"Something Not to Be Grasped": Notes on Equality on the Occasion of the Twentieth Anniversary of Mulieris Dignitatem
McCarthy, Margaret, Ave Maria Law Review
As a world riving in the wake of that well-known French call to arms, it is almost unthinkable to question the equality of everyone. Everything has been so efficiently equalized, not the less so with postmodernity, which has only distributed equality around more broadly, more evenly, between cultures, and species no less, through its unmasking and breaking up of all the old universals and their hierarchical "binarisms." The American "all men are created equal" effectively drove the creation of a new nation, so captivating was its content. And if the first century of that nation's existence was marked by a reveling in the lack of class distinction so characteristic of the ancienne regime and then in the long struggle to overcome the racial divide, the second century would add the struggle of including women among those already equal to men.
What is it that is so desirable about equality? It hardly needs saying that no human being likes to be treated as inferior to others. Given the widespread experience of "power struggles," it should come as no surprise that when one catches a glimpse of the fundamental and equally distributed dignity of being human, and when, moreover, one feels something new in the air that recognizes that dignity, the desire to move toward it and away from everything that calls it into question is irrepressible.
When the equality in question is between men and women, certain things come to mind almost universally. On the positive side, equality affirms that "women are fully human and are to be valued as such," (1) and that each person is to be allowed "to come into his or her own" (2) in a movement toward their destiny of "human flourishing." (3) On the negative side, "whatever diminishes or denies the full humanity of women" is opposed, and theologically speaking, any such diminution is judged "not to reflect the divine or an authentic relation to the divine or the authentic nature of things." (4) In short, and in the words of one feminist, equality between man and woman means "a concomitant valuing of each other, a common regard marked by trust, respect, and affection in contrast to competition, domination, or assertions of superiority." (5) Commonplace and uncontestable meanings of "equality" such as these are put forth today without much ado, even if in the past much ado has had to be made, and not over nothing.
I. INTRODUCTION TO THE PROBLEM OF EQUALITY
One cannot, however, talk about "equality" without setting off certain alarms. By ancient definition, equality is the contrary of "the greater and the lesser" and is achieved by a kind of standing in between them--as an intermediary, as it were--equalizing them, taking something from the greater and giving it to the lesser. (6) It can be seen at work, for example, at the level of quantity (more or less/fewer) or at the level of a certain quality (hot or cold), where "equal" would mean that two children have the same number of jelly beans or that two glasses of water are of the same temperature. Equality is no happy bedfellow with differences. Now, as if proof was needed, the unhappy marriage of the two is plain for all to see in today's culture, which in its race toward equality must always play down, on pain of excommunication, obvious differences of the truly "greater and lesser" sort--real inequalities, which undeniably exist between human beings at the level of mental, physical, and moral capacity and achievement. If the denial of obvious differences (of the unequal kind) was not painful enough, what is worse is that when it comes to the kinds of differences that mark and define interpersonal relations between a son or daughter and his or her mother and father, and that between a man and a woman, "equality talk" invariably has a way of short-circuiting important differences, the uniqueness of one with respect to the other, the distinct needs, and the respective responsibilities that are called forth on account of these distinct needs. …