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Some Post-Synod Considerations: Catholicism, Gender and Ritual Ambiguity

28/10/2014 10:43 GMT | Updated 27/12/2014 10:59 GMT

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The Vatican synod treating of 'Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization' has now come and gone. Recommendations by various bishops favouring a change in tone and, perhaps more importantly, an alternative choice of language when referring to some of the complexities of gender and love within unconventional Catholic families assuredly cannot have fallen upon deaf ears. I suspect that before the synod began I was not entirely alone in musing as to whether such fresh currents in thinking had anything to do with a re-examination within the Roman Curia and elsewhere of the very dialectic which various voices within the Church have used over the centuries in formulating its Christology (theology of Christ) and its Ecclesiology (theology of the Church).

Even with the Vatican only just around the corner, many among my conationals might agree with the observation that Italy is arguably the last enduring bastion of 'the old Christianity of the Continent'. Wooden crucifixes appended above chalk boards at public school classrooms, or even inside banks, still signal an inconspicuous protagonism by which Catholicism retains only a precarious footing within the country's social fabric. A similar conjecture may be hazarded in regard to the Church's more popular face, sometimes represented in kitch images of the Madonna or Padre Pio affixed to a wall in some local bicycle repair shop beside an old nude calendar from which the celebrities of yesteryear still flash at you provocatively.

Paradoxically, the nation's cult of the dead is still alive and well as ever, marked most notably by the feast of All Souls' Day on November the 2nd and often accompanied by a customary annual visit to the graves of loved ones. A walk through any burial plot here often leaves me pondering as much upon the finality of death as on the place that deceased family members continue to occupy in the lives of the close relatives they have left behind. Always clear to me at the cemetery of my city as I walk among the sleepers there is how short verses upon headstones can betray through shallow etchings a yearning for a yet deeper story - a story longing to be told beyond elaborate liturgies, transforming poems inscribed upon marble into an enduring dialogue with mystery at its most timeless - the same to which fleeting mortality can offer no satisfactory answer. Is this among the reasons why the Church, unworthy custodian of such mysteries as it is often judged to be, continues to be considered by many to be more than a mere anthropological curiosity ?

Yet while to its users Christianity's upbeat albeit somewhat contradicted take on human life and death is among its most winning bargaining chips, not a few motivating arguments on the Incarnation and Resurrection of Christ are seen to be buoyed up by tottering theological apologias which start to look topheavy by today's standards as Catholics feel less represented by an idiom articulated in gender-specific language, especially after the sexual revolutions of the last century by which women and men began to shed restrictive stereotypes.

I have often wondered just how much the gender implications of this historical theatre of the sacred are entirely accidental. Yet besides the obvious suspicions raised by a privileged gentlemen's club appropriating sacred power to itself in public rituals treating of life, healing and death -all important issues in the experience of any faith community- it would appear that some 'deeper magic' is being tapped here from an underlying source identifiable in rituals purposely configured to jar with popular insights of reality, even to the point of confounding them. Indeed by reversing commonly-held gender roles, an exclusively male priesthood has been able for centuries to 'prepare' and serve bread from a 'family table' during Eucharistic celebrations, to 'wash (dirty) infants' at Baptism, even to 'nurse the dying' when administering the Sacrament of the Sick. Consistent with this conceit, the priest even dons a dress prior to performing these functions, further elevating to the sacred such 'mundane' chores of daily housekeeping as were once considered to be the singular province of women alone - even as they continue to be in many societies today.

This is further conveyed via the 'language of signs' spoken in various rites of Christian baptism. Setting initiation into the ecclesial community against a uterine backdrop, the orthodox practise of full immersion most vividly enacts re-entry into the amniotic fluid of what Catholics perceive to be the birth canal of 'Holy Mother Church'. Thus is the initiate 'reborn' into the family of the faithful. Here the baptismal font acquires an added, deliberately antithetic meaning by also symbolizing the tomb from which it is believed the neo-Christian shall one day rise to new life. By so doing the womb imagery juxtaposes life with death while at the same time conjoining the two into a single, salient mystery.

Upon the hill of Covignano, not far from Rimini, the fourteenth century friary Church of Our Lady of Graces houses a reliquary in one of its side chapels. In it one can view the mortal remains of a Franciscan who was brutally tortured and killed in 1449 for refusing to disclose to the city's erstwhile mercenary leader, Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, the confessional secret of his second wife, Polixena. Still today, deep burn marks may be seen upon the cranium, a testimony to the cruel brandings the priest was made to suffer. Within its glass ossuary an inscription remembers Friar Sebastiano Lombardi, who was later beatified, as a 'martyr of the confessional seal'. When entering the shrine one is reminded of the age-old guarantee of thus preserving confidentiality, not only in relation to the confessor's commitment to discretion with penitents but also respecting the trust which penitents must invest in a 'father confessor' who will hear their secrets before proceeding to counsel and encourage them in what has been viewed throughout Church history to be an essentially 'paternal' role.

Yet in this historical contest between varying perceptions of paternal and maternal expressions of grace, not even related creative assertions connected with the person of Christ were ruled out. A prosaic portrayal by late 14th century anchoress Julian of Norwich refers to the Motherhood of Jesus, a notion perhaps inspired by a fourth century description of Christ by St John Chrysostom, which features the Crucified giving birth to the Church through issuings of water and wine at his pierced side (taken in this case to represent Baptism and Eucharist respectively), just as the God of Genesis had created Eve from one of the ribs in Adam's side. Here 'male maternity' can hardly be more cogent.

In view of the many anomalies alluded to above, I claim neither prophetic vision nor divine revelation touching any greater or lesser emphasis our current -reputedly courageous- pope might best afford to attributes glibly dubbed 'maternal' and 'paternal' and once connected with sacral power, or whether these should necessarily come as outdated to us in the twenty-first century. Admittedly, I do not have a clear position yet on how much, if at all, the former begins to either converge or be in conflict with the latter. What I will own is that the spirit of the recently concluded synod in Rome seems to have encouraged an unprecedented and refreshing climate of dialogue which may, at best, signal a new beginning respecting fuller acknowledgement of the extent to which fertile diversity from many and varied human expressions of gender has contributed over history to the development of a maturer Catholicism in more adult form.