More monologue than conversation

On issues that are important to women, John Paul turned a deaf ear, writes Veronica Brady for the Sydney Morning Herald, April 4, 2005.

Dr Veronica Brady is a Loreto sister and an honorary senior research fellow in the Department of English, University of Western Australia.

Any attempt to assess the significance of the long pontificate of John Paul II as far as women are concerned is a tricky business.

To an outsider, the Roman Catholic Church probably seems like a large and formidable institution, globalised long before the present era of globalisation. To an insider, being a Catholic means being part of a continuing conversation, an attempt to live out and think through the meaning of the gospel.

It is thus deeply subjective, prayerful, if you like, but it also joins us with all those others throughout the world who are struggling to keep alive a belief in the value of the human person, a sense of the sacred and of whatever words such as justice, compassion, love, faithfulness, loyalty and so on may mean.

That is why I have problems with the direction in which the Pope was leading the church. For him, it seems to have been more a monologue than a conversation; one, moreover, from which the voices of women, half of the human race, were largely excluded.

By and large, he reiterated traditional teachings on matters such as contraception, the family, abortion and so on, seemingly without listening to what an increasing number of women may have to say on these issues, or taking into account recent developments in the understanding of human sexuality and fertility and the crisis of overpopulation facing parts of the world.

The language of his pronouncements was sexist, and God figured almost exclusively as masculine, although God is beyond gender.

Not surprisingly, many women have begun to feel there is no place for them in the church and almost no concern for the issues that confront them.

It is true that the Pope strenuously contested the consumerism and the culture of instant gratification that is responsible for much of the violence against women. He also attacked developments in biotechnology that threaten women, insisting on the value and dignity of the human person.

A proper conversation involves listening as well as speaking, and the Pope was not a good listener. At a time when so many certainties are being questioned, for instance, he showed little sense of the painful ambiguities facing people in the modern world.

As far as many women are concerned, perhaps the crucial aspect of this inflexibility was the Pope’s refusal even to contemplate the possibility of the ordination of women.

In a world in which women’s equality with men is increasingly recognised and is proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and in which Australian law makes discrimination on grounds of gender unlawful, some of us find it scandalous that the official church should have lobbied to be exempt from some of the provisions of this legislation and continue to treat women as second-class citizens and exclude them from official positions of authority.

The argument, of course, is that women and men are different, but difference should not mean subordination, and the images of women in papal pronouncements point to what is really at issue: exclusion from power.

A woman’s place, we are told, is in the home, and women are represented as wives and mothers, submissive, sacrificial, dutiful and obedient, or not represented at all.

It is true that in countries such as the United States, and to a lesser extent in Australia, some women now hold positions of authority within the church in some dioceses, but that is partly thanks to their own efforts and partly because of the shortage of men to fill these positions.

This highlights the injustice, perhaps even absurdity, of the exclusion of such women from the priesthood, apparently for no reason other than that they are not men.

It also denies a basic principle that the church is supposed to represent: that all human beings are equal and equally worthy of respect before God.

What seems to be at issue instead is institutional self-preservation. For many, the official Catholic Church now faces a crisis of authenticity.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of papal attitudes to women is the suspicion that, in the long run, they derive from the misogyny, the suspicion of sexuality and the association of women with temptation, the carnal other, which has existed for so long in the church but which has no basis in the teaching of its founder.

The Pope’s continued insistence on compulsory celibacy for the priesthood contributes to these suspicions.

This failure to confront misogyny means a failure to accept responsibility for attitudes that have oppressed, and continue to oppress and humiliate, women throughout the world and led to horrifying violence against them.

To say all this is not to deny the importance of the contribution the Pope made in many fields; in his attacks on so-called economic rationalism, consumerism and the destructive consequences of globalisation, for instance, and his defence of refugees, indigenous peoples and minorities generally.

It is therefore a sad and curious irony that he seemed insensitive to women’s issues and failed to join the conversation opening up between men and women and between different cultures, presenting an image of God as somehow aloof from this present world, static rather than dynamically challenging.

Conversation, of course, is a difficult art, especially nowadays when, as a friend of mine says, in any one room you will meet people belonging to three different centuries, the 19th, the 20th and the 21st. It is surely important, however, not just to listen to voices from the past.

Voices from the present, especially of those excluded from and oppressed by power, and also those who look to the future, have a claim to be heard.

Source: Sydney Morning Herald

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