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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XIX No. 3 Michaelmas 2004
Celebrating 20 Years - 1984-2004

Reflections on Equality and Difference

by Mary Ellen Bork

Recent Church teaching on the role of women in the Church and in society was concisely summarized in "Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World". The relatively brief document with the long title was released by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) on July 31 (dated May 31). It draws on Pope John Paul II's "theology of the body" teaching on the relationship between men and women that affirms the distinction between the sexes while proclaiming the equal dignity and value of both. The "collaboration" letter also reflects the longer document on the same subject, Ecclesia de Mysterio, issued in 1997 by several Vatican offices, and reaffirms Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, Pope John Paul II's 1994 apostolic letter on priestly ordination.

The release of the CDF's statement coincided with a heightened controversy over the definition of marriage in several state and national venues in the United States, so it is not surprising that reactions to the document varied widely, reflecting a spectrum of opinions -- including those of women associated with WFF. Helen Hull Hitchcock was interviewed by print media and on the radio, and an interview with Mary Ellen Bork by Zenit news agency was published August 22.

The CDF's "Letter to Bishops" also coincided with a related effort by the US bishops' Committee on the Laity. A draft of a statement on "Lay Ecclesial Ministers" was sent to bishops in August for their review, and is slated for vote at the November meeting of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. Though the "Lay Ecclesial Ministers" statement is not expressly focused on women, studies cited by the Laity committee show that women hold about 80% of the paid positions in parishes and dioceses -- not including the volunteer jobs.

In this context, the review of Church doctrine in the Congregation's "collaboration" letter is particularly timely.

"This concise statement addressed to the bishops reaffirms with precision the vision of human life given in sacred Scripture that is under attack by secular liberalism in advanced Western societies", WFF board member Mary Ellen Bork told Zenit. "The letter... is setting out a clear statement of the 'anthropology' [of the human person] that must be vigorously affirmed and explained now that it is under attack".

Mrs. Bork's observations about the CDF statement and some of its implications, slightly edited from her Zenit interview, appear here.

The recent "Letter on Collaboration of Men and Women" affirms that it is a fundamental truth that man and woman are co-equal, and that sex differences are part of God's original design for the human person. Cultural trends seeking to wipe out sexual difference in the name of radical equality and experiments in polymorphous sexuality deny God's revelation and can only lead to great personal unhappiness.

The very language of the story of salvation in both the Old and New Testament uses the language of a covenant between bride and bridegroom. Far from being a poetic touch, this language reflects God's plan for human beings and the ordering of society. The letter envisions femininity, renewed by spiritual life, as a dynamic active gift essential to family, society and the Church. What the pope calls "the feminine genius" is a gift of openness to another person, the opposite of a self-centered focus on "my rights".

The Church does not hold up "an outdated conception of femininity" but promotes a dynamic and active presence to human persons and encourages women to use these gifts to preserve the family and bring about a more humane society.

Some commentators think talking about feminine presence is not a serious discussion of women's gifts. They do not adequately understand the role of Mary, the epitome of feminine reality and presence in the Church. She is a self-sacrificing person, capable of discerning the face of Christ, capable of living the spiritual inheritance of the Church. The Church in America, still suffering from the damage done by the sex scandals, especially diminishing trust, could use a strong feminine presence of some kind to restore trust and a sense of harmony in the community that has been deeply disturbed.

The advancement of women, a legitimate modern priority, is proceeding in some circles with a defective anthropology, one that sees human nature as malleable and sex differences as unimportant. Women and men are seeking the same power and the same functions and are less attuned to real sexual differences, denying the need for feminine gifts and redefining human sexuality by claiming that homosexuality is equivalent to heterosexuality. This path leads to destruction.

True advancement of women must be based on the truth about the human person and human sexuality. We need more expositions like this letter to clarify the nature of feminine gifts so that we never take them for granted.

Our culture is super-affluent, highly technical, wired, secular, over-sexed and in a hurry. It is also generous, tolerant, religious and open. We have to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves to find the path to holiness in this "slough of despond". One basic challenge is the fallacy that we can go it alone, either in our personal or spiritual lives.

Women need a sense of community with others. Spiritual discussion groups and Bible study groups help to overcome a sense of isolation and alienation from the culture. They can also learn how other women balance the pressures of work and family.

A few people gathered in His name to pray and discuss spiritual classics gives breathing space for reflection and prayer with like-minded people. This experience creates a cultural support for a serious pursuit of holiness.

There is a lot of cultural pressure to be politically correct and therefore to hold popular positions on moral and social issues, such as abortion as a woman's choice and gay marriage as a fundamental right.

Myrna Blythe, former editor of the Ladies' Home Journal, has written a book explaining the pressure she experienced in the New York publishing world to conform to the liberal ideas of her "spin sisters". She, a successful businesswoman, was ostracized from social gatherings and made to feel an outcast for not agreeing with the accepted liberal creed.

Catholic women of faith will find the same social pressures as they advance in professional circles. They need to be single-minded in their conviction that they are bringing their values into the workplace with a feminine presence that can make a real difference. In this environment it is possible to grow in virtue on a daily basis, virtues such as courage, prudence and patience as we face often well-nuanced social pressures. Getting together with a group of like-minded women with whom they can reflect on their cultural experience can be a balm to the soul.

Marches, such as the pro-abortion march in Washington a few months ago, and conventions and dinners promoting and honoring the politically correct views are a way of life in Washington. These displays are intended to bolster the egos and the positions of secular feminists and the cultural left. The presence of Hollywood stars adds glamour and buzz to these events.

The national media cover these events widely -- to the point that many women could think that everyone accepts these ideas. The dominant culture is very liberal and puts in the shadows, so to speak, those who hold more biblical views.

Women of faith are in a defensive position. Using the sports analogy, we need to live offensively in the sense of understanding cultural pressures, and choosing to actively live our faith and seek ways to use our feminine gifts. We must be prepared, have a good strategy, and go forward fearlessly.

It is an art to speak the truth both to those who do not agree with us as well as to our sisters and friends who are in need of encouragement and support. We know there is no one path for all women and that women who affirm life in all forms present a very attractive face to those who are seeking the truth.

The message that you can't be pro-life and "pro-woman" is being resisted. We are now seeing that many younger women are rejecting abortion and want to see more restrictions on this death-dealing practice. Science is on the side of pro-lifers in such things as the refinements of ultrasound and the detailed pictures of children in the womb. Many women are affirming their own instinctive love of children and are remaining true to this most basic feminine gift.

But science and facts will not stop those cultural leaders with an agenda to promote abortion and sexual license. They have accepted a lie and made it the center of their movement, which is now protected by the mantle of the Constitution. But people with any degree of open-mindedness can be led by the visual argument of these pictures to see that life begins at conception. They can be persuaded by women confident of their own femininity.

They need to then make the connection that the woman is the first home of the child and that there is nothing more womanly than having children as the fruit of the marriage relationship.

As C.S. Lewis said in his book Mere Christianity: "If you read history, you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next". Women need to be spiritually alive and develop their capacity for friendship with a wide variety of people. This will enable them to be people who affirm others who may have a different life experience from theirs. And they must be intellectually well grounded in their faith and able to "give reasons for the faith that is in them". The ability to affirm people in what is good and lead them to the truth is an essential culture-forming role that women can handle very well.

For many years the message has been beamed to women that cultural "givens" about marriage and family must be challenged. Radical feminists and others have denigrated the traditional roles of women as partner, wife and mother in their effort to promote women as individuals whose fulfillment is to be found almost exclusively in the workplace.

Most women are trying to find a balance between responsibilities to family and children and using their gifts in the workplace. They will be happier if they have a conscious appreciation of their irreplaceable role as feminine persons with a special gift for affirming the life of other persons. Women need encouragement from other Christian women and the support of a Church that needs to be better versed in the "theology of the body".

As Pope John Paul II has taught, women have a key role in returning dignity to the sacrament of marriage and in preserving a culture that is worthy of the human person. These enormously important cultural tasks can be better served by women who are well formed in Christian values and well informed about the cultural battles in the policy arena.

It is as if women hold in their hands the threads that form the basic fabric of society and their efforts to weave these together in a unity will result in a stronger fabric that can resist the centrifugal pull of the culture.

The key to helping women of faith today is to help them to deepen their appreciation of their feminine gifts and their impact on society. Without their gifts the world will be a cold and uncivilized place. Without their specific gifts society will lose its balance because it will lack the cultural environment in which persons thrive best.

The Holy Father has often said the deepest cultural crisis today is the human person, understanding how to live and what life means. Many have settled for a superficial answer to the meaning of life through ignorance and confusion about their sexuality and the spiritual dimension of life.

Women of faith can find support in many new movements in the Church, especially those emphasizing the "theology of the body". I want to encourage them to understand their unique dignity and to not be swayed by the cultural pressures that would rob them of a deeply feminine experience of life.

Mary Ellen Bork is married to Judge Robert Bork and lives in McLean, Virginia. She is a member of the Voices editorial board and is a board member of the John Carroll Society and Women Affirming Life.

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