Commentary, Letter to the Bishops: On the Collaboration of Men and Women

Recognizing Differences, Overcoming Disparities

Prof. Alba Dini Martino
Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome

Commentary, Letter to the Bishops: On the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World

For the Catholic Church, the Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World, published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (31 May 2004), is a milestone in the development, continuity and progress of her Magisterium.

The Document allows for an ever wider and deeper understanding of the mystery of the creation of the human being, as woman and as man, and of this mystery's authentic meaning. It examines not only the theological aspects of the mystery but also its existential dimension with the respective personal, interpersonal, family, social and cultural implications in history. At a first reading, it seems essential to emphasize at least the following points.

In the female perspective

Once again, in an examination of the male/female relationship, it is the woman's side that is privileged. The loftiest expression of this is the Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem on the dignity and vocation of women that John Paul II addressed directly to women across the world.

It can be said that the Church takes the side of women for their liberation and true advancement and to prevail over forms of discrimination against them, which are contrary to God's plan, and discrimination based on gender in particular.1

And this policy is certainly not new. "In Christianity, in fact", as Paul VI said, "more than in any other religion, woman has had right from the beginning a special status of dignity... it is clearly evident that woman is given a place in the living and operating structure of Christianity, such an important place that perhaps all its virtualities have not yet been clarified".2

The cultural debate

It should be noted at the outset that the Document is stirring up a cultural debate that has lately been downsized to an exclusively descriptive and thus reductively sociological level. It focuses on the male and female roles, considered simply with a view to their management for an ever broader rebalancing of the inequalities between them.

Refocusing reflection on the constitutive structure of the human person and the methods for properly understanding it also means being able to cross all the cultures that exist side by side in today's pluralistic societies and in the different social contexts of the world.

In any case, if Catholic women recognize the Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem as their Magna Carta, both this Document and the later Letter to Women have attracted interest everywhere. The Letter to Women in particular is considered a practical programme for their true and proper "empowerment", a term coined at the World Conference for Women organized by the United Nations at Peking in 1995.3

In the Letter to Women, while he prophetically asks on their behalf for "the recognition of everything that is part of the rights and duties of citizens in a democratic State" (n. 4), Pope John Paul II realistically observed: "This is a matter of justice, but also of necessity. Women will increasingly play a part in the solution of the serious problems of the future: leisure time, the quality of life, migration, social services, euthanasia, drugs, health care, the ecology, etc". And these problems are gradually proving to be more and more serious. It suffices to
think of the conflicts and violence that are spreading today throughout the world.

In today's difficult times, whereas this Document also recognizes the difference of women as a resource in the social dimension and considers it one of the fundamental forms of expression and realization, it effectively asks for an ever more complete and aware alliance of women with men as an answer to the original "unity of the two" (n. 6).

Indeed, for the survival today of the human race, we must contend with the radical nature of the problems that call human rights into question. This radicalness brings to the fore the radical questions posed by what it means to be a man rather than a woman.

Appropriately, therefore, the Document of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith brings out the full essence, implications and consequences of this question.

The value of difference

The use of the concept of difference that avoids circumlocution, and of what this difference presupposes and proposes, is of central importance in the Document. The development of the category of difference on which women have reflected can even be considered one of the principal and most original contributions they have offered to modern culture in an innovative way, going to the heart of the fundamental feminine problem and the problem of the relationship between man and woman.

In his day, Paul VI did not hesitate to use the word feminism, evangelizing the language to indicate "a just feminist conception": "It is necessary... to formulate with greater breadth and energy such principles of an authentic feminism," the promotion of which is the prime duty of women themselves; "it depends on them to promote a 'new feminism'", as John Paul II subsequently wrote in the Encyclical Evangelium Vitae (n. 99).

In this perspective, the category of difference is the key to the interpretation, at different levels, of the entire Document.

In Part III, the Document points out the practical implications of this difference at both the existential and social levels. It shows how the difference is structurally important for an understanding of the identity of gender, which is articulated with ever new meaning in relations, reciprocity and interpersonal communication, in the family and in society.

Reflection on the different, constitutive structure of the human person, who is not considered as a neuter abstract but with his or her biological, sexual being, must also lead to a reinterpretation of what has been historically acquired in terms of rights and obligations, which are therefore not neuter either, and a realistic assessment of the situation of women in the world.

In fact, since these rights and obligations are founded on the human person, they must be marked by the same gender difference whose historical content, expressed in society and culture, makes them part of the individual.

Consequently, at the more strictly social level, even the substantial enjoyment of fundamentally affirmed rights and duties cannot fail to consider the gender difference: it is this, in fact, that determines the essential and effective exercise of these rights as well as the full expression of the "feminine genius". And it establishes the justification of so-called positive actions, seen as temporary interventions of positive discrimination with the hope of achieving not equality but parity.

Such interventions, therefore, are measures of support and assistance. They are designed to overcome the disparities but not the difference between women and men that indeed is subsequently said to be a fundamental human resource.

The typical elements of a new paradigm applicable to all forms of disparity and social discrimination can thus be outlined.

Indeed, the relationship between equality and difference means something more than the relationship between equality and inequality, founded on formal logic. In the latter relationship, difference in point of fact indicates something original which, since it is neither homologous nor irreducible, constitutes a resource.

On the one hand, if all this causes a break with the clear and distinct structures of thought established by formal logic, on the other hand it gives access at different levels to acceptance and to the appreciation of difference in its various forms by assigning them full "citizenship": cultures, religions, races, ethnicities and handicaps.

Thus, the centrality of the person with all his or her differing facets and dimensions is brought to the fore. Moreover, it is made clear that the person as such is not a neuter abstract, but contains in himself or herself, in the "unity of the two", the riches of two irreducible, different subjects, in the context of a "human condition" that is "one and indivisible" (n. 14).

Nonetheless, it also becomes apparent that the original difference, comprised of an equally original equality of value and dignity "in the human community", excludes all access to the flattening out of a homologizing egalitarianism and any form of interchangeable equivalence.

Reconciling family and more

Part III of the Document also examines an aspect that is not only central in the life of women today but especially in interpersonal male/female relationships, hence, in family life itself as well as in society. It addresses the reconciliation of family, professional and civil responsibilities.

Actually, this reconciliation was traditionally conceived for women. With a cultural turning point that marks a radical break with the recent past, today it also applies to men.

In any event, the question we should ask ourselves is: what might the word reconciliation mean for the one rather than the other, and how and to what point do the differences and specific features of women and of men come into play, as well as the diversity of cultures and social contexts in the world in which they actually live?

Our question opens up new fronts in the problems that arise today in the relationships of couples and in their mutual expectations. This is especially the case with regard to how the practical ways in which man and woman express their being for each other can enable both to rediscover constantly and to reinforce the integral sense of their own humanity.

In a true historical perspective, women in the West, whose involvement in life, its processes and demands, its daily nature (care, affectivity, etc.), is direct and radical, ask to be relieved of its most wearing aspects, finding it hard to give up their prerogative of centrality in the family, their pivotal position as it were in all the personal, interpersonal and family relations on which they exert a crucial influence, especially with regard to children.

What in practice do women lose and what do they gain in their relationship with family and work today?

Extensive research shows that young women are asking themselves questions such as these much more frequently, although with different practical results. This is partly because, particularly for men, both the questions and their respective replies touch deep inner drives, such as the image, vision and perception of self, even influencing such decisively fundamental decisions as whether or not to have a child.

The problem of reconciliation in personal, interpersonal, family and social relations is far more important today than one might at first think, to the point that it constitutes the premise and testing ground for every issue inherent in the effective achievement of parity, equal opportunity policies and the degree of effectiveness of these social policies.4

In this problematic context, the family becomes the central focus, not only at the microsocial level, since it is "home" to interpersonal relations but, as the "first and vital cell of society" (Familiaris Consortio, n. 42), also at the macrosocial level, for it involves the entire society, public institutions themselves and their respective political decisions.

This is obviously a complex problem whose various causes and consequences we must examine if we wish to have a realistic grasp of the relations between man and woman and of married and family life.

This will enable young people especially to understand the authentic and lofty vision, at the anthropological, ontological and theological levels of its meaning, of the importance and beauty of the original, radical covenant between man and woman, with their equality and their difference, which forms the basis of their profound, total and definitive communion of life in marriage, their relations in the family as a couple and their reciprocal responsibilities.


We are undoubtedly living in a situation of continual social, cultural, economic and institutional changes. This process of change develops contextually on at least two levels: the more strictly cultural level, at which the mechanisms of constant differentiation and fragmentation scar identities, producing ever new personal and social differences; and the level of the mechanisms of transformation that condition the lives of individuals and groups.

Only think, for example, of the ambivalent aspects of the new technologies and of the globalization process. Globalization, apart from providing new opportunities to become world citizens, gives rise in particular to an increasingly powerful marginalizing force, accentuated by international economic and financial dynamics and ever weaker demonstrations of solidarity. Examples of this marginalizing dynamic can be found in a big way in the massive, dramatic migrations of entire populations that juxtapose cultures, religions and races in a way that is ever more far-reaching and unheard of.

Even without mentioning the many bloody wars that are devastating our planet, the new forms of terrorism and widespread protests — they coexist contextually in our society, secularized and dominated by the mass media, with the most depressing and destructive trivialization of practical materialism and cultural indifference — we are undeniably immersed in uncertainty and risk, both as individuals and as groups.5

At least two essential aspects stand out in this situation: we need criteria for guidance rather than assertions, and itineraries rather than static destinations.

An inevitable ethical and thus valuable question arises. At the same time, we perceive the central need to be in touch with every context.

So it is that the reference to that "radical covenant" between man and woman in the context of creation itself acquires ever new meaning. This is particularly the case in the family community that precedes every other form of social organization.

We feel the need, therefore, to rediscover the founding principles, the order engraved in created nature, that is, "the distribution which allots things equal and unequal, each to its own place"6, and engenders relations of justice and peace between men and women from the start.

In this perspective, the Document of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith offers essential elements for reflection and guidance. It also encourages us to discern "in the complex mixture of pluralistic values and ideological contradictions",7 consistent procedures for actualizing these principles with the dynamism that runs through history.

We feel the need to rediscover that connection in the processes of mediation and translation from the level of ontology and theology to that of history, and among the founding principles that govern human relations in an original way, in this sense outside time, and make them historically concrete in space and time.

This is a radical cultural challenge. It calls into question those fundamental human values — based .on anthropology, hence, pre-sociological and common to all, men and women alike, in all cultures — beginning precisely with the constitutive values of being a man rather than a woman, on which is founded their living relationship of human and transcendent significance that also mysteriously invests their ultimate destiny.

1 Cf. Gaudium et Spes, n. 29; Raimondo Spiazzi, O.P., "La promozione della donna secondo la Chiesa". In: Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Dall' "Inter Insigniores" all' "Ordinatio Sacerdotalis", Documenti e Studi, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Vatican City, 1996, p. 93.

2 Paul VI, Message to the 17th National Congress of the Italian Women's Centre, 6 December 1976: "The whole community is waiting for a clear and lively testimony of the presence of Christian women". In: L'Osservatore Romano English edition, 16 December 1976, p. 5.

3 Such empowerment of women is considered the third objective — and at the same time, condition — of human development, by means of the elimination of "gender inequality" in instruction at different levels, to the highest level. Cf. UNDP — Human Development Report (2003), Development Policy and the Elimination of Poverty.

4 Cf. Alba Dini Martino, La problematica complessa della conciliazione fra responsabilità familiari, professionali e di cittadinanza. Quesiti e problemi aperti. In: Italian Bishops' Conference (CEI) - Officio Nazionale per i Problemi Sociali e il Lavoro, Notiziario, 2004 (8).

5 Cf. Ulrich Beck, La società del rischio, Carocci, Florence, 2001; Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2000.

6 Augustine, City of God, XIX, 13.

7 Hervé Carrier, Dizionario della Cultura, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Vatican City, 1997, p. 159.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
8 June 2005, page 6

L'Osservatore Romano is the newspaper of the Holy See.
The Weekly Edition in English is published for the US by:

The Cathedral Foundation
L'Osservatore Romano English Edition
320 Cathedral St.
Baltimore, MD 21201
Subscriptions: (410) 547-5315
Fax: (410) 332-1069