Modesty and Muslims; Shining Through Media

Christian Feminists Ponder an Imam's Comments

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By Catherine Smibert

ROME, NOV. 9, 2006 (Zenit.org).- Another recent episode in the Muslim world has ricocheted around the world and found itself at the heart of yet another debate here in Rome.

The discussions surfaced when Australia's most senior Muslim cleric blamed immodestly dressed women who don't wear Islamic headdress for being preyed on by men. He likened them to abandoned "meat" that attracts voracious animals.

Sheik Taj Din al-Hilali's comments followed a series of rapes and brutal attacks on women by a group of young Lebanese men in Australia.

Yet, while Muslim women leaders expressed outrage at the Ramadan sermon, some secular feminist groups shrugged it off saying the imam was "entitled to his beliefs." Some Christian groups even went so far as to say that, on the issue of "modesty," the sheik had a point.

Catholic academic women in Rome, while not opposed to the ideal of modesty, told me this attitude of blaming women for any violence committed against them is a far cry from what true Christian feminism should be. They encouraged us to return to the teachings of Pope John Paul II for a deeper response.

Erica Laethem composed the introductory text for the Endow organization's study guide to John Paul II's 1995 Letter to Women. She is completing a master's in bioethics at one of Rome's pontifical athenaeums.

She says that, in light of the recent controversy, the Pope's words from 1995 still ring out with remarkable relevance.

"Here, John Paul II wrote that women's dignity has often been unacknowledged and their prerogatives misrepresented; they have often been relegated to the margins of society and even reduced to servitude," Laethem explained. "The Pope adds that this has prevented women from truly being themselves and it has resulted in a spiritual impoverishment of humanity."

Laethem says it boils down to a bigger issue than "modesty." It hinges on others -- in this case, some men taking responsibility for their actions and for perceiving women as mere objects of pleasure.

Cristina Zucconi Galli Fonseca, the president of the Institute for Women's Studies at the Regina Apostolorum university in Rome, clarifies this stance. She says here that from the standpoint of Christian anthropology, as depicted in Genesis, people are all too often reduced to objects to be used.

"The original relationship between the first couple was one of mutual trust and self-giving," says Zucconi. "It was free from shame -- even in nakedness -- and free from lust. Therefore, it was only after the fall that Adam and Eve felt shame of their bodies, and they hid from God."

Zucconi insists that we must avoid the temptation to place the burden entirely on the woman, as Adam tried to do with the excuse: "She made me do it."

"When it comes to setting women free from every kind of exploitation and domination," the professor says, "the Gospel contains an ever relevant message which goes back to the attitude of Jesus Christ himself."

Erica Laethem adds: "Jesus transcended the established norms of his own culture. In this way he honored the dignity which women have always possessed according to God's plan and in his love."

Accordingly, Laethem highlights a passage from Part 5 of the Letter to Women: "The time has come to condemn vigorously the types of sexual violence which frequently have women for their object and to pass laws which effectively defend them from such violence."

The Catholic Church teaches that women bring to the world an array of gifts that are complementary to men and are capable of exposing the contradictions of a society organized solely according to the criteria of efficiency and productivity.

Laethem echoes the words of John Paul II when she explains: "Woman brings to all spheres of society her capacity to humanize, or her 'feminine genius,' and in doing so, plays a vital role in calling the world back to a 'civilization of love' which never reduces persons to objects."

For a good commentary on modesty, check out the Endow site at www.endowonline.com.

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Lights, Camera, Gospel!

Just around the corner from St. Peter's Basilica, the studios of Shineout have their cameras constantly poised for action.

Born four years ago, this production company was the fruit of recognizing what "sells" in the secular world and adapting the Church's message to this style.

The company seeks to present the Good News message with a three-phase approach that is achieving much international success.

Manuel De Teffé, the founding director of Shineout, outlined these phases for me.

"Our great passion lies in the power of the music video clip," said the 34-year-old Roman. "Many youth today would prefer to watch MTV than anything else because there they find instant messages presented in aesthetically appealing contexts."

By using similar graphic techniques, Shineout's music videos have launched contemporary Christian artists in the mainstream world, from Italy to the United States, and from Lebanon to Brazil. In some countries the pieces are even formatted to be received via cellphones.

"The musicians are many, come from different cultures and have different styles but share the same focus: that of the New Evangelization through music and media," said De Teffé. "It gives visibility to a relatively unknown wealth of Christian contemporary music."

Shineout also uses its approach in the field of documentaries. Rhythm and images are intertwined with testimony in the company's coverage of such events as World Youth Day 2005, in a work entitled "B16." Or there is "Canonizacion," about the canonization of Opus Dei founder St. José Maria Escrivá.

The company also utilizes the traditional 30-second publicity spot format to present the Gospel message and Church activities in a powerful way. New technologies with good-quality music, modern camera work and lighting enhance the productions.

The work of Shineout has attracted the attention of ecclesiastical institutions such as the Pontifical Council for the Laity, "Cor Unum" and Aid to the Church in Need.

Shineout is also concentrating on a series of fast-paced Gospel reflections tailored to the internet to "counteract the disastrous effects of other, much less wholesome images available there," adds De Teffé.

The Italian director invites all dioceses globally to invest financially in innovative Catholic Internet projects.

"The Web is a fertile field to lay seeds of the hope, joy and truth of the Resurrection," he said. "So it is our responsibility for us as a Church to make it a pastoral priority to invade all TV and Internet space with the spellbinding magnificence of his eternal Word."

The director concluded saying: "It's just a practical application of what our late Pope John Paul II told us to do in his letter to the artists when he told us to evangelize through beauty -- the door to which the truth can be seen."

Shineout can be reached at info@shineout.net.

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An Encyclical's Anglican Champion

At a recent event in Rome a prominent promoter of the market economy rooted in faith-based values underlined the vital importance of Pope John Paul II's encyclical "Centesimus Annus."

The interesting thing was that he wasn't your average Catholic thinker, but rather, an Anglican businessman.

Before his presentation on "Globalization, Centesimus Annus and International Development," at the event organized by the Acton Institute, Lord Brian Griffiths told me how Catholic social thought has had a great impact on him personally.

When he was advising then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, he says, "it was a frame of reference for me -- a way of thinking about social, economic and political problems which I think is profound."

This vice chairman of Goldman Sachs International recognized how "Centesimus Annus" arrived just in time for the tide of a major new development: the collapse of communism. Two subsequent developments -- the growth of globalization and the scandal of world poverty -- mean that the encyclical is as relevant as ever, Griffiths believes.

"Today," he warns, "the great danger, from a Christian point of view, is that the whole debate on globalization is seen almost entirely in secular terms.

"The debate is conducted merely based on money, foreign aid, and is about trade liberalization … but we know as Christians that the heart of life is fundamentally spiritual."

Here Griffiths encourages all to turn, interestingly, to Catholic apologetics where we "can discover that the true challenge is, how we as Christians express our concern as Jesus did, for the poor or others."

Such trepidation must go beyond what governmental or nongovernmental agencies do, he adds: Work for the poor must transmit something of the spirit of Christ.

For this Anglican, the Catholic response "is the most relevant to our current economic challenges."

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Catherine Smibert can be reached at catherine@zenit.org.