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Posted Saturday, July 31, 2004 at 5:35 a.m. CDT

Vatican document rejects combative feminism,
seeks 'active collaboration' for men and women

Document recommends cultivation of 'feminine values,' but bars the door to women priests

By John L. Allen Jr.

Editor's Note

Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister offers a critique of the Vatican's new document on women: Since when did women become the problem?

Pia de Solenni, a moral theologian who works as the Director of Life and Women's Issues at the Family Research Council, in Washington, offers a different perspective: Now the conversation can begin

Watch for updates and more coverage of this issue.

In a critique of what some in Rome regard as American-style feminism, a new Vatican document has rejected systems of thought that, in its view, blur differences between men and women and regard women as adversaries of men.

A related tendency to see gender as culturally constructed, the document warns, has generated “a new model of polymorphous sexuality,” which reflects an “attempt to be free from one’s biological conditioning.”

As an alternative, the document proposes a biblically based vision of male/female “active collaboration,” positing that men and women have profound differences rooted in human nature that are complementary rather than competitive.

In one intriguing theological assertion, the document says that male/female differences are so fundamental that they will endure even in the afterlife. The distinction is seen as “belonging ontologically to creation, and destined therefore to outlast the present time, evidently in a transfigured form,” it says.

The analysis comes in a 37-page document of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog agency, titled “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World.” It was released Saturday, July 31.

The full text of the document is on the Vatican Web site: On the Collaboration of Men and Women

In the civil sphere, the document endorses labor policies that do not force women to choose between a career and motherhood, and urges governments to “combat all unjust sexual discrimination.” It also calls for women to have access to positions of responsibility in politics, economics and social affairs.

In the context of male/female difference, the document once again confirms the male-only character of the Roman Catholic priesthood. It also offers a theological defense of celibacy and virginity.

The document recommends cultivation of “feminine values” such as “listening, welcoming, humility, faithfulness, praise and waiting.” At the same time, the document insists it is not urging women to “a passivity inspired by an outdated conception of femininity.”

"Every outlook which presents itself as a conflict between the sexes is only an illusion and a danger; it would end in segregation and competition between men and women, and would promote a solipsism nourished by a false conception of freedom," the document states.

Vatican sources told NCR July 30 that the document, which has been in preparation for years, has had a complex editorial history. At various points it seemed it might not appear because of internal debate. One source compared it to the U.S. bishops’ ill-fated attempt to bring out a pastoral letter on women, an effort that spanned a full decade from 1982 to 1992. That text went through a long series of revisions before eventually ending in defeat in a floor vote.

The document played to mixed initial reviews from American Catholic women.

Regina Schulte, a feminist theologian, told NCR that the document’s insistence on seeing the relationship between Christ and the church in terms of bride and bridegroom “places women in a headlock as far as church leadership and ultimately ordination go.”

“It consigns women … to the role of a passive partner, who does not initiate activity, but waits to be acted upon,” Schulte said. “Thus, as has been argued by John Paul II, women cannot be granted significant leadership roles in the church.”

“[The document] states … that women, faced with the abuse of power, seek power,” Schulte said. “This is not what women in the church seek; they seek a share of leadership.”

At the same time, Schulte said she found things to like, especially the document’s “positive tone” and its emphasis on female equality.

Mary Ann Glendon, who teaches law at Harvard University and is the first female president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, said the document is “essentially a critique of certain aspects of old-line ‘70s feminism” that have long since faded.

So why issue it?

“I think the answer must be that, like rays from a dead star, the old ideology is still causing harm in some parts of the world, especially to children,” Glendon told NCR.

Glendon said the document names but does not resolve a critical dilemma: how to respond to women’s legitimate aspirations for full participation in social and political life, without harm to families, children and the common good. She said it offers a resource in Catholic social thought not yet tried in most societies: support for all legitimate forms of work, including child raising and other work within the family.

Pia de Solenni, a Catholic who serves as Director of Life and Women’s Studies at the Washington, D.C.-based Family Research Council, said she was “ecstatic” about the document.

“While various forms of feminism have attempted answers, they typically do not provide authentic healing,” de Solenni told NCR. “The document brings in a higher level that needed to be added if we're going to have a serious discussion.”

“It's the beginning of a discussion that the world desperately needs as we prepare for the International Year of the Woman in 2005, and begin to address particular questions that relate to the role of women in all societies and religions, e.g. Muslim women,” she said.

The July 31 document builds on earlier Vatican warnings about feminist ideology.

In 2003, for example, a Lexicon published by the Pontifical Council for the Family carried an article on “gender.” It asserted that radical feminism is aiming to “deconstruct” male/female differences and traditional sexual norms, as well as the family and educational systems, in order to “reconstruct” a new social order in which people are free to choose from among a range of sexual identities and practices.

That article was written by Jutta Burggraf, a lay German theologian who teaches at the Opus Dei-sponsored University of Navarre in Spain.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, July 31, 2004

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