Women's Enews (USA), August 25 2004
Vatican Coverage Misses Holy
See's Political Clout
by Sheila Gibbons
Editor's Note: The following is a commentary.
The opinions expressed are those of the author
and not necessarily the views of Women's Enews.
(WOMENSENEWS)--Journalists did an adequate job
conveying some of the dismay and ire stirred
up by the Vatican's anti-feminist pronouncement
this summer. In covering the response, however,
too few reporters painted a complete picture
of the Holy See's campaign to limit life choices
It's an important omission because the pope is
not only a spiritual leader; he's also a political
player in the major league of nations. This
missive offered a chance to consider the Vatican's
complete influence on political and social
Reports from news organizations from Bahrain
and Belfast to Sydney and San Francisco limited
themselves and those activists and theologians
eager to respond to the July 31 "Letter
to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the
Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church
and in the World."
According to this latest missive from the Congregation
for the Doctrine of the Faith--a kind of star
chamber of orthodoxy in Rome headed by conservative
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger--feminism has been
"lethal," obscuring "natural"
differences between women and men, and generally
insulting a divine plan.
In covering public reaction to the letter, Reuters
turned--as news gatherers are wont to do in
this kind of a bind--to Frances Kissling, president
of Catholics for A Free Choice. "Such
observations," the agency quoted Kissling,
"could only be made by men who have no
significant relationship with women and no
knowledge of the enormous positive changes
the women's rights movement has meant for both
men and women."
Responding to Rome Salvo
Some news organizations recognized the letter
for what it was: another attack in a long-running
campaign. Washington Post editors dubbed the
letter "the latest salvo" against
those who disagree with its teachings on sexuality
and reproduction. And in their Aug. 6 United
Features syndicated column, longtime journalists
and Washington observers Cokie and Steve Roberts
described the statement as "utterly out
The Robertses also questioned why women were
exclusively blamed for fissures in the nuclear
family. "Men aren't taken to task at all
in Ratzinger's missive," they wrote. "Only
grasping women come in for criticism . . .
The idea that most divorce is due to women's
quest for equality rather than men abandoning
their families, often without paying any child
support, is ludicrous."
They also protested the letter's stereotyping
of men's gender roles. In his letter, Ratzinger
says women "should be present in the world
of work," and should not have to choose
between a career and child-rearing. That might
sound ok, but the Robertses catch the slight
to nurturing men. "The Church's male elite
is so sexist that it doesn't occur to them
that others of their sex might want the opportunity
to take time for their children," they
wrote. "To the sentiment that women's
work within the family should be valued, we
would add a hearty 'amen' - --with the amendment
that 'so should men's.'"
In a column in the Los Angeles Times on Aug.
6, John L. Allen, Jr., Vatican correspondent
for the National Catholic Reporter, revealed
Ratzinger to be an unswerving ideologue, observing
that the affable pope plays "Ronald Reagan
to Ratzinger's Pat Buchanan."
According to Allen, Ratzinger blames what he
regards as extremist attitudes of "'radical
feminism'" for a host of ills, including
"confusion about gender that promotes
tolerance of homosexuality." Yet given
Allen's disclosures about Ratzinger's activities,
it is Ratzinger who may be the extremist here.
The Vatican's pamphleteer has authored documents
that call homosexuality a tendency toward "intrinsic
moral evil," that discipline Catholic
theologians who accept other religions as "a
positive part of God's plan," that insist
that even routine Vatican announcements "enjoy
a kind of infallibility."
Choosing to Spoof
Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Tanya Barrientos
chose to spoof the whole thing by taking up
the letter's by-the-way assertion that heaven
is a sex-free zone.
"When I stopped groaning over the fem-phobic
attack on women's rights, I focused on that
footnote about sex after death," she wrote,
referring to a section of the letter assuring
readers that "the temporal and earthly
expression of sexuality is transient and ordered
to a phase of life marked by procreation and
"Was I reading right?" Barrientos scoffed.
"No hanky-panky in the sweet by-and-by?
. . . What's the point of unending bliss without
a little heavenly petting? I mean, we're going
to have a lot of unstructured time up there."
NPR sought balance, with a panel (Talk of the
Nation, Aug. 4) about the differences between
men and women and the old nature vs. nurture
University of Virginia professor Steven Rhoads,
author of Taking Sex Differences Seriously,
said studies he's seen show that "the
majority of women are home-centered" and
that career women have "on average a higher
level of testosterone."
Offering counterpoint was Boston University professor
and Women's eNews commentator Caryl Rivers,
who made the case for diversity not only between
the sexes, but within them.
"It's very hard these days to make a general
statement about what a man is and what a woman
is, because there's so much difference among
the sexes," rather than just between them,
said Rivers, co-author of Same Difference:
How Gender Myths Are Hurting Our Relationships,
Our Children and Our Jobs. "Gender differences
certainly exist, but they don't control our
Impeding Women's Control
However estimable some of this talk and writing
may have been, I was sorry to see so few reporters
tie this letter to the Vatican's overtly political
efforts to impede women's control over their
I could find no more than a passing reference
in coverage of Ratzinger's letter that discussed
the Vatican's pressuring of U.S. bishops to
order priests to deny communion to pro-choice
Catholic politicians. It seems an especially
pertinent question as President Bush vigorously
courts Catholic voters by bragging about his
brother Jeb's being a member of the lay all-male
Catholic organization, the Knights of Columbus,
and talking up his so-called "protection
of the family."
Neither could I find anyone who delved into the
Vatican's continuing efforts to deny women
access to information and options that would
enable them to control their child-bearing.
These efforts--in which the Holy See uses its
United Nations membership to work against population-control
efforts by advocating contraception, sterilization
and abortion bans--find a sympathetic partner
in the Bush administration, which reinstituted
the "global gag rule" that denies
U.S. aid to foreign organizations that provide
health counseling information on abortion or
that in any way attempt to legalize abortion
in their countries.
The collective impact of the Vatican's activities
related to women--not just Catholic women,
but all women--could be enormous.
Reporters and editors should pay close attention
to Vatican initiatives involving women, and
try to explain the consequences for women if
the Vatican's views prevail.
Sheila Gibbons is editor of Media Report
to Women, a quarterly news journal of news, research
and commentary about women and media. She is also
co-author of "Taking Their Place: A Documentary
History of Women and Journalism," Strata Publishing,
Inc., which received the 2004 "Texty"
Textbook Excellence Award from the Text and Academic
Authors Association, and of "Exploring Mass
Media for A Changing World," Lawrence Erlbaum
For more information:
Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church
on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the
Church and in the World - July 31, 2004: -
Tanya Barrientos, "Unconventional Wisdom:
Really? No hanky-panky in heaven?" Philadelphia
Inquirer, Aug. 7, 2004 - (Registration required):
John L. Allen, Jr., "The Blunt Hard-Liner
at Pope John Paul's Side: Doctrine czar stands
against progressives," Los Angeles Times,
Aug. 6, 2004 - (Registration required): - http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-allen6aug06,1,7924492.story?coll=la-news-comment-opinions
<< Women's Enews -- 8/25/04 >>
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