Women’s Human Rights

The Case of Roman Catholicism

Kari Elisabeth Børresen

Ch.24 in Facilitating Freedom of Religion or Belief, ed. Tore Lindholm e.a., Derk Book, the Hague, 2001.

I. Introduction

borresenThis summary article is based on my research, undertaken since 1961, concerning formative Christian anthropology. Conflicts between normative religion and women’s rights are already well analyzed concerning Islam,(1) but rather unexplored concerning traditional Christianity. Here the case of Roman Catholicism is highly significant, since the Catholic Church, according to 1999 Vatican statistics, is the world’s largest branch of Christianity, comprising 17.4 % of the global population, or 1.038 billion human beings.

The Roman Catholic Church has a privileged status at the United Nations and wields a corresponding international influence. Since 1964, the nonterritorial administrative body of the Catholic Church, the Holy See, enjoys the status of a Non Member State Permanent Observer.(2) Representing the Pope’s spiritual and temporal government through his Roman Curia, the Holy See participates in UN conferences with full voting rights whereas other religious entities can only operate as nongovernmental organizations. In consequence, the Holy See has become a leading actor on the international stage in opposing women’s human right to control their own fertility.(3)

Acting in accord with Muslim states against female reproductive autonomy at the UN conferences on Human Bights (Vienna 1993), Population (Cairo 1994), and Women (Beijing 1995), the Holy See has invoked a corresponding androcentric sexology, also advocated by so-called Evangelical Protestantism.(4) Reproductive autonomy is an indispensable condition for women’s sociocultural equivalence with men and, therefore, a fundamental human right.(5) In order to clarify the rationale of this retrograde alliance, it is essential to analyze traditional Christian doctrine. Contemporary Catholic theology and anthropology are still based on androcentric paradigms, formulated from the Graeco-Roman Late Antiquity through the European Middle Ages. It follows that institutional Roman Catholicism refuses women’s right to reproductive autonomy (Humanae vitae 1968} and negates women’s cultic capability (Ordinatio sacerdotalis 1994).

II. The Gender of Religion

Following the collapse of Marxism and the enhanced visibility of Islam, the impact of religion as a fundamental sociocultural factor has become evident. In consequence, sociological gender roles are shaped by theological gender models and vice versa.(6) So-called higher religions define fully human status in terms of possessing a potential cultic capability, that is a capability to mediate between the Godhead and humanity. This prerogative is mostly reserved for men and based on male religious experience. No historically known society has abolished women’s subordinate status by way of recognizing Goddesses and priestesses.(7) Female autonomy is, in fact, alien to all major religious systems. In Hinduism and Buddhism, women are placed between men and beasts through successive reincarnations and the wheel of rebirth. The same ontologicai gender hierarchy appears in the creation myth of Plato’s Timaeus (41e—42d). Here, immortal souls are initially set in heavenly stars, to be incarnated as human beings in male bodies, and then reincarnated as women or animals according to the moral quality of previous existence.

III. One God and Two Sexes

In Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the monotheistic Godhead is described as manlike or metasexual. Human Godlikeness is correspondingly defined as male or asexual. Given the interaction between the concept of divinity and the definition of humanity, this fundamental incompatibility of Godhead and femaleness is negotiated by shifting inculturated exegesis of Biblical texts. Traditional Christian anthropology builds on two contrasting axioms: Female subordination is established by God’s creative order and is, therefore, normative in this world. Human equivalence in the sense of women’s parity with men results from Christ’s redemption, to be fully realized only in the coming world.(8) During two millennia of Church history, the resulting incoherence between creational gender hierarchy and eschatological gender equality is being gradually overcome by attributing fully human Godlikeness to women as well.(9) This doctrinal process is elaborated in three main stages:

A. Based on literal exegesis of Biblical texts, early Christian anthropology excludes women from being created in God’s image (Gen. l:26-27a; 2:7; 1 Cor. 11:7). Nevertheless, women can achieve salvational equality with Godlike men through incorporation into Christ’s perfect maleness (Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:10-11; Eph, 4:13). Consequently, Christian women are “becoming male” by ascetic renunciation of female sexuality.(10)

B. Based on combined Stoic and Platonic anthropology, ancient Graeco-Roman Church Fathers redefine human Godlikeness in terms of the sexless soul’s rational capacity, which is also found in women. Initiated in the third century by Clement of Alexandria and further elaborated by Augustine (died 430), this new exegesis allows backdating women’s imago Dei from redemption to creation, in spite of non-Godlike femaleness (sexual differentiation in Gen. 1:27b disconnected from fertility blessing in Gen. 1:28 and linkedto image-text in Gen. 1:26-27a). The second stage became normative in medieval theology, whereas the first stage persistedin medieval Canon Law.

C. Anticipated by medieval Northern-European Church Mothers, like Hildegard von Bingen (died 1179) and Julian of Norwich (died after 1416), who used female metaphors describing God; the third doctrinal stage considers both women and men to be created in God’s image qua female or male human beings(11). This holistic definition was explicitly formulated by nineteenth-century feminist exegesis, first by the Norwegian Aasta Hansteen in 1878.(12) Superseding traditional concepts of male or sexless Godlikeness, inclusive imago Dei became normative in twentieth century Western Christianity. Soon adopted by Protestant exegetes and endorsed in Catholic anthropology after the II Vatican Council (1962-65), it is of note that the second stage persists in Eastern Orthodox doctrine.

In conclusion, the recently inculturated concept of holistic Godlikeness, now accepted by Catholic theology, provides the necessary doctrinal foundation for promoting the rights of women as fully autonomous human beings.

IV. Traditional Sexology

Despite the current updating of theological anthropology, institutional Roman Catholicism opposes women’s reproductive autonomy. In order to explain the doctrinal rationale of this Vatican obstruction, it is necessary to outline the main themes of traditional sexology. In ancient Christianity, the two basic human drives of religiosity and sexuality are axiomatically considered to be antagonistic. In consequence, the perfect human prototype is defined as male or presexual, so that sexual differentiation, or more precisely femaleness, is interpreted as a cause or a consequence of primeval sin. This theme appears already in Hesiod’s Works and Days (ca. 700 B.C.), where the female prototype Pandora is created as a curse for mankind by bringing sexuality and death into the world.

Therefore, ascetic Christian movements practiced sexual abstinence in order to restore humanity’s pristine immortality. In this context of dualistic anthropology, where bodily death is caused by the original fell, the leading Greek Church Fathers Origen (died ca. 254) and Gregory of Nyssa (died ca. 395) elaborate a twofold scheme of creation: First, a purely spiritual human prototype is created in God’s image. Second, God introduces male and female physicality in order to counteract death by sexual fertility.(13) The leading Latin Church Father, Augustine, contests this double creation,where gender differentiation is linked to humanity’s loss of immortality. He strongly insists that female humanity is established by God’s unique creation. Consequently, Augustine refutes the early Christian belief that women will resurrect in male or genderfree perfection, boldly stating that women will be restored as human females.(14)

It is important to note that liberal Church Fathers like Clement of Alexandria invoked Stoic sexology against extreme ascetic rejection of sexual activity for all Christians. Still praising virginity as a most Godlike way of life for the Christian elite, they considered married sexuality to be legitimate for the common multitude, but only if practiced as a means of procreation.

Unfortunately, Augustine’s androcentric explanation of original sin, where humanity’s collective guilt is propagated from Adam via paternal seed, enforced the traditional connection of death and sexual activity. His ambivalent moral rule is succinctly expressed as “bene uti malo,” to neutralize bad orgasm by good fertility, Augustine also tolerated marital intercourse as a remedy for concupiscence, thereby mitigating the Stoic prohibition of coitus with pregnant, nursing, or menopausal women. Nevertheless, he condemned contraceptive avoidance of female fertile periods as a method used by Manichees to impede the imprisonment of divine sparks in material bodies. It is noteworthy that Augustine had embraced dualistic Manichaeism for at least ten years and that his concubine bore only one child during more than fifteen years of cohabitation.

As a converted Manichee, Augustine insists that fertility belongs to God’s creation. In this perspective, Eve’s formation from Adam’s rib (Gen. 2:18, 21-23) is interpreted in terms of derived femaleness, created to serve as instrument for men’s procreation. It follows that women’s specific raison d’êtreis motherhood, defined according to androcentric biology, to receive and nourish the potential embryo contained in the male seed.(15). In fact, Augustine’s sexology, reshaped by Thomas Aquinas’ (died 1274) Aristotelian finality of male generative power, survives in the Vatican’s current ban on contraception.(16)

V. Vatican Sexology

Efficient fertility control, introduced by twentieth-century medical technology, represents a revolution in human history. In premodern societies, population growth was mainly determined by extensive infant mortality. Contraceptive means were inefficient and provoked abortions were dangerous, so birth control was often practiced by coitus interruptus. Before the discovery of the female ovum in 1827 by Karl Ernst von Baer, dispersion of male seed was condemned as destroying potential embryos and, therefore, confused with abortion in traditional sexology.

It is significant that this biological shift was first negotiated in a Protestant context by approval of contraception as legitimate in marriage; cf. the 1930 Lambeth Conference of the Anglican Communion. Pius XI reacted against this novelty with a rehearsal of traditional doctrine in the encyclical Casti connubii (1930).

Challenged by the growing debate within the Catholic Church, John XXIII in 1963 nominated a pontifical commission of theologians and lay experts to examine the validity of current teaching. The global demographic explosion was taken into account, but without focus on female reproductive autonomy. Among progressive members were the leading moral theologians Bernhard Häring and Josef Fuchs, who in the 1950s had introduced a positive evaluation of sexual activity in marriage as expressing love.(17) This holistic approach represents a major reform of Christian anthropology. Traditional doctrine considers married intercourse and marital love to be antagonistic. In consequence, ancient Church Fathers regularly exhort pious married couples to actualize their loving union by sexual abstinence. Conservative members were afraid to endanger the Church’s authority by changing established doctrine. Their invocation of traditional sexology apparently ignored the fact that voluntary conception is a new option, resulting from the twentieth-century biological revolution and, therefore, not addressed in previous moral discourse. To Paul VI’s consternation, the commission’s final reports of 1966, leaked to an American Catholic newspaper in 1967, showed that a strong majority (60 of 67 members) recommended allowing contraception in marriage.(18)

It is important to know that the archbishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla, strongly supported the small minority, encouraging Paul VI to publish the contested encyclical Humanae vitae in 1968.(19) Based on a premodern concept of natural law, this document reaffirms that the biological finality of procreation is normative for each single conjugal act, thereby condemning so-called artificial contraception as intrinsically evil.(20) Insisting on the absolute inviolability of biological functions in every so-called use of marriage, the encyclical affirms that all acts of sexual intercourse must remain open to procreation, whether or not causally responsible at the given moment. In consequence, the only licit method of fertility control is conjugal abstinence during female fertile periods. (Previously condemned by Augustine!)

Intended to safeguard the Pope’s teaching authority concerning faith and morals, the encyclical proved counterproductive by provoking widespread dissent. In their comments on Humanae Vitae, leading Catholic theologians like Karl Rahner and Yves Congar pointed to the historical inculturation of Christian tradition, which has proved viable through reception by the faithful, not by pontifical diktat.(21) It is significant that only 17 % of episcopal responses to the encyclical expressed unmitigated acceptance. In developed countries, where women enjoy full civil rights and contraception is normal; like Scandinavia, France, The Netherlands, Belgium, Austria and Canada; the bishops expediently referred to the moral judgment of individual conscience.(22)

Since cardinal Wojtyla became John Paul II in 1978, he has used every opportunity to reinforce the doctrine of Humanae Vitae. Aptly co-opting the new inculturation of sexual union as an expression of conjugal love, he confirms the biological purposiveness of coitus by transforming procreative purpose into an essential part of love in marriage. The apostolic letter Mulieris dignitatem in 1988 condemns contraception as degrading women from their specific dignity of motherhood.(23) The encyclical Veritatis splendor in 1993 reiterates that every contraceptive act constitutes a violation of the God-given law of nature. (24)

VI. Pontifical Censure

The Roman Church’s institutional blockage under John Paul II follows from his imposition of assent to Vatican sexology, including the opposition to women’s priestly ordination, as the indispensable prerequisite to become a bishop. An oath of loyalty to the papal magisterium is imposed on teachers of theology at Catholic universities (Professio fidei 1989, Ad tuendam fidem 1998). By virtue of concordats, such Vatican control also extends to state universities, as in Germany and Austria. In fact, when the II Vatican Council approved religious freedom (Declaratio de libertate religiosa1965), this new doctrine primarily envisaged corporate liberty for the Catholic Church in Communist societies. In consequence, the human right to religious freedom for individual Catholics within the institutional Church remains unresolved.(25)

Considered in the context of Church history, the current ban on contraception has a privileged position among many fateful errors committed by the Roman papacy. Often concealed by contemporary apologetics and rarely known except by scholars, some mistakes are still operative, such as the excommunication of the Greek Orthodox patriarch in Byzantium in 1054 and the excommunication of Martin Luther in 1520. Commenting on John Paul II’s recent retraction of the Holy Office’s process against Galileo Galilei (1633), a noted Italian politician, Alberto Ronchey, succinctly states that if this condemnation could be rectified, even after centuries, the persistent Vatican obstruction of fertility control to solve the global demographic crisis, with growth from 3.5 billon in 1968 to 6 billion in 1998, cannot be exonerated.(26)

In conclusion, since the concept of female autonomy remains alien to all global religions, women’s human right to control their own voluntary fertility represents a fundamental challenge to traditional gender models, and not only in Roman Catholicism. Recently forced to admit the socio-economic necessity of so-called responsible paternity (paternitas conscia), the Vatican advocates sexual abstinence or avoidance of female fertile periods as the only licit method of voluntary control of fertility. Biologically inefficient and harmful to the psychophysical equilibrium of couples, this clerical solution has proved to be impracticable. Invoking marital love and parental responsibility in order to restrict sexual intercourse, the traditional rejection of orgasmic coitus as sinful is here obfuscated by inverted apologetics. In fact, most Catholics in socially advanced societies no longer respect Vatican sexology, thereby producing a healthy criticism of ecclesiastical theocracy. Unfortunately, the Holy See’s privileged status at the United Nations strengthens its political influence in underdeveloped countries.

VII. Androcentric Typology

The twentieth-century collapse of androcentrism represents a more fundamental challenge to traditional theology than the previous collapse of geocentrism (Kepler) and anthropocentrism (Darwin). Upheaval of gender hierarchy shakes the core of Catholic and Orthodox doctrinal symbolism, where androcentric gender models are transposed from God’s creation to the order of redemption. Godlike Adam prefigures Christ, who as new Adam and divine Redeemer is incarnated in perfect maleness. Non-Godlike Eve prefigures the Church/Mary, who as new Eve represents dependent and, therefore, womanlike humanity (Rom. 5:14; Eph. 5:32). Based on the early Christian concept of male Godlikeness, this asymmetrical typology remains fundamental in Catholic and Orthodox Christology, ecclesiology, and Mariology. Thus excluding femaleness from a description of the Godhead, typological gender models serve as a prime obstacle to women’s cultic capability in the non-Protestant majority of Christendom. According to Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventura (died 1274), Christlike maleness is an indispensable prerequisite for the sacramental signification of priestly eminence.(27) It is important to observe that this refusal to ordain women as priests and bishops issues from the preservation of a traditional incompatibility of Godhead and femaleness. In medieval Canon law, women’s cultic impedimentum sexus is explicitly justified by men’s exclusive imago Dei, in accordance with the first stage of Christian anthropology. In line with women’s legal incapacity in civil society, termed infirmitas sexus in Roman law, this cultic incapability remained unchallenged in all institutional churches until the twentieth century.(28) Previously, all mainstream Christian denominations were firmly opposed to women’s civil rights, considered to violate God’s order of creation. Enforced by the socio-cultural consequences of new Western ideals like democracy and citizenship, female suffrage was first accepted in Protestant countries (New Zealand 1893, Australia 1902, Finland 1906, Norway 1913), and several years later in Catholic countries (France, Italy, Spain 1945). A similar Protestant precedence concerns women’s cultic capability to be ordained as priests and bishops, (Lutheran Denmark respectively1948/1995, Sweden 1958/1997, Norway 1961/1993, Anglican Great Britain 1994).

In Roman Catholicism, the recent acceptance of women’s Godlikeness qua female human beings entails a contradictory mixture of premises discarded and conclusions preserved. Simultaneously upholding the mutually exclusive doctrinal tenets of early androcentric typology and holistic Godlikeness, the institutional Church decrees that Godlike women cannot be ordained as Christlike priests. The Codex Iuris Canonici of 1983 (canon 1024) repeats the formula from the Codex of 1917 (canon 968,1): “Sacram ordinationem valide recipit solus vir baptizatus” (“Only a baptized male can receive valid ordination.”)

At the initiative of the bishops’ synod in 1971, Paul VI in 1973 nominated a pontifical commission to study the status of women in society and Church, with 25 members, among them 15 women.(29) It is significant that only one of these women, a female medical doctor, had professional expertise in theology, natural or social sciences; such expert knowledge was reserved for the male members. The question of ordaining women was deliberately excluded from their mandate and left to the papal Biblical commission, which included male theologians only. According to a secret report from 1975, published in 1976 by so-called indiscretion, this commission unanimously considered that referring to New Testament texts only could not solve the question of ordaining women. In fact, the Church’s clerical hierarchy and monarchic episcopate were structured from the second/ third centuries onwards. Hence, a majority of 12 exegetes (against 5) found that the Church could ordain women without opposing Christ’s initial intention.

Nevertheless Paul VI in 1977, overruling the majority of experts as he had done in 1968, sanctioned a doctrinal document against women’s ordination: Inter insigniores. The main argument is that the Church’s constant tradition of excluding women from the priesthood is not based on socio cultural androcentrism, but on the indispensable conformity between Christ’s incarnate maleness and the priest’s male sex. The courageous theologian Karl Rahner’s critique of this Christoiogical rationale is pertinent: “The mere fact that Jesus was of the male sex is no answer here, since it is not clear that a person acting with Christ’s mandate and in that sense (but not otherwise) in persona Christi must at the same time represent Christ precisely in his maleness.”(30)

Like Humanae Vitae, this declaration provoked a lively theological debate in the Church, giving rise to growing awareness among Catholic laypeople of the untenable arguments invoked to preserve the cultic impediment of femaleness.(31) Incidentally, Communist authorities in Czechoslovakia were conveniently duped by several women who were ordained to the Catholic priesthood before 1988, in spite of their canonical impedimentum sexus. This stratagem served them to perform forbidden pastoral work secretly, for instance, to administer the sacraments in prisons.(32)

VIII. Vatican Feminology

In Orthodox Christianity, the question of women priests is still marginal, debated only in Westernized context, as in France and the United States. In Protestant churches, priesthood is not defined in terms of androcentric typology, with axiomatic conformity between Christ’s incarnate manhood and the priest’s Christlike maleness. Christology does not, therefore, contravene women’s ordination. Inversely, John Paul II invokes the typological gender models of Christ as new Adam, and Mary as new Eve, to justify the cultic incapability of femaleness. Combining women’s Mariotypic motherhood with the new concept of female Godlikeness in Mulieris dignitatem, he mixes the first and the third stage of Christian anthropology, that is, an androcentric typology and an updated imago Dei.(33) When Mary is proposed as the exemplary role model for women, this exhortation tends to obscure that Christ’s mother as the new Eve has an instrumental and subordinate function vis a vis the Godhead, incarnated as the new Adam.(34)

In fact, the current incoherence between discarded male Godlikeness and upheld female cultic impediment is manifest by John Paul II’s apostolic letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis from 1994, where he refers to Inter insigniores and Mulieris dignitatem, concluding that the Church cannot ordain women because Christ called twelve male apostles and did not ordain his mother Mary. The traditional exclusion of women from the priesthood is, therefore, in accordance with God’s plan for his Church (“congruenter statuit mulierum exclusionem a sacerdotio convenire cum consilio Dei pro sua Ecclesia”). Since this invocation of divine androcentrism did not silence the persistent demand for women priests in the Catholic Church, the Pope’s doctrinal chieftain, cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in 1995 issued a Responsio, certifying that the disputed apostolic letter pertains to the normative deposit of faith (“ad fidei deposition pertinens“).

In conclusion, it is certainly not a human right to be ordained a priest or a bishop in the Catholic Church. Nevertheless, it is a fundamental right for all human beings to be equally attributed a fully Godlike humanity, being able to mediate between the Godhead and humankind. Preserving the canonical impedimentum sexus of femaleness, the institutional Church decrees that God is impeded from calling women to the priesthood because of their God-given cultic deficiency. Since the twentieth century, such an attribution of androcentric incapability to the Godhead has become perfectly unconvincing.

IX. Feminism and Christianity

The Vatican’s efforts to counteract the current androcentric collapse have been succinctly described: “The Catholic Church… is writhing in knots around feminism like a worm impaled on a hook.”(35) It is essential to observe that women’s claim to bio-socio-cultural and religious autonomy results from the epistemological revolution of feminism, where women and men are defined as human beings of equal dignity: “Feminism is concerned with the shift in roles and the question of rights that have been unjustly denied women. But all of that, however important and essential, is secondary. The main event is epistemological. Changes in what we know are normal; changes in how we know are revolutionary. Feminism is a challenge to the way we have gone about knowing. The epistemological terra firma of the recent past is rocking, and as the event develops, it promisesto change the face of the earth.”(36)

From an historical perspective, the relationship between feminism and Christianity is radically ambivalent.(37) In Western civilization, the ideal of female autonomy is based on the Christian concept of women’s equivalence with men in the order of salvation. The feminist revolution starts when redemptive inclusiveness is backdated as normative for the present world, thereby superseding creational gender hierarchy. In the European history of ideas, this process coincides with the transformation of human Godlikeness from exclusively male to equal privilege for both sexes. Women’s gradual achievement of autonomous humanity is realized through the stages of stratified communality in the Middle Ages, religious individualism in the Age of Reform, universal human rights for men in the Enlightenment, and the twentieth-century shift from droits de 1’homme to inclusive droits humains, when human rights are equally attributed to women.(38)

In consequence, this recent Western inculturation represents a fundamental challenge to traditional gender models in Roman Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity, where the core doctrine and symbolism are structured by androcentric typology. In conformity with Islam, traditional Christian discourse axiomatically connects creational gender differentiation to the God-given division of male and female roles in Church and society. In a European perspective, the eighteenth- century asymmetrical polarity of male and female functions (Rousseau and Kant) is in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries redefined in terms of complementarity of the sexes, where the subordinate character of female roles becomes strategically obscured. It is significant that the Northern-European partnership model; where women and men collaborate in all fields of society and Church, precisely because of and not despite their sexual difference; proves to be alien in Mediterranean civilization

The impact of Scandinavian State feminism and a Scandinavian welfare system, in which a strong participation of women in political government is correlated with a high voluntary birth rate, is striking.(39) In contrast, the lack of feminist welfare policy in Catholic countries, such as Spain and Italy, generates feeble participation of women in political government and a voluntarily reduced natality. It is of note that Norway did not join the European Union because of a significant gender gap in the referendum of 1994 in which 62 % of the female electorate voted against membership, presumably in large measure to protect the feminist welfare system. From this point of view, it is regrettable that prospective new members from Eastern and Central Europe are not required to fulfil Western juridical norms for equality of the sexes and women’s reproductive autonomy before entering the Union. Enforcement of Canon law in civil society is especially problematic, as in the case of Malta’s concordat with the Holy See from 1995.

X. Sex and Gender

Feminist epistemology presupposes a twentieth-century anthropology, where the human being is defined as a sexually differentiated psychophysical unity. It is essential to note that this holistic concept is completely different from the Platonized anthropology of Christian tradition, where the human being is defined as a sexless rational soul in a male or female body. This dualistic concept of humanity has shaped theology and philosophy from late antiquity until the nineteenth century. It is, therefore, paradoxically counterproductive when gender studies in the social sciences often persist in presupposing an anachronistic dichotomy of sex, as biologically programmed, and gender, as socially constructed. In fact, this division corresponds to traditional androcentric dualism, thereby inadvertently imitating the Church Fathers’ promotion of women to Godlike manhood in sexless intellect and virtue, despite bodily femaleness. The same strategy was repeated in seventeenth-century French salon feminism with the Cartesian adage:“I’âme n’point de sexe,” and still echoed by Simone de Beauvoir: ” On ne naît pas femme, on le devient” Among the humanistic disciplines, gender studies in religion are at the scholarly forefront by applying human, that is, male or female “genderedness” as a main analytical category.(40) This holistic approach highlights the connected interaction between psycho-physical sex and socio cultural gender, which is equally fundamental for women and for men. Applied to the Christian tradition as in feminist theology, human God-language is consequently understood in terms of verbalized male or female experience.

The epistemological clash between God-given specific complementarity of the sexes and post-modernist deconstruction of gender was striking in the dialogue des sourds between the Vatican delegation and feminist activists at the 1995 United Nations conference in Beijing.(41) Both parties apparently ignored the historical construction of their respective agendas, in fact, equally resulting from millennia of androcentric socio-biology. Fervently fighting feminist efforts to strengthen women’s human rights, the Holy See tactically abused less sophisticated variants of feminist constructionism. The demagogical confusion of abortion and contraception on both sides proved particularly counterproductive. The practical social reality that abortion of a healthy fetus generally presupposes involuntary conception makes the Vatican a causal agent of abortion in societies influenced by its ban on contraception. The Holy See’s condemnation of condoms to protect against HIV and AIDS is a scandalous consequence of pontifical bio-theology.(42)

When feminists advocate women’s right to safe abortion in case of enforced pregnancy, their undisputed primary goal is to make the biological revolution of efficient contraceptive technology operative in underdeveloped areas. Female reproductive autonomy is first and foremost to be realized by voluntary conception in order to prevent subsequent abortion.(43) Inversely, the Holy See fiercely opposes women’s control of fertility because the Vatican is fully aware that worldwide feminism presupposes reproductive choice and vice versa.

XI. Discourse and Reality

The argumentation of contemporary Vatican discourse on contraception and prevention of HIV/AIDS is dearly vicarious. My present summary of doctrinal construction shows that the historically shifting inculturation of traditional theology and anthropology has been logically coherent. The majority of Church Fathers and scholastic theologians were well-educated aristocrats; the socially mobile Augustine is a significant exception. This thorough knowledge of ancient and medieval learning made their articulation of the Christian tradition meaningful in a given socio-cultural context and, therefore, viable. In fact, the current doctrinal incoherence between outdated premises and preserved conclusions, which affects the main themes of theological sexology, is a new phenomenon in the history of Christianity, resulting from the recent collapse of androcentric or dualistic axioms. In consequence, no longer able to control Catholics by condemning sexual activity as transmitting original sin, the pontifical castigation of “hedonism” insists on condemning contraception, Christianity’s traditional conflict between love of God and sexual love is no longer axiomatic, but upheld by the obligation of cultic celibacy. Male priests must keep away from women and femaleness constitutes cultic incapability. According to Vatican statistics as of 1998, the number of nuns in the Catholic Church (814.779) doubles the number of priests (404,629) and non-ordained monks (57,813). This peculiar situation helps explain why the Vatican invokes women’s impedimentum sexus in order to exclude them from participation in the hierarchical government of the Church, reserved for the Pope and his Roman Curia of male cardinals. During the theocratic pontificate of John Paul II, the collegial decision-making of bishops, envisaged by the Second Vatican Council, has been reduced to consultative status. In consequence, restoring episcopal collegiality on the model of the ancient Church, and recognizing women’s cultic capability, will be urgent tasks for a third Vatican Council.(44) A decisive influence of male and female lay people has to be codified in concordance with recent norms of political democracy. The Catholic Church can no longer be governed on the model of the Roman Empire with a majority population of illiterate serfs.

As a Nordic Catholic feminist historian of theology, I find it paradoxical that Christian feminism has first been accepted in Protestantism, where the literal Bible is invested with a sacramental function as God’s instrument of revelation, akin to the Islamic concept of the Koran as a divine revelatory medium. In this context, it is interesting to note that contemporary Islamic feminist theology emulates the strategy of previous Protestant feminist theology by criticizing the subsequent interpretations of sacred texts, not the androcentrism of revelatory Scripture ad litteram.(45) Inversely, I argue that indispensable instruments for a feminist Reformation of Christianity are to be found in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions. A dynamic interpretation of incarnate Scripture; that is, historically shaped revelation and an optimistic anthropology, in terms of Christ’s redemptive divinisation of humanity, are essential means for this new inculturation.(46) Divested of androcentric typology, the ancient Graeco-Roman Church Fathers’ inculturation, emulated by the medieval Northern-European Church Mothers’ holistic God-language, are exemplary models for reconstructing a viable Roman Catholicism.(47)

Vatican Documents published in Acta Apostolicae Sedis, Città del Vaticano:

Casti connubi—AAS 22,1930, 539-592.

Humanae vitae—AAS 60,1968,481-503.

Inter insigniores—AAS 69,1977,98-116.

Mulieris dignitatem—AAS 8O, 1988,1653-1729.

Veritatis splendor—AAS 85,1993,1133-1228.

Ordinatio sacerdotalis—AAS 86,1994,545-548.

Responsio (Ordinatio sacerdotalis)—AAS 87,1995,1114.


1. Ann Elizabeth Mayer,Islam and Human Rights. Tradition and Politics (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press,1999);Shaheen Sardar Ali, Gender and Human Sights in Islam and International Law. Equal Before Allah. Unequal Before Man?(The Hague: Kluwer Law International, 2000); Jonas Svensson,Women’s Human Rights and Islam: A Study of Three Attempts at Accommodation(Lund: Almqvist & Wiksell, 2000)

2. The process of entry into the system of international organizations started in 1929 when the Vatican City joined the World Telegraph Union and the Universal Postal Union. Since 1957, the supreme organ of government of the Roman Catholic Church is uniformly termed the Holy See. As a legal entity, the Holy See obtained status as a Non Member State Permanent Observer at the United Nations in 1964 when the Secretary General U Thant accepted its self-designation as such. (Switzerland had obtained this status in 1948); see Josef Kunz, “The Status of the Holy See,” International Law, American Journal of International Law46 (1952): 308-14 (arguing the case for sending a US ambassador to the Holy See). The attribution of statehood to the Holy See appears somewhat anachronistic since the Papal State in central Italy, restored to the Roman pontiff at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, was finally conquered and annexed by Italy in 1870. In 1929, the Lateran treaty, signed by II Duce Benito Mussolini and Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, recognized the papal sovereignty of the Vatican City (0.44 square kilometers or 108.7 acres), in compensation for the loss of the Papal State; see Anika Rahman, “Church or State? The Holy See at the United Nations,” Conscience 20 (1999): 2-5; David Nolan, “The Catholic Church at the United Nations: Church or State?” Conscience 21 (2000): 4, 20-24.

3. Female reproductive autonomy was established as a human right in international law by the Convention on die Elimination of AH Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), in force since 1981, as of 16 fJuly 2001 ratified by 168 states. Article 16, paragraph 1 reads: “States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in all matters relating to marriage and family relations and in particular shall ensure, on a basis of equality of men and women . . . [t]he same rights to decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children and to have access to the information, education and means to enable them to exercise these rights.” The Holy See, along with eight Muslim states, has not signed this Convention, nor the 1952 Convention on the Political Rights of Women. The US has signed, but not ratified, CEDAW, mainly because of political pressure from Protestant fundamentalism.

4. Elissavet Stamatopolou, “Women’s Rights and the United Nations,” Women’s Rights, Human Rights: International Feminist Perspectives, ed. Julie Peters and Andrea Wolper (London: Routledge, 1995), 36-48; Rebecca J. Cook, “International Human Rights and Women’s Reproductive Health,” Women’s Rights, Human Rights, 256-75; Susan D. Rose, “Christian Fundamentalism: Patriarchy, Sexuality, and Human Rights,” Religious Fundamentalisms and the Human Rights of Women, ed. Courtney W. Rowland (London: Macmillan, 1999), 9-20; Ann Elizabeth Mayer, “Religious Reservations to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women: What Do They Really Mean,” in Howland, Religious Fundamentalisms and the Human Rights of Women, 105-16,

5. Margaret E. Galey, “International Enforcement of Women’s Rights,” Human Rights Quarterly 6 (1984): 463-90; Noreen Burrows, “International Law and Human Rights: the Case of Women’s Rights,” Human Rights: From Rhetoric to Reality, ed. Tom Campbell et al. (London: Blackwell, 1986), 80-98; Kevin Boyle, “Stock taking on Human Rights: The World Conference on Human Rights, Vienna 1993”, Political Studies 43 (1995): 79-95; Katerina Tomasevski, “Women’s Rights,” Human Rights: Concepts and Standards, ed. Janusz Symonides (Paris: UNESCO Publishing, 2000), 231-58,

6. Kari Elisabeth Børresen and Kari Vogt, Women’s Studies of the Christian and Islamic Traditions (The Hague: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1995).

7. See Joan Bamberger, “The Myth of Matriarchy: Why Men Rule in Primitive Society,” Women Culture and Society, ed. Michelle Z. Rosaldo and Louise Lamphère (Stanford; Stanford University Press,1974), 263-80.

8. Børresen, Subordination and Equivalence: The Nature and Role of Woman in Augustine and Thomas Aquinas (Kampen, The Netherlands: Kak Pharos, 1995).

9. Børresen, ed., The Image of God: Gender Models in Judaeo-Christian Tradition (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 1995).

10. Vogt, “‘Becoming Male’: A Gnostic and Early Christian Metaphor,” in Børresen, The Image of God, 170-86; Elizabeth A. Clark, Ascetic Piety and Women’s Faith (Edwin Mellen Press, 1986).

11. Børresen, “Ancient and Medieval Church Mothers,” in Børresen and Vogt, Women’s Studies of theChristian and Islamic Traditions, 245-75; Børresen, “Julian of Norwich: A Model of Feminist Theology,”in Børresen and Vogt, Women’s Studies of the Christian and Islamic Traditions,295-314.

12. Aasta Hansteen, Kvinden skabt i Guds Billede (Christiania: n.p., 1878; 2nd expanded ed.,Christiania Steen, 1903): [“Woman created in God’s image”].

13. Giulia Sfameni Gasparro, “Image of God and Sexual Differentiation in the Tradition of Enkrateia,” in Børresen, The Image of God, 134-69.

14. Børresen, “Patristic ‘Feminism’: The Case of Augustine,” Augustinian Studies 25 (1994): 139-52.

15. Erna Lesky, Die Zeugung-und Vererbungslehren der Antike und ihr Nachwirken (Mainz: Veriag der Wissenschaften und der Literatur, 1950); Aline Rousselle, Porneia {New York: Basil Blackwell, 1988).

l6. John T. Noonan Jr., Contraception: A History of its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists (Cambridge, Mass.; Harvard University Press, 1986).

17. Ambrogio Valsecchi, Controversy: The Birth Control Debate 1958-1968 (London: Geoffrey Chapman Ltd., 1968).

18. “The Majority Papal Commission Report” is reprinted in The Catholic Case for Contraception, ed Daniel Callahan (London: Macmillan, 1969), 149-73, where the core rationale is spelled out at page 161: “The reasons in favor of this affirmation are of several kinds: social changes in matrimony and the family, especially in the role of the woman; lowering of the infant mortality rate; new bodies of knowledge in biology, psychology, sexuality and demography; a changed estimation of the value and meaning of human sexuality and of conjugal relations; and most of all, a better grasp of the duty of man to humanize and to bring to greater perfection for the life of man what is given in nature.” See ibid., 174-211; the Minority Report is a pathetic example of male celibate isolation from human reality.

19. Jan Grootaers, “Humanae Vitae, encyclique de Paul VI,” Dictionnaire d’Histoire et de Géographic ecclésiastiques 25 (1994): 328-34 (Wojtyla’s conservative stance favored his papal election in 1978).

20. Charles E. Curran, “Natural Law and Contemporary Moral Theology” Contraception: Authority and Dissent, ed. Curran (New York: Herder and Herder, 1969), 151-75; see Curran and Richard A. McCormick, eds., Dialogue about Catholic Sexual Teachings, (New York: Paulist Press, 1993); Curran, The Catholic Moral Tradition Today: A Synthesis (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1999).

21. Karl Rahner, “On the Encyclical ‘Humanae Vitae,'” Theological Investigations 11 (1974): 263-87; Yves Congar, “Reception as an Ecclesioiogical Reality,” Concilium 77 (1972): 43-68

22. John Maloney, The Making of Moral Theology: A Study of the Roman Catholic Tradition {New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 259-301; William H. Shannon, The Lively Debate: Response to Humanae Vitae (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1970), 117-46.

23. See Vogt, “Catholicisme et Islam: Une rhétorique apologétique commune à propos de la femme,” in Børresen and Vogt, Women’s Studies of the Christian and Islamic Traditions, 359—65 (The definition of motherhood as women’s specific dignity corresponds to Islamic sexology.).

24. Joseph A. Selling and Jan Jans, eds., The Splendor of Accuracy: An Examination of the Assertions Made by Veritatis Splendor (Kampen, The Netherlands: Kok Pharos, 1995); see Curran and McCormick, eds., John Paul II and Moral Theology (New York: Paulist Press, 1998). For a pertinent critique of the papal concept of God as a superimpregnator, who creates new life through the biological finality of human sexual organs, contradicting human autonomy as being created in God’s image, see Christian Duquoc, “Procréation et dogme de la création,” Lumière et Vie 187 (1960): 51-65.

25. James H. Provost, “Freedom of Conscience and Religion. Human Rights in the Church,” Culture Chrétienne et Droits de l’Homme—du rejet à l’engagement, ed., Michel J. Verwilghen (Rome: IFCU, 1991), 35-61; William Johnson Everett, “Human Rights in the Church,” Religious Human Rights in Global Perspective: Religious Perspectives, ed. John Witte Jr. and Johan D. van der Vyver (Boston: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1996), 121-41.

26. Alberto Ronchey, “In sei milliardi stretti e caldi,” [“Six crammed and overheated billion”] Corriere della Sera, 14 November 1998

27. Børresen, “The Ordination of Women: To Nurture Tradition by Continuing Inculturation,” Studia Theologica 46 (1992): 3-13.

28. Haye van der Meer, Women Priests in the Catholic Church? A Theological Historical Investigation (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1973); Roger Gryson, The Ministry of Women in the Early Church (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1976); Ida Raming, The Exclusion of Women from the Priesthood: Divine Law or Sex Discrimination? (New Jersey: Scarecrow Press, 1976).

29. In 1974, five women members were refused to present their minority report that contested the commission’s submissive final document. The women did not dare to publish this report until several years later. See Maria del Pilar Bellosillo et al., “Women Appeal to the Pastors of the Church,” Pro Mundi Vita Bulletin 108 (1987): 1-36.

30. Kari Rahner, Theological Investigations XX: Concern for the Church (New York: Crossroad, 1981, 35-47),

31. Walter Gross, ed., Frauenordination. Stand der Diskussion in der katholischen Kirche (Munich: Erich Wewel Verhg, 1996).

32. The Vatican prefers to keep these women priests underground, but they appear in Hansjacob Stehle, Geheimdiplomatie im Vatikan. Die Papste und die Kommunisten {Düsseldorf: BenzingerVerlag, 1993), 320, 428.

33. Børresen, “Image ajustée, typologie arretée: Analyse critique de Mulieris dignitatem,” in Børresen and Vogt, Women’s Studies of the Christian and Islamic Traditions, 343-57.

34. Børresen, Anthropologie mediévale et théologie mariale (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1971); “Mary in Catholic Theology,” Concilium 188 (1983): 48-56,

35. Andrew Brown, “The Future of the Papacy,” The Spectator, 25 April 1998, 13-14.

36. Daniel C. Maguire, The Moral Revolution: A Christian Humanist Vision (New York: Harper and Row, 1986), 122.

37. Børresen, “Christianisme et féminisme,” Maschio e femmina li creè, ed. Fiorenza Taricone (Verona: II Segno dei Gabrielli Editori, 1998), 83-99.

38. See Jerome J. Shestack, “The Philosophical Foundations of Human Rights,” in Symonides, Human Rights: Concepts and Standards, 31-66; Arvonne S. Fraser, “Becoming Human: The Origins and Development of Women’s Human Rights,” Human Rights Quarterly 21 (1999): 853-906.

39. One indication is the differential total fertility rates 1995-1999 for Norway, Denmark, Finland, and Sweden compared to Italy and Spain: Norway 1.85, Denmark 1.72, Finland 1.73, Sweden 1.57, Italy 1.20, Spain 1.15. The State of World Population 2000 is available online at <http://unfpa.org/swp/ 2000/english/indicators/indicators2 html>.

40. Ursula King, “Gender and the Study of Religion,” Religion and Gender, ed. King (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995), 1-38.

41. Doris E. Buss, “Robes, Relics and Rights: The Vatican and the Beijing Conference on Women,” Social & Legal Studies 7 (1998): 339-63

42. See the statement of the Holy See concerning the Declaration and Platform for Action of the United Nations Conference on Women in Beijing 1995: “The Holy See in no way endorses contraception or the use of condoms, either as a family planning measure or in HIV/AIDS prevention programmes,” Report of the Fourth World Conference on Women, available online at <gopher://gopher.undp.org/00/unconfs/ women/off/a—20.en>, chapter V, sec.11. It is of note that faced with human disaster, the Vatican has now dissociated the medical use of condoms from its upheld ban on condoms as means of contraception. At the United Nations Special Session on HIV/AIDS, 25-27 June 2001, New York, the Holy See’s Permanent Observer presented a Statement after the adoption of The Declaration of Commitment on HIV/AIDS, 2 August 2001, with implicit reference to # 23 and # 52: “He emphazised that in accepting the language on the use of condoms as a method of prevention of the disease, the Holy See in no way changed its moral position.” The full text of the 2 August 2001 UN Declaration is available online at: <http://www.unaids.org/whatsnew/others/un_special/DeclarationQ20801_en.htm:».

43. It is important to note that the widespread selective abortion of female fetuses in Asia mainly results from the axiomatic inferiority of femaleness. This discrimination in Hinduism and Buddhism is explained by the ontological hierarchy of reincarnation and rebirth, placing women betwen men and animals. The current euphemism of blaming cultural relativism instead of androcentric religion is here especially fallacious; consider the windspread practice of direct or indirect female infanticide, well documented from classical antiquity to early modern Europe.

44. It is noteworthy that a majority of leading feminist theologians are Catholics. Their contribution as experts will be important in a third Vatican Council. Some influential European scholars are as follows: Elisabeth Gössmann (Munich), Anne Jensen (Graz), Ursula King (Bristol), Cettina Militello (Rome), and Janet M. Soskice (Cambridge), and in the USA (significantly, all nuns): Anne E, Carr (Chicago), Margaret A. Farley (Yale), Elizabeth A. Johnson (New York), and Sandra M. Schneiders (Berkeley).

45. Examples of similar approaches, with a significant time lag, are the following: Letty M. Russell, ed., Feminist Interpretation of the Bible (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1985) and Amina Wadud Muhsin, Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

46. Børresen, “Femmes et théologie depuis 1960—le parcours d’une protagoniste,” Donne e Teologia. Bilancio di un secolo, ed. Cettina Militello (Rome: Edizioni Dehoniane, 2001); see Christine Amadou, “An interview with Kari Elisabeth Børresen,” in Børresen, The Image of God, xxii-xxix; Rosemary R. Ruether, Women and Redemption: A Theological History (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 1998), 190-93, 338.

47. Børresen, “Religious Feminism and Female God-language: From Hildegard von Bingen to Théresè de Leisieux,” Ab Aquilone: Nordic Studies in Honour and Memory of Leonard E. Boyle. O.P., Suecoromana VI, ed. Marie Louise Rodén (Marieberg, Sweden: Riksarkivet, 2000), 197-222.