One of the most innovative marks of the pontificate of Karol Wojtyła was, without a doubt, his relationship with women. In the first place, what amazed many of us was his lack of fear in having physical contact with the opposite sex. We saw him embrace his old female classmates with evident affection, and he let Mother Teresa hold his hand, both without showing that diffidence that has characterized and continues to characterize the attitude of the clergy with regard to women. In addition to this innovation in behavior – of greater significance than many theoretic affirmations – there was an attention to women’s issues that no Pope before had ever had. One can affirm without hesitation, in fact, that John Paul II was the only man with a high institutional office to develop a response to that which has been the greatest socio-cultural revolution of modern times, women’s emancipation.
In his apostolic letter “Mulieris Dignitatem” (1988), his most important text on this topic, he accepted with never-before-seen openness the interpretation of the biblical account of creation developed by a group of feminist theologians that contrasts with the masculine primacy in being created, from which male-superiority derived its justification. Despite this openness, he responded negatively to many of the requests put forward by feminists, including many within the Church, confirming the exclusion of women from priesthood and the condemnation of abortion and artificial means of birth control. In fact, for Wojtyła the “genius” of the female gender is connected to the primary reason for its difference, which is, to motherhood, be it concrete or metaphoric, and he saw and clearly denounced the dangers inherent in the position of those who would set women’s emancipation – of which he was always a loyal supporter – against motherhood.
In his “Letter to Women” – written in 1995, on the occasion of the conference in Beijing organized by the UN on the condition of women – John Paul II made it perfectly clear that a renewed and “universal recognition of the dignity of women,” (6) keeping in mind, however, that the “female genius” fulfills herself in giving herself to others in her everyday life (cf. 12). This is a strong and coherent position, which reclaims for Christianity the defense of the dignity of women, which “goes back to the attitude of Jesus Christ himself,” (3) while respecting the difference that consists in motherhood. Exactly for this reason in every text addressed to women Wojtyła reconfirmed the condemnation of abortion, a theme that became central in what will probably remain his most important and most prophetic encyclical, “Evangelium Vitae.” In it the Pope reveals the relationship that connects abortion to research on embryos and euthanasia; constituting “a particularly grave moral disorder” (61) in as much as it is a negation of “an objective moral law,” (70) abortion is the bearer of new and serious ethical transgressions.
John Paul II supplied proof of his attention to the feminine not only beatifying and canonizing many women (among whom, one such as Edith Stein, who theorized a Christian feminism), but also proclaiming three female saints – Bridget of Sweden, Catherine of Siena, and Stein herself – co-patronesses of Europe, in spiritual coupling with Benedict, Cyril, and Methodius. This was to reaffirm, once more, the need for the two different identities in Christian tradition and in the Christian community.
Karol Wojtyła was therefore capable of giving greater value to women’s emancipation, inscribing it in the path of cultural progress started by Christian tradition while distancing it from its negative tendencies, such as the negation of motherhood as a value and tendency to make feminine identity uniform to the masculine model. His is a defense of women inasmuch as different because, he writes, “It is only through the duality of the ‘masculine’ and the ‘feminine’ that the ‘human’ finds full realization” (Letter to Women, 7).
Professor of Contemporary History
Department of History Studies
University of Rome La Sapienza
Thursday, March 29, 2007
The Genius of the Female Gender According to John Paul II
Here is the translation I did of an article that will appear in the April issue of "Tutus Tuus," the magazine of the Postulation of the Cause of John Paul II.