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Posted Monday, August 2, 2004 at 4:28 p.m. CDT

To the 'experts in humanity': Since when did women become the problem?

By Joan Chittister

"The Church, expert in humanity, has a perennial interest in whatever concerns men and women," a new document from Rome begins. After that the expertise, sincere as it may be, gets cloudy.

The interesting, if not tantalizing, thing about Vatican documents that purport to deal with the subject of what it is to be a woman in church and society is that they usually manage to confuse the issue more than they clarify it. The latest word on women from Rome, "The Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and In the World" is no exception. If anything, it reads like a scene out of Fiddler on the Roof as Tevye, in his monologue with God, vacillates between "on the one hand" and "on the other hand."

Editor's Note

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 on the Vatican's latest document: Now the conversation can begin

Read the news story NCR posted July 31: Vatican document rejects combative feminism, seeks 'active collaboration' for men and women .

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

Watch for updates and more coverage of this issue.

As a result, the document is not as universally bad as many of the headline writers imply. Nor is it as good as it should be in a world where women as young as 12 and as old as 80 are being raped, sold into the sex slave business at the rate, the United Nation says, of 2 million a year, used as sexual instruments of war, and left socially invisible in most of the world, their lives totally out of their own hands, their unique agendas, issues and concerns almost totally ignored everywhere.

At its worst, "on the one hand," the document demonstrates a basic lack of understanding about feminism, feminist theory and feminist development.

In the first place, it treats feminism as a monolithic creature of dark and dour designs. It refers to "radical" feminism, a very precise term in the history of feminism, as if it were the bulk of feminist theory. Even at the height of its public expression almost 40 years ago, radical feminism was never more than the smallest stream in the history of the consciousness-raising by both feminist women and men.

In the second place, this document refers to radical feminism as if it were the driving force in feminist philosophy and a clearly univocal woman's world view -- and it does a debatable job even of that. As a result, both the terms used and the theory appealed to in the argument is pitiably out of date and embarrassingly partial in its analysis of the nature of feminism.

At its best, "on the other hand," the document manifests a development in basic Catholic or Vatican teaching about the role and place of women in society.

Two positions vie for ascendancy here, one only serving to negate the other:

First, the document waffles between two anthropologies, two theological world views, and tries, in vain, to satisfy both.

It reinforces the notion of a dual anthropology -- that men and women are essentially different creatures as a result of their sex organs -- and it blurs it at the same time.

Women, it assures us in one segment, are fully "human" and made in the image of God. Women have their own unique role to play in the economy of salvation, in other words. Men and women are, therefore, equally responsible to nurture and take responsibility for the human enterprise.

In another place, however, the other anthropology is equally clear. Sex -- femaleness -- not personhood, not the nature of what it means to be human, determines our roles in life, the document argues. The natures of men and women are determined by their sex, it says unequivocally, and women are, therefore, determined to be the caregivers of the family and the partner most responsible for the success of family life. A "boys will be boys" theology of marriage, which for centuries kept women in damaging relationships, lurks threateningly near the surface here.

A second ghost hovers around the edges of the thesis, this one the blaming, warning, whipping ghost aimed at women who dare to speak up and make decisions about their own lives. Here, the document reveals its underlying disregard, even diminishment, of the motives, meaning and issues of women by asserting that the feminist "tendency" is to emphasize subordination in order "to create antagonism" in women, to make themselves "adversaries of men" and to 'seek power."

These things, the document says, "lead to opposition between women and men in which the identity and role of one are emphasized to the disadvantage of the other." Not a hint is given in this document, of course, that this has already been the case for 2,000 years as men lorded it over women in every aspect of society, including the legal ownership by men of the very homes of which women were said to be "the queens."

Then it blames feminism for homosexuality, same-sex marriages and the criticism, rather than the "development," of sacred scripture.

Finally, it identifies the dispositions of Mary for "listening, welcoming, humility, faithfulness, praise and waiting" as reasons for barring women from the priesthood, a theological leap of immense proportions.

At the same time, the document makes all the world feminine in its spousal imagery for the relationship between Jesus and the whole church and so recognizes the universal personhood of both women and men.

It calls for "a just valuing of the work of women within the family," a part of the liberation of women too long ignored by church and feminists alike.

It calls for "appropriate work-schedules" for working women. "Flex-time," feminists call it, and seek it for both women and men, both mothers and fathers, so that they can 'devote themselves to taking care of (her) children."

It admits that "femininity" -- being "for the other" -- is more than simply an attribute of the female sex.

Unlike centuries of documents before, this one does not say that "woman's place is in the home." On the contrary, it states that "the promotion of women within society must be understood and desired as a humanization accomplished through those values, rediscovered thanks to women."

Also by Joan Chittister

Joan Chittister writes a weekly Web column for From Where I Stand is posted to the NCR Web site every Thursday.

The document is, in other words, a vessel half empty, half full. It is the classic "good news, bad news" presentation. The problem is that despite its clear confusion on the subject, it presumes to speak authoritatively about the condition and motives of half the population of the world. And the unhappiest news of the document may be that it asserts that what this presentation says of women will hold true "even after death." So much for the glorified body and spiritual soul. So much for even divine equality.

The best part of the document, nevertheless, may well be seen in the future to have been its introduction. There the document has significant potential: it says of itself that it is "meant as a starting point," that it is "a sincere search for the truth," that it is "a common commitment to the development of even more authentic relationships." Let's hope so.

It is at best only the beginning of a conversation on a subject women have wanted for almost half a century now. At worst, it is an obstruction to the dialogue it says it seeks as it accuses women of making an enemy out of men.

But the real problem with the document is that its sweeping condemnation of the rising tide of women's claims to fullness of humanity, now clear in every part of the world, is that it will simply be dismissed for its lack of insight, academic understanding and relevance. "It really doesn't hold a lot of interest for me anymore," a younger woman said to me today. And a man said in an e-mail, " I will not be reading the new Vatican document denouncing 'radical feminism' .... I wonder when they are going to write a document assailing radical masculinism."

Now there's a question for the "expert in humanity."

Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister was prioress of the Benedictine community in Erie, Pa. From 1978 to 1990 and head of the national Leadership Conference of Women Religious in 1976-77.

National Catholic Reporter, August 2, 2004

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