A letter published last week by the Vatican celebrates what Pope John Paul II calls the feminine genius and calls for women to have access to positions of national leadership. But the document received a largely negative reception in the mainstream press where it was characterized as "slamming feminism."
"Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World" was issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and made public on Saturday. As its title indicates, the letter's thrust is that women and men have complementary roles to play in the Church and in society. The letter warns against a tendency in "new approaches to women's issues" that make women and men adversaries in a struggle for power.
The document is critical of the idea, gaining traction in academic and public policy circles, that there are no differences in nature between the sexes and that apparent gender differences are the result of social conditioning. "According to this perspective, human nature in itself does not possess characteristics in an absolute manner: all persons can and ought to constitute themselves as they like, since they are free from every predetermination linked to their essential constitution."
The 7,000-word letter says that man and woman were created with differences that are complimentary and that both family and society benefit from feminine "values." Chief among such feminine values is what the document calls the "capacity for the other" which it defines as the ability to "elicit life, and contribute to the growth and protection of the other." While this feminine attribute is closely linked to a woman's ability to bear children, the letter stresses that "this does not mean that women should be considered from the sole perspective of physical procreation." The close link between motherhood and female identity does not require that a woman give physical birth, according to the document.
Women have a special role to play in the life of the family, the letter says, but her sphere of influence ought not to be limited to that role. "[W]omen should be present in the world of work and in the organization of society, and . . . women should have access to positions of responsibility which allow them to inspire the policies of nations and to promote innovative solutions to economic and social problems." The letter calls on society to not discriminate against those women who want to work exclusively in the home and to make it possible for those women "who wish also to engage in other work...to do so with an appropriate work-schedule, and not have to choose between relinquishing their family life or enduring continual stress."
Despite its calls for women to be treated equally, headlines from both the national and international press claimed the letter condemned feminism and this despite the fact that the word "feminism" never appears in the text of the document. Many reports, including the Washington Post's, claimed that document accused feminism of undermining the traditional family and paving the way for homosexual "marriage." In reality it is the blurring of the differences between the sexes that the letter said was having this affect. "This theory of the human person, intended to promote prospects for equality of women through liberation from biological determinism" calls into question "the family, in its natural two-parent structure" and makes "homosexuality and heterosexuality virtually equivalent..."