I was privileged to attend the International Congress celebrating the 20th anniversary of John Paul II’s apostolic letter on the dignity and vocation of women. There were over 260 participants from around the world. Given the quality of the talks and the credentials of the participants and speakers, it was clear that the voice of women is heard and respected in the heart of the Church. The talks covered a wide range of subjects, women in Scripture, in history, anthropology, and contemporary challenges.
Through all the talks, what struck me yet again was the unity of truth. The truth that we can discover through science, by reason, and by observation and the truth of revelation are one, because the God, who set in place the laws of nature, is the same God who reveals himself through his holy word. I saw clearly that there is no conflict between our faith and science. Science, when properly understood, stands with faith. Rather what we see is a conflict between truth and man’s determination to flaunt not only the revealed will of God but also the laws of nature.
In defending the dignity and the vocation of women, the Church defends the full equality of woman as a human person made in the image and likeness of God. All persons -- male and female -- are called to find themselves through a sincere gift of self, but men and women are different. It is, of course, important to put aside stereotypes and understand the real differences. Woman is specifically entrusted with the human person. She has the capacity to become a mother. Even if she never bears children, she has the potential for spiritual motherhood. Man is called to be a gift to the family by protecting and providing for women and children.
Anything that demeans women, particularly anything that reduces a woman to a sex object, is contrary to her dignity. Society needs the talents and contributions of women to be recognized and justly remunerated, but woman is not to be masculinzed -- told that she can find true fulfillment only by leaving her children and home and entering the world of work outside the home.
Today the Church must combat an ideology, which seeks to deny the real differences between men and women by making a distinction between “sex” and “gender.” According to this ideology “sex” is no longer a comprehensive term for the totality of what it means to be a man or a woman, but refers only to obvious reproductive differences; everything else is “gender,” which is not natural but socially constructed --roles made up by society and imposed on men and women. According to this theory, gender can be changed: men can adopt a female gender role, women a male, and if they want even undergo surgery to create a more complete illusion. Those who believe gender is merely a social construct, see no reason why an 8-year-old boy who thinks he’s a girl shouldn’t be allowed to use the girls’ restroom or why marriage is to be limited to a man and a woman.
Nature tells us a different story. Men and women are equal as persons, but they are different. It is more that just a difference in the sexual organs. Every cell of our bodies is imprinted with our sexual identity. Our brains develop differently. Different hormones course through our body. While physicians can mutilate bodies and inject hormones, these do not change the basic reality -- male and female he created them.
Revelation tells us what science cannot. God chose to make two different sexes. He could have made us like earthworms, each of which is male and female, but a two-sexed humanity is part of God’s perfect plan. One sex simply was not enough to be the image and likeness of the triune God. God made us male and female to be a revelation of his love.
The union between man and woman is not just nature’s way of making new people. It is a sign of the love of Christ the eternal bridegroom for the Church, his spotless bride. Some women think it unfair that men are the image of the bridegroom who is Christ, and women are the image of the Church his bride. I remember my own wedding day, looking in the mirror and thinking how marvelous it was to be the bride, and cannot understand why anyone would want to be the bridegroom when they could be the bride. These are, however, signs -- for all believers male and female are called to be the spiritual bride to Christ’s bridegroom, just as all are called to be part of the holy priesthood of believers -- but this doesn’t mean we can cast away the sign any more than we can consecrate orange juice and rice cakes at the Mass or baptize in olive oil.
There are those who believe that women should be ordained so that they can change the teachings of the Church. They do not understand that the duty of the bridegroom is to lay down his life in defense of the bride, not betray her. The priest/bridegroom guards the accumulated wisdom of the Church’s teachings and its holy sacraments. He is set as watchman against those who would loot its treasure.
Dale O’Leary is the author of “The Gender Agenda: Redefining Equality” and “One Man, One Woman.”