The Culture of Women: No Place for Sexy in the Catholic Church

Vatican and women, outreach to Catholic women

The Vatican Pontifical Council on Culture is convening a series of meetings this week to discuss the culture of women in the Catholic Church. That’s right — the Catholic Church supposedly wants to know what women think!

In late December, a short video was posted online calling on women to participate in this exploration, not by attending or actually participating, of course, but by sending in a one-minute video saying, in those scant few 60 seconds, what they felt the Church should know about the role women would like to play. Sounds good, right? But few English-speaking women will have the chance to share their opinions because the English version of the Council’s video was pulled after it received harsh criticism over the sense viewers got of the woman who appears in it: a blond Italian actress wearing glasses and a blue shirt.

The critics said she was too sexy.

To be fair, the text of the video is fairly condescending, as if the script writer wasn’t sure that women would even be able to understand what was going on or what we were being asked to do. It’s got a patronizing tone – but also, to be fair, it’s not completely clear to me that it wasn’t just poorly translated from Italian. The English version came down, the Italian version is still up. It’s short – just asking women to film their answers to a few key questions: in effect, let the Council know “who you are, what you do, what you think about your being a woman, your strengths, your difficulties, your body, and your spiritual life.” Winning entries would be shown in a kind of montage at the beginning of the meetings.

But the actress in question, the one who is too sexy for her shirt, is 50-years-old. I wanted to get past that pesky detail and write about how out of touch the Catholic Church can be when it comes to understanding the needs of its women members, but I can’t stop thinking how far we’ve all come when a 50-year-old actress can be called “too sexy.” And that looking sexy could somehow undermine the message that needed to be conveyed in this project about the interests and concerns of Catholic women.

Nancy Brilli, the actress in this video, really is sexy – not that it helped her much here. The arguments were that she was coquettish and that her line delivery didn’t speak to the serious nature of the assignment here: to convey to women that this Pontifical Council really wanted to know what was on their minds regarding the “culture” of women in the Church, similar to recent meetings which discussed the culture of youth in the Church. This council is a segment of the Roman Curia, the real hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Like other councils, it’s comprised of dozens of cardinals, bishops, and priests who are members, and a small group of lay consultants, which in this case includes the architect Santiago Calatrava and seven women. Members attend meetings. Consultants consult on various topics and may be invited to attend meetings.

While I want something good to come from any discussion of ways to give women a boost – even if it’s only a boost within the Church – I always prefer an open discussion. I want these cardinals to hear your voice too and I don’t think that can happen in a room filled with talking men, no matter how well meaning they are. And even if I had submitted my own little movie about my role as a mom and a working woman in the U.S., there’s no guarantee anyone would have seen it, that anyone would have taken my 60 seconds seriously, or that the seven women consultants would have agreed with me and, if given the opportunity, would have used their voices collectively to speak for me.

I love that 50-year-old Brilli is too sexy – that really thrills me – but trying to answer that classic question, “What do women want?” by asking for one-minute videos from those of us with access to film making is hardly the way to do it. Even if every last video asked for women to be ordained as priests, it wouldn’t mean that a retired Republican woman in Utah or a young working mother in Australia wanted that or that she considered it a priority in her Church as it struggles with so many compelling and competing 21st century issues. We women are many, we are diverse, we are probably less similar than most men would imagine and asking a room filled with priests to discuss women as a topic – none of them married, none of them fathers, and none of them in working roles that compete on a daily basis with women colleagues – is, on some very basic level, disturbing.

I realize that women will not assume more pivotal, integral roles in the Catholic Church until some discussion – definitely among men – takes place. But I find it fascinating that when they decide to begin the dialogue they get slammed for employing a female message-bringer who is sexy. They probably should have hired a male actor with glasses, wearing a blue shirt. At least if he were sexy, it’d be OK. And it wouldn’t undermine the message.

Anne Born is a New York-based writer who has been writing stories and poetry since childhood.  While her children were enrolled in New York City public schools in the late 1990s, she edited and published The Backpack Press, and the CSDIII News, a monthly newsletter covering all public schools on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.  She blogs on The Backpack Press and Tumbleweed Pilgrim and her writing focuses on family and life in a big city after growing up in a small one.  She is the author of “A Marshmallow on the Bus” and a photographer who specializes in photos of churches, cemeteries, and the Way of St. James in Spain.  Most of her writing is done on the bus. You can find Anne at www.about.me/anneborn  and you can follow Anne on Wattpad and Twitter at @nilesite.

Image via Wikimedia Commons/in the public domain

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