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Feminism, Vatican-style

Feminism, Vatican-style

By Tina Beattie (senior lecturer in Christian Studies at Roehampton University)

Published in the Tablet, 7th August 2004

Rome's new document on men and women shows that feminists and the Church have more in common than perhaps either realises, but Catholic theology has yet to describe the sacramental nature of women

Publication of the Vatican letter on women was greeted with predictable bias in the secular press last week. "Pope wams feminists: Bishops told to take hard line on issue of gender", announced The Guardian headline. Christina Odone, deputy editor of the New Statesman, speaking on BBC Radio 4, was (predictably) less predictable. She described the letter as "a historic U-turn ...the document that will mark the Pope as a bornagain feminist ...a wonderfully moving testament".

The letter does indeed contain much common sense and insight, but it is one-sided in its representation of feminism and makes a number of problematic claims. It also risks making the Catholic hierarchy seem ever more anachronistic as far as women are concerned. What other institution today would produce a document about women, written by one group of men (the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, under the signature of Cardinal Ratzinger), addressed to another (the bishops), without quoting or referring to any woman's ideas? Given that the letter is titled "On the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World", its lack of collaboration with women is slightly ludicrous. But I suspect that many of us who remain in more or less good faith with Holy Mother Church when so many have left, do so because we have a welldeveloped sense of the ludicrous and have learned to live with her quaint idiosyncrasies.

The past half century has seen a shift in the Church's understanding of human sexuality and gender, not least thanks to ideas that the present Pope has been developing since he was a young parish priest working with married couples. Hans Urs von Balthasar is also a significant theological influence in this area. The letter therefore needs to be understood in the context of an emergent trend in Catholic theology, sometimes referred to as "the new feminism" (although some would regard it as highly conservative), associated with the journal Communio and with thinkers such as Prudence Allen, Francis Martin, David Schindler and Michelle Schumacher.

Drawing on the Pope's 1979-1980 catechesis on the Book of Genesis, the letter argues that humanity, male and female, is created in the image of God to be a gift of self for the other. It affirms sexual difference as "a reality deeply inscribed in man and woman" and as "a fundamental component of personality. While man and woman were created for one another in a nuptial relationship of mutual, self-giving love, original sin led to domination, rivalry, violence and enmity between the sexes, which can only be overcome in Christ. It is the woman who, "in her deepest and original being·, exists "for the other", and it is she who is especially entrusted with the vocation to love and to nurture life. This is closely related to women's physical capacity for motherhood, but the letter stresses that motherhood is not reducible to physical procreation alone. The vocations of virginity and motherhood illuminate one another, pointing to the spiritual as well as the concrete dimension of the gift of self.

However, bearing in mind women's primary responsibility for human relationships, particularly within the family, the letter argues that the relationship between family and work is different for women than for men. This means respecting women who want to dedicate themselves to the household, and ensuring that they are not "stigmatised by society or penalised financially·. At the same time, women who work outside the home should be able to do so without having to sacrifice the wellbeing of the family, and this will require the transformation of society's attitudes and values as well as its organisations. This is important, says the letter, because women's involvement is needed at all levels of public life if innovative solutions are to be found to the world's economic and social problems.

There is much here that resonates with feminist thinking, particularly in the excellent section on work and family. Some feminists might baulk at the letter's understanding of sexual difference as something essentially encoded in human nature, but Christians must surely affirm the body's capacity for truthful revelation. However opaque the relationship between nature and culture or sex and gender (and feminists today are not as simplistic about this as the letter suggests - most would now acknowledge the complex relationship between sex and gender), Christians are called to work with rather than against our bodies' natural capacities and orientations so that they can understand what it means to be a sexual person created in the image of God.

I suspect that some feminists' knee-jerk reactions to this document are due to what they perceive is the romanticisation, as revealed in its claims about the essentially self-giving nature of women. Such stereotyping is only what I would expect when a group of celibate men in an all-male enclave pronounces on the psychology and nature of women. But the majority of feminists agree that women are more relational than men, and common to both Catholic orthodoxy and much feminist theory is a belief that this relationality is a better model of humanity than the masculine individualism of modem society.

The idea that women are, whether by nature or nurture, more orientated towards relationships of care, and that women have a more intuitive affinity with nature because our bodies bleed, birth and feed, is one that many feminists affirm. The hope that the greater participation of women in public life will provide an alternative to the violence and exploitation of modem society is common to the Pope and feminists. While the hierarchy apparently regards itself as exempt from the need for the "humanising" influence of women in its midst, recent years have seen a move towards the inclusion of carefully selected women in some of the institutions and administration of the Church.

It is also fair to say that feminism has not fully accepted that, for the majority of women, the family remains key to female identity, self-worth and commitment. Feminists have frequently portrayed marriage and family life, inspired and upheld by religious values, as a patriarchal conspiracy that renders women little more than domestic slaves. They have failed to recognise that marriage and motherhood are profoundly enriching experiences for many women, allowing them to express their love, sexuality and talent for nurture in the context of committed and faithful relationships. In acknowledging that these are not the only ways in which women can fulfil themselves, the letter also reinterprets the age-old vocations of virginity and motherhood, and leaves them tantalisingly open. For instance, in wisely avoiding any reference to contraception, it allows for the possibility that the Church is at last able to accommodate sexually active women who are not mothers - that is certainly an innovative dimension in recent Catholic thought.

But without denying any of these important insights, this document is deeply problematic. It refers to "the domination of one sex by another", but it does not acknowledge the extent to which this has meant the domination of women by men, in Christianity as well as in non-Christian cultures and religions. So there is no historical context that would lend any legitimacy to feminism, and nor does it acknowledge the extent to which the theology it sets out departs from tradition in significant ways, largely thanks to the influence of feminism. It does not address domestic abuse and sexual violence as urgent pastoral problems in the Church's dealings with women, nor does it say anything about the responsibilities of men in the home.

Surveys show that, although women are working longer hours outside the home, they still do most of the housework and childcare as well. If a mother is to balance work and family, she needs the active support of a father who shares the work of running the home and bringing up the children. This also means recognising that, for many women, work is not a choice but an economic necessity which leaves them exhausted by impossible demands, servicing the needs of husbands, children and other dependants while working long hours for low pay in menial jobs. It is wishful thinking to suggest that women in such conditions "preserve the deep intuition of the goodness in their lives of those actions which elicit life, and contribute to the growth and protection of the other".

Some women do triumph against all the odds, but many are overwhelmed and defeated, and the result is the perpetuation of relationships of neglect and abuse through generations of children. While both feminists and the Vatican continue to work to transform culture, and have perhaps more in common than either realises, the bishops might direct their attention to the responsibilities of men as well as women. Thatwould need a realistic analysis of social and domestic conditions that militate against women's well-being in the Church and in the world.

But this letter's primary concern is not men's abuse of women but the perceived threat of feminism. Feminists, we are told, "emphasise strongly conditions of subordination in order to give rise to antagonism", argue that 'women, in order to be themselves, must make themselves the adversaries of men", and believe that "Faced with the abuse of power, the answer for women is to seek power". This sounds lice a belated reaction to the writings of Mary Daly, a Catholic theologian who represented a particular form of radical separatist feminism during the 1970s and 1980s. But feminism is too diverse and complex a movement to lend itself to these simplistic and distorted accusations. There are forms of feminism that are incompatible with the Christian faith, but there are also many feminists who work in critical fidelity to the Church's teachings, and who would agree with many of the ideas expressed in this letter. To deny their contribution to Christian theology and practice, and to fail to acknowledge the extent to which this document is in itself deeply indebted to feminist thinking, is once again to marginalise and silence women, and to suggest that men know us better than we know ourselves.

However, the deepest problem with this letter is theological rather than sociological. The belief that there is an essential difference between the sexes is not part of the Catholic tradition. From the time of Augustine the Western Church has always understood sexual difference as an eternal dimension of human existence, but it has also traditionally taught that the difference between men and women is one of degree rather than substance. The reason Christ was male was not because the male body was ontologically different from the female body, but because it was the more perfect version of the same thing.

Today, having discarded its hierarchical understanding of sexual difference in favour of a model of complementarity (the sexes are equal but different) the Church has had to find new justifications for the exclusion of women from the priesthood. One of these has been to identify the essential maleness of the priesthood with the masculinity of Christ, which in turn is identified with the fatherhood of God. Although not spelt out in the letter, the theology underlying this new sexual essentialism is potentially disastrous. Not only does it associate the fatherhood of God with male sexuality (an association that the Church has always denied, even though some of its theological imagery does suggest the idea of a male God inseminating a female creation), it also places inordinate emphasis on the sexual rather than the relational aspect of the Church's nuptial symbolism. As a result, Christ's love for his Bride, the Church, is expressed in terms of an exaggerated sexuality associated with the masculinity of the Bridegroom. This also has dire implications for the place of the female body, which, far from being affirmed by this theology, risks being written out of the picture.

After several pages of describing the particular vocation and genius of women, the letter asserts that "the feminine values mentioned here are above all human values. In this perspective, that which is called `femininity' is more than simply an attribute of the female sex. The word designates indeed the fundamental human capacity to live for the other and because of the other." Defending the exclusion of women from ordination, it says that this "does not hamper in any way women's access to the heart of Christian life". It explains the nuptial relationship between the sexes in terms of the relationship between the Church and Christ as Bride and Bridegroom, and it says that "women are called to be unique examples and witnesses for all Christians of how the Bride is to respond in love to the love of the Bridegroom".

Early on, the letter rejects "a new model of polymorphous sexuality" associated with feminism. But it is hard to imagine a more polymorphous model than a community of men and women constituted as the Bride of Christ, such that the feminine Bride is a collective of both sexes (and need not include any women at all, for example, when Mass is said in an all-male community), while the Bridegroom is essentially and biologically male. This is not exactly "straight" theology, and it constitutes a highly ambiguous understanding of the relationship between biological sex and spiritual gender. Moreover, the male body becomes the locus of all meaning, masculine and feminine, inspired by one single woman - Mary - who is "a mirror placed before the Church". Femininity has therefore been colonised by men as brides of Christ, since once Mary has performed her unique maternal role, the female body dissolves into the community of the Church as "woman", which might equally well be made up exclusively of men. Sacramentally speaking, sexual difference is not about the difference between men and women, but about the difference between male priests who represent Christ, and everybody else. What has become of the document's insistence that physical sex cannot be separated from gender, if the feminine gender bears no necessary relationship to the female body?

The battle of the sexes will continue to rage, and feminists and cardinals alike will continue to fuel the fires. But beyond sexual politics, there has been a significant breakthrough in terms of anthropology and sociology in the Church's recent understanding of woman. But on the level of theology, there has been a devastating catastrophe. There is an urgent need for the Pope to tell us in what way the female body has sacramental significance, so that the embodied personhood of both sexes is affirmed, not just at the social and biological level, but most importantly at the sacramental level. Otherwise, some of us might bar that we have become nothing more than redundant bystanders at the gay nuptials of the modem Church.

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