Distortion, Misrepresentation and Caricature: The Vatican's Letter to Women Is Confused about Scripture and Feminism
Ruether, Rosemary Radford, Conscience
THE "LETTER TO THE BISHOPS of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World," released by the Vatican Offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on May 31, 2004, has already drawn extensive criticism worldwide. I hope to add a few additional comments, primarily from the perspective of a historian of Christian thought.
First, I state the obvious criticisms. The letter is addressed to the bishops of the Catholic church, not to the whole church as clergy and laity. Hence women as such are not addressed by the letter, but rather simply defined in order to inform bishops of what they should teach on women. The underlying assumption here is one of a pre-Vatican II ecclesiology. The church is the magisterium, i.e. the pope and the bishops. The laity are subjects of the church, not themselves church or, as the Vatican II view had it, part of the People of God.
Secondly, the letter is misnamed. It is not about the collaboration of men and women in the church and the world. Its purpose is to condemn "certain currents of thought which are often at variance with the authentic advancement of women." Presumably these "currents of thought" are seen as "feminism," although neither the word feminism nor the supposed authors of these "currents of thought" are ever named or their works referred to.
Thirdly, although the letter calls for "dialogue with all men and women of good will, in a sincere search for the truth and in a common commitment to the development of ever more authentic relationships," in fact the approach taken by the letter excludes any real dialogue with anyone, particularly with women. Rather the letter presumes that the "correct understanding" of the nature of women and how men and women should collaborate in the church and society is already completely known by the magisterium (i.e., Cardinal Ratzinger interpreting the views of Pope John Paul II). Thus it is only a question of defining this correct view, promulgating it to the bishops and, through the teaching authority of the pope and bishops, getting everyone else in both the church and the world to acquiesce to it or else stand condemned.
The letter stands on a very narrow base of "scholarship." The footnotes cite almost entirely the writings of Pope John Paul II and other approved Vatican documents. Scripture is referred to, but no scriptural exegetes. There are one or two cursory references to several church fathers. No recent theologians, much less female theologians, are cited. The assumption is that the correct anthropology of men and women and their true nature and collaboration are already fully known a priori. Moreover, this "correct" view has been unchanging for all eternity, revealed in the Old and New Testament and known in the church tradition. There is no need to consult or dialogue with anyone about this, but only to promulgate the correct view and banish all contrary proposals.
What this means is that the author of the letter allows no historical consciousness of the cultural context of his own views on anthropology and its deviation, not only from various proposals of modern feminism, but also from the views found in Hebrew Scripture, the New Testament and the church fathers. In fact the anthropology presumed in this letter is not that of either scripture or patristic and medieval theology, but rather it is the anthropology of 19th century romanticism. This anthropology was based on the complementarity of two totally distinct human natures, masculine and feminine, that define the essential being of males and females. This anthropology governs the theology of the document from beginning to end.
INTERPRETING THE BIBLE
Beginning with Genesis 1 and 2, the author claims that the image of God in which humans were created is one of distinct and complementary natures, masculine and feminine which only together, in a relational unity, are the image of God in humanity. …