Wednesday, July 18, 2007

To be human means to be called to interpersonal communion

Vox Nova Tuesday, July 17, 2007 Feminism and Catholicism By Morning's Minion
The title is deliberately chosen to be provocative. For what does feminism even mean? At its most basic level, it is refers to equality between the sexes. Hence feminists fight discrimination based on gender and all kinds of inequality -- cultural, political, and economic. In one sense, it is perfectly compatible with revelation, in the sense that God created man and woman as human beings to an equal degree. But in another sense, much of modern feminism is imbued with notions of individualism and determinism. While they define the matter in terms of power structures, Christians turn this on its head and define it in terms of service. And yet I would still argue that true, authentic feminism is fully in accord with Catholicism. Women are indeed equal! There is no better, and no fuller treatment of Church teaching on this matter than servant of God Pope John Paul's Mulieris Dignitatem, which is now almost nineteen years old.
The fundamental truth is laid down in Genesis. Both men and women are persons, because they are created in the image and likeness of God, the only creatures willed for their own sake. As John Paul says, the woman is "another "I" in a common humanity". Moreover, human beings cannot exist alone, only as the "unity of the two", implying a mutual relationship between man and woman: "To be human means to be called to interpersonal communion". In this sense, man and woman "are called to live in a communion of love, and in this way to mirror in the world the communion of love that is in God through which the Three Persons love each other in the intimate mystery of the one divine life". John Paul then notes that when Genesis talks of woman being created as a helper, this is in effect mutual help between man and woman. This refers to marriage in the first instance, but it also goes beyond marriage. Equality in marriage is defined in terms of service, whereby the husband and wife each offer a "sincere gift of self" to the other. Of course, equality does not mean that masculinity and femininity simply merge. While man and woman are fully equal, they remain different. But while distinct, they "complete and explain each other."
Original sin affects both man and woman. As a consequence of sin, the woman is addressed in the following terms: " Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you." As John Paul notes, this is a sundering of the "unity of the two", and the consequences are especially stark for the woman given that this new-found "dominion" involves a "disturbance and loss of stability of that fundamental equality which the man and the woman possess in the unity of the two.." What was supposed to be equality became inequality as a consequence of sin. Again, this refers not only to marriage but to all spheres of social life where women face disadvantage and discrimination on account of their gender.
This equality between man and woman can be found in revelation, even if cultural factors obscured the true radical nature of this vision. And just as Christ fulfilled the old law, so was his approach to women remarkable at the time. His recognition of the inherent dignity of women in what remained a patriarchal culture raised more than a few eyebrows, and even provoked an element of scandal. Jesus was particularly adamant about the various elements of the tradition that discriminated against women, or (as in adultery laws) the "habitual discrimination against women in favor of men."
No passages in scripture are misinterpreted more than St. Paul's admonitions to husbands and wives in Ephesians. St. Paul develops the spousal theme in Genesis, the unity of the two, and likens the love between man and woman to the mystery of Christ and the Church, where Christ is the Bridegroom. Addressing husbands and wives, St. Paul calls them to "be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ." This again is the mutual self-giving, which defines our very personhood.
St. Paul then calls on husbands to love their wives, and for wives to "be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is head of his wife just as Christ is head of the church, he himself the savior of the body. As the church is subordinate to Christ, so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything." This has been taken to mean, by many fundamentalists today (and many Catholics in the past), that women should accept the headship of the husbands with submission. But this is exactly the kind of one-way "power relationship" that reflects the effects of sin in the world, not redemption. Instead, as John Paul is swift to note; "whereas in the relationship between Christ and the Church the subjection is only on the part of the Church, in the relationship between husband and wife the "subjection" is not one-sided but mutual... [T]he challenge presented by the "ethos" of the Redemption is clear and definitive. All the reasons in favour of the "subjection" of woman to man in marriage must be understood in the sense of a "mutual subjection" of both "out of reverence for Christ."
This teaching, although firmly a part of revelation, took a long time to sink in! It is certainly true that the approach of the early Church to women was remarkably liberating. Just remember the culture of the Roman empire where the pater familias literally possessed the power of life and death over his wife and children -- how far this is from the "unity of the two"! Even today, some of the sickness from this culture lives on, and we hear horror stories of "honor killings". From the beginning, the Church defended a daughter’s right to refuse to marry whoever the father chose. Initially, her exercise of that "right" was restricted to her choosing a virginal life consecrated to God, but gradually, the Church acknowledged a broader freedom. The Church needs to constantly sift through the deposit of faith and figure out what is true, and what is merely cultural. This takes time, and our journey is most certainly not complete. It is not even clear that St. Paul realized the full implications of Christ's message. Here is how John Paul puts it:
The apostolic letters are addressed to people living in an environment marked by that same traditional way of thinking and acting. The "innovation" of Christ is a fact: it constitutes the unambiguous content of the evangelical message and is the result of the Redemption. However, the awareness that in marriage there is mutual "subjection of the spouses out of reverence for Christ", and not just that of the wife to the husband, must gradually establish itself in hearts, consciences, behaviour and customs. This is a call which from that time onwards, does not cease to challenge succeeding generations; it is a call which people have to accept ever anew.
He makes a direct comparison to slavery. Just as St. Paul noted that in Christ there is no more man or woman, he also noted that there is no more slave or free man. John Paul comments: "Yet how many generations were needed for such a principle to be realized in the history of humanity through the abolition of slavery! And what is one to say of the many forms of slavery to which individuals and peoples are subjected, which have not yet disappeared from history?" There are Catholics today (and you know who you are) who argue that, just because the Church accepted the use of practices like torture in the past, so should Catholics not reject them automatically today. These people would do well to ponder the pope's words!
In conclusion, John Paul gives thanks for women: mothers, sisters, wives, women consecrated to virginity, women who watch over the family as well as women to work professionally and may be burdened with great social responsibility... in short, for all women, no matter their vocation! This is true "feminism", Catholic "feminism". Posted by Morning's Minion at 4:44 PM Labels: ,

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