culture begins its Plenary Assembly today on the theme "Women's Cultures: Equality and Difference." Wherever this is going, it doesn't look good so far.
That is the Plenary Assembly that already drew controversy with its promotional video starring an apparently bleached blonde Italian actress talking about equality and difference. "I am sure you have asked yourself many times, who you are, what you do, what you think about your being a woman, your strengths, your difficulties, your body, and your spiritual life. If you want to, you can share your vision."
You're joking, right? The English language version was taken off of YouTube amid controversy, but somebody later loaded it back on, calling it "ludicrous."
Since then, the Council for Culture issued its Outline for the Assembly, which drew more headlines for its suggested opposition to cosmetic surgery as a moral issue. That can be downloaded from the Council's website, or for convenience here: Download Women's Cultures Outline.
The Outline says the Assembly will "gather some aspects of women’s cultures in four thematic stages, in order to identify possible pastoral paths."
If this is going to identify our "pastoral paths", I'm concerned. It isn't rooted in scientific studies. It isn't rooted in theological analysis. If anything, it reminds me of views of women that date back to the 1950's, at least in the United States. We are, I fear, entering a Twilight Zone of imaginative statements that don't have much basis in fact, becoming the basis for principles governing the roles of women in the Church.
For example, the Outline states, "In any case, women who are notmarried or have no children, welcome, include, and mediate; they are much more capable of tenderness and forgiveness than men." Based on what theological or scientific analysis? How was it determined that women, particularly those who do not have children, are "more capable of tenderness and forgiveness than men"? Not only have I never seen that to be true in my practice of law, but I also wondered who they imagine forgiven in day to day life? The cheating husband? Or the woman who is the object of their jealousy? It sounds as if they are trying to throw out a compliment to us, but that compliment is patronizing and unfounded. Is that sort of shooting from the hip stereotype supposed to become the basis for deciding the role of women in the Church?
It goes on to say "there is a difference between the feminine and the masculine in techniques of problem-solving, in the perception of the environment, in models of representation and cycles of rest." Is there? I actually don't see very different techniques of problem solving between men and women of similar educational background and in similar professions. Are the differences they are talking about based on the fact of being a man or a woman, do they extend across cultures, and are they true of women regardless of educational level? I don't see a different perception of the environment, for example, between male and female scientists. And what on earth is meant by "models of representation? There are simply no citations for any of this. It's made up. Archie Bunker couldn't have thrown together this many stereotypes back in the days of "All in the Family" without jumping the shark.
Here's the comment on plastic surgery:
Plastic surgery can be counted as one of the many manipulations of the body that explore its limits with respect to the concept of identity. A specificity that is placed under so much stress in the contemporary world as to provoke pathologies (dysmorphophobia, eating disorders, depression…) or “amputate” the expressive possibilities of the human face which are so connected to the empathic abilities. Plastic surgery that is not medico-therapeutic can be aggressive toward the feminine identity, showing a refusal of the body in as much as it is a refusal of the “season" that is being lived out.
I live in California. I've seen a lot of cosmetic surgery. I've known a lot of women who have had it. And this seemingly moralistic, seemingly empathic statement misses the mark. It reminds me of an old story I heard in the 1970's about a rural, fundamentalist preacher who was asked if he believed women should wear make-up. He replied, "I say, if a barn needs paintin' paint it." Most women and men who have elective cosmetic surgery just want to look better in a world that judges people by their appearance. Even psychotherapists often recommend it -- It is much easier to fix a flaw than it is to give someone years of therapy to help them cope with other people's reactions to it. People don't usually have their nose fixed (or whatever) out of some psychological imbalance. They do it to help their relationships, to help their careers, to simply look better. There is no reason to condemn it based on stereotypes of who those people are.
So are we going back to the 1950's in our analysis of women? American girls and dumb bunnies? I hope not.
From the movie script "The High and the Mighty" (1954:
Flight attendant: Yes.
Child: Please, I am so stupid. Here is a letter to my brother in English and I cannot remember this word. It is that thing soldiers wear at the end of their guns, like a sword?
Flight attendant: Bayonet?
Child: Yes. I am so very stupid. Thank you. I am embarrassed.
Flight attendant: Anyone who can write and read more than one language should never be embarrassed. Being the original dumb-bunny, I can barely write my own.
Flight attendant: That's slang for mentally-retarded American girls like me.
Child: Dumb-bunny. How delightful. I must tell my brother of this.
Flight attendant: You tell him you met the number one stupid rabbit.If he knows any American girls, he'll understand.
Canon lawyer Ed Peters, on his Facebook page, says:
Ravasi plans “to appoint a permanent women's consultancy group to his office, though he said for practical reasons it would be predominantly Italian.”
The Vatican left the Italian blonde video online. Maybe Italian women could relate. And no doubt it will be set in context, explained, and once again forgotten.
But the issue needs to be addressed, and in a way that is profound, drawing from facts that cross cultural and educational boundaries, and drawing from sound theological principles. I trust our bishops to produce something solid. I hope they have a good assembly. They need our prayer.