The following letter was due to be sent to the press on the 8th of March this year (2020). We couldn’t do it for the reasons everyone knows.
Signatures at the bottom of the letter, which served as a presentation for the launch of the signature collection, display a multiplicity of positions.
This is relevant; it stresses that the “dispute” we raised is not confined to the Catholic world. It raises a transversal issue. Representations of women elaborated and dispensed by the Catholic Church have performative effects not only on Catholics, but they spread their consequences to much wider latitudes.
The phenomenology with which the Roman Catholic Church relates to women is crucial in terms of economy of symbolic goods, a transversal and widespread economy embedded in a patriarchal system and in an androcentric ideology. The other religious institutions/communities are, however, (to different degrees) all affected.
In the intervening period, we have been able to deal with many women who were also originally non-signatories
The renewed exchange of ideas has been very fruitful, it has strengthened the importance of sharing the text of the letter and the decision of spreading it and it has also allowed us to untangle the knots we want to make explicit here:
- The letter is a warning, not a victimisation. In the document it is written that there will be no peace without a profound conversion of the clergy regarding the iniquity with which it has acted towards women. The letter established the evidence of a fact that in our freedom we affirm. If the church does not face consistently this issue from both a theological and an operational point of view, we will not remain silent about its persevering in insincerity and lack of credibility. If the Catholic Church fears a schism inside – for the squalid manoeuvres orchestrated by conservatism – it should also wonder about the possibility of a schism done by women. So far, in Italy, it has had the characteristics of a silent movement, albeit growing. Since now, we don’t want any running too far ahead, but does our thirst for justice matter to anyone?
- The listing of insulting phrases that have been reserved to us (a minimum part of a boundless “heritage”) designates a past that still weighs and that does not pass away; a past whose memory should not be erased or ignored by simply turning the page. We believe that representatives of male clerical power can become aware of this sad “archaeology” that shaped them, only starting from the responsible assumption of these statements. If sentences are no longer pronounced, it does not mean that their effects disappear – as any person with some rudiments of psychoanalysis knows. In order to disempower them, sentences should be acquired and processed. Only by retracing the origin and the path of mysterium iniquitatis, it will be possible to come to an authentically redeemed practice – visible in its effects -, and to behaviours that, in authentic feeling and action, will openly show not fearing women and able to understand the value and the spiritual power of that reciprocal “being in front of” expressed in Genesis 2,18.
The letter is not an unreachable monad. For us it is the ” chief stone of the building” (Salmos 118,) as well as a grain of mustard seed (Mc. 4.31), from which we would like that an interrogation, a confrontation, a relationship, a becoming that we can’t predict could have origin
Among the next steps we think about a conference, in order to broadening participate and building together, sharing the thirst for justice and in the joy of the Ruah!
They are not atheist, anti-clerical or agnostic women, those who have promoted and subscribed this text; they are believers, women who have oriented their conscience towards a simple spirituality and, at the same time, are open to the breath of the Ruah; women thirsting for truth and justice, in search of ever deeper and dilated horizons of faith; women who believe and practice – in humility, but also with the courage of testimony – the sorority and human brotherhood of which Jesus has been a forward-looking witness.
It is to the issue of the presence of women in the Church that we want to refer to: it is not at all a demand for the division of power, of co-optation within the current clerical system, but it is, instead, a matter of acquiring in practise the centrality of relations, to which the founding statement refers: “Male and woman, He created them”.
Within the Church, relationships between women and men have long been sick, for they are closed in narrowed stereotypes about women: demeaning visions, which distort woman image by denying its integrity. Starting from these premises, the disvalue of the feminine is a logical consequence. And do not answer us that the Church venerates Mary, who would be superior to all apostles, and therefore with it worships all women because it is the embodied person that must be respected, women in flesh and blood, not their imaginary transfiguration. On how “the ideal exaltation of the woman has served to cover her historical insignificance” we have made – alas – a thousand-year experience.
The Gospel spoke another language: that of the disciple of equals, as the theologian Schasler-Fiorenza said in his famous statement; the Gospel message is a testimony of freedom for women and men.
World Peace Days have been established by the Catholic Church – and we support this decision. We hope for peace, but at the same time, we recognize the contradiction of a world that preaches peace basing it on false and distrust relations. Moreover, there is an even more original contradiction. How is it not immediately clear that the first root of a relationship of submission, the first founding nucleus of relationships of domination stands in relationships between women and men?
There will be no peace without this awareness and without a profound conversion.
The time has come, therefore, for a return to the Gospel message and for the Church to make amends for its historical mistakes.
Let’s take note of the first steps taken in this direction:
- In 1992 John Paul II rehabilitated Galileo Galilei, acknowledging that “it was a mistake to condemn Galileo…. [who] had much to suffer – we cannot hide it – because of the men and bodies of the Church.
- “On the “day of forgiveness”, during the jubilee in 2000, the pope asked forgiveness for mistakes made by the courts of the Inquisition; on that occasion he mentioned women, but it was only an irrelevant nod: ‘Let us pray for women too often humiliated and marginalized’.
- In 2018, Pope Francis apologized for the Church’s behaviour towards the victims of paedophile priests: “Some victims even took their lives. These deaths weigh on my heart as well as on the conscience of the whole Church.”
All these statements are important steps. In particular, the last one, which was not limited by being a generic act of contrition, but it became operational in the recognition of the right of victims and state courts, to bring back justice by condemning the guilty and compensating the victims.
Precisely as women of faith we believe the time has come, now, for the hierarchy of the Catholic Church to apologize to women, women coming from the past, or living in our present. Since now, the Catholic Church has never denied or distanced itself from the insulting statements by Fathers of the Church, Christian Apologists or Saints, phrases that stand at this tenor:
“Don’t you know, woman, that you too are Eva? In this world, God’s condemnation of your sex is still working; it is also necessary that the condition of accused persists […] You are the devil’s door! It was you who corrupted the one that the devil had failed to deceive! You have destroyed the image of God, the man! Because of what you have done, the Son of God had to die!” (Tertullian, De Cultu Feminarum, I,1-2).
“As for me, I think sexual relations should be radically avoided. I think that nothing demeans the spirit of the man as much as the caresses of a woman and the bodily relationships that are part of marriage” (Augustine, Soliloquia I, 10:17).
“The wife will be saved if she has children who will remain virgins, if what she herself has lost recovers it in her descendants and if the fall and corruption of the root is compensated by the flower and the fruit” (Girolamo, Adversus Jovinianum 1.27; P.L.XXIII,260).
“Man was born to woman! There is nothing more abject” (St. Bernard, Sermo in Feria IV Hebdamodae Sanctae, 6, SBO V, 60).
“Compared to the particular nature, the female is a defective and lacking being. […] In fact, the active virtue enclosed in the seed of the male tends to produce a prefect seed like itself, being a man. The fact that a female derives from it may depend on the weakness of active virtue, or on the disposition of the matter” (St. Thomas, Summa Theological I,92, I, I, I ).
We cannot fail to mention what official members of the Churches have written, said and done against the so-called witches. The Malleus Maleficarum (in 1484 Pope Innocent VIII issued the edict Summis Desiderintes Affectibus with which he sent two German inquisitors to draft a Corpus of judgments to fight witchcraft) is a flourish of misogynistic rhetoric
We report this passage from that work, because it should not be left in the shadows:
“But since in modern times this perfidy is found more frequently in women than in men, we can add that, since women are defective of all forces, both in soul and body, it is no wonder that many witches operate against men … in fact, they seem to belong to a different species from that of men…; the natural reason is that it is more carnal than man, as it turns out from many carnal dirt. There is a sort of defect in the formation of the first woman, because she was made with a curved rib, that is, a twisted rib of the chest as if it were contrary to the man. From this defect it also comes the fact that, as an imperfect animal, the woman always deceives… Already in the first woman, it is evident that by nature she has less faith than man: in fact, with her answer to the snake who asked her why she did not eat from all the trees of paradise, it was clearly revealed that she had doubts and no faith in the words of God. All this is already given in the etymology. In fact, the word female comes from “faith” and “less”. That means that woman has less faith than man and keeps it less…. Although it was the devil who induced Eve to sin, it was Eve who seduced Adam, and since Eve’s sin would not lead us to the death of the soul and body if Adam’s fault, induced by Eve and not the devil, was not following, therefore the woman is more bitter than death.”
These are only fragments of a symbolic system and of a much larger and pervasive Kyriarchle theological economy, such a powerful and agent-deep-down system that deciphering it would require an entire volume – and perhaps it would be not enough.
Shouldn’t there be any signs of conversion on pronouncements of this kind? Is it not through this gesture that the conditions for the possibility of coexistence based on mutual recognition of equal dignity would be prepared?
“Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu taught us this with the trials of truth, justice and reconciliation in South Africa: it is the admission of violence by those who exercised it that leaves the victims free and allows them to speak and start living again.” Quote from Letizia Tomassone, Violenza e giustizia di genere nelle chiese protestanti, in Paola Cavallari (a cura di), Non solo reato ma anche peccato. Religioni e violenza contro le donne, Effatà, 2019)
In the context of this Kyriarchle theological economy, we briefly sum up some serious violations of which the male clergy has been guilty (sometimes with the complicity of consecrated women) towards the female sex:
- It excluded for centuries the woman from the recognition of being the Image of God, for the imago Dei was an attribute exclusively reserved to man.
- It has structured through the centuries a cultural vision of women that has seriously damaged the relations between men and women, legitimizing with the charisma of the sacred (it is a divine design, it has been said for centuries) the relationships of domination and submission that characterize patriarchal cultures.
- it has often used and exploited the work of consecrated women as slave labour, without economic and social recognition.
- It exercised (we do not know how much, because everything is covered by secrecy) spiritual, consciousness and sexual abuses.
- It has contributed, with the demonization of the female body and the construction of the image of the “tempting woman”, to legitimize the vision for which women are responsible for the harassing/abusing attitudes of males.
- It wanted to control in detail sexuality and the female body, ignoring the sphere of female sexual desire and never questioning the self-referential and non-interactive forms of male sexuality.
- It has not taken a radical distance towards the consumption of pornography and prostitution, through a profound questioning of male sexuality.
- It has not yet undertaken a serious reform of liturgy, pastoral and catechetic language, which recognizes the subjectivity of women.
- It made no amends for translations of the Sacred Texts steeped in patriarchal prejudice.
- It perpetuates an unbalanced view of the relationship between men and women through the exclusion of women not only from ministries, but also from all decision-making positions within the Church.
Recognizing these insulting phrases would be a first step, especially if it were not a only simple declaration of principles, but a concrete act and a beginning of collaboration with women committed to laying a levee, through the generation of a new cultural vision, to the dramatic phenomenon of violence against women and femicides.
This letter with the signatures of those who subscribe it will be sent to the President of the Bishops’ Conference. And after to the press and to the websites. Women who, although not believers, nevertheless believe that the religious symbolic has been and it still is decisive in the construction of unfair relations between the sexes are warmly invited to join us. Thank you all.
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