The Table


In the beautiful Teatro Argentina around one hundred people, including actress Nancy Brilli and Cardinal Ravasi gathered to experience the production of the Pontifical Council for Culture and RAI tv’s collaboration on “Women’s Cultures” (#LifeofWomen). Videos and live-testimonials crowd-sourced over the ill-timed week of December 23 – January 4, were broadcasted for the first time and accompanied by three (male) jazz musicians.

Following the controversial report and Man Ray image of a headless and bound woman figure, expectations from the English-speaking world were low. The removal of the English language video featuring Brilli, and the overwhelming backlash should serve as a reminder (to all of us) that, as AP wrote: “the Vatican often forgets it’s a global institution, not an Italian one.”

Sour Rita Giaretta

Sour Rita Giaretta

While the report acknowledged some of the gender-specific violences against women, it was fraught with socially-constructed stereotypes and attempts to say they are “natural,” with corresponding gender-defined roles. This thinking and language have been challenged and rejected in scholarship for decades, and are wildly culturally and spiritually unacceptable.

The report also categorically rejected the idea of women’s ordination, stating that “statistically it is not something that women want,” despite the reports that said “a number” of the submission for the #LifeofWomen Campaign were from ordination advocates… and no statistics are cited.

There were high points and low points of this experience:

High points:

  • This happened. The Vatican asked women: “What is it like to be a woman?” – asking only for one week, and only in 1 minute video clips, but someone thought to ask. I know many of you are rolling your eyes, but this a crumb instead of the usual absence said crumb. 
  • Some of the work that women religious do to fight sex trafficking, domestic violence, poverty, and inequality was highlighted, although in a strange, “Vagina Monologue” starkness, three women religious were able to hold a microphone and talk about their life’s work, with Cardinals and ambassadors in the same room.
  • Clips from public policy expert Anne Marie Slaughter’s TED talk on why women “still can’t have it all,” where she discusses “real equality” as not valuing women on male terms. This excerpt expanded on the issue of childcare, maternity and paternity leave, “a culture of care,” socializing men and women to embrace roles within the family and the workplace, and generally how women (and family life) are treated in the workplace.
  • Theologian Marinella Perroni’s #LifeofWomen video was included in the final screening. Perroni was president of the Italian Women’s Theologian collective, and is a strong  advocate for women in the Church and society.

Lots of men on stage, reading quotes from men. (Not in a #heforshe way)

Low points:

  • While men played music on a stage, men read quotes from other men: John Dunne; Joseph Conrad; Vittorio Zucconi. A young married couple came to the stage and only the husband spoke. In discussing maternity leave, an article and photo of Marco Buselli was used. These insensitivities to the loss of women’s narratives is not only jarring, but inexcusable. 
  • Stock images of women of color in colorful clothes without context, without a voice, without their stories (and I am assuming without their consent), flashed on a screen to uppity jazz music. Displaying images of women in war-torn countries, with children, praying, crying: who are these women? 
  • The event concluded with screenshots from social media, highlighting those who used the hashtag #LifeofWomen: a very selective sampling, void of the overwhelming numbers of those from @OrdainWomen and for those in favor of women’s ordination.  Again, this political editing undermines the Council’s very “attempt” to amplify the voices of women; women have been anonymous voices and instrumental players erased and silenced throughout history, and this was no different. As a colleague recently said, “There are good intentions. But the barriers are up against women.”

Overall, this exercise shows us how clumsy the Vatican can be with anything to do with women (even the name, “Women’s Cultures” – as if women are some sort of bacteria!).  Nevertheless, fighting the forces of Italian, Vatican, and patriarchal norms, a public forum where women were discussed, with women in the room, it’s not nothing.

For some of the stellar contributions from women’s ordination advocates See #LifeofWomen.

Updated: Here is the broadcast of the public event in Rome: