A Woman's Perspective on New Vatican DocumentMARY SHIVANANDAN
A new letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has called for a renewed collaboration of men and women.Such
a vision cannot be realized without understanding God's plan for man and woman
outlined in the Pope's theology of the body, says Mary Shivanandan, a professor
of theology at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at
Catholic University of America and author of Crossing the Threshold of Love:
A New Vision of Marriage in the Light of John Paul II's Anthropology.
shared with ZENIT how both men and women can only be truly liberated when they
understand that they were created for communion with one another.
to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in
the Catholic Church and in the World" opens by saying that "the Church is
called today to address certain currents of thought which are often at variance
with the authentic advancement of women." Briefly, what are those "currents of
these currents of thought are linked to the rise of radical feminism. Since women
are vulnerable in bearing and rearing children, feminists see this as an almost
inescapable invitation to oppression by men. Here, I am not here talking about
the woman with a difficult pregnancy.
To overcome this exposure to "domination,"
women must at all costs be in control of their bodies in order to be on a level
playing field with men in the family and all areas of society. Such an attitude
is hostile to both men and women. As the document says, it brings about harmful
confusion regarding the human person.
Since it is not possible to do away
with sexual difference altogether, these feminists want to separate the physical,
biological differences of "sex" from gender. Gender then becomes a purely cultural
In this view I am citing here French pioneer feminist
Simone de Beauvoir femininity per se no longer exists as a fixed entity
with determined characteristics. There is no such thing as the "eternal feminine."
feminists have gone even farther in rejecting sexual difference. They charge that
even claiming the right to be different is to claim the right to be oppressed.
Women don't want to "be" men but to destroy the very idea of both man and woman.
Above all, they seek individual autonomy and control of their lives.
the document points out, this desire to be autonomous and to determine one's own
sexual identity has profound effects on the family and society.
1970s, I attended the annual conference of a national secular family organization.
The definition of the family was already undergoing revision into several types
on an equal footing: the traditional nuclear family of father, mother and children;
the single-parent family; the blended family; and the family with both "parents"
of the same sex.
In the late 1980s, the push began to get literature into
family-life courses in public schools to validate the homosexual and even bisexual
I recall the frustration of the four of us who were Catholic
representatives on a committee to choose the educational materials for family-life
courses. In our efforts to uphold the traditional definition of marriage as the
exclusive and permanent union of a man and a woman and the proper context for
the generation and upbringing of children, we were outvoted almost every time.
time these ideas so pervasive in Western secular culture have penetrated
even Catholic institutions. As the document points out, there has been a concerted
effort by feminist Scripture scholars to reinterpret Scripture to accommodate
this so-called liberation of women. They have attempted to counter what they see
as patriarchal and oppressive texts by declaring that whatever is not in accord
with their understanding of the dignity of women cannot truly be the Word of God.
example, Phyllis Bird and Phyllis Trible, in reinterpreting the Genesis creation
accounts, use their considerable exegetical skills to link the blessing of fertility
purely with our animal nature and the human role of dominion with our humanity.
The result is a greatly impoverished understanding of the nature of man and woman
and their communion.
What is the Church's concept of the "authentic advancement of women"?
The document defines the Church's response as "active collaboration." It gives
a beautiful summary of John Paul II's theology of the body in his Wednesday audiences
from 1979 to 1984 on God's plan for man and woman and their communion. Without
understanding this foundation there can be no true liberation of either man or
Simone de Beauvoir had charged that woman has always been defined
as the "Other" in relation to man as the "Subject," the "Absolute." Woman as Other
is always "less" as an object to the subject.
In John Paul II's understanding
of Genesis, woman is truly an "other" but in no way less a subject than the man.
Each of them is a subject, meaning a fully self-conscious self-determining person
made in the image of God. She is simply a different bodily manifestation of the
Furthermore, neither alone can fully image God. Both together in
their communion constitute the full image of the Trinity.
As John Paul
II said in his audience on November 14, 1979: "Man becomes the image of God not
so much in the moment of solitude as in the moment of communion. Right 'from the
beginning,' his is not only an image in which the solitude of a person who rules
the world is reflected, but also, and essentially an image of a divine communion
The "Absolute" is not man but God, and both the man and the
woman are in a unique partnership with him. Unlike some traditional interpretations
of Scripture the woman does not only relate to God through her husband. She is
equally a person in every way.
Man's and woman's "otherness" is not for
separation but for communion. The man can never stand alone. His existence always
presupposes the existence of woman. They are created for one another.
song from the musical South Pacific says it well. The chorus of sailors
on an idyllic island in the Pacific during wartime lament that they have it all
but feminine companionship "There is nothing like a dame!"
feminine companionship is not for the sake simply of sexual satisfaction
that would be treating the woman like an object. Their communion must always be
within what the Pope calls the hermeneutic of the gift.
Through the grace
of original innocence Adam was able to receive Eve in the full truth of her femininity
and she him in his masculinity. They could see each other according to God's vision.
body in its masculinity and femininity has a nuptial meaning the capacity
to express love. This consummate communion, expressed most completely in the one-flesh
union, constituted original happiness. God blessed this communion with the gift
of a child.
The norm for relations between man and woman remains the harmony
of original innocence. Although the fall from grace ruptured man and woman's relation
with God, John Paul II stresses that the nuptial meaning of the body was distorted
but not destroyed.
Now the redemption of the body and sexuality is a reality
through redemption in Christ. We cannot return to original innocence overcoming
concupiscence, which can so easily get in the way of healthy man-woman relationships,
comes about through effort as well as grace but marriage as a sacrament
can image Christ's total self-giving union with the Church and consecrated virginity
is a new privileged way in the kingdom.
It is within this context that
the Church presents the "authentic advancement of women."
What are the essentials of the "active collaboration"? How can it play out in
the family, in the workplace and in society?
If these false ideas have arisen in the area of women's sexuality, then the solution
must lie there also. Pope Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae truly
a sign of contradiction is the cornerstone of a new feminism.
the body expresses the person, then the way it is designed to express the love
between the man and the woman must surely have something to say to us about collaboration
in other areas of life. Humanae Vitae is not simply about the evils of
contraception. It presents a blueprint for true marital happiness and relations
between men and women.
Since the 1970s, I have been involved in the natural
family planning movement and have been fortunate to know couples who put the Church's
teaching into practice. I have also had an opportunity to participate in research
on just why it helps marriages and brings a new appreciation of both masculine
and feminine values.
For the woman it is deeply satisfying to be accepted
by her husband as she is. The sacrifice he makes of his sexual desires to cherish
their joint fertility greatly increases her love for him. The very process of
jointly monitoring their fertility increases intimate communication. One of the
highlights of their marriage is consciously conceiving a child together and sharing
in its nurture.
The struggle with abstinence brings the reward of self-mastery
for self-gift, as John Paul II would say. When they trust in the way God has made
them as man and woman, they learn to trust God more and surrender to his will
in every area of their lives.
It seems to me that here is a model for "active
collaboration" in the workplace and society as well as the family.
What is the importance of feminine values in the life of society?
I would prefer to change the question to "What is the importance of masculine
and feminine values in the life of society, since men are included in the title
of the Letter?"
man and woman are by nature oriented to each other, then feminine values in society
can only flourish in a society that truly honors masculine values.
reflections on Ephesians 5:21-33, John Paul II, like other commentators, highlights
the husband's role as initiator. The submission the wife is called to give is
a response to his love. When the woman takes aggressive initiative, the man takes
on a passive role or withdraws.
From all accounts this has become a major
problem in our society. Without the right kind of masculine leadership
sometimes called servant leadership feminine values cannot flourish.
of course, is the model for servant leadership. The recent document gives a hint
of this in talking about Christ's power as "neither one of domination nor of power
as understood by the world."
Ephesians 5:21-33 is a key text for discovering
the role of the bridegroom/husband. In "Letter
to Families," John Paul II calls the passage a "compendium or summa in some
sense, of the teaching about God and man that was brought to fulfillment in Christ."
Rossetti has summarized the key points: the existence of a given order as Christ/husband
as initiator and Church/woman as active receiver; total reciprocity and mutual
submission; the kenotic character of the self-emptying of the male's leadship;
the equality and unity of the two which is not harmed by a distinction of roles;
and the woman/spouse as representative of all humanity in relation to God.
are the principles that the document points out must guide all collaboration between
men and women in the family and society. The document takes a great step forward
in highlighting the need for "active collaboration." And that collaboration means
bringing the gifts of both men and women to society.
What is required in "active collaboration"?
In his philosophical work The Acting Person, Karol Wojtyla, the future
John Paul II, spells out what is required in mutual cooperation.
is the word he uses to describe the mode of collaboration. True participation
takes place when the subject, in acting together with others for a common good,
fulfills himself in the action. In working together for the good of the family
and society, both the man and the woman will succeed if in doing so they fulfill
themselves in the action.
The document has spelled out ways in which women,
both married and single, can fulfill themselves by participating in the work of
The woman's maternal role, linked to her orientation to relationship,
needs to be honored so that she can choose to stay home to care for her children.
The woman's presence in the home provides an atmosphere that nurtures culture
and that in itself is a major contribution to society.
As a place where
work is performed freely out of love, the home provides a counterfoil to our commercial
culture in which everything has a price tag. The home is a place, too, where the
uniqueness of each person is valued and spiritual values are fostered as it is
a "domestic church."
Alternately, the document exhorts that "an appropriate
work-schedule" needs to be made available so that the woman who wishes or needs
to contribute specific talents to society can do so without undue stress to herself
and the family.
There have been great advances in providing flexible work
schedules. The development of the Internet and telecommunications enable more
and more women, as well as men, to work from home and make their own hours.
careers has become more usual, and opportunities to return to school have increased.
The workplace itself benefits from women's attention to the personal and concrete.
They can moderate overemphasis on the "bottom line" in business and bring concern
for each person to all professions.
How does the Church benefit from feminine values?
The document particularly mentions Mary's faith and obedience to God as the model
for all believers. Her fiat mihi is far from passive.
In the encyclical
Redemptoris Mater John Paul II says Mary's response to the angel Gabriel
shows her to be an "authentic subject" her own person. She has a stupendous
decision to make and she makes it freely. Her courage is completely dependent
on her trust in God. Men can well learn this courageous and humble trust from
Women philosophers and theologians are making valuable contributions
to our understanding of men and women. Prudence Allen's outstanding two volumes
on the Concept of Women show the contribution of women to philosophy, especially
in the areas of analogy and symbolism. She calls Hildegard of Bingen the "foundress"
of the idea of sex complementarity.
Monica Migliorino Miller has written
insightfully on Sexuality and Authority in the Catholic Church. She clarifies
the concept of authority as meaning "source," not arbitrary power.
chose to redeem us through his spousal relation with the Church. The feminine
stands as the bride in the spousal relation. For a woman to be admitted to the
ordained priesthood would be to falsify the analogy. Miller perceives the role
of women in the Church as calling men to their responsibilities. She cites the
pro-life movement as a particular example. And indeed women have been in the forefront
of the movement.
These are only two examples of women philosophers and
theologians. Others also are making significant contributions. Sister Timothy
Prokes' latest book, At the Interface: Theology and Virtual Reality, brings
a keen analytical eye to a critical subject.
In Michele Schumacher's book
Women in Christ: Towards a New Feminism she brings the scholarship of several
women to bear on flaws at the heart of radical feminism and shows a path forward.
Smith has spent her entire professional career engaged in making the Church's
teaching on responsible parenthood better understood.
What can be done to help women, and men, fully understand and embrace
the Church's call for authentic advancement of women?
One of the most effective ways to promote the authentic advancement of women is
to spread the vision expressed in this document and in the Pope's theology of
the body as far and wide as possible. One women's organization especially is tapping
into the particular feminine gifts of attention to each individual person in order
to transform the culture.
Women Affirming Life was founded
nearly 15 years ago in Boston to provide a compassionate voice both for women
and the unborn in our society. It is led by a dynamic group of professional women
but its membership includes many stay-at-home moms. It has a threefold purpose
— again in tune with the "feminine genius" — of prayer, education and witness.
years ago a need arose to provide a group study guide on the theology of the body.
Women Affirming Life took on the task. This was not to be a simple classroom study
guide but a vehicle of transformation, the conversion of heart the “Letter to
the Bishops" speaks about.
Following the Pope's own preference for experience
as a mode of learning, the discussion questions invite each participant not to
intellectual discussion, but to apply the concepts to his or her lived experience.
The overall context of the meetings is prayer, Scripture and evangelization.
can take up to one year to complete the four six-session seasons. That allows
time for a real transformation. The groups are composed of men and women, married,
single and divorced, young and not so young. Groups are spreading to different
dioceses throughout different states and even Canada. The facilitators, who are
ordinary Catholics committed to the magisterium, offer their time freely as a
So far the response to "A New Language" study guide has exceeded
all expectations. We continue to hear stories of transformation. For men particularly,
it has become one place where they can discuss freely issues of masculine and
feminine identity and roles.
There are many other initiatives to spread
the theology of the body. As a faculty member of the John Paul II Institute for
Studies on Marriage and Family at the Catholic University of America I see every
day the seeds of renewal from this great initiative of John Paul II and the Knights
of Columbus bearing fruit.
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Reprinted with permission from Zenit - News from Rome. All rights
Shivanandan is Associate Dean and Professor of Theology at the John
Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, Washington, D.C. Her
most recent book Crossing
the Threshold of Love: Contemporary Marriage in the Light of John Paul
IIs Anthropology is the
most exhaustive and
scholarly assessment of [John Paul IIs] Christian anthropology ever written.
It examines the scientific data and the theological analysis that underlie his
teaching on marriage and sexuality and is both lucid and multidisciplinary.
She is also the author of Challenge
to Love, a book on couples’ lived experience of the Church’s teaching
on responsible parenthood. Mary Shivanandan is on the Advisory Board of The Catholic
Educators Resource Center.
Copyright © 2004 Zenit