|Research Backs Up a Vatican Document
ROME, 21 AUG. 2004 (ZENIT)
The recent letter on the role of men and
women issued by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith met
with derision from many feminist groups who denounced what they consider
to be the Church's outdated vision of the sexes.
One of the concepts the Vatican letter criticizes is the idea that "In
order to avoid the domination of one sex or the other, their differences
tend to be denied, viewed as mere effects of historical and cultural
conditioning" (No. 2). The Church, notes the letter, prefers to propose an
"active collaboration between the sexes precisely in the recognition of
the difference between man and woman" (No. 4).
Support for the proposition that there are substantial differences between
men and women is found in a recently published book by Steven Rhoads,
"Taking Sex Differences Seriously."
The notion that it is families and culture that determine masculinity and
femininity is commonplace these days, observes Rhoads. This belief has
been facilitated by the growing equality of women in fields such as higher
education and employment, and by the promotion by feminist groups of the
idea that gender roles are socially constructed. The social construction
thesis is common to many schools of feminist thought, Rhoads explains.
Feminist thought cannot deny the distinct reproductive functions of men
and women, notes Rhoads. Yet, these differences are held to be few and of
relatively little importance, while the learned gender differences are
both numerous and powerful. And if the gender roles are learned, say the
feminists, they can be "deconstructed," thus creating a more just society.
Different from Day 1
Nevertheless, Rhoads argues that "Men and women still have different
natures and, generally speaking, different preferences, talents and
interests." In support of this affirmation he cites research from a number
of sources demonstrating that the behavioral and psychological differences
between men and women are in fact real, and not due to social
Some sex-difference research has identified the hormonal environment of
fetuses in mothers' wombs as a factor explaining differences between male
and female behavior. And neuroscientists have found that men have fewer
connections between the left and right hemispheres of the brain, with
men's brains in general being more compartmentalized than women's.
Male-female divergences are evident from the earliest age, notes Rhoads.
Even 1-day-old infants show behavioral differences, with females
responding more strongly to the sound of crying. Three-day-old girls
maintain eye contact with a silent adult for twice as long as boys. And
4-month-old girls can distinguish photographs of those they know from
other people, something boys are generally not capable of doing. Boys, on
the other hand, by the age of 5 months are more interested than girls in
three-dimensional geometric forms and blinking lights.
Once infants are a year old they can rapidly distinguish between the sexes
of their playmates, preferring to associate with those of their own sex.
Tests have shown this to be the case even when the newly arrived infants
are dressed in the clothes of the opposite sex. Thus, baby girls quickly
identify as female another baby, even if it is dressed in masculine
At 2 years of age, boys are more physically active and much more
interested in vehicles, research shows. In nursery school, boys are
interested in new toys, while girls show more curiosity in meeting new
Rhoads even notes that parenthood has led some feminist theorists of
gender to change their minds when faced with how their young children
develop. He recounted the experience of a liberal Berkeley academic who
tried to raise her son in a violence- and gun-free environment. Yet, from
an early age the son was fascinated with toy guns.
Other feminist academics have been disappointed that their daughters
insisted on wearing dresses, in spite of attempts to persuade them to the
contrary. In general, attempts to bring up children in a unisex
environment, such as the Israeli kibbutzim and some U.S. communes, have
The hormonal factor
Male and female differences are present all through school life. Rhoads
explains that a large body of research shows that from second through 12th
grades boys have more favorable attitudes toward competition, and girls
This is clearly revealed in the sports favored at school by boys and
girls, with males preferring more competitive games with clear winners and
losers, while girls opt for activities with less direct competition. This
is true even in pre-puberty children, when girls are just as physically
strong as boys.
Behavioral differences are no less notable in adult life, explains Rhoads.
Both in the past and in the present, and across all societies, men are
more aggressive than women. In the United States, for example, females
account for only 10% of homicide arrests. Males also make up the
overwhelming majority of those who participate in sports that demand high
levels of physical exertion or danger. And men are three times more likely
than women to die from accidental injury.
Some feminists, he notes, attempt to explain these differences due to
socialization, insisting that women can be just as aggressive as men. But
this argument, maintains Rhoads, ignores the hormonal factor -- with
higher levels of testosterone in men -- and also evidence showing
differences in men's brains. And, at a physical level, tests have
demonstrated that when men and women receive the same type of weight
training, men's strength increases far more than for women.
Moreover, if aggression were due to the social environment then with the
diminishing differences between the sexes in recent years women should be
starting to match men in aggression. Rhoads, citing crime statistics,
argues that there has not been any significant closing in the levels of
aggression between men and women.
More evidence of differences between the sexes comes from the importance
of bringing up children in a family with both a female and male presence,
explains Rhoads. The dramatic increase in fatherless families in recent
times has led to a multitude of problems. Daughters, and even more so
sons, are at risk when the father figure is absent. Problems range from an
increase in criminal behavior to substance abuse and psychological
For women, marriage and bearing children is also vitally important, Rhoads
contends. He cited testimony from some women who achieved success in
professional life, but who expressed their bitterness at not having
children. By contrast, childlessness did not have the same negative effect
on high-achieving men.
Caring for young children, especially if it is combined with an outside
job, is a very demanding and tiring task for women. Yet, Rhoads cites a
number of studies showing that motherhood and nurturing are a great source
of happiness for women. By contrast, men are much less interested in
caring for children. Attempts in Sweden, for example, to get men to make
use of their legally entitled paternity leave have met with very limited
"From the first moment of their creation, man and woman are distinct, and
will remain so for all eternity," notes the Vatican letter (No. 12). This
difference, stresses the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, needs
to be "placed within Christ's Paschal mystery." In this way, "they no
longer see their difference as a source of discord to be overcome by
denial or eradication, but rather as the possibility for collaboration, to
be cultivated with mutual respect for their difference."