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Aug 4, 2004 12:44 pm

Ratzinger and feminism

This morning, following a link from Stentor Danielson, I finally got around to reading Cardinal Ratzinger's recent letter on the collaboration of women and men in the church and the world. It takes a while to read, and it is essential to read all of it rather than just getting summaries from the press.

I'm not going to comment on John Paul II's theology of the body, largely because I haven't read enough on the subject. What I do know about it leaves me (shock of all shocks) deeply ambivalent. What I do want to touch on is Ratzinger's approach to feminism. There's some surprisingly progressive stuff in the letter. Check out these excerpts from the critical third section of Ratzinger's missive:

... one understands the irreplaceable role of women in all aspects of family and social life involving human relationships and caring for others. Here what John Paul II has termed the"genius of women" becomes very clear.It implies first of all that women be significantly and actively present in the family, “the primordial and, in a certain sense sovereign society”,since it is here above all that the features of a people take shape; it is here that its members acquire basic teachings. They learn to love inasmuch as they are unconditionally loved, they learn respect for others inasmuch as they are respected, they learn to know the face of God inasmuch as they receive a first revelation of it from a father and a mother full of attention in their regard. Whenever these fundamental experiences are lacking, society as a whole suffers violence and becomes in turn the progenitor of more violence. It means also that women should be present in the world of work and in the organization of society, and that 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. (Bold emphasis is mine).

So far, I'm with the Cardinal. In the highlighted sentence, he accepts as valid the aspirations of mainstream contemporary feminism. I particularly appreciate his willingness to embrace women in positions of responsibility that create and promote national and international policy. He's not just saying women should inspire men to lead, he's essentially calling on women to take leadership roles as well. I can dig it.

In this regard, it cannot be forgotten that the interrelationship between these two activities – family and work – has, for women, characteristics different from those in the case of men. The harmonization of the organization of work and laws governing work with the demands stemming from the mission of women within the family is a challenge. The question is not only legal, economic and organizational; it is above all a question of mentality, culture, and respect. Indeed, 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 stigmatized by society or penalized financially, while those who wish also to 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. As John Paul II has written, “it will redound to the credit of society to make it possible for a mother – without inhibiting her freedom, without psychological or practical discrimination and without penalizing her as compared with other women – to devote herself to taking care of her children and educating them in accordance with their needs, which vary with age”. (Bold is mine). ,p> You see, I knew Ratzinger and the pope were economic liberals! That section in bold is as close to endorsing state-mandated and compensated parental leave as I think the Vatican can come. And note the key modifier Ratzinger sticks in:"women who freely desire" to be with their children should be able to do so. Though he assumes that many women will want "to devote the totality of their time to the work of the household", he doesn't mandate it. He even acknowledges that some women with small children can and should work! That's good stuff!

It is appropriate however to recall that the feminine values mentioned here are above all human values: the human condition of man and woman created in the image of God is one and indivisible. It is only because women are more immediately attuned to these values that they are the reminder and the privileged sign of such values. But, in the final analysis, every human being, man or woman, is destined to be “for the other”. In this perspective, that which is called “femininity” is more than simply an attribute of the female sex. The word designates indeed the fundamental human capacity to live for the other and because of the other. (My emphasis again).

I'm beginning to think I need to invite Ratzinger in for a guest lecture in my women's studies class. In other words, the good Cardinal is calling upon real men of faith to embrace their own femininity. Selflessness must be for men as well as women; the fact that women often seem to"do it better" does not mean that men are any less responsible to"live for others."

And finally:

Therefore, the promotion of women within society must be understood and desired as a humanization accomplished through those values, rediscovered thanks to women. Every outlook which presents itself as a conflict between the sexes is only an illusion and a danger: it would end in segregation and competition between men and women, and would promote a solipsism nourished by a false conception of freedom.

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 a more concrete level, if social policies – in the areas of education, work, family, access to services and civic participation – must combat all unjust sexual discrimination, they must also listen to the aspirations and identify the needs of all. The defence and promotion of equal dignity and common personal values must be harmonized with attentive recognition of the difference and reciprocity between the sexes where this is relevant to the realization of one's humanity, whether male or female.

Ultimately, the good Cardinal seems to be saying that while men and women are in complementary relationship with one another, that reciprocity is of secondary importance to our common humanity. And based upon the first sentence of this last section, Ratzinger is clear that women have borne better witness to that humanity than men have. This is not so much a call to place women back in the home, barefoot and pregnant, as it is to introduce feminine values into our local, national, and international life. Indeed, the Cardinal seems to demand more change from men than from women, given that women generally do a better job of"living for the other" already.

Look, I'm being somewhat facetious when I call Ratzinger a feminist. But I also think the letter has been misunderstood and misrepresented by folks who haven't read the whole danged thing, or who have read it while hunting for what they find most objectionable.

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Adam Kotsko - 8/5/2004

Why is it that in what must be for Ratzinger the most important international organization in the world, the Catholic Church, women are just not allowed into positions of leadership?

(I understand that asking this question is about as productive as banging one's head against the wall.)