Issue 14.2 | 2017 / Guest edited by Elizabeth A. Castelli

Strange Questions, Queerish Souls? Resisting the Woman Question in a Contemporary Catholic Movement (Comunione e Liberazione)

Article acknowledgements.[1]


During a moment of light-hearted conversation in the aftermath of a recorded interview, Barbara jokingly complained that my question about being a woman within the Catholic movement she belonged to was way too difficult for her. We were lingering in a sunlit corridor of the headquarters of Comunione e Liberazione in Milan, and Serena, a friend and informant who worked in the building, joined us. Once she understood the subject of our conversation, Serena burst out in laughter and joined Barbara’s assessment of “the woman question.” “You know,” Barbara continued on a more serious note, “I never really thought of myself as a woman.” Serena, in full preparation for her marriage, wholeheartedly agreed. “Maybe only now I’m beginning to be convinced of the possibility that the concept might apply to me,” she added with fine irony. I joined the amusement and declared that I knew what they meant; and that my realization that “the concept might equally apply to me” got me involved in Women’s Studies in the first place. This was the cause of more laughter: “So you have to study it to know what it means?”

In this essay, I revisit my earlier ethnographic work within Comunione e Liberazione (CL) in an attempt to unravel some of the complexities of ‘doing gender’ within a contemporary Catholic movement.[2] This revisiting takes place in the context of more recent conversations on the intersection of queer studies and religion, and with the aim of looking for “queer moments” within religious formations that are often assumed to steer away from all things queer.[3] Within the scholarly literature, CL is usually considered in terms of “traditionalism” and has regularly been included under the rubric of “fundamentalism.”[4] The latter term has been extensively critiqued and deconstructed,[5] yet its continued usage speaks to a first point of discussion that this essay engages with, that is, the symbolic usage of gender within the study of religion. The designation “fundamentalism” is indeed assumed to say something about gender relations and, vice versa, gender relations are often taken as a defining ground for what constitutes fundamentalism, that is to say, as a criterion of distinction between various religious formations. Thus the relationship between gender and fundamentalism has become somewhat tautological: gender relations in religious movements that are considered conservative or fundamentalist are assumed to take a particular—traditional or conservative—shape, while at the same time conservative gender relations are taken as a defining sign of fundamentalist religion. This tautological bind poses problems for an analytically sound demarcation of different religious tendencies, and also brings us to the limits of gender as an analytical category, as gender here tends to operate in a symbolic manner. That is to say, gender in this case operates as a boundary marker between fundamentalism and liberal secularism, rather than signaling an intricate field of power relations in need of empirical investigation. Gender relations, in other words, are readily taken as an indicator of where to situate a religious group on the theological and political spectrum, at the expense of a more careful inquiry into how gender relations are configured in a given religious environment. This symbolic function of gender tends to rely on assumptions of what ‘conservative’ and ‘progressive’ ways of doing gender are. A first stake of this essay, then, is to retrieve gender’s analytical capacity in the study of a religious movement that aims to restore an encompassing Christian life within a secular world. I do so through revisiting some of my ethnographic studies on female religious biographies, and through considering situated understandings of femininity, womanhood, and the gendering of personhood within CL.

Traditionally, the assumption goes, men and women within the Catholic Church are seen as different but equal, and as complementing each other. This understanding of complementarity as a quintessential Catholic way of doing gender does not only prevail in society at large, where it belongs to a larger set of ideas about gender and religion. Since the development of Karol Wojtyła’s theology of the body[6] since the 1970s, the Vatican appears to have high stakes in suggesting that the idea of complementarity has a longstanding history within the Church. A genealogical analysis of complementarity, however, shows it is anything but a “traditional” principle according to which gender relations in the Catholic Church have been organized for many centuries. Scholarship on early and medieval Christianity has demonstrated that the doing of gender within the Church has been complex and varied.[7] The turn to complementarity, moreover, has been exposed by Mary Anne Case as a mid-20th century innovation imported into Catholicism. At the theological level, this innovation occurred through the work of converts such as the former Protestant Dietrich von Hildebrand, while at a more pastoral and political level complementarity emerged in an attempt to reconcile commitments to separate spheres and the equality of the sexes.[8] Case diligently traces the emergence of complementarity within the Church and connects its current prevalence to the Church’s rejection of gender and demonization of “gender theory” or “gender ideology”, in response to gender mainstreaming and various other ways in which insights from gender studies have spread through different sectors of society in the second half of the twentieth century.[9] This brings me to the second stake of this essay: through a case-study of CL, I hope to make a contribution to a critical genealogy of complementarity within Catholicism, and more precisely through attending to a different approach to gender relations within the Church. This point is emphasized by a case study that does not come from progressive strands within Catholicism, including feminist and queer theologies, but rather from a movement that is understood as traditionalist and close to the Church hierarchy.

The essay concludes by engaging a third point, namely the question of how ‘queer’ this particular approach to gender is, and whether queer is an appropriate term to use in this context. This question is raised in the context of new conversations on religious studies and queerness, and queer Christianity.[10]

Against the Particularized Treatment of Souls

Comunione e Liberazione finds its origins in Northern Italy in the early 1950s, when a young priest, don Luigi Giussani, filed a request to be transferred from teaching theology at a seminary to working with high school students. His request came in the wake of a train journey that was marked by an encounter with young people whom he found disturbingly ignorant of the Christian faith, at a time when Italy was assumed to be a deeply religious society. Giussani, however, intuited that such an assumption might be faulty, and that behind a religious façade a profound process of secularization was rapidly taking place. This led him to dedicate his life to reconstructing Christian religious life in a bottom-up manner. In 1954 Giussani began working as a chaplain at the Berchet lyceum in Milan, where initially he gathered pupils within the existing structures of Azione Cattolica or Catholic Action, a lay movement that sought to encourage Catholic influence on society. Working within those structures, however, proved limited, and Giussani found the Catholic association within the lyceum to be far less organized and assertive compared to other student associations, notably the communist students.

He was particularly troubled by the sex-segregated structure of Catholic Action, with its separate chapters for boys and girls, which was characteristic for all organizing within the Church at the time. Vehemently rejecting this “particularized” treatment of souls, Giussanni considered it undermined the realization of the human condition in general, which should be the only ideal to attain.

One of the fundamental pedagogical criteria of Catholic Action was effectively the ‘personalized’ treatment in relation to sex, age, and profession. That method, which appears to me to be in perfect contradiction with the unitary character of the human experience, is not unimportant in the association’s failure. To be a woman, a man, a student or an engineer does not constitute an ideal. Only the realization of the human condition is in itself an ideal to attain; everything else is a circumstance and a particularity that only has sense when it is attached to the whole, to the fundamental problem.[11]

The human soul, Giussani insisted, is fundamentally free from any particularities, and this became one of critical pedagogical principles of the movement he initiated. With this principle came novel ways of organizing, where boys and girls would mingle, which at the time was met with disapproval from the ecclesial authorities and led to inevitable confrontations. Giussani defended “mixity” in general terms, which included not only sex but other important dividing lines in Catholic organizations at the time, such as age and profession. Yet sex became the spearhead of his quarrels with, and rejection of, a particularized treatment. No doubt because sex-segregation was so entrenched in the organizational structures of the Church at the time, and mingling boys and girls in a Catholic youth movement represented a serious transgression of prevailing boundaries. Those boundaries were further animated by the Church’s fear of sex, which, in Giussani’s view, resulted into simplistic moralism.[12] Gathering boys and girls in the same spaces and meetings, Giussani insisted, was more in accordance with the teachings of the Church than both the segregation and the moralism that characterized the organizational practices of the Catholic Church in Italy in the 1950s.

The practice of strict sex-segregated organizing in the Church at large was abandoned after the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). Giussani felt vindicated and his followers, who would only take up the name Comunione e Liberazione in 1971, considered themselves as forerunners of the Council. Within the on-going process of interpretation of the Council’s outcomes, which was particularly intense in its immediate aftermath, Giussani would position his movement as a more truthful or authentic reading of the spirit of the Council, in comparison to other post-conciliar groups and tendencies with whom the movement often found itself in confrontation.[13] The movement’s rejection of sex segregation served this positioning well, and hence played an important symbolic role. Yet more than that, the rejection reflected deeply held beliefs about the personhood among Giussani’s followers, as I came to observe during my initial fieldwork within the movement.

Pero la tua domanda e un po’ strana! Resisting the Woman Question

I first encountered the movement in 1998, while I was doing fieldwork on women and religious revivals in the Russian Federation. In 2000 I did a first longer stretch of fieldwork among young women in CL in Italy. Most of my interlocutors during this time were students, who typically lived in the movement’s student houses. Many of them were not born into the movement but encountered it during their years in high school or college. In our conversations they typically went through great length narrating how they came to know the movement and how that religious universe became attractive to them as one to which they wanted to belong. In line with the other case studies of women and religious movements pushing back against secular culture that I was investigating at the time, I was particularly interested in the gender dimension of my interlocutors’ stories, and was seeking the traces of sexual difference within our conversations. Yet more often than not I failed to find such traces in the case of CL, despite deliberate attempts to insert sexual difference in narratives that seemed to have fenced it out. Did it make a difference that you were a girl at the time? Would that have been the same for your male friends? Was it important to you that this role model was a woman?

My interlocutors did not have much to say to such questions, and the more I tried, the more the relative absence of a discourse on sexual difference became tangible. This eventually led to a moment I had hoped to avoid, i.e. to me fully laying out “the woman question.” More concretely, I would ask my interlocutors, usually at the end of an interview, what being a Catholic woman meant to them, and what it entailed to be a woman within CL. Most often the question would come out somewhat clumsily or awkwardly, and almost always interrupted the respondent’s own narrative. It also ran counter to my practice of doing ethnography, in which I prefer questions to emerge more organically in relation to what interlocutors bring to the conversation. In contrast, when it came to these young women in CL, “the woman question” looked for an elaboration on something that was not there. It interpellated the respondents in a way they resisted or were not used to. It was consistently experienced as “the difficult question,” and often not understood at first. Pero la tua domanda e un po’ strana! “Your question,” they informed me, “is a bit strange.”

Much more can be said about that strange question. Like the fact that my early attempt to explore the gender dimension of the biographies of pious women was so focused by the question of sexual difference and the assumptions upon which this focus rested. Yet it was also this focus that revealed my interlocutors’ resistance to the question of sexual difference. Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that sexual difference was absent from the lives of my interlocutors. Clearly they had been socialized in a sexually differentiated society, they identified as women, and most often presented as unambiguously feminine. Nor do I mean to suggest that the question of sexual difference was absent from the movement they belonged to. There is no doubt that CL upholds certain norms and values about gender relations and the movement belongs to the Catholic Church where discussions about sexual difference have been, and continue to be, topics of much debate, and became entrenched in theological visions and dogma. Rather, what I mean to say is that my interlocutors seemed to lack or resist an elaborate discourse on femininity, as well as the application of such discourse to one’s own personhood. There was, in other words, a significant gap between my interlocutors’ narratives about their selves and their religious belonging—that is to say, between them as religious subjects—and the language of sexual difference. And when I did push further, and wanted them to speak about sexual difference, there was a tendency to associate sexual difference with “the outside world.” Sexual difference was relevant for Italian society at large, they would argue, giving examples such as the commodification of women on national television (“Have you seen any other country in the world where women presenting TV shows are almost naked?”) or in the streets. In this vein they qualified my concern with sexual difference as a secular concern, a concern of secular society, where they perceived differences between men and women to be more pronounced than in their movement. If anything, they suggested, the movement attenuated or sheltered them from the ubiquity of sexual difference in society at large.

Pages: 1 2 All Pages

Next page

  1. I would like to thank the Women’s Studies in Religion Program at the Harvard Divinity School for funding part of the fieldwork this essay relies on, the workshop At the Intersection of Queer Studies and Religion at the Barnard Center for Research on Women for the conversations out of which this essay grew, Mary Anne Case for her thoughtful comments on an earlier draft, and the S&F Online editors for their care and patience. [Return to text]
  2. My ethnographic work with Comunione e Liberazione began in 1998, and included an extended period of fieldwork in Milan in 2000, funded by the Gender Studies program at Utrecht University. In 2013-2014, I embarked upon a new round of interviews with women in the movement, funded by the Women’s Studies in Religion Program at the Harvard Divinity School. [Return to text]
  3. I began thinking about this essay in the context of the workshop “At the Intersection of Queer Studies and Religion,” which took place at the Barnard Center for Research on Women on November 30, 2013. [Return to text]
  4. See Dario Zadro, “Comunione e Liberazione: A Fundamentalist Idea of Power,” in Accounting for Fundamentalisms: The Dynamic Character of Movements, ed. Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991); and William Dinges, “Roman Catholic Traditionalism,” in Fundamentalism Observed, ed. Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 66-101. [Return to text]
  5. See e.g. Susan Harding, “Representing Fundamentalism: The Problem of the Repugnant Cultural Other” Social Research, 58:4 (1991), 373-393; Salman Sayyid, A Fundamental Fear. Eurocentrism and the Emergence of Islamism (London: Zed Press, 1997). [Return to text]
  6. Pope John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, trans. Michael Waldstein (London: Pauline Books and Media, 2006). [Return to text]
  7. See e.g. Elizabeth Castelli, “‘I will make Mary Male’: Pieties of the Body and Gender Transformation of Christian Women in Late Antiquity” in Bodyguards: The Cultural Contexts of Gender Ambiguity, ed. Julia Epstein and Kristina Straub (New York: Routledge, 1991), 29-49; Benjamin Dunning, Specters of Paul: Sexual Difference in Early Christian Thought, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011). [Return to text]
  8. Mary Anne Case, “The Role of the Popes in the Invention of Complementarity and the Vatican’s Anathematization of Gender,” Religion & Gender 6:2 (2016). [Return to text]
  9. Valérie Piette, Sophie Van Der Dussen, and David Paternotte, Habemus Gender! Déconstruction d’une riposte religieuse (Brussels: Éditions de l’Université de Bruxelles, 2016); Sarah Bracke and David Paternotte (eds.) Religion and Gender (Habemus Gender: The Catholic Church and ‘Gender Ideology’), 6(2), (2016). [Return to text]
  10. Kathleen Talvacchia et al., ed., Queer Christianities: Lived Religion in Transgressive Forms (New York: New York University Press, 2014). [Return to text]
  11. Luigi Giussani, Le mouvement Communion et Libération: Entretiens avec Robi Ronza (Paris: Fayard, 1988). Excerpt translation by the author. [Return to text]
  12. Luigi Giussani, Le mouvement Communion et Libération: Entretiens avec Robi Ronza (Paris: Fayard, 1988). [Return to text]
  13. Salvatore Abbruzzese. Comunione e Liberazione: Identité catholique et disqualification du monde, (Paris: Éditions du CERF, 1989). [Return to text]