Why the Church Cares About the Women's Issue

Author: Sr Sara Butler, M.S.B.T.

Why the Church Cares About the Women's Issue

Sr Sara Butler, M.S.B.T.
Member of the International Theological Commission


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 good will.

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 inequality.

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
"class struggle" — 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. 8).

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 their view — 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 "women's issues"?

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, n. 3).

The Church has long acquaintance with this question and is the custodian of a divine revelation — a Christian anthropology — that bears on the topic.

The Church's Pastors also have a stake in resolving disputes that disturb
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 "power" — 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 women — 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.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
10 November 2004, page 9

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