White mystical statue of the Blessed Virgin praying
Black & white photo of prostitute on street corner by Brassai
Our Lady of Banneux
The Most Innocent Blessed Virgin

by Brassai

Why does Patriarchy separate women into 'Madonna' and 'Whore'?



Heard the one about the liberated Catholic girl? Still pregnant, still barefoot, but she gets to wear snowshoes on Sunday. In the USA, where many consider Hillary Clinton and Condi Rice credible presidential candidates, it may look like the battle for women's rights has been won. Well, the mission ain't accomplished. Women didn't even get the vote here until 1920, they still get paid less, and their right to govern their own bodies stands under growing threat. Over most of the planet, women remain virtual slaves. And the Catholic Church, though it can look like Germaine Greer Estates compared to clitoris-hacking Islamic backwaters, has been a steady manufacturer of the shackles.

Pity the pope? It's tempting - you never saw a garbage man with arms as trash-encumbered as Benedict XVI's. Catholic Church membership: down heavily in Western Europe and the Americas. Clergy: dwindling to less than a skeleton crew. Mood: sour. Pope John XXIII's Vatican II Ecumenical Council of the 1960s, hyped at the time as a window on revitalization, looks like a fake-out now that successive pontiffs have retreated behind ancient bulwarks of dogma and mysticism. Most of the faithful worldwide, grappling against real-world pitchforks of overpopulation, tribalism, political chaos and economic collapse, are giving the big finger to Rome's medieval pronouncements on birth control. And you might've heard a word or two about priests and boys - kind of a pain in the ass, not to mention the wallet. The Holy Father's even under legal assault for molester shielding. Pity the pope.


Or, what the hell, piss on the pope. Especially if you're a woman. The Catholic Church, the world's largest non-governmental property owner, is also the world's most entrenched patriarchy. Among the articles of faith set down in its 800-page catechism lie the much-contested tenets that a woman may not be ordained as a priest, and that couples may not practice any form of mechanical or chemical contraception. Not only do women get left holding the baby, but it's the church's official position that use of condoms is forbidden even when a husband is HIV-positive. And the person most visibly responsible for holding the line during the last 24 years, as Pope John Paul II's chief monitor of dogma and as the chairman of the aforementioned catechism's compiling committee, is Joseph Ratzinger, a Bavarian priest we now call Benedict.



Gender issues are hardly the only gripe that's caused millions worldwide to flee screaming from Roman Catholicism; lots of people just aren't locating much God of Love in it. But women, who've always (always) been the primary keepers of the religious flame, have led the stampede. In Los Angeles, many come from immigrant communities; you'll hear from some of them in the accompanying interviews ("Women Talk About Why They Left"). And in another sidebar, Weekly music editor Kate Sullivan remembers her time in a Catholic girls' school during an era of feminist-inspired upheaval.


Why is the Catholic Church nailed to the image of women as separate and unequal? When Ratzinger took the steering wheel, I started thinking about that. And I came to believe the church is a prisoner of its own history, of its own traditions, and even of the unacknowledged myths from which it sprang.


It's not like there hasn't been progress. When I was a pimply altar boy in the early '60s, I scraped my fingers raw in preparation for Palm Sunday, cutting up the palm fronds that would be displayed and distributed to commemorate Christ's triumphal donkey ride into Jerusalem. I helped Father Willenborg haul the stiff, dry foliage over to the ugly modern church, where an old woman was reverently depositing flower arrangements by the altar rail. Why, I asked the pastor, didn't she just put the posies up by the tabernacle, where they belonged? Well, he said, women weren't allowed on the altar. (That's changed; there have even been female Mass servers since 1994.) He never quite got around to explaining.


I remember kneeling for daily Mass in seventh grade at St. Leo's School. I would jockey into the row behind lovely Sue Bortoluzzi and meditate on the downy back of her neck below her bobbed hair, which was surmounted by a mysterious white doily. The doily was a relic of the days when women, as brides of Christ, had to wear veils in church. Boys and men, as always, could bare their Brylcreemed locks to God. Today, American women can go either way.


Covering heads is an outward sign for placing women at a comfortable distance - which makes sense if you want to reinforce a male hierarchy whose priests have taken a vow of chastity. Funny: When it comes to sexual and marital conduct, the celibate clergy are the ones stuck with the job of expounding the church's rules. And the head cleric, Joseph Ratzinger, is a special case - chosen, perversely it seems, for his lack of such qualifications.




Ratzinger was born on Holy Saturday, the weighty day of prayer and renewal that sets the stage for Easter, Christianity's defining feast. His parents happened to be named Mary and Joseph - the one a woman considered too frail to be consulted about a family household move ("We did not want to make her needlessly anxious"), the other . . . a cop. Small, unathletic and unhealthy, young Joe Jr. was first drawn to the things of Catholic ritual - the icons, the vestments and especially the books. Having determined early to be a priest, he progressed rapidly in his studies and writing, barely slowing for his mandatory stint in Hitler's armed forces, where his job was to help shoot down the Allied aircraft that were closing in on the German homeland at the end of World War II. His peculiar scholarly talent was analyzing and synthesizing the arcana of church theologians, especially the monumental thinker St. Augustine, and he ripped through the world of academia, landing position after position at Germany's best universities; Paul VI named him both archbishop of Munich and cardinal in 1977, when he was just 50.


As a dogma enforcer, Ratzinger bent an attentive ear to revisionists, to anti-authoritarians, to liberation theologians who wanted to fuse the ideals of Christ with those of Che. Then he quietly told them to shut up or ship out. Some chose the latter. Though he had been a booster of and participant in Vatican II, and rendered the council favorable lip service through the years, he came to view liberalization as a menace to the church's identity. He even said that the hemorrhaging of Catholic membership was largely Vatican II's fault. Attitudes like that won him friends in Rome - particularly a certain charismatic Polish gentleman who longed for the days of abundant saints and frequent miracles.


Books and boardrooms have been Ratzinger's universe. Aside from a year as an assistant pastor immediately after his ordination, he has never sniffed the daily sweat of the masses. What he knows about women is pretty much what he knows about his mother and his sister.

About other things, however, Ratzinger knows a lot. I ate up his Salt of the Earth, the '90s apologia published in response to widespread growling over his intractability as doctrinal hellhound. The format is key: Interviewer Peter Seewald plays devil's advocate as a kind of inquisitorial Randy Johnson, serving up a steady succession of blazing fastballs, never curves or knucklers. ("The Cross - a ghastly symbol?") And Ratzinger not only gets his bat on the ball most of the time, he hits quite a few line drives.


Having been out of the papist loop for a few decades, I was refreshed by the realization that Catholicism is not entirely an exercise in willful absurdity and magickal unrealism. Ratzinger's knack for theology, obviously, is boggling - not only does he know his Jerome and Aquinas, but he's hot to cross-reference them in the secular realm with Heidegger and Marx. Through his meetings with regional bishops, he's gleaned solid clues about why Catholics all over the world, from fundamentalist Africans to self-indulgent Americans, are going nuts. He confesses to the reality that the church is a stodgy bureaucracy and a rotten communicator.


Though his quiet dogmatism can come off as arrogance, Ratzinger is a likable uncle (if not papa) who describes himself as "God's donkey" - not the creator of doctrine, but the animal who carries it around. His obsession with history gives him a perspective on the church as an institution built by the careful ponderings of smart people over two millennia. If its clockwork seems rusty to us, it may be only because we're too wrapped up in our present tensions and can't discern the slow hand of God's revelation at work. Ratzinger's beliefs have a lot to do with the partnership of deity and humanity; his faith is founded on more than simple bolts from the sky. Regardless of whether you agree with him, you can't say he's a dumb-ass.


But when the subject is women, Ratzinger flops around like a beached shark. Saving the worst for nearly last, Salt of the Earth gets extremely dodgy on gender questions; Ratzinger's logical acrobatics are a marvel to observe. He assumes that the demand for women's ordination is a grab for some kind of illusory "power" rather than a simple request for equality. He quotes the Catholic feminist Elisabeth Schussler-Fiorenza as ultimately rejecting the idea because, "Ordination is subordination, and that's exactly what we don't want."


Should contraception be permitted to lighten the burden of caring for children you can't support? As with his stance on prolonging the lives of the moribund, he thinks people underappreciate the value of suffering, which can be, as parenthood always is in his view, a divine gift. Can be. But I started to wonder if I should abstain from SPF-40 so I might offer up my sunburn for the glory of God. Unfortunately, unlike one's nth starving and diseased child, the sunburn itself can't suffer along.


Does Ratzinger himself struggle to believe some of this? You get the sense that maybe he does. But he feels it's his duty to believe it. And yours.


With popes making the ultimate decisions, popes being elected by cardinals from among their own number, and cardinals being appointed by conservative popes, the Roman viewpoint is not likely to change much prior to the refrigeration of Hades. Ratzinger sees Catholic belief as bound up in the history of the church. And history doesn't change. To think that rigidly, though, you have to embrace a pretty selective view of history - a viewpoint that, for instance, marks time from Christ's birth. The funny thing is that history itself has changed the church. Changed it a lot.





I don't know exactly why I needed to visit Ephesus a few years ago, but history had something to do with it. My wife, our kid and I were going on vacation to Turkey; obviously we had to hit Istanbul (Constantinople, Christianity's first earthly throne), and we had time for one more stop. I'm a sucker for ruins, of which Ephesus possessed great gleaming piles, Roman and Greek. I was jazzed.


But I wasn't prepared for the Artemis of Ephesus.


I got up early and took a cab from the dingy beach town of Kusadasi into the little municipality of Selçuk, which, compared to the ruins I'd seen the previous day at adjacent Efes, came off as something like, say, Indio. I wanted to visit the archaeological museum; my family wanted to sleep. The driver dropped me off and said he'd wash his car while he waited for me. In this land of little water, he washed it twice daily.


Inside the cool marbled halls, I was the only patron. There was a whole room dedicated to gladiators, including skeletons that showed exactly what stabbings and smashings had killed them. There was a frieze of Odysseus gouging out Polyphemus' eye. There were images of the jolly god Bes, with his everlasting boner.


My favorite, though, was the Goddess in her multifarious forms - this was the Giver of Life. Little clay pregnant figures called back to an age 8,000 years ago when humans first sought a transcendence they could touch. A representation of the Phrygian goddess Cybele (known elsewhere as Ishtar, Isis, Astarte, Anat, Inanna) displayed above her head the horns of the crescent moon, which were also the horns of the Cretan Minotaur, the horns of the bull that raped Europa, the horns that Christians made into the horns of Satan on one hand and the pedestal of the Virgin of Guadalupe on the other. This moon goddess, ruler of the menstrual cycle, "mother of the gods," drove her lover mad; he castrated himself and died, but arose from the earth again each spring. At Cybele's feasts, which were consecrated with ritual prostitution, frenzied young gallants would unman themselves with sacred swords. Too much myth for a mind to contain.


But then I walked around a corner, and the Artemis of Ephesus appeared. Her largest and newest statue, dating from the Roman period of around A.D. 150 but untypical of Western art, was half again as tall as a woman of flesh. A necklace represented the crescent moon. A pillared temple crowned her head. Her dress was adorned with all the earth's animals, of which, as hunter, she was mistress. Most mysterious was her chest, which sprouted three rows of . . . breasts? eggs? moons? mushrooms? bull testicles? In any case, the fertility symbolism was unmistakable.


She was the Greco-Roman Artemis, and she was the Ionian Cybele. She was the moon and the womb, the virgin and the whore. The Lydians, the Persians, the Greeks and the Romans came and went, but the Mother Goddess, in one form or another, always stuck around.




Now, Ephesus has a significant history. As a mosquito-ridden seaport at the mouth of the river Cayster, it was a mixing bowl for cultures from all over the Mediterranean and points east - something like Los Angeles. Every modern tourist sees the engraved sign that once guided sailors to the local brothel, located near both the Temple of Artemis and the library. Ephesus competed early in the philosophy sweepstakes of the fifth century B.C. via its own pre-Socratic heavy hitter, Heraclitus, the flux champ who said you can't step into the same river twice. (The Cayster ended up mocking him by silting up into swampland; you could step into its motionless waters repeatedly, no problem.) St. Paul, recognizing the city's particular challenges, had his work cut out for him there; he wrangled for two years with the local goddess cults and eventually got tossed in the slammer.


Ephesus also owns an especially wonderful Christian legend, which holds that the apostle John brought Mary, Jesus' mother, to live there after the Crucifixion. Busloads of pious tourists (who have included Popes John Paul I and II) still visit Mary's house daily. Think about it: Mary, another virgin (Artemis) and "mother of God" (Cybele), the main target of Protestant complaints about Catholic idolatry, was installed as a pagan-friendly icon in the most literal way, at the capital of goddess worship. She became nothing more than the latest mask of Cybele.

The Goddess Mary has long been hiding in plain sight. Martin Luther recognized her, but many today still don't. In the bust-out 2003 bestseller The Da Vinci Code, for instance, novelist Dan Brown's characters endlessly analyzed the Catholic Church's suppression of the primeval "sacred feminine," airing every crackpot conspiracy theory about the "hidden" role of Mary Magdalene. Meanwhile, Brown completely ignored that other Mary, the Mom o' God. The truth is that the Church didn't suppress the sacred feminine, it embraced the Goddess, along with the patriarchal system that sanctified and objectified her. Brown was right about one thing, though: Real women got the shaft - or the blade, if you will. Goddesses are so much easier to deal with.


Typical: Christianity has always taken the world as it is. Jesus told the Pharisees to pay their taxes ("Render unto Caesar . . ."), and Paul exhorted Christians to obey authorities, who are "appointed by God." There's no percentage, as the slaughtered and dispersed Jews learned, in fighting the power.


Accommodation, though, can run you into some dark, dark alleys. And along the way, women as a gender have gotten raped. There's always been extreme tension between the church's veneration of the fair sex as saints and martyrs (virgins) and its suspicion of them as unruly agents of the Tempter (whores).


It all starts with Eve, of course. For moderns, it's hard to believe that this primordial myth of snake and tree, already inconceivably old when it was incorporated into the Hebrew tradition some three millennia ago, has been taken as literal justification whenever men thought the bitches needed a whippin'.


Periodically, women have indeed gotten uppity. In the biblical Deborah, Jael and Judith, we hear echoes of women who could act as judges, commanders, prophets and killers in service to their God and tribe - roles that receded into the background once Judea's lawmakers closed ranks after the Babylonian exile and centered religious identity on the custom of circumcision. (Women were often the source of undesirable racial admixture, anyway. At least they can be thankful that the bris is one religious rite they weren't privileged to enjoy.) From earliest Christian times, Jesus' inner circle contained females; he even communed with prostitutes. The fact that all his apostles were male looks less like discrimination than like a recognition of which gender, in those heavily patriarchal times, would be accepted as a gospel authority. A number of St. Paul's auxiliaries were women; in the century or so before a firm church hierarchy was established, some women led services and acted in much the same capacities as men.


Then women got sucked into the propellers of Christianity's success. Success, in this case, actually meant the young religion was devoured and digested by the mammoth Roman Empire. After the Roman-instigated martyrdoms of early Christian women such as Perpetua and Blandina, it was another woman, Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, who brought empire and Messiah together.


The process involved a little compromise. Before converting to Helena's religion, and before winning his crucial battle over Maxentius to become emperor under the sign of the cross in A.D. 312, Constantine was a devotee of Mithraism, an Eastern monotheistic sun religion. Its main symbol was an astrological circle segmented by a cross; the birth of its deity was celebrated on December 25. Well established among the military, Mithraism excluded women. Its primary ritual, like Cybele's, involved the slaying of a bull. It wasn't much of a stretch for Constantine to adopt Christianity, and his mother reinforced the cross as a symbol by searching out and "recovering" the original lumber in Jerusalem.


Christianity could have gone a lot of different ways after Constantine made it the state religion. But the way it went after the emperor (not the bishops) convened the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325 was toward ancient patriarchy, toward a stratification like that of the Roman legions, toward the burning of Christian writings that contradicted the new Creed, and toward the slaughter of thousands of freshly delineated heretics.


Every tribe and religion marks its boundaries, determining the signs and beliefs that separate it from its neighbors - who are not generally perceived as people to love as thyself. In primitive times, that process was a path to survival. The question in the case of Christianity is: What exactly was it that survived?




To mark the turnings in the road that affected women, you couldn't do better than to consult Elaine Pagels' Adam, Eve and the Serpent, where the pronouncements of influential early Christian thinkers speak for themselves. The church father Tertullian asked of his "sisters in Christ," shortly after A.D. 200: "Do you not know that every one of you is an Eve? The sentence of God on your sex lives on in this age." Toward the close of the Roman Empire, St. Augustine, a sex addict in his youth, excused his obsession by inventing the amazing doctrine of original sin, which postulates that the transgression of Adam and Eve - imaginatively transformed by the great African bishop into a sexual offense - has infected us all with an irresistible penchant for wrongdoing, especially lust, that no man can conquer without the grace of God.


Some women, in fact, were glad to go along with the idea of divorcing themselves from sex; chastity was attractive to wives and slaves whose previous condition closely resembled whoredom. Authorities at the time of Constantine, though, felt they might be dealing with an undesirable mass movement. It was all right for men to obey Christ's dictum to leave everything and follow him, but women . . . ? What would happen to existing families? Where would future Christian babies come from? Wouldn't the whole fabric of (Roman) society be at risk? From Constantine to Hitler, Christianity has found ways to tolerate (if not necessarily encourage) tyranny, imperialism, slavery and prostitution. Female emancipation was not high on the agenda.


According to St. Paul (not Jesus, whom Paul never met), woman was made from man's rib for man's use (1 Corinthians 11:9). And Nicaea's power elite felt strongly enough about this natural order of things that they reinforced it by putting further words in Paul's mouth, incorporating into the sacrosanct Word of God a spurious epistle that had been circulating for more than 100 years (significantly addressed to the goddess-loving Ephesians) that opined, "Wives should be submissive to their husbands as if to the Lord" (5:22).


Even more dubious inclusions in the New Testament canon were "Paul's" Epistles to "Timothy," who in real life was Paul's main delegate to - you guessed it - dread Ephesus. One passage (1 Timothy 2:11-15) reads so little like Paul (or Jesus) and so much like Andrew Dice Clay that it's worth quoting in full:


"A woman must listen in silence and be completely submissive. I do not permit a woman to act as a teacher, or in any way to have authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was created first, Eve afterward; moreover, it was not Adam who was deceived but the woman. It was she who was led astray and fell into sin. She will be saved by childbearing, provided she continues in faith and love and holiness - her chastity being taken for granted."


Christianity had already done a lot of assimilating by the time Constantine came around; Nicaea just codified the strains of power that were most conducive to what would become, forevermore and truly, Roman Catholicism, though Rome was now ruled from Constantinople. That meant the church would be keeper of the ancient world's superstitions about women - as childlike, capricious creatures who nevertheless represented the underworld and the night, who possessed fearful seductive powers, and whose menses, used properly, could either cure or kill. (In Byzantine Christianity, menstruating women were excluded from the Eucharist.)

The die was cast. History was made, and it would be maintained. The Roman Empire fell, but the church carried on, providing a bridge over which Ostrogoths and Franks could march to gain faint union with the far more advanced civilization they supplanted. Popes fought heresies, fought schism, fought kings (or joined them), fought corruption, fought reform. Women - sorry, Joan - stayed where they were.


With Vatican II, the door creaked open a crack. In response to feminist pressure and the revolution brought on by the Pill, the council ordered the formation of the Papal Birth Control Commission, whose deliberations concluded in 1966. Up to that point, the only form of contraception the church considered acceptable was the remarkably unspontaneous and unnatural rhythm method (intercourse when the woman isn't ovulating). After hearing an avalanche of testimony from frustrated congregants and physicians, the commission voted 52-4 to recommend that artificial contraception be permitted.


That's when the thumbscrews started turning. The church's strong remnant of conservative cardinals got Paul VI in the backroom, leaned on him and broke him. Far from ratifying the findings of the commission he'd appointed, in 1968 the pope lashed out with Humanae Vitae, an encyclical that slammed the gate on birth-control reform. Thenceforward the rule would be, as Monty Python so eloquently sang, "Every sperm is sacred/Every sperm is great/If a sperm is wasted/God gets quite irate."

In the mid-'90s, a lengthy attempt to bring inclusive language into the church's liturgy - substituting "people" for "man," for example - met with general approval among English-speaking bishops. Then Cardinal Ratzinger appointed his own 11-member supervising commission, which featured no scriptural scholars and two parties whose native language was not English. Most of the more significant changes were quashed.


Worst: In 1995, John Paul II issued the apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, in which he made it crystal clear that the church could not ordain women as priests, end of discussion. One admirer liked the message so much that, though the letter wasn't intended as an infallible papal pronouncement on a matter of faith and morals, he tried to get it designated as such - essentially unchallengeable for all time. The eager advocate: Joe Ratzinger.


Ratzinger likes to take the long view from behind the dark, inquisitorial eyes he inherited from his dad, the constable. He's comfortable with the idea of "the truth" - the one truth, actually - and feels he's got it pretty well sewed up. No ego thing, it's just that Christians/Catholicshave been after the truth for a couple of millennia, aided by God's small but bright flashlight. And if they haven't found it . . . well, you can't allow suspicions like that to loiter in your brain.


So: Women have their place and should stay there; this whole feminism thing may be just a bump in the road. Sex is for procreation - don't have too much fun, okay? And you're not here to be happy, you're here to serve God. So quit whining. See you in heaven.

And reason? Well, that has its place, too. If the subject is evolution, it's all right to admit, as John Paul II did, that the creation account in Genesis might not be a literal blow-by-blow. On the other hand, women's subservient position as suggested in Genesis - pure dogma. If that seems like a contradiction, it's only because, as a single feeble human being, you can't understand how God reveals truth. It's a mystery. Ask Ratzinger, and he'll tell you that centuries of scriptural interpretation actually carry more weight than the scripture itself. And the ever-heavier burden requires a succession of good, strong donkeys.

Keep in mind one other thing about women that may be in the back of Ratzinger's mind. The priestly sex scandals bring new perspective to the idea of ordaining women. Though some male priests' misdeeds have ultimately come to light, and the damage has been considerable, we always figured that a lot of them fooled around - and not just with boys. If celibate women were in the pulpit, and no contraception were permitted, the priests' little secret would fly straight out the stained-glass window. The swelling physical results of sin, no matter how loose the cassock, would be there for everyone to see.


My family went to Rome last year. I couldn't help it, I guess - old stuff called. This was where they threw the Christians to the lions. This was where Peter and Paul are supposed to have been martyred. And this was the seat of some 500 popes.


We stood in Vatican City inside St. Peter's Basilica, built atop the foundations of Constantine's original edifice - the first big church Christianity could afford. Behold: If God's magnificence can be expressed in gold, then St. Peter's shows Him to be a glorious Deity indeed. Every pillar, arch, altar railing and picture frame drips with gold foliage. The paintings and statues, of course, from Raphael's to Bernini's, represent the best the Renaissance could offer. Michelangelo's Pietà, the sculpture that depicts so movingly the resigned anguish of a woman mourning over her dead son, sits quiet in its niche before a stream of pilgrims, who this day included the queen of Belgium.


The decorum of my wife, named Deborah after the Old Testament judge, suffered somewhat in comparison to the queen's. She'd sneaked past the monitors, really, in shorts, bare-shouldered and bare-headed, her tangle of hair sticking out every which way. Of Jewish descent, an attorney for non-mainstream religions and a mace-wielding atheist, she was the kind of person who, 500 years ago, would have been dragged off to the dungeon and clapped in irons. My knobby knees were sticking out from under tourist shorts, too, but I had a gender dispensation.


An elderly nun, draped in an impressive all-black habit, justifiable fury stamped on what we could see of her face, approached Deborah and hissed disapproval at the exposed body parts. For the rest of our visit, as we observed Alexander VII's sculpture of Death, the chapel of St. Petronilla (according to legend, the first pope had a daughter) and the rows of pontiffs encoffined in the vault below, Deborah wore a Mao hat on her head and a sweatshirt around her legs, while clamping a baseball cap on each shoulder. She was not happy. But happiness is for the life beyond.

As we wandered, strange noises periodically reverberated against the majestic silence. The painful screeches, changing slowly in pitch, were like the cries of a dying pterodactyl. I kept looking around to pinpoint their source and finally spotted a couple of men in white coats, ministering to the gigantic pipe organ ensconced at the heart of the basilica. They kept working on it, but their adjustments were far from complete - the great instrument of the church was screamingly, deafeningly out of tune.



© 2004 - 2006 RASA VON WERDER