By CINDY WOODEN, CNS | Published April 7, 2005
In authoritative theological documents and in heartfelt pastoral letters, Pope John Paul II looked at the role of women in the church and in the world more closely than any other pope in modern history.
On topics as diverse as the priesthood, motherhood, abortion, work, religious life and peacemaking, women were a recurring and often controversial subject for Pope John Paul.
During his more than 26-year pontificate, as women consolidated their place in some of the highest echelons of temporal power, the pope and the Catholic Church were the objects of continuous criticism about the status of women in the church.
The issue of women and the priesthood generated discussion and dissent within the Catholic Church and became a major ecumenical stumbling block when some churches in the Anglican Communion began ordaining women.
Nevertheless, during Pope John Paul’s pontificate, women took over pastoral and administrative duties in priestless parishes, they were appointed chancellors of dioceses around the world, and they began swelling the ranks of “experts” at Vatican synods and symposiums. In 2004, for the first time, the pope appointed two women theologians to the prestigious International Theological Commission and named a Harvard University law professor, Mary Ann Glendon, to be president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences.
While defending women’s rights and their “equal dignity” with men, the pope also highlighted the ways women are and should be different from men.
Women and men have complementary natures, he taught, and their “diversity of roles” in the church and in the family are a reflection of that reality.
The pope’s teaching on complementarity formed the basis for a 2004 document by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on male-female collaboration in the church and society. Describing discrimination against women and male-female rivalry as results of sin, the document said the differences between the sexes are part of God’s plan for creation–not social constructs–and that church and society benefit when the gifts of both are recognized.
While decrying discrimination against women and urging their promotion in all spheres of community and social life, the pope unequivocally reaffirmed the teaching that the church cannot ordain them to the priesthood.
The basic elements of his teaching on women are found in his 1988 apostolic letter, “Mulieris Dignitatem”(“The Dignity of Women”), his 1994 apostolic letter, “On Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone,” and his 1995 “Letter to Women.”
But his thoughts on women also could be found in significant segments of his weekly general audience series on sexuality and on the structure of the church, his 1988 apostolic exhortation on the laity, his 1995 message for World Peace Day, and his messages to the leaders of the U.N. conferences on population and on women.
Even one of his annual heart-to-heart letters to the world’s priests dwelt on the topic of women, particularly on the importance of women—mothers, sisters and friends—in the lives of priests.
The starting point of “Mulieris Dignitatem” was what Scripture had to say about women, especially Eve and Mary, and Christ’s attitude toward women in the New Testament.
In the letter, the pope argued against outdated cultural views that God meant women to be subject to men. Both were created in God’s image and likeness with equal dignity, he said.
Women have been subjugated because human beings are sinful, he said, and “the situations in which the woman remains disadvantaged or discriminated against by the fact of being a woman” are the continuing consequences of sin.
The fact that God chose a woman, the Virgin Mary, to play such an important role in the world’s salvation leaves little doubt about the God-given dignity of women, the pope wrote.
In his 1994 apostolic letter on ordination, Pope John Paul said the church’s ban on women priests is definitive and not open to debate among Catholics.
The all-male priesthood, he wrote, does not represent discrimination against women, but fidelity to Christ’s actions and his plan for the church.
The pope’s document reaffirmed the basis for ordaining only men: Christ chose only men to be his Apostles, it has been the constant practice of the Catholic and Orthodox churches, and the magisterium’s teaching on the matter has been consistent.
Pope John Paul took his teaching directly to the world’s women in a 1995 letter in which he thanked them for all they have done, apologized for the church’s failure to always recognize their contributions and condemned the “long and degrading history” of sexual violence against women.
Evaluating the women’s liberation movement as being generally positive, the pope called for changes to make women’s equality a reality in the world. He called for equal pay for equal work, protection for working mothers and fairness in career advancement.
But he also mentioned a growing concern in his thinking and teaching: a belief that modern societies were denigrating motherhood and penalizing women who chose to have children.
While the pope carefully avoided discussing women exclusively in terms of their possible roles as virgins or mothers, he exalted the virtues of both.
He repeatedly pointed to women’s potential as bearers of life as part of the “feminine genius” that the world so desperately needs as it struggles against the “culture of death” marked by war, abortion and euthanasia.
Perhaps the most poignant example of the pope’s trust in women’s sensitivity to life was a 1993 letter to an archbishop in war-ravaged Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Denouncing the widespread practice of ethnically motivated rape during the war, the pope also pleaded with the victims, their families and their communities to welcome and love any babies conceived as a result of rape.
“The unborn, having no responsibility for the deplorable act that occurred, is innocent and therefore cannot in any way be considered an aggressor,” the pope wrote.
“The whole community must draw close to these women who have been so painfully offended and to their families, to help them transform an act of violence into an act of love and welcome,” he said.
The family, in its natural role as a “sanctuary of life and love,” is the place to start rebuilding societies torn apart by violence, Pope John Paul taught.