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Clericalism and Womanhood

by Katja Praznik

Thursday 10 July 2008

(Published earlier in: Reartikulacija, no. 4 - Summer 2008)

What do the bare buttocks of Simone de Beavoir (1908-1986), published on the front cover of Nouvel Observateur to mark the hundredth anniversary of her birth, and the renewed demands by the clergy to introduce religious education in Slovenian schools have in common? Apparently not much, but if both phenomena are considered through the prism of the thesis and findings of the Italian historian Luisa Accati, presented in 2006 in her book Beauty And the Monster. Discursive and Figurative Representations of the Parental Couple from Giotto to Tiepolo,1 they can be seen as an outcome of a process of deep suppression that is at the core of them both. The book deals with the transformation of the role of the Parental Couple through the way symbols from the past influence reality. It focuses on the change of representation of the mother figure and of the symbol of conception in Christianity, or more precisely in Catholic culture, and offers an analysis of how this has influenced the change in the relationship between mother and son.

Let us first consider Accati’s thesis due to which her book, considering the current trend of a rise in clericalism in Slovenia, can be added to the list of mandatory literature. With an extremely accurate analysis of the role of the woman as a mediator in the Catholic ritual of marriage, Accati explains the fundamental postulates of Catholic ideology. Postulates which do not concern the struggle for an equal position of female experience in the world but speak more broadly about overturning social hierarchies and their millenary consequences. By analysing the ritual of marriage and the development of the role and significance of the Virgin Mary in Catholicism, the author postulates the central thesis of the book, i.e. that the Catholic accentuation of the role and function of the Virgin Mary basically holds and reinforces the marginalization of the relationship between the mother and the father which is superseded by the mother-son relationship. “The ritual of marriage that originates in the Counter-Reformation reflects above all the feelings of rejection of a group of men, i.e. clergymen, who deny their sexual role and project their own denied sexuality on women.”2 Subsequently, the life choice for celibacy gains value and is taken as an example, thus the anxiety of men’s sexuality that is identified with violence converges more and more in behavioural norms and symbols. In this respect, Christianity is “a religion of violent and at the same time unsolved intolerance towards the father,” which is presented as “intolerance of the mother towards the father.”3 “The eternal Mary’s virginity is the eternal intolerance of sons towards the father who is disguised under female images,” which besides undermining the father’s authority also undermines the possibility of ethics.4 The fundamental myth of Christianity is the mother’s rejection of the father.5 Another problem, as Accati argues, is woman’s possibility of giving birth, which is denied to men. By authorising the Immaculate Conception, from which sexuality and desire are excluded, as well as the father, the clergy wants to deprive women of this privilege. The union of man and woman is important only in order that a son is born. Through the ecclesiastical ideology, these celibate sons then control sexuality and giving birth, depriving women of their power. Herein lies the problem of sons who cannot face the fact that they do not form a unity with the mother (as there is also the father figure). In trying to disavow the authority of the father, they redirect the focus on the mother, giving her the role of mediator.6 The symbolic bride (the Marian cult) is secluded, while the individuality of the real one is annulled so that she turns into a collective subject that represents all women, including her own mother. This implies the son’s incomplete renouncement and desire to take the father’s role. Moreover, what occurs is the evening out of the identities of the son and the mother, while clergymen attain their power by “claiming to know the mechanisms of female sexuality,”7 and by appropriating female symbolism they assume female characteristics. “Imitating womanhood is a specific way in which Christian clergymen execute the task of control over women. In the sphere of the sacred there are no women, since clergymen occupy their place.” Just as on the symbolic level Jesus Christ is real flesh and real mother, likewise in the social organization the clergyman is a real pregnant woman.”8 If, according to Accati, the almightiness of Christian ideology is a hereditary disease of western culture, then, as it seems, the hereditary disease of the woman is her capacity to give birth. “Thus, the conception is placed centre-stage on the social imbalance between men and women, while its analogous counter-value – the ritual – becomes the opportunity to establish the norms of indemnification, retribution and control. /…/ Clergymen thus assume the power of women, transforming it into spiritual power, into an agent that ensures their superiority over women and lay people.”9 At the same time, clerics intensify the role of purity, that is to say, that not only the male as the father is removed, but also the sanctioning of the sexual act or bodily union of the father and the mother takes place causing the latter to be regarded as impure and a sign of sin. By removing sexual drive, Christianity wants to overcome incestuous prohibition. “As it aims to spiritualize sexual drive, it understands sexual intercourse as something incestuous,” thus obstructing the passage between nature and culture or else their separation is unavoidable.10 Just as unavoidable is the degradation of corporeality and reducing a woman to flesh, which gives birth to children. If until the 16th century women were adjusting their desires for men as fathers, and for men as sons, while clerics and lay people had been fighting for power over the mother (the Marian cult is part of the myth and of the inhuman), at the time of the Protestant Reformation the figure of the father was re-evaluated and the figure of the mother circumscribed. The father was given a despotic authority while the mother was deprived of acquiescence and the role of mediator (conjugal sexuality becomes an unpleasant duty). Counter-Reformation Catholicism took away even more authority from the father, while the “desire of the woman which was a necessary weakness and acquiescence /…/ was transformed into supporting the husband’s sexual desire in order that children are born.”11 Thus the concept of purity was established, according to which woman’s acquiescence to have sex is regarded as irrelevant and therefore violence can be exerted over women. This means that the symbol of a pure (virgin) Mary becomes a perfidious manoeuvre with which Christianity on account of spirituality gains superiority as a religion which praises reason over the body and obtains the right over the role and significance of the woman and her corporeality. The implications of the concept of purity therefore allow violence to be exerted over a woman’s body, since women are only unresponsive machines for giving birth. Therefore, Accati points out that the key problem of women is that they “need to re-establish borders, moral dignity, social value and reflection over their corporeality.” They can fulfil these demands precisely by insisting on the capacity of the mother’s body to distinguish between violent conception and that which is based on woman’s acquiescence.12 Regulation of corporeality which abolishes women’s acquiescence to give birth to children is the “power that permits no reciprocity and is characterised by the endless infantile will to destroy, power that is not capable of maturing and multiplies infinitely.” What is more, this power “acknowledges no difference and limits.”13 Christianity therefore rests on “the fantasy of almightiness in which we are born out of ourselves, and in doing so we abolish the father and perceive the mother as part of ourselves.”14 A woman’s body is like a disposable little pot for giving birth; it is sacrificed already at marriage and it is subject to the paradox of purity. All this violence is a result of problems that arise in the process of separation from the mother, and at the same time a form of prohibition of incest that by constructing the contradictory identity of women solves the problem of men, or better the fight between fathers and sons. At this point I can return to the introductory question about the common feature of the degrading gesture of the French newspaper Nouvel Observateur, where Simone de Beauvoir’s naked photograph was published, and the insistence of the Slovenian Catholic Church that religious education be introduced into the curriculum of state schools. If the latter phenomenon stems from the complex of almightiness and superiority of Christian ideology which fights tooth and nail for the earliest possible indoctrination of the young with their pathological symbols and norms, the gesture of the French newspaper can be understood as a consequence of the unreflected instrumentalisation of the woman’s body, where the Catholic origin is not so manifest, but still present. What I have in mind here is not purity in terms of prohibition of showing a woman’s naked body. What is problematic is neglecting the context and women’s condition in contemporary society. The publication of Simone de Beauvoir naked is not radical at all, but rather it is banal because it lets out the fact that this gesture involves the instrumentalisation of the female body (for capitalist purposes) which in some respects is identical to Catholic ideology. The problem of the persistence of symbolic capital of Catholicism is not so much then in the religion and institution, but in “Catholicism as a long-lasting anthropological situation,” which through symbols cut off from their background still affects the emotional education of the individual and, consequently, the social collective. “As there are no other ways of reshaping emotions, Christian symbols are still valid since they are in an unclear, ambiguous and behind-the-scenes form” and as such connected to the normative possibility of symbols and to their effect as social conformism, for they are “spread through emotional experiences, through channels of cultural education of sons, daughters, husbands, wives, men and female lovers, single women etc.; this emotional conformism is latent, therefore innocent, but as such dangerous.”15 Such influential arguments can be seen in the wholly disrespectful reduction or objectivisation of Simone de Beauvoir, with which the French “pay homage” to her hundredth anniversary. The cliché of “nice buttocks” that “beautified” de Beauvoir even in her middle age in this case can be seen as the instrumentalisation of the female body for the purpose of some no less perfidious ideology – capitalist commodification and profit (which should be further compared to the theories of Max Weber). Notwithstanding the rigid seclusion of the state and Church, so typical for France, such features, if considered through the lens of Luisa Accati, bear witness eloquently to the obstinacy of ideological suppositions of Christianity and the meditative role of women as one of her principal social functions. Even more paradoxical is the fact that we can talk about this through the exertion of violence over de Beauvoir who in her book The Second Sex systematically tries to articulate the empirical female experience and thus female self-definition. The disavowing of the normative value of women and their experience – as it is postulated by Catholic ideology – “undermines the balance between intellectuals, and moral aptitudes of individuals pertaining to both sexes, since through the abolishment of difference between the mother and the son, the difference between subject and object, between subjectivity and otherness is undermined.”16 What I have in mind is not advocating biological determinism, but I rather opt for a constructive reflection on the biological and historical difference between man and woman. Denying the specificity of the female and male experiences leads us towards a new circle of non-differentiation, as a result of the almightiness or manipulation of religion which prevents the surpassing of hegemony and the subjugation of religion with reciprocal relations and the (non)-assumption of responsibility.


1 Cf. the original version of the book Luisa Accati, Il mostro e la bella. Padre e madre nell’educazione cattolica dei sentimenti, Cortina, Milano 1998. See the edited English version Beauty and the Monster. Discursive and Figurative Representations of the Parental Couple from Giotto to Tiepolo, European Press Academic Publishing, 2006. All references are from the Slovenian translation Pošast in lepotica: oče in mati v katoliški vzgoji čustev, Studia humanitatis, Ljubljana 2001.

2 Ibid., p. 80./3 Ibid., p. 82./4 Ibid./5 Ibid./6 Ibid., p. 23./7 Ibid., p. 138./8 Ibid., p.139./9 Ibid.,/p.140./10 Ibid., p. 202/11 Ibid., p. 205./12 Ibid., p. 225./13 Ibid., p. 226./14 Ibid./15 Ibid. p. 207./16 Ibid., p. 10.

Katja Praznik holds a MA in sociology of culture and works as an independent critic, theoretician and stage director in modern theatre. Since 2007, she has been the editor in chief of the magazine Maska.

Translated from Slovenian by Tanja Passoni