By Kathy Berken
It all started with a Facebook post linked to an editorial in the National Catholic Reporter and provocatively titled “What are they thinking at the Vatican?”
The post included a picture of a woman with curly blond hair, so the combination of the title and the picture made me wonder what writer Phyllis Zagano was thinking. I read her editorial and unwisely began to form an opinion based on her comments alone.
Here’s her first paragraph: “You can’t make this up. The Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture has posted a two-minute video of a sexy blond woman inviting other women to crowd-source another video for its February 2015 meeting.” (Crowd-sourcing is a way to get information regarding a specific topic from the greatest number of people possible using the Internet.)
From Feb. 4-7, the council’s Plenary Assembly looks at “Women’s cultures: equality and difference.” Key areas are generativity, rights, poor and invisible women, women’s spirituality, equality and reciprocity, power and service, insights and vision, biology and women in the Church. (See http:// www.cultura.va/content/cultura/en.html.)
I was even more intrigued. The rest of the editorial criticized the cardinal in charge of the council for being out of touch with the lives of real women, unless you live in southern Europe, Latin America or Argentina, because apparently only women in those regions can identify with the woman in the video. However, to her credit, Zagano legitimately described seven women around the world whose pictures could have been used instead, women who have suffered because of cultural misogyny. I agree that women continue to be treated badly — to varying degrees — in every corner of the globe. It is our responsibility as human beings, not just as Christians, to treat everyone with dignity and respect.
Nevertheless, after watching the video, in both the Italian and English versions, I came away with a much different opinion, one which agrees with the editorial in part, but which also does not throw the cardinal or his video under the bus.
First, the cardinal likely hired an ad firm, who found an attractive Italian actor — who is at the core of the controversy — to read the lines. The editorial’s bias appears with words such as “sexy, stereotypical, cosmetics, bouncy breathlessness, shakes her curls, soap operas, heavy makeup, and low necklines.” (By the way, the actor has on a baggy shirt that is not low cut.)
Second, the video is intended as a marketing device to invite all women to participate in the Pontifical Council’s February meeting by sending a short video or photo of themselves explaining their challenges, successes, spirituality, roles, etc. I’m fairly certain that no matter what woman was chosen or what pictures were used, someone will criticize it. But what irritates me is the notion that a cover-girl-looking, curly-haired blond woman who is wearing makeup and has decent stage presence is considered unsuitable for the task.
Really? In today’s world? Especially from what is considered a progressive Catholic newspaper?
Are we still to be taken seriously as women only if we look and talk like Maggie Smith on “Downton Abbey?” Are we to focus only on the plight of women around the world who suffer at the hands of those who consider us slaves, property, punching bags, sex objects or incapable of anything but producing children? Don’t misunderstand me. I know well the call of Jesus to love one another as God has loved us to mean that we are to treat everyone as worthy and do what we can to eliminate all brutality against every person.
Still, I also believe that if we as a Catholic Church want every woman to tell her story we also must include women who might identify with the actor in the video and women of all ages, sizes, looks and abilities who live, love, work, suffer, strive and fail. With all due respect to Zagano and her work for social justice, curly blond hair and makeup on a classically pretty face does not, and should never, diminish the message she was asked to deliver.
(Kathy Berken has a master’s degree in theology from St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minn. She lived and worked at The Arche, L’Arche in Clinton (1999-2009) and is author of “Walking on a Rolling Deck: Life on the Ark (stories from The Arch).”)