Ratzinger, feminist?

Not quite

Good. The Vatican document On the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World (released July 31), rejects “an outdated conception of femininity” as passivity. The letter to the bishops of the world, written by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, advocates the equal dignity and active collaboration of men and women in the church, in society, and in the home. While no evidence of women’s theological collaboration appears in the document, Ratzinger states that the goal of his letter is to serve as “a starting point” and an “impetus for dialogue.”

Fortunately, dialogue is different from monologue. The first step must be to listen and acknowledge that critical differences can arise among those engaged in a “sincere search for truth.” Participants who disagree with one another can still be “men and women of good will.” Much as I disagree with many of Cardinal Ratzinger and Pope John Paul II’s ideas on sex and gender, I readily grant their sincerity, faith, and idealism. It is a cynical misunderstanding to see the Vatican’s positions on sexuality as a last-ditch effort to maintain control by refusing ordination to women, rejecting homosexuality, condemning contraception, or disallowing divorce. No, Cardinal Ratzinger and the pope along with their followers truly believe in the central importance of the essential complementarity of the natures of women and men.

Those of us in the church who dissent from current Vatican views should, in the spirit of dialogue, also be acknowledged as sincere seekers of God’s truth. I, as a “gospel feminist,” am saddened and made impatient by Cardinal Ratzinger’s dismissals and accusations of bad motives. The Christian feminists I know are not “seeking power,” or trying to make themselves “the adversaries of men,” much less seeking to “dominate” them.

Nor does my disagreement spring from a “deeper motivation” to “be freed from one’s biological conditioning.” I embrace the gift of embodiment, which includes brain cells, breasts, and uterus, and take great joy in having borne and nurtured six sons and a daughter over fifty years of monogamous marriage. My problems with Vatican views on women arise from my life experience as well as from my professional teaching and study of psychology and moral theology. Sad to say, I find the views in this document, however idealistic and heartfelt, too limited. They present a superficially skewed version of biosocial and theological reality. Cardinal Ratzinger is skating on the thinnest of theoretical and theological ice, and wants to take the church with him.

The biosocial thin ice is the dubious and exaggerated claim that “sexuality characterizes man and woman not only on the physical level, but also on the psychological and spiritual, making its mark on each of their expressions.” The so-called spousal character of the nuptial body is asserted but is based on insufficient biological or psychological evidence. Embodied life from infancy through old age is made up of far too many innate developmental processes that are far too complex to be shoehorned into a simplistic dualistic sexual schema of essential male and female sexual differences. As biological human beings, men and women are more alike than different; and individual differences outweigh group differences.

These serious flaws and failings in the assumptions underlying a purported and “immutable” Christian anthropology don’t preclude good elements; many positive points are presented in the Vatican document that demonstrate progress from past church approaches to women-distortions for which the pope has apologized. Yes, now it is clear that the subordination of women is the result of “the logic of sin.” Now too women must be seen as equal persons and are not to be reduced to their procreative functions. Marriage and family must be valued in every society while women’s gifts are to be employed in civil society. The letter insists that ways must be found to value women’s work in the home and enable them to work in the world. (Here I would add that the working-father problem is equally challenging.)

Assuredly too, as Ratzinger proclaims, the core Christian gospel command is to love God and give one’s self to others in caring, committed relationships. (Here I would defend the feminist assertion that love of neighbor as oneself requires loving self as a child of God.) But agreement with this letter breaks down when I am asked to believe in some “genius of women,” or that sex must determine the role or kind of gifts that Christians are called to exercise.

In order for Ratzinger to maintain his vision in which distinct sexual differences are complementary and central, he has to present Scripture and the theological tradition in selective ways. I am afraid it would take several years of dialogue to sort out the deep and wide-ranging theological disagreements between Ratzinger and his opponents. After a year of mandatory consultation with biologists, neuropsychologists, and developmental social scientists, the Scripture scholars would have to be called in. Their job would be to focus on the meanings that papal feminists read into Genesis and the Creation story, and also other Old Testament texts. Then theologians devoted to the understanding of the Trinity and Holy Spirit should be consulted to focus on what Christians can say about the image of God and its import for the creation of humankind. In talking about the “masculinity of the Son,” Ratzinger seems to be ascribing gender to God. Even if this isn’t heresy, it’s bad news for women’s claims for equality.

Ratzinger selectively uses Old Testament sexual images of God as a bridegroom relating to his erring people as an “adulterous bride or prostitute.” He ignores the host of other rich Hebrew imagery of God. Certainly, the I am Who Am, a being beyond all gender, is absent. Also tactfully overlooked is the blatant misogyny in many Old Testament “texts of terror.”

In interpreting the New Testament, Ratzinger endorses a similar sexualized focus, one that gives too much weight to the gendered image of Christ as bridegroom. Other images of Christ-as Word, light, friend, shepherd, physician, mother hen, vine, living bread, or “the way, the truth, and the life”-are omitted. St. Paul’s words that “in Christ there is neither male nor female” show, according to Ratzinger, that “the distinction between man and woman is reaffirmed more than ever.”

Feminine imagery of the bride abounds and becomes fulfilled in Mary. A sexually and dualistically complementary scheme of salvation is ingeniously constructed and insisted upon. Ratzinger makes the astounding claim that the resurrected body, while nonprocreative, will be gendered for all eternity. Over all an exaggerated romantic view of sexual difference ends up subsuming (or swamping?) the inclusive gospel message.

But enough. Obviously, the church’s internal dialogue on sex and gender has a long way to go. Hope for that ongoing prospect springs from this letter’s positive points, but even more from Ratzinger’s description of God’s “long and patient pedagogy” with humankind. A humble church can know itself moving toward God our Future. And all Christians, whatever their differences, can happily join Ratzinger when he quotes Revelation: “In Jesus Christ all things have been made new.”

Published in the 2004-09-10 issue: 

Sidney Callahan is a psychologist and the author of Created for Joy: A Christian View of Suffering.

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