COMMENTARY ON THE CDF DOCUMENT:
RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN MEN AND WOMEN
The title of the new Letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of
the Faith identifies its concern: to promote "collaboration" between men
and women in the Church and in the world. Although the Congregation
addresses the Bishops of the Catholic Church, it expresses the hope that
these reflections will be the starting point of a dialogue on this
topic, not only within the Church but also with all men and women of
The content of the Letter, however, reveals a still more specific
concern, namely, the deleterious influence of certain contemporary
"currents of thought" on the authentic promotion of women. The
Congregation proceeds by describing the theories regarded as
problematic; setting out the chief elements of the biblical vision of
the human person, male and female; and then indicating how this
alternative vision might inspire generous collaboration in society and
in the Church.
Two currents of contemporary feminist thought
The Letter identifies two currents of contemporary feminist thought.
First, there is the view that the relationship between man and woman
is inherently adversarial. Those who hold this view acknowledge the
complementarity of the sexes, but they are convinced that "difference"
always entails some sort of hierarchical ordering, some measure of
Since women, historically, have suffered from the abuse of power on
the part of men, they encourage women to rectify the situation by
competing with men
in what amounts to a
to gain a share in the power.
Second, there is the theory, sometimes called "gender feminism",
which calls into question the value
and sometimes even the fact
of the difference between man and woman. This rejection of the "binary
gender system", in favour of a polymorphous sexuality detached from the
concrete structures of the body, represents another, more radical,
response to "sexism".
Having agreed that the difference between the sexes is the source of
discord, gender feminism proposes to eliminate the discord by
eliminating the difference. It relegates physical sex to the realm of
biology and explains "gender" as the socially-constructed definition,
varying from one culture and one era to another, of appropriate
masculine or feminine social roles (cf. The Pontifical Council for the
Family, Family, Marriage and "De Facto" Unions, 26 July 2000, n.
Gender feminism purports to "liberate" women from discrimination
based on sex by denying that sexual complementarity has a solid basis in
human nature and bodiliness. For the sake of freeing women from
biologically-imposed roles, this solution both discounts the special
contributions of women, especially mothers, and destabilizes the family
as a social institution.
By divorcing gender from biological sex, it also provides logical and
theoretical support for regarding homosexual partnerships as the
equivalent of marriage. The concrete implications of this erroneous view
were starkly revealed at the recent United Nations-sponsored meetings in
Cairo (on Population and Development) and Beijing (Fourth World
Conference on Women) (cf. Dale O'Leary, The Gender Agenda: Redefining
Equality, Lafayette, LA: Vital Issues Press, 1997). Both theories,
in fact, deal women a new blow in their identity as women even as they
propose to affirm women's dignity as persons.
The meaning and value of sexual difference
Virtually these same currents of thought have been adopted by
Catholic feminists and feminist theologians; as a result, they have
gained increasing influence in the Church's life.
Some proponents, in line with the first theory, think that justice can
be effected only by a "change in Church structures", namely, the
ordination of women and married men, brought about by means of pressure
and political tactics. They regard this goal as a Gospel imperative,
essential to the establishment of justice in the Church.
Others, in line with the second theory, think that assigning value to
sexual difference is itself at odds with genuine equality; they hold
that "male and female" have been eradicated in Christ (Gal 3:28). In
despite evidence to the contrary (cf. John Paul II, Apostolic
Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, 22 May 1994)
the Church's prohibition of the priestly ordination of women is
ultimately based on distorted perceptions of gender, perceptions they
trace to the theory of sexual complementarity. By calling into question
the meaning and value of sexual difference, then, they hope to open the
way to ordination, often viewed as equal access to "leadership" and
decision-making, for women.
On the basis of these erroneous premises, feminist theologians embark
upon a critique of the Scriptures and a program of reconstruction of
Catholic doctrine. They intend to purify the tradition of anything
especially masculine imagery for God and the attribution of theological
significance to the maleness of Jesus
that would lend support to the rule of men over women.
Why should the Church's pastors become involved in sorting out
authentic from inauthentic forms of feminist theory? Are they not, as
many feminists urge, part of the problem? Why are they interested in
The title of the Letter suggests the answer.
They believe that these currents of thought threaten the possibility
of a just and peaceful collaboration of men and women; they find them
incompatible, in fact, with the authentic promotion of women.
The Church, as part of the human family, has a stake in the proper
ordering of human and societal relations. As moral teacher concerned to
promote justice, moreover, the Magisterium is charged with announcing
the truth, as part of its service to humanity, in order to clarify
common problems in the light of the Gospel (cf. Gaudium et Spes,
The Church has long acquaintance with this question and is the
custodian of a divine revelation
that bears on the topic.
The Church's Pastors also have a stake in resolving disputes that
the harmony of the Ecclesial Community.
In this Letter, they directly confront the view, held by many
Catholic feminists, that a focus on marriage as the standard for
appreciating the value of sexual difference works to the disadvantage of
women. The problem underlying the dispute is this: acknowledging the
significance of sexual difference sometimes legitimates differential
treatment for women, and this difference has been and can be unjustly
invoked as the rationale for marginalizing and excluding them from
opportunities and realms of public life traditionally reserved to men.
At the same time, differential treatment is both just and necessary
in order to safeguard certain prerogatives of women, especially in
relation to their role as mothers. Feminists are generally willing to
sacrifice the right to differential treatment in order to obtain
"equality" with men
even if this requires conforming to a "masculine" norm.
The tradition of Catholic social teaching, by contrast, consistently
proposes that women's right to differential treatment is essential to
the protection of their dignity and specific value as women.
In recent years, the Magisterium has repeatedly denounced the sinful
abuse of power which would curtail women's legitimate progress in
society and in the Church; at the same time, it vigorously maintains
that women's specific contribution
which is not reduced to physical motherhood
must be defended as essential to the well-being of the human race.
Promotion of women in the Church
The distortion caused by sin must, of course, be taken into account.
The complementarity of the sexes is burdened by the history of sin.
In response, feminists sometimes frame the challenge of developing
new and better patterns of collaboration between the sexes in terms of
terms alien to the Gospel.
This Document recalls and explicates more fully the teaching of Pope
John Paul II on the "Gospel innovation". The vision of relationships
between the sexes redeemed by the grace of Christ offers an alternative
to the view that women and men are natural adversaries in a struggle
that can only be resolved by a political strategy and the use of force.
It offers an
alternative to the theory that injustice can be overcome by regarding
creation as "male and
female" in the divine image as a mistake that needs to be corrected.
As the result of sin, this Letter recalls, the relationship between
the sexes is "wounded and
in need of healing". The erroneous currents of thought identified by
this Letter fail because they construct their analysis of the plan for
sexually differentiated humanity only "from the standpoint of the
situation marked by sin" (n. 8).
Catholic feminist theology, too, displays a certain pessimism about
the possibility of "redeemed relationships" between the sexes and the
transformation of human freedom by grace.
The Church, in fact, has a proposal for the authentic promotion of
one that will guide the collaboration of men and women because it
proclaims both their equal dignity as persons, based on an identical
human nature, and their proper vocations as man and woman, based on
their difference-oriented-to-communion; that is, as made for love.
According to Catholic teaching, the equality and complementarity of
the sexes are not mutually exclusive. Rather, the equal dignity of man
and woman as persons "is realized as physical, psychological and
ontological complementarity" (n. 8).
This complementarity, in turn, engenders self-giving love and new
life; man and woman together are a human image of the Blessed Trinity.
The present Letter offers the Bishops of the world a way to approach
these issues from the perspective of the biblical revelation. It recalls
that a theological consideration of these questions must take into
account the victory of Christ, and therefore the real possibility that,
with his grace, men and women can live out the command of love.
In his encyclical Evangelium Vitae (cf. n. 99), Pope John Paul
II calls upon Catholic women to develop a "new feminism". In many ways,
this Letter identifies the need for this and indicates the theological
foundations for such an effort.