Vatican letter suggests equality between sexes

The Vatican released a document earlier this month simultaneously criticizing the current incarnation of feminism and praising the role of modern women.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger issued the "Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World" on July 31. It expresses the Vatican's disapproval of what it calls "lethal effects" of modern feminism, including the undermining of traditional family structure, increased recognition of homosexual relationships and discord between the sexes.

The letter — which draws its support from papal audiences and letters, the Bible and other theological texts — also praises women, lauds their place in society and in the home and outlines its idea of an "active collaboration" between the sexes.

Among other things, the document argues that modern society tends to minimize physical differences between males and females and maximize their cultural differences. This, the document says, has called "into question the family, in its natural two-parent structure of mother and father, and (made) homosexuality and heterosexuality virtually equivalent."

The letter cautions that efforts by each sex to subjugate the other have lead to an adversarial relationship between males and females. It argues a better relationship would be an "active collaboration" between the two sexes, in which men and women are equal "since both were created in the image and likeness of the personal God."

The document goes on to praise women for their roles as nurturers and caregivers in both the family and society, but makes it clear motherhood is only a facet of their existence.

The letter also recognizes a woman's right to choose either a domestic or professional career and fully supports either decision.

The Vatican has visited the issue of feminism intermittently since the 1970's, according to theology professor Patrick Carey, but has had difficulty making headway.

"They struggled to define what feminism is because there are so many approaches to it," he said.

The letter has had mixed reception in the U.S.

"This relatively brief document is filled with concepts that are essential for our society today to take seriously and to live by," Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops said in a statement. "The Letter well rewards thoughtful and careful reading and discussion."

However, others familiar with the document are unsure of its merits.

M.C. Bodden, an associate professor of English with a background in feminist theology, said she was skeptical of the documents efficacy considering the Vatican's history regarding women and feminism.

"The Vatican has virtually no track record of educating itself to understand feminism," Bodden said.

The Archdiocese of Milwaukee typically leaves the task of immediately responding to Vatican documents to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and follows whatever precedence they formulate, archdiocesan spokeswoman Kathleen Hohl said. While the archdiocese has not devised any new programs to involve women in Catholicism in direct response to the letter, it already has a number of such programs in place at both the archdiocesan and parish level, Hohl said, including Women In Spirituality, a group of women that meets on the first Friday of the month across the diocese.