A Woman's Perspective on New Vatican Document (Part 2)

Mary Shivanandan on Feminine and Masculine Gifts

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WASHINGTON, D.C., SEPT. 03, 2004 (Zenit.org).- Feminine values can only flourish when masculine values also are honored.

So says Mary Shivanandan, a professor of theology at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at the Catholic University of America and author of “Crossing the Threshhold of Love: A New Vision of Marriage in the Light of John Paul II’s Anthropology” (CUA PRESS), as she analyzed the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith’s «Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the collaboration of Men and Women in the Catholic Church and in the World.»

Shivanandan explained to ZENIT how active collaboration between the sexes, which the document advocates, means upholding the gifts of both men and women in the family and in society.

Part 1 of this interview appeared Thursday.

Q: What is the importance of feminine values in the life of society?

Shivanandan: I would prefer to change the question to «What is the importance of masculine and feminine values in the life of society, since men are included in the title of the Letter

If man and woman are by nature oriented to each other, then feminine values in society can only flourish in a society that truly honors masculine values.

In his reflections on Ephesians 5:21-33, John Paul II, like other commentators, highlights the husband’s role as initiator. The submission the wife is called to give is a response to his love. When the woman takes aggressive initiative, the man takes on a passive role or withdraws.

From all accounts this has become a major problem in our society. Without the right kind of masculine leadership — sometimes called servant leadership — feminine values cannot flourish.

Christ, of course, is the model for servant leadership. The recent document gives a hint of this in talking about Christ’s power as «neither one of domination nor of power as understood by the world.»

Ephesians 5:21-33 is a key text for discovering the role of the bridegroom/husband. In «Letter to Families,» John Paul II calls the passage a «compendium or summa in some sense, of the teaching about God and man that was brought to fulfillment in Christ.»

C.L. Rossetti has summarized the key points: the existence of a given order as Christ/husband as initiator and Church/woman as active receiver; total reciprocity and mutual submission; the kenotic character of the self-emptying of the male’s leadship; the equality and unity of the two which is not harmed by a distinction of roles; and the woman/spouse as representative of all humanity in relation to God.

These are the principles that the document points out must guide all collaboration between men and women in the family and society. The document takes a great step forward in highlighting the need for «active collaboration.» And that collaboration means bringing the gifts of both men and women to society.

Q: What is required in «active collaboration»?

Shivanandan: In his philosophical work «The Acting Person,» Karol Wojtyla, the future John Paul II, spells out what is required in mutual cooperation.

Participation is the word he uses to describe the mode of collaboration. True participation takes place when the subject, in acting together with others for a common good, fulfills himself in the action. In working together for the good of the family and society, both the man and the woman will succeed if in doing so they fulfill themselves in the action.

The document has spelled out ways in which women, both married and single, can fulfill themselves by participating in the work of society.

The woman’s maternal role, linked to her orientation to relationship, needs to be honored so that she can choose to stay home to care for her children. The woman’s presence in the home provides an atmosphere that nurtures culture and that in itself is a major contribution to society.

As a place where work is performed freely out of love, the home provides a counterfoil to our commercial culture in which everything has a price tag. The home is a place, too, where the uniqueness of each person is valued and spiritual values are fostered as it is a «domestic church.»

Alternately, the document exhorts that «an appropriate work-schedule» needs to be made available so that the woman who wishes or needs to contribute specific talents to society can do so without undue stress to herself and the family.

There have been great advances in providing flexible work schedules. The development of the Internet and telecommunications enable more and more women, as well as men, to work from home and make their own hours.

Changing careers has become more usual, and opportunities to return to school have increased. The workplace itself benefits from women’s attention to the personal and concrete. They can moderate overemphasis on the «bottom line» in business and bring concern for each person to all professions.

Q: How does the Church benefit from feminine values?

Shivanandan: The document particularly mentions Mary’s faith and obedience to God as the model for all believers. Her «fiat mihi» is far from passive.

In the encyclical «Redemptoris Mater» John Paul II says Mary’s response to the angel Gabriel shows her to be an «authentic subject» — her own person. She has a stupendous decision to make and she makes it freely. Her courage is completely dependent on her trust in God. Men can well learn this courageous and humble trust from women.

Women philosophers and theologians are making valuable contributions to our understanding of men and women. Prudence Allen’s outstanding two volumes on the «Concept of Women» show the contribution of women to philosophy, especially in the areas of analogy and symbolism. She calls Hildegard of Bingen the «foundress» of the idea of sex complementarity.

Monica Migliorino Miller has written insightfully on «Sexuality and Authority in the Catholic Church.» She clarifies the concept of authority as meaning «source,» not arbitrary power.

Christ chose to redeem us through his spousal relation with the Church. The feminine stands as the bride in the spousal relation. For a woman to be admitted to the ordained priesthood would be to falsify the analogy. Miller perceives the role of women in the Church as calling men to their responsibilities. She cites the pro-life movement as a particular example. And indeed women have been in the forefront of the movement.

These are only two examples of women philosophers and theologians. Others also are making significant contributions. Sister Timothy Prokes’ latest book, «At the Interface: Theology and Virtual Reality,» brings a keen analytical eye to a critical subject.

In Michele Schumacher’s book «Women in Christ: Towards a New Feminism» she brings the scholarship of several women to bear on flaws at the heart of radical feminism and shows a path forward.

Janet Smith has spent her entire professional career engaged in making the Church’s teaching on responsible parenthood better understood.

Q: What can be done to help women, and men, fully understand and embrace the Church’s call for authentic advancement of women?

Shivanandan: One of the most effective ways to promote the authentic advancement of women is to spread the vision expressed in this document and in the Pope’s theology of the body as far and wide as possible. One women’s organization especially is tapping into the particular feminine gifts of attention to each individual person in order to transform the culture.

Women Affirming Life was founded nearly 15 years ago in Boston to provide a compassionate voice both for women and the un
born in our society. It is led by a dynamic group of professional women but its membership includes many stay-at-home moms. It has a threefold purpose—again in tune with the «feminine genius»—of prayer, education and witness.

Five years ago a need arose to provide a group study guide on the theology of the body. Women Affirming Life took on the task. This was not to be a simple classroom study guide but a vehicle of transformation, the conversion of heart the “Letter to the Bishops» speaks about.

Following the Pope’s own preference for experience as a mode of learning, the discussion questions invite each participant not to intellectual discussion, but to apply the concepts to his or her lived experience. The overall context of the meetings is prayer, Scripture and evangelization.

It can take up to one year to complete the four six-session seasons. That allows time for a real transformation. The groups are composed of men and women, married, single and divorced, young and not so young. Groups are spreading to different dioceses throughout different states and even Canada. The facilitators, who are ordinary Catholics committed to the magisterium, offer their time freely as a gift.

So far the response to «A New Language» study guide has exceeded all expectations. We continue to hear stories of transformation. For men particularly, it has become one place where they can discuss freely issues of masculine and feminine identity and roles.

There are many other initiatives to spread the theology of the body. As a faculty member of the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at the Catholic University of America I see every day the seeds of renewal from this great initiative of John Paul II and the Knights of Columbus bearing fruit.

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