The Creation of Womanhood: A Hierarchical Construction

The Creation of Womanhood: A Hierarchical Construction

by René van Eyden

For men the entire world (and Church), for women the other half

From the Portuguese Olhares feministas sobre a Igreja Católica, René Van Eyden Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza Mary E. Hunt, cadernos no 9, Publicações CDD, São Paulo 2001.

The age-old view of man and woman- as hierarchically superior and subordinate to each other survived in the Catholic Church untill the middle of the twentieth century. It became untenable in the end, because of the profound changes in the social, cultural and political fields. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), assigning identical rights to men and women, marked a fundamental breakthrough towards a new world order. In the so-called ‘second feminist wave’, starting in the ‘sixties, a new self-awareness of women made itself vigourously manifest. The United Nations’ Women’s Year (1975) stimulated a worldwide effort to abolish the subordination of women.

In the Catholic Church, too, strong renewal tendencies made themselves felt. The traditional subordinate position of lay people, and especially of women, was increasingly felt to be an injustice.

In this climate of renewal the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) took place, intended as an aggiornamento, an updating of the church. The new definition of the church as the People of God, in which all the baptized are equal, offered hopeful perspectives. It was expected by many that the Council’s new approach to the man-woman relationship would also have its effects within the Church.

This hope also found support in pope John XXIII’s encyclical ‘Pacem in Terris’ of 1963, which identified the womens’emancipation movement as one of the ‘signs of the times’ and for the first time had positive words for it.

But soon this one swallow turned out not to make a Roman summer. To be sure, the Council texts and the subsequent Vatican documents do no longer speak of a ‘state of subordination’ for women. Pope Paul VI’s addresses chose a more modern vocabulary when discussing the role of women. But most catholic women considered this adaptation of vocabulary insufficient as long as no practical consequences were drawn regarding equal responsibility in the church.

A historic event was the address which cardinal Flahiff of Winnipeg held at the Bishops’ Synod of 1971. At the request of the catholic women’s organisations in Canada he proposed that Rome set up an international study commission which, in the light of the ‘signs of the times’, was to examine the position of women in the church and especially the possibility of their ordination. The issue now having been raised publicly and with worldwide applause, Rome could no longer ignore it. The way in which this International Study Commission (1973-1976) was continuously manipulated by Vatican authorities is very characteristic of the Roman strategy of control. A secret memorandum limited its task: it should start from the specific role of women and the complementarity of men and women, and it was not allowed to take up a study on the ordination of women. How this Commission was composed and presided over, and how five women members - among them Marina Lessa, from Brasil -bravely opposed indoctrination, was recorded by Dirkje Donders in her theological thesis ‘La Voz tenaz de las mujeres’ (Nimega, Paises Bajos, 1997). The hopeful expectations of women in the catholic world ended in deep disappointment and indignation about the course and the results of this Roman Commission. The Commission’s debacle made the pope draw two conclusions: Rome would have to work out a specific anthropology of manhood and womanhood and, as soon as possible, offer a clear statement about the impossibility of the ordination of women. The contents of Roman teaching about these two subjects will be summarized below

1. A theological anthropology of womanhood

In earlier times Roman statements about woman were not based on a reasoned doctrine, but on the ideas handed on in a patriarchal tradition. But this was broadly criticized, among others by the catholic international women’s organisations, certainly after the international Women’s Year, and the protest was becoming louder and more of a nuisance. Following the Council’s line Vatican texts from then on confirmed the ‘equal dignity and responsibility’ of women in family and society, always concernedly adding that the family tasks remained central and should not be jeopardized by outdoor work. Within the Church women started to participate in all kinds of activities, but the sacred area around the altar remained taboo. The old ban on girls being altar servers was explicitly reinforced, and the ‘new ministries’ of reader and acolyte were not opened to women. Only incidentally the influence of women’s studies can be traced, for example in the Apostolic Letter ‘Familiaris Consortio’ (1981) which condemns ‘machismo’.

The Vatican texts about women show no coherence: they do discuss certain aspects, but a systematic anthropological and theological foundation remains absent for the time being.

The first systematic exposition on womanhood can be found in the Apostolic Letter ‘Mulieris Dignitatem. On the dignity and vocation of woman’ (1988). In a meditation-like form pope John Paul II offers his ideas, starting from the Creator’s eternal plan. In an equal way men and women are human persons, but a specific difference keeps them apart. In other words: there is a fundamental equality and at the same time a basic difference. It is as such that women and men are equal partners and oriented towards each other. Accordingly any form of male domination is to be rejected.

The life choices in which women experience their dignity and vocation are motherhood and virginity; that is: as married mothers or consecrated virgins (= spiritual motherhood). Other ways of life remain out of sight, and what women themselves think gets no attention. What we are offered is no more than an abstract and universalist dissertation on ‘woman’: the personal experiences of women in our time and in various parts of the world do not play a role, and their social situation is ignored.

Motherhood as women’s physical and spiritual vocation is a predominant theme in John Paul’s thoughts: the way he looks at women is not based on the idea that motherhood is one element of what it is to be a woman, but rather that motherhood defines womanhood. Thus being a female person is onesidedly and excessively defined by biological characteristics. It is not surprising, then, that there exists a gap between the way the Vatican speaks of ‘woman’ and women’s actual life spheres. Women do no longer define themselves from out of their capacity to become mothers but, as independently thinking and acting persons, they incorporate the full human vocation into their self-definition.

The older assertion of the natural inferiority of women has now been replaced by the anthropological model of mutual complementarity. This is an important improvement: as subjects and in their human dignity men and women are fully equal. But the gap is not really bridged: the biological differences represent an essential difference in natures. The nature of men and the nature of women have irreducible characteristics of their own. Within this duality ‘the human being’ finds its perfection. Woman complements man, just as man complements woman: women and men are complementary.

From this dualistic view of the human person normative directives are derived for different roles and functions of women and men, both in society and in the church. There are equal rights and there is equal responsibility, but a specific vocation defines their concrete forms. Accordingly women can take up any job in society provided their primary responsibility is not jeopardized. Women should not strive to appropriate male characteristics; this would only lead to ‘masculinisation’ and to the loss of their fundamental glory.

A key role is this exposition is played by Mary who, as both virgin and mother, is the great symbol for all Christian women: in her the real dignity and vocation of ‘woman’ ‘become fully manifest. For John Paul this is not only a matter of pious Marian devotionalism, but it concerns the central meaning of ‘Mary as an image of the Church’.

The Church cannot be understood as a mystery if no reference is made to the Mother of our Saviour, who because of this is also the Mother of the Church. She leads all people on their road to holiness, and in her the Church has already reached perfection. Her role in the work of salvation is more fundamental than Peter’s and the Apostles’, and in personal holiness she surpasses all ministers in the church: popes, bishops and priests.

When explaining the relationship between Christ and the Church the pope makes extensive use of symbolical arguments, taking his lead from the letter to the Ephesians. Christ’s relationship with the Church is like the relationship between bridegroom and bride. Only a male can represent Christ the bridegroom and act ‘in persona Christi’. That is why Jesus has only called men to be his apostles: only they get the mission to administer the Eucharist.

Women represent the Church as a bride and are oriented on Mary. Just like Mary they are called to a higher holiness than the priesthood entails. Women are expected to endorse this specific female vocation willingly and actively. Thus the metaphor of bridegroom and bride is used to legitimize the exclusion of women from the ordained ministries. All this proves that ‘Mulieris Dignitatem’ is in fact a document of church policy. The pope starts by advocating the equality of women, but in the end he decides to uphold the existing patriarchal church order. What he sets out to prove was that the non-ordination of women also has an anthropological basis: the specific difference between the male and female natures leads to their tasks and symbolical functions being radically different. Just because of their female natures women cannot be a symbol of God and Christ; only men can be that.

This approach reminds one of the ‘biology is destiny’ school of thought with regard to women. So the proclamation of woman’s dignity results in an ideology that is both unchristian and inhumane.

In ‘Mulieris Dignitatem’ and other Vatican documents a dualistic anthropology shows itself: human nature exists in two basically different forms, a male one and a female one, and each of them is provided with specific physical and psychical characteristics.

The new and promising element here is the recognition of the personal equality of the two groups, but this is thwarted again and again by the subsequent emphasis on the specific nature of being a woman and woman’s specific role. This anthropological duplicity offers any opportunity to back out of the consequences of being equal persons.

Women’s studies radically reject that dualistic anthropological model. First of all because it provides a symbolical argument to keep women outside the ordained ministries. But especially because this model wants to prove that the roles women are assigned in society and church are based on the physical and psychical characteristics of the female nature, a role-assignment which is not arbitrary but nature-given and laid down by God in the order of creation. To be sure, the roles given to women and men are presented as mutually complementary, but in concrete reality the definition of the specific characteristics again results in a dominant position for men and subordination for women. A dualistic concept which preaches equality in theory but in practice legitimizes inequality is untenable and contradictory in itself. Profound differences between women and men are obvious. But the question is what meanings are attached to these differences. The dualistic approach ignores the fact that the traditional interpretations were formulated in an androcentric context.

That is why it is necessary that women themselves define the meaning of the sex differences and work out the practical implications. If this is only done by men, as is the case in the Vatican documents, the exposition on equality and complementarity itself also lacks credibility.

2. The ‘genius of women’: a Vatican discovery

A second document presenting the Roman authorities’ anthropological view on womanhood is the ‘Letter of Pope John Paul II to women’ of 1995.

It was elicited by the forthcoming Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijng, September 1995. The pope directly addresses all women throughout the world: “I would like to speak directly to every woman, to reflect with her on the problems and the prospects of what it means to be a woman in our time”.

The letter’s tone is strikingly sympathetic, and never before did a Vatican text speak so appreciatively about ‘this great treasure which is womanhood’. After the Vatican’s enormous loss of face in the previous year such a tone was badly needed if goodwill was to be regained among women. In 1994 the United Nations’ Conference on Population and Development, held in Cairo, had drafted an action programme which, among other things, spoke about the reproductive rights of women and the possibility of safe and legal abortion. The pope’s stubborn offensive against this and the obstruction by the Vatican delegation had provoked the deep indignation of women’s movements both in the western and the third world countries. Much more than ‘Mulieris Dignitatem’ does this Letter discuss women’s concrete life situations. The pope speaks of ‘the great process of the Women’s Liberation’ and pays his respects to those women who fought for ‘basic social, economic and political rights’. In the course of history much injustice was done to women: “they have often been relegated to the margins of society and even reduced to servitude". He apologizes for this to women: ”If objective blame is deserved by not just a few members of the Church, for this I am truly sorry". The ultimate anthropological basis of the dignity of women we find by meditating on the creation story in Genesis. We are told that the creation of woman is marked “by the principle of help: a help which is not one-sided but mutual. Men and women are complementary. Womanhood expresses the ‘human’ as much as manhood does, but in a different and complementary way”. Then follows the Letter’s core content, the formulation of the Vatican’s dualistic anthropology: womanhood and manhood are complementary, not only from the physical and psychological point of view, that is in acting, but also, from the ontological, that is in being. “It is only through the duality of the ‘masculine’ and the ‘feminine’ that the ‘human’ finds full realization”. ‘Duality’ refers to the essential differences between men and women, both in being and in acting. That is the main thing. But, the pope goes on, this difference does in no way affect their unity. That unity is given form in their interpersonal and reciprocal relationships. In order to explain this going together he repeatedly speaks of ‘the unity of the two’ or, more sophisticatedly, of ‘a relational uni-duality’ which means: forming a unity in diversity. In his view this anthropological model keeps the correct balance between on the one side an undifferentiated equality and on the other an irreconcilable conflictual difference.

This approach leads to his warning that equal rights for women must not lead to egalitarianism. For he wants to counteract the tendency to level out the specific differences between the sexes. For this would do damage to the typical richness and value of womanhood which are so vital for women themselves and for society. The most striking expression in this letter is ‘the genius of women’. The pope uses it when he wants to outline the highest human and moral qualities given in womanhood. In this letter he does this seven times, having already used it in the central section of ‘Mulieris Dignitatem’. He does not give a formal definition of ‘the feminine genius’,but describes its manifestations. We can see in Mary the highest expression of this ‘feminine genius’: “Putting herself at God’s service, she also puts herself at the service of others: a service of love

The ‘genius of women’ means attentiveness for concrete people, sensitivity to human beings in all circumstances: “women placing themselves at the service of others in their everyday lives. Perhaps more than men, women acknowledge the person, because they see persons with their hearts. They see them independently of various ideological or political systems. They see others in their greatness and limitations; they try to go out to them and help them”.

No doubt the pope’s gratitude for the immense contribution of women to mankind’s well-being, his condemnation of discrimination and injustices, especially sexual violence, and his appeal for an affective and intelligent campaign for the promotion of women, show a sincere and deep commitment. Still, catholic women maintain fundamental objections to the Vatican attitude towards women. Their criticism focuses on two points: the patriarchal anthropology and the sexual ethics taught by the Roman authorities.

According to the pope the essential and proper nature of women becomes manifest in women’s ‘natural’ concentration on tasks in the various areas of education and health care. “In this work they exhibit a kind of affective, cultural and spiritual motherhood”. Thus women are mainly defined as mothers and guardians of life. The definition of what is specific to being a male or a female uses an essentialist terminology, and there is a clear danger of biological determinism. Extolling women’s servanthood is supported by a theology of servanthood. A ‘servanthood ecclesiology’ tries to teach, us that selfless service is central in Christian life and community. But since the notion of service has been differently interpreted for women and for men, and the theology of service has different implications for women and men, this theology is generally rejected by feminist theologians.

As we saw, the central concept in John Paul II’s anthropology is the ‘complementarity of men and women’ - it strikes one he never speaks of the ‘partnership of men and women’. A certain diversity of roles is not the result of an arbitrary imposition but is rather an expression of what is specific to being male and female. This diversity is also present in the Church. Only men can, as priests, be an ‘icon’ of Christ, the shepherd and bridegroom of the Church. The womanhood of women also has an ‘iconic character’: it expresses the essence of the Church as the bride of Christ. So there is ‘iconic’ complementarity in the male and female roles in the Church.

In this letter addressed to all women in the world the pope explains why women cannot be priests in the Catholic Church. It may seem strange that it is in this context that he discusses why women are debarred from the ordained ministries and defends this in such a remarkable way. But the reason is clear: one year before, and in order to silence all discussion, he had published ‘Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. On Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone’, presented as a definite item of doctrine. This attempt to eradicate dissenting opinions, however, was a sad failure. The waves of indignation rose high, and never before was the resistance of female and male theologians against a papal decision expressed so clearly. Women’s ordination had already long before become something that obsessed him. Pope John Paul II considers it his inescapable duty to proclaim on any occasion that this is contrary to God’s will. Even a letter to women who in their overall majority are not catholics, is made a podium for his ecclesiastical policy.

This dualistic view of mankind is intimately connected to two other firmly held convictions: the emphasis on an androcentric presentation of God, and the assigning of a religious significance to Christ’s being a male. Rome does not allow inclusive language in liturgical texts (e.g. the persons of the Holy Trinity can only be referred to with masculine pronouns). Ironically, it is consistent that the Letter does not criticize sexist language, which after all is an elementary form of discrimination.

The sexual ethics presented by the Roman authorities are conspicuous for their rigidity concerning contraception, abortion and homosexuality. The pope is holding a personal and rabid crusade against the practice of abortion and legal recognition of it. The Letter’s section on abortion fits in his strategy, but for women who read it the sound is jarring. It speaks of pregnancy resulting from rape in situations of war or resulting from other instances of rape. And the judgement is despotic: “In these cases the choice to have an abortion always remains a grave sin”. Such a verdict shows the pitiless consistency engendered by the Vatican’s theological model of objective morality.

The most significant term, frequently used in this letter and in other papal anouncements, is ‘the dignity of women’. He does not speak of the ‘human rights of women’, an expression that is used more generally and especially in the women’s movement, and which has a clearer and more tangible content. This can be explained from the Vatican’s aversion to the concept of ‘reproductive rights of women’ since this can mean the right of women to make reproductive choices. Recognizing women’s sexual autonomy has no place in a patriarchal anthropology.

For women who have read this letter in which the Catholic Church claims to defend the dignity of women a painful question remains: why has the Holy See failed to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women?

Lofty ideas about the ‘promotion of women’, if not followed by concrete applications within the church community, are meaningless for women.

3. ‘The God-ordained equality of women’ (Mary McAleese)

During the last 25 years the Catholic Church has shown two ever stronger movements which are radically opposed: the campaign for equality of women as regards all church ministries, supported by a huge majority of the faithful and expressed ever more openly and forcefully, and the Roman authorities’ efforts to suppress this endeavour. The defense is mounted by the doctrinal authorities in a dramatically ascending series of statements and measures: a doctrinal statement (1976), a ban on discussing established doctrine (1994), the weapon of infallibility (1995), and the oath of loyalty with accompanying sanctions (1998).

The decisive statement of the pope runs as follows: “I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women, and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful” (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, 1994). This requires women to forswear their intellect and imposes a ‘sacrificium intellectus’( a resignation of rational insights) by theologians.

Rome’s prohibition of further debate has given rise to a flood of theological publications. The biblical and historical arguments for the non-ordination of women have been thoroughly refuted in numerous studies. The so-called ‘theological exegesis’ used by the pope in his expositions leads to an arbitrary selection and interpretation of biblical texts. In 1993 the Pontifical Biblical Commission published a study on ‘The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church’ in which a section is devoted to feminist biblical hermeneutics and the feminist exegesis is called ‘very enriching’. No traces of this excellent study are found either in the pope’s texts about women or in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

The criticism of the biblical (Jesus did not include women in ordained ministry) and historical (the Church’s continuous tradition excluded women from ordination) arguments that are put forward has led to Rome’s ever more emphatically using the symbolic argumentation. In the pope’s reasonings symbolical meanings are the core of his stand that women cannot be ordained priests. Thus an existing piece of church order is vindicated by appealing to a symbolism which, seen from a male point of view, allegedly underlies it.

But a theological argumentation built on symbols and metaphors has no cogency. No binding conclusions can be drawn from it with regard to the ordering of the church community. Existing things have a reality value of their own which prevails over their religious symbol values. This order of precedence is improperly reversed if the symbol is considered normative for the realities. It easily leads to metaphysical speculations that are susceptible to ideological abuse.

Starting with the ‘Declaration on the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood’ of 1976 a ‘Marian’ argumentation is also advanced. As mother of the Church Mary ranks highest in sanctity. But she was not given the task to be a priest in the Church. In the same way women, representing Mary symbolically, are called to a more elevated form of holiness. If a woman strives to become a priest, she is aiming for ‘the inferior’ and disowning the ‘superior’ she embodies as a woman.

In the past women were refused entry to the priesthood because of their alleged ‘inferior status’. Now they are accorded a ‘state of eminence’, but the inference is identical. Pope John Paul II’s choice of symbols is noticeably selective. The New Testament offers many images for the Church; none of them has a monopoly, and the bridegroom-bride symbolism is no exception. Both this selective choice and the manner of reasoning show that the interests of the church institute play a role. What is no more than a symbolic suggestion - seen from an androcentric perspective - is twisted into a description of reality and then into a directive for this reality. If infallibility is used as the last resort to reduce counter arguments to silence, the power factor raises its head. The oath of loyalty required of priests and theologians obliges them to submit to the so-called definitive Roman doctrinal pronouncements (cf. ‘Ad Tuendam Fidem’, 1998). Who, for example, publicly advocates the ordination of women, is guilty of breach of oath, and punishable for this. This gives theology features of ideology. The truth is caught in the trap of power.

That is why Elisabeth Schussler-Fiorenza has pointed out that in this era of Roman fanaticism theology is called to become a criticism of ideology: it must point out where texts of the magisterium are ideological - for the tactics of ideology are legitimizing, veiling, dehistoricizing, fragmentizing and unification (‘Ecclesia semper reformanda: theology as criticism of ideology’ in Concilium 1999.1).

In the Women’s Ordination Movement attention is asked for the distinction between pursuing the ordination of women and fighting non-ordination as an injustice. The insistence that women as women are unordainable is wrongful for various reasons. It is an insult to all women that women are excluded because of their biological womanhood. It is an ignoring of the vocation of those women that want to work in the ecclesiastical ministry. It is a deformation of the Church as the sacrament of community between people and with God. And it means that the pastoral talents of women are not made available to the community of the faithful.

The question whether ordination itself is a desirable goal gets different answers, dependent on the specific situation of women. Quite a number of women believe that women can be ordained, but that it would be unhealthy for a woman to put herself in this position in the present hierachical system. The recent Vatican documents show a massive arrogance, the arrogance of ‘truth is power’. They confirm the impression that a desperate rearguard battle is being fought. Realizing this women and men at the grassroots start striving for a process of structural transformation. Mary Hunt describes how in all regions of the worldwide Church women are finding creative forms of liturgical, pastoral and diaconal activities (‘We women are church: Roman catholic women are creating ministries and theologies’ in Concilium 1999.3). This is a hopeful perspective, as Penny Lernoux reminds us: “The People of God will continue their march, despite the power-plays and intrigue in Rome"(‘People of God’. The Struggle for World Catholicism. New York 1989, 417)

René van Eyden


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