Saturday, October 17, 2009

Hell Hath No Fury: In France, the "Skirts" take to the streets to get their Church back

by Henri Tincq (translation by Rebel Girl)
Sunday, 11 October, 2009

About a year ago, a calamitous dash of humor from the Cardinal Archbishop of Paris sparked a mini-tornado in the small Catholic world. Asked in November 2008 in a radio broadcast about shutting women out of positions of responsibility in the Church, Msgr. André Vingt-Trois delivered a sentence as unfair as it was stupid: for access to decision-making power, "it is not enough to have a skirt. You also need a mind." In protest, a "Comité de la jupe" ("Committee of the Skirt") was created at once, which has since gained ground and is organizing its first "march" on the streets of Paris in the district of Saint-Sulpice on Sunday, October 11th.

If the heart of Catholic feminists had only marked a beat - a complaint was filed against Archbishop Vingt-Trois before the church courts and then removed after a word of apology from the archbishop - the front of the protest was expanded to include other discontents and the "Comité de la jupe" will soon have to change its name. It is run by theologians who are not newcomers: Anne Soupa, editor of Biblia, a major journal of exegesis, and Christine Pedotti, publisher, former head of chaplaincy in the Latin Quarter. They do not define themselves as activists or extremists. They claim no power. These "emmerdeuses de bénitier" ("irritants in the baptismal font") as they humorously call themselves, only seek to respond to the expectations of ordinary Catholics who, faced with the monopoly and machismo in the words of the clergy, bristle and shout: "Enough."

Their blog, launched in January 2009, has enjoyed an unexpected success. It has unintentionally benefited from the cascade of decisions at the beginning of the year that have put the Church at odds with public opinion: the lifting of the excommunication of four fundamentalist bishops by the Vatican; the Williamson case; the excommunication of a child mother who had an abortion in Brazil [Translator's note: In fact the child, who was a minor, was not excommunicated but her mother and the medical team that performed the abortion were]; the pope's statement condemning condoms. Faced with the growing and partly justified process of the return of fundamentalism at the head of the church, a rebellion has been born among the Catholic ranks, not only among the most progressive. Some have given back their certificates of baptism. Others left slamming the door. The "Comité de la jupe" arrived at the right time, becoming unintentionally, a kind of outlet -- "Many came to see us," says Christine Pedotti, "as a way to tell the Church they are giving it one last chance."

How to harness this flood of discontent related to new forms of authoritarianism, the contempt suffered by women in a mysoginist institution, the irritation of many lay people engaged in the task of animating parishes or as chaplains (prisons, schools, universities, hospitals), but who still feel like auxiliaries, rarely or never listened to, excluded from decisions that are always made by the clergy? The "Comité de la jupe" seeks to welcome the different forms of discontent, make them known, open dialogue with the institution to try to answer them, but for now, unlike the leftist Catholic movements, it does not want to start thinking in terms of demands and systematic challenges to authority.


It has made known its intentions in a letter to all the bishops of France. Only four of them have cared to respond. "But we're not here to overburden them or the Vatican," the two founders say. We just want to find our place as "Catholic citizens" wishing to be heard, to discuss, to give birth to public opinion in the Church, meaning that they are no longer willing to accept everything." They are already a few hundred strong, mostly activists and lay (non-clerical) parish leaders, but also from the loyal base -- priests, men and women religious, etc.. To demonstrate the non-political nature of the movement and its rejection of any regimentation and recovery, the "Comité de la jupe" defines itself as "neither traditional nor progressive".

Despite this cautionary language, its birth brings color back to a critical Catholicism that seemed endangered, marginalized by the rise of a conservative Catholic identity that has the wind in its sails. For a long time, protesting Catholics seemed to have become silent, withdrawn into purely internal struggles, grouped around tiny newspapers and magazines such as Golias or international networks, as utopian and aging as they are small, with names like "Nous sommes aussi l'Eglise" ("We Are Church"), "Réseau Européen Eglises et Libertés" ("European Network Church on the Move"), "Femmes et hommes en Église" ("Women and Men in the Church"), "Droits et libertés dans les Eglises" ("Rights and freedom in the Churches"), etc ...

Without managing to make themselves heard, these newspapers and networks advocate for the ordination of women, the rights of homosexuals, for questioning the Church's teaching on sexual matters, for it to give a new impetus to its social commitments. For them, the salvation of Catholicism will come through profound structural reforms: more modest and collegial exerting of authority by the pope and the Roman Curia, a real decentralization of church government, the end to mandatory celibacy for priests, the ordination of married men, opening new ministries to women as priests and deacons, greater responsibilities given to the laity.

They denounce Rome's attempts at seduction to bring the traditional right-wing clientele back into the fold, they protest against the encroachments of the Vatican on local churches to put them back in step. According to them, the laity are not playing their part and the priests no longer know where they are going. These Catholic protesters are not far from thinking that the Church has not finished settling all accounts from post-Vatican II (1962-1965). Or that it has not come out of the depression of May 68. They are not resigned to the decline of Catholic intellectual vitality in many countries, the weakness that has stricken theological research supervised and controlled by Rome, the disaffection of militant activity under episcopal supervision. And they deplore the fact that the public discourse of the Church is monopolized by the clergy, the pope and a few cardinals, that the laity are excluded from the media, that Catholic intellectuals are no longer playing their role as leaven.

These progressive Catholic movements seem to have settled for shadowy isolation. The "Comité de la jupe", by its novelty, proposes something else: getting off the beaten paths of protest, getting out of depression and resignation, making room for dialogue with the institution. For the latter, it is perhaps a last opportunity.


Photo: Christine Pedotti and Anne Soupa

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