A Feminist Theologian Speaks on the Pontifical council on culture’s View of Women in the Church

The following is a great analysis by feminist theologian Carol P. Christ.

Has the Vatican Discovered that Women Should Be Running the World? by Carol P. Christ

So it is a [female] generativity that .. is … giving life to social, cultural and economic structures that are inspired by values, ideas, principles and practices oriented to the common good …

carol p. christ photo michael bakasThe above statement from the Pontifical Council’s document on“Women’s Cultures: Equality and Diffference” is a response to Pope Francis’s call for a discussion of “feminine genius” and its role in the Church. If in fact women are  “oriented to the common good,” then this is the best reason I can think of to elect a woman pope. And if a women are in fact hard-wired to think about the good of all, wouldn’t a woman pope’s first act be to dissolve the hierarchy that elected her? Is this why the Vatican is so afraid of the power of women?

From February 4-7, 2015 the Pontifical Council on Culture made up of 32 voting members (29 male clerics and 3 laymen) with the advice of non-voting Consultors (28 men and 7 women), discussed the role and place of women in the church and the world in relation to the preliminary document said to have been prepared by a group of unnamed women cherry-picked by the Vatican.

The Council was called to discuss the question of women in response to:

  • calls to ordain women;
  • demands to dismantle the male-dominated hierarchy of the church;
  • challenges to theology and moral doctrine by educated nuns;
  • the ongoing exodus of women under fifty from the Church;
  • the emptying of the convents, especially in North American and Europe.

Interestingly, in defining the essential difference between men and women, the authors of the of the document cite history (wrongly as Max Dashu shows), but not the Bible or natural law, as the basis for their view:

At the dawn of human history, societies divided roles and functions between men and women rigorously. To the men belonged responsibility, authority, and presence in the public sphere: the law, politics, war, power. To women belonged reproduction, education, and care of the family in the domestic sphere.

The the authors of the document probably believe as Roman Catholic tradition has taught:

  • that God created males and females differently;
  • that male and female differences are rooted in biology;
  • and that biology is destiny.

They may have recognized that such claims have been challenged by feminist interpreters of scripture and by feminist scientists and philosophers of science. It appears that they have yet to come across theories about egalitarian matriarchal societies past and present that undermine their understanding of human history.

The version of history the document presents gives authority in the public sphere to men, while assigning responsibility for reproduction and care in the private sphere to women. The authors know that this state of affairs no longer exists in this simple way (if it ever did) and that women today are asserting their right to power and authority in every aspect of the public sphere. While not telling women to stay in the home, the authors (many of whom must themselves have careers) seem to fear that if women go too far, they will lose the special qualities that their (alleged) confinement in the domestic sphere engendered in them. In other words, if women claim too much power, they (we) will stop caring about children and “the common good.”**

Thus, the authors tell us, women must always remember that caring and nurturing are the highest calling to which they (we) can and should aspire.

Readers may have noticed that when the authors of the document define the role of men as the public sphere they mention law, politics, war, and power, but not religion. Why? Is it because they know that women held power as priestesses in Rome, not to mention Greece, Egypt, and Sumer? Or is it that they view the male priesthood of the Church as ordained by God rather than history? Why, I wonder, do they name war as a realm history has reserved to men, while not mentioning that women and children are always victims of war?

I have a twofold reaction to the view of sex and gender difference presented in the document.

On the one hand, it is clear that what its authors call “bio-physiological” differences between women and men are being used in the the document to justify the continuation of male dominance in public spheres in society and Church. Given that theories about difference can be used in this way, wouldn’t we be better off simply to label all discussions of male-female difference as essentialism rooted in sexism and to throw them into the dust bin of history?

On the other hand, the authors’ statement about female difference as rooted in the mother-child relationship resonates my felt and reflected sense of different tendencies that do exist between boys and girls, women and men. The authors say:

It is the female universe that – due to a natural, spontaneous predisposition which could be called bio-physiological – has always looked after, conserved, nurtured, sustained, created attention, consent and care around the conceived child who must develop, be born, and grow.

This statement is not so different from Franz de Waal’s assertion that the origins of empathy and human morality are to be found in the care of female primates for their infants. De Waal stated further that while male primates are also hard-wired for empathy, they seem more likely than females to be able to override it in favor of aggression when threatened. As I suggested in the blog in which I discussed de Waal’s theory of the primate origins of human morality, there may be a way to acknowledge differences between females and males without using them to justify, legitimate, or sanctify male dominance.

We certainly should tell the Pontifical Council to stop using theories of differences between males and females to justify societal injustices, whether those are located in the all-male priesthood, the Vatican hierarchy, papal authority, or the Unholy Trinity named by Mary Daly as Rape, Genocide, and War.

But what if instead of rejecting all theories of difference, we acknowledged that evolution has produced different tendencies in the sexes without thereby limiting the capacities*** or determining the roles of either? In recognizing that mothers with infants created the bedrock of society and morality, we give women something to be proud of in our lives and history. Then, what if rather than using differences between the sexes to justify male (or female) domination, we asked what kind of societies we would like to create? My suggestion is that care and concern for the common good should be the highest values in both the public and private realms.

We might do well to place councils of women (not an individual woman in a group of men) in places where they would make the final decisions about how to treat the most vulnerable and whether to go to war.**** We might also conclude that our educational systems, political systems, and all other systems ought to reward those who display empathy and concern for the common good, rather than those who are competitive and self-interested. That way we would encourage all human beings to cultivate values our culture has disparaged by assigning them exclusively to women in a patriarchal context.

Then, perhaps we could set about creating a more just world in which power is shared and in which care and concern for the common good and the flourishing of all (human, other than human) really is the highest value.

*Thanks to Max Dashu whose blog refuting the Pontifical Council’s document alerted me to its existence toWoman Spirit Ireland for forwarding the link.

**The authors are not entirely wrong to worry about this. If all other things stay the same  (i.e., patriarchal), individual women can be enticed to set aside our hard-wiring for empathy in order to gain power, in other words to become like Angela Merkel in relation the suffering of the Greek people. The authors of the document for the Pontifical Council appear to have been seduced by Vatican power to set aside their empathy for other women and their own woman-selves.

***One of the saddest things about the document is that it can be read as assuming that men do not care for children or the common good.

****”Among the Iroquis, “The Clan mothers traditionally wield great influence in the well-being of their Clans and Nations. They have the authority to de-horn (take Chieftainship away from) their errant chiefs. [The society] is to be a matriarchal society as women are sacred as they are life givers, are title holders to the land, and [because] women instinctively know the price of war.”

Carol leads the life-transforming Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete (facebook and twitter)–early bird discount available for one more week only for the spring 2015 tour.  Carol’s books include She Who Changes and andRebirth of the Goddess and with Judith Plaskow, the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions and forthcoming next year, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology. Photo of Carol by Michael Bakas.

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