A Woman's Perspective on New Vatican Document (Part 1)

Mary Shivanandan Tells of Collaboration Between the Sexes

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WASHINGTON, D.C., SEPT 2, 2004 (Zenit.org).- A new letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has called for a renewed collaboration of men and women.

Such a vision cannot be realized without understanding God’s plan for man and woman outlined in the Pope’s theology of the body, says Mary Shivanandan, a professor of theology at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at Catholic University of America and author of «Crossing the Threshold of Love: A New Vision of Marriage in the Light of John Paul II’s Anthropology» (CUA Press).

Shivanandan shared with ZENIT how both men and women can only be truly liberated when they understand that they were created for communion with one another.

Part 2 of this interview will appear Friday.

Q: The «Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Catholic Church and in the World» opens by saying that «the Church is called today to address certain currents of thought which are often at variance with the authentic advancement of women.» Briefly, what are those «currents of thought»?

Shivanandan: Fundamentally, these currents of thought are linked to the rise of radical feminism. Since women are vulnerable in bearing and rearing children, feminists see this as an almost inescapable invitation to oppression by men. Here, I am not here talking about the woman with a difficult pregnancy.

To overcome this exposure to «domination,» women must at all costs be in control of their bodies in order to be on a level playing field with men in the family and all areas of society. Such an attitude is hostile to both men and women. As the document says, it brings about harmful confusion regarding the human person.

Since it is not possible to do away with sexual difference altogether, these feminists want to separate the physical, biological differences of «sex» from gender. Gender then becomes a purely cultural construct.

In this view — I am citing here French pioneer feminist Simone de Beauvoir — femininity per se no longer exists as a fixed entity with determined characteristics. There is no such thing as the «eternal feminine.»

Other feminists have gone even farther in rejecting sexual difference. They charge that even claiming the right to be different is to claim the right to be oppressed. Women don’t want to «be» men but to destroy the very idea of both man and woman. Above all, they seek individual autonomy and control of their lives.

As the document points out, this desire to be autonomous and to determine one’s own sexual identity has profound effects on the family and society.

In the 1970s, I attended the annual conference of a national secular family organization. The definition of the family was already undergoing revision into several types on an equal footing: the traditional nuclear family of father, mother and children; the single-parent family; the blended family; and the family with both «parents» of the same sex.

In the late 1980s, the push began to get literature into family-life courses in public schools to validate the homosexual and even bisexual lifestyle.

I recall the frustration of the four of us who were Catholic representatives on a committee to choose the educational materials for family-life courses. In our efforts to uphold the traditional definition of marriage as the exclusive and permanent union of a man and a woman and the proper context for the generation and upbringing of children, we were outvoted almost every time.

Over time these ideas — so pervasive in Western secular culture — have penetrated even Catholic institutions. As the document points out, there has been a concerted effort by feminist Scripture scholars to reinterpret Scripture to accommodate this so-called liberation of women. They have attempted to counter what they see as patriarchal and oppressive texts by declaring that whatever is not in accord with their understanding of the dignity of women cannot truly be the Word of God.

For example, Phyllis Bird and Phyllis Trible, in reinterpreting the Genesis creation accounts, use their considerable exegetical skills to link the blessing of fertility purely with our animal nature and the human role of dominion with our humanity. The result is a greatly impoverished understanding of the nature of man and woman and their communion.

Q: What is the Church’s concept of the «authentic advancement of women»?

Shivanandan: The document defines the Church’s response as «active collaboration.» It gives a beautiful summary of John Paul II’s theology of the body in his Wednesday audiences from 1979 to 1984 on God’s plan for man and woman and their communion. Without understanding this foundation there can be no true liberation of either man or woman.

Simone de Beauvoir had charged that woman has always been defined as the «Other» in relation to man as the «Subject,» the «Absolute.» Woman as Other is always «less» as an object to the subject.

In John Paul II’s understanding of Genesis, woman is truly an «other» but in no way less a subject than the man. Each of them is a subject, meaning a fully self-conscious self-determining person made in the image of God. She is simply a different bodily manifestation of the image.

Furthermore, neither alone can fully image God. Both together in their communion constitute the full image of the Trinity.

As John Paul II said in his audience on November 14, 1979: «Man becomes the image of God not so much in the moment of solitude as in the moment of communion. Right ‘from the beginning,’ his is not only an image in which the solitude of a person who rules the world is reflected, but also, and essentially an image of a divine communion of persons.»

The «Absolute» is not man but God, and both the man and the woman are in a unique partnership with him. Unlike some traditional interpretations of Scripture the woman does not only relate to God through her husband. She is equally a person in every way.

Man’s and woman’s «otherness» is not for separation but for communion. The man can never stand alone. His existence always presupposes the existence of woman. They are created for one another.

The song from the musical «South Pacific» says it well. The chorus of sailors on an idyllic island in the Pacific during wartime lament that they have it all but feminine companionship — «There is nothing like a dame!»

Such feminine companionship is not for the sake simply of sexual satisfaction — that would be treating the woman like an object. Their communion must always be within what the Pope calls the hermeneutic of the gift.

Through the grace of original innocence Adam was able to receive Eve in the full truth of her femininity and she him in his masculinity. They could see each other according to God’s vision.

The body in its masculinity and femininity has a nuptial meaning — the capacity to express love. This consummate communion, expressed most completely in the one-flesh union, constituted original happiness. God blessed this communion with the gift of a child.

The norm for relations between man and woman remains the harmony of original innocence. Although the fall from grace ruptured man and woman’s relation with God, John Paul II stresses that the nuptial meaning of the body was distorted but not destroyed.

Now the redemption of the body and sexuality is a reality through redemption in Christ. We cannot return to original innocence — overcoming concupiscence, which can so easily get in the way of healthy man-woman relationships, comes about through effort as well as grace — but marriage as a sacrament can image Christ’s total self-giving union with the Church an
d consecrated virginity is a new privileged way in the kingdom.

It is within this context that the Church presents the «authentic advancement of women.»

Q: What are the essentials of the «active collaboration»? How can it play out in the family, in the workplace and in society?

Shivanandan: If these false ideas have arisen in the area of women’s sexuality, then the solution must lie there also. Pope Paul VI’s encyclical «Humanae Vitae» — truly a sign of contradiction — is the cornerstone of a new feminism.

If the body expresses the person, then the way it is designed to express the love between the man and the woman must surely have something to say to us about collaboration in other areas of life. «Humanae Vitae» is not simply about the evils of contraception. It presents a blueprint for true marital happiness and relations between men and women.

Since the 1970s, I have been involved in the natural family planning movement and have been fortunate to know couples who put the Church’s teaching into practice. I have also had an opportunity to participate in research on just why it helps marriages and brings a new appreciation of both masculine and feminine values.

For the woman it is deeply satisfying to be accepted by her husband as she is. The sacrifice he makes of his sexual desires to cherish their joint fertility greatly increases her love for him. The very process of jointly monitoring their fertility increases intimate communication. One of the highlights of their marriage is consciously conceiving a child together and sharing in its nurture.

The struggle with abstinence brings the reward of self-mastery for self-gift, as John Paul II would say. When they trust in the way God has made them as man and woman, they learn to trust God more and surrender to his will in every area of their lives.

It seems to me that here is a model for «active collaboration» in the workplace and society as well as the family.

[Friday: The need for masculine and feminine values]

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