Although some reviewers quoted in the secular media have termed a recent Vatican letter an extreme critique of feminism, Father Joseph A. Hart, a diocesan vicar general and moderator of the diocesan Pastoral Center, said he found the letter quite balanced.
“The letter rightly criticizes a radical feminist perspective that makes men the enemy or describes the differences between the sexes as purely historical or cultural,” Father Hart said. “But it also shows how far a centrist feminist perspective has influenced the standard theology of the present pontificate. Long gone is a theology that understands woman as a defective man.”
The July 31 “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World” was approved by Pope John Paul II and signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Archbishop Angelo Amato, the congregation’s secretary.
It maintains that current societal trends often emphasize one of two ways of thinking — that women and men are rivals or that there are almost no differences between them. Both ways of thinking go against God’s plan for human and family interaction, the document says.
“The church, enlightened by faith in Jesus Christ, speaks instead of active collaboration between the sexes,” the letter states. It notes that according to the Book of Genesis , God created Adam and Eve in his own image and intended for them to exist not only side by side, but also mutually for one another.
Father Hart said the letter underscores the extent to which sin distorts the God-given plan for relationships between men and women. The letter says this distortion leads to a context “in which love will frequently be debased into pure self-seeking, in a relationship which ignores and kills love and replaces it with the yoke of domination of one sex over the other.”
It also warns against viewing women from the sole perspective of physical procreation and praises women for their capacity to protect and value life, even in the face of extreme adversity, Father Hart noted.
“Far from a critique of true feminism, the letter seems to underscore the wide-ranging influence of the women’s movement and attempts to put into words the importance of feminine values in the life of the church,” he said.
Mary Dwelly, vice president of the Rochester-based Feminists for Life in New York, said she was encouraged by the Vatican document, finding it consistent with core feminist principles.
“The equality, respect and love required in right relationships are consistent with the basic tenets of true feminist principles of justice, nonviolence and nondiscrimination,” Dwelly said. “We would agree with the authors that ‘problems related to sexual difference, whether on the public or private level, should be addressed by a relational approach and not by competition or retaliation.'”
Dwelly was encouraged by the document’s emphasis on the value of every human life and the intrinsic value of women. She was also pleased by its statement that “motherhood can find forms of full realization also where there is no physical procreation.”
The document asserts 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 promote innovative solutions to economic and social problems.” Feminist principles maintain that women should have the opportunity to stay at home with their children if they so choose, Dwelly said.
“In this, we agree with John Paul II, that a mother should be able to do so ‘without inhibiting her freedom, without psychological or practical discrimination and without penalizing her as compared with other women,'” she said, referring to the pope’s 1981 encyclical, Laborem Exercens.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The full text of the Vatican letter can be found at