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)

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Sexual Difference and “Stages of Life”

This pushback against sexual difference raised many questions. Sharing some of these questions with a colleague at the Catholic University of Milan, who was also affiliated with the movement, led to a twofold response. On the theological level, she confirmed, sexual difference was indeed not relevant for CL, and this had been the case from the movement’s inception. As a sociologist, however, she insisted that the movement should be held accountable for its male hierarchy. If sexual difference does not matter to the soul, as she put it, and this is how it should be, then why are all the leaders male? And yet precisely her question, as well as her desire for more female leaders, introduces the idea of sexual difference—a question which she insists to be irrelevant, at least for what really matters. The tension she put her finger on, and which she qualified as a tension between theology and sociology, resonates with the kinds of paradoxes Joan Scott[14] identified when investigating how both accepting and refusing sexual difference in politics was constitutive to modern movements and struggles by women for the right to citizenship in France.

Of course sexual difference, and indeed the understanding of men and women taking on complementary roles, was not entirely absent from the narratives of my interlocutors. Yet references to sexual difference were characterized by two features. First, there was a tension between references to sexually differentiated roles—complementarity—on the one hand and the commitment to an undifferentiated soul on the other. These two potentially contradictory attachments were held together through what I came to understand as the crux of my interlocutors’ vision on gender and sexual difference. The point of the matter, they insisted, was that the difference represented by sexually differentiated bodies was inessential, that is to say, that this difference is not situated on the level of the self or subjectivity. In the language of my interlocutors, sexual difference did not touch upon the soul. This is precisely what sets CL’s vision on sexual difference apart from the (new) discourse on complementarity, in which womanhood (as well as manhood) acquires an essential dimension. References to complementary roles, in other words, remained in the shadow of a more ontological discourse on the unity of the soul—a unity that transgresses differences. This resonates with the early Christian idea that “being in Christ” undoes the opposition between men and women, and with the vision that sexual difference is considered as a characteristic of the fallen status of human beings. There is indeed a longstanding history in which being a pious Christian is considered to entail a transformation of commonplace gender roles.[15]

Second, references to complementarity were, to a large extent, reserved for stories of the family and married life. This also accounts for the fact that the students I was in conversation with, who had not (yet) established families of their own, spoke of complementarity in such half-hearted ways. If they hinted at complementarity, their articulations were marked by doubts and sometimes sounded like guesses. I suppose that women might be more susceptible to their emotions when making a decision, right? Their investment in discourses of womanhood, femininity, and complementarity remained low as they connected all of these to a “stage of life” they did not find themselves in. My married interlocutors, on the other hand, generally did have some interest in thinking about femininity, even if they remained committed to affirming the undifferentiated character of the soul. Sexual difference, in sum, was situated on the level of particular roles one might take up (e.g. in a marriage), but not on the level of a person’s very essence.

This distinction between the narratives of young students and married women raises the significance of “states of life” when it comes to understandings of sexual difference and constructions of femininity. In the Catholic vision that followers of the movement took very seriously, there are two “states of life”: either to get married and establish a family or to take religious vows. Students are considered to be in an undecided moment of life. This means that their life has not yet taken a more definite form, and that their time is one of discerning one’s vocation. As they move towards the end of their student years, the expectation grows that their vocation will be first discerned and then enacted. Only in the case of matrimony does sexual difference acquire some substance. The opening anecdote of this essay illustrates the point: Serena began considering that “the concept [of woman] might apply to me” as she was preparing for her wedding. Before that moment, which represents the transition from an undecided phase into one of the two accepted states of life, she simply did not feel interpellated by the category of woman. It is matrimony that introduces the interpellation of “woman” in her life, which is, from the very outset, entangled with that of “wife.” The practice of preparing for matrimony, including counseling sessions with a priest and the couple, suggests that taking up the position of woman/wife is a process of becoming that involves various kinds of preparatory labor and (spiritual) guidance. There is a certain understanding at work here that “one is not born a woman/wife,” but rather becomes one, and more specifically through a vocation.

Yet matrimony is only one of two possible “states of life” within the worldview of my interlocutors, and hence “becoming a woman/wife” as understood by Serena is not what all female members of the movement end up doing. The other state of life—religious life—offers a different matrix in which constructions of femininity and personhood take place. Religious life encompasses priesthood as well as the existing religious orders of nuns and monks within the Church, but also of new forms of religious life that emerged within CL, including a lay form of life that involves taking religious vows (Memores Domini). Sexual difference structures these forms of religious live in various ways: women do not have access to priesthood, and, in terms of living space, religious orders as well as lay religious life are organized in a sex-segregated manner. Here constructions and experiences of femininity and womanhood differ from the process of “becoming a woman” within matrimony. This is not to say that those who go on to take religious vows cease to be captured by the category “women” all together; that they would “become male” in the way Elizabeth Castelli[16] has discussed. Yet it does suggest that sexual difference operates in distinct ways in relation to different “states of life”. Thus while becoming a woman is not confined to one particular state of life (matrimony), those involved in religious life go through another kind of construction of personhood, and femininity, than in the case of matrimony.

Memores Domini are a case in point. In a more recent period of fieldwork I did within the movement, in the winter of 2014, most of my interlocutors were Memores Domini. This lay form of life includes religious vows (chastity, poverty, obedience), and combines contemplation (observing moments of prayer and silence) with an orientation to the world (pursuing professional careers). It is, moreover, centered on celibacy which, within a Catholic context, has often been seen as the paradigmatic state of Christian life.[17] Unsurprisingly, the discourse of sexual difference was rather absent from my interlocutors’ self-narratives. Yet at the same time, their lives remained haunted by sexual difference. Memores Domini live together in same-sex houses, which resonates with the tension or paradox mentioned before. This form of religious life, moreover, seems to be particularly attractive to women. Women who are called as Memores Domini go through a process of renegotiating dominant social expectations about sexuality, femininity, and motherhood, and renouncing not only sex but also marriage, motherhood, and property. This renunciation then enables women to access a level of spiritual commitment and authority that, at least to a large extent, transcends hegemonic notions of sex and gender and represents an exit from heteronormative reproduction. It has been argued, often in the context of early or medieval Christian life, that celibacy has allowed women to take up a “male” role.[18] Many of my interlocutors, however, would oppose ascribing the piety they aspire to as male, and neither would they claim this piety as female.[19] Instead, they would insist that sexual difference does not matter on the most essential level of personhood, i.e. that of the soul.

Undifferentiated Souls: A Queer Tradition?

This essay points to some of the ways in which gender is done within CL and how these ways do not align with the hegemonic binary heteronormative gender regime of society at large and is also at odds with the rise of a theology of the “complementarity of the sexes” within the Catholic Church. This non-alignment is reflected in CL’s insistence on the undifferentiated character of the soul, which runs counter prevailing discourses about sex and gender that emphasize ontological difference. The non-alignment is more pronounced in the case of religious vocations: women who take religious vows engage in constructions of femininity that exit the matrix of heteronormative reproduction.

Does all of this make my interlocutors queer? I ask this question in the context of contemporary debates on queer studies and religion, and queer Christianities.[20] My answer to this question is no. This answer is party informed by a concern with the political and descriptive limits of the notion of queer that I share with many others.[21] This concern includes, but is not limited to, the affirmation that queer does not only signal pushing against the grain or destabilizing existing categories or norms, and resisting heteronormativity, but that it also has been about doing, as Anthony Petro puts it, and much of that activity has had to do with sex. If queer becomes a purely deconstructive move, Elizabeth Freeman reminds us, it risks “evacuating the messiest thing about being queer: the actual meeting of bodies with other bodies and with objects.”[22]

This does not diminish the power and meaning of the de-essentializiation of sexual difference within CL, which might perhaps be understood as ‘queerish.’ Lynn Gerber develops queerish in her study[23] on conservative religious masculinity within the ex-gay movement, as she finds this conservative religious masculinity to differ significantly from hegemonic masculinity and uses “queerish” to mark the difference. The ex-gay movement challenges some of the strictures of hegemonic masculinity from a conservative direction, Gerber argues, in a way that expands the repertoire of legitimate gender expressions as well as allows for a considerable degree of male-male intimacy.[24] Thus “queerish” attends to the sometimes subtle ways in which gender and sexuality differ from hegemonic norms. This strikes me as a useful concept to explore various religiously informed ways of doing gender. The same-sex households of Memores Domini, with their same-sex intimacy and bonding as well as their distance from heternormative femininity and reproduction, indeed lend themselves to finding queerish moments. Moreover, given the constitutive role of sexuality and heteronormativity in the formation of gender identity, which feminist and queer theory have elaborately discussed,[25] the reconfiguration of sexuality through celibacy can be expected to impact the meaning of gender significantly, and further exploration of how this is the case might also lead to some queerish insights.

Yet more than queerish, this de-essentialization of sexual difference is very much aligned with older (early and medieval) traditions of Christianity. And this alignment, in contrast to queer and queerish, is also a genealogy that would make sense to my interlocutors, as a way of situating and understanding themselves. The kinds of gender relations that CL enacts effectively rely upon a longer tradition of an undifferentiated soul, which, in Giussani’s view, provides a much better ground to reconstruct Christian faith than the sex segregation and sexual moralism he associates with the modern world. We might argue that it is not the kind of pushback against sexual difference that can be found within CL that needs to be accounted for, but rather the recent invention of the complementarity of the sexes within the Catholic Church.

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  1. Joan Scott, Only Paradoxes to Offer: French Feminists and the Rights of Man (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996). [Return to text]
  2. 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), 29-30. [Return to text]
  3. Elizabeth Castelli, “‘I will make Mary Male’: Pieties of the Body and Gender Transformation of Christian Women in Late Antiquity,” 29-49. [Return to text]
  4. Kathleen Talvacchia et al., ed., Queer Christianities: Lived Religion in Transgressive Forms. (New York: New York University Press, 2014). [Return to text]
  5. Elizabeth Castelli, “‘I will make Mary Male’: Pieties of the Body and Gender Transformation of Christian Women in Late Antiquity”; Kathleen Talvacchia et al., ed., Queer Christianities: Lived Religion in Transgressive Forms. (New York: New York University Press, 2014). See also early feminist discussions about saints within the Church, like Simone de Beauvoir’s commentary on Teresa of Avila (Le deuxième sexe, [Paris: Gallimard, 1949]) as well as Luce Irigaray’s discussion about female saints (Spéculum de l’autre femme, [Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1974]). [Return to text]
  6. Some interlocutors had an elaborate critique of movements or forms of spirituality focused on femininity. A specific target of this critique was the Focolare movement, which has a similar context of emergence as CL (mid 20th century, Italy), but was founded by a woman and the statutes of the movement stipulate that the leader of the movement has to be a woman. [Return to text]
  7. Kathleen Talvacchia et al., ed., Queer Christianities: Lived Religion in Transgressive Forms. [Return to text]
  8. Anthony Petro, “Celibate Politics. Queering the Limits” in Queer Christianities: Lived Religion in Transgressive Forms, ed. Kathleen Talvacchia et al, (New York: New York University Press, 2014). [Return to text]
  9. Ibid, 41. [Return to text]
  10. Lynn Gerber, “Grit, Guts, and Vanilla Beans: Godly Masculinity in the Ex-Gay Movement,” Gender and Society, 29 (2015): 26-50. [Return to text]
  11. Ibid. [Return to text]
  12. See Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990). [Return to text]