Better the Disaster You Can See that the One You Can't

The Vatican Pontifical Council for Culture is putting together a program entitled "Women's Culture: Equality and Difference."  To kick-off that project, they chose the following image for the cover for their program:


I cannot fathom why they thought this was a good idea.  The argument half-heartedly offered by the Vatican--that this represents "woman as a subjugated sex object, but also as a creature who rises above men’s depictions" only makes the situation worse, insofar as the actual decision-making of the conference will reside entirely with men.  So, I suppose one could argue the description is on-point, though not in a manner the Vatican would celebrate.

This is only the latest of a series of farcical missteps associated with this conference.  The spokeswoman for the conference, an Italian actress named Nancy Brilli, was used in a promotional video so strange and tone-deaf that the English version was officially removed due to protests.  You can see for yourself.

One might also note that, in a program that is advancing the idea that plastic surgery represents a "burkha of flesh" for women, it appears the 50+ year old Ms. Brilli may be a devotee of the veil herself.

There is really only one conclusion to this kind of thing--the people running the Vatican are often buffoonishly incompetent.  The only proper response to this sort of thing is to laugh.

Still, I think this sort of thing is actually a good sign, and a source of consolation for Catholics and other Catholic well-wishers.  One of the big ideas of Girard is that we should be skeptical of the outer appearances of people, and especially of institutions.  The more put-together, unified, cohesive, and stream-lined an institution is, the more likely it is to be retreating behind a facade, attempting to mask the darkness that is going on behind the surface.

By contrast, overt chaos and dysfunctionality is a kind of truth-telling.  Sure, it is dysfunctional, but all human activities are dysfunctional, and if the dysfunctionality is on display then it can be known and reckoned with.  It is the hidden dysfunctionality, the one that is being covered over with layers of self-serving plaster, that is the truly dangerous stuff.

Compare, for instance, the papacy of John Paul II with his two successors.
The papacy of Benedict was a visible, public disaster.  Institutional chaos appears to have reigned unchecked.  There are reports that Pope Benedict would sign official documents, and those documents would be intentionally "lost" by various Vatican functionaries.  It was a madhouse.

Pope Francis's papacy has been equally chaotic, albeit in different ways.  Pope Francis runs around, musing extemporaneously on various topics and leaving confusion in his wake.  The Synod of Bishops exposed very severe and public factions and disagreements among the bishops, which will only get worse when we get to Round Two this October.  Conservatives are stocking food and ammo in preparation for this forthcoming encyclical on the environment.  And, oh yeah, there are low level but persistent rumors that Pope Francis is really going to let slip the dogs of war and call Vatican III.  Confusion reigns.

During John Paul's pontificate, however, we had none of this.  The JP II Vatican projected an image of total command of itself and all that it surveyed.  There was message discipline that US political consultants would kill to foster in the candidates they manage.  Ever confident, ever advancing--that was the image that the Catholic Church portrayed, absolutely intentionally, under Pope John Paul II.

Meanwhile, the widespread sexual abuse and its concomitant cover-up was reaching its zenith, overseen by bishops hand-picked by Pope John Paul and his closest advisors.  The founder of the Legionaries of Christ, a religious order that the Pope never tired of holding up as a model, was pervasively sexually abusing minors (of both genders), abusing drugs, having children out of wedlock, and defrauding people of money--often lots of money.  Oh, and all of that institutional chaos that we saw during the Benedict years?  The same people were in power at the end of John Paul's pontificate, when he was basically too sick to run much of anything.  If you thought it was bad in 2008 or 2010, when you had an actual Pope who was actually trying to run things, how much worse must it have been in 2002, when the inmates were literally running the asylum?

The Twelve Step community uses the phrase "you are only as sick as your secrets."  The secrets were very deep, and very sick, during the time of John Paul II, when everything looked so good.  One gets the sense that these hidden secrets are being slowly replaced with signs of incompetence, cartoonish weirdness, and generalized chaos.  In other words, with the signs that the Catholic Church is an institution consisting of human beings doing the things that human beings do.  Or, perhaps in a more on-the-nose presentation, that the people in the Vatican are just like us.

So, yes, the roll-out of this conference on women was ill-conceived and hilariously maladroit.  One suspects it will implode in a tremendous failure.  But failures are OK.  Failures are human.  It is where we see consistent success that we should be wary.

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