Bishops Explain Things to Me

February 8, 2015 at 2:10 pm | Posted in Catholicism, Uncategorized | 5 Comments
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By now, you have probably heard about the meeting of the Pontifical Council for Culture at the Vatican, ending today, comprised entirely of male hierarchs, discussing “Women’s Cultures: Equality and Difference.” The indefatigable Mary Hunt, on Religion Dispatches, argues that such a gathering would be “funny were it not so insulting.” The anonymous blogger who writes “Questions from a Ewe” also chimes in on the “irony” of such an undertaking. The Ewe comments on the obscene misogynist sculpture that the hierarchs chose for the cover of the meeting’s working document, and their choice to have an Italian movie star invite women around the world to submit one-minute videos about their experience as input for the meeting. (I guess they thought we could spare only one minute from the kids, etc.)

I don’t doubt that such a meeting is ironic, insulting, even in some respects laughable. But the book I’ve been reading, Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me, suggests that the implications of a group comprised exclusively of men discussing “women’s culture,” and then issuing a report, are a good deal more than insulting.

Solnit’s ‘s book is a collection of essays about the oppression of women around the world. It begins with the essay from which the book title is taken; it appeared originally on Tom Dispatch,  and it’s pretty funny. Solnit and a woman friend are leaving a party when an arrogant guy engages them in conversation. When Solnit says she has written a number of books, the most recent one about Edweard Muybridge and the industrialization of the American West, the man asks if she knows about the very important Muybridge book that came out that year, and begins to tell Solnit about it. As he proceeds, Solnit’s friend has to tell him four times that it’s Solnit’s book he’s talking about before he grasps what she’s saying. He was “stunned speechless.”

I bought a copy of Men Explain Things to Me because men have explained things to me this way on many occasions, most recently at a local Zen center where I attempted, without success, to become a practitioner. Older guys, a considerable minority of the membership, were in the habit of holding forth at some length. But of course, the place where I’ve heard men explain things to me most frequently is in church. Sometimes, when I suggest on the way out that a priest might want to rethink a particular error he’s been preaching, he is almost invariably astounded.

What makes Solnit’s essay illuminating, however, is that she quickly goes beyond the amusing story about the arrogant guy at the party to lay out the dire implications of the widespread practice of men explaining things to women. Solnit calls conversations in which men explain things to women “the narrow end of the wedge that opens up space for men and closes it off for women, space to speak, to be heard, to have rights, to participate, to be respected, to be a full and free human being.” Such closed off space includes Colleen Rowley, the FBI woman whose early warnings about al Qaeda were ignored before 9/11; the great difficulty that U.S. women have getting restraining orders, and the three women a day who are murdered  by spouses and ex-spouses,  one of the main causes of death for pregnant women in this country. At the heart the struggle to give “rape, date rape, domestic violence and workplace violence legal standing as crimes,” Solnit assures us,” has been the necessity of making women credible and audible.”

Which brings us back to the men in Rome who will soon be explaining women’s culture to the church, the vast majority of whose members are women. Someplace on this blog I am sure I already mentioned the article accompanying Time Magazine’s declaration of Pope Francis as Person of the Year back in 2013. The article said that although Pope Francis is against women’s ordination, women have much more important problems than being excluded from ordination, for example, female genital mutilation. In recent months, however, hospitals in Kenya and elsewhere in Africa have been offering female genital mutilation services. While one Catholic priest is on record as opposing this, the Kenya Catholic bishops are busy with another issue, protesting to the Kenyan government the vaccination of women against tetanus by the World Health Organization. Tetanus, it seems, is a major cause of death among women of childbearing years. The bishops argue, however, that the vaccine must be stopped because it makes women sterile or causes them to miscarry, a position that is widely discredited. Does anybody doubt that if half of the Catholic bishops of Kenya were women, there wouldn’t be more protest against African hospitals offering female genital mutilation services, and fewer claims that a vaccine saving lives all around the world causes sterilization?


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