Before I went to Rome to do my doctoral work in theology in the mid-1990s, I was inclined to believe, like many American women, that the Catholic Church's teaching on women was a bit skewed, if not flawed. At times, it seemed to me that there was no unique place for women in the church. In fact, they seemed subordinated to men in almost every way, beyond their ineligibility for ordination.
Yet over the course of six years of study at pontifical universities and a short time working at the Vatican, I found that I was actually more respected as a woman there than I have been in most other environments. I was taken seriously and challenged as a thinker in a way that I haven't been almost anywhere else. Given the preconceptions that most Americans have, I know how surprising this can sound. But I've wished more people could be aware of it as I've watched, listened to and debated the reactions to the new pope, Benedict XVI.
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Almost universally described in news reports as a "conservative" and a "hardliner," an "enforcer" and a strict dogmatist, he's already being dismissed in so-called "progressive" or "reformist" circles as a pontiff who will be bad for women in the church. But as his predecessor, John Paul II, taught us, for Catholics, life isn't about being conservative or liberal. It's about being Catholic.
Certainly, disagreements can and do exist. Sons and daughters of the church can debate and discuss church dogma. Many of us will struggle with the teachings, but church doctrine will remain the same as it was even when we had bad popes, such as the 11th-century Benedict IX, who led a publicly dissolute life -- he even had a mistress or two. Though he eventually resigned from the papacy, the fact is that neither he nor any other pope has changed church teaching. As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, explained several years ago, we did not create this religion. It was given to us. We seek to understand the mystery that it is.
The challenge is to determine what's truly Catholic. In the case of women, the Catholic Church has clearly set forth that women have a role in every aspect of society, including the church. It was Cardinal Ratzinger who forcefully articulated this last year, when the Vatican released its document "On the Collaboration of Women and Men in the Church and in the World." Written to address the ongoing questions of men's and women's roles in a way that the differences between the sexes could be seen in a positive light, the document itself was short, but it took many years to get consensus on it among consulting theologians and other experts.
As with so many things Catholic, a media frenzy ensued when the document was released. There were headlines like, "Pope Blasts Feminism," and the document was interpreted as the Vatican's move to subordinate women. But I wrote an article at the time for the National Catholic Reporter -- considered the leading liberal Catholic newspaper in the United States -- titled "Now the Conversation Can Begin." It seemed to me that the Vatican had set the stage for an honest discussion of the ways in which the sexes differ, and the ways in which they complement each other.
In this document, Ratzinger continued a line of thought that he had articulated at various points in his role as the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith -- namely, that sex differences are an essential component of human identity. Man and woman, for example, can each be parents. Yet they are different. One is father and one is mother; neither, though, is less of a parent.
The document, both gentle and astute, subtly shifted the discussion away from a focus on women -- which most progressives had almost exclusively pursued -- to a discussion of women and men, because at the end of the day, despite our differences (or perhaps because of our differences), we share the same world and genuinely need each other.
Catholic teaching holds that the differences between men and women are constructive; they contribute to what we do and who we are. In essence, we will do many of the same things, whether it's building skyscrapers or changing diapers; but the fact that a person is either a man or a woman should contribute something positive to whatever he or she does. In other words, we should see a person affirmatively as a man or a woman, not a genderless automaton, in everything that person does.
The idea that the sexes also complement each other is based on a radical equality that the church posits: Man and woman are created equally in the image and likeness of God. Given this equality, some naturally bring up the question of women priests and maybe even contraception. Why can't women be ordained, especially as there is a shortage of priests, they ask?
While the question of ordination may be a settled doctrinal matter, understanding that differences in men's and women's function or role don't mean differences in dignity will be an ongoing process. Until I realized that the priesthood, while abused by some, is not essentially a power grab, it was nearly impossible for me to accept that women could not be ordained. In a world like ours, where men and women do so many of the same things, it's difficult to understand why we can't be the same. But priesthood isn't so much about the things that a priest does, it's about who he is.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explicitly states that the priest is one who serves the people. This service is put in the context of a spousal relationship in which the bridegroom loves the bride so greatly that he is willing to give up his life for her, just as Christ died for the church. The priest stands in the person of Christ, who was a male human being. As such, the priest alter Christus (another Christ) represents Christ the bridegroom and servant to the church, his bride.
So where do I fit into the picture as a woman? Unfortunately, the discussion has centered on priesthood for so long that we've only recently begun to explore what is unique to women. For Catholics, the most perfect human being was a woman -- Mary, the mother of God. Scripture makes clear that she understood more than anyone and that she had an essential role in the redemption of humanity. It depended on her "Yes," her willingness and capacity to become Jesus's mother, a role that did not end with his birth.
Benedict XVI won't change the church's positions on women's ordination, birth control or abortion. He can't change what flows from the core teachings of the Catholic faith. But under his leadership we can expect to have an extensive continuation of the conversations necessary for understanding these teachings.
I think we can be confident that, like his predecessor, Benedict XVI will remind us that Catholics don't -- and shouldn't -- parse neatly into categories of liberal and conservative. Remember, this is the man who was considered liberal as a professor and conservative as a church leader. His thinking has not changed substantially, but the perceptions of him have. We can rest on the perceptions that others have created, or we can encounter him for who he really is.
Under the leadership of John Paul II, women were given prominent roles in the Vatican, such as Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon's appointment to head the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. We also saw women assume more responsibilities in local dioceses and more women earning theological degrees. As the discussion shifts toward the subject of men and women, it's becoming clearer that women's fundamental equality is not compromised because we can't be ordained. I am hopeful that Benedict XVI will continue the conversation to more fully explore the unique feminine gift that only women can provide to the Catholic Church.
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Pia de Solenni is a Catholic theologian and director of life and women's issues at the Family Research Council. Her book, "Different and Equal," will be published by Crossroad Publishing in June.