NEW YORK, FEB. 12, 2005 ( The United Nations will hold a meeting Feb. 28-March 11 to consider the status of women. To mark the 10th anniversary of the Beijing conference on women, the Commission on the Status of Women will hold a special sitting, known as Beijing+10, at U.N. headquarters.

Recently the weekly English-language edition of L'Osservatore Romano has published articles explaining the Church's position on women's issues. In the Jan. 5 edition Mary Ann Glendon, president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences and Harvard law professor, addressed the issue of discrimination and women.

She noted that last Dec. 18 was the 25th anniversary of the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, or CEDAW. Reflecting on this event, Glendon acknowledged the contribution made by the United Nations in proclaiming the dignity and equality of women, starting with the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Nevertheless, applying the principle of equality in society and law has presented difficult challenges, she added. Glendon observed that Eleanor Roosevelt, who chaired the commission that produced the 1948 declaration, defended equal opportunities for women, "But she maintained just as firmly that there were certain areas, such as child-rearing and military service, where the differences between the sexes ought to be taken into account." As well, Roosevelt stated, in a parallel with Catholic teaching, that the family home is where "men and women live as men and women and complement each other."

But Glendon said that when it came to the drafting of CEDAW, another vision of women dominated. The document was influenced by a strain of feminism that was marked by negative attitudes toward men, marriage and motherhood. Because of this, CEDAW "contains a number of problematic features," noted Glendon.

Outlawing Mother's Day

Among the negative elements in the 1979 convention are parts that have been interpreted to discourage special protection for mothers. Moreover, it favors the promotion of equality in such a way as to create severe tensions with other basic rights, such as freedom of expression and belief.

The committee set up to oversee compliance with CEDAW has continued in this vein. It criticizes, for example, countries that do not provide open access to abortion and condemns making Mother's Day a holiday.

In the meantime, the majority of women have abandoned this "old-line feminism," argued Glendon. While women still actively campaign for equality, they are alienated by the anti-men, anti-family attitudes of the earlier generation of feminism.

Catholic doctrine, by contrast, has much to offer women in their quest for an authentic feminism, Glendon contended. John Paul II's encyclical "Laborem Exercens" affirms the importance of the family and the need for women to be able to advance in their workplace without having to sacrifice their role as mothers. In other writings the Pope has called for a change in society's attitudes, so that women can use all their talents, including in the home.

This should come as no surprise to anyone, added Glendon. The Gospels reveal how Jesus broke radically with the traditions of his time by befriending women and entrusting some of his teachings to them. And Christianity, through its promotion of monogamy and the indissolubility of marriage, "has probably done more than any other force in history to free women from customs that denied their dignity."

Catholic feminism

The theme of men's and women's roles in society was the subject of an article by Janne Haaland Matlary in the Jan. 12 issue of L'Osservatore Romano. The professor from University of Oslo's political science department took as the background for her reflections the letter issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith last July 31, on the "Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World."

That letter, the Norwegian scholar noted, maintained that the difference between the sexes goes far beyond the biological; the divergence extends to the psychological and ontological levels. In this way Catholic anthropology avoids the error of biological reductionism, which reduces women to the role of child-bearers. It also sidesteps the mistake of adopting a vision based on social factors, which reduces the differences between the sexes to a "social construct."

Matlary summarized what she sees as the outline of a "Catholic feminism" contained in the text published by the Vatican doctrinal congregation. Overall, the letter seeks to focus the relationship between the sexes as one based on the imitation of Christ through self-giving and service to others. The ideal of self-giving has special relevance for women, who through motherhood bear and nurture children.

On the subject of work vs. family life, Matlary explained that the letter gives higher priority to the family. Thus, it is not enough just to pass laws that ensure equality in the workplace for women. "Women have been allowed to imitate men," noted Matlary. "But women have failed to achieve policies which really take motherhood into account and which reflect the fact that women, if they are true to the Christian ideal of service, work and exercise leadership in a very different way from men."

Changing attitudes

The Vatican letter insists on the importance of changing attitudes in order to obtain the correct form of cooperation between men and women. Matlary said that current attitudes too often oppose family life as well as those women who wish to dedicate themselves to their homes. Feminism has concentrated on an individualist vision of rights, reducing radically the importance of the family as a unit, she observed.

In this rights-based individualism, the family, and a woman's role in it, counts for nothing, Matlary wrote. What becomes important, instead, is that women have at least 50% of all the public positions in society. From this perspective, family life hinders women from realizing their talents, and having children is a liability.

This attitude is starting to change in some countries -- there is more emphasis on helping women to achieve a balance between work and family, Matlary noted. Still, the higher priority is normally, and mistakenly, given to women's equality in the workplace, rather than to the family, she said.

The Catholic perspective offers an alternative vision. It looks on work as a service to others, not as a form of power seeking in the workplace. In family life, it champions the complementarity of men and women, which means giving sufficient value to a mother's role with children when they are small. And the state, instead of just ensuring individual rights, has the obligation to support the family and motherhood, because the family is the fundamental building block of society.

A Catholic feminism, Matlary continued, must have as its core principle the conviction that the family is first in order of personal and societal importance. Combining this with the vision of work as self-giving and service will enable a woman's role in family life to be given the importance it deserves. She added that accepting and living out these principles, and understanding that "this is the kind of power Our Lord spoke of and taught," is the challenge facing Catholics.