After reading the Vatican's recent pronouncement on men and women -- in particular, its condemnation of modern feminism as a malevolent, divisive force that devalues the family and sabotages sanctified gender roles -- I thought this might be an interesting, provocative subject for discussion with Gina Barreca, my feminist co-author. But Gina declined, on the grounds that, as a Roman Catholic, she'd be in an awkward position if she had to criticize the document. In fact, she didn't even plan to read it.
Being a sensitive person and a supportive friend and colleague, I understood her concerns. Then I anonymously e-mailed it to her under the subject line, "Researchers at Sorbonne prove female humor is superior." It worked. Gina opened it, and once she started, she couldn't stop.
Gina: To calm myself down afterward, I watched "The Shining."
Gene: You are willing to discuss this, then, at peril to your mortal soul?
Gina: "Soul" is an appropriate word. This document makes it clear that, to the Vatican, men are Ray Charles and women are standing behind him, in beehive hairdos and push-up bras, going "shoop shoop." The Vatican is many good things, but there is one good thing it is not, and never will be. Do you know what that is?
Gene: A reliable source of middle infielders for major league baseball?
Gina: The Vatican is not "women." It knows nothing about women because it is made up of people who are not women, and who are not intimate with women, and who spend no appreciable time with women. And so their view of women is sentimentalized and condescending, the way European explorers regarded the first black people they saw: "By Jove, Farnsworth, these primitives have good rhythm." Except with women, the Vatican would be referring to contraception.
Gene: Now, calm down.
Gene: In support of the Vatican's position -- and I'm just playing the devil's advocate here . . .
Gene: . . . the church does say it has no problem with women working outside the house or seeking serious careers, and it praises some things it considers particularly female virtues, such as "listening, welcoming, humility and faithfulness."
Gina: Yes, it does! Unfortunately, these are not virtues that tend to advance the power and prestige of women worldwide. You do not generally see CEOs wanting to change places with their cleaning ladies so they can become more empathetic. If a woman is applying for a scholarship to Harvard, she is not likely to put on her resume: "Am good at loving unconditionally."
Gene: Actually, that might . . .
Gina: Don't even go there. This document exists almost entirely to allow the church to continue to justify denying women the priesthood. If I could summarize this thing, it would be that Billy Joel song with the lyrics, "I want you just the way you are . . . don't go changin' . . . I don't want clever conversation . . ." Of course you don't, Billy. You married Christie Brinkley.
Gene: Okay, well, I think we've managed to offend a few dozen million people here, so our work is probably done. But I'd very much like to deal with one more little item from this document, the one single line that really, really disturbed me.
Gina: The one where it says that feminists are adversaries of men and enemies of families?
Gina: The one that suggests that if you are a feminist, you deny the Holy Scripture?
Gina: What then?
Gene: The one that says there's no sex in Heaven.
Gina: That's old news. All Roman Catholics know that. So what?
Gene: It's supposed to be . . . Heaven!
Gina: We're supposed to have more important and wonderful things on our minds.
Gene: I should think women wouldn't be so happy about this either.
Gina: Women are fine with it. We're not obsessed with sex.
Gene: That's not my point. My point is that women are real nurturing and conversational and everything. I would think that women would want a situation in Heaven where men would, you know, talk to them.
Gina: I'm going to go watch "The Shining" again.
Gene Weingarten's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Chat with him online Tuesdays at noon at www.washingtonpost.com.