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On the collaboration of men and women

in the church and in the world
 

Donna Procher
Catholic Insight: November 2004

 

I recall attending a performance of the opera Carmen, delighted I had been given a fine orchestra seat. As I settled in, two gentlemen sat down behind me and commenced chatting. It became obvious they were very knowledgeable about opera, relating juicy stories of performances attended across North America. I shamelessly eavesdropped. Then there was a silence as both opened their programs, followed by exclamations of dismay as they read the name of the tenor who would play Don Jose: “Oh no, not that reedy lightweight again; he can’t sustain high notes!” They tut-tutted in disgust until the maestro entered, then spent the next three hours viewing the performance with hypercritical ears, seeking proof for their initial biases. As for me, despite the self-satisfied snorts that continuously wafted over my shoulder, I had an enchanted evening; Bizet’s wondrous timeless music transcends even the reediest balding tenor.

The first media reaction

On July 31, 2004, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) released a 37-page document titled, Letter to the Bishops on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World. And before the day was through, various print media critics around the world had brought their biases to bear against the letter. Their exclamations of dismay included headlines like, “Vatican document angers, amuses women”; “Vatican attacks radical feminism”; “A woman’s place is to wait and listen, says the Vatican.”

 

Catholic feminist phones must have rung off the hook. Reuters quoted Frances Kissling of Catholics for a Free Choice who offered that she felt she had “passed through a time warp”. She added she “thought...Archie Bunker had been appointed theologian to the pope,” and “Such observations could only be made by men who have no significant relationships with women.” In the same article, Emma Bonino of the European Parliament said, “They pay you lots of compliments but...they ask you to stay in your place: wife, nurse, mother, and grandmother.”

Most telling of the biases was the repeated emergence of two quotes, both part of a subscript of this Vatican reflection on the mystery of what it is to be male and female. Even short articles included both quotes: one a reference to homosexuality, suggesting a radical feminist push for equality makes “homosexuality and heterosexuality virtually equivalent, in a new model of polymorphous sexuality”; and the second, the reiteration of the “reservation of priestly ordination solely to men”.

 

Thirty-seven pages, comprised of 17 sections, eight of them developing the biblical vision of male and female, and two more on the role of Mary, yet reporters culled the document for seeming quotes of controversy. One wonders if many read little more than the Introduction, Question, and Conclusion.  Dr. Suzanne Scorsone, director of the Toronto archdiocese Communications Office, wrote a clarification expressing her exasperation over distortions attributed to her in the Star, “I tried over the course of a lengthy conversation to help the journalist understand what the document actually said, as distinct from what she said she had read in an Associated Press story.”

 

Indeed, how could anyone comment with any measure of credibility unless they had seriously studied - not just read this multi-layered letter to bishops? And that is what it is: a letter to bishops, signed by the prefect of the CDF, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. To be more precise, it is a “reflection”, a “starting point for further examination in the Church, as well as an impetus for dialogue with all men and women of good will....” More importantly, it is a call to bishops to meditate upon this information, and ensure it is adapted and disseminated to the faithful in their dioceses, so that they too can reflect on its depth.

 

And...deep it is. Cardinal Pell of Australia stated the document is “a beautiful and sophisticated piece of work that explains simply and cogently the Jewish and Christian perspective on women” adding that women were involved and consulted in the preparation of the document.

Lean writing

Like many encyclicals, this letter is written lean; every phrase is crisp, with bold, layered depths of meaning, inviting reflection. Consider the opening sentence, “The Church, expert in humanity, has a perennial interest in whatever concerns men and women.” Not “schooled” in humanity, but “expert” in humanity. A bold opening salvo - and the rest follows in kind.

With the reading of any Vatican document, one must ask what errors or events precipitated an official communication which proposes to re-examine, re-align, and offer illumination. Why this letter? Why now?

 

A key is that half its content is devoted to a walk through Sacred Scripture - from Genesis to the Book of Revelation—examining in detail the story about marriage: the marriage of Adam and Eve, and, more specifically, the marriage of Christ and the Church. Some readers may have noted that some of the phraseology is currently familiar. And so it is.  While this is not directly stated, large portions of this document are devoted to introducing John Paul’s amazing Theology of the Body.  In his weekly General Audiences between 1979 and 1984, the pope delivered 129 homilies, developing an eloquent body of teaching on sexuality and marriage which some have said is a theological timebomb for the 21st century. The catechesis is recently in print: The Theology of the Body according to John Paul II. Moreover, American writer Christopher West picked up on this teaching and has written and lectured extensively on it throughout the continent.  Currently an instructor on the theology of the body at a Denver seminary, he has made these papal teachings available for the laity in terms they can readily appreciate and absorb.

The question

So what are the errors or events which precipitated a Vatican communication? In short, in the section of the letter called The Question, the CDF posits there are two current tendencies of thought surrounding “women’s issues” which are misleading society:

“A first tendency,” the letter states, “is to emphasize strongly conditions of subordination in order to give rise to antagonism: women, in order to be themselves, must make themselves adversaries of men. Faced with the abuse of power, the answer for women is to seek power. This process leads to opposition between men and women.”

“A second tendency”, is an “obscuring of the difference or duality of the sexes” which has “enormous consequences”.  This theory “has inspired ideologies which...call into question the family in its natural two-parent structure of mother and father”. Further, “in the “attempt to be freed from one’s biological conditioning”, the difference between men and women is not considered to be absolute, but culturally conditioned. According to this perspective, “persons are free to constitute themselves as they like.” A consequence is that the “liberation of women entails criticism of Sacred Scripture, which would be seen as handing on a patriarchal conception of God nourished by an essentially male dominated society.” Further, it would be considered “lacking in... relevance” that the “Son of God assumed human nature in its male form”.

In North America, the current spate of shoddily researched pop culture books on spirituality underlines these tendencies. Dan Brown’s wildly popular bestsellers, The DaVinci Code, and Angels and Demons, as well as Nino Ricci’s Testament, undermine Catholic Church teachings and attack Bible inerrancy, leading vulnerable readers to conclude that Sacred Scripture is but a mere human construct. North American Catholic feminists have long considered the Bible irrelevant, a supposed power-mongering tool of a “male-dominated” Church.

How does the Church propose to address these tendencies? The letter states, “the Church, enlightened by faith, speaks instead of active collaboration between the sexes precisely in the recognition of the difference between man and woman.”

Distortion

The first tendency cites an “abuse of power.” Abuse of power? The letter takes us back to Genesis, to the Garden, where in the first creation account, “God created Man in his own image... male and female he created them”. The document goes on to meditate deeply on this “vital difference” which is “oriented toward communion...expressed by their nakedness”. This is polite Bible code for sexual union, or, as expressed in the Theology of the Body, the great mystery of the “marital embrace”.  But the serenity of this natural, mutual self-giving spousal relationship, and the relationship with God, are ruptured by Original Sin. The letter states, “when humanity considers God its enemy, the relationship between man and women becomes distorted.” God says to Eve, “Your desire shall be for your husband and he shall rule over you” (Gn 3:16). The sexual difference is upset: “It will be a relationship...  which ignores and kills love and replaces it with a yoke of domination of one sex over another.” It goes on, “In this tragic situation, the equality, respect and love required...according to God’s original plan, are lost”.

Rectification

How is this regained? Immediately after punishing Adam and Eve, God offers the “primordial sacrament”, his promise of a Savior, involving the woman and her offspring. He addresses the serpent, “I will make you enemies of each other: you and the woman, your offspring and her offspring.” The “woman” is the New Eve, Mary; the offspring is her son, Jesus Christ. This is effectively illustrated in Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. During the scourging at the pillar, the androgynous Satan, carrying her distorted ugly child, glides through the jeering crowds; they both wear gratified smirks as the offspring of the New Eve is mutilated.

This promise of a Savior, “will be preceded by a long preparation in history, before it is realized”.  God will reveal himself to his people in a “recurring theme of the covenant between man and woman”.  Over and over in scripture, even to the last sentence of Revelation, “God makes himself known as the Bridegroom who loves Israel his Bride”. And so, this letter painstakingly examines and underlines this male/female covenant, this active collaboration, by taking us through Sacred Scripture, offering us the revealing “biblical vision of the human person.”

It goes on to offer reflections on “feminine values” in the life of society, addressing motherhood and the workplace. As with the great social justice encyclicals, here again is the Church with her finger on the pulse of the world, offering reflection and remedy: “A just valuing of the work of women within the family is required. In this way, women who freely desire will be able to devote the totality of their time to the work of the household without being penalized financially, while those who...engage in other work may be able to do so with an appropriate work schedule, and not have to choose between relinquishing their family life or enduring continual stress, with negative consequences for one’s own equilibrium and the harmony of the family.”

Mary and love

Finally, this active collaboration includes generous reference to Mary from whom the “Church always learns the intimacy of Christ”: “From the beginning of Christianity, the Church has understood herself to be a community, brought into existence by Christ and joined to him by a relationship of love, of which the nuptial experience is the privileged expression. From this it follows that the Church’s first task is to remain in the presence of the mystery of God’s love, manifested in Jesus Christ ...  the figure of Mary constitutes the fundamental reference in the Church … Mary is the mirror placed before the Church, in which the Church is invited to recognize her own identity.”

The letter is challenging - a deep meditative study on the awesome beauty of being male and female. Blessedly, for those who prefer a more simple examination, much of the letter’s essence is contained in Christopher West’s jaw-dropping work, Good News about Sex & Marriage. It is this book, not the current spiritual pop tripe, which should be topping bestseller lists. I shall let Mr. West have the last word:

“From the beginning to the end, the Bible itself is a story about marriage. It begins in the Book of Genesis with the marriage of Adam and Eve, and it ends in the Book of Revelation with the ‘wedding of the Lamb’ - the marriage of Christ and the Church. Throughout the Old Testament, God’s love for his people is described as the love of a husband for his bride. In the New Testament, Christ embodies this love. He comes as the heavenly Bridegroom to unite himself forever to his Bride - to us.

“Yes, God’s plan from all eternity is to ‘marry’ us – to draw us into closest communion with himself. God wanted to reveal this eternal plan to us in a way we couldn’t miss, so he stamped it right on our very being as male and female.”

 

Donna Procher is a teacher, former homeschooler of her two now adult children, and currently teaches a special needs child. She writes from Innisfil, ON, where she lives with her husband and daughter.

 

 

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