Catherine Pepinster: The Vatican should practice the feminism it preaches

Many progressive Catholics are, to be frank, waiting for the next papacy
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The Independent Online

Like most men, those who hold the most senior positions in the Roman Catholic Church would have been profoundly influenced by their relationships with their mothers. But unlike most men, for a cardinal of the Church it is the only intimate relationship with a woman he will have had.

Like most men, those who hold the most senior positions in the Roman Catholic Church would have been profoundly influenced by their relationships with their mothers. But unlike most men, for a cardinal of the Church it is the only intimate relationship with a woman he will have had.

When I read the document on women published this weekend by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), it struck me that this relationship runs all the way through it: much of it is an idealised portrait of motherhood. Take, for instance, the document's list of a woman's qualities: listening, welcoming, faithfulness, praise. One can imagine Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the CDF, citing those while remembering fondly those far-off days of maternal love in the Ratzinger household. The romanticised image would resonate too with a Pope who lost his own mother at the age of nine, and who approved and authorised the document's publication.

Its filial sentiment has not, however, helped it win any sympathy from feminist commentators. They have been grossly irritated by what the paper - officially a letter to Catholic bishops on "the collaboration of men and women in the Church and in the world" - has to say about feminism and gender. Ratzinger takes aim at thinking which suggests that powerful women have to be "adversaries of men". This he says, can have "lethal effects on the structure of the family". Gender wars also lead to a blurring in thinking, says the Cardinal, and "differences tend to be denied, viewed as mere effects of historical and cultural conditioning".

But to damn this document as objectionable, chauvinist, and outdated, is crass. A thorough read reveals some surprising, and welcome thoughts. Take this comment, for example: "Women should be present in the world of work and in the organisation of society ... women should have access to positions of responsibility which allow them to inspire the policies of nations and to promote innovative solutions to economic and social problems."

It later reminds the reader unjust sexual discrimination must be combatted. That might not seem much to Westerners (although 35 years after the Equal Pay Act women don't have equal pay) but this document is not just being published in Europe and America. It will be read by bishops in Latin America, Asia and Africa, and we shouldn't underestimate its impact there.

When the Vatican talks about women, it's not so much the CEO of an American blue-chip it has in mind, but a woman working 16-hour days being paid a few pence in Cambodia to make designer shirts for our markets, or an Hispanic subsiding relatives back home by cleaning Los Angeles toilets. That is why this paper emphasises how important it is that women working outside the home should "be able to do so with an appropriate work-schedule, and not have to choose between relinquishing their family life, or enduring continual stress, with negative consequences for one's own equilibrium and the harmony of the family".

Harmony - how the writers of this document like that word. Men and women should have relationships of harmony, of mutuality, it says, reflecting on the meaning of the Genesis story of Adam and Eve. A woman should not be an inferior in her relationship with a man, but his helpmate, his partner, his vital helper, Cardinal Ratzinger writes, warming to his theme.

To Catholics more used to the Church thinking in terms of women's acquiescence and subservience, this is a welcome revelation. A pity then, that the document does not give credit to the people who first began interpreting the Creation story in this way - feminist theologians. A pity, too, that the document does not follow its own theme - collaboration - and point out that being helpmates requires fathers to be just as involved in child-rearing as women. And a pity too, for all the Vatican's increasingly enlightened thinking on the role of women in the world, its more familiar prejudices come shining through in its attitude to women in the Church itself.

The Pope has not only ruled out women being admitted to the priesthood, but has said there is to be no more discussion of the issue. Many progressive Catholics are, to be frank, waiting for the next papacy to see whether there may be a change of heart, but in the meantime there is no reason why more women cannot be appointed to senior positions in the Church, where priesthood is not a prerequisite.

Earlier this year, the Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon was appointed head of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. Other women have also been appointed to pontifical academies, but these are advisory bodies. The real power remains in the Curia, where the posts are full-time, based in Rome and involve executing policy. The Vatican's new-found thinking about women would be properly underlined if it appointed women to these - and they were women prepared to challenge some of its assumptions.

The writer is editor of 'The Tablet', the Catholic weekly.

cpepinster@thetablet.co.uk

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