The letter provoked a short burst of media comment, which did not, however, highlight the real significance of the letter's contents.
The first thing missed by the mainstream media is the very explicit rejection of liberalism in the letter.
It is a first principle of liberalism that to be fully human we must be self-created by our own individual will and reason. The aim of politics, for liberals, is to "free" us from anything which impedes our individual will and reason.
One thing liberals want to free us from is our sex, as this is something we don't get to choose for ourselves. Liberals don't want to admit that being born male or female might influence who we are as this would be a merely "biological destiny". They prefer to believe that observable differences between men and women are due to an oppressive social conditioning which it is our duty to overcome.
The Vatican letter rejects this entire theoretical framework of liberalism. It describes the attempt to deny gender difference as follows:
their [men and women] differences tend to be denied, viewed as mere effects of historical and cultural conditioning. In this perspective, physical difference, termed sex, is minimized, while the purely cultural element, termed gender, is emphasized to the maximum and held to be primary.
What can explain this attempt to deny sex differences? The Vatican letter quite rightly points to liberal first principles:
its deeper motivation must be sought in the human attempt to be freed from one's biological conditioning. According to this perspective, human nature in itself does not possess characteristics in an absolute manner: all persons can and ought to constitute themselves as they like, since they are free from every predetermination linked to their essential constitution.
This theory is described in the letter as a "false conception of freedom" with harmful consequences to our understanding of family life and sexuality.
Difference & unity
So the good news for conservatives is that there is at least one major institution in the world, the Catholic Church, which is willing both to identify and to criticise liberal first principles.
This then raises a further question: what kind of alternative view of the relationship between men and women does the Catholic Church propose?
There is much to praise in the answer outlined in the Vatican letter. The Church unmistakably accepts the reality of gender difference, by confirming that,
From the first moment of their creation, man and woman are distinct, and will remain so for eternity.
This difference is manifested both in spirit, and in our bodies which are an expression of our spirit:
... the body is the expression of the spirit ...
... the spousal character of the body, in which the masculinity and femininity of the person is expressed ... The human creature, in its unity of body and spirit ...
The letter also affirms that men and women complement and complete each other. It does so by discussing the account of creation in Genesis:
Formed by God and placed in the garden which he was to cultivate, the man, who is still referred to with the generic expression Adam, experienced a loneliness ... He needs a helpmate who will be his partner. 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 ...
... woman is another "I" in a common humanity. From the very beginning they appear as a 'unity of the two' ... it is a matter of a life's companion with whom, as a wife, a man can unite himself, becoming with her 'one flesh' ...
Finally, the Church also clearly rejects the idea of gender war. In fact, the general purpose of the letter is to rebut the idea that men and women are locked into a state of permanent conflict.
The letter proposes instead an "active collaboration" between the sexes. It calls for men and women to,
no longer see their difference as a source of discord to be overcome by denial or eradication, but rather as the possibility for collaboration, to be cultivated with mutual respect for their difference.
In a similar vein, we read that,
these observations seek to correct the perspective which views men as enemies to be overcome. The proper condition of the male-female relationship cannot be a kind of mistrustful and defensive opposition. Their relationship needs to be lived in peace and the happiness of shared love.
The final section of the Vatican letter is on the importance of feminine values in the life of the church. I found this part of the letter very disappointing.
The intention is clearly to reassure women that just because they are different does not mean that they are inferior. The attempt to praise women, though, is taken much too far, with the implication that women are not only different to men, but superior.
The letter argues that the core value of Christianity, in fact of human values in general, is the giving of oneself to others. This is put very starkly in the words:
There is no Christian vocation except in the concrete gift of oneself to others.
It is then asserted that women are more oriented in their natures to giving of themselves to others. For instance, the letter states that,
Among the fundamental values linked to women's actual lives is what has been called a "capacity for the other".
The conclusion drawn is that women represent both Christian and human values better than men. This is why, to the delight of feminists, the letter calls on women to be drawn further into paid work and careers:
It means also that women should be present in the world of work and in the organization of society, and that women should have access to positions of responsibility which allow them to inspire the policies of nations and to promote innovative solutions to economic and social problems.
The letter suggests that the alternative to this promotion of women is a kind of masculine violence. The argument is therefore very similar to the feminist one that if women ruled the world, society would be more peaceful, humane, caring etc.
A further conclusion drawn from the idea that women represent Christian and human values better than men is that it is actually Mary who should be at the centre of Christian worship. The letter asserts that,
In this regard, the figure of Mary constitutes the fundamental reference of the Church. One could say metaphorically that Mary is a mirror placed before the Church, in which the Church is invited to recognise her own identity as well as the dispositions of the heart, the attitudes and the actions which God expects from her.
Where does all this leave men? Once again, the letter adopts a curiously feminist attitude. Men are told that they too can be good ... by being feminine. This is put, in the language of the letter, as follows:
It is appropriate however to recall that the feminine values mentioned here are above all human values ... It is only because women are more immediately attuned to these values that they are the reminder and the privileged sign of such values.
But, in the final analysis, every human being, man or woman, is destined to be "for the other". In this perspective, that which is called "femininity" is more than simply an attribute of the female sex. The word designates that fundamental human capacity to live for the other and because of the other.
Once again, note the radical final conclusion following directly on from these lines. Replacing men with women in public life will, it is claimed, lead to a "humanization" of society through feminine values:
Therefore, the promotion of women in society must be understood and desired as a humanization accomplished through those values, rediscovered thanks to women.
(One conclusion not drawn in the letter, but which will inevitably occur to others, is that if the arguments put forward in the letter are right, then the Church should ideally have a female rather than a male leadership. The letter, in other words, undermines the authority of a male priesthood.)
Is the only alternative to a liberal feminism a Catholic one? I don't think so. In fact, I think it's possible to see women as being at the centre of life, without undercutting the masculine role of men.
Think of it this way. When a man's instincts are strongest, he is likely to perceive the love, beauty, grace, tenderness and charity embodied in a woman as being at "the heart of things" - as being core human values.
He will also, though, perceive these feminine qualities of women to be soft and vulnerable. He will want to use his harder, tougher masculine qualities to defend what he believes to be at the core of human life: to create a protected space in which the more fragile feminine qualities can survive and be made manifest.
This basic task of men, however, creates its own significant values, such as the courage and loyalty demanded of men in the physical defence of their communities, or the wisdom and impartiality required in the formal, public governance of a community.
Furthermore, it seems to be given especially to men to love and appreciate what is best in the feminine nature of women.
Who then is better? Women who embody core human values, or men who are made to love and protect these values, and who create their own masculine values in doing so?
The answer surely is that it makes no sense to declare either to be superior. Neither would exist without the other. And anyway, the healthy attitude is to be so engrossed in our own masculine or feminine identity that we wouldn't want to exchange what is best in our manhood or womanhood.
For this reason alone, the attempt to place either sex in rank cannot serve a useful purpose.
(First published at Conservative Central, 25/10/2004)