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Feminism—getting there... by Denis Postle
g.o.r.i.l.l.a. is edited by Denis Postle 

Femininism—getting there. How so? Cardinal Ratzinger, Cardinal Prefect with full Papal authority issued a Letter to the Bishops telling them what was what about feminism. And mostly why it was bad news. It provides a crisp picture for our enquiries of how, while addressing the topics that feminism has brought out into the open, the Roman Christianism's commitment to dominion remains as entrenched as ever.

The smooth, skilfully honed eloquence of the Letter hides what, in a psychotherapy relationship, would stand out sharp and clear as massive denial.

Cardinal Ratzinger, Cardinal Prefect invokes papal authority to tell us that...

The Church, expert in humanity...

... is called today to address certain currents of thought which are often at variance with the authentic advancement of women.

this document will offer reflections – inspired by the doctrinal elements of the biblical vision of the human person

This he argues includes:

a common commitment to the development of ever more authentic relationships.

But this notion of authenticity, as we'll see, translates as compliance with revealed biblical truth.

Cardinal Ratzinger tends to see feminists as trouble-makers.

2. Recent years have seen a tendency to emphasize strongly conditions of subordination in order to give rise to antagonism: women, in order to be themselves, must make themselves the adversaries of men. Faced with the abuse of power, the answer for women is to seek power.

In getting out from under male misogeny and discrimination, the anger and despair of some women sometimes does implode into enemy-making, but in choosing as a target this very narrow perspective on feminism, Ratzinger's Letter sets up a straw person to attack. Focusing on a local and transient aspect of the feminist critique looks to be a strategy through which the main thrust of feminist critique, power-sharing, can be side-lined and ignored.  

In order to avoid the domination of one sex or the other, their 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.

This theory of the human person, intended to promote prospects for equality of women through liberation from biological determinism, has in reality inspired ideologies which, for example, call into question the family, in its natural two-parent structure of mother and father, and make homosexuality and heterosexuality virtually equivalent, in a new model of polymorphous sexuality.

Feminism does indeed call into question historically unexamined assumptions about how our definitions of gender have installed and maintained the subjugation of women and not uncommonly, other peoples.

the immediate roots of this second tendency are found in the context of reflection on women's roles, 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.

Here indeed is the sharp end of the feminist wedge that levers apart the settled, male dominant world of Roman Christianism.

This perspective has many consequences. Above all it strengthens the idea that the liberation of women entails criticism of Sacred Scripture, which would be seen as handing on a patriarchal conception of God nourished by an essentially male-dominated culture.

Having accurately fielded the core of the feminist critique of Roman Christianism, Ratzinger, as with other politically entrenched elites, has a story to tell that justifies and rationalizes these patriarchal male/female power relations. And it is a Big Story.

Second, this tendency would consider as lacking in importance and relevance the fact [my emphasis] that the Son of God assumed human nature in its male form.

The elite story that Roman Christianism tells is one that defines human nature as all such stories tend to do. After reminding us that Jesus was a man, it moves on to elevate this belief to the status of fact, putting men at the head of all queues.

Alongside this, Ratzinger, no slouch at making appetising associations, wheels out 'collaboration' as the proper relation between man and woman (since denial of the biological fact of homosexuality is part of the Christianism, there are only two actors on this stage)

the Church, enlightened by faith in Jesus Christ, speaks instead of active collaboration between the sexes precisely in the recognition of the difference between man and woman.

In support of this, Ratzinger casts what, in the course of this enquiry, I have come to see as a trance induction. The Letter invites the reader to:

enter into the setting of the biblical beginning'. In it the revealed truth concerning the human person as the image and likeness' of God constitutes the immutable basis of all Christian anthropology’.[my emphasis]4

i.e. to set aside any talent for independent discrimination that may have developed and listen to his story. He continues:

(Gn 2:4-25) confirms in a definitive way the importance of sexual difference. 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 which the presence of the animals is not able to overcome. 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. It is necessary that he enter into relationship with another being on his own level. Only the woman, created from the same “flesh and cloaked in the same mystery, can give a future to the life of the man.

Ratzinger's take on the Adam and Eve story is a form of biblical confectionary that simultaneously entrances while openly declaring the deep thread of domination and subjugation that he seeks rationalize. Strip away the trance and what do we have - Adam feels lonely and in danger of sinking into a sterile and baneful encounter with himself - so he is rescued by his father who sorts him out by bringing on a helpmate - essential because 'only the woman', 'can give a future to the life of a man'.

I feel like stopping here, my task of pointing out the crazy making quality of this story done. This text and all texts like it are engines of subjugation, spells cast to keep in place what is already in place. The vast majority of people who hear the story as it cascades down from Bishops to clergy aren't likely to have the wherewithall to get out from under this kind of trance.

But I'll continue... if we were in any doubt about the the intrinsic value Ratzinger puts on dominion, he dispells it with a re-iteration in passing of the biblical notion of 'subduing the earth':

Is it only a question here of a helper' in activity, in subduing the earth' (cf. Gn 1:28)? Certainly it is a matter of a life's companion with whom, as a wife, the man can unite himself, becoming with her one flesh' and for this reason leaving his father and his mother'(cf. Gn

No sense of irony, or awareness here, or elsewhere, that this is written and felt from a male perspective. If only women do what they should... men will be able to unite themselves and get out from under their parents.

The text moves on to reinforce this notion of women being there for men.

.6“And the man and his wife were both naked, yet they felt no shame (Gn 2:25). In this way, the human body, marked with the sign of masculinity or femininity, “includes right from the beginning the nuptial attribute, that is, the capacity of expressing love, that love in which the person becomes a gift and – by means of this gift – fulfils the meaning of his being and his existence.

Again the writer is up to his elbows in his own trance. No realization that shame might be a historical construction, part of the Christianism toobox. Or that the gift of the capacity to express love, fulfills the meaning of his being and his existence (my emphasis).

Having cast the net of his trance, Ratzinger now pulls in the catch, the notion of 'spousal'. The story of human nature and human relations he has been telling turns round the notion of marriage.

Through this same spousal perspective, the ancient Genesis narrative allows us to understand how woman, in her deepest and original being, exists “for the other

Hmm. If you have wondered what I mean about trance, here it is. 'Genesis contains the truth about human nature'. But the trance is always in danger of fading, and to thicken the recipe for his version of human nature, Ratzinger introduces original sin.

7. Original sin changes the way in which the man and the woman receive and live the Word of God as well as their relationship with the Creator. Immediately after having given them the gift of the garden, God gives them a positive command (cf. Gn 2:16), followed by a negative one (cf. Gn 2:17), in which the essential difference between God and humanity is implicitly expressed. Following enticement by the serpent, the man and the woman deny this difference. As a consequence, the way in which they live their sexual difference is also upset. In this way, the Genesis account establishes a relationship of cause and effect between the two differences: when humanity considers God its enemy, the relationship between man and woman becomes distorted. When this relationship is damaged, their access to the face of God risks being compromised in turn.

God's decisive words to the woman after the first sin express the kind of relationship which has now been introduced between man and woman: “your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Gn 3:16). It will be a relationship in which love will frequently be debased into pure self-seeking, in a relationship which ignores and kills love and replaces it with the yoke of domination of one sex over the other.

How convenient. For men. Women are responsible for their own subjugation. A male God issues instructions - wonderfully conveyed by the words of a New Yorker Cartoon, 'Rule Number One - don't piss me off', and when compliance isn't forthcoming, condemns all women to be gophers.

As though they were unrelated, Ratzinger's privileged story repeats his earlier red herring of feminist antagonism.

8. Reviewing these fundamental texts allows us to formulate some of the principal elements of the biblical vision of the human person.

The biblical vision of the human person suggests that problems related to sexual difference, whether on the public or private level, should be addressed by a relational approach and not by competition or retaliation.

Both notions, 'competition' and 'retaliation', distract us from the actual ambitions of the feminist critiques of patriarchy which emphasize power-sharing, equivalence and freedom from discrimination.

Having side-stepped this confrontation with power, Ratzinger's re-iterates the fulcrum of his story, the notion of 'spousal relations', i.e. marriage.

Among the many ways in which God reveals himself to his people (cf. Heb 1:1), in keeping with a long and patient pedagogy, there is the recurring theme of the covenant between man and woman.

this symbolism is indispensable for understanding the way in which God loves his people: God makes himself known as the Bridegroom who loves Israel his Bride.

....the hope, reinforced by the prophets, of seeing Jerusalem become the perfect bride: “For as a young man marries a virgin so shall your creator marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you

she who had wandered far away to search for life and happiness in false gods will return, and “shall respond as in the days of her youth (Hos 2:17) to him who will speak to her heart; she will hear it said: “Your bridegroom is your Creator (Is54:5).

Hinting that he might be aware of the scepticism of the Church's baneful approach to bodily delight, Ratzinger points us to the authoritative value of Solomon's Song of Songs.

The Song of Songs is an important moment in the use of this form of revelation.In the words of a most human love, which celebrate the beauty of the human body and the joy of mutual seeking, God's love for his people is also expressed.

The Church's recognition of her relationship to Christ in this audacious conjunction of language about what is most human with language about what is most divine, cannot be said to be mistaken (my emphasis).

This spousal language touches on the very nature of the relationship which God establishes with his people...

In his apostolic activity, Paul develops the whole nuptial significance of the spousal relationship between Christ and the Church

Cardinal Ratzinger has a recipe for undoing the primal damage caused by Eve's disobedience—to embrace the Church's story.

11. Drawn into the Paschal mystery and made living signs of the love of Christ and his Church, the hearts of Christian spouses are renewed and they are able to avoid elements of concupiscence in their relationship, as well as the subjugation introduced into the life of the first married couple by the break with God caused by sin.

While I would be happy to accept that living from and through love points to a reduction or elimination of domineering social relations, Ratzinger's story is a static, given, universe of faith. In daily life the elimination of domination entails continuing, even incessant, negotiation, negotiation enables us to ride the unfolding moment without having to second guess, or control everything that might, or might not, derail our dreams.

Ratzinger's Biblical story, while unquestionably one of the most effective trance inductions in history, shifts the historicity, or cultural framing of the Biblical Eden into fact. i.e. the subjugation of women is natural and inevitable. Pity that, after two thousand years of the Church's efforts, sin is just as much a problem as it always was and so many women are still subordinate.

Deepening the trance paragraph by paragraph, Ratzinger takes us to a Big Screen scene of the spousal quality of women in relation to men.

In the final hour of present history, the Book of Revelation of Saint John, speaking of “a new heaven and a new earth (Rev 21:1), presents the vision of a feminine Jerusalem “prepared as a bride adorned for her husband

This taken as a basis for a reiteration of the special 'helpmate', 'supportive' role of women.

13. Among the fundamental values linked to women's actual lives is what has been called a “capacity for the other. Although a certain type of feminist rhetoric makes demands “for ourselves, women preserve the deep intuition of the goodness in their lives of those actions which elicit life, and contribute to the growth and protection of the other.

Ratzinger follows with a validation of the high value of womanly attributes with which we might easily agree.

This intuition is linked to women's physical capacity to give life. Whether lived out or remaining potential, this capacity is a reality that structures the female personality in a profound way. It allows her to acquire maturity very quickly, and gives a sense of the seriousness of life and of its
responsibilities. A sense and a respect for what is concrete develop in her, opposed to abstractions which are so often fatal for the existence of individuals and society. It is women, in the end, who even in very desperate situations, as attested by history past and present, possess a singular capacity to persevere in adversity, to keep life going even in extreme situations, to hold tenaciously to the future, and finally to remember with tears the value of every human life.

On reading this, the feminist in my life remarked 'If this is all so, why not give women more value?' i.e. equal value. And if men are so prone to abstractions that, as Ratzinger correctly claims, have often been fatal for the existence of individuals and society, of which, I'd argue his narrative is a classic example, how come he and his fellow churchmen don't open their hearts to women and drop all this entrancing story-telling?

At the end of the piece, after more, as it seems to me disingenuous flattery, '...John Paul II... the genius of women', valuing women's contribution to humanity while denying them a place at the top table, Ratzinger reveals why he is not about to endow his notion of collaboration with power-sharing. He leans back into the soft security blanket of a eulogy to Mary as the paradigm of woman.

16. To look at Mary and imitate her does not mean, however, that the Church should adopt a passivity inspired by an outdated conception of femininity.

So women should update their notion of femininity but not upgrade to a new version. Why? Because that would mean men giving up their dominance and that would be contrary to the political realities of the Church in the world as Ratzinger openly admits.

Nor does it condemn the Church to a dangerous vulnerability in a world where what count above all are domination and power.

Even though, as he continues:

In reality, the way of Christ is neither one of domination (cf. Phil 2:6) nor of power as understood by the world (cf. Jn18:36). From the Son of God one learns that this “passivity is in reality the way of love; it is a royal power which vanquishes all violence; it is “passion which saves the world from sin and death and recreates humanity. In entrusting his mother to the Apostle John, Jesus on the Cross invites his Church to learn from Mary the secret of the love that is victorious.

Whoops... at the critical point we are drowning in trance again. No sense that the Son of God's Big Idea of living from love means actively seeking to contradict, give up, drop, and demolish, a view of human nature that says that domination and subjugation, and thus inequality, are natural and inevitable. And doing this in the structures and institutions through which we organize ourselves.

Ratzinger's deafness to Jesus's core message enables him to argue that in matters of womanly attributes, black is white, white is black, and blue is no color at all, but that men are in charge. Because we say so.

In this perspective one understands how the reservation of priestly ordination solely to men does not hamper in any way women's access to the heart of Christian life. Women are called to be unique examples and witnesses for all Christians of how the Bride is to respond in love to the love of the Bridegroom.

As I know from direct experience, Roman Christianism is richly endowed with profoundly spiritual people who do try to live their lives from love in a daily celebration of the Jesus story. However nothing like enough of them appear to be men who have resolved the bizarre level of denial and contradiction that Cardinal Ratzinger embodies, and are thus able to write a story of human relating that meets us in the 21st century we are creating.


Paul II, in the Audience granted to the undersigned Cardinal Prefect, approved the present Letter, adopted in the Ordinary Session of this Congregation, and ordered its publication. Rome, from the Offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, May 31, 2004, the Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.+ Joseph Card. Ratzinger Prefect + Angelo Amato, SDB Titular Archbishop of Sila Secretary

Except where otherwise indicated, these screens are edited, maintained and © 2003 Denis Postle. All rights reserved.
Last updated 6th September 2004