Thursday, October 3, 2013

Pope Francis and Theology of Women: Overcoming Us-Them Imagination in Catholic Clerical Structure's Understanding of Women

In a posting at the Commonweal blog site two days ago, theologian Lisa Fullam suggests that those who want to help Pope Francis better understand the "theology of women" that he has said the church needs might send Francis boxes of books to help with this educational process. Lisa asks for suggestions of books to be included in the box. She'd like to compile a master list of 10 books.

I'm struck by a remark Lisa makes as she issues her call for suggestions: she writes,

Pope Francis has suggested that "we" need a deeper "theology of women," (itself a problematic phrase, emblematic of the usual us-them in which women are "them.") 

I think she's exactly right: the way in which Francis issued his call for a "theology of women" implicitly sets up a dialectic, an opposition, between "us" men who run the church and "them" women who are among the primary objects of our ruling activities. Though Francis is now on record as an outspoken critic of clericalism, his approach to women's place in the church gives me (and has given others) the impression that he is speaking primarily within and to a clerical system that is composed entirely of men (and entirely of ordained members of the church). 

"We" need to get beyond this us-vs.-them thinking within the church, within the people of God. One of the things I fear most in the movement to reform the church under Pope Francis is that we'll end up with a glitzy, revamped new clericalism in which nothing has essentially changed in the system as it now exists, which places all governing power within the church in the hands of ordained males.

Though some readers may think it's improper of me to link the discussion of Pope Francis's comment about the theology of women (and Lisa Fullam's ingenious call for titles to fill a box of books on the subject to send to Francis) with an article about the "Cliteracy" art exhibit of Sophia Wallace, I could not help thinking of these connections when I read Anna Lekas Miller's interview with Wallace at Alternet this morning. 

Miller asks Wallace why she thinks it took scientific researchers so very long to discover the clitoris, whose sole biological purpose appears to be sexual pleasure. Wallace notes that the vagina has occupied the central attention of anyone looking at female anatomy for a very long time, primarily because the vagina has been imagined in its connection to the penis, for which it's a "sheath"--and so it appears to have a clear function connected to the male reproductive system and therefore to reproduction itself.

Not so the clitoris. Here's Wallace's response to Miller regarding why it has taken researchers so long to study the clitoris:

The female body has only been studied in terms of how it is reproductive and how it is supposedly the inverse of the male body so nothing could be unique about the female body. So the female body is not neutral or its own subject, it’s just the reaction to, the opposite of…so these kinds of biases, scientists just didn’t look.  . . . 
I think that there was also this bias that remains to this day where the male body is the neutral body, so that is what is studied and then what is studied on the male is applied to the female as if it is always going to be one and the same, which it is not. 

Am I wrong to think that this discussion of the slowness of researchers to discover the clitoris--an organ that appears to exist solely for female sexual pleasure--parallels discussions of the way in which many Catholic church leaders seem to imagine females as a species entirely apart from males? And a species that should be studied and understood in terms of their connection to the male, of how they complement the male--with the terms and definitions established by the male?

For may part, I don't think I'm entirely wrong to see a connection here. To my way of thinking, it implies a very strong need for women to be permitted a voice--their own voice--in discussions within the Catholic church about who or what "the woman" is and how she fits into the scheme of things.

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