In a brilliant expose appearing in the latest issue of L’Osservatore Romano, Sister Sara Butler of the International Theological Commission uses Church teaching on the complementarity of men and women to counter typical feminist arguments.
Sister Sara, who is a member of the Missionary Servants of the Most Blessed Trinity, defends Pope Francis’ intent to develop a more profound “theology of woman” against those who criticize him for saying as much, and yet still forbidding women to become priests.
The Pope’s expectation is that women will “contribute something distinctively feminine, in fact, something maternal, to the Church’s work and witness in the world,” Sister writes. “For him, the collaboration of men and women is a value for the Church because the complementarity of the sexes is a value” as it is for many Catholic women.
But not all! “Among Catholic feminists and feminist theologians who hope for a ‘discipleship of equals’, there is a deep suspicion of appeals to sexual complementarity,” Sister warns. Their definition of feminism, as defined by the dissenting Sister Sandra Schneider is “a comprehensive ideology, rooted in women’s experience of sexual oppression, which engages in a critique of patriarchy, embraces an alternative vision for humanity and the earth, and actively seeks to bring this vision to realization.”
Therefore, subscribers to liberal feminism reject the theory of sexual complementarity. “They object to the idea that physical sex dictates distinctive masculine and feminine personality traits. In other words, they dispute whether sex (a biological fact) gives rise in any necessary way to masculine or feminine ‘gender’ (i.e., the psychosocial aspects of sexual identity). For them, acknowledging the significance of sexual difference leads to ‘stereotyping’, and that, in turn, leads to unjust discrimination against women.”
This discrimination includes the exclusion of women from social roles, particularly in the public square, which are typically held by men, and to be confined instead to domestic tasks. They believe the “personality traits” apportioned to men and women give the more important roles to men and the less desirable but “complementary” roles to women, which is how the hierarchical ordering of the sexes is justified. It also implies that women exist to “complete” men as if they’re some kind of adjunct creation.
“On this understanding, feminists believe it is impossible to reconcile the theory of sexual complementarity with genuine equality; on the contrary, it seems to justify a ‘patriarchal’ order in which women are subordinate to men,” Sister explains.
What liberal feminists want is for women to be regarded as individuals, as “persons in their own right” who are capable of developing the same traits and capacities as men. And because the designation of personality traits as “feminine” and “masculine” varies from one culture and historical era to another, they believe that sexual identity itself is socially constructed rather than something God-given. In fact, “gender feminists” would just as soon banish the binary gender system altogether, thus “liberating” women from any discrimination based on sex!
“They dream of a ‘multi-gendered’ society in which human beings would not be limited by their biological sex.”
Catholic feminists don’t all espouse “gender feminism” but they do minimize the importance of sexual differences for personal identity.
“They want to have access to decision-making roles that are now reserved to the clergy, but not precisely to contribute ‘maternity, tenderness, affection, and a mother’s intuition’” as Pope Francis called for in his recent address to the International Union of Superiors General.
Sister Sara believes that until recently, the theory of complementarity did provide support for a view of women as the “other”, as being inferior to men, defined chiefly by their “proper” sexual roles and intended by God to be subordinate to men, but the Church has addressed this incorrect view several times in the past 40 years.
Contrary to what Catholic feminists might think, Church teaching on complementarity “does not propose a theory based on masculine and feminine personality traits, or assume that these traits belong to men and women in a mutually exclusive way, or that they are hierarchically ordered in favor of men,” Sister writes.
“It does not propose that only men properly exercise social roles in the public sphere, but encourages women to take part as well. It does not assume that the male represents normative humanity, or, that man and woman are humanly incomplete by themselves.”
Instead, the Church teaches that the human person is fulfilled only by making a gift of self which is concretely expressed in marriage and parenthood.
“Fatherhood and motherhood, then, are never simply ‘reproductive specializations’ or ‘social roles’; they are the fruit or fulfillment of God’s plan,” Sister explains. “This includes ‘spiritual’ fatherhood and motherhood. . . . Sex complementarity, in God’s plan, is not only physical but also psychological, spiritual, and ontological.”
We believe men and women were made “for each other,” and are destined not only to live “side by side” but also to become “one flesh” in a “communion of persons”, a “unity-of-the- two” that mirrors the Trinity, Sister writes.
“Accordingly, sexuality is a ‘fundamental component’ of the human personality; it reveals the capacity for interpersonal relationships, the capacity to love. This, in turn, reveals the will of God for humanity, for marriage, and for the family. In other words, creation in two sexes belongs to God’s revelation. It is Catholic doctrine, not simply one theory among many . . . . To overcome sexism, it is not necessary to eradicate the difference between the sexes, but only to end the opposition between them that results from sin.”
The relationship between men and women might be “wounded and in need of healing”, but it was always meant to be complementary.
“It is only through the duality of the ‘masculine’ and the ‘feminine’ that the ‘human’ finds full realization”, St. John Paul writes in his Letter to Women.
Just as St. John Paul gave us insight into the “feminine genius,” Sister Sara believes we now need to develop a “masculine genius”. Without this development, the female will continue to appear to be the “other” and an auxiliary expression of humanity. There needs to be some kind of “positive masculine” genius described rather than the negative masculinity that feminists seem so fixated upon.
“If the Church is unable to construct a positive account of maleness and masculinity, no wonder we remain ambivalent about the fatherhood of God, the theological relevance of the Jesus’ maleness, and the Lord’s reservation of the priesthood to men!” Sister writes.
What better example of the positive masculine can we find than Jesus Christ?
“The example of our Lord Jesus Christ, a male, emptying himself in obedience even to death of a cross, and making a complete gift of himself to sinful humankind in loving service, subverts all patriarchal patterns of domination. In him, we see realized the vocation of every person, which is to be fulfilled through making the gift of self, to our neighbor, but ultimately to God. This profoundly counter-cultural example of Christ the Servant is mirrored in the image of Mary, who freely consented to be God’s Handmaid by giving his Son human flesh and companioning him to the Cross.”
Jesus and Mary are the image of the “redeemed” relationship between the sexes that is set before us by our faith! We need to proclaim it, and to let the world see that the creation of man as male and female in the divine image is “very good” indeed!
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