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"Subjects or Objects? Women within Catholic Social Teaching"

"Subjects or Objects? Women within Catholic Social Teaching"

From Grace and Truth pp 174-195
By Susan Rakoczy, IHM

Published by FEDOSA (Federation of Dominicans of Southern Africa


In scrutinizing the social documents of the church for their state­ments on relationships, we will examine them in the areas of friendship, marriage, family, work, social life and political life.

Interpersonal relationships are those of friendship, marriage and family life. The documents do not speak of friendship, most probably because it is seen as a strictly private experience, with no social or economic implications, However, marriage is treated in several of the documents.

Among the basic human rights of all people which Pacem in Terrisdescribes is the right to choose a state of life, whether marriage, priesthood or religious life (PT 15), Against a cultural background in some areas of the world where women are still coerced into a marriage (subtly or with violence), this document describes marriage as a free contract (16) and therefore women have the right to choose their own partner.

The theology of marriage which is enunciated in Gaudium et Spes is richly developed and represents a major development in Catholic teaching. Marriage is described as an "intimate partnership" (48), a "conjugal covenant of irrevocable personal consent" (48). The teaching of the church on the ends and purposes of marriage is extended beyond the traditional procre­ation and education of children to describe two equal purposes: not only the bringing of children into the world (48) but "the mutual love of the spouses" (50.2). Husband and wife both image the living God:

."let the spouses themselves, made to the image of the living God and enjoying the authentic dignity of persons, be joined to one another in equal affection, harmony of mind and the work of mutual sanctification (GS 52.6).

The stress on words such a "partnership", "free", "equal" and "mutual" gives an encouraging theology of marriage. However the background of Christian marriage is still the patriarchal relationships of societies throughout the world. Althoug women are subjects when they m.ake the marriage covenant, they are often treated as objects (for example, the high incidence of physical and psychological abuse by their husbands) as they try to live this covenant.

The social documents have much to say about family life, espe­cially in the context of work as providing income for family life. A note of solid "good news" is found in Pacem in Terris which states that both the man and the woman have equal rights and duties in the founding of a family (PT 15). So, they begin together but then the structures of the patriarchal, nuclear family are described as normative.

According to the documents, the father of the family is em­ployed outside the home while the mother remains at home to care for the children. There is no recognition of various important social facts of the modern world. First, most poor women must work outside the home (or engage in some kind of paid work in the home) in order to maintain a basic living standard for the family. Secondly, the documents do not acknowledge the changing nature of the family throughout the world. The Western nuclear family of past several generations is not the norm in many parts of the world which know an extended family system, especially here in Africa. Even in Europe and North America there are fewer traditional families and many families are headed by single parents. Thirdly, the documents do not speak of the social and economic stresses in societies which make the nuclear family an impossible ideal. In South Africa the system of migratory labour has forced thousands and thousands of spouses to live apart from one another for long periods of time.

The restrictive "bad news" of the documents places women exclusively in the home, caring for the children. In 1891, Leo XII wrote that ", .. a woman is by nature fitted for homework" (RN 33). The views in1965 in Gaudium et Spes: the mother's domestic role of caring for the children "must be safely preserved" (GS 52), and in Octogesima Adveniens (1971): woman's proper role is "at the heart of the family ... (and) developments in legislation should protect her proper vocation" (OA 13.2) are very similar. We have earlier noted that even in the documents of the last ten years the message is the same: If a woman works outside the home it is wrong because it "contradicts or hinders these primary goals of the mission of a mother" (LE 19.3). This document also has the curious possessive her when referring to the children, implying that the children belong to the mother. No mention is made of the father's role.

In Laborem Exercens John Paul 11 interweaves work and the family as inseparable (LE 10) for it is the foundation of family life, the necessary condition for the subsistence of the family. In addition, family members are educated through work. But the stratification remains: the roles are differentiated and not mu­tual. Men provide the income necessary for family life through their paid employment while women form the children within the home. The unity of the couple striving together to create a vibrant, nurturing family life is thus broken.

The news in this part of the analysis is very "mixed news" with a decided shift to the negative. First, the documents minimize and for the most part ignore the social role of the father. While both spouses "found the family" the documents do not bring out the mutual responsibility of both spouses for the care of the children. We do find in Gaudium et Spes the statement that the presence of the father in the formation of the children is "highly beneficial" (GS 52), a common sense interpretation indeed. The children appear to be the entire responsibility of the mother: "her children.

The presumption that "anatomy is destiny" leads to man being is destined to work outside "in the world", while woman is con­signed to domestic responsibilities. While the care of children is a very, very significant human responsibility, this view ignores the incredible economic pressures in our world which mandate that women must work outside the home for family survival: it holds up an ideal which only certain upper-middle class and wealthy families can afford. Not only can this view induce guilt feelings in women who must work outside the home, but it also casts aspersion on women who choose to work outside the home and to exercise their initiative and creativity in the professions.

Women in Economic and Political Relationships

We have explored the area of women and work in relationship to the family. But what of the economic issues discussed so frequently in the social documents, for instance, just wages, safe working conditions, the right to organize into unions? How do these issues impact women when they work outside the home?

First, as we have seen, the documents assume an economic world in which only men work outside the home. Rerum Novarum emphasized that it is "a most sacred law of nature that a father should provide food and all necessities for those whom he has begotten" (RN 10), and that certain jobs (not specified) are not suitable for women (RN 33). While just wages are mandated for the man, nothing is said about women who, only because of dire necessity (it is assumed), work in the immediate vicinity of the home (QA 71).

Later documents do acknowledge the right of women "to work­ing conditions in accordance with their requirements and their duties as wives and mothers" (PT 19), though these are in no way made explicit. The burdens of women's work in the home are recognized by John Paul 11:

It is familiar to women, who sometimes without proper recog­nition on the part of society and even of their own families bear the daily burden and the upbringing of their children (LE 9.1).

These statements ignore the real working world for most married women and single women: they are workers "outside the home" and married women come home to do the "double shift" of managing the home and caring for the children with often very little assistance from their husbands. The documents appear to be written in a social and economic vacuum which is either unconscious of modern conditions or chooses to ignore the realities of women's work.

In this they are not alone. In almost all societies, the domestic work of women in the home, which goes on seven days a week. 365 days a year, year in and year out has little or no economic value and is almost never calculated into the wealth and pro­ductivity of a country. Studies in countries around the world show that women are almost always paid less than men for com­parable work. Women's wages are often incredibly low. A re­cent study by the Black Sash showed that black domestic workers in the Pietermaritzburg area earn an average of R 164,32 per month .(15) Most women who work "outside the home" do so because of economic necessity; their families literally would not survive if they did not bring income into the home. Other women, especially in the professions (law. medicine, teaching, etc.) work as an exercise of their creativity, just as men do, and have to juggle the responsibilities of work, home and children with often little assistance from their husbands.

Society structures the work-place so that it is "normal" not to have the care of children as women do; when women enter the work-force, their need to care for the children of the family appears "unnatural" to the structures (leave days, flexible time, need of day care and creches) which have been set up on the premise that only men, with no children, are workers. For the most part, the documents describe a work-world which women enter only by exception and dire necessity.

However, even though the documents ignore the realities of women's work, there qre statements which offer hope to women. These concern just wages, an on-going concern in the documents. Note that in both the following citations "worker" is not designated by gender:

The worker is entitled to a wage that is determined in accord­ance with the precepts of justice. (PT 20)
Just remuneration for the work of an adult who is responsible for a family means remuneration which will suffice for estab­lishing and properly maintaining a family and for providing for its future. (LE 19.2, emphasis mine)

The latter speaks, for the first time in the documents, of "adult" and not "man." Just wages and good working conditions (includ­ing benefits such as pensions, medical aid, etc.) are thus the right of every worker and can be applied by extension to women even if they are not explicitly mentioned.

In summary, the news of women in the working world in the social documents is decidedly "mixed." The few positive statements on just wages for all do not balance the pervasive view that women work outside the home only by great exception. There is no attention given to the vast inequalities of women's and men's wages and all the other areas of job discrimination because of this out-of-date interpretation of the realities of the work world. The writers of these documents should have spoken to working women and heard their experiences.

In speaking of women in economic relationships, it is necessary also to discuss their role in the economic relationships of their countries. There is great stress in the documents since the 1960's on issues of development. Paul VI spoke much of development in Populo rum Progressio (1967) and emphasized that peace is built up by efforts to create "a more perfect form of justice" among people (PP 76). Attention in the documents is given to macro-economic relationships: agriculture, trade, North-South relationships and understandings of capitalism and socialism.

In these wider economic relationships, women are not men­tioned. Women are certainly "players" in the economic game (as professionals in economic matters and as workers per se) but their role is seldom appreciated by either church or society. In most countries "women's contributions - as workers and as man­agers of human welfare - are central to the ability of households communities and nations to tackle the current crisis of survival." (16) Because of the patriarchal structures of society, women are either denied or given limited access to economic re and political participation. In addition, the sexual division of labor allocates to them "the most onerous, labor-intensive, poor­ly-rewarded tasks inside and outside the home - and the longest working hours." (17) We need only look at the plight of women on this continent - especially rural women who have the daily and never-ending tasks of fetching water long distances, finding fuel for cooking, engaging in food production with very simple tools - to see the truth of this statement.

However, if we can assume that when "men" is used in the documents in can be interpreted in an inclusive sense - designating women also - then the documents call women to the work of creating economic relationships built on justice and respect for human dignity. In his first encyclical Redemptor Hominis (1979) John Paul II stated:

This difficult road of the indispensable transformation of the structures of economic life is one on which it will not be easy to go forward without the intervention of a true conversion of mind, will and heart. The task requires resolute commitment by individuals and peoples that are free and linked in solidarity. (RH 16.7)

The language here is inclusive - "individuals" - thus implying that women should be involved in shaping the economic life of their societies. The conversion called for is not only that of the econ­omic structures per se, the creation of wealth, production, distri­buting, profit systems, etc., but also the system in its male bias which does not allow women full access to these resources and often denigrates their contributions as just "women's work." A classic example in the African context is the large number of water development projects in villages which are planned with­out ever consulting women - who in the rural areas are the prime providers of water for their families - on the siting of wells and boreholes.

When we look to the area of political relationships in the docu­ments, we generally find the absence of women and their contributions. This directly reflects lived experience since women are not often seen at the points of major political decisions: they do not hold significant positions in the UN (no woman has yet been Secretary General), few are heads of state and so are not involved in major world decisions either in economic matters (the so-called "Group of Seven") or politics (women did not decide to go to war in the Gulf in 1991). Women are decidedly a very small presence in the political processes of South Africa, even though groups such as the ANC are striving to ensure a more significant place for women in decision-making . At the first sessions of CODESA in December, 1991 women comprised only 5% of those present as delegates or as observers, but they were the majority of secretaries and typists.

However, women now have the right to vote all over the world, with the exception of some Islamic countries, and they can engage in political activity at lower and middle levels of respon­sibility. Pacem in Terrisacknowledged the growing role of women in politics:

Secondly, the part that women are now playing in political life is everywhere evident. This is a development that is perhaps of swifter growth among ChrL.itian nations, but it is also happening extensively, if more slowly, among nations that are heirs to different traditions and imbued with a different culture." Far from being content with a purely passive role or allowing themselves to be regarded as a kind of instrument, they are demanding both in domestic and public life the rights and duties which belong to them as human persons (PT 41).

One of the most important political responsibilities is that of making peace and ensuring that war and violence do not occur between nations. Women and children know directly the reality of war and its preparations for they are the first victims. Not only have the lines between "combatants" and "non-combatants" become blurred in modern warfare (witness Vietnam, El Salva­dor, the Gulf, violence in the townships in South Africa) but they also suffer the effects of using a country's resources in prepara­tions for war. The spending of millions of rands or dollars or pounds on arms directly robs every citizen in a country of resources which could be used to provide for basic human needs: food produc­tion, housing, education, health care, etc.

The task of peacemaking is one of justice and thus of right relationships. We have described how women's perspective in life is usually focused on relationships. It should be obvious then that women's role is crucially needed in the political arena in order to ensure that national and international structures are centered on the needs of people, not the demands of arms manufacturers and the military establishment.

In the past few years we have seen some striking examples of the power of non-violence as exercised by women. Women have prayed in front of tanks in the Philippines and in Russia, offering the soldiers flowers and sandwiches, begging them ­who are their sons and grandsons - not to destroy their families under the guise of "soldiers following orders." Wherever there are strong initiatives towards non-violence and peace in our world, there women often take the lead, even if their country's leader­ship pays them little heed.

Women's actions for peace and justice in the world intuitively follow the main lines of the social teaching's understanding of the meaning of peace-making. Peace is not merely the ab­sence of war but is an enterprise of justice (GS 78). In Pacem in Terrisand other documents we hear the consistent cry that the arms race must be ended (see PT 109 among others). We are called to struggle in "solidarity" with one another to form a human community - nationally and internationally - based on the com­mon good (LE 47).

How can we evaluate women's contributions to the work of justice and peace in our world? First as believers, women have an equal role, even if it is not specified to them and they are omitted from the documents, in this Gospel mandate. Since women and men hear the same Gospel, the words of the 1971 Synod are also addressed to all women:

Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transforma­tion of the world fully appear to us a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel, or, in other words, of the Church's mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation (JW 6).

This commitment is part of all women's discipleship, even if not given directly by the Church to us as women. The documents also speak of a growing human consciousness that we create our own world:

... in every group or nation, there is an increase in the number of men and women who are conscious that they themselves are the authors and artisans of the culture of their community," (GS 55)

Women are thus co-creators of the human community in all its dimensions, personal and public. Here women are clearly ident­ified as "subjects" of transformation and action in the world. Gaudium et Spes also speaks of "Christians" freely drawing all earthly activities - domestic, professional, social and technical ­into a vital synthesis for the good of all and the glory of God (GS 43). Women's gifts and talents are therefore vitally needed to transform the world according to Gospel values. The direction is clear and women are free to claim their own gifts in the work of justice and peace.

Women in the South African Context

How might all of these principles be applied in South Africa as we move into new social, economic and political realities? Both Church and society have crucial tasks. The Church must do the following: first to affirm women's full humanity and dignity in every context in which it is called into question, and in its teach­ing and preaching to denounce every form of sexism and denigration of women. Secondly, women's baptismal calls to mission and ministry must not be a secret any longer but must be affirmed and proclaimed with courage and vigour. Women must be called forth to minister according to the gifts of the Spirit they have received. Their role must no longer be restricted to the usual "tea and sacristy" responsibilities.

Thirdly, changes must be made in the unjust structures which exist at all levels - parish, church institutions, diocese. These structures exclude women from leadership roles, pay unjust wages and provide poor job benefits (this applies equally to women religious and lay women), and do not provide for in-service formation and training for women employees on the same level as men. The language the church uses - both in the liturgy and its other writings - must be careful to be inclusive of women in every situation. a church that preaches justice must first be just within itself (JW 40)

South African society and its structures present an equally de­manding task. The struggle for full human liberation in our society must include the eradication of sexism in all its dimensions. It is an insult to women to tell us to "wait" until political and economic problems are solved to the satisfaction of men. Liberation struc­tures and groups must ensure that women participate in deci­sion-making on all levels.

The vision of the "new South Africa" must be one of care for all. It must be built on the African - and feminist - perspective that care for relationships is the most crucial dimension of life. The "bill of rights" or "charter of human rights" in the new constitution must safeguard the dignity of all persons in every aspect of life. Women, especially young women, must be provided with education, job training and economic opportunities which will af­ford them and their families a decent standard of living. Non-violence must be accorded pride of place as a strategy for solving conflicts and problems in our society.


After exploring the presence and absence of women in the social documents of the Church, we can now reply to our leading question: "Are women subjects or objects in Catholic social teaching?" Our research has shown us that sadly women are mostly objects, marginal to human experience . (18) There are few references to women's self-determination, to their ability to exercise their gifts and participate freely in ecclesial and secular structures. While discrimination on the basis of sex is acknow­ledged as "contrary to God's intent" (GS 29.1), nowhere in the documents is there any systematic analysis of sexism and its evils in church and society.

We approached the documents from a "hermeneutic of suspi­cion" since these documents were written and issued by a patriarchal church whose leadership and structures are the preserve of ordained men. This patriarchal bias (19) is evident in two main areas. First is the question of women's full humanity. Do we share the same human nature as men? The documents speak often of "women's proper nature" and "proper vocation" and this is placed in tension with the presupposition that men are the norm of humanity. Secondly, the documents demonstrate an androcentric view of life, economic and political relationships. Implicit throughout is the principle that it is men who will make the decisions about life and the way it is lived with others. Women are both marginal to these decisions and experience the impact of them as objects.

However, our perspective was also that of a "hermeneutics of liberation", searching for hope for women in their life as Christian believers. Fortunately, the documents do provide us with some solid principles on which to change our church and society. The equality and dignity of all persons is emphasized in the docu­ments since 1963, even though at times the language of women's "proper nature" may be used. The human rights de­scribed especially in Pacem in Terris (11-27), though couched in the language of "man" are the rights of all human beings. The baptismal call to holiness is described a mandate for all, women and men; justice and holiness are intrinsically linked.

The changing nature of women's roles is recognized in the ( documents of the last thirty years, and women are acknow­ledged as artisans and creators of culture along with men. However. the concrete applications of these broad principles fail to dernonstrate how significant is the role of women in our world.

When women struggle to change the language of documents from an exclusive use of "man" (in all its forms) to lnclusive forms in which we hear ourselves, we are often told, "It doesn't matter- ... 'man' really includes 'woman' also." While neveraccepting this rationalization, we can use it to turn the tables" and say that wherever we find in the documents the use of "man" (in any form) there also are women. Therefore any description of "man's" roles, rights, dignity and responsibilities is also a description of woman's.

Our tasks as women are three-fold. We are to be strong in faith as Deborah, Ruth and Mary of Nazareth so evidently were. We are to be bold and act after the examples of the persistent woman in Luke 18: 1-8 and Mary Magdalene, the first apostle of the resurrection. We are to be bearers of hope to our church and world. As women we bear and give life: every child born is a promise that God is still with us; every act of faith, hope and love (personally and socially) says "tomorrow will be better." Together in the solidarity of the one Spirit of God, we as women and men, can bring life, love, justice and peace in the power of that Spirit to our country, the Church and the world.


1. For the purposes of discussion in this paper. these documents will be limited to papal, conciliar, and synodal (that is the triennial synod of bishops meeting in Rome) state­ments beginning with Rerum Novarum in 1891. No attempt will be made to analyze documents from particular churches around the world, even though that would also produce an interesting paper.

2. Cf. Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (London: Sheed and Ward, 1975); Jurgen Habermas, Knowledge and Human Interests (2nd ed.), tr. Jeremy J. Shapiro (London: Heinemann, 1972). From a liberation perspective see Leonardo Boff and Clodovis Boff, Introducing Liberation Theology, tr. Paul Burns (London: Burns & Oates, 1987), pp. 22-42; Jose Miguez Bonino, Doing Theology in a Revolutionary Situation (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), pp. 85-105; Juan Luis Segundo, Liberation of Theo­logy, tr. John Drury (MaryknolL New York: Orbis Books, 1976). Approaches to a feminist hermeneutic are found in Anne E. Carr, Transforming Grace: Christian Tradition and Women's Experience (San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1988), pp. 95-113 and Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her (New York: Crossroad, 1983), pp. 3-95, among many significant sources ..

3. Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Bread Not Stone: The Challenge of Feminist Biblical Interpretation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1984), p. 15.

4. Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her(New York: Crossroad, 1983), pp. 30-1.

5. Cf. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, tr. Myra Bergman Ramos (London:

Sheed and Ward, 1972), p. 54.

6. Cf. especially the essays on women in patristic teaching and medieval theology for the evidence of such '''bad news" about women in Religion and Sexism, ed. Rosemary Radford Ruether (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974).

7. Unless otherwise indicated, quotations from the documents are from Proclaiming Justice and Peace, ed. Michael Waish and Brian Davies (London: CAFOD/Collins, 1984).

8. A parallel statement against multiple forms of discrimination appears also in Octogesima Adveniens: "Among the victims of situations of injustice--unfortunately no new phenomenon--must be placed those who are discriminated against, in law or in fact, on account of their race, origin, colour, culture, sex (emphasis mine), or religion" >(OA 16).

. Pope Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno, (London: Catholic Truth Society, 1960), p. 32.

10. Anne E. Carr, Transforming Grace: Christian Tradition and Women's Experience (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988), p. 123.

11. Ibid .. p. 132.

12. Sandra Schneiders describes "root metaphors" as "metaphors which draw seman­tic nourishment from a wide range of experience, while they generate, support, and organize a rich growth of imaginative fruit in the form of dependent and related metaphors." See Beyond Patching: Faith and Feminism in the Catholic Church (New York: Paulist Press, 1991), p. 46.

13. John S. MbitL African Religions and Philosophy (London: Heinemann Educational Books Ltd" 1969), pp. 108-9.

14. Caroi Gilligan, In a Different Voice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), pp. 159-60.

15. 'The Fight to Include Domestic Workers Under the Wage Act," The Natal Witness Echo (September 26, 1991), p. 8.

16. Gita Sen and Caren Grown, Development, Crises and Alternative Visions (New York: Monthly Review, 1987), p. 18, quoted in Maria Riley and Nancy Sylvester, Trouble and Beauty: Women Encounter Catholic Social Teaching (Washington, DC: Center of Concern, Leadership Conference of Women Religious and NETWORK, 1991), p. 39.

17. Ibid, p. 39.

18. Even in Centesimus Annus we find women (in the only reference to them in the text) placed among the marginalized of the world: "Those who fail to keep up with the times can easily be marginalized, as can the elderly, the young peopie who are incapable of finding their place in the life of society and in, general, those who are weakest or part of the so-called Fourth World. The situation of women too is far from easy in these conditions" (CA 33); transiation published by the Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference (Pretoria, 1991), p. 66.

19. "Bias" is used here in the full strength of Lonergan's understanding. Cf. Bernard >F. Lonergan, Insight (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1958), pp. 191-203,218-242.


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