On Friday, July 31, the Vatican released a historic statement that affirmed the moral equality of and biological, psychological and spiritual distinctions between the two genders. The 37-page document - the Vatican’s third statement regarding the sexes - was widely criticized by feminists and liberals as “backwards” and “confining,” but was highly praised by evangelicals and Catholics worldwide.
The controversial document, entitled “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church” begins by defining the differences between the male and the female, as is written in the Scriptures.
"From the first moment of their creation, man and woman are different, and will remain so for eternity,” the document wrote.
Quoting the first two chapters of Genesis, the Vatican’s statement points out that woman was created as a “helpmate” and “life partner for Adam.” However, one should not interpret one role as being “inferior” to the other.
"The term here does not refer to an inferior, but to a vital helper. This is so that Adam's life does not sink into a sterile and, in the end, baneful encounter with himself. It is necessary that he enter into relationship with another being on his own level. Only the woman, created from the same 'flesh' and cloaked in the same mystery, can give a future to the life of man."
This duality of the sexes, therefore, reflects the image of God and the glory of God concerning the beautiful covenant between man and woman.
"From the very beginning , humanity is described as articulated in the male-female relationship. This is the humanity, sexually differentiated, which is explicitly declared 'the image of God’,” the document said.
The Vatican’s document then noted that “certain forms of feminism” strives to break this male-female relationship by blurring gender rolls.
Faced with mistreatment and “conditions of subordination,” modern forms of ideological feminism responded with desire to “make themselves the adversaries of men,” the statement said.
Such forms of feminism "leads to opposition between men and women, in which the identity and role of one are emphasized to the disadvantage of the other, leading to harmful confusion regarding the human person.”
“In order to avoid the dominance of one sex or the other, their differences tend to be denied. ... The obscuring of the difference or duality of the sexes has enormous consequences,” the statement read.
The statement further explained that such a blurring of the gender lines are a direct result of attempting “to be freed from one’s biological conditioning.” In other words, in the effort to become “completely equal,” humans have begun to “remake” themselves to whatever gender or sex they wish to choose.
Such an attitude, the document said, "has its most immediate and lethal effects in the structure of the family."
These consequences, it said, included calling " into question the family, in its natural two-parent structure of mother and father, and making homosexuality and heterosexuality virtually equivalent, in a new model of polymorphous sexuality."
Thus, the Vatican’s statement argued that the roles of the sexes must be set in place beyond mere “historical or cultural” traditions.
The letter says women are first and foremost “significantly active in the family,” but should not be limited to work within their homes.
"In this way, women who freely desire will be able to devote the totality of their time to the work of the household without being stigmatized by society or penalized financially, while those who wish also to engage in other work may 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,” the document stated.
In addition, it says that women "should be present in the world of work and ... have access to positions of responsibility which allow them to inspire the politics of nations and to promote innovative solutions to economic and social problems."
Not surprisingly, feminists called the document an “outrage.”
"The demonization of feminism is most disturbing," declared Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, an abortion-rights advocacy group to the Washington Post.
Kissling, who said her “blood pressure shot up 20 points” after reading the document, said that she “thought for sure I was in the 1960s and Archie Bunker had been appointed theologian to the Pope."
Avedon Carol, founder of Feminists Against Censorship wrote that the statement attack on feminism was groundless and ignorant, since the “meaning” of marriage has been debated long before the women’s liberation movement came about.
“The Vatican's distance from the reality of our lives today is visible in its current attack on feminism,” Carol wrote. The "meaning" of marriage has been a question since long before the advent of the women's liberation movement.
“The Pope is apparently concerned that feminism has led to questions about marriage, but this, too, comes a bit late,” she wrote.
Angela Phillips, a lecturer at London's Goldsmiths College, told the Guardian the church's criticism of feminism, reflects "a worrying step back to a religious fundamentalism."
Meanwhile, conservatives and evangelicals welcomed the document one that truly advocates equality.
“Although most American feminists would express their theology differently from the Vatican, on the practical level, they are on the same page (in terms of equality in education, politics, the workplace) except on abortion and women priests," said Rev. Thomas Reese, a commentator on the Catholic church.
"While most people in the U.S. think in psychological and sociological terms, the Vatican thinks and talks in philosophical and theological terms which most Americans find difficult to understand," said Reese, who is editor of America, a Jesuit magazine.
Cristina Odone, leading Catholic journalist and broadcaster, also praised the document and said it a “wonderfully liberating statement.”
“The fact that a man has written this document, a man who for much of his papacy has been condemned as anti-women, marks it as a historic u-turn,” she said. “This is the document that will mark the Pope as a born-again feminist.”
“This is a document that far from heeding the traditional role of women as seen by the church, argues that women should be present in the world of work, in the organisation of society, and that we should look to women for their innovative restructuring of organisations and society,” continued Odone.
“It has this incredible line which I've never read in a Catholic document that says that a woman should be respected whether she is fertile or not, whether she procreates or not. It's a wonderfully liberating statement for the billions of women who may not have children, or who may have waited too long to have children.
I think it is a significant document and it should not be belittled because some of the great debates within the Catholic Church are not addressed, such as women priests and contraception,” said Odone.
Albert Mohler, a prominent theologian of the conservative Southern Baptist Convention, also welcomed the statement.
“Evangelicals should welcome this statement and the debate that is certain to ensue. While evangelicals will differ with some aspects of the Catholic argument--especially a concluding section dealing with Mary--the letter itself should be welcomed as a serious and responsible argument against ideological feminism,” wrote Mohler, on an August 3 commentary. “With confusion over gender and sexuality threatening the very foundations of civilization itself, the Vatican's statement is well-timed and courageous. In the midst of our present conflict, Evangelicals must respond to the challenge of ideological feminism with equal clarity and equal courage.”