Men and women in family, society and politics
The Letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to the
World Episcopate on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church
and in the World underlines the equality in human dignity and yet
the fundamental difference between the sexes.
Man and woman are equal in human dignity and personhood, yet
different in a much more profound sense than merely the biological;
"their equal dignity as persons is realized as a physical, psychological
and ontological complementarity" (n. 8).
Their equality is therefore fundamental as persons, but their
difference is also fundamental. It is not only physical, but also
What is the feminine?
This Christian anthropology of the sexes is far more profound than
the simple biological reductionism advanced by some of the social
constructivism asserted by many. It provides the answer to the pilot's
question of where to steer between the Scylla of biological determinism
and the Charybdis of contemporary pervasive constructivism.
Thus, Christians and non-Christians as well ought to study the rich
and deep anthropology of the sexes in Catholicism in order to find
solutions to pressing problems in the areas of family and women's
The analysis presented by this Letter is something novel and
promising in a world where biology has often been given too much
women are seen merely as child-bearers, as is still the case in many
cultures even today
and where also the constructed nature of certain sex roles has been
overemphasized, making the differences between the sexes insignificant,
a mere "social construct". This latter ideology is a major problem in
the West today.
In Catholic anthropology, the sexes complement each other, not
only in a biological sense, but in the totality of life. Thus, parents
are not only biologically father and mother, but are different and
complementary in a profound sense for their children.
This point is missed completely by those who are only able to point
to biology as the difference, and it is denied by the social
constructivists who would argue that motherhood and fatherhood are
merely social roles that can be deconstructed and, for this reason, have
no importance for the life of the child. This latter argument is used by
homosexual lobbies in order to redefine the family; they are often
successful because fewer and fewer people seem to understand how and why
the sexes differ.
Even more fundamentally, the relationship between the sexes
and indeed Christian life itself
is aimed at one thing only: the imitation of Christ through
self-giving and service to others. This ideal, of course, may
not be realized much of the time. In actual fact, relationships are
often marked by power struggles and conflicts, and yet the Church
teaches that these can be overcome and the ideal therefore remains the
Moreover, women's special capacity for self-giving in pregnancy,
child-birth and care for the infant is held up as indicative of women's
particular capacity for self-giving, which is the essence of the
feminine itself. It is also the exemplar of true Christian behaviour.
Therefore, the startling implication of Catholic teaching on the
feminine is that women have a special ability to "humanize" the family,
and society and politics as well, provided that such self-giving
actually takes place. If a woman is able to live this self-giving, this
way of living which looks to the good of the other, she will influence
society to the maximum extent, and men should look to her in order to
imitate her way of "other-regarding" love.
While both sexes share in the Christian capacity for self-giving
love, the Church emphasizes that women have this ability in a specific
way because of motherhood. And motherhood is not only physical.
When a woman truly lives her Christian vocation, this will mean that
she occupies a privileged place in the Church, in family and in society.
The Letter's analysis on this point should be required reading for all
those who think that women have a lesser place than men in Christianity.
It is in fact a woman, Mary, who is the supreme model of Christian life.
The paradox for modern man is, of course, that Christian power is
equal to service. When the reflection about women's role in Church and
society starts from the assumption that power is domination, the
analysis falters. I will return below to the implications of this point
What are the implications of this anthropology for the family, work
life and politics?
Situation of women today
The perspective of history shows us that women are today in an
unprecedented situation, at least in the West, but increasingly so all
over the globe. They are educated and have professions outside the home.
The Catholic Church has always, from the very beginning of the school
system in Europe, placed major emphasis on the education of girls and
women. Today, the Church is one of the foremost educators also in the
From the very beginning, Christianity made women and men equal in an
unprecedented way, in comparison with Jewish and Roman society.
Education is the major force of change in traditional sex-role patterns.
The entry of women into all professions in society and into political
roles is truly new and truly revolutionary.
The dates when women received the right to vote remind us of how
recently it was that women achieved equal political rights, and how this
was accomplished in the face of much suspicion and resistance.
The Finns granted suffrage to women in 1906 as the first State,
Norway in 1913, while a major country like France did so only in 1946
and the Swiss Canton of Appenzell in 1986.
The same picture holds true for many professions, to which women have
been admitted only in recent decades.
Yet today women are politicians and professionals in all fields, and
the majority of students in many universities today are women.
Yet women are very often discriminated against both in competing for
jobs and in keeping them, since the standards are set by men, and men
provide the only role models.
In addition, women are unable to combine having children with having
a career outside the home. They are in fact often forced to choose
between motherhood and their other work.
Finally, those who wish to choose the profession of working within the
home are unable to exercise this option because of taxation policies
which force both parents to work outside the home. This is the case in
most European countries.
The problems facing women in the developing world are worse. Here
women are responsible not only for their own family, but for whole
communities as well, in an endless work day, often amid poverty and
deprivation. "If one educates a woman, one educates a village", as a
saying from Africa explains.
Thus, the Church puts major efforts into the education of women. Yet
generalized problems of poverty and health remain, and Sub-Saharan
nations are "forgotten" in the world economy.
First Principles: Catholic feminism
I used the term "Catholic feminism" here in order to underline the
difference between this model and the common "equality model" of
feminism discussed below. However, it is a term that is not strictly
correct because there is no such thing as a separate Catholic feminism,
nor should there be.
Catholics do not have special political programmes for women: what is
Catholic is what is universal, however disputed that may be.
Furthermore, there is no reason to single out women and make an
ideology called feminism for them alone. We speak about women and
men and their cooperation and difference, not only about women.
Thus, my terminology is not very good, but it serves a didactic
What does the Letter advise about the practical and political
implications of a Catholic, a "new" feminism? The implications of its
anthropology are radical.
As stated, women should be able to choose to work full time within
the family; women should not be forced to choose between a professional
job outside the home and having children; and finally, the family comes
first in the order of importance: society and politics are the result of
the work done within the family, so to speak.
This turns the usual power-based analysis upside-down, and emphasizes
the auxiliary role of the State and of society in accordance with the
principle of subsidiarity.
The family is not a "client" of the State. Rather, the State and
society depend upon the family and its work to bring up morally sound
Are women and men to be treated equally or unequally?
The Letter is very clear on the fact that women and men are
different, and women must therefore not be treated as if they were men.
This is a radical point.
Most feminism of the 1970s, far advanced as a political project in my
native Scandinavia, worked on the equal treatment assumption. But
discrimination occurs not only when like entities are treated in
unequal ways, but when unlike entities are treated in the same
Contemporary policies for men and women's roles often treat men and
women in exactly the same manner
and this is called equality!
Such policies have certainly led to many advances for women in work
life, but the major issue of their difference has not been properly
taken into account. Women have been allowed to imitate men. But women
have failed to achieve policies which really take motherhood into
account and which reflect the fact that women, if they are true to the
Christian ideal of service, work and exercise leadership in a way
different from men.
By this I mean that any woman can imitate an aggressive leadership style
if that is what is desired in a corporation, but women do not like to
have to behave like this. It is usually very difficult for a woman
leader to be respected as authoritative on her own, female terms. Yet it
happens, with experience and education.
The point here is that women should not have to imitate men, because
they are not men. Their femininity is not only motherhood, but is much
more than that.
Equality feminism: pervasive model
Scandinavian feminism, the foremost example of this equality
tradition, has rightly opened the way for women in all professions
outside the home and in political life, but has at the same time made it
impossible for women (and men, for that matter) to work within the home,
with children and with housework. The political project has been very
much a matter of ensuring that women are not discriminated against in
work life, but there has also been an ideological attempt to abolish the
traditional housewife and the "patriarchal" family structure.
Thus, while one enjoys a full year of paid maternity leave (and some
weeks of compulsory and paid paternity leave), the tax system does not
take the family unit into consideration, but only individual incomes,
making it rather impossible for one spouse to work within the home.
The conditions for motherhood are thus excellent until the child is 1
year old. After this, the only viable "solution" is to place him or her
in day care, in Kindergarten.
When the Christian-Democrats introduced a payment to those parents
who wanted to stay at home with a child (usually the mother), a payment
equal to the amount expended by the State for the child in the
Kindergarten, the outcry from the Socialists was strong: "Women are
being forced back into the 'housewife role'! Feminism is being
The fact that many mothers actually want to stay at home with their
small children was and is unacceptable.
This model of feminism is clearly deficient, even though it is
pervasive as a model for the Western world, especially in Europe. The
ideas and trends that come from Scandinavia in this respect are
The Letter refers to attitudes as the main obstacle to
achieving the right kind of cooperation between men and women in
contemporary society. This is an important point: trends, mentalities,
common assumptions dictate much, also in terms of policies.
In Europe these attitudes are very much against those who wish to
work within the family for the time being. Indeed, they are against the
family as a concept itself.
The steep decline in birth rates in Europe is an alarming fact which
is only now receiving the attention from policy makers. The attention
given has thus far not been sufficient to be effective.
The family is not only contested in its natural identity by
homosexual groups which are achieving "family rights" in country after
country, but has been viewed as a repressive and "bourgeois" institution
by most brands of feminist thought.
The most disdained person in such a family is naturally the
housewife, who does not claim her "rights" to a life outside the home
but who serves the other family members with her daily work.
To "liberate" women from the housewife's work and to give importance
and value exclusively to work done outside the home were key themes of
the feminist movement of the 1970s. In this context, the trends which
are significant are two: individuals have rights, with the
consequence that the family as a unit recedes radically in importance,
and the only work that counts and has any status is that which
The individualist trend is extremely pervasive, and ultimately
implies that the family is no longer relevant as a political or legal
To give one example, there is a major difference between the United
Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, which lays down
that "the family is the natural and fundamental unit of society", and
the rights-based individualism which claims the right to have children
(a non-existent human right: only children have a right to have
parents). The rights-based argumentation of modern politics is also now
the model for family and feminist policies. But if all that can exist
are individual rights (with no duties), then the family must break down.
This kind of rights-language goes hand in hand with the power-analysis
of feminism. The family and its work count for nothing in the hierarchy
of power. Working in the family brings no money and no power, but is
"only" a service to others.
What matters for women is to have at least 50 percent of all
important positions in society, including politics. Quota systems are
sometimes introduced to achieve this aim. The political focus is then
only on the spheres of politics and professional work done outside
The life of the family is not really relevant in the power-analysis,
for at best it hinders women from realizing their talents. Having
children becomes a liability for her as she competes with men for
desirable work positions. Employers even ask her whether she has
children, plans to have them and how many, while men are never asked
Recently, however, parents, that is, both fathers and mothers, have
shown increasing interest in balancing work and family life. They are
rediscovering the importance of having enough time and energy for their
children and for each other.
Family policies in some countries allow for flexible work hours,
especially for mothers with small children, and for "life-phase"
planning so that one works less (true also for the father) when the
children are small.
Yet it remains a fact that the point of departure here is the work
situation, and not the family as such. The family becomes a "problem"
that must be dealt with in order to have happy employees.
In sum, through the lens of power and a mistaken view of equality
that men and women are the same
children and family become obstacles to women's self-fulfilment. This
obstacle can be dealt with through various policies, but it represents
an entirely "negative" view of the woman. She is, so to speak, a man
In this model, the male remains the model for both professional work
and politics, and his family and fatherly obligations are never counted.
The fact that women become pregnant, give birth and nurse, and that
they by nature take care of the infant, all of this becomes a liability
to their full "equality" and must be remedied to the extent possible.
This model of feminism is premised on the male model for women: we
may imitate a male work life and a male political life, where all that
can be hoped for is a parity between the sexes. The underlying logic is
one of power: women should have equal access and equal privileges.
'Catholic feminism': implications
Against the "equality model", a "Catholic feminism" relies on very
First, the ideal driving force for human work is service to others. This
is supremely important because it means that the powerful positions in
the world are not always those that are seen as such, a startling idea
for most people.
Second, women are not equal to men apart from the equality of their
personhood. They are, as mentioned above, different from men in more
ways than simple biology.
Mother and father are not replaceable or interchangeable; they are
complementary. This means that the mother's work with children is of a
very special importance, especially when they are small. The father's
complementary position regarding children is also deeply important, but
the mother is the key person for the very small child.
In whatever way the spouses divide between them housework and taking
care of their children, it remains true that this work is of the utmost
importance not only to the children, but to society as well.
The service to others that parents show their children, and which the
children in turn learn, is the reason the family comes first in the
order of importance. It is why the family is vitally important for the
other spheres of life.
It is within the family that one is loved unconditionally, perhaps
only there. It is therefore within the family that love is taught.
The service of politics, for example (the word minister means
servant), can only be "replicated" when one has learned to love in a
self-giving way. Otherwise political service becomes the search for
political power, as is so often the case.
The sharp difference between service and power illustrates the point
of radical difference between a Catholic feminism and current feminist
The family is of key importance. It is not an aggregation of
individual preferences, but an organic unity, the fundamental and
natural unit of society, as all the major human-rights documents affirm.
Spouses have no right to have children, either individually or as a
couple, but if they have children, these children in turn have the right
to know and to be raised by their biological parents, as the Convention
on the Rights of the Child states.
Moreover, mother and child are entitled to special protection by the
State, again according to the United Nations' Universal Declaration of
Human Rights. The State is also obliged to support and privilege the
The classic human-rights texts sum up much of what a Catholic
feminism implies: the family is recognized for its pre-eminent worth to
the State and society, and motherhood is emphasized in the same manner.
The family is protected from State interference while being the object
of special support from the State. Most importantly, the family is
designated as the fundamental unit of society.
Contemporary feminist policies are at best tolerant of the existence
of the family, at worst they are at war with it.
But no feminist model exists
apart from the Catholic one
in which the family is the fundamental unit of society, coming first in
the order of importance, before society and politics.
As I have pointed out, the "balancing" of work life and family life
at best puts these two spheres of life on the same level, thereby
overlooking the pre-eminent importance of the family.
But if it all depends on the family
good citizens, good employers, the very moral fibre of society and
this surely cannot be right.
The appreciation of the key role of motherhood is only possible if
the family is recognized as, literally speaking, the "fundamental unit"
of society, as its building block. But this is very far from the
case in Western politics today.
When the Norwegian Christian-Democrats suggested quantifying the cost
of a 50 percent divorce rate in terms of the illnesses and other costs
resulting from broken homes, they were immediately accused of
discriminating against and scapegoating divorced people: were they any
less important to the well-being of society than those who stay married?
Could anyone say that their children were less happy and harmonious?
Thus, the current neutrality of most Western States regarding the
their reticence to affirm that family is indeed what the United Nations
declaration tells us it is
means that the family as a concept disappears more and more as a
politically and legally relevant category.
A Catholic feminism, however, has as its core principle that the
family is first in the order of personal and societal importance.
Therefore, the work of having children and raising them is unequalled.
Mothers come first in doing this work when the children are very
small. Fathers have another but equally important role.
Fortunately, in modern family and work life the role of fathers at
home with children is taken more and more and more into account. Fathers
today want be with their children to a far greater extent than what was
traditionally the case. Work hours need to be compatible with family
life. One cannot work late every evening and be a parent.
Another assumption of a Catholic feminism relates to the power
versus service concepts. This implies that work done well is not
only done well in a professional sense, but also in an intentional
sense. The "success" of work relates to its substance in the Christian
To serve others is nobler and more Christian than to serve one's own
interests. In this respect, a Catholic feminism differs completely from
current feminist thought.
It is also clear that work-as-service makes work in the family
something extremely valuable and important. Seen thus, work is more than
just the tasks undertaken, it is also cooperation and association with
others. With education, women are in all professions, and should be
In this short article, I have only been able to touch on some points
which give an outline of a different kind of "feminism", one based on
Catholic anthropology. It has often struck me that most current
commentary and critique regarding the role of women in the Catholic
Church commits the very same fallacy as the feminist critique of the
family. When the analysis is based on power-assumptions, it is bound to
The difficulty and the challenge for a Catholic is precisely in
accepting and living out the demand for self-giving love, and to
understand that this is the kind of power Our Lord spoke of and taught.
This demand is naturally the same for both sexes, and sexual
difference has no bearing on the need to understand this and live
Yet, as the Letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
makes clear, women are at a particular advantage in doing this, being
privileged to give life through birth and to care for the completely