August 12, 2004
The Path to Harmony
Courtney S. Wilder
The Vatican, in a recent statement entitled, "Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World," explicitly blames feminism for "antagonism" and "opposition between men and women." The letter, endorsed by Pope John Paul II and penned by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, suggests that feminism has fostered an environment in which "the identity and role of one [gender is] emphasized to the disadvantage of the other, leading to harmful confusion regarding the human person" with "lethal effects" on the family. Feminist thought, it argues, "call[s] into question the family, in its natural two-parent structure of mother and father, and make[s] homosexuality and heterosexuality virtually equivalent, in a new model of polymorphous sexuality."
What is perhaps most striking about the letter is its language. The terms in which the Church's vision for women is expressed often sound feminist indeed. The statement seeks to clarify the "authentic advancement of women," and argues that the work of women, whether inside or outside the home, should be supported and valued: "In this way, women who freely desire will be able to devote the totality of their time to the work of the household without being stigmatized ... while those who wish also to engage in other work may be able to do so with an appropriate work-schedule, and not have to choose between relinquishing their family life or enduring continual stress ...."
The content of the letter, however, recapitulates solidly traditional gender roles. The letter explicitly asserts that women are to be most highly valued for their contribution to their families. It portrays women as having a natural, biological role as wives and mothers (or virgins, dedicated to things spiritual) given to them by God. The Pope calls this innate quality, which entails selfless, Christ-like dedication to others and particularly to the family, the "genius of women."
The statement accuses feminism on the grounds that, in seeking to redress inequalities between men and women, feminists deny the biological differences between the sexes -- differences which, the Vatican holds, should determine social and spiritual roles. This denial, they charge, is accompanied by encouragement to grab for power and antagonize men. Thus, the document faults feminism as a force that prevents men and women from living together in harmony.
The letter provides theological exegesis supporting the view of the human self that is articulated. In accounting for division and strife between men and women, the document points to sin. "God's decisive words to the woman after the first sin express the kind of relationship which has now been introduced between man and woman: 'your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you' (Gn 3:16)." Repentance and a return to divinely ordained gender roles, it argues, is the path back to harmony.
What the Vatican overlooks in their critique of feminism is what feminist theologians have been talking about for over forty years: the injustice and sinfulness of sexism. Theologians or not, feminists have long given voice to the situation of women; but feminism is not the source of the disrepair located in male-female relationships. Calling attention to a situation of sin and suffering and encouraging justice, these are not the roots of division and strife -- the sin itself is.
Perhaps an injunction to men to support and value their spouses as fellow children of God, to speak out against workplace harassment and discrimination, to share in the care of home and children, and to reflect upon their own conduct would be a more effective way for the Catholic church to support the authentic advancement of women. Instead, they have said, in effect, that women should be put upon a pedestal and kept there.
Courtney S. Wilder is a doctoral student in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School.