Gaudete et Exsultate was published to widespread acclaim on 19th March, 2018—the Solemnity of Saint Joseph, who is one of Francis’s favourite saints. It is a rich reflection on the meaning of holiness. While recognising the saints as models of perfected holiness, Francis is concerned to encourage Christians in the daily challenges of life, and to affirm the presence of God and the vocation to holiness even in the depths of failure and despondency. The Beatitudes exemplify the characteristics of the holy life, and the happiness they speak of is the fruit of living generously and humbly for and with others.
The path to holiness in Gaudete et Exsultate is a dynamic pilgrimage that seeks God’s presence in the mundane, and the text invites close study and reflection. Yet a number of women have expressed disquiet about this being yet another example of papal romanticism, in which we women find ourselves positioned as the repositories of male theological projections and ideals, with little sense of women’s lived realities being taken into account. See, for example, Jamie Manson’s article in NCR Online,”Should Women Rejoice Over ‘Gaudete et Exsultate‘?” “Woman” is always the gendered other in official Catholic teachings—demonised in the past, romanticised and patronised by modern popes, including Francis. I wish he would ask some wise women friends to read what he writes and advise him when he gets it wrong.
Gaudium et Exsultate – one woman’s response
When I started reading Gaudium et Exsultate, I felt a sense of elation. The language is inclusive, women are named and even quoted among its sources, and mothers and grandmothers are acknowledged as witnesses to faith: “Their lives may not always have been perfect, yet even amid their faults and failings they kept moving forward and proved pleasing to the Lord.” (3) This is a welcome acknowledgement that mothers and grandmothers—like fathers and grandfathers, priests and indeed all who sincerely seek God—are growing in faith and getting things wrong is part of that process.
However, I find myself wondering if women in this text really are co-equals with men on life’s pilgrimage of holiness. My impression is that we are not seen as wayfaring companions but as “woman”, the placeholder, static repository of a domesticated version of female holiness that stifles the spirit and cramps the imagination.
The alarm bells began ringing when I read this: “I would stress too that the ‘genius of woman’ is seen in feminine styles of holiness, which are an essential means of reflecting God’s holiness in this world.” (12) That term “genius of woman”, or “feminine genius” as it is sometimes expressed, is a vacuous and belittling platitude. It recurs in the writings of John Paul II and Francis. What is this feminine genius, which marks women out as particularly gifted by God, even as we are told that our female bodies preclude us from representing Christ on the altar, and we see no convincing attempt to include us more fully as equals in the institutions of church leadership and learning? Whatever “feminine genius” might be, it seems that the official hierarchy can get along quite well without it.
Moving on, we discover what this “genius of woman” amounts to. Francis describes the everyday sanctity of ordinary people as “the middle class of holiness” (7), and it is indeed the middle class wife and mother who here becomes an exemplar of holiness:
This holiness to which the Lord calls you will grow through small gestures. Here is an example: a woman goes shopping, she meets a neighbour and they begin to speak, and the gossip starts. But she says in her heart: “No, I will not speak badly of anyone”. This is a step forward in holiness. Later, at home, one of her children wants to talk to her about his hopes and dreams, and even though she is tired, she sits down and listens with patience and love. That is another sacrifice that brings holiness. Later she experiences some anxiety, but recalling the love of the Virgin Mary, she takes her rosary and prays with faith. Yet another path of holiness. Later still, she goes out onto the street, encounters a poor person and stops to say a kind word to him. One more step. (16)
This fantasised life of the middle class housewife is one that no celibate man in the Vatican will ever aspire to as the hallmark of holiness. It suggests nostalgia for a way of life that was only ever associated with the nuclear family of the middle classes, and it has been superseded for the vast majority of women by more complex and demanding roles which combine work and domesticity.
That makes me reflect on how Saint Joseph would have made a wonderful model of everyday holiness for this papal exhortation published on his feast day. The example of Joseph would resonate with the way many people live today, in families where men often bring up children not biologically fathered by them, and sometimes through necessity or choice give up their own ambitions and careers in order to support their wives in their vocations—as Joseph did. Surely there is no saint who better epitomises the subversive gender politics of the Gospels, than this obedient husband and proxy father who appears only briefly and then disappears into obscurity?
Humiliation and Humility
There is another struggle I have when reading Gaudete et Exsultate, and this too is not free from issues of gender. It is when Francis turns to the relationship between humility and humiliation:
Humility can only take root in the heart through humiliations. Without them, there is no humility or holiness. If you are unable to suffer and offer up a few humiliations, you are not humble and you are not on the path to holiness. The holiness that God bestows on his Church comes through the humiliation of his Son. He is the way. Humiliation makes you resemble Jesus; it is an unavoidable aspect of the imitation of Christ. (118)
This is a dangerous approach to holiness, which flies in the face of Francis’s repeated emphasis on dignity and his concern for the poorest of the poor. It may be that the occasional exercise in humiliation teaches an important lesson to men who spend their lives in clerical palaces being waited upon by docile religious sisters, but is it really true that a refugee, a victim of torture, a person experiencing sexual abuse, a woman trapped in a violent marriage, a beaten and neglected child, is learning an important lesson in humility? Humiliation of the powerless is not a path to holiness and humility for either the perpetrator or the victim. Even among those who have power, surely it is wrong to confuse being humbled with being humiliated? The former is indeed essential for spiritual maturity, but the latter should never be sanctified. In enduring extreme humiliation for our sakes, Christ came to dignify and glorify the human, to set us free from shame and humiliation.
This is no small matter, because in positing humiliation as a necessary experience for the acquisition of humility, Francis unwittingly subscribes to a deep sickness at the heart of Catholic spirituality. I cannot help but wonder if his inability to face up to the realities of the sex abuse crisis—which has now resulted in a humbling volte face for him over his refusal to take seriously allegations of abuse against the Chilean hierarchy—is a symptom of this failure to distinguish between the humility of the humble, and the abjection of the humiliated. To develop a sense of personal worth when one has been humiliated requires defiance, courage, resistance and a deep sense of one’s own inviolable dignity in the eyes of God. It is altogether different from the humbling but ultimately enriching experience of acknowledging one’s faults and being held accountable for one’s wrong-doing, or having an encounter with great goodness, beauty or mystery that reminds us of our creaturely insignificance within the wonder of creation. There is something deeply wrong about the suggestion that humiliation is necessary for humility, and it is a claim that has caused untold suffering to women and indeed to all victims of abuse and violence.
That brings me to the question of gossip. Francis has a horror of gossip. He once jokingly told a group of nuns that a gossiping nun is “A terrorist”, explaining that “gossip is like a bomb. One throws it, it causes destruction and you walk away tranquilly. … No gossip, and know that the best remedy against gossip is to bite your tongue.” Let’s remember that his model of holiness is a woman who hurries home when her neighbour begins to gossip: “she says in her heart: ‘No, I will not speak badly of anyone’.”
That is the kind of indoctrination that allows abuse to flourish unchecked. The woman who hurries away and closes her ears when her neighbour tries to confide her fears about the parish priest’s behaviour with children, the Hollywood film star who keeps to herself the sexual abuse she has suffered at the hands of a director, these are women who have been taught not to gossip, not to share their fears and doubts with other women for fear of being branded gossips and troublemakers.
The word “gossip” is derived from the Old English “godsibb”, meaning a sponsor or a godparent. It is a combination of the word God and sibling. Perhaps it is time for women to reclaim the ancient meaning of that word. Gossip can be deeply damaging, but it can also be a godly task—a holy responsibility—to share with trusted confidantes one’s fears and suspicions when people in positions of power use that power to humiliate and abuse others.
A woman learning a lesson in humility through humiliation? The Scold’s Bridle, which women were forced to wear when found guilty of idle talk or gossip.
In conclusion, Gaudete et Exsultate is a shining call to holiness but it is also a text that invites critical engagement and discerning attentiveness. Like all great works of holiness, it is part of an unfinished journey towards a vision of a more inclusive, less judgemental and more joyful faith. I humbly suggest that Francis needs to spend more time gossiping with the women he meets along the way, if he is to understand more and prescribe less with regard to women’s visions, vocations and experiences of holiness.
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