We can recognise the differences between the sexes and still affirm the equal dignity of women
At the end of Mass yesterday in our parish, a smartly suited man came up to the lectern at the invitation of our parish priest to talk about the Catenian Association. For those who haven’t heard of it, it is an association of professional Catholic men for the purpose of good fellowship, funding charitable enterprises and providing support for the families of members. The talk was short and snappy and included the message that “In case we sound misogynist, this isn’t case the case at all. We have ladies evenings three times a year in which members bring their wives along for dinner.”
During coffee after Mass our Resident Parish Feminist expressed her irritation that the “Catenians aren’t open to women. “ She went on to ask, “Why are there these artificial gender barriers in this day and age? I don’t agree with it.” An affable chap (who is also a Catenian) pointed out to her mildly that there is an organisation called “The Union of Catholic Mothers” which does not include men. What did she think of that? Without batting an eyelid, she replied that it implied another “gender-based divide” and should be open to men.
I said to her, “But men like clubs. On the whole women don’t.” I was thinking of the remark by Enoch Powell in Jonathan Aitken’s very good biography of Margaret Thatcher, which I have just read, in which he explained why Thatcher didn’t function well in Cabinet meetings: “It’s because she’s a Lone Ranger.” In Powell’s view, the public school men in the Cabinet had been programmed to join in team games from their prep schooldays; joining the Cabinet was merely the pinnacle of the team games ethos.
There is something to this; when the Catenians began, it seemed a sensible and pleasant way for professional Catholic men to do what Rotarians and freemasons do: organise themselves into a clubby society and raise money for good purposes. Why not let them get on with it? I forgot to mention to the Parish Feminist that I run an all-woman book club. We decided very early on we didn’t want men in it, not because they would “spoil” it but because they would change the dynamics and we felt comfortable the way we were. I dislike the demand for “gender equality” that insists that inoffensive male societies like the Catenians are somehow “sexist” because members enjoy social fellowship with other men.
Having written this I must now correct myself: women can be clubby too – but within their own sex. Pope Francis met with members of the Italian Women’s Centre on Saturday. This is a federation of Catholic women’s associations established in 1944 when Italy introduced universal suffrage. The Pope told his audience that “It is with great joy that I see many women sharing pastoral responsibilities with priests, both in theological reflection and by supporting individuals, families and communities.” I suspect our Parish Feminist doesn’t realise that Catholic women are not being held back from the life of the Church because of their gender; she has allowed herself to be too influenced by the zeitgeist without seeing that a Catholic understanding of women’s roles includes dignity within difference – not subservience or being somehow “shut out” from where the action is.
Pope Francis went on to raise the obvious question: “How is it possible for any woman to develop an incisive presence in the many areas of public and professional life where important decisions are made, and at the same time to maintain a special presence within the family?” Indeed. Sacrifices and choices have to be made; there is no such thing as “having it all.” I was talking to a friend the other day. A Cambridge graduate with a Ph.D. in history, she confessed that when her three children were young she sometimes felt frustrated at the hours she spent keeping the home and family together. But she was also clear that she would never have wanted a nanny or nursery to take her place in raising her children. Doesn’t it come down to this: with rare exceptions (Thatcher being one of them) a woman’s instinctive wish is to create a home and bring up children; everything else – clubs, societies, careers, the public sphere – is a secondary consideration.
I will have to develop this discussion with the Parish Feminist next week.