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The Vatican's #LifeofWomen video project: the bad, the ugly and the good

 |  Grace on the Margins

On the fifth day of Christmas, the Vatican seemingly gave a gift to Catholic women across the world.

No, it wasn't five golden rings, but rather, the chance to make a one-minute video for the Pontifical Council for Culture.

The Pontifical Council for Culture, which is one of the "dicasteries" or departments of the Roman Curia, announced that its February assembly would be dedicated to the theme of "Women's Cultures."

The dicastery invited all Catholic women (or at least those who were paying attention to the Vatican website in the days after Christmas) to upload a brief video response to questions that seem better suited to an adolescent youth group: "Who are you?" and "What do you think about your being a woman?" and "What do you think about your strengths, your difficulties, your body, and your spiritual life?"

Not only did the dicastery assume that the whole of women's experience could be reduced to a 60-second sound bite, it also assumed that such a feat could be performed in under a week. The deadline for submissions was Jan. 4.

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The solicitation of videos, the dicastery freely admits, was an attempt to "crowd-source" information about the life of women. They even created a hashtag for it: #LifeofWomen.

(Crowdsourcing, according to Merriam-Webster, is "the practice of obtaining needed services, ideas, or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people and especially from the online community rather than from traditional employees or suppliers.")

According to the Pontifical Council for Culture's website, the idea for the theme came out of "some internal think-tank sessions and research" by the dicastery's members and consultors. One wonders what those conversations sounded like, given that the members are 14 cardinals (including Cardinals Gerhard Müller and Angelo Scola), 14 bishops, and four "men of culture," and the consultors are 27 laymen and seven laywomen.

After ruminating on the life of women, these 59 men and seven women then handed on their thoughts to an ad hoc committee called the Consulta Femminile (or "Consultation Group of Women").

Somewhere in this process, the idea for the video project was born.

The videos, the Vatican website tells us, will be "viewed by one of a circle of women supporters helping the Dicastery." One is left to assume that is the same group of women who are also in the Consulta Femminile.

Here's the problem: The names of these women in this "circle" are never mentioned, nor are the names of those in the Consulta Femminile. In fact, after an extensive search, I have been unable to locate their names anywhere.

The website is also vague about who will actually choose the videos that will be shown to the meeting of cardinals and bishops in Rome in February. So this process, like most processes in the Vatican, is shrouded in mystery.

Can this process be trusted if the video-makers have no idea who their female judges are? Well, let's be honest. Given the Vatican's recent record of choosing conservative women to join the International Theological Committee and given the conservative caliber of women who helped to organize the recent Vatican conference on gender complementarity, the chances are slim that anyone on the Consulta Femminile is a feminist theologian, a proponent of the use of contraceptives, or an advocate for the ordination of women.

Pope Francis has made clear his deep commitment to extolling the virtues of natural family planning and gender complimentary, so why should we expect the women who are "helping the Dicastery" to think differently?

But perhaps most troubling of all is the question of which "crowd" will be "sourced" in this project.

The ability to create a video and make it available over the Internet is still a privilege enjoyed by relatively few women throughout the world. So these videos, by their very nature, will be self-selecting.

The sad irony is that many of the women who suffer most profoundly under the forces of patriarchy and gender inequality are not likely to have access to a smartphones or computers, let alone to Internet access capable of uploading a one-minute video. As Phyllis Zagano pointedly demonstrated in her NCR column last week, these are the women the Vatican needs to hear from most.

The hope, of course, is that the women who have the privilege to make videos will use a portion of their one-minute runtime to be a voice for voiceless women. But even if they do, the lack of transparency regarding the members of the Consulta Femminile and lack of participation among the world's poorest women create very serious risks of skewed results.

The #LifeofWomen campaign seems to be suffering from a similarly limited setup as the Synod of Bishops on the family. Once again, we have a group of privileged and powerful male clerics examining issues about which they have no direct experience. And once again, these clerics are neglecting to talk directly to the broad base of Catholics who are impacted by the church's teaching on these issues.

Worst of all, this particular project allows the hierarchy to claim they listened to the voices of women without having to make any attempt at genuine dialogue. (I can already hear the argument: "Women have absolutely no voice in the church!" "Well, the Vatican did try through that crowdsourced video project.")

I would like to believe that the Pontifical Council for Culture has the best of intentions in soliciting the reflections of women, even if it is in the most inadequate and most virtual of ways. But the obscurities surrounding the video selection process, the exclusion of the voices of disadvantaged women, and the reality that, ultimately, the male hierarchy will still have all of the decision-making power leaves me wondering whether the dicastery is more interested in pacifying the church's critics than it is in making an authentic, humble attempt at listening to global experience of women.

Now, all of this said, I do admire the women who have taken the time to create so many meaningful, powerful videos. New Facebook communities and thoughtful Twitter feeds have quickly popped up around the #LifeofWomen hashtag. As I have viewed some of tweets and clips, I have come to realize that the importance of the #LifeofWomen campaign does not rest on whether or not it succeeds in establishing genuine dialogue with the hierarchy. Instead, its true value lies in the deeper conversations, connections and momentum that it is generating among Catholic women.

[Jamie L. Manson is NCR books editor. She received her Master of Divinity degree from Yale Divinity School, where she studied Catholic theology and sexual ethics. Her email address is jmanson@ncronline.org.]

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