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

9/3/2004 - 6:00 AM PST

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Mary Shivanandan Tells of Collaboration Between the Sexes

WASHINGTON, D.C., SEPT 3, 2004 (Zenit) - 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 Catholic Online 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 Monday.

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 ...

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