Although no one is, here are my comments, offered, to be honest, with an almost complete lack of interest, on the letter on women, released Saturday by the Vatican.
I agree with Mary Ann Glendon, quoted in John Allen's story, who puzzled over the letter, particularly its focus on a particular type of feminist thought and action that is very 1970's.
(It sort of reminds me of the recent Vatican documents on the New Age, which are about 15 years behind where that "movement" actually is.)
The point of the letter seems to me to be twofold: to call men and women to a collaborative rather than adverserial relationship, and to call societies to value what is described as particular gifts of women, including, specifically, work in the home and family. Worthy.
Recent years have seen new approaches to women's issues. A first tendency is to emphasize strongly conditions of subordination in order to give rise to antagonism: women, in order to be themselves, must make themselves the 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, in which the identity and role of one are emphasized to the disadvantage of the other, leading to harmful confusion regarding the human person, which has its most immediate and lethal effects in the structure of the family.
I am not quite sure what, in "recent years," this paragraph refers to. The movement for women's rights grew, of course, in the 19th century, out of a situation in which, in most socieites, women were, in fact, denied many rights, were treated as (literally) property, and, through a web of legal, social and cultural means, indeed denied power. Therefore, it is historically quite logical that this movement would rest, on some levels, on access to power. But, of course, the women's movement over the past 150 years has been complex, as well, and it's not my sense that this adversarial type of speech - towards men, specifically, characterizes recent feminism. The adverserial relationship is, it seems to me, not gender based, but ideological - towards all forces that might oppose the radical feminist agenda, forces which may indeed often be characterized as "patriarchal," but really, if you examine the discourse and really listen, have moved beyond a mere condemnation of men to, as I said, a sense of the opposition as being ideologically, rather than gender-rooted.
A second tendency emerges in the wake of the first. In order to avoid the domination of one sex or the other, their differences tend to be denied, viewed as mere effects of historical and cultural conditioning. In this perspective, physical difference, termed sex, is minimized, while the purely cultural element, termed gender, is emphasized to the maximum and held to be primary.
Now, there is something very true in this, and anyone familiar with contemporary gender studies is aware of this. However, in one short sentence, this letter manages to display an ignorance of a major, major emphasis of one branch of feminist thinking over the past twenty-five years, which is, as anyone familiar with the work of Carol Gilligan knows, based on elucidating differences between men and women, not similarities.
(In this sense, the heir of most 19th century feminists who emphasized, for example, the differences between men and women in order to explain why women should be allowed to vote - they would bring different priorities and sensibilities to politics, and so on.)
Now, I am not sure exactly where women's studies rests now - I do know from brief readings here and there that there are objections in some quarters to research on possible biological and chemical distinctions in the male and female brain - but as I said, I don't know the landscape these days. I imagine it is diverse.
My point is that such a cursory, unknowing introductory explanation of "feminism" drains credibility from the rest of the document. Which is too bad, because the rest is generally better than this introductory material.
The point is to combat what the letter's authors see as the danger of a feminism that rejects the differences between men and women - the subsequent loss of a whole fundamental truth about God and humanity, revealed through Scriptural imagery, primarily about men and women and marriage.
From the first moment of their creation, man and woman are distinct, and will remain so for all eternity. Placed within Christ's Paschal mystery, they no longer see their difference as a source of discord to be overcome by denial or eradication, but rather as the possibility for collaboration, to be cultivated with mutual respect for their difference. From here, new perspectives open up for a deeper understanding of the dignity of women and their role in human society and in the Church.
And here is the crucial difference:
Among the fundamental values linked to women's actual lives is what has been called a “capacity for the other”. Although a certain type of feminist rhetoric makes demands “for ourselves”, women preserve the deep intuition of the goodness in their lives of those actions which elicit life, and contribute to the growth and protection of the other.
This intuition is linked to women's physical capacity to give life. Whether lived out or remaining potential, this capacity is a reality that structures the female personality in a profound way. It allows her to acquire maturity very quickly, and gives a sense of the seriousness of life and of its responsibilities. A sense and a respect for what is concrete develop in her, opposed to abstractions which are so often fatal for the existence of individuals and society.
As I said, Carol Gilligan call your office.
This is all fine and good. I have to admit, though, that these types of letters, particularly when they touch on matters relating to women, and elucidations of what the particular gifts of women are that complement the gifts of men, don't interest me much. Partly because the gifts of men are hardly ever elucidated, and are, it seems, assumed, which then brings us back into the landscape in which maleness is the norm, which need not be treated or explained, but only assumed, and femaleness is the variation on the norm which requires explanation. I don't do the "celibate males don't know nuthin'" dance much, but I guess when it comes to this type of communication....I do. I may try to take what I can, and learn what I can from them, but when men (mostly) are telling me that my existence complements theirs, and are telling me exactly how I complement them....this is not to deny at all the differences of men and women, merely to explain that a largely one-sided conversation - which is what this type of letter is - especially, a rather ahistorical one - is of little interest to me. It would be more powerful and truthful to the complexities of human experience, if these types of communications would discuss the mystery of the differences between men and women and the call for unity as we all work towards the Kingdom without trying to get too specific on what those differences are.
Without prejudice to the advancement of women's rights in society and the family, these observations seek to correct the perspective which views men as enemies to be overcome. The proper condition of the male-female relationship cannot be a kind of mistrustful and defensive opposition. Their relationship needs to be lived in peace and in the happiness of shared love.
On the contrary, I'll take this a step further. When I look at what we might call "radical feminism" in the West, I don't see men being positioned as the enemy. Children have assumed that place, regrettably.