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Equal is as Equal does

Equal is as Equal does

Published by The Women-Church Convergence, 1995.

Contact: Mary E. Hunt, Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual, 8035 13th Street, Silver Spring, Maryland 20910 USA. Tel.: 001 - 301 - 589 2509; fax 001 - 301 - 589 3150.


In preparation for the Fourth World Conference on Women, United Nations member states reported on the status of women within their borders. The Vatican, whose Permanent Observer Mission enjoys UN status identical to Switzerland’s, offered opinions on women’s status globally, remaining mute about any woman living in the Holy See. The Women-Church Convergence submitted this commentary on the Vatican report to the planning committee for the UN conference.

As Women-Church, we join millions of women around the world in planning, attending, and following up on the upcoming Conference on Women. Those of us who participate in the conference will do so with particular attention to issues related to women and religion.

As women from the Roman Catholic tradition, we have a special expertise in analyzing and critiquing the language in which the Vatican presents — and sometimes cloaks — its ideas and aims. We have read with concern and consternation the “Report of the Holy See in Preparation for the Fourth World Conference on Women” (undated). We see in the Report an aspect of religious fundamentalism that misuses tradition and anthropology to limit women’s roles and functions — indeed, rights.

Drawing on a recent letter written by Hillary Rodham Clinton, we note that a “view of Christian witness and obligation differing from the Religious Right’s could create a political opposition to [the Religious right’s] agenda” (Esquire, April 1995, letter to the editor). We offer this analysis in that spirit.

— Women-Church Convergence, 1995.

Standing before the UN and before Women

The Vatican acknowledges that the difference between its “nature” and that of other governments results in a country report that is “different in character from those presented by the other groups taking part in the preparation for the Fourth World Conference on Women” (Report, ¶ 1).

We would add that, in asserting itself as a “state,” the Vatican faces numerous challenges in presenting a credible report. First, the governing structure of the Holy See includes no women in policy making and no women in the church’s single existing electoral body, the College of Cardinals. There is no requirement that women be consulted regarding the development or content of Vatican documents, including this Report—and no indication that such consultation occurred voluntarily. Our experience of the hierarchy of the church is that—beyond mere yea-saying roles— women are almost always excluded from consultations on their condition and needs. For example, when the bishops of the United States took the unprecedented step of consulting widely with women in developing a proposed pastoral letter on women in church and society, and included extensive quotations from these women in the first published draft letter, the bishops’ consultations with the Vatican resulted in the removal of these quotations from the body of subsequent drafts.

Second, we would note that, unlike other country reports, the Vatican makes not even the pretence of including information on the status of women within the church itself—neither women’s employment in church agencies, nor their political rights, nor health care options within Catholic hospitals. In all such areas, serious issues of discrimination exist, and Roman Catholic women and men are working to correct these flaws. They do so in the face of substantial resistance from the very church leaders who are responsible for this Report.

Given these flaws, we suggest that the positions taken by the Holy See and the theoretical constructs that inform them should be read with caution—indeed, suspicion—by both governments and nongovernmental organizations accredited to the Beijing conference.

It is these faults, no doubt, that lead the Vatican to state as its first substantive point on the central theme of equality that, while women and men have “equal dignity in all areas of life,” they do not have “an equality of roles and functions" (Report, ¶ 2a). It may be due to these flaws that the Report goes on to say that “true equality between women and men at the level of fundamental rights will only be attained if the specificity of women is safeguarded" (Report, ¶ 8). Nowhere in this Report, nor in any other document, will one find a simple and unambiguous statement by the Vatican that men and women are equal. Always, this is reshaped to the less clear statement that men and women are equal in dignity, but different in specificity. What is this specificity, at the level of fundamental rights? And how does it differ from that of men?

The governing structure of the Holy See includes no women in policy making and no women in the church’s single existing electoral body, the College of Cardinals.

The Prime Problem: Patriarchal Anthropology

The Vatican’s document calls for the promotion of women’s dignity. However, implicit throughout the Report is the fundamental flaw that plagues all hierarchical Catholic teaching about women, namely, an anthropology which presumes that men are the human norm and women are “different” (Report, ¶ 4 §3).

The Vatican constructs a vision of women and men in which men are normative persons and women are primarily understood in terms of their reproductive and mothering capacities. The most serious implications of this outmoded anthropology are apparent in the terms, definitions, and proposals that are built on its inaccurate premises. For example, the laudable ideal of women’s dignity is circumscribed by the assumption that women’s dignity is somehow based in reproductive capacity. No such assumption is made, ever, with regard to men, whose dignity is presumed simply to be conferred by their humanity.

Moreover, the roles of women in family life, in the work place, and in politics are all limited and understood in relation to this anthropology. Nothing accrues to women simply because they are human. Now that women have increasing control over their reproductive lives, and now that men are understood to share equally the joys and burdens of rearing the next generation, there is simply no justification for such outdated notions unless the intent is to discriminate. We challenge the Vatican to reconstruct this anthropological foundation if it wishes to be taken seriously when it claims to have women’s well-being in mind.

As matters stand, the areas in which the Vatican seeks changes in law and attitude relate overwhelmingly to women’s roles in the home:

  • “As an example of lack of commitment to women’s rights, the Vatican cites a ”lack of respect for women’s maternal and family role by comparison with other public occupations" (Report, ¶16).
  • “Motherhood, the fruit of the married union between a man and a woman, should be given more protection” (Report, ¶19; there is no mention of protecting motherhood outside of traditional marriage).
  • “The promotion of women must take into account ... the fact that women have a particular relationship with everything that concerns the gift of life” (Report, ¶21).
  • “It is right to emphasize the importance and weight of women’s work in the family home” (Report, ¶ 22).
  • “Remuneration for work must be large enough for the mother of the family not to be obliged to work outside the home to the detriment of family life" (Report, ¶ 24).
  • Materialism is rejected, not on its own terms, but because “it is particularly hurtful to women and to their self-esteem, since a large part of the tasks they carry out are not ‘profit-earning’: for example, everything concerning education and service" (Report, ¶14)
  • Women are encouraged to participate in political life by expressing what the Vatican calls “the ‘genius’ proper to women” (Report, ¶ 25)
  • “Women’s sharing in ... basic education enables them to express ... the traditional culture of which they are the guardians” (Report, ¶ 28).
  • “Women, who in the home exercise a major role in welcoming others and in ensuring the growth of the family community, actively contribute to establishing the link between political life and private life” (Report, ¶ 31).
  • Women are told that their obligation to public affairs derives from a “spirit of service” (Report, ¶ 32), part of patriarchal anthropology’s concept of women’s nature.

A Corollary Problem: Hostility to Feminism

Another aspect of patriarchal anthropology is seen in the Report’s deep hostility to all that modern feminism has contributed to the advancement of new concepts of women’s nature and roles in society. Feminists are implicitly divided into the good and the bad—the latter being “radical feminists.” Radical feminists are caricatured as having sought, in the bad old “Sixties and Seventies,” a “complete uniformity or an undifferentiated levelling of the two sexes,” which is now rejected (Report, 4§3). “Radical ‘feminism,”’ according to the Vatican, denied women the “right to be a woman” (Ibid).

Equally, there is the now classic attempt to divide women, North from South. Women in the industrial world, the Vatican claims, have adopted “approaches to the advancement of women” that ignore the poverty of women in the South and are part and parcel of “hedonisticand individualistic culture” (Report, ¶ 4§7-8).

Nowhere in the Report is there any recognition of what women have done worldwide to improve their own lives and those of their communities. Nowhere is there a recognition that it is women—and feminists— who have articulated and struggled for measures that have improved the lives of women in the North and the South alike. Nor does the Report notice that women have been the backbone and sometimes the leaders of broad-based movements for peace and justice worldwide—from Ireland to Argentina, from the Philippines to the United States.

Nowhere in the Report, nor in any other document, will one find a simple and unambiguous statement by the Vatican that men and women are equal.

Equality Admits No Exceptions

In its Report, the Vatican pays lip service to women’s equality but, in every instance, adds qualifiers that indicate that it is an equality predicated on difference, which is finally not equality. In fact, the “specificity of women” no more needs safeguarding than the specificity of men, if both are taken as normatively human. We who know the Vatican’s mind-set best respectfully point it out to those who might be moved by the rhetoric and not the reality of the Vatican’s theological politics.

Equal is as equal does. The Vatican’s record of response to women’s “specificity” is dismal at best. It is the Vatican’s view of women’s specificity that has led to prohibitions on women’s reproductive choices and sexual expression, and to the banning of women as priests and bishops. It is this kind of thinking—that some are more fully human than others—that underlies the hierarchical structures of the Catholic church, structures that exclude and demean women.

Women Are More Than Their Reproductive Capacities

Our primary concern follows on the Vatican’s actions in Cairo last year, at the United Nations International Conference on Population and Development. Note that, throughout theVatican Report for Beijing, women’s reproductive capacity is emphasized. This strikes us as anachronistic at a time in history when so many other things could merit priority: women’s unprecedented levels of education and employment throughout the world, women’s political work, women’s contributions to the arts, and indeed, women’s theological contributions, which have increased geometrically in a generation.

All of these and many more aspects of women are left aside in favor of the old, tried and untrue statements about the implications of women’s reproductive capacity. Even in those instances where women are idealized, like Mary (Report, 55), there is the old fall-back to stereotypic notions of women as, fundamentally wives and mothers. What is clear and true is that not all women are mothers, and those who are, are not simply mothers. It is hard to imagine—and it certainly is never stated—that the Vatican has in mind a similar notion of men as husbands and fathers. In this pernicious form, complementarily is not reciprocal. The far-reaching damages of this mistaken idea about women are such that the idea must be eradicated.

The Vatican constructs a vision of women and men in which men are normative persons and women are primarily understood in terms of their reproductive and mothering capacities.

Families Take Many Shapes

“Family” is the rubric under which the Vatican solidifies its anthropology into a model that it prescribes for everyone in every situation (see for example, Report, ¶4§5). Women are assigned the role of reproducer and primary caretaker of the domestic sphere, while men are seen as the usual players in the work force. The Vatican’s main goal seems to be old-fashioned “protectionism” that would limit women’s rights and roles to those of mother and transmitter of culture.

Families come in many sizes and shapes, something the Vatican implicitly acknowledges when it takes such pains to qualify marriage as “between a woman and a man” (Report, ¶4§5). The Vatican’s repetition of this notion of family, particularly with regard to motherhood in the context of heterosexual marriage, stands out as a rejection of other emerging forms of family.

Indeed, we know many kinds of families that are equally loving and supportive—to name just a few: women in communities; lesbian and gay couples, with or without children; extended families of several generations of women, mostly, who nurture children. These and other forms are the reality we confront for the next century and for which religious people can contribute helpful insights. Now, while so many men shirk their parental responsibilities, and some gay men wish to take on parenting, this is no time to enshrine the so-called traditional, nuclear family. It is time to encourage committed, responsible people to form committed bonds however they do so.

Women’s “Vulnerability” Is Men’s Violence

Perhaps the most perplexing part of the Vatican’s analysis is its notion that the “life of women remains more uncertain and more vulnerable than that of men” (Report, ¶13). No analysis follows that would suggest what is missing from the equation, namely, that the uncertainty or vulnerability that many women experience is neither biological nor essential. In fact, it is created by a patriarchal society in which men are taught that women are “special”—read, inferior—and that men, as normative human beings, can treat women as they will. The Vatican conveniently leaves out this “absent referent,” men. The statement would be more accurate if it said, “Many men treat women with such disdain that women are vulnerable and subject to violence in a patriarchal society.” This acknowledgement —along with a condemnation of the fact—would be welcome, but it is missing.

Such an acknowledgement would seem to come most hard to those in the Vatican, who, lacking the very family life that they extol, instead have romantic visions of family life. Not surprisingly, they fail to account for the well documented fact that—against women’s will and desire—the family is the site of most violence against women, that is, of the “hazard and ... handicap” which the Vatican ridicules as feminist cant (Report, ¶ 4§5).

There is another lacuna in what the Report does say about violence and families. Families are said to suffer violence “through the imposition from outside of various programmes which particularly concern the obligatory control of the number of births, forced sterilization and the encouragement of abortion” (Report, ¶ 47). This strikes us as remarkable and pernicious when promulgated by the very ecclesiastical institution that has been responsible for preventing access to sexuality education, contraceptives, and safe, affordable, accessible, and legal abortions. On this point, the Vatican doth protest too much. Indeed, if the Vatican had its way, the “gift of life” it exalts would be coerced through forced continuation of pregnancies that are unsupported and unsupportable.

A New Vision of Catholic Social Justice

Given these concerns, it is clear that economic policies, educational programs, and political strategies for women which emerge from the Vatican are deeply suspect. As women from the Roman Catholic tradition, we respectfully suggest a new vision of social justice, one that emerges from our feminist understanding of the church—and other communities—as properly consisting of a “discipleship of equals”; that is, our vision begins with the radical equality of creation: women, men, children, and the earth. Justice for women, as for men, is predicated on equality in deed as well as in word. To that end, we offer the following sketch of a social justice vision for the coming century.

( 1 ) A feminist anthropology rests on the radical equality of women and men in community. Both women and men are expected to contribute to the work, education, culture, and moral and reproductive tasks of bringing forth successive generations.

(2) The radical equality of women and men means just what it says. The diversity of creation, including different genders, races, and life styles, implies that there will be great differences among us. The task of a “discipleship of equals” is to hold all of this difference in common, encouraging it and making the world a welcoming place for it.

(3) Women are multifaceted, just as men are. Women’s contributions to the political world and in the home, in the work place, sports, culture, and religion are to be taken seriously and valued. Reproduction is important, but it is only one of the functions that women and men share; because women have been discriminated against in this arena, we give special priority to women’s reproductive health needs, whose fulfillment has been shown to promote the well-being of children and the development of countries.

(4) Community, rather than family, is our programmatic focus. For example, as members of the human community, we all require health care; this need is not subsidiary to family roles and relationships, which nevertheless often structure, and limit, the availability of health care through insurance. Likewise, in education and work, we favor programs that leave aside the relational constellations in which people find themselves, and instead look to the tremendous needs, material and spiritual, which remain to be fulfilled.

(5) Safety is a human right. We strive to dismantle hierarchical structures and to end discrimination because they can result in insult and injury. We encourage change in attitudes, behaviors, and laws to secure our common well-being. Our reverence for the earth, as well as for all of its peoples, requires such vigilance.

The Beijing conference holds great promise for women around the world. It signifies the possibility of global work on issues that affect all of our lives. We hope to contribute a helpful perspective; we expect to learn a great deal. After the meeting, and well into the next century, we anticipate that equality will be actualized. Nothing less is acceptable; nothing more is needed.

John Wijngaards

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