Sunday, August 15, 2004

PARIS — Pope John Paul II’s journey to Lourdes during the weekend came just after the release of a Vatican letter written by Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican’s highest-raking cardinal, which is seen as a condemnation of the excesses of modern feminism.

Lourdes, in the French Pyrenees, says perhaps more about the relationship between Roman Catholicism and women than any other Christian site in the world. Its central figure is the Virgin Mary, who is said to have appeared before a peasant girl, Bernadette Soubirou, in 1858, introducing herself with the words, “I am the Immaculate Conception.”

Women make up a majority of the 6 million pilgrims who pour into Lourdes from all continents every year to pay homage to Mary: nuns, desperately ill patients hoping for a miracle, housewives, cheerful Irish and German singles, young and rich people prepared to serve the poor and the sick.

There also are plenty of Protestants, and why not? Martin Luther once praised the Blessed Virgin as the spiritual mother of all Christians. Huldreich Zwingli, the Zurich reformer, rated her above all creatures, “including the saints and angels.” And John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, affirmed her continuing purity.

It is hard to conceive of a more feminine, loving atmosphere than that of Lourdes. It is much in keeping with the attributes of the woman “who in her deepest and original being exists ‘for the other’ (1 Corinthians 11:9),” as Cardinal Ratzinger phrased it in his controversial letter to the bishops of the Catholic Church recently.

This being there “for the other” is what Luther, too, saw manifest in Mary; this is why he called her “blessed above all nobility, wisdom and sanctity.” This is why his exegesis of the “Magnificat” (Luke 1:46-55) — “My soul magnifies the Lord” — is arguably one of most spectacular theological commentaries, so much so that it is taught in most Catholic seminaries.

And yet, although Cardinal Ratzinger’s letter “On the collaboration of men and women in the Church and in the World,” which the pope had approved, made essentially the same point as Luther, Zwingli or Wesley, it became the object of global controversy. Why? Because even before its publication, the letter was purported to be an attack on worldwide feminism.

And so Margot Kaessmann, Lutheran bishop of Hanover in Germany, bemoaned the paper’s “cliches.” Ekin Delgoez, a spokeswoman for Germany’s Green Party, accused the church of remaining stuck between the Middle Ages and modernity.

Christel Hildebrand, chairwoman of a Conference of European (female) Theologians, called Cardinal Ratzinger’s reflection anathema. Emma Bonino, an Italian politician, said the paper might just as well have been written by an imam of Cairo’s Al-Azhar mosque.

Daniele Hervieu-Leger, France’s leading sociologist, warned that the church was about to lose the women — at least in Western Europe and in North America — just as it had lost the working class.

Yet, Eberhard von Gemmingen of Radio Vatican argued that Cardinal Ratzinger’s observations were much more about women’s rights and equality than about feminism.

Cardinal Ratzinger does complain of a feminist tendency that makes “women … adversaries of men.” But he also emphasizes that women, like men, are created equally in the image of God, and that this constitutes “the immutable basis of all Christian anthropology.”

Cardinal Ratzinger reminds his readers of a previous statement by the pope declaring women as “another ‘I’ in common humanity.” He links the warped bond between men and women to the Fall: “When humanity considers God its enemy, the relationship between men and women becomes distorted. When this relationship is damaged, their access to the face of God risks being compromised in turn.”

This is part of a basic Christian theology most denominations share, based on the Apostle Paul’s statement, to which Cardinal Ratzinger also referred: “For all of you who have been baptized into Christ … there is neither male nor female” (Galatians 3:27-28).

In the face of the criticism, the Vatican takes comfort from the ancient verity that the “dernier cri [latest fashion] of reason expires more rapidly than sound Christian doctrine.”

Cardinal Ratzinger’s paper stresses the woman’s right to equal pay and career chances in the secular world and to an even fuller recognition of her role in the family.

But to critics, this seems to take second place to Rome’s insistence that women cannot be priests because, as one senior prelate put it, “for a woman to take Christ’s place at the altar is an ontological absurdity.”

Rome is not alone in making this point. Eastern Orthodoxy and some major Protestant denominations do the same, but they are spared reproach.

As Luther observed about Mary: “Men have crowded all her glory into a single phrase: the mother of God. No one can say anything greater of her, though he had as many tongues as leaves on the trees.”

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