8.3.3 Justice for women: the “biggest lacuna” in CST?

Back to 8.3.2

Unit 8 Contents

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

In introducing one of the nine weaknesses he finds in CST, Dorr says: “[P]erhaps the biggest lacuna in the social teaching of the Catholic Church is its failure to provide an adequate treatment of the issue of justice for women” (p. 372 in book; p. 14 on-line).

He gives support for this criticism by drawing on an article by Amata Miller which points out that, even though working life has been a central concern of CST, its documents give negligible attention to the specific injustices experienced by many women across the world in the workplace, such as confinement to low status jobs and unequal pay (i.e. lower pay than men in the same roles).

We should note that there are points at which the primary texts of CST do mention issues of justice for women, including two texts set as reading in this module: Laborem Exercens #19 (4.3.9) and, more substantially, Familiaris Consortio #22-24 (6.3.6).  Dorr refers to his own discussion of the former (pp. 299-302), where he argues that John Paul made a notable development in Catholic teaching in LE by stating that the freedom of women to work, as well as to be mothers, should not be inhibited.  Dorr’s book does not include a substantial discussion of the topic of family, however, and for this reason it does not refer to Familiaris Consortio.

It is not really surprising that Dorr does not mention, either, a substantial document issued by Pope John Paul in 1988 on ‘The Dignity and Vocation of Women’, Mulieris Dignitatem.  This text has (as it says) “the style and character of a meditation” (#2) and, while it speaks in an affirming and celebratory way of the distinctness, gifts and “genius” of women, it pays very little attention to concrete injustices experienced specifically by women.  In this long publication there is almost no discussion of the workplace issues mentioned above or other kinds of injustice against women, such as sexual exploitation, rape, domestic violence, forced marriage, honour killings, female genital mutilation and selective abortion of females.

Dorr’s assessment provokes the question of whether that lacuna has been filled in the two decades since he was writing.  There have been two main Vatican documents focused on women since then.  One is the ‘Letter to Women’ issued by Pope John Paul in 1995.  If you studied Unit 6, you might recall that Lisa Sowle Cahill discusses this in her chapter on family as ‘domestic church’ (6.3.7).  While this is a short document (only a fifth of the length of Mulieris Dignitatem), it goes further than earlier statements in acknowledging specifically a number of pressing issues of justice for women.  To see this, look at a few paragraphs near the start of the Letter.

———————————————————————————————

Reading (3pp)

Pope John Paul II, ‘Letter to Women’ (1995), ##3-6

———————————————————————————————

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

Reflection

From this extract, how would you describe the tone of this document?

As you will have seen, there is a statement that is almost but not quite an apology.  If “objective blame” for the cultural conditioning that has been “an obstacle to the progress of women… has belonged to not just a few members of the Church, for this I am truly sorry” (#3).

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

The second document was issued in 2004, not by the Pope, but by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.  This body was led by Joseph Ratzinger who became Pope just a year later.  The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith exists “to promote and safeguard the doctrine on the faith and morals throughout the Catholic world”.1. In the media, it is often called the Church’s ‘doctrinal watchdog’.

The document has the slightly unwieldy title, ‘Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World’.  One commentator, Tina Beattie, whose article on this document you’ll be asked to read shortly, says, with characteristic directness:

What other institution today would produce a document about women, written by one group of men (the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith…), addressed to another (the bishops), without quoting or referring to any woman’s ideas?  (‘Feminism, Vatican-Style’, The Tablet, 7 Aug. 2004)

By the last phrase here, Beattie means ‘any particular, named woman’s ideas’.  In fact the document begins by referring to two contrasting varieties of feminist thinking.  The theologian Fergus Kerr sums up its characterization of these: “according to the first tendency, women and men are radically alien to one another; according to the second, they are virtually identical”.2. The document goes on to contrast Catholic teaching with both of these.  It presents a biblically-based theology of the difference and complementarity of women and men.

This document is significant, not because what it says is new, but because it sums up ideas that had been expressed in a number of earlier places, especially in Pope John Paul’s writing, and it presents these as a response to secular feminisms.  Here we can make a connection with some of what Unit 6 looked at.  If you studied that unit, on family life, you will recall that John Paul devoted a great deal of attention to questions about the human body, marriage and family in the early years of his papacy.  As well as Familiaris Consortio, he delivered 129 addresses on these topics which were published later as The Theology of the Body.  Together these present a “theology of gender difference” (as Kerr calls it), which was then articulated further in the other Vatican statements which Unit 6 or this unit has referred to.  The main ones are Mulieris Dignitatem of 1988, the ‘Letter to Families’ (Gratissimam Sane) of 1994, and the ‘Letter to Women’ of 1995.  The CDF’s letter of 2004 draws very explicitly on all of those.  In 1995, John Paul II also wrote about women in an encyclical mainly on other issues, Evangelium Vitae – we shall look at this statement on the next screen.

The Catholic response to feminism presented in the 2004 CDF Letter is, in essence, to stress all of three things – the equality, the difference and the complementarity of women and men.  In a similar way as in the earlier documents just noted, the CDF statement does this by way of exposition of the stories of the creation of men and women in Gen 1-3.  A main focus is on humans as made “in the image of God” (Gen. 1:26-28).

If you studied Unit 3, you will recall that we looked closely at the meaning of this phrase there.  We saw that an important part of its meaning is that humans are made for personal relationship, in the first place in the elementary community of male and female.  Part of what you are now asked to read from the CDF document discusses this aspect of the meaning of “image of God” in the context of its wider reading of Gen. 1-3.  This document goes on to address what it refers to as “the importance of feminine values in the life of society” (the title of part III).

———————————————————————————————

Reading (8pp)

Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, ‘Letter on the collaboration of men and women in the Church and in the world’, ##1-8 and 12-14

———————————————————————————————

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

Reflection

I said above that this document stresses all three of the equality, the difference and the complementarity of women and men.  In light of your reading of ##1-8 and 12-14, is this a fair summary?

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

Reflection

You might have much or very little prior knowledge of feminism.  If it is the latter, a skim-read of the Wikipedia entry would give some background, notably of feminism’s ‘three waves’.  See Wikipedia, ‘Feminism‘.

How does what you have read of the CDF document relate to feminism?  What reactions do you think feminists might have to it?

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

End of 8.3.3

Go to 8.3.4 CST on women: a “new feminism”?

Copyright © Newman University.  If you wish to quote from this page, see Citation Information. N.B. If you are a student and make use of material on this page in an assignment, you are obliged to reference the source in line with the citation information.


  1. From brief description of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican website, http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_pro_14071997_en.html, accessed 6th Feb. 2014 

  2. Fergus Kerr, Twentieth-Century Catholic Theologians: From Neoscholasticism to Nuptial Mysticism (Blackwell, 2007), 193 

Go to Top