Perhaps the greatest mistake of mainstream feminism is the assumption that difference equals inequality.

Feminists’ rallying cry becomes “If men can do it, so can we” — and any suggestion that we cannot, or should not, is seen merely as an attempt to oppress us under the iron fist of male patriarchal privilege.

Believing that the differences between the sexes are either merely physical, or are constructs of a sexist society, they see any attempt to exclude either sex from a particular vocation as unjust discrimination. But if all differences are artificial, then there can be no special “women’s genius,” no ways in which women naturally excel.

As Catholics, we believe that men and women are both human beings, to an equal degree, and both made in the image and likeness of God.

However, we also recall that God is not individual, but a communion of Three Persons in One God. As John Paul II observes in his 1988 apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem (The Dignity and Vocation of Women), this means that we are created to exist in relationship with one another. This is why it is not good for man to be alone (see Genesis 2:18); without another person he could not fulfill his vocation to likeness with the blessed Trinity. At the same time, a mere copy of himself would not have provided a suitable partner. He needed someone to complement him, which is why God made us man and woman.

This means that while God has created us as equals, we reflect his image in different ways. Men are called to fatherhood, and women to motherhood, either physically or spiritually. Only rarely does this completely exclude one of the sexes from a particular vocation — as men are excluded from bearing children, and women from the priesthood — but it does mean that we are called to fulfill our vocations in different ways.

For women, this is founded in motherhood. That does not mean that all women are called to bear children, but that we are called to exercise maternal care in all areas of human activity. Even most feminists believe that women’s participation in public life is important because of the maternal virtues. They hope that women’s involvement will foster peace, cooperation and the elimination of oppressive economics; but the realization of this hope is continually frustrated when women entering the public sphere reject the very virtues with which they are supposed to be changing the world.

Unfortunately, we live in a culture where women are told that motherhood detracts from, instead of revealing, our dignity.

Many women fear pregnancy, believing that having a child would “ruin their life,” and prevent them from fulfilling their dreams. Kate Michelman of the abortion advocacy group NARAL claims that “Abortion is the guarantor of a woman’s ... right to participate fully in the social and political life of society.” Clearly, this assumes that mothers are not guaranteed such participation.

Abortion, contraception and other attacks on motherhood cannot achieve equality because they undermine the premise that women and men are equal. Only if we assume that women, in their natural state, are less able than men to make valuable contributions to society, will we insist that women must be corrected, by chemicals or by surgery, to allow them to claim the equality which nature has denied them.

The Church, on the other hand, affirms that women are categorically equal to men, and insists that we must realize this equality by protecting the rights of women and children, and by creating a culture where all women are able to participate — including those who have children.

As Christians, we believe that all vocations are a call to imitate Christ’s sacrificial love. It is the meek, the humble and the poor in spirit who are called blessed.

This means that we don’t want to create a world in which women can be more powerful and selfish, but one in which all persons exercising power do so with humility and love. We believe that wherever men have used their position as priest or husband to dominate those around them, they have committed a serious abuse.

However, this is not to be corrected by encouraging women to imitate these abuses, but by opposing the misuse of power in all its forms. This means we must oppose a culture in which women reject self-giving love as oppressive, and where fulfillment and empowerment are seen in purely self-centered terms.

This cannot, however, be done by trying to return to things as they were. The injustices of the present are a reaction to the injustices of the past. Both must be eliminated if we are to build a culture where we reap the benefits of women’s talents and skills, without sacrificing feminine virtues at the altar of independence.

Melinda Selmys writes from

Etibicoke, Ontario.