Has the Vatican Discovered that Women Should Be Running the World? by Carol P. Christ


So it is a [female] generativity that .. is … giving life to social, cultural and economic structures that are inspired by values, ideas, principles and practices oriented to the common good …

carol p. christ photo michael bakasThe above statement from the Pontifical Council’s document on “Women’s Cultures: Equality and Diffference” is a response to Pope Francis’s call for a discussion of “feminine genius” and its role in the Church. If in fact women are  “oriented to the common good,” then this is the best reason I can think of to elect a woman pope. And if a women are in fact hard-wired to think about the good of all, wouldn’t a woman pope’s first act be to dissolve the hierarchy that elected her? Is this why the Vatican is so afraid of the power of women?

From February 4-7, 2015 the Pontifical Council on Culture made up of 32 voting members (29 male clerics and 3 laymen) with the advice of non-voting Consultors (28 men and 7 women), discussed the role and place of women in the church and the world in relation to the preliminary document said to have been prepared by a group of unnamed women cherry-picked by the Vatican.

The Council was called to discuss the question of women in response to:

  • calls to ordain women;
  • demands to dismantle the male-dominated hierarchy of the church;
  • challenges to theology and moral doctrine by educated nuns;
  • the ongoing exodus of women under fifty from the Church;
  • the emptying of the convents, especially in North American and Europe.

Interestingly, in defining the essential difference between men and women, the authors of the of the document cite history (wrongly as Max Dashu shows), but not the Bible or natural law, as the basis for their view:

At the dawn of human history, societies divided roles and functions between men and women rigorously. To the men belonged responsibility, authority, and presence in the public sphere: the law, politics, war, power. To women belonged reproduction, education, and care of the family in the domestic sphere.

The the authors of the document probably believe as Roman Catholic tradition has taught:

  • that God created males and females differently;
  • that male and female differences are rooted in biology;
  • and that biology is destiny.

They may have recognized that such claims have been challenged by feminist interpreters of scripture and by feminist scientists and philosophers of science. It appears that they have yet to come across theories about egalitarian matriarchal societies past and present that undermine their understanding of human history.

The version of history the document presents gives authority in the public sphere to men, while assigning responsibility for reproduction and care in the private sphere to women. The authors know that this state of affairs no longer exists in this simple way (if it ever did) and that women today are asserting their right to power and authority in every aspect of the public sphere. While not telling women to stay in the home, the authors (many of whom must themselves have careers) seem to fear that if women go too far, they will lose the special qualities that their (alleged) confinement in the domestic sphere engendered in them. In other words, if women claim too much power, they (we) will stop caring about children and “the common good.”**

Thus, the authors tell us, women must always remember that caring and nurturing are the highest calling to which they (we) can and should aspire.

Readers may have noticed that when the authors of the document define the role of men as the public sphere they mention law, politics, war, and power, but not religion. Why? Is it because they know that women held power as priestesses in Rome, not to mention Greece, Egypt, and Sumer? Or is it that they view the male priesthood of the Church as ordained by God rather than history? Why, I wonder, do they name war as a realm history has reserved to men, while not mentioning that women and children are always victims of war?

I have a twofold reaction to the view of sex and gender difference presented in the document.

On the one hand, it is clear that what its authors call “bio-physiological” differences between women and men are being used in the the document to justify the continuation of male dominance in public spheres in society and Church. Given that theories about difference can be used in this way, wouldn’t we be better off simply to label all discussions of male-female difference as essentialism rooted in sexism and to throw them into the dust bin of history?

On the other hand, the authors’ statement about female difference as rooted in the mother-child relationship resonates my felt and reflected sense of different tendencies that do exist between boys and girls, women and men. The authors say:

It is the female universe that – due to a natural, spontaneous predisposition which could be called bio-physiological – has always looked after, conserved, nurtured, sustained, created attention, consent and care around the conceived child who must develop, be born, and grow.

This statement is not so different from Franz de Waal’s assertion that the origins of empathy and human morality are to be found in the care of female primates for their infants. De Waal stated further that while male primates are also hard-wired for empathy, they seem more likely than females to be able to override it in favor of aggression when threatened. As I suggested in the blog in which I discussed de Waal’s theory of the primate origins of human morality, there may be a way to acknowledge differences between females and males without using them to justify, legitimate, or sanctify male dominance.

We certainly should tell the Pontifical Council to stop using theories of differences between males and females to justify societal injustices, whether those are located in the all-male priesthood, the Vatican hierarchy, papal authority, or the Unholy Trinity named by Mary Daly as Rape, Genocide, and War.

But what if instead of rejecting all theories of difference, we acknowledged that evolution has produced different tendencies in the sexes without thereby limiting the capacities*** or determining the roles of either? In recognizing that mothers with infants created the bedrock of society and morality, we give women something to be proud of in our lives and history. Then, what if rather than using differences between the sexes to justify male (or female) domination, we asked what kind of societies we would like to create? My suggestion is that care and concern for the common good should be the highest values in both the public and private realms.

We might do well to place councils of women (not an individual woman in a group of men) in places where they would make the final decisions about how to treat the most vulnerable and whether to go to war.**** We might also conclude that our educational systems, political systems, and all other systems ought to reward those who display empathy and concern for the common good, rather than those who are competitive and self-interested. That way we would encourage all human beings to cultivate values our culture has disparaged by assigning them exclusively to women in a patriarchal context.

Then, perhaps we could set about creating a more just world in which power is shared and in which care and concern for the common good and the flourishing of all (human, other than human) really is the highest value.

*Thanks to Max Dashu whose blog refuting the Pontifical Council’s document alerted me to its existence to Woman Spirit Ireland for forwarding the link.

**The authors are not entirely wrong to worry about this. If all other things stay the same  (i.e., patriarchal), individual women can be enticed to set aside our hard-wiring for empathy in order to gain power, in other words to become like Angela Merkel in relation the suffering of the Greek people. The authors of the document for the Pontifical Council appear to have been seduced by Vatican power to set aside their empathy for other women and their own woman-selves.

***One of the saddest things about the document is that it can be read as assuming that men do not care for children or the common good.

****”Among the Iroquis, “The Clan mothers traditionally wield great influence in the well-being of their Clans and Nations. They have the authority to de-horn (take Chieftainship away from) their errant chiefs. [The society] is to be a matriarchal society as women are sacred as they are life givers, are title holders to the land, and [because] women instinctively know the price of war.”

Carol leads the life-transforming Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete (facebook and twitter)–early bird discount available for one more week only for the spring 2015 tour.  Carol’s books include She Who Changes and and Rebirth of the Goddess and with Judith Plaskow, the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions and forthcoming next year, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology. Photo of Carol by Michael Bakas.

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Categories: Catholic Church, Feminism, Gender and Power, General, Women in the Church

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12 replies

  1. I’m a bit confused. On the one hand you don’t want male/female differences to be reduced to biological essentialism, but on the other hand you do want to acknowledge the mother-child relationship. Where are you drawing your lines?

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  2. I think it is the difference between 2. there are differences and 3. biology is destiny. 3 does not follow from 2, because both sexes are free and can override or reinforce biological tendencies. If the differences are as de Waal suggests, then we want to encourage both males and females to focus on care and the good of all and to reward no one for aggression.

    That is separate from the fact that the Vatican argument makes no sense.

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  3. Great article. Thank you for a balanced response. I agree with the points you make, as well as residing in a more grey space on biological determinism or essentialism in regards to gender and sex role socialization, Particularly pointing out the implication that men are left being perceived as incapable, or less capable of an inherent capacity to care for the tribe in this framework. Can any of us draw our lines on this, based on something more then what our own personal preference would want this to be?

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  4. Not to mention trans people, intersex people, and the fact that no one has yet been able to come up with a scientifically reliable way to determine whether a person is male or female. This bifurcation is just another way that patriarchy separates us from each other and makes divisions where none are needed. Cordelia Fine illuminates this fallacy in her book, “Delusions of Gender,” which the pope apparently has not read.

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  5. The Victorians (well, most of them) called the proper place of women the “Angel in the house.” I guess some of us are less angelic than the old men in skirts thought. And still think. Good for them to take even baby steps toward reality, both ancient and modern. Good for our friend Max (who knows more about goddesses than anyone else on the planet) to correct them. Good for you, Carol, for writing this post. Brava!

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  6. Great post, Carol. And you tread the fine line between essentialism and stereotyping well. The only problem is — as I found out when I started writing a book about the different tendencies men and women seem to display in their religious understandings — is that as soon as you start talking about difference, most people will overgeneralize and see either/or. In the case of my aborted book, the WOMEN in my writing group accused me of male-bashing! That was a shock. As a result, I decided to take a different angle to talk about the same material.

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  7. Great title Carol, but I fear the answer is no. It’s disingenuous flattery designed to keep us in our (patriarchy determined) place. We don’t need a pat on the head from male authority figures, and we certainly don’t need them to tell us what we already know.

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  8. This is my favorite line in your piece: “But what if instead of rejecting all theories of difference, we acknowledged that evolution has produced different tendencies in the sexes without thereby limiting the capacities*** or determining the roles of either?” Whether male or female, we are made up of the same universal elements, and it is how these elements manifest that create our “tendencies.” I didn’t fully understand this until I studied Ayurveda, a healing system that focuses upon the elements and doshas — thus a person’s individuality — more than it does upon whether one is male or female per se.

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  9. When a group of gifted intellectuals limit their insights to simply other intellectuals, I think very little change will take place. AS I see it, the plight of women both in the financial and religious areas of life are similar to that of slavery in the US. When one thinks that it took a woman, Rosa Park to take a stand, some 50 years ago,her actions clearly indicate that not only insights are needed, but courageous actions. In the world of finance,one could risk even a poor livelihood by taking a “stand”, and in the relious field,one risks isolation and ridicule. Somehow,the insights of the intellectuals have to become welded to courage,so that the “awareness” will inspire people to take action. Rosa Park did not ASK for permission when she made her STAND.

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    • Can you be more specific on who you are criticizing, Mary? I can name lots of courageous women who have taken stands without permission in the area of women and religion–Mary Daly, Z Budapest, Starhawk, the list goes on. Perhaps one difference is that a lot of the women who took stands either had no position in the church or academy to lose or lost it. One can opt out of or be thrown out of a church or synagogue or academy in ways that one cannot opt out of the US legal system, except by becoming an ex-pat, and then too one is still living in a patriarchal legal system.

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