Nothing but contempt: fr. frank pavone & pope john paul ii on women

Historical re-post from July 2011.

You don’t need even a perfunctory relationship with theology, religious precepts or history to diagnose religious doublespeak when you see it. Cue Fr. Frank Pavone, the national director of Priests for Life, the largest Catholic pro-life organization, who writes the Washington Post in response to its question: “What role does religion play in gender discrimination?”

You need not have submitted the New Testament to higher textual criticism to notice that Pavone begins his answer by copying and pasting Pope John Paul II’s 1995 “Letter to Women.” You need no knowledge of contemporary obscurantist theology to notice that Pavone’s entire discourse is nothing more than a regurgitation of Catholic policy. What kind of intellectual, we might ask, hides behind the power of his associates; what kind of institution discourages independent thinking and rewards those who toe the party line? I say this not in cheap ad hominem, but as an earnest inquisitor: the words Pavone sets down are so devoid of honest consideration of the issues, so condescending and steeped in equivocation, that it’s difficult for me to believe that any reader could take him at his word.

Why should we? His source material—the vicar of Christ on Earth— is no better: “And if objective blame, especially in particular historical contexts, has belonged to not just a few members of the Church, for this I am truly sorry,” offers Pope John Paul II. This is not some matter to be lightly laughed off, especially not in a letter that specifically tells women that even in cases of rape:

the choice to have an abortion always remains a grave sin. But before being something to blame on the woman, it is a crime for which guilt needs to be attributed to men and to the complicity of the general social environment.”

Read: “Sorry you got raped—we’re going to blame the man and the general social environment, so don’t worry. Um, also, if you don’t have the child, you’re to blame, too. Have a nice day!” Only in a religious institution could such abhorrent opinions be expressed and commended without the slightest hesitation. Only in a culture in which religion has a social license—“You can’t criticize us, we’re sacred”—could such abhorrent opinions be accepted unquestioned by readers.

And the Pope does, of course, retreat from his vague, weightless beating around the bush to Scripture, quoting Genesis at length. Isn’t it odd, in a “Letter to Women,” that there is no mention of Genesis 3:16—“Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.”

Nevermind, he’ll say—much of the Old Testament is allegorical. We’re a little more keen on the New Testament, and on the teachings and associations of Jesus. How odd! We have that in stock, too: (1 Cor. 14: 34-36) “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.”

(1 Timothy 2:11-15) Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing;

Save some for later: (1 Cor. 11:3); (Ephesians 5:22-24); (Col. 3:18); (1 Peter 3:1).

To say the Bible empowers women or to say it denounces the subjugation of women is akin to saying Huck Finn is a pro-slavery tract. If someone holds any of these positions, we can do nothing more than say, “You’re simply wrong about that. You either haven’t read it or haven’t comprehended it.” Further, the moment you start cherry-picking the Bible, it becomes worthless. It is either the Word or God or it is not. And if it is not–if we’re going to ignore the dirty, immoral parts (see above) then we can look at the “moral lessons” it teaches as simply moral lessons. And we will find that every moral “lesson” contained in it has been expressed more fairly and more poignantly in the last few centuries of literature; every “empowering story about women” in the Bible pales in comparison to the myriad works of literature on femininity and gender in the 19th and 20th centuries. It’s high time we stopped pretending the authors of the Bible were anything more than first-century men with first-century attitudes toward women.

I should note: the Pope writes in one section thanking women. “Thank you, women who are wives!” “Thank you, women who are mothers!” “Thank you, women who work!” “Thank you, every woman, for the simple fact of being a woman!” What group of women is he speaking to? Which group of women was asking for this disingenuous gratitude? I am proud to say I don’t know any women that require thanks for being who they are.

Back to Pavone. He explains that “equality does not mean uniformity.” Statements like this are gold-plated barrels of filthy rhetoric. How so? Well, look at Pavone’s explanatory example:

When I was once asked in a first grade religion class “why girls can’t be priests,” here’s the answer I gave: Suppose there was a class play, Michael and Susan were husband and wife in the play. They practiced for months, and then when the day of the play arrived, Michael got sick and couldn’t play his role! So, as a substitute, whom should the teacher choose? How about Mary?

The children all laughed at that point.

But what’s the matter? Are you saying Mary can’t be as good an actress as Michael?

“No,” the children replied with one voice. “It’s just that Mary can’t be Susan’s husband.”

The reason the Catholic Church does not ordain women to the priesthood has nothing to do with thinking they are inferior, and everything to do with the church’s belief about what the priesthood is in relation to the spousal relationship of Christ and his church.

Let’s take a look at what this would look like in any other area of life. Imagine you are a mid-forties, M.B.A. holding woman who approaches a multinational marketing firm for an executive position, for which you present relevant experience and surpass all preliminary qualifications. The H.R. representative, at the conclusion of your first interview, tells you that she cannot hire you. “Why is that?” you ask. “Because Jimmy Carlyle, our CEO, says that women cannot fill executive positions.” You might then seek out this Jimmy Carlyle and ask him why his beliefs are as such. You will receive one of two answers: “Women just can’t be executives” or “That’s the way it’s always been.” For shame.

For Pavone to ignore the historical subjugation of women by the Catholic Church and its refusal to reconsider its message of subservience that is still taught (implicitly or explicitly) is only ignorant. For him to quip that these policies “[have] nothing to do with thinking they are inferior,” he must either be lying or utterly ineducable.

If the Catholic Church cared in the slightest for women, it would not require more than a few seconds to announce this by immediately rescinding the injunctions against condom use, which hamstring the vocational and artistic possibilities of hundreds of millions of Third World Catholic women by tethering them to the singular role of motherhood. Until the Church acknowledges that women are more than secondary-status baby machines, we should look with nothing more than contempt on any proclamation by the Church that professes to care about women.

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