John Hooper in Rome and Tania Branigan
Saturday July 31, 2004
The Pope will call on leaders of the Roman Catholic church today to attack feminist ideologies which assert that men and women are fundamentally the same.
The Vatican is concerned that this belief is eroding what it regards as women's maternal vocation. But a paper on the subject which is due to be published today - the Vatican's third major pronouncement on women's role in the quarter century of John Paul's papacy - has drawn scornful criticism from feminists and academics.
According to a leaked extract, the document accuses feminists of "blurring the biological difference between man and woman".
But it is also understood to break new ground by appealing to governmentsto give help to women so they can cope with their broader modern responsibilities.
It emerged yesterday that the Vatican itself had taken a further step towards incorporating women into the previously all-male leadership of the Roman Catholic church. A nun, who was not named in Italian media reports, was said to be working as a high-level aide to the Pope's "foreign minister", Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo.
The statement of doctrine on gender issues is the first serious attempt by the Vatican to come to grips with a world of working women. But it is just as clearly intended to prevent any erosion of the church's resolute opposition to gay mar riage, the incorporation of women into the priesthood, and trends in gender studies which the Pope has damned as "misleading conceptions of sexuality".
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The Vatican's sights are trained in particular on the view that while people's sex is anatomically determined their gender identity and roles are entirely a product of conditioning. In a letter to bishops on the participation of men and women in the church and the world, the Pope's chief theological spokesman, the German cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, stresses, as the pontiff has done on several occasions, that the book of Genesis is unambiguous on this point.
The letter was drawn up inside Cardinal Ratzinger's Vatican "ministry", the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. However, as a statement of doctrine, it would not have been sent for publication without the consent of the Pope.
The Vatican's letter ack nowledges that the emancipation of women, which the pontiff applauded in his earliest pronouncements on the subject, has given them a vastly increased presence in the labour market.
Recent decades have seen a plunge in birth and fertility rates, particularly in the Roman Catholic heartland of southern Europe, as women struggle to combine jobs with their traditional roles as mothers, homemakers and carers.
Church representatives have argued that this is symptomatic of a breakdown in values, and particularly a greater selfishness among young couples more interested in consumer goods than creating life. Feminists have long held that it is a result of the reluctance of men to share household tasks and the failure of governments to provide adequate support for families.
Cardinal Ratzinger's document appears to have embraced implicitly the feminist view on this point, though in language unlikely to win over many feminists.
According to the leaked extract in the German tabloid Bild Zeitung, his letter to bishops calls on governments to "create conditions that enable women not to neglect their family duties when they enter into a job".
Dr Helena Cronin, an evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics, said: "It's absolutely true that we are different, in a variety of ways." She said that in all mammals, females showed a greater propensity to caring for the young than males did. But she added: "That's not saying that women have no other vocations, or that they should be devoted [to motherhood]."
The feminist author Natasha Walter questioned whether there were essential differences between men and women at all.
"We have centuries and centuries of acculturation towards a 'vocation' of maternity, and men have only had a couple of generations of acculturation towards active paternity. Until we encourage men [to do more] it's too early to call on whether there are innate differences. The weight of tradition is so strong that it precludes the freedom to choose."
However, Eva Figes, whose book Patriarchal Attitudes was one of the major works of feminism's "second wave" in the 70s, said: "I have always thought men and women were different - we have better linguistic skills, for instance - but it wasn't politic to say so when I was writing 30 years ago."
She added: "The trouble is we all know the Pope's opinions on issues such as abortion and contraception.
"There is another agenda there: he will think maternity is more important than public life. I don't see why women should not have both - and it should be their choice."