‘Strawberries on the Cake’

The Progressive Pope Has a Blind Spot

Francis has been moderate on many topics, but on women he’s no different from his predecessors—and don’t expect a conference in Rome this week to change that.

© Nacho Doce / Reuters

VATICAN CITY — One has to wonder who spiked the holy water when the publicity gurus for the Pontifical Council for Culture came up with the idea to use a sexy blond actress as their talent in an ad ahead of a plenary conference in Rome this week called Women’s Cultures: Equality and Difference. The protagonist, Nancy Brilli, a sort of Italian Suzanne Somers, is no doubt devout in her faith. But considering Brilli’s best-known role was as a ditzy adulteress in a 1980s comedy, one might ask exactly who the Vatican is trying to reach with it latest missive. Writing in National Catholic Reporter, Phyllis Zagano, a research associate at Hofstra University, has the million-dollar question: “Is the Vatican convinced women’s intellectual abilities rise only to the level of televised soap operas and cosmetics commercials?”

Brilli, fabulous at 50, may be a fine actress. But in the Vatican’s advertisement, she pouts for the camera and says, “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,” before asking women to send in a one-minute video with the hashtag #lifeofwomen to be considered for the February 4-7 conference opening program. After a tsunami of criticism from Catholic women who said they don’t relate to Brilli, the Vatican took down the English version of the video.

Perhaps the Vatican can be forgiven for not knowing its female audience. After all, it is hard to understand the opponent in the fight for equality when there are so few women in the hierarchy of the Holy See’s good old boys’ club. One person who has been knocking at the door for a long time is Miriam Duignan, communications director for the Catholic reform think tank Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research and a leader in the WOW Women’s Ordination Worldwide movement. Last year she took 700 letters to Pope Francis from women who have been called to the priesthood, but the open-minded pope didn’t respond to a single one. The Catholic Church has been telling women to wait their turn for far too long, she says. “So many men in the priesthood who gravitate to the Vatican like to live in their fortress on the hill as if women don’t exist,” she told The Daily Beast. “The world will not fall apart if there are more women in the church.”

Francis, she says, has opened the door to so many groups—gays, transgender people, and Catholics who have sinned against church teaching. “This is the cold-call pope,” she says. “He picks up the phone to talk to anyone unless you say you are a woman called to the priesthood.”

Indeed, for all the deserved love being thrown around for Pope Francis, it has to be noted that he has the same blind spot as all his predecessors on the subject of women in the Catholic Church. Why else would such a forward-thinking man embrace such outdated attitudes about half of the population?

Among the pope’s other well-documented cringe-worthy gaffes, he recently referred to female theologians as the “strawberries on the cake” when he inducted several women into a special Vatican commission. The fact that someone so powerful could describe any woman as a fruit topping, let alone highly accomplished women being honored for their intellectual acumen, borders on loopy.

Before that, in an address to the European Commission, the pope raised eyebrows when he referred to Europe as a “grandmother, no longer fertile and vibrant.” Not only is that remark ageist, it cuts out a whole segment of the Catholic core of highly vibrant middle-aged women who, for the record, are the majority who fill the church pews on Sundays.

And in an interview with Roman daily newspaper il Messaggero, when asked whether women would become heads of any Vatican departments under his reform, the pope laughed and said, “Well, pastors often wind up under the authority of their housekeeper!”. No doubt that’s not exactly what the female interviewer meant with the question.

The powerful American-based organization Catholics for Choice dedicated the cover of the latest issue of its Catholic news journal, Conscience to the issue of Francis and females. In a cover story headlined “Eternal Hope, Persistent Disappointment,” Fordham University history professor W. David Myers lays out the fascinating history of Catholic misogyny. “Whether women have created mystical music and visions or served uncomplainingly as servants and cooks for priests and monks, the Catholic hierarchy has viewed them as instruments, useful but second class,” he writes. “The history of Catholicism’s relation to women is a long and tangled one, involving dazzling, beautiful myths based on female sanctity and a more depressing, mundane reality rooted in exploitative labor and exclusion from power.”

Still, there is hope among women who will be attending and watching this week’s plenary session—if not for change, at least for dialogue and a chance to start a conversation that has never before been held in a public forum. Many of the forum discussion sessions will be broadcast on Italian state television, and some are being held off the Vatican campus.

Among the participants are high-powered female media executives, star athletes, and high-ranking laywomen and professors of theology. There are plenty of priests and cardinals, too, and the session ends Saturday with an audience with Pope Francis himself. In a press conference on Monday outlining the plenary session, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, 72, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture, stopped short of saying he hoped that any of what would be discussed would be “adopted” but, perhaps because he was at a table flanked by high-powered women, he said the time had come for this important conversation.

According to the ambitious planning document (PDF) outlining the general discussion topics, there is plenty on the table to talk about, from the spiritual to the superficial. Referring to “the feminine body,” the document authors say plastic surgery, for example, “amputates the expressive possibilities of the human face which are so connected to the empathic abilities,” concluding that “plastic surgery is like a burqa made of flesh.”

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The organizers say there will be no discussion of ordaining women as priests because “according to statistics, it is not something that women want.” Instead they promise to give an ear to the role of women in the church. “Today women no longer spend their afternoons reciting the rosary or taking part in religious devotions,” the conference document states. “They often work, sometimes as top managers engaged as much as, if not more than, their male counterparts. They are women who, perhaps with great difficulty, have reached places of prestige within society and the workplace, but have no corresponding decisional role nor responsibility within ecclesial communities.”

The organizers also admit fault with outdated attitudes that all requests for equality within the church are a form of radical feminism. “It is no longer time for an automatic classification of all feminine requests in a great pool of feminism, in which claims that are more or less shared are thrown together,” the conference planning document states. “A realistic objective could be that of opening the doors of the Church to women so that they can offer their contribution in terms of skills and also sensitivity, intuition, passion, dedication, in full collaboration and integration with the male component.”

For many Catholic women, opening the door is a good place to start, but undoing gender bias men will take changing the mentality of the churchmen who believe that women don’t have equal footing. “There are good intentions,” says Duignan ahead of this week’s conference. “But the barriers are up against women. After all, we are supposed to be like Jesus, not pee like Jesus. ”