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Posted Tuesday, August 3, 2004 at 8:32 a.m. CDT

Now the conversation can begin

The new Vatican letter sets the ground to begin a theological conversation on sexual difference that has taken more than a hundred years to arrange.

By Pia de Solenni

Much of the rapid response to the new Vatican document, "On the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World," suggests that the church is attacking radical feminism and that she only wants women barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen.

But a complete read of the new Vatican letter, reveals something dynamic. It sets the ground to begin a theological conversation on sexual difference that has taken more than a hundred years to arrange.

Unfortunately, the effort to defend women's rights took a downward turn within the church about 40 years ago and spiraled into a bitter match of women versus men. The debate was reduced to a power grab that has created a temporary illusion of having it all, only to find that various conquests have slipped through our fingers, leaving us with no lasting victories. The struggles remain and the case can be made that while some educational and professional advances have developed, both women and men have a sense that they have less than before.

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?

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.

Competition and retaliation have created a stalemate. Thus, the letter is not about women, as much of the media coverage suggests. It's about both women and men and their relationship in civil society and within the church.

"In the beginning"

Radical differences require radical premises. To set the stage for constructive conversation between the sexes requires that we go back to basics. The creation narrative of Genesis lays out the fundamental Christian belief that God created man and woman in his image. Human sexual differentiation is an essential component of the revealed image of God. Despite the distortion caused by the first sin of the first man and woman, the letter reminds us that the creation of woman reveals that humanity is a relational reality, human beings cannot exist alone. We are meant for one another. Woman and man were created to exist together and for each other. Their differences are constructive and complementary. The suffering of aloneness always comes as a result of human sin.

That human sexuality reveals both our nature and our path to God is fundamental for any of the revival of Christian anthropology. A conversation which does not accept that women and men are equal and complementary may be valid in another belief system, but it departs from core Christian beliefs.

Nevertheless, the consequences of sin are brutally real, as the document notes specifically concerning the tensions that often exist between women and men: "a relationship in which love will frequently be debased into pure self-seeking, in a relationship which ignores and kills love and replaces it with the yoke of domination of one sex over the other." There's nothing Pollyanna about the church's perception of this reality.

The diagnosis continues: "It follows then that the relationship is good, but wounded and in need of healing." The healing hasn't come after years of battles between the sexes. Fortunately, we have another paradigm that can be considered, namely that of man and woman's simultaneous sexually differentiated participation in salvation history.

The spousal relationship characterizing the relation between Israel and her God will never fit into a simple Ladies Home Journal understanding of marriage. Even without its brown paper wrapping, Cosmopolitan can't capture it either. Despite the tensions between the sexes, the covenant between woman and man becomes the model and way for attaining salvation. In fact, the marriage covenant exists because of God's covenant with humanity. The Song of Songs uses the erotic poetry of male and female sexual desire to illustrate the joy and love expressed by God for his people and the church in her realization of her relationship to God. Spousal language symbolizes the reality between God and the church. The church, composed of men and women, is the bride.

In a time when sexual differences have been downplayed and even disregarded, this element of our theology takes on an even more striking significance. Popular culture often represents sexuality as simply a pleasurable, playful diversion. Along with the very modern rationalist desire to overcome biological destiny, postmodern doubt and nihilism have produced theories of polymorphous sexuality that deny the basic distinction between men and women. For some scholars, nature's plan for human reproduction is no longer needed for human flourishing. In fact, some feminists have even proudly declared that with the advent of new reproductive technologies men are now superfluous.

But the divine revelation offered by the Christian faith tells a very different story about us and our God. God became man and was born of a woman.

The reality of sexual differentiation continues beyond theology and into our day to day lives. For this reason, the document maintains that women should be present in all aspects of society -- politics, economics, and policy making included.

At the same time, a woman should not be measured solely in professional or economic terms. Many women choose to marry and have children. Their contribution to society is irreplaceable, not because they can change diapers and make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (anyone can do that) but because of who they are. Part of the conversation that the document proposes is a discussion of who woman is. Many women have already proven, even to thick-headed chauvinists, that they can do just about everything as well as, if not better than, a man. Now it's time to turn the discussion towards who woman is and who man is rather than simply what they do. Given that the church starts with the understanding that sexual differences are good and that the body plays an essential role in comprising the person, it follow that who we are as women and men should contribute to whatever we do even when our professions and tasks are the same.

In order to fully understand this, however, we are challenged to consider deeply the role of Mary the Mother of God. She's not the yes-girl that many of us have created and accepted in our minds. She actively believes and understands where others, including Zachariah, could not. In a sense, she initiates the miracle at the wedding in Cana. Her passivity is a different type of activity that is her privileged capacity to know. What she therefore offers to the church and the world is a dynamic model of an activity different from that of any man and at the same time essential for the continuation of salvation history. She fulfills perfectly what all women are called to be: brilliant examples and witnesses for all Christians of how to respond, as a church, to the love of Christ the Bridegroom.

The invitation has been issued and the table has been set. The question now remains as to whether the sons and daughters of the church will begin a serious conversation about sexual differentiation or whether they will continue to stick to their own diatribes which bear little resemblance to the reality we are offered.

Pia de Solenni is a moral theologian who works as the Director of Life and Women's Issues at the Family Research Council, in Washington, DC.

National Catholic Reporter, August 3, 2004

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