Caution! The Vatican’s new magazine for women: The implications of ecclesiastical decisions
The Vatican now has a new magazine for women that appears as an insert to L’Osservatore Romano. This has raised a cry of triumphant feminism in some quarters, though I have different cautions to impart.
By Dr. Jeff Mirus | May 06, 2016
As we reported on Wednesday, a magazine devoted to women is now being published as a regular “insert” for the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano. The dust has still to settle on this, but the initial reports have naturally raised questions, most of which will probably prove irrelevant. On the other hand, I have a very different set of questions to raise.
The new magazine is entitled “Women – Church – World”. Its “coordinator” (presumably a pseudonym for “editor”) is Lucetta Scaraffia, a university professor who teaches Contemporary History at La Sapienza in Rome, and a journalist. She is well-known for advocating a greater use of women in leadership positions within the Church. She continues this advocacy in the first issue, arguing that the hierarchy has been very slow (for example) to recognize the growing contribution of women to Catholic thought since at least the twentieth century.
In this sense, Scaraffia can be (and is) called a feminist, and the usual marginally Catholic and secular news outlets will be kept very busy emphasizing her “feminism”. But she is not a feminist in the modern ideological sense at all. She thoroughly upholds the male priesthood, shudders at the fact that dissident feminist voices are most often heard in the Church (such as the Leadership Conference of Women Religious), and has absolutely no use for either gender ideology (which actually denies the feminine) or the cult of sexual liberation (which destroys not only the family but human life itself).
A few minutes spent reading the results of Edward Pentin’s 2013 interview with Scaraffia will answer a multitude of questions in a very positive way, permitting those of us who easily become over-excited to go back to sleep. Indeed, it is hard to argue with Scaraffia’s contention that the public perception of ecclesiastical misogyny, which is fueled primarily by Catholic women who seriously dissent from the truths of the Faith, could be altered significantly by a broader use of faithful women in higher ecclesiastical positions that do not require Holy Orders.
At the same time, one can raise serious questions about how best to take advantage of what we might call the feminine genius in ecclesiastical affairs. The effort to allow women to preach at Mass, for example, is very questionable. Although we find it difficult to grasp such things today, the preaching function is closely tied in Catholic tradition and theology to the character of the priest. Remember the three-fold office to “teach, rule and sanctify”. Such specific issues aside, however, I have three deeper and more general questions or cautions about this new initiative in the Vatican newspaper.
Caution One: The Problem of Quasi-Official Public Advocacy in the Church
The more I have reflected on the role of both L’Osservatore Romano and the Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica in Vatican affairs, the more I become convinced that both are bad ideas. This is by far the most minor of my three concerns, but there is something decidedly “off” about having two publications in Rome that are widely regarded as representing officially-approved views. Both publications fall under the purview of the Holy See’s Secretariat of State, which can control their contents. Each issue of the Jesuit journal must actually be reviewed and approved prior to publication.
And yet we have frequently seen the Catholic intellectual world take its cues from these publications with respect to how the Catholic mission is to be received and interpreted. Most recently and specifically, we have seen L’Osservatore Romano’s editors make a great point of writing glowing appreciations of worldly figures in literature, music and the arts without the least Christian justification, in what appears to be a continuous bid for “relevance”. It is easy, if not necessarily fair, to see the new magazine insert in the same light.
And La Civiltà Cattolica has recently been used to impart a very particular “spin” to Pope Francis’ recent apostolic exhortation, a case in which the journal skews the reception of the Magisterium itself, which is theologically impermissible even if it has the Pope’s private approval.
My conclusion is simple: Apart from the publication of the acts of the Pope and the various offices of the Curia, and the very legitimate task of reporting news and information about the Church, the Vatican should really not be in the publishing business. Fostering “official” newspapers and magazines of opinion serves no constructive purpose, and adds at least a little to the general confusion surrounding almost everything the Church does.
On this basis, I seriously question the usefulness of Women – Church – World. Here we see, once again, the natural prerogatives of the laity being usurped—almost inevitably badly, and certainly controversially—by ecclesiastical authority.
Caution Two: The Feminization of the Church
In a perfect world, we would not worry about the non-sacramental role of women in the ecclesiastical community as much as many of us do. But it is not a perfect world, and we have already seen negative consequences from the widespread introduction of women into new roles at the parish level. When I say “new”, I am referring primarily to quasi-liturgical roles such as cantors, lectors, altar servers and Eucharistic ministers. In some places, the ritual face of the Church is now almost exclusively feminine, except for the priest. I have also seen women preside at Communion services, where surely a deacon would be far more appropriate.
Women sometimes serve as parish administrators in the absence of a priest. That’s not a liturgical function, but it probably has significant implications for the nature of headship and hierarchy at the local level. I do not believe I am relying excessively on cultural habits when I suggest that there is something not only deeply natural but specifically theological both in the Church’s understanding of the male priesthood and in the nearly universal cross-cultural emphasis on the general appropriateness of men for leadership in the public order.
Legitimate exceptions to the contrary, there is something in the concept of headship (as enunciated, for example, by St. Paul) which has masculine overtones, and it seems clear—apart from distortions on every side throughout history—that this headship is typically characteristic of healthy societies, beginning at the most universal and natural level of the family.
Without wishing to push this too far, I raise it as a caution. The nature and role of women as conceived in the modern West, while it clearly corrects some serious errors common in the past, is hardly uniformly healthy. Nor do we see its imperfections very clearly just yet. Therefore, enthusiasm for the remodeling of the Church with respect to women carries with it not only considerable promise, but also significant danger.
But in any case, we must remember that there is a very strong ideological commitment among dissident Catholics to press women into the “Churchiest” roles possible. This is another way of coopting the hierarchy by a radical feminism which is actually quite pagan in character. There is considerable warrant for installing women like Lucetta Scaraffia in appropriate positions in both ecclesiastical counsel and selected areas of governance. Yet even if handled perfectly in terms of the offices assigned, this will be not only misperceived by outsiders as signaling fundamental doctrinal, moral or hierarchical transformations, but also abused by insiders in an effort to make such inappropriate transformations real.
And the broader problem of “feminization” remains. In a culture that does not know how to form men, this process of feminization—which I suspect most of my readers have experienced in one way or another—can actually further a kind of social disintegration: It can further the kind of radically unbalanced cultural ideology which seems to allow no place at all for the goodness of authentic masculinity. Going forward, the Church must recognize that there is nothing to be gained by adopting the West’s current deeply-distorted mythological image of women.
On this difficult point I will offer only one final hint of the need for caution: A proper evaluation of the feminine gifts cannot be made in a culture which, in the very first instance, seriously fails to understand men, and in the second instance, cannot even begin to grasp the nature and fundamental importance of the family for all social and spiritual life.
Caution Three: The Distressing Accommodation of the Popular
There is, I believe, another issue at the heart of this latest Vatican project which the Church of the last fifty years has handled very poorly. I freely grant that there was not a great deal to be said for the broad condemnatory attitude against Just About Everything that so characterized the Holy See in the 19th and early 20th centuries. But there is also very little to praise in the opposite tendency to adopt everything that is popular in secular society, willfully blind to whatever is wrong with each trend, and making key distinctions only when pushed against the wall—and too often not even then.
It seems to me there is a great myth at work in the Church today, the myth that the key to Christian success is to go as far toward adopting the habits of the world as is logically possible without explicitly denying a Catholic dogma. Yet quite frequently worldly goals and habits are influenced by a serious denial or distortion of reality. They are, in other words, flawed habits, or even extraordinarily bad habits, yet their underlying mythology too often goes unchallenged.
It is a myth, for example, that the Church has “lost women”. She has lost a specific class of highly-educated (i.e., highly-indoctrinated) women (often previously failed by men) who have largely been deliberately innoculated against their own natural sensibilities, and convinced that they should be just like men. Taken as a whole, women remain, as they always have been, more psychologically prone to religious piety than men. If this were not so, our ecclesiastical feminization problem would diminish rapidly. In fact, it could easily be argued that reclaiming men for Christ and forming them properly as men would actually be a more direct path toward enlarging and solidifying a vibrant place for women in the Church. Instead, at whatever the cost, we accept the incessant cultural focus on what is really a new stereotype of women.
At an even deeper level, the Church needs to learn again that, like Our Lord and Savior, her attractiveness does not consist in being the same as everything else but in being different. Love itself, thoroughly and properly understood, is always the key to being attractively different. But since we seldom love perfectly, it is wise for us to begin by recognizing that when it comes to the Church’s mission in the world, opposites attract.
Unfortunately, there is a common ecclesiastical policy in our day of attempting to succeed by “outworlding the world”. It as if we have misunderstood Our Lord’s own explanation of this point: “If you were of the world,” He explained, “the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (Jn 15:19). We must not be eager to prove that the Church includes everything the world considers good. A massive shift in the role of women is one of these things, and it must be examined with extraordinary care.
And so my final caution takes the form almost of a proverb: True reconciliation requires conversion, whereas mere catering does not. The primary problem is not that the Church lacks the desire and the capacity to gather her children as a hen gathers her brood under her wings. Far more commonly the children simply refuse to be gathered (Mt 23:37; Lk 13:34). We know that success is never guaranteed. But when success comes—for the ecclesiastical role of women as for all other things—it must come not through worldly imitation, but through the holy originality of God.