Frances Kissling
Frances KisslingFrom her work with family planning clinics in the 1970s to her leadership in the feminist religious and international reproductive health movements, Frances Kissling has been working to improve women's lives for over 30 years.

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Letters & Op-Eds - 2004

Catholics for a Free Choice

Archie Bunker, Vatican Theologian

Frances Kissling

17 August 2004

A gender analysis of the Vatican's statement on "active collaboration" between men and women would show that it is the Vatican, not feminists, that fosters antagonism between men and women and diminishes the dignity of both.

When I opened the link to the just released Vatican statement on relations between men and women, I passed through a time warp. I thought I had returned to the 1960's and Archie Bunker had been appointed theologian to the Pope. In Bunkeresque mode, the Vatican's fear that "women's lib" means an end to men's power leads to a letter filled with stereotypes of women—good and bad—and to ill-informed caricatures of feminist thought. Among the concerns expressed by the Vatican is the claim that the introduction of gender as a category of intellectual study erases important and positive differences between men and women.

But even a rudimentary application of gender analysis to the Vatican's letter entitled "Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Collaboration between Men and Women" would have demonstrated that feminism has resulted in great benefits for men as well as women. While the letter seeks to set human relations in the context of "active collaboration" rather than competition between men and women, it ultimately fails to do justice to both.

The Missing Men. The Nobel economist Amartya Sen is justly noted for his exposure of the "missing girls" that analyzes the effect son preference has had on population statistics in China, where there is now a significant imbalance of numbers between men and women. In looking at the Vatican letter, one sees a similar phenomenon. Men are invisible. There is little guidance for men on their role in family life, the work place, or political life. The biblical analysis put forward by the Vatican barely mentions men. Adam's creation is cited as evidence of male pre-eminence, and then men disappear. Even the Vatican's model of family life lacks a father. In a long passage on the family, one hears only of Jesus and Mary. Joseph, Jesus' earthly father, is never mentioned.

Men have no role in the family. Mary and Jesus go about their lives without any male influence in the family, very much like the current reality of single mothers' families, which concerns the Vatican greatly. Yet nowhere in the document can one find any discussion of men's role in family life or in child rearing and care or any indication that part of the active collaboration of men and women should include men's responsibility for actually sharing in the work of child rearing and the formation of children's values. Children are still women's work.

In this area, feminism has been far more respectful of men and suggested a more collaborative model of family relations. As I walked through the streets of Washington, DC, on Sunday and saw more men than women pushing strollers and playing with children, I witnessed some of the changes feminism has brought about. Who does the Vatican think is responsible for the enormous number of men who have become better fathers over the last two decades? Most social scientists and political analysts credit feminism for encouraging men to step outside of male stereotypes and start being persons. Women's promotion of men as peaceful, nurturing partners surely contributed to those trailblazing men who decided to stay home and care for the kids.

Women are the problem. The Vatican's statement would lead one to believe that women alone are responsible for the quality of relationships between men and women – and that feminist thought created and fueled the war between the sexes. At the very beginning, the letter asserts that an important strategy of feminism is the "tendency to emphasize strongly conditions of subordination in order to give rise to antagonism: women, in order to be themselves, must make themselves the adversaries of men." (!) There are no footnotes, no quotes from feminist literature to prove this point. The scholarship which has characterized other Vatican documents such as those on peace and the economy is totally absent. The only sources cited are the Bible and the current pope. Moreover, there is no recognition that many of the examples of subordination of women made by feminists and others have pointed to serious problems including spousal abuse of women, rape that goes unpunished by courts worldwide, and serious inequities in the work place.

Vatican calls for woman friendly family law exclude men. Some commentators have applauded the letter for its policy dimensions. While there are no new initiatives in this section, it is disturbing that the Vatican should only call for laws that provide economic support for women who stay home to raise children and for labor policies that make it possible for women to fill the dual role of mother and worker. Feminists have made more equitable demands. Not only do we call for support for women's work at home and more flexible work rules for women, we call for the same rights for men. Current European laws that permit both men and women to take parental leave are the result of feminist advocacy, not Vatican support.

Given Vatican positions on divorce, remarriage, and homosexuality, one would not expect any recognition of the ways in which modern feminism has enhanced family life and actually increased men's power in the family as well as women's. Had not feminists asserted that men can be as good at parenting as women, we would not see the enormous changes in custody decisions which grant men more access to their children and even sole custody where it is in the children's best interests. When one looks at the enormous benefits to particularly difficult to adopt children that arise from the decisions of gay and lesbian couples to parent these children and devote extraordinary love and attention to making them whole and healthy people, it is hard to accept the Vatican view that the Genesis story of Adam and Eve sets in place an eternal model of human relationships that makes heterosexual marriage the normative human condition – almost to the exclusion of individual identity. It seems to assert that identity is only realized in marriage – unless of course one chooses celibacy.

Positive support for women's role in the work place and political sphere is not so positive. While the Vatican calls for the inclusion of women in political life and as decision makers in industry, this is based on an anthropology of women that ignores their identity as rights bearing persons. Women are to be welcomed in the work place because they are women, with a special "genius" that will humanize the public sphere. Certain "feminine values" are extolled. Women have "the irreplaceable role … in all aspects of family and social life involving human relationships and caring for others." Women are not welcomed on their own terms as intelligent leaders who by right deserve a seat at the table. In fact, not once does the letter use the term human rights or women's rights. Catholic feminists, at the UN conferences on human rights and women's rights, were embarrassed by the Vatican's vehement rejection of the concept that women's rights are human rights and substitution of the term "equal dignity" for equal rights. As this term "equal dignity" appears in this document, it is seen by some as indicative of one of the purposes of this document, which is to set the stage for Vatican interventions at forthcoming UN meetings on Women's Rights.

In lifting up "feminine values", the Vatican dismisses men as moral actors. Of course, there is something insulting to women about the continued insistence that there is something essentially female about the qualities of self-sacrifice, nurturing, and care giving. These are wonderful human qualities, but it is unclear as the Vatican claims that these character traits flow naturally from our physical sex. "Sexuality characterizes man and woman not only on the physical level, but also on the psychological and spiritual, making its mark on each in their expressions." Here the Vatican turns its claim that feminists refuse to accept sexual differences as significant (which is simply not true) by putting forward a definition of essential difference that goes far beyond physical sex characteristics. The concept of nurture as well as nature as significant in forming the human person is totally rejected.

But most importantly, there are no balancing "masculine values" presented. If femininity has positive values that can be articulated, does not masculinity? What are those characteristics and why are men not called to be faithful to them? There is a suggestion that men are not capable of being generous and are not even called to generosity. Such judgment is harsher than that made by any feminist, however radical!

Of course, the observation of Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza that the letter ultimately has a political purpose, not a scholarly or pastoral one, is key. The need to justify Vatican opposition to women's empowerment in the church through denial of priestly ordination coupled with intense efforts to influence international and national public policy in ways that limit sexual freedom, reproductive health and rights, as well as freedom to marry and establish families for GLBT people, distorts every effort church leaders make to contribute to the efforts of faithful women and men to live healthy and moral lives in which they truly collaborate with each other and with the church and society. The church has much to learn from feminism and from gender analysis and study. This letter indicates that we still have not reached a grace moment in which the men in power are ready to listen and learn not preach.

In the end, the Vatican's overwhelming fear of women and need to justify male power in the church leaves little room for useful advice on better relationships between men and women. Only men with little understanding of human relationships of any sort could write such a letter.

"Archie Bunker: Vatican Theologian" was initially produced for friends and colleagues.  After being posted at www.catholicsforchoice.org as a message from the president, the editorial was reprinted by various newsgroups and websites of collegial organizations.