Sheila Gibbons

(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 for women.

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 theVatican’s complete influence on political and social life.

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 of touch."

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 death."

"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 debate.

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 destiny."

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 reproductive lives.

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 Associates, Publishers.



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):,1,7924492.story?coll=la-news-comment-opinions