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Issue Date:  August 13, 2004

A document from the male imagination

It was, in the end, a document that issued from the male imagination. In popular parlance it was quickly branded “The Vatican Letter on Women.” Its actual title, however, is “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World.” It fell well short of that noble goal.

Many would consider the Vatican writing about women nothing more than a late-night comedy sketch waiting to happen.

Seeking shreds of redemption, Sr. Joan Chittister writes that the “on the one hand, on the other hand” nature of the document makes it “not as universally bad as many of the headline writers imply. Nor is it as good as it should be” in a world where the catalog of ills against women is alarmingly long and brutal.

As quickly as opinions formed about the document, scattered agreement also developed across the borders of those opinions that the document could serve as a starting point for discussion. As the evidence on our pages this week indicates, the discussion, indeed, could be helpful and provocative.

If one desire is, as Pia de Solenni writes, a “revival of Christian anthropology,” the project -- the discussion -- expands exponentially. For this is a document that has not broken entirely with the anthropology of Augustine and Aquinas and the taboos and simple misconceptions that have too long colored Catholic thinking about sexuality.

So in the midst of this document on the “Collaboration of Men and Women,” one finds an incongruous paragraph that seems intent on diminishing the sexual lives of married men and women and reestablishing celibacy atop some hierarchy of sexual expression. While married people “characterize the ‘love that never ends,’ ” their “temporally and earthly expression of sexuality is transient and ordered to a phase of life marked by procreation and death. Celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom seeks to be the prophecy of this form of future existence of male and female.” Such language is indicative of the ping-ponging back and forth between sex as a kind of cosmic symbol and sex as a limiting factor to real-life humans that often plagues discussion of sexual matters in Catholic documents.

As with the taboos, celibacy has long ceased to be a valid measure of holiness for most Catholics.

Coming 40 years late to a movement, feminism, that has had worldwide significance would be an embarrassment for most institutions, but it is excused in the church as an acceptable arc of progress for a 2,000-year-old organization not known for quick reactions.

The disadvantage, of course, is that it is always lagging behind the discussion and dragging along outdated presumptions. So the very introduction of the document makes it appear as if women the world over woke up one day in “recent years” and decided to be antagonistic.

Certainly one could argue there is value in a critique of extreme feminism, or garden-variety feminism, for that matter, if one is conversant with the whole history and all of the complexities of a movement that is trying to bring women out of centuries of subjugation.

One need not look far -- the fundamentalisms of our day that echo broad realities of the past will suffice -- to see the extremes of subordination to which women have been subjected and the long road of liberating that remains to be traveled.

How women in circumstances where they have achieved some equality conduct themselves and raise families and relate to men and the wider culture are valid questions. And the church, meaning men and women, admittedly may even have some answers -- eventually. The fact is illustrative that the U.S. bishops in the 1980s wrestled with the topic and eventually, unable to do their work with integrity and at the same time satisfy the predetermined requirements of the Vatican, abandoned the project. The suggestion in the Vatican document that a declaration of the equality of men and women somehow, magically, makes the playing field level is surely the product of male imagination. That becomes especially evident in the logic used to keep women from ordination.

We hope a discussion continues, though any meaningful conversation will require a far broader representation of women -- their personal experience and their experiences in vastly differing cultures -- than is evident in this document.

Along with that discussion we would hope to see a concomitant document and discussion about men. It might show their imagination a bit wanting.

National Catholic Reporter, August 13, 2004

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