A Woman's Perspective on New Vatican Document

Author: ZENIT


A Woman's Perspective on New Vatican Document

Part 1

Mary Shivanandan Tells of Collaboration Between the Sexes


A new letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has called for a renewed collaboration of men and women.

Such a vision cannot be realized without understanding God's plan for man and woman outlined in the Pope's theology of the body, says Mary Shivanandan, a professor of theology at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at Catholic University of America and author of "Crossing the Threshold of Love: A New Vision of Marriage in the Light of John Paul II's Anthropology" (CUA Press).

Shivanandan shared with ZENIT how both men and women can only be truly liberated when they understand that they were created for communion with one another.

Part 2 of this interview will appear Friday.

Q: The "Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Catholic Church and in the World" opens by saying that "the Church is called today to address certain currents of thought which are often at variance with the authentic advancement of women." Briefly, what are those "currents of thought"?

Shivanandan: Fundamentally, these currents of thought are linked to the rise of radical feminism. Since women are vulnerable in bearing and rearing children, feminists see this as an almost inescapable invitation to oppression by men. Here, I am not here talking about the woman with a difficult pregnancy.

To overcome this exposure to "domination," women must at all costs be in control of their bodies in order to be on a level playing field with men in the family and all areas of society. Such an attitude is hostile to both men and women. As the document says, it brings about harmful confusion regarding the human person.

Since it is not possible to do away with sexual difference altogether, these feminists want to separate the physical, biological differences of "sex" from gender. Gender then becomes a purely cultural construct.

In this view — I am citing here French pioneer feminist Simone de Beauvoir — femininity per se no longer exists as a fixed entity with determined characteristics. There is no such thing as the "eternal feminine."

Other feminists have gone even farther in rejecting sexual difference. They charge that even claiming the right to be different is to claim the right to be oppressed. Women don't want to "be" men but to destroy the very idea of both man and woman. Above all, they seek individual autonomy and control of their lives.

As the document points out, this desire to be autonomous and to determine one's own sexual identity has profound effects on the family and society.

In the 1970s, I attended the annual conference of a national secular family organization. The definition of the family was already undergoing revision into several types on an equal footing: the traditional nuclear family of father, mother and children; the single-parent family; the blended family; and the family with both "parents" of the same sex.

In the late 1980s, the push began to get literature into family-life courses in public schools to validate the homosexual and even bisexual lifestyle.

I recall the frustration of the four of us who were Catholic representatives on a committee to choose the educational materials for family-life courses. In our efforts to uphold the traditional definition of marriage as the exclusive and permanent union of a man and a woman and the proper context for the generation and upbringing of children, we were outvoted almost every time.

Over time these ideas — so pervasive in Western secular culture — have penetrated even Catholic institutions. As the document points out, there has been a concerted effort by feminist Scripture scholars to reinterpret Scripture to accommodate this so-called liberation of women. They have attempted to counter what they see as patriarchal and oppressive texts by declaring that whatever is not in accord with their understanding of the dignity of women cannot truly be the Word of God.

For example, Phyllis Bird and Phyllis Trible, in reinterpreting the Genesis creation accounts, use their considerable exegetical skills to link the blessing of fertility purely with our animal nature and the human role of dominion with our humanity. The result is a greatly impoverished understanding of the nature of man and woman and their communion.

Q: What is the Church's concept of the "authentic advancement of women"?

Shivanandan: The document defines the Church's response as "active collaboration." It gives a beautiful summary of John Paul II's theology of the body in his Wednesday audiences from 1979 to 1984 on God's plan for man and woman and their communion. Without understanding this foundation there can be no true liberation of either man or woman.

Simone de Beauvoir had charged that woman has always been defined as the "Other" in relation to man as the "Subject," the "Absolute." Woman as Other is always "less" as an object to the subject.

In John Paul II's understanding of Genesis, woman is truly an "other" but in no way less a subject than the man. Each of them is a subject, meaning a fully self-conscious self-determining person made in the image of God. She is simply a different bodily manifestation of the image.

Furthermore, neither alone can fully image God. Both together in their communion constitute the full image of the Trinity.

As John Paul II said in his audience on November 14, 1979: "Man becomes the image of God not so much in the moment of solitude as in the moment of communion. Right 'from the beginning,' his is not only an image in which the solitude of a person who rules the world is reflected, but also, and essentially an image of a divine communion of persons."

The "Absolute" is not man but God, and both the man and the woman are in a unique partnership with him. Unlike some traditional interpretations of Scripture the woman does not only relate to God through her husband. She is equally a person in every way.

Man's and woman's "otherness" is not for separation but for communion. The man can never stand alone. His existence always presupposes the existence of woman. They are created for one another.

The song from the musical "South Pacific" says it well. The chorus of sailors on an idyllic island in the Pacific during wartime lament that they have it all but feminine companionship — "There is nothing like a dame!"

Such feminine companionship is not for the sake simply of sexual satisfaction — that would be treating the woman like an object. Their communion must always be within what the Pope calls the hermeneutic of the gift.

Through the grace of original innocence Adam was able to receive Eve in the full truth of her femininity and she him in his masculinity. They could see each other according to God's vision.

The body in its masculinity and femininity has a nuptial meaning — the capacity to express love. This consummate communion, expressed most completely in the one-flesh union, constituted original happiness. God blessed this communion with the gift of a child.

The norm for relations between man and woman remains the harmony of original innocence. Although the fall from grace ruptured man and woman's relation with God, John Paul II stresses that the nuptial meaning of the body was distorted but not destroyed.

Now the redemption of the body and sexuality is a reality through redemption in Christ. We cannot return to original innocence — overcoming concupiscence, which can so easily get in the way of healthy man-woman relationships, comes about through effort as well as grace — but marriage as a sacrament can image Christ's total self-giving union with the Church and consecrated virginity is a new privileged way in the kingdom.

It is within this context that the Church presents the "authentic advancement of women."

Q: What are the essentials of the "active collaboration"? How can it play out in the family, in the workplace and in society?

Shivanandan: If these false ideas have arisen in the area of women's sexuality, then the solution must lie there also. Pope Paul VI's encyclical "Humanae Vitae" — truly a sign of contradiction — is the cornerstone of a new feminism.

If the body expresses the person, then the way it is designed to express the love between the man and the woman must surely have something to say to us about collaboration in other areas of life. "Humanae Vitae" is not simply about the evils of contraception. It presents a blueprint for true marital happiness and relations between men and women.

Since the 1970s, I have been involved in the natural family planning movement and have been fortunate to know couples who put the Church's teaching into practice. I have also had an opportunity to participate in research on just why it helps marriages and brings a new appreciation of both masculine and feminine values.

For the woman it is deeply satisfying to be accepted by her husband as she is. The sacrifice he makes of his sexual desires to cherish their joint fertility greatly increases her love for him. The very process of jointly monitoring their fertility increases intimate communication. One of the highlights of their marriage is consciously conceiving a child together and sharing in its nurture.

The struggle with abstinence brings the reward of self-mastery for self-gift, as John Paul II would say. When they trust in the way God has made them as man and woman, they learn to trust God more and surrender to his will in every area of their lives.

It seems to me that here is a model for "active collaboration" in the workplace and society as well as the family. ZE04090226

Part 2

Mary Shivanandan on Feminine and Masculine Gifts


Feminine values can only flourish when masculine values also are honored.

So says Mary Shivanandan, a professor of theology at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at the Catholic University of America and author of "Crossing the Threshhold of Love: A New Vision of Marriage in the Light of John Paul II's Anthropology" (CUA PRESS), as she analyzed the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith's "Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the collaboration of Men and Women in the Catholic Church and in the World."

Shivanandan explained to ZENIT how active collaboration between the sexes, which the document advocates, means upholding the gifts of both men and women in the family and in society.

Part 1 of this interview appeared Thursday.

Q: What is the importance of feminine values in the life of society?

Shivanandan: I would prefer to change the question to "What is the importance of masculine and feminine values in the life of society, since men are included in the title of the Letter?"

If man and woman are by nature oriented to each other, then feminine values in society can only flourish in a society that truly honors masculine values.

In his reflections on Ephesians 5:21-33, John Paul II, like other commentators, highlights the husband's role as initiator. The submission the wife is called to give is a response to his love. When the woman takes aggressive initiative, the man takes on a passive role or withdraws.

From all accounts this has become a major problem in our society. Without the right kind of masculine leadership — sometimes called servant leadership — feminine values cannot flourish.

Christ, of course, is the model for servant leadership. The recent document gives a hint of this in talking about Christ's power as "neither one of domination nor of power as understood by the world."

Ephesians 5:21-33 is a key text for discovering the role of the bridegroom/husband. In "Letter to Families," John Paul II calls the passage a "compendium or summa in some sense, of the teaching about God and man that was brought to fulfillment in Christ."

C.L. Rossetti has summarized the key points: the existence of a given order as Christ/husband as initiator and Church/woman as active receiver; total reciprocity and mutual submission; the kenotic character of the self-emptying of the male's leadship; the equality and unity of the two which is not harmed by a distinction of roles; and the woman/spouse as representative of all humanity in relation to God.

These are the principles that the document points out must guide all collaboration between men and women in the family and society. The document takes a great step forward in highlighting the need for "active collaboration." And that collaboration means bringing the gifts of both men and women to society.

Q: What is required in "active collaboration"?

Shivanandan: In his philosophical work "The Acting Person," Karol Wojtyla, the future John Paul II, spells out what is required in mutual cooperation.

Participation is the word he uses to describe the mode of collaboration. True participation takes place when the subject, in acting together with others for a common good, fulfills himself in the action. In working together for the good of the family and society, both the man and the woman will succeed if in doing so they fulfill themselves in the action.

The document has spelled out ways in which women, both married and single, can fulfill themselves by participating in the work of society.

The woman's maternal role, linked to her orientation to relationship, needs to be honored so that she can choose to stay home to care for her children. The woman's presence in the home provides an atmosphere that nurtures culture and that in itself is a major contribution to society.

As a place where work is performed freely out of love, the home provides a counterfoil to our commercial culture in which everything has a price tag. The home is a place, too, where the uniqueness of each person is valued and spiritual values are fostered as it is a "domestic church."

Alternately, the document exhorts that "an appropriate work-schedule" needs to be made available so that the woman who wishes or needs to contribute specific talents to society can do so without undue stress to herself and the family.

There have been great advances in providing flexible work schedules. The development of the Internet and telecommunications enable more and more women, as well as men, to work from home and make their own hours.

Changing careers has become more usual, and opportunities to return to school have increased. The workplace itself benefits from women's attention to the personal and concrete. They can moderate overemphasis on the "bottom line" in business and bring concern for each person to all professions.

Q: How does the Church benefit from feminine values?

Shivanandan: The document particularly mentions Mary's faith and obedience to God as the model for all believers. Her "fiat mihi" is far from passive.

In the encyclical "Redemptoris Mater" John Paul II says Mary's response to the angel Gabriel shows her to be an "authentic subject" — her own person. She has a stupendous decision to make and she makes it freely. Her courage is completely dependent on her trust in God. Men can well learn this courageous and humble trust from women.

Women philosophers and theologians are making valuable contributions to our understanding of men and women. Prudence Allen's outstanding two volumes on the "Concept of Women" show the contribution of women to philosophy, especially in the areas of analogy and symbolism. She calls Hildegard of Bingen the "foundress" of the idea of sex complementarity.

Monica Migliorino Miller has written insightfully on "Sexuality and Authority in the Catholic Church." She clarifies the concept of authority as meaning "source," not arbitrary power.

Christ chose to redeem us through his spousal relation with the Church. The feminine stands as the bride in the spousal relation. For a woman to be admitted to the ordained priesthood would be to falsify the analogy. Miller perceives the role of women in the Church as calling men to their responsibilities. She cites the pro-life movement as a particular example. And indeed women have been in the forefront of the movement.

These are only two examples of women philosophers and theologians. Others also are making significant contributions. Sister Timothy Prokes' latest book, "At the Interface: Theology and Virtual Reality," brings a keen analytical eye to a critical subject.

In Michele Schumacher's book "Women in Christ: Towards a New Feminism" she brings the scholarship of several women to bear on flaws at the heart of radical feminism and shows a path forward.

Janet Smith has spent her entire professional career engaged in making the Church's teaching on responsible parenthood better understood.

Q: What can be done to help women, and men, fully understand and embrace the Church's call for authentic advancement of women?

Shivanandan: One of the most effective ways to promote the authentic advancement of women is to spread the vision expressed in this document and in the Pope's theology of the body as far and wide as possible. One women's organization especially is tapping into the particular feminine gifts of attention to each individual person in order to transform the culture.

Women Affirming Life was founded nearly 15 years ago in Boston to provide a compassionate voice both for women and the unborn in our society. It is led by a dynamic group of professional women but its membership includes many stay-at-home moms. It has a threefold purpose — again in tune with the "feminine genius" — of prayer, education and witness.

Five years ago a need arose to provide a group study guide on the theology of the body. Women Affirming Life took on the task. This was not to be a simple classroom study guide but a vehicle of transformation, the conversion of heart the "Letter to the Bishops" speaks about.

Following the Pope's own preference for experience as a mode of learning, the discussion questions invite each participant not to intellectual discussion, but to apply the concepts to his or her lived experience. The overall context of the meetings is prayer, Scripture and evangelization.

It can take up to one year to complete the four six-session seasons. That allows time for a real transformation. The groups are composed of men and women, married, single and divorced, young and not so young. Groups are spreading to different dioceses throughout different states and even Canada. The facilitators, who are ordinary Catholics committed to the magisterium, offer their time freely as a gift.

So far the response to "A New Language" study guide has exceeded all expectations. We continue to hear stories of transformation. For men particularly, it has become one place where they can discuss freely issues of masculine and feminine identity and roles.

There are many other initiatives to spread the theology of the body. As a faculty member of the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at the Catholic University of America I see every day the seeds of renewal from this great initiative of John Paul II and the Knights of Columbus bearing fruit. ZE04090322

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
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