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Letters & Op-Eds - 1990s

los angeles times

For Catholics, It's "Happy Martyrs' Day"

Frances Kissling

8 May 1994

The beatification of two women who sacrificed for their children sends the message that submissiveness is what counts.

As a feminist critic of the Vatican, I have at times harbored secret doubts that I am too hard on the leaders of my church, too hackneyed in my charges that hatred of women and fear of sexuality are at the root of Vatican positions on birth control and abortion. Could it not be true, as these male leaders now frequently claim, that they are genuinely motivated by respect for all life?

Events of the past few weeks have silenced my misgivings: Misogyny is alive and well at the Vatican; women’s lives still rank at the bottom when it comes to respect, much less value.

On April 24, Pope John Paul II crowned this year’s Vatican campaign to articulate a so - called traditional vision of family and women’s roles therein by beatifying two women who would serve as "models of Christian perfection." Beatification, a status high on the ladder to sainthood, signals the Vatican’s approbation of the honored one’s life - or death. "We wish," said the pope, "to pay homage to all those courageous mothers who devote themselves unreservedly to their families and who suffer to bring their children into the world."

Fair enough, my moderated side says; you are always demanding that the pope pay homage to ordinary women. Now he has done so and still you complain, seeing sexism behind even the most benign acts. But look at what’s considered special about these two near-saints’ lives, and think about the significance of holding them up as models, especially for young women.

The first, Gianna Beretta, an Italian pediatrician pregnant with her fourth child and suffering from a lethal uterine cancer, insisted that, if necessary, her life should be sacrificed for that of her unborn child. Of course, the sacrifice became necessary, and in 1962, she died so that her child might live.

I respect that choice; I would equally respect a woman who chose to live. I have a nagging suspicion, however, that in beatifying Gianna Beretta, the pope is instructing us in the difference between a good mother and a bad one: A good mother will give her life for an unborn child; a bad mother might think that preserving her life would better serve her family and community. And only a very bad woman might think that she deserved to survive even if she had no family.

Still, I tell myself, Gianna Beretta’s decision could be interpreted as heroic. But the second beatification is unambiguously disturbing. Elisabetta Canori Mora, a Roman who died in 1825, remained in a marriage where her husband abused her and finally abandoned her to care alone for their children. "Elisabetta Canori Mora," the pope said, "showed, in the midst of numerous conjugal difficulties, her total fidelity to the commitment assumed in the sacrament of marriage and responsibilities deriving from it." For staying in a lousy and destructive marriage, she is on the road to becoming a saint. Now there’s a good role model for Catholic teen-age girls.

Consider, too, the context for the selection of these two women: The Vatican has been trying to influence the agenda for this fall’s U.N. conference in Cairo on population and development. The Vatican delegate to a recent preparatory meeting sought to delete the notion of "safe motherhood" as an important health goal. In a restrained mood, I chastised myself for thinking that if you are not for safe motherhood, you are for unsafe motherhood. But these two beatifications reinforce the message that the Vatican does not value women’s safety in childbearing and family life.

There are countless bricks in this ancient edifice of misogyny. Another recent example: Church officials were asked whether a man who had AIDS could use a condom to protect his wife from the transmission of the disease. This couple, the Vatican responded, is called by God to abstain from sex. If they find abstinence an impossible strain on their marriage and do have sex, they may not use a condom. Saving the marriage is more important than saving the woman’s life.

This lack of respect for women and the palpable aversion to sexuality are timeless. Read the words of St. Paul: "Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet woman will be saved by bearing children."

St. Paul was wrong, especially on the last point. In this church, it takes more than bearing children to pass the test of blessedness; total submissiveness is still the rule.

This article appeared in the 8 May 1994 edition of the Los Angeles Times.