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.

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).

Lucetta Scaraffia

Professor of Contemporary History
Department of History Studies
University of Rome La Sapienza


Ann said...

the “female genius” fulfills herself in giving herself to others in her everyday life (cf. 12).

I thought in Christianity everyone was called to give of themselves to others? Shouldn't men give of themselves in their everyday life and find fulfillment in serving others as well? Why is self-giving considered a feminine trait? After all, Christ was male and His life was all about giving Himself to others.

Also, it says that it is negative to "make feminine identity uniform to the masculine model" -- what is meant by this? What qualities count as masculine and feminine? This is worrying for me as I'm quite a tomboy, and my gifts definitely do not lie in traditionally feminine areas like child care, social work, or teaching...

Br. Chris Gaffrey, ofm said...

Dear Ann, thank you for the comment. I'm not sure I can speak for the author, but from what I understood of the article, the quote you were wondering about needs to be considered in its context as a response to the United Nations' idea of how a woman is fulfilled (rights to abortion etc). In other words, you are right that everyone in Christianity, and not just women, are called to fulfill themselves by making a gift of themselves to others (a gift which is impossibile without first receiving from God). John Paul II wasn't saying that only women are fulfilled by giving themselves to others or that men are not called to give themselves to others. They are. Instead the point is that it is this giving which truly fulfills woman and not political rights (important as they are). In other words, happiness for the human person is not based on the recognition of political rights, though living in just conditions can reduce unhappiness. However, true happiness, blessedness, beatitude, come from agapic love. The quote from John Paul II simply reaffirms that for women in light of an organization (the UN) that, though it does well in fighting for the dignity of women, makes a mistake in thinking her fulfillment is only in these political rights and in a right to abortion (Again, I reading into the article from what I understood).

About the gifts and "feminine or masculine" traits, I would reply that John Paul II was not talking about jobs or roles as such as much as about approaches to jobs or to work. Women and men think differently, and to say that it is wrong to conform feminine identity to the masculine mold means that it is wrong to disregard the differences, thinking the difference of the feminine way of thinking to be something lesser or of no value. One of the things that I think is important in what this author, Lucetta Scaraffia, quotes of John Paul II is the fact that women approach the human person with their hearts, with their emotions. In our society, this is, unfortunately, looked down upon. The chauvinists who disregarded this aspect of women as being a trait that makes women weak, unfortunately won out, even in the so-called women's liberation movement of the 70's. The masculine model of complete rationality and approaching the world solely from the point of view of reason and thought, that at times ignores the emotional element of the human person, was held up as the model that women were supposed to imitate, to show that they were equal to men. Today we see a reaction to this with a new kind of feminism that is looking to reclaim the feminine genuis of looking at the world from the heart, that is, holding up what is proper to women and claiming its equal dignity, as opposed to pressuring conformity.

By the way, when I speak of looking at the world from the head or from the heart, I do not mean that men only look at the world from the head or women only from the heart, but it is the general starting point. What is necessary, I think is the synthesis of the two... that the two should work together.

I hope this somewhat answers your questions.