EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appeared in the November 25, 1988, issue of National Review.
Last April a committee of the Roman Catholic bishops of the United States came out with the first draft of a “pastoral response to women’s concerns for church and society.” It bore the marks of having been written in the woodshed where Catholic feminists spanked committee members for the church’s “sin” of sexism.
In subsequent remarks to visiting American bishops, Pope John Paul II was understood to be critical of the committee’s draft. “True Christian feminism,” he said, must be grounded in “the immutable basis of Christian anthropology.” The Pope has now demonstrated what that might mean by issuing his own letter, “On the Dignity and Vocation of Women.” The Pope’s letter does not displace, but it should substantively modify, the bishops’ letter. Presented with two letters on women in church and society, some Catholics might be so traditional as to give priority to the Pope’s.
Those who expected John Paul to issue a polemic against feminism will surely be disappointed. He agrees with the Second Vatican Council that the hour has come “when the vocation of women is being acknowledged in its fullness, the hour in which women acquire in the world an influence, an effect, and a power never hitherto achieved.” The Biblical teaching of mutual service between man and woman, he writes, “must gradually establish itself in hearts, consciences, behaviors, and customs.” This has not yet happened. Not by a long shot. He draws a comparison with the case of Biblical teaching and slavery. “Yet how many generations were needed for such a principle to be realized in the history of humanity through the abolition of slavery!” So John Paul acknowledges that something momentous is afoot in this century’s churnings about the relationship between men and women.
In contrast to the diverse distortions in current feminisms, the Pope displays an alternative vision of the dignity and vocation of women. “True Christian feminism” is firmly grounded in natural reality, which includes “the Creator’s decision that the human being should always and only exist as a woman or a man.” The difference between woman and man is also “a truth that is immutably fixed in human experience.”
The truth of the immutable is intolerable, of course, to Christians of agnostic bent. Grace, they contend, liberates us from the given. Through the alchemy of consciousness-raising, human sexuality becomes almost infinitely malleable. Against such unisex gnosticism, John Paul insists that “Grace never casts nature aside or cancels it out, but rather perfects it and ennobles it.” He thus deplores the “masculinization” of women, which denies the “originality” of the feminine. When Adam awoke, he rejoiced in both the identity and the difference of the companion whom God had given him. John Paul comments, “In the Biblical description, the words of the first man at the sight of the woman who had been created are words of admiration and enchantment, words that fill the whole history of man on earth.” That, one may respectfully infer, is written by one whose celibacy does not imply an indifference to the feminine enchantment.
“Enchantment indeed!” snorts our local unisexist. “It’s the feminine mystique all over again.” Hardly. Woman is not on a pedestal, according to this Pope, but very much at the side of man, as man is at her side. John Paul’s challenge is to the male: “Each man must look within himself to see whether she who was entrusted to him as a sister in humanity, as a spouse, has not become in his heart an object of adultery; to see whether she who, in different ways, is the co-subject of his existence in the world has not become for him an ‘object’: an object of pleasure, of exploitation.” Man and womanare equal, he argues, not in their sameness but in their “mutual subjection” to one another in Christ. John Paul does not agree with many conservative Christians that the woman is to subordinate herself to the man’s rule or “headship.” Genesis does indeed speak of man’s rule over woman, the Pope acknowledges, but that disorder caused by sin has now been overcome in Christ. When, in Ephesians, Paul says the husband is the “head” of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, he means that the husband is to follow Christ’s example of selfsurrendering service. Thus the equality of woman and man is not in the rights they claim against one another but in the service they render to one another.
John Paul is writing about Christian feminism. The Church must resist “criteria of understanding and judgment that do not pertain to her nature.” Christian efforts to accommodate alien criteria of male-female equality are grievously wrong-headed. In this connection, the Pope reaffirms that only men may be included in the ordained ministry. In agreement with feminists, he details the ways in which Jesus, contrary to the customs of his culture, elevated the role of women. He then notes that it makes little sense to claim that this counter-cultural Jesus chose only men because he was “culturally conditioned.”
One may argue with parts of “On the Dignity and Vocation of Women.” But good argument requires honest engagement with a statement that shows John Paul’s fellow bishops and others how to be sensitive without being intimidated. “True Christian feminism,” the Pope is saying, aims not to appease but to transform the other kinds.