This isn’t a religion blog, so we aren’t following the papal election at the Vatican very closely. But this statement by an ABC news-commentator has come to our attention (thanks to The Anchoress and North Shore Politics):

“What our viewers will notice is that, among these 115 cardinals, who are wearing what looks like women’s garb, that there are no women. That is something the next pope is going to have to address.”

This is a favorite liberal-elite meme: Roman Catholic clerics wear “dresses,” so there must be something wrong with them. Of course any historian of costume–not to mention anyone with a set of two working eyes–could tell you that the long robes that Catholic clerics (and many Protestant ministers, rabbis, imams, Buddhist monks, etc.) wear on solemn religious occasions hardly constitute “women’s garb.”

From the Roman toga to the Scottish kilt to the Bedouin’s djellaba to the samurai warrior’s kimono, men’s dress throughout centuries of history could be said by the folks at ABC to “look like” women’s wear, at least to the grossly ignorant. No one accuses Supreme Court justices on the bench or college presidents in their doctoral gowns of dressing up in women’s clothes. I’ve never heard the saffron-clad Dalai Lama described as a guy in drag. That’s an insult that our liberal betters level at Catholic clerics, and Catholic clerics alone–because the Catholic Church has some rules that the media elite doesn’t like: a ban on female priests and an even bigger ban on the let-it-all-hang-out sexual activity so dear to the ideological hearts of intellectuals.

But what puzzles me is that if you’re politically correct like ABC, aren’t you supposed to approve of men wearing dresses? Aren’t we, as good ideologues, supposed to be erasing gender differences in clothing? I did a bit of googling, and here’s what I found on one guys-in-skirts website

“The male in jacket and trousers, the female in long full skirt, are strictly Western concepts successively adopted on a broad scale around the globe. But today we are moving toward a multiracial and multicultural society. And so people in the West as well are beginning to tune into the models of other cultures, those where sexual identities are less pronounced in regard to clothes, where men can wear long skirts and dresses in the most natural of ways.”

And here’s another:

“Hippies freely adorned themselves with beads, flowers, headbands, jewelry, hats and colorful clothes like vests and bell-bottoms that did not adhere to specific or traditional expressions of gender. Since both hippie males and females used clothes to express a non-prescriptive sense of self it subverted the gender stereotype that men look and women appear. Their use of ethnic dress identified their belief in diversity as well as their association with the spirituality and vegetarianism of India and the philosophical and spiritual practices of Native Americans. Both sexes wore kaftans and African dashikis that also served to blur Western gender notions and contribute to the idea of unisex clothing.”

And here’s the word from one of those “baby-wearing” websites. (For the uninitiated, “wearing your baby” is one of those new earth-first mothering fads like having all your kids sleep in bed with you and your husband every night: Instead of buying a stroller for your infant, you get a big sling and carry the kid strapped to your bosom 24/7 while you try to get your work done. To bear the ever-increasing tonnage of Little Junior as he advances in years, you need a pair of shoes that look like this.) Honest–I’m quoting this Q&A from the site verbatim:

“Q. What if your 5 year old boy wants a skirt and you have a limited clothing budget and realistically you know he won’t get lots of use out of it.

“A: I hear this from so many moms–that their sons want to wear a dress. My brother did, too, and at age four would steal my favorite party dress (it had Pooh Bear holding balloons all over it). Who can blame a boy for wanting to cross-dress? Dresses are so much prettier than boring old pants. And the way they spin out when you twirl, what can beat that? Another little boy I know loved to play Cinderella. Everyday Tim would get an old blue negligee of his mother’s and pretend to go to the ball; it made his father very nervous. I’m sure there are some boys who also like to wear skirts because it gets such a rise out of the grown-ups around him. My sister dressed my little brother up in her cheerleader outfit and when laughter and shouts ensued, he trotted back to her room to slip into her pink bikini. Unfortunately, we didn’t get pictures.

“Sometimes I think cross-dressing boys are being mini-social activists. We applaud daughters when they say, ‘Hey, all the firefighters in this book are men! When I grow up, I’m going to be a fire fighter and show ’em that girls can do it, too!’ But when our sons say, ‘Hey, it isn’t fair that only girls get to wear skirts; I want a dress, too!’ I can pretty much guarantee that his grandparents won’t be bragging to their friends about it.

“That said (basically, that it’s normal and may even laudable for your son to want to wear a dress which I think you know and agree with)….”  
So I ask: Isn’t there some kind of double standard at work here? Boy puts on a negligee, and a right-thinking feminist mother applauds. Catholic cardinal puts on a traditional cassock, and he’s fair game for sneers from ABC. What’s going on?

I think that you, dear InkWell readers, know the answer to that one.

Update: Premier Catholic blogger Amy Welborn e-mails to say that the ABC commentator in question wasn’t just any old staff newsie but the Rev. Richard McBrien, Catholic priest and famously “progressive” (i.e. anti-papal) theology professor at the University of Notre Dame. McBrien’s written an entire encyclopedia about Catholicism, so you’d think he’d know something about the history of Catholic clerical garb–but hey, why let a little hard information get in the way of a few licks at church rules?