Pia de Solenni is an American moral theologian. Last night she talked in Dublin to a group of people who came to hear her views on issues related to gender and the deconstruction of millennia of understanding about human nature and the sexes which is now in progress.
While the question was asked, and answered, about where all this has come from – with Descartes being something of a villain of the piece – and the question of where it was all going being at least tentatively answered – down the tubes being one scary option, the real quandary was something we had to go home and think about: what can be done to save the day?
My notes from her talk were not very comprehensive and I would not dare to try to recapitulate all that she said. However, in 2013, the National Catholic Register published an article which she wrote. In it some of the key influences and observations which underpinned last night’s talk are contained in it. They offer some clues as to how we might escape from this quandary.
It was entitled ‘Theology of Women in the Church’ Only Beginning to Be Revealed. It harked back to some words of Pope Francis on this now famous exchanges with journalists on this flight back from World Youth Day in the summer of that year, when he simply observed that ‘we don’t have a deep theology of women in the Church.’ Her article continues :
His comments were a timely preface for the 25th anniversary of John Paul II’s apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem (The Dignity and Vocation of Women), marked by this year’s Solemnity of the Assumption.
When I was doing graduate theology work in Rome, the document had been out for many years. John Paul II had continued to teach on the topic and had articulated the need for a “new feminism.”
However, as one of my friends observed, the common translation of this “new feminism” was a type of elitist feminism. It was applicable to women who were well educated, had successful careers and were married with children and household help.
While I was on my way to being well educated, I certainly didn’t have the rest of the ensemble. I was studying with priests and seminarians, mostly. I had no desire to join their ranks, despite our common discipline. At the same time, my friend was educated and married with small children. But working outside of the home would have placed too great a burden on her family. We also knew there were plenty of other women who didn’t fit the mold. I was convinced that the new feminism had to include all of the various states in the lives of women, not just educated, affluent wives and mothers.
This became the impetus for my doctoral work, in which I surveyed various feminist and gender theories to explore why the questions of feminine identity and vocation remained. I then used the thought of Thomas Aquinas, a saint and a brilliant doctor of the Church (sometimes inaccurately identified as a misogynist), to develop a feminism of complementarity or an integral feminism, one that sees the sexual differences as constructive. I wanted a feminism that considered a woman in her entirety, not just in terms of what she did or didn’t do: a new feminism.
As I progressed in my research, I realized just how visionary Pope John Paul II had been. He wasn’t offering a Catholic version of a fascist salute to motherhood. He was taking the concept of motherhood in a wholly different direction. After all, by the time he was writing, the developed world knew that women could match, and even surpass, men in most things. Instead of answering a question that had long sought an answer by defining women in terms of what men do, he focused on who a woman is, a much more elusive topic.
Still, my first reading of Mulieris didn’t satisfy me. I thought it was fine, but not meaty enough. It took a while before I saw that it was both subtle and groundbreaking, particularly in light of his other work. Six years after this apostolic letter, he wrote another, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone). For such a controversial topic, it was certainly a short document, just a few pages. He summarized Church teaching and almost abruptly concluded, “I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.”
From this point on, John Paul II stopped talking about women’s ordination. He focused on Mary, the woman, whom, in Mulieris, he had set up as a paradigm for all humanity, including himself and every other priest, by virtue of her response to God’s call.
The shift to Mary emphasizes the change in emphasis from doing to being. We actually know very little about what Mary did. But we know who she is: the Mother of God. Her ability to become a mother fundamentally enabled her to be open to God in a relationship that only a woman could have. Her response, uniquely feminine, paradoxically, became the model for all humanity.
Toward the end of John Paul’s life, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, under Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, issued a letter to the bishops, The Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World, which emphasized that women “have a role in every aspect of society.”
If we follow the example of Mary, that means working from within, wherever we happen to be, whether as chancellor of a major archdiocese, a mother home with small children, in business, politics or countless other places. It means recognizing that women bring something to the table by virtue of who they are rather than simply by what they do.
If Mary’s role as homemaker had been so vital, Jesus would have left the preparation of the Passover meal to her and not to the apostles. (I’m willing to bet she would’ve put on a better spread.) She was defined by who she was, by her relationship with Jesus, not by what she did. Similarly, we know that the apostles weren’t the smartest or the holiest bunch of men. But Jesus didn’t pick them for their accomplishments.
Twenty-five years after Mulieris Dignitatem, women have more positions in Church offices, and certainly women could have more leadership, but the vocation of women can’t be limited to a clericalist framework. Women, like men, exist in every sector of society, and both have critical contributions to make, regardless of what they do, because being a woman or a man should constructively influence the outcome. Within the Church, women need to be able to have a unique voice, not one that mimics that of men.
Pope Francis’ comments indicate that this work has only just begun.
Much, much more will be required to get us to the point where we understand both women and men for who they are.
On the more explicit gender confusion issue which she spoke about last night this article which she posted on Crux last year covers many of the points she made to us. Again, they give us something to chew on and think through about what might be the best way to rescue ourselves from the quagmire into which we find ourselves sinking fast.
Throughout history, women have been denigrated and oppressed by men. While I don’t always agree with some feminist activists, I certainly acknowledge that I would not have had the opportunities that I have without feminist efforts to right so many wrongs.
Despite these advances, today’s “trans movement” (particularly the transwoman sector) inadvertently takes us back to a time when women were valued based on their appearance, and whether they fit someone else’s preconceived notion of femininity. In essence, all it takes to be a woman today are [fake] breasts and good hair.
As a culture, we are telling women that the feelings and sentiments of a particular group of men – in this case, men who regard themselves as women – matter more than they do. That’s patriarchy by definition, even if women happen to agree to it.
Yes, some individuals suffer from gender dysphoria, but I am very hesitant to say that their struggle gives them the right to identify with the sex of their choice. As a woman, I cannot concede that being female simply means that one wears makeup, sexy lingerie, and a hair-do.
In fact, I was raised in a post-feminist environment where my femininity was not measured by my bra size and whether I could arouse a man. Rather, my female identity was confirmed by science, which demonstrates that every cell of my being is female no matter how I look or what I do.
My being a woman literally has to do with my being, not my doing. Hence, I can live out my life without fitting some ideal of a woman, whether it’s Mad Men’s or anybody else’s.
Let’s be clear here: No one cares about a woman using the men’s restroom. The Target debate has focused on men using women’s restrooms, because most people understand that women and girls are physically vulnerable in a way that men are not.
Whether we’re talking about Target, or states that have passed legislation along the same lines, the practical result now is that any man, whether he’s identifying as a woman or looking for his next victim, may use the women’s restroom because he feels like it.
So much for women’s rights.
Nevertheless, the bathroom discussion is couched in the language of civil rights and discrimination. Talk about a culture-war trap. In fact, on Monday the Justice Department filed a civil-rights suit against the state of North Carolina because it refuses to rescind a bill that requires individuals to use the bathroom correlating with their biological sex.
Some forms of patriarchy include attempts to protect women from other males, but that’s really more of an excuse to protect women for a particular man or group of men. Worse types of patriarchy utterly disregard the dignity and significance of a woman.
Rather than a civil rights issue, I would argue that the bathroom wars indicate that we’re entering an entirely new phase of patriarchy which declares victory every time it destroys a safe space for women, including bathrooms, fitting rooms, locker rooms, and so on.
This new patriarchy scored a breakthrough when Bruce Jenner, in his April 2015 interview with Diane Sawyer, casually commented that he looked forward to becoming a woman so that he could paint his nails and drink wine with his girlfriends. Jenner equated being a woman with the most trivial accidentals, while mainstream media outlets, including awards from Glamour and ESPN, celebrated his courage.
Never mind that he couldn’t even stand for his Vanity Fair debut, lest we see that his male anatomy remained.
Another defeat for women came after Jenner’s transition to a new identity as Caitlyn, when he (perhaps channeling his inner Dionne Warwick) famously stated that the hardest part about being a woman was deciding what to wear each day. Patriarchy triumphed again.
Time after time, the new patriarchy reinforces that being a woman is simply about the externals, what you look like. Cue Hugh Hefner.
Again, some individuals suffer greatly from gender dysphoria, and they should be treated with respect and dignity. But their struggles cannot justify yet another era in which women are reduced to nothing more than body parts and their ability to satisfy a man, even if it’s one and the same person.
Pia de Solenni is a moral theologian and cultural analyst. She serves as the Associate Dean of the Augustine Institute – Orange County, California.