THE BLOG
12/29/2014 02:46 pm ET Updated Feb 28, 2015

"Sextremism" at the Vatican

The day after Christmas, "sextremism" came to the Vatican.

Topless FEMEN activist Iana Aleksandrovna Azhdanova
was arrested by Vatican police as she carried off the Christ child from a nativity scene at St. Peter's Square.

Surely, some people might say that Iana Azhdanova got what's coming to her since, as Papal spokesman Fredrico Lombardi pointed out, she did "offend the religious sentiments of a very large number of people." Just as surely, some might praise her for an audacious effort to protest patriarchy where patriarchy seems most at home.

But I wonder if we can get something a little more complex and interesting from reflecting on the whole incident beyond simply reaffirming our own preexisting propensity to either condemn or congratulate.

As FEMEN's website, and other news sources have noted, the protest in St. Peter's Square was part of larger anticlerical "Massacre of the Innocents" project that criticizes the "centuries-old Vatican stance on women's rights for [her] own body and reproductive function."

As part of the protest, Iana Azhdanova wrote "God is woman" on her chest.

Being topless at the Vatican might not seem so radical if judged against the background of centuries-old Catholic artwork. After all, for Catholics, the body is sacred. While Catholicism does have a well-deserved reputation for being rather proscriptive about sexuality -- and Catholic theologians have been censured for not using appropriately gendered imagery when referring to God -- the characterization of Catholicism as patriarchal by no means exhausts what can be said about Catholic spirituality and the way it uses gendered imagery.

For example, as historian Caroline Walker Bynum has discussed, the Catholic Church herself was often envisioned as a lactating mother, perhaps most famously by Bernard of Clairvaux. The painting "Christ Enthroned" by Quirizio di Giovanni da Murano shows a feminine Christ exposing his breast as he offers a nun a consecrated Eucharistic host. God might not be female, exactly, but God's nature can and does find expression through characteristics conventionally understood as female.

Of course, the reverse is also true: women sharing characteristics of Christ. The phenomenon of the stigmata -- the wounds of Christ -- was first identified with St. Francis of Assisi, but over the ensuing centuries it has been women primarily who have claimed these special signs of union with Jesus's crucified body. One can certainly identify resistance to patriarchy in the dynamics of this spirituality, but it is also clear that within Catholicism as it is lived, notions of gender can be fluid as often as they are restrictive.

But FEMEN's "sextremism" is primarily directed against what its activists might call Vatican "sextremism" when it comes to birth control and abortion. In explaining the necessity of radical forms of protest, FEMEN charts out a trajectory in which the original autonomy of the female body became more and more circumscribed by the permutations of patriarchy. In this view, constraints on women's reproductive freedom give strength to other more overt kinds of control over women's bodies, such as the sex trade.

What's interesting is that some would defend traditional Catholic understandings of sexuality and reproduction precisely because they take such a strong stand against the exploitation of the body. This stand against exploitation informs not just Catholic opposition to sex trafficking-or torture-but also the Church's position against certain reproductive technologies. Indeed, an argument can be made that some Western technologies of the body actually commodify human life as much as they seek to liberate it. In making such arguments, the Catholic church -- like FEMEN -- draws upon particular understandings of "nature" and "naturalness."

To most observers, the real issue FEMEN protests raise is about how political expression relates to religious expression. Is it ethical to violate what others find sacred? Given its widely publicized "Topless Jihad," FEMEN is at least consistently offensive across the religious spectrum.

But perhaps the more interesting question is how profound political and ethical differences find expression in and through a debate over the human body. If Catholic bishops and FEMEN activists were ever to have a sit down -- at a neutral location with clear ground rules -- they might find they have a lot to talk about if they could ever get beyond how much they mutually offend each other.