For most Americans, including most American Catholics, reading an official Vatican pronouncement would be like reading a Supreme Court opinion. The writing is not user-friendly. Accurate interpretation requires familiarity with a specialized vocabulary, context and culture. And a quick reading is likely to result in a misreading.

That is exactly what happened with the recent Vatican statement on women, released July 31. Skimming the first few paragraphs, one sees statements of the sort that many people have come to expect from Rome: The document laments, for example, certain "new approaches to women's issues," including a tendency "to emphasize strongly conditions of subordination in order to give rise to antagonism." One could easily conclude that this was to be yet another papal skirmish with an ill-defined strand of Western-style feminism -- which is how the document was characterized in many news accounts. (A typical headline: "Letter Denounces 'Lethal Effects' of Feminism.")

Yet the opposite is true: Read in full and in context, the document clearly suggests that the church's developing teaching on women is closer to mainstream feminist insights than some Catholic conservatives want to allow.

Consider first the type of document this is. It is a letter from Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, prefect of the Sacred Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, to all Catholic bishops worldwide. Ratzinger's job is to safeguard Catholic teaching, to prevent local operations from running off the rails, to the left or to the right. That makes his letter basically an in-house memo, designed primarily to ward off problems internal to church culture and administration.

But are most of the world's Catholic bishops flirting with radical feminism or ideologies that devalue family life? Obviously not. In fact, Ratzinger devotes only a few cursory paragraphs to those familiar adversaries. What he's really trying to do is head off objections to the clarifications of church teaching on women contained in the rest of the letter -- objections coming not from those who might find the document too conservative, but from those who might find it too progressive.

What are these clarifications? The letter's title is instructive: "On the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World." Ratzinger is emphasizing that the goal is an integrated society in which men and women can be equal partners, active collaborators (i.e., co-workers) for the common good. To that end, he rejects every outlook that would "end in segregation and competition between men and women."

A radical, separatist feminism qualifies as such an outlook. But so does the rigid segregation associated with the traditional limitation of women's roles to Kinder, Kuche, Kirche (children, kitchen, church). As Ratzinger no doubt knows, his audience of mostly elderly bishops is more likely to subscribe to the second view than to the first. So his analysis blocks any interpretations of the "new feminism" articulated by Pope John Paul II in such documents as Mulieris Dignitatem (On the Dignity of Women) and Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life) that would support what Ratzinger calls an "outdated conception of femininity." Unfortunately, such interpretations have become increasingly prominent in conservative Catholic circles in the past several years.

The first major section of the letter, on the "biblical vision" of humanity, appears designed to correct the impression that the Scriptures sanction "a patriarchal conception of God nourished by a male-dominated culture." Ratzinger's reading of the two accounts of creation in the Book of Genesis stresses their support for the equality of men and women. When he talks about Adam needing a "helpmate who will be his partner," he notes that "the term here does not refer to an inferior, but to a vital helper." Ever the German theology professor, he even includes a footnote stating that the Hebrew word for helpmate, ezer, "carries no implication of inferiority or exploitation," since God is called an ezer with respect to humanity.

More significant, however, is what Ratzinger leaves out of his biblical exegesis: the famous passage from St. Paul's letter to the Ephesians affirming a husband's headship over his wife. Previous popes read the passage as straightforwardly requiring wifely submission. John Paul II interprets it in Mulieris Dignitatem as requiring mutual submission from both husband and wife. Ratzinger omits it entirely, leaving no doubt that "the yoke of domination of one sex over the other" is to be rejected as sinful.

Things start to get tricky with the second theme of the letter, "feminine values in the life of society." Ratzinger reaffirms Catholic teaching that men and women, while equal, are not the same. Rather, they exhibit "physical, psychological, and ontological complementarity." Complementarity is a quasi-technical term meaning that men and women need each other. A society of only men or only women would be radically impoverished, even if the question of procreation could somehow be finessed. Although the term may be strange to most Americans, the concept is not, as the popularity of books such as John Gray's "Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus" testifies.

It's one thing to say in general terms that men and women are "complementary"; it's quite another to start parceling out specific character traits. Unfortunately, in their effort to distance themselves from an early feminism that denied all differences between men and women, some papal feminists -- those who have embraced the pope's "new feminism" -- have come close to the old sexism. Women, according to papal feminist Gloria Conde, are "tender, sensitive, easily influenced," while men are "independent, self-sufficient, emotionally controlled." Tell that to Condoleezza Rice or Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Happily, Ratzinger resists any temptation to make a list; his notion of complementarity doesn't involve a straitjacket of pious stereotypes. He does say that women have a "capacity for the other" that is somehow linked to their physical capacity to give life. But he refuses to put women on a pedestal and let men off the hook. "In the final analysis, every human being, man or woman, is destined to be 'for the other,' " he writes. Mainstream Catholic feminists have been saying this for years. Some people may, of course, deny that loving one's neighbor as oneself should be the point of anyone's life, male or female. But then their problem with the Catholic Church is its Christianity, not its sexism.

What about motherhood? Unambiguously affirming its importance, Ratzinger also criticizes any "attempt to enclose women in mere biological destiny." He worries that efforts to "extol biological fecundity in purely quantitative terms" are marked by a "dangerous disrespect for women." The Catholic Church has always placed great value on the life of virginity (which, as feminist scholars have pointed out, allowed women belonging to religious orders to make contributions to scholarship, politics and the common good long before it was possible in the secular world).

But today, women don't have to choose between being a "virgin" dedicated to "humanizing" the world, to use Ratzinger's term, or a "mother" humanizing her own family. We can mix and match. Ratzinger emphasizes that it is up to individual women to choose whether to stay home with their children or to work outside the home. He's not talking only about part-time jobs or traditionally female jobs. Women, he says, "should have access to positions of responsibility which allow them to inspire the policies of nations and to promote innovative solutions to economic and social problems."

The radicalism of these words becomes clear when we remember that some bishops serve parts of the world still mired in sexism. In the context of the church, the letter can be read as an indirect rebuke to those papal feminists who draw upon ambiguities in the Pope's writings to suggest that every mother who works while her children are young should be viewed with pity or suspicion.

Ratzinger falters, however, in addressing the letter's third major theme, the role of women in the church. On the one hand, he wants to reaffirm the teaching that women cannot be priests; on the other, he wants to show that this doesn't mean the Catholic Church is sexist. In a nutshell, he defends the position that the priesthood is restricted to men not because women are inferior, but because priests are symbols of Jesus Christ. Christ, in turn, is not a male because of a random draw of X and Y chromosomes or because males are superior, but because of his place in an intricate web of biblical symbolism. Particularly important to Ratzinger is the imagery of Christ as the bridegroom and the church as his bride found in the writings of St. Paul, echoing Old Testament images of the spousal relationship between God and Israel.

How, then, are feminine values incorporated into the church? According to Ratzinger, through Jesus's mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary. She is "the fundamental reference in the Church," from whom Catholics learn the meaning of "intimacy with Christ" and "the power of love."

The issue of female priests has divided Catholics for nearly a quarter of a century. In an apostolic letter issued in 1994, Pope John Paul II closed the door to women's ordination, and soon afterward Ratzinger commanded Catholic theologians to stop discussing the issue. Yet many Catholics continue to believe that women cannot attain equality in the Church until the priesthood is open to them. The sexual abuse crisis has further confirmed some people's belief that the structure of the priesthood needs a fundamental overhaul. Is there a way beyond this impasse?

To be honest, I'm not sure. But I do have one suggestion: If Ratzinger is serious about his stated desire for "dialogue with all men and women of good will," he might start by taking his own advice. He notes that women often have "a sense and a respect for what is concrete," as opposed to "abstractions which are so often fatal for the existence of individuals and society." Unfortunately, his invocation of the Blessed Virgin Mary to demonstrate the church's inclusion of women risks becoming just such a potentially fatal abstraction. Catholic women know from bitter experience that devotion to Mary, the ideal woman, doesn't prevent some priests from treating ordinary women with disdain. We simply have to begin talking concretely about increasing opportunities in the church for men and women to work together in mutual respect.

Otherwise, as the general reception of this letter demonstrates, the church's statements about the equal dignity of the sexes are likely to be dismissed as pious talk.

Author's e-mail:

M.Cathleen.Kaveny.1@nd.edu

M. Cathleen Kaveny is the John P. Murphy Foundation professor of law and professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame and a member of the steering committee of the Catholic Common Ground Initiative.