Home Page    Mary Shivanandan

On the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World
(Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church)
by Dr Mary Shivanandan

On May 31, 2004, the Office of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued the Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World. The purpose of the congregation is to "promote in collegial fashion encounters and initiatives to spread sound doctrine and defend those points of Christian tradition which seem in danger because of new and unacceptable doctrines." The letter aims "to correct the notion that sexual identity (gender) is a social construction rather than being rooted in the structure of the created order (nature) designed by God." This follows the earlier recommendation of the Synod on the Laity (1987) to study the theological and anthropological bases of sexual difference.

The letter refers to two new approaches to the problem, usually labelled "difference feminism," which seeks power to overcome "subordinate" roles, taking a hostile stance toward men, and the androgyny of equality feminism, which denies any difference except the basic biological. Both approaches attack fundamental dimension of the faith through the distortion of Scripture and denial of sexual difference as intrinsic to human nature. In response the Church proposes "active collaboration between the sexes" in a unity of humanity fully consonant with sexual difference. Recognizing the contribution of John Paul II on the fundamental nature of men and women through his interpretation of Scripture, the document proceeds to follow his lead in an analysis of the creation accounts in Genesis.

This analysis reveals both man and woman made in the image of God in sexually differentiated humanity in the first account of creation. The second account shows the necessity for man (male) of relationship to another being like himself but different (woman) for fulfilment. Sexual difference belongs at the ontological level of human nature. Their bodies possess the "nuptial attribute" or the capacity of expressing love—"the love in which the person becomes a gift." They are called to exist in a communion of persons. In the "unity of the two" each exists not just side by side but "for the other." Marriage is the first but not the only manifestation of this call.

Through original sin, the unity between God and humanity was broken, which led to the rupture between man and woman. Self-seeking now replaces union through gift. The threefold concupiscence of St. John now dominates their interaction. It is only sin that renders sexual difference problematic. Restoration must be sought inside the relationship. Sexual difference pervades the whole of the person, physically, psychologically, and spiritually. The capacity for expressing love is inscribed in the body itself, disclosing its spousal character. Although damaged by sin, it remains the foundation for love and communion.

Theologically masculinity and femininity have a profound meaning. God describes his relationship to the chosen people first as a covenant and then in terms of a spousal relationship. This is raised in the New Testament to the nuptial union of Christ and the Church, which the marriage of baptized Christians, renewed in the paschal mystery, images. Not only does sexual difference belong to creation but it perdures in the resurrected state. Consideration of the dignity of women and their role belongs within this perspective.

The document singles out woman's "capacity for the other" as a salient characteristic of femininity, linked to the capacity to give and sustain life. It leads to appreciation of the concrete as opposed to abstractions, which so often diminish the individual. While motherhood is central to woman's identity it is not confined to the biological sphere. In fact, the document affirms that to see biological fertility in purely quantitative terms is to disrespect women. Consecrated virginity is witness to the gift of self beyond the physical.

From these considerations the document addresses women's "irreplaceable" roles in the family, society, and the Church. Without unconditional love and presence, which are the woman's special gift, the child suffers violence and grows up to perpetuate it. Beyond the family the woman, says the document, "should be present in the world of work" to provide her particular feminine "genius" of personal care to the wider society. The letter is not specific on how this is to be accomplished, except to call for support for women to be full-time home-makers, flexible work schedules for those who wish to work outside the home, and the banning of all unjust discrimination.

Mary is presented as a model for women's role in the Church, especially for her "dispositions of listening, welcoming, humility; faithfulness, praise and waiting," qualities that are the vocation of every baptized Christian. Women's privileged role of imaging the Church as bride of Christ is incompatible with their ordination to the priesthood—an exclusion flowing from their very feminine identity and not in any way discriminatory.

The letter has been welcomed as a celebration of women's equality in humanity, called to contribute their specific feminine gifts to society. Angelo Scola asserts that the teaching in this letter, first presented by John Paul II in Mulieris Dignitatem (1988) and "Letter to Families" (1994), "marks a considerable advance both qualitatively and quantitatively." It is innovative especially in the location of woman's dignity and mission in an anthropological, Christological, and Marian-ecclesiological context. While the emphasis is on women, the references to the covenantal love of God for his people and Christ's sacrificial love for his Bride the Church, amply demonstrate the self-giving love required of men in all collaboration. One lacuna is any reference to the widespread separation of the unitive and procreative dimensions of sexuality, which results from and perpetuates erroneous views of the nature of woman and marriage. This is surprising since John Paul II developed his "adequate anthropology" precisely to address this issue.

The document ends by recognizing the "power of sin" at work in the society, which can make the situation seem hopeless. The hope lies in the redeeming power of Jesus Christ and faith in his justice and forgiveness. The letter has done a great service by presenting the anthropological foundation for a true collaboration between men and women.—Mary Shivanandan

BIBLIOGRAPHY AND FURTHER READING: Schindler, David. "Catholic Theology, Gender and the Future of Western Civilization." Communio 20 (Summer 1993): 200-239; Schumacher, Michael, ed. Women in Christ: Towards a New Feminism. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003; Scola, Angelo. "The Dignity and Mission of Women: The Anthropological and Theological Foundation." Communio 25 (Spring 1998): 42-56; Martin, Francis The Feminist Question: Feminist Theology in the Light of Christian Tradition. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994; See also CASTI CONNUBI; FAMILIARIS CONSORTIO; FATHERHOOD; HUMANAE VITAE; MOTHERHOOD

The above article is reproduced from Encyclopedia of Catholic Social Thought edited by Michael Coulter et al, published by Scarecrow Press, appears by permission of the publisher. This material is protected by copyright. All rights reserved. Please contact the publisher for permission to copy, distribute or reprint.               

Version: 13th February 2009

Home Page    Mary Shivanandan