The National Catholic Review
Can the church and the world agree on the role of women?
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About 13 years ago, I presented a paper at a conference on “Women’s Health and Human Rights” at the Vatican. A highlight of the event was a special audience for the conference participants with Pope John Paul II. To the surprise and delight of his listeners, he benignly proclaimed, “Io sono il Papa feminista,” “I am the feminist pope.”

He meant it. In 1988, Pope John Paul II issued the apostolic letter “Mulieris Dignitatem” or “On the Dignity and Vocation of Women.” Repeatedly he called for the development of a “new feminism” designed to honor and celebrate the “feminine genius” in all walks of life, in the world of work as well as the domestic world.

If feminism is ultimately about affirming the dignity and well-being of women, the Roman Catholic Church as a whole is a feminist church in many crucial ways. It has done an enormous amount of good for women, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, in precarious circumstances throughout the world. To take only one example, the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development, Gender & Women runs programs around the world that help women organize into cooperatives for the production and marketing of goods; it also provides shelters for basic needs, educational programs in literacy and training in business knowledge and empowerment.

At the same time, it is safe to say that many people do not share the late pope’s easy association of feminism and the papacy. In fact, there are some—among both secular feminists and Catholic feminists—who would bristle at the association. Secular feminists have frequently decried Catholicism as being opposed to the flourishing of women, particularly by its opposition to contraception and abortion. And officials in the Vatican have regularly published broad denunciations of feminism, castigating its destructive effects on society and the family, particularly upon children, both born and unborn.

Catholic women can sometimes find themselves caught in the middle, loving their church and their faith but dispirited by occasional statements that suggest that the Vatican views them as disordered or defiled simply because they are women. Last July the Vatican caused a public relations firestorm after its announcement of two grave crimes under canon law: sexual abuse by members of the clergy and the attempt to ordain a woman. Even women who support the church’s restriction of the priesthood to males winced at the decision to group these two acts in the same document.

In order to sort out the convergences and divergences between Catholicism and secular feminism, there must be nuanced historical, cultural and geographic studies. The tensions between the two are not the same in the United States as they are in sub-Saharan Africa, for example. At the same time, nuanced, rigorous, comparative analysis of the normative frameworks of Catholicism and feminism sorely needs to be undertaken.

Consideration must be given to three normative polarities within the Roman Catholic framework itself, polarities that help illuminate Pope John Paul II’s claim, even while significant tensions remain between Catholicism and feminism. These three polarities are: equality and difference, nature and nurture and complementarity and collaboration.

Many Catholics and many feminists see these tensions as creative and affirm the importance of holding onto both poles in each polarity. But there is also antagonism. Each party fears that the other is in danger of letting go of one pole, to the detriment of women and, indeed, to the detriment of all of society. An examination of the fears of each group will facilitate a better mutual understanding.

Equality and Difference

On the one hand, the Catholic tradition has long held that all human beings are made in the image and likeness of God, equal in dignity, no matter their sex, race, ethnicity or social status (Gal 3:28). On the other hand, the church does not see human persons as purely spiritual bundles of reason and will. We humans do not merely have bodies, we are embodied, and that embodiment is part of the goodness of God’s creation. In particular, our different embodiment as either male or female is a divinely ordained aspect of the created order, which needs to be respected if humanity is to flourish.

The Vatican worries that some strands of secular, Western feminism are emphasizing equality to the detriment of difference. It suspects that this unbalanced emphasis obscures the ontological difference between men and women and the goodness of that difference for both individuals and society. In particular, the Vatican fears that an insufficient appreciation of difference will denigrate women’s unique power as mothers, who shape and nurture the next generation.

Feminists are worried too. The way in which some Vatican documents—and some supporters of John Paul II-style feminism—try to specify these differences between men and women concerns feminists, because it can seem as if certain character traits are being defined and imposed as either male or female without any regard for empirical study or individual difference. And that definition and imposition, they believe, contributes to inequality.

Consider, for example, the position of Gloria Conde, a feminist in the John Paul II style, in her book New Woman (Circle Press). Quoting Judith M. Bardwick, she writes: “The ‘masculine’ is equivalent to the objective, analytical, active, inclined to thought, rational, indomitable, interfering, one who obstructs, independent, self-sufficient, emotionally controlled, and self-assured. With his mind, the man distinguishes, analyzes, separates, and perfects. The ‘feminine’ corresponds to the subjective, intuitive, passive, tender, sensitive, easily influenced, docile, receptive, empathetic, dependent, emotional, and conservative. Her mind picks up relations, she possesses intuitive perception of sentiments, and she tends to unite rather than divide.”

The trouble with this sort of sharply dichotomous understanding of the difference between men and women is that it undermines women whose personalities or jobs do not correspond in every respect to the traditional feminine virtues. Here is an example. In the beginning of my teaching career a young man came to me about a grade; he was upset that he got a B plus in my class. Could I not see how he was really an A student, how the low grade I gave him marred the perfection of his transcript? I told him I could see—but I still could not change the grade. It would not be fair to his classmates. As he left the office in frustration, he offered a final reproach: “But you’re a woman. You’re supposed to be nice!” For any professor grading an exam, male or female, fairness has to trump niceness.

Nature and Nurture

Where do these differences between men and women come from, anyway? This question points to a second flash point: the polarity between nature and nurture.

On the one hand, the Catholic tradition recognizes that human beings are essentially social; our understandings of our place in the world are shaped and transmitted by the languages, cultures and societies in which we live. On the other hand, that tradition also proclaims that there is some irreducible core of “human nature” that remains constant across time, place and culture. The church is committed to the notion of a common human nature. This commitment forms the basis not only for the proclamation of equal human dignity but also for the tradition’s confidence in the possibility of articulating some basis for a universal morality that transcends particular religious and cultural traditions. In this cosmopolitan and fractious world, belief in a common human nature will be increasingly indispensable.

The Vatican believes that the secular West has gone too far in endorsing nurture to the detriment of nature. The idea that human nature, including sex and gender, is completely malleable worries the Vatican, because the idea does not give enough weight to the created order, whose intricate pattern is imprinted upon the physical and psychic structure of human beings.

The Vatican is making an important point. Nature matters. Some differences between males and females seem ingrained, not imposed, as anyone might suspect who has ever watched an 18-month-old boy cheerfully repurposing a Barbie doll as a hammer. More scientifically, endocrinologists are making great strides in understanding the way male and female hormones, like testosterone and estrogen, affect our brains and therefore influence our ability to reason and to choose. It is a serious anthropological mistake to think of human beings as androgynous minds encased in male or female bodies.

For their part, however, feminists worry that what some people view as the designs of nature are not natural at all but are, in fact, the deceptive mask worn by ingrained patterns of sexism.

Consider, for example, the article on “Woman” in the 1914 Catholic Encyclopedia, in which one of the authors maintains that the education of women should be directed toward their roles as wives and mothers. The author hastens to observe that “the Catholic Church places here no barriers that have not already been established by nature.” While a few women might go on to earn higher degrees, the author asserts, “the sexes can never be on an equality as regards studies pursued at a university.” Ironically, that assertion may be correct—just not in the way the author supposed. A recent study showed that women outnumber men as students at every degree level in higher education in the United States. Men still outnumber women in some fields, but overall the educational gap between men and woman has closed and even begun to reverse itself.

Complementarity and Collaboration

With women flooding the educational system, men find themselves competing with them for advancement and academic honors. Pope Benedict XVI, when he was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, expressed concern about such competition between men and women and called instead for a collaborative relationship between the sexes (“On the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World,” 2004).

His view is this: The basis of a collaborative relationship is the recognition of the complementary gifts and skills of men and women. Women in particular should not aim to emulate the strengths of men but should instead nurture their own distinct gifts. Complementarity is most clearly visible in the roles that men and women play in marriage and family life but should be visible in other contexts as well. One of the hallmarks of John Paul II-style feminism, in fact, is an effort to define the “feminine genius” in all spheres of women’s existence in terms of the virtues of motherhood.

For their part, many other feminists are worried about the call to complementarity, not necessarily because they are opposed to the idea that both men and women bring some distinct and important gifts to human society but because of the way that idea tends to work out in practice. In fact, they fear it undermines collaboration, because it tends to promote separation and practical inequality.

The great Protestant theologian Karl Barth explicated male-female complementarity in terms of A and B—one need not be a psychic to guess which sex is which. The way the concept of complementarity works in geometry also reveals the potential problem: Two angles are complementary if they add up to 90 degrees, so a complementary angle is all and only that which the primary angle is not. Analogously, if one begins with a man, then a woman must be all and only that which a man is not—her role is to fill in the gaps. If complementarity is taken too far, then, it does not facilitate collaboration but rather fosters entirely separate spheres of interest and specialization.

The concept of complementarity rightly affirms the importance—and unique demands—of motherhood on women. But how does it account for the gifts, ambitions and concerns that men and women have in common, even in parenting? For men and women to strive for excellence—together—in the many areas and interests they share ought not to be considered a destructive form of competition. The common pursuit of excellence, or virtue, is a key element of the classical definition of friendship.

Toward a Better Conversation

How to begin bridging the tensions between Catholicism and feminism? In my view, more attention must be paid to the concrete circumstances in which women live their lives. Pope John Paul II observed that many working women carry out their jobs with a maternal spirit. Turning that observation around, I suggest that many mothers around the world must deploy a broad range of skills in working to raise their children. The church offers an important iconic ideal of motherhood: the Virgin Mary peacefully cradling a newborn baby. But mothers in war-torn lands, for example, do not have that opportunity; they must tirelessly labor to feed and protect their children. Even in peaceful countries, babies grow up; dealing with a teenager in crisis because of drugs or alcohol requires steely resolve more than maternal sweetness.

Life is complicated. Allowing the actual circumstances—and struggles—of women around the globe to take center stage may enable many feminists and many Catholics to move past an either/or understanding of the three polarities.

Listen to an interview with M. Cathleen Kaveny.

M. Cathleen Kaveny is the John P. Murphy Foundation Professor of Law and Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. She delivered a version of this article in New York City on Nov. 19, 2010, at the la

Comments

Jane Elizabeth Glass | 3/9/2011 - 3:00pm
 
M. Cathleen Kaveny seems to duck more Catholic women's issues than she confronts in her article, "Defining Feminism" (2/28). Noticeably absent is any discussion of the ordination of women as a legitimate expression of Catholic feminist principle that many Catholic women and men, both lay and clergy, embrace.
 
Perhaps this omission centers on her misreading of biological difference between males and females as an "ontological difference between men and women". But women and men are beings, have being, share in being created by God to the same degree.
 

My wife, citing one of her mentors, is the source of my favorite comment in connection with this matter: "Christ urges us to 'Be like me', not 'Pee like me'."
Maria Byrd | 3/7/2011 - 9:44am
There is a reason that the history of feminism is never studied independently of Marxism.
Michael Barberi | 3/1/2011 - 4:06pm
William Man said "you fall into the familiar trap of the progressive mind-which is to think that truth "evolves".  The truth is the truth is the truth, and John Paul II embodied that."

The truth never changes, however, you missed the point. Our understanding of the truth does change as history has taught us. Our knowledge of Sexuality, Anthropology, Biology, Physics, Human Nature, the Cosmos, etc is constantly evolving as is Culture.

This does not mean that all beliefs we hold as truth wiill change, but some will. Our understanding of the purposes and ends of marriage is just one example. Ditto for Slavery, Usery, Capital Punishment.

Rather than focus on sexualty and the differences between man and woman, why don't we focus on ensuring that the best candidates who want to do the Will of God, be done.

Centuries ago no one thought a woman could be a great Ruler of a mighty Kingdom. Queen Elizabeth of England proved them wrong.


Anne Chapman | 2/28/2011 - 12:54pm
It does not seem that John Paul II truly valued and respected women - not real women. Instead, he valued his personal image of what he perceived to be the "ideal" woman - Mary. Perhaps his loss of his own mother at a young age led to his idealization of motherhood and his desire to limit women to that role.  The all-male officialdom of the Catholic church seeks to define women, and women's characteristics, and women's roles and even women's potential contributions according to its exclusively male preferences.  So, women in parishes can do "traditional" "feminine" tasks -  arrange the flowers, iron the altar cloths, teach the children, and support the male clergy as office managers, DREs, housekeepers/cooks, etc etc - all "wifely", "maternal", and "feminine" roles.  They may not preach, however. They may become theologians and they may teach in Catholic universities - IF the men "let" them.  And they will hold onto their licenses as theologians only if they teach doctrine and dogma that is exclusively defined by men and reflects only the masculine brain. They may serve in high administrative roles in chanceries - but only roles where they have no decision-making authority. They may not be priests.  Rome says motherhood is the ideal and most important role for women - but it does not say this to men. It does not tell men that they may be doctors, lawyers, teachers, nurses, and fathers, but not priests.

 Yes, it is women who usually hold it together in crisis, caring for children and family, often when men have abandoned them either through external circumstances like war, or because the men didn't want the responsibilities of husband and father anymore.  The problems of inner city youth are traced more to the lack of a strong male influence on children than to poverty itself. Is the church abandoning its reponsibility to tell men that their most important role, if married, is husband and father?  Because it is, yet we don't often hear that from the men who run the church outside of a standard, Father's Day homily.

I am not a theologian, and won't even try to discuss this in theological language. But, it seems that since the church emphasizes complementarity and collaboration, it should look in the mirror.  In the church, there is no complementarity, nor collaboration.  The governance is exclusively made up of celibate males who have no more intuitive or lived understanding of women nor of family life than I have a genuine understanding of the life of a pope who has spent almost his entire life removed from "real" life in an all-male theological ivory tower, almost totally removed from any female who is not in some kind of service role to males.  Perhaps if the church were not governed by all-male celibates, there would have been a different reaction to the sexual abuse of children by priests. The church needs the feminine insights it claims to value but doesn't want within its own governing and clerical structures  - few women would have put the needs of the "corporation" and its executives ahead ot the children. But, by defining " complementarity" and "collaboration" to mean "women will undertake only those roles in the church that we men deem appropriate as "complementing" the male roles," the church caused uncountable damage to tens of thousands of young people, and their families, and now that the truth is finally coming out, to the entire church.  And that is just one example. If the understandings of women were incorporated into the teachings of the church, many problematic teachings would simply be "developed" to reflect something closer to truth than to patriarchy.  The church denies the feminine, and in so doing, it damages the church.

God made them male and female in God's image.  To have the whole, there must be BOTH male and female understanding and intuition and talents in the governance and magesterium of the church. There must be genuine complentarity and genuine collaboration, and until the injustice of denying a sacrament to women is overcome, the sins of patriarchy will continue to hinder the effectiveness of the church's mission in the world. The male leadership prefers to turn women into passive creatures, an idea that permeates much of John Paul II's writings, including the theology of the body. Men are "active", women are passive. Men give, women receive. Men lead, women follow.   Until the church gives up its 2000 year old patriarchal legacy, it will continue to cripple itself, operating quite literally with half a brain.
Cody Serra | 2/25/2011 - 8:07pm

Feminism is a difficult issue to deal with in the society at large and in the Catholic tradition. The author presents somewhat both sides of the issue, but falls short in pointing out the uniqueness of each individual person, created by God, regardless of gender. No one will argue against the anatomical differences between male and female. But I -being a woman- would argue that motherhood was not (is not) a call for all women who have been gifts to the world and even to Catholicism: St. Theresa of Avila, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Joan of Arc, etc. Did they, and many others like them, though not Catholic saints, were feminists acceptable to the Catholic Church, and to the secular society?  Limiting the role of women in society to the gift of motherhood is ignoring their inner strengths that go far beyond nurturing. A career woman who studied to better serve the marginalized and the poor, facilitate the path toward social justice, and gave up motherhood on the journey, responded to God's calling too. Many women answered to similar callings in other male dominated professions, as well as many men did too. Vocations are not gender exclusive. Attaching societal and church roles based on gender responds to a sexist philosophical perspective of humanity.

C Berry | 2/25/2011 - 12:01pm
The church offers an important iconic ideal of motherhood: the Virgin Mary peacefully cradling a newborn baby. But mothers in war-torn lands, for example, do not have that opportunity; they must tirelessly labor to feed and protect their children.

This is an interesting dicotomy and a flaw, I think, in the representation of Mary. Look at the history, look at the Bible accounts. Israel had been ruled by foreigners and periodically invaded for centuries. Simeon in the Temple might have seen Jeruslem taken over by the Romans. Mary and Joseph were not well off, life must have been hard. And in the midst of all this Mary undertook to become pregnant outside marriage, to risk her future. She had her child in poverty and within two years had to flee because HE, her child, was a target for the ruler.

I am slightly unsure how this courageous woman, who made such a momentous decision without seeking advice of others, who had almost certainly a hard life, is always portrayed as so peaceful and passive.


I have no problem with women who want to pursue careers.  They just need to know that being a mom and a wife is the greatest endeavor they will ever undertake.

Seriously? You say that in the context of an article about Catholicism and feminism? What about all the great female saints - abbesses, nuns and ordinary women? I find it hard to think you can look at the life of St Catherine of Siena or St Teresa of Avila or St Clare or Nano Nagle and think - wow, they should have been wives and mothers.

It's also exactly what feminists complain of, when they say women are defined by their gender. Does anyone say, oh, it's fine a man following a career, but being a husband and father is the greatest endeavor they will ever undertake? Not often enough, I can tell you!

One other point about the saints, and one great thing about them - they show the many ways there are to serve God. And, from a feminist point of view, it shows that those ways do have have to be docile, passive, receptive and the rest. If Catherine of Siena can be a Saint while standing up to the highest authorities, why not other women?
Kay Satterfield | 2/23/2011 - 9:25pm
It's been less than 100 years ago that women had the right to vote in this country. Dorothy Day was imprisoned in 1917 for picketing the White House on behalf of woman suffrage  The thinking was that politics was considered too coarse for women.  Edith Stein in 1919 was denied a professorship because she was a woman. Society and woman's role in society has changed. Though the Church does much for women in need, women's role in the church hasn't changed.   There is no collaboration decision making between men and women in our Church. 

We fear change.   

Again, I think this is a really good article that tries to strike a middle ground about a really loaded word - feminism 
William Maniotis | 2/22/2011 - 9:06pm
John Paul II was a man who truly respected honored and respected women.  His letter on the Dignity and Vocation of women certainly attests to it.  However, he was a man who was of a certain generation and his understanding of a woman's role in society in 2011 may be limited by that.  I noticed the word fear and worry used a lot in this article.


Sentence one I'm with you, Kay.  But then you fall into the familiar trap of the progressive mind-which is to think that truth "evolves".  The truth is the truth is the truth, and John Paul II embodied that.  John Paul II was not limited by anything-he would have proclaimed the truth in 2011 or 211. 

And he was certainly right to worry and fear our post-modern "progressive" world.  You can boil truth down to love-true, "agape" love, in which the needs of the other supersede our own-forever, and for always.  To love somebody is to want the best for him or her, without expecting anything else in return.  It's a tall order, but anything less than that won't cut the mustard.

I have no problem with women who want to pursue careers.  They just need to know that being a mom and a wife is the greatest endeavor they will ever undertake.  One of my heroes is Mary Ann Glendon, a professor of law at Harvard University.  If you really want to hear a great woman's take on what it truly means to be a woman, read what she has to say on the matter: http://www.amazon.com/Traditions-Turmoil-Mary-Ann-Glendon/dp/1932589244
Kay Satterfield | 2/22/2011 - 5:34pm
John Paul II was a man who truly respected honored and respected women.  His letter on the Dignity and Vocation of women certainly attests to it.  However, he was a man who was of a certain generation and his understanding of a woman's role in society in 2011 may be limited by that.  I noticed the word fear and worry used a lot in this article.

Many women, myself included were put off by some of the ideals of feminism in the 1970's, 80's. That we are non gender.  It didn't validate a woman's choice to stay home and raise a family.  However, this feminism did create the environment to give women more choices. I am not talking about abortion but more opportunities in careers, etc. 

As she pointed out, women in poverty, war torn countries, etc don't have the luxury to define their roles. They have to be all of it.

I really like Prof Kavery statement, " For men and women to strive for excellence—together—in the many areas and interests they share ought not to be considered a destructive form of competition. The common pursuit of excellence, or virtue, is a key element of the classical definition of friendship."  Men and women in marriage together, in the work place work together make decisions together. It's part of what is our healthy relationships.  it what our culture is today. It's a good thing.   I think this spirit of working together, this equal balance is needed in our Church.
William Maniotis | 2/22/2011 - 2:49pm
First, let may say I am grateful to M. Cathleen Kaveny for perceptively identifying the "tensions" in this debate.  Too often, folks are not aware of the complexity of such tensions, and how we are called to understand them in all of their fullness.  And yet...

...the "answers" we seek are not all that complex.  Just as a man's highest calling is as a father and husband, a woman's highest calling is a wife and mother.  Just as a man needs to "lose himself to find himself", so too, does a woman.  The problem with most secular feminists is that they fail to adopt Mother Mary as an ideal "type."  Because they can't admit that most women are more nuturing than most men-and are naturally built that way-it is a small leap to such horrors as abortion.  They can't understand or "hear" what Mother Theresa was talking about when she said, "when a mother can kill her own child, what is left of civilization to save?"  And yet...

The truth can only be proposed, not imposed.  Unless women voluntarily, willingly, and individually come to understand their role as wives and mothers first-and everything else second-the world will be a colder, darker, place.  Many of the ills in our modern world have come about because so many women have turned away from Mother Mary's shining example.  I don't say that to elevate men, by the way.  Most of them are so far from Christ's example that they put the misguided aims of feminism to shame.  But that's another story.
sheila dierks | 2/22/2011 - 11:25am
It is an historical point of view that the roles mentioned in the article are often not "natural" or "inborn". Theyare the force of many years of assigned roles which then become, for many, a way of being that is taught for so long that it seems to become the way of that gender.
So, it is wise to look for the "exceptions" to see how they stand in the social order.  We all live on a continuum.  Women are as interested in sharpening a hoe or programming a comuputer or balancing a financial statement as men are in cooking a family meal and taking kids to the park. Given the openness to be who we are, each opening to possibility, we will select across a range of activities and preferences that are completely ungendered, except by a social order that seeks to codify and limit.
I am an Ecumenical Catholic Priest.  Denying my own gender? Not at all. Seeking what is not mine to seek? Not at all, when called by the Spirit who only hopes we are open to that which She wants from and for us.
Maria Byrd | 2/21/2011 - 9:26pm

Well, I posted mine. They were deleted. Not in sync the views of America Mag.

ROBERT NUNZ MR | 2/20/2011 - 12:05pm
We need to hear more comments from women on this article.
Talking about some of the good the Church has done for women  today should be viewed  that it took the Church a long time, despite many heroic women, to recognize some real place for them - a place many see as seperate aand unequal still.
The issue of complenmantarity needs to be seperated in the home and the workplace: in most workplaces (in the Church?) women continue to gain ground and the notion of roles is disappearing; even in the home, while onbviously women bear and birth chilren, the parenting roles in two working parent families -often necessary today -are blurring.
My own experience as a manager before I retired was the the shortness of maternity leaves many women sought.
Today we read much of the extra dangers women reporters in the Middle East experience and how some ugly commentators in our own country respond to that - and how the same women  reporters often kept silencein the past!
It strikes me we have much to learn yet and that includes Holy Mother Church.
David Smith | 2/19/2011 - 10:07pm
Why this constant emphasis on "versus"?  As though there were only two sides to every issue.  Academics seem fully as addicted to it as guys in bars.  Movements are likely to distort, rather than enlighten, because they draw lines in the sand and declare everyone on the other side to be the enemy.  Why be a "feminist"?  Why not simply be a human being?
Edward Visel | 2/19/2011 - 11:46am
I feel like this article did not step far enough back in order to examine the pervasive patriarchy that the Church both practices and teaches. Instead, it tried to hedge a middle ground within old constructs that are slowly being swept away elsewhere.

What is really sad to me is how due to the fact that reproductive rights have become so central to secular feminism, the Church, along with other conservatives, throw out the lot. The culture has been built so that members of my parish are wary of women that call themselves feminists, and do not comprehend that men can also be feminists. They do not understand the problem with having an all-male club that handles the parish's finances.

In the secular world, feminism is beginning to find a balance. In the Church, it has hardly started to work.
Craig McKee | 2/19/2011 - 1:39am
While the author presents an extremely perceptive analysis, she fails to convince me that the bottom line rationale for any and all of church thinking about women is to support its flawed position that women cannot be priests.
Thus, the answer to her concluding question: "How to begin bridging the tensions between Catholicism and feminism?" is quite simple: ORDAIN THEM!
Lisa Weber | 2/18/2011 - 5:49pm
No single or defined role exists for women, and it never has.  A woman's role is dependent on her characteristics, her ambitions and her circumstances.  Women are not able to agree on the appropriate roles for women, so we can hardly expect men to define our proper role.  My experience has been that women restrict the roles of other women far more than men restrict the roles women want to be in. 
Juliana Boerio-Goates | 2/18/2011 - 1:31pm

As one of the first two women to integrate a previously all-male physics class taught by a Benedictine priest, one of a relatively few women to pursue a Ph.D. in physical chemistry, the most mathematically intense subfield of chemistry, a full-professor who has taught mostly male engineering students for many years, now pursuing independent study in theology and liturgy, while working as a volunteer pastoral coordinator in a parish, as well as a being a wife and mother, I’ve experienced first hand the limitations of the traditional assignment of male/female characteristics. 

Statements like Judith Bardwich or Gloria Conde force a binary integer analysis on what is more accurately represented by a continuously varying number line. Looking only at the extremes of personality characteristics, it’s probably true to say that the completely rational, detached, analytical, self-assured (arrogant) individual is more likely to be male; the most emotional, always intuitive, always self-deprecating individual is more likely to be female.  The reality is that most of us are a complex mix, each of us falling somewhere along every axis of the multi-variable problem.  

It should not be a surprise that this complexity arises from both nature and nurture.  Both pre-natally and post-birth, ranges of hormonal levels are observed: Not all men have the same testosterone levels, not all women have the same estrogen levels.  Nurture is, of course, more widely recognized to play a role.

The Benedictine priest assumed I was in the physics class to find a husband.  When I finished with an A, he apologized and asked me to be a physics major.  Folks of integrity can change when confronted with the reality of their misperceptions.  Perhaps when popes, cardinals, and bishops have more experience with women other than as their housemaids, their perceptions will change, too, and they can move beyond a black/white approach to masculine/feminine.
Mike Evans | 2/18/2011 - 1:00pm
Several flashpoints in this article. 'Competition' between men and women for slots in education and the professions- dangerous for men? Masculine vs feminine character traits - really? Nature vs nurture seems to echo the sense that women are still mis-begotten men - lacking penises. And being madonnas is their only rightful calling.

We have such a distorted mindset about women and their roles and talents and gifts and equality of place in our affections and society. The paternalistic put downs of a church denying sacramental ordination, even to the diaconate is both oppressive and false. Finally, the church supports and encourages the subjugating of women in almost every language and culture - especially in South America, Asia and Africa. Women are most frequently denied education, access to health care, ownership of property, and even the right to hold office and participate in the politics of governing. The church unfortunately does not attack. condemn nor criticize these positions - we are often as anti-feminine as the worst case Taliban overlord. My own two daughters, even in this more enlightened age, are and have been victims of denigrating anti-feminine policies.
C Walter Mattingly | 2/18/2011 - 12:24pm

The rapidity of peaceful social change and development possible in the US is astounding and inspiring. One of my aunts was the one of the first two female professor of medicine at Tulane University; another the first female radiologist in Louisiana. A decade ago, one of my children entered the University of Miami medical school as a minority-he was a male. All this in the span of a lifetime.