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Pope John Paul II, Women, Feminism

What Role for Women in the Catholic Church?


The most significant sources of conflict within the Catholic Church today revolve around the role and status of women. Should women be allowed to become priests? Must women be prevented from using artificial means of birth control? Are women equal to men in all things? Although church leaders like Pope John Paul II long employed the language of equality and liberty, they also spoke and acted in ways that encouraged a second-class status for female Catholics.

Early in his pontificate, many women hoped that John Paul II would continue with the reforms begun with the Second Vatican Council and the position of women in the church would be enhanced. Such hopes were quickly dashed, however, and it became clear that they would be luckily to merely retain what they had, much less enjoy any improvement.

If there was one defining feature to John Paul’s religiosity it was probably be his devotion the Virgin Mary. It influenced everything he wrote and said, so it is not surprising that it also played an important role with his views on women and sexuality as well. In his 1981 Familiaris Consortio, Pope John Paul connected the themes of femininity, sexuality, motherhood, and the family in ways that be seen over and over through his reign:

    “May the Virgin Mary, who is the Mother of the Church, also be the Mother in “the Church of the home.” Thanks to her motherly aid, may each Christian family really become a “little Church” in which the mystery of the Church of Christ is mirrored and given new life. May she, the Handmaid of the Lord, be an example of the humble and generous acceptance of the will of God. May she, the Sorrowful Mother at the foot of the Cross, comfort the sufferings and dry the tears in distress because of the difficulties of the families.”

What was John Paul talking about here? Temptation — specifically, the temptations that afflict women and which they need to overcome in order to remain right with God. Women must learn to submit to the will of God just as Mary submitted, first to bear the Son of God and then later to watch him die on the Cross.

Women must learn to resist the temptation to use birth control and take it upon themselves to regulate the birth of children; instead, they should accept however many children God wants them to have. Women must learn to resist the temptation to take control of the lives others and leave that to God and the men assigned that task — especially when it comes to things like the priesthood.

In 1994, Pope John Paul II issued a statement to the effect that the Church had no authority to admit women to the priesthood and that the question would have to be put off indefinitely. It wasn’t quite an announcement made from a position of infallibility, though it comes very close and there is some debate as to whether it qualifies as an infallible pronouncement.

For all the women who hoped that they might one day become priests, this struck hard, not simply because it denied them their aspirations but also because it appeared to deny them even the dignity of having a debate about the matter. To this day people who attempt to argue that perhaps women are fit to be priests do so with the risk of losing the right to call themselves Catholic theologians.

In this, the forces of conservatism are definitely in charge — but what else could John Paul have done? As noted above, debates over the status of women are probably the most contentious in the Catholic Church. If John Paul had even merely allowed the debate to continue, it probably would have meant continued rancor that would have pulled Catholics apart; had he given even a hit of approval for the ordination of women, it would have been even worse.

John Paul’s papacy was focused to a great extent on unifying Catholics behind orthodox dogma. He didn't want to have to contend with battles within the Church; he felt the need to make sure that the Church was ready for much larger battles against outside forces like secularism and Islam.

In John Paul's mind the Church would only be strong enough to meet those challenges, however, if it were relatively united and sure of itself, committed to the traditional dogmas that have allowed it to survive to this point. This was something he learned in Poland where only a well-organized, disciplined church (he believed) was able to survive repression under communist dictatorship.

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