JP II's letter
Dr Dorothea McEwan, co-editor of Feminist Theology and a member of Catholic Women's Ordination, responds to the Pope's letter to women.
THE SUPREME LEADER of the Catholic Church wrote a 12-point letter to the women of the world. Should I be ecstatic about this? Should I be mad about it? Should I ignore it?
Well, my reaction is made up of a mixture of emotions, hopes, considerations and despair, considering the length of time and intensity of commitment I have put in to raise my point of view, as a woman, with the Pope.
The Pope recognises that terrible things happened to women in the name of religion. Women were credited with bringing sin into the world, with embodying nature not culture, being in need of guidance, etc.
I believe John Paul II wants to get away from this line of argument, but he does not achieve it as his basic premise is wrong: the doctrine of complementary, "woman complements man, just as man complements woman".
True, this is the doctrine beloved by the Church: "womanhood expresses the 'human' as much as manhood does, but in a different and complementary way".
I would be truly grateful to know how. The papal explanation, wheeling out the Genesis argument of woman as a helper fit for man, manoeuvres us away from cogent explanations of how womankind is different and complementary.
To me it says nothing other than: "you must not stray outside your "role", because if you du, you are no longer different and the men have lost their power to lord it over women".
The complimentarity doctrine is an Impasse.
. Instead of celebrating each and every single individual as a whole person, endowed with full humanity, we all supposedly need somebody else to complement and to be complemented, in the full meaning of the word, to be made complete. And for the unity of the two, he uses the term "uni-duality", by which, I suppose, he means a wholeness born of two incomplete individuals.
This harps back to the split mindset of dualism, the frame of mind seeing and valuing everything in opposites good and bad, light and dark, male and female.
The "uni-duality" is supposed to enable "each to experience their interpersonal and reciprocal relationship as a gift which enriches and which confers responsibility".
How does John Paul II apply "uniduality" to people who choose a single lifestyle and more pertinently, those who have to remain single if they want to enter the ordained priesthood of the Church?
What happens then to the much vaunted principle of complimentarity? It does not work, and it does not endow women, me, with dignity, to be told that we are experiencing "uni-duality" when complemented by somebody else.
The tone of the letter is deeply offensive to me.
It is written in "Vatican Concerned", this peculiar form of tense and mood so beloved of people who argue from a position of assumed spiritual power.
Maybe it is the translation which is poor there is a world of difference between "female", the biological sex, and "feminine", the narrowing down of particular aspects of femaleness to "idealised female servitude", in Mary Daly's words, and the translator ought to have known it.
The format is not so much a letter, but a sermon, a congratulatory address, a slap on the shoulder, a laborious enumeration of' thanks to women: "Thank you, women who are mothers! Thank you, women who are wives! Thank you, women who are daughters and women who are sisters! Thank you, women who work! Thank you, consecrated women! Thank you, every woman" and for what? "For the simple fact of being a woman!"
If it was good enough for my creator to create me female, why do I need to be congratulated upon it by the head of the Church?
Having softened up his reader, there follows the recognition on his part that "simply saying thank you is not enough".
Again, for what?
Instead of quoting facts, like the systematic undervaluing of women's gifts throughout history, the burning of women as witches at the stakes, admittedly not lit by the Church, but by the "Secular Arm" who did the work for the Church, we read about the unfortunate legacy that "history" has "conditioned" us.
The Pope is magnanimous in not assigning "blame" to anyone in particular for the fact that this historic conditioning "has prevented women from truly being themselves and it has resulted in a spiritual impoverishment of humanity". The Pope goes further by saying that he is truly sorry and hopes that "this regret be transformed, on the part of the whole Church, into a renewed commitment of fidelity to the Gospel vision".
This is actually a very important sentence. Has John Paul II read feminist theology? I las he understood the concern of women like myself who in the spirit of fidelity to the Gospel vision see ourselves as prophets, as voices in the wilderness, certainly on the margin, to call the leaders back to gospel values?
How right he is, when he states that "the secret of making speedy progress in achieving full respect for women and their identity involves more than simply the condemnation of discrimination and injustices, necessary though this may be".
So what about discrimination and injustice done to women by the Church, notably so after having stated that there is a "basis of anthropological dignity of women", which is obviously not good enough to admit women to the ordained priesthood?
We are told, yet again, that Christ "entrusted only to men the task of being an "icon" of his countenance as "shepherd" or "bridegroom" of the Church through the exercise of the ministerial priesthood".
This is highly selective Scripture reading. And are we really tolerating any longer the reassurance, that this in no way detracts from the role of women who are not ordained to the sacred ministry?
More importantly, we need to tackle discussions of equality and dignity from a societal and theological point of view.
Before our very eyes there has been a switch in the Church's teaching of creational anthropology and its Christology. The traditional view used to be that women were presumed to be unequal and fundamentally inferior in nature, but as baptised Christians this disability was washed away: in Christ this inequality had been annulled. In the language of Gal. 3.28, "in Christ there is neither male nor female".
The Pope, in fact, no longer talks of women's inequality in nature. Societal experiences simply do not subscribe to such an interpretation any longer, but in order to justify the continued exclusion of women from ministry, modern Catholic teaching now accepts woman as "equal" in nature, ie secular society, "but unequal in grace".
The creational image-of-God interpretation includes women, whereas the image-of-Christ interpretation, as put forward in the discussion on ministry, excludes women. Or: women can image God, but they cannot image Christ. This neat theological package is still the reason for women's exclusion from formal ministry in the Church.
I do not have the space to engage in a line-by-Line, phrase-by-phrase investigation of what is recoverable for me from this letter and what is not.
John Paul II probably wants the best for us, but he also wants to be the one who says what that "best" has to be.
The finish, predictably centring on a call to obedience in imitation of the "handmaid of the Lord", is even less convincing than everything that went before. She is "reigning". She is the "Queen of I leaven and Earth", "reigning" and "serving". Here we have it; the subtle, or not so subde bind: we are here to serve, to find fulfilment in serving.
It is only our duty, according to our "different" status marked out by the doctrine of complementary: it is our "genius" that we are called to imitate those women who placed themselves "at the service of others in their everyday lives".
Why should we have to be exhorted by the Pope to be of service?
He is caught up in the two-tier mentality and does not.accept the way out of it.
Women do not need to be thanked for being women, thank you very much! This is patronising and arrogant and totally uncalled for.
While the Pope apologises to woman, he still does not ordain them, does not meet them, us, me, on the same platform, does not engage in dialogue.
Women need to be taken seriously, our God-given talents not minimised by speculation on our status of being "different" and being told to glory in this interpretation.
When I meet my Maker I will have to account for the use I have made of my God-given talents and not for the adherence to a doctrine which glories in putting me down.