What does the Catholic Church say about “the woman question”—the question, especially debated in the Victorian era, which asks, what is the nature of woman and what is her role in society? While most Catholics today look to the writings of St. John Paul II to understand what the Church says about woman’s nature and role, popes spoke about the woman question at the height of the debate about it in the secular sphere. To understand the Church’s view on the woman question it is important to look at what popes said while changes in women’s roles were first unfolding, as opposed to when the “modern woman” was a fait accompli.
The socio-political movement known as feminism began fomenting in the mid-19th century when a small group of women began agitating for the vote. By the late 20th century feminism had taken hold of every facet of society thanks to the eruption of a “second wave” of feminism which began in the 1960s. However, the woman suffrage campaign of the 19th and early 20th centuries had already brought the idea of “women’s rights” to the foreground and forced society into a debate over woman’s nature and role. As feminism unfolded in the western world, Popes Leo XIII, St. Pius X, Pius XI and Pius XII all spoke on the topic of the woman question to varying degrees. These popes positioned the Church in opposition to feminism and provided an alternative answer to the woman question based not on secular feminist ideology but on traditional Church teaching. As changes in woman’s role became more apparent and settled, and feminism triumphed in the western world and choked out other approaches to the woman question, the Church, beginning with Pope St. John XXIII (although Pius XII showed signs of what was to come) began to accommodate feminist ideology and accept its influence on society.
The following essay is a look at how the Church’s views on the woman question progressed from the late 19th to the early 21st centuries based on what her popes said and wrote.
Leo XIII did not refer specifically to the woman question or feminism in his writings. However, he spoke of woman’s role in several of his encyclicals. (The term “feminism” did not come into regular use until the early 1900s—the term used was the woman’s rights movement—but most historians retroactively assign the term “feminism” to the woman suffrage movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries.)
In Leo XIII’s 1878 encyclical on socialism, Quod Apostolici Muneris, in the context of a discussion on family life, he refers to Ephesians 5:23: “Wherefore, as the Apostle has it, as Christ is the head of the Church, so is the man the head of the woman; and as the Church is subject to Christ, who embraces her with a most chaste and undying love, so also should wives be subject to their husbands, and be loved by them in turn with a faithful and constant affection.” Leo XIII leaves this teaching of St. Paul to speak for itself without elaboration or innovation. He then goes on to use the husband’s headship as a model of authority tempered by love as he discusses the relationship of parents and children.
In his encyclical Arcanum Divinae (On Christian Marriage), published in 1880, Leo XIII again refers to Ephesians 5:23, reaffirming what St. Paul taught. The pope introduces St. Paul’s words with several of his own; however, he in no way attempts to reinterpret what St. Paul taught—his words clarify and reinforce the apostle’s teaching.
11. Secondly, the mutual duties of husband and wife have been defined, and their several rights accurately established. They are bound, namely, to have such feelings for one another as to cherish always very great mutual love, to be ever faithful to their marriage vow, and to give one another an unfailing and unselfish help. The husband is the chief of the family and the head of the wife. The woman, because she is flesh of his flesh, and bone of his bone, must be subject to her husband and obey him; not, indeed, as a servant, but as a companion, so that her obedience shall be wanting in neither honor nor dignity. Since the husband represents Christ, and since the wife represents the Church, let there always be, both in him who commands and in her who obeys, a heaven-born love guiding both in their respective duties. For “the husband is the head of the wife; as Christ is the head of the Church…Therefore, as the Church is subject to Christ, so also let wives be to their husbands in all things.”
Leo XIII makes a brief but important point about women in Rerum Novarum (On Capital and Labor), published in 1891. When listing what just work conditions entail, he states: “Finally, work which is quite suitable for a strong man cannot rightly be required from a woman or a child.” He then elaborates: “Women, again, are not suited for certain occupations; a woman is by nature fitted for home-work, and it is that which is best adapted at once to preserve her modesty and to promote the good bringing up of children and the well-being of the family.”
Leo XIII was writing during the first wave of feminism—at the end of the 19th century the woman suffrage campaign was well underway in the U.S. and England although it was not yet at its height. By the time of the pontificate of St. Pius X, the suffrage campaign was gaining momentum, and use of the term “feminist” was becoming more common—to describe women who wanted the right to vote as well as increased economic and personal freedom. St. Pius X did not refer to the woman question in his encyclicals, but spoke about it in addresses to Catholic women’s groups which had begun to form at the beginning of the 20th century.
In an address given to a delegation of the Union of Italian Catholic Women in 1909, which was reported on in newspapers in the U.S., St. Pius X addressed feminism directly:
After creating man, God created woman and determined her mission, namely, that of being man’s companion, helpmeet and consolation…It is a mistake, therefore, to maintain that woman’s rights are the same as man’s. Women in war or parliament are outside their proper sphere and their position. There would be the desperation and ruin of society. Woman, created as man’s companion, must so remain under the power of love and affection, but always under his power. How mistaken, therefore, is that misguided feminism which seeks to correct God’s work. It is like a mechanic trying to correct the signs and movements of the universe. Scripture, and especially the three epistles of St. Paul, emphasizes woman’s dependence on man, her love and assistance, but not her slavery to him. Woman’s duties, however, are not confined within the household’s walls. She has a great social mission, a place in every charitable cause; work to perform on behalf of the sick the suffering and the criminal; the protection of women and children. In this great and common action women should unite and should strive to secure the means necessary to exercise the apostolic injunction of social charity.
In this address, St. Pius X makes his views clear on the proper sphere of women, and elaborates on St. Paul’s teachings about the relationship of woman to man, that is, her subjection to him. The pope also makes a direct criticism of feminism—the first public reference to feminism by a pope. Further, he limits woman’s “great social mission” to charitable causes and calls “women in war or parliament” the cause of “the desperation and ruin of society.” St. Pius X’s words of guidance for his female audience have a clear meaning that is impossible to misinterpret.
Benedict XV, whose pontificate saw the enfranchisement of women in many countries in the West, including the U.S., Canada, Britain and Germany (it would come several years later to countries like Spain, France and Italy), continued with Pius X’s criticism of feminism and reiterated St. Pius X’s thoughts about woman’s sphere. In a letter praising the translation of Fr. Augustine Roesler’s Die Frauenfrage (The Woman Question) into Italian, the pontiff stated: “One must carefully guard, lest those perverse doctrines prevail which wish to make woman rather a rival of man than his coworker; that is, that she be not so much adorned by those virtues with which it befits her to resign peacefully within domestic walls; but given to alien pursuits and striving in a foreign field.”
In a letter addressed to the Mother Superior of the Ursuline Sisters on the occasion of the Order’s 300th anniversary in 1917, Benedict XV included this statement on the woman question: “One can see, too, that there are many women who, devoting themselves too much to pursuits foreign to their nature, have acquired manners of acting which are utterly masculine; and that these same women, deserting their duties in the home for which they were created, rashly throw themselves into the midst of life’s struggle.”
In an audience given to a delegation of the Union of Italian Catholic Women in 1919, Benedict XV acknowledged the changing role of women in society—not only were women getting the vote but they were also working outside of the home in greater numbers—neither condoning nor condemning it. However, he attached a strong warning to his statements:
The changed conditions of the times have conferred upon woman functions and rights which were not allowed her in former times. But no change in the opinions of men, no novelty of circumstances and events will ever remove woman, conscious of her mission, from her natural centre, which is the family…Hence it may be justly said that the changed conditions of the times have enlarged the field of woman’s activity. An apostolate of woman in the world has succeeded that more intimate and restricted action which she formerly exercised within the domestic walls; but this apostolate must be carried out in such a manner as to make it evident that woman, both outside and within the home, shall not forget that it is her duty, even to-day, to consecrate her principal cares to the family.
The pope then went on to applaud the apostolate the Catholic Women’s Union had outlined for itself:
We have heard with pleasure that the Catholic Women’s Union ‘promises in a special manner to dedicate itself to the education of youth, and the betterment of the family and the school.’ It is principally here that We may say how pleased We are to have been forestalled in Our desires, because if We had had to draw up a programme of feminine action We could not have traced rules different from those that are indicated for the welfare of the family and the children of Our schools.
While Benedict XV does acknowledge the reality of women’s enlarged sphere in the early part of the 20th century, he also states that her “natural centre” is the family and that her “principal cares” should be for the family. The fact that he is pleased that the Union’s program for action concerns the family and youth gives us an idea of what he envisions as woman’s proper field of activity if she has a role outside of the home—only that which pertains to causes and work on behalf of children and the family. There is no evidence that the pope approves of the new changes in woman’s role, only acknowledgment of the new reality of woman’s changing sphere.
Pius XI spoke explicitly about feminism and proposed that women can find a “true and holy feminism” in the religious life. In August 1928 during a speech on the occasion of the introduction of the cause of beatification of the Venerable Paola Frassinetti, the pope said:
What does the modern woman, the feminist, want? Would she be sufficient for herself, open her own path, and not be dependent on the egoism and domination of men, would she find a field for her own proper activity? Very well, the Church has already done that by encouraging the religious profession and consecration of so many generous lives to works of piety, education, assistance, evangelization, in fact the apostolate of good in every imaginable form.
Behold a true and holy feminism, from the very first beginnings of religious life down to this latest example which we see before us in these last days of Paola Frassinetti, a glorious example, a meritorious feminism indeed.
What are the religious of all times and places, if they are not women who are sufficient of themselves, and willed to labour in those fields which they had willed and chosen? Truly here we see the true emancipation, the elevation, the consecration of woman, and all this the Church has ever venerated, and required to be held in honour by the Christian world.
By pointing women who wish to open their own paths and be self-sufficient toward the religious life Pius XI offers a uniquely Catholic answer to the woman question. Pius XI is instructing women to keep their focus on Christ and put their energies into the religious life if not into marriage and family life. He is not saying that religious women should be feminists or that feminists should enter convents—he is saying that there is no need for feminism. In this brief passage the pope shows that the Church has the answers for how men and women should live, and no man-made ideologies are needed. The “true and holy feminism” that Pius XI lays out is very different from the “new feminism” of St. John Paul II which will be discussed later in this essay.
In Pius XI’s 1930 encyclical on marriage, Casti Cannubi, he elaborates on Leo XIII’s words in Arcanum:
26. Domestic society being confirmed, therefore, by this bond of love, there should flourish in it that “order of love,” as St. Augustine calls it. This order includes both the primacy of the husband with regard to the wife and children, the ready subjection of the wife and her willing obedience, which the Apostle commends in these words: “Let women be subject to their husbands as to the Lord, because the husband is the head of the wife, and Christ is the head of the Church.”
27. This subjection, however, does not deny or take away the liberty which fully belongs to the woman both in view of her dignity as a human person, and in view of her most noble office as wife and mother and companion; nor does it bid her obey her husband’s every request if not in harmony with right reason or with the dignity due to wife; nor, in fine, does it imply that the wife should be put on a level with those persons who in law are called minors, to whom it is not customary to allow free exercise of their rights on account of their lack of mature judgment, or of their ignorance of human affairs. But it forbids that exaggerated liberty which cares not for the good of the family; it forbids that in this body which is the family, the heart be separated from the head to the great detriment of the whole body and the proximate danger of ruin. For if the man is the head, the woman is the heart, and as he occupies the chief place in ruling, so she may and ought to claim for herself the chief place in love.
28. Again, this subjection of wife to husband in its degree and manner may vary according to the different conditions of persons, place and time. In fact, if the husband neglect his duty, it falls to the wife to take his place in directing the family. But the structure of the family and its fundamental law, established and confirmed by God, must always and everywhere be maintained intact.
Pius XI makes it clear that there is both a hierarchy in marriage—the wife is subject to the husband who is the head of the wife—and a differentiation in the roles of husband and wife—the wife is the heart and the husband is the head of the family. He offers helpful elaboration on what this means; for example, the wife should not be treated like a child. The “exaggerated liberty” that St. Paul’s teaching on subjection forbids is that which feminist ideology proposes—that a wife is not subject to her husband but is his equal partner. To undermine this biblical teaching, feminism encourages the “androgynous” marriage where both husband and wife work outside of the home and share equally in the housework and childrearing responsibilities.
He then goes on to address the wrong ideas of feminism directly:
74. The same false teachers who try to dim the luster of conjugal faith and purity do not scruple to do away with the honorable and trusting obedience which the woman owes to the man. Many of them even go further and assert that such a subjection of one party to the other is unworthy of human dignity, that the rights of husband and wife are equal; wherefore, they boldly proclaim the emancipation of women has been or ought to be effected. This emancipation in their ideas must be threefold, in the ruling of the domestic society, in the administration of family affairs and in the rearing of the children. It must be social, economic, physiological: physiological, that is to say, the woman is to be freed at her own good pleasure from the burdensome duties properly belonging to a wife as companion and mother (We have already said that this is not an emancipation but a crime); social, inasmuch as the wife being freed from the cares of children and family, should, to the neglect of these, be able to follow her own bent and devote herself to business and even public affairs; finally economic, whereby the woman even without the knowledge and against the wish of her husband may be at liberty to conduct and administer her own affairs, giving her attention chiefly to these rather than to children, husband and family.
75. This, however, is not the true emancipation of woman, nor that rational and exalted liberty which belongs to the noble office of a Christian woman and wife; it is rather the debasing of the womanly character and the dignity of motherhood, and indeed of the whole family, as a result of which the husband suffers the loss of his wife, the children of their mother, and the home and the whole family of an ever watchful guardian. More than this, this false liberty and unnatural equality with the husband is to the detriment of the woman herself, for if the woman descends from her truly regal throne to which she has been raised within the walls of the home by means of the Gospel, she will soon be reduced to the old state of slavery (if not in appearance, certainly in reality) and become as amongst the pagans the mere instrument of man.
76. This equality of rights which is so much exaggerated and distorted, must indeed be recognized in those rights which belong to the dignity of the human soul and which are proper to the marriage contract and inseparably bound up with wedlock. In such things undoubtedly both parties enjoy the same rights and are bound by the same obligations; in other things there must be a certain inequality and due accommodation, which is demanded by the good of the family and the right ordering and unity and stability of home life.
Pius XI also states that if “the mother of the family… is compelled to go forth and seek a living by her own labor” it is “to the great harm of the home.”
In this clear condemnation of feminism, the pope attacks the false emancipation that feminism offers to women. In the first paragraph, the pope says it is “false teachers” that claim woman is not subject to man and that the rights of husband and wife are equal. He goes as far as saying it is a crime for a woman to be freed from the duties belonging to wife and mother. These are strong words that subsequent popes (as we shall see) did not carry forth as the Church continued to comment on the woman question.
In these paragraphs from Casti Cannubi, Pius XI provides a straightforward and comprehensive teaching on the woman question that is still very much relevant today. Further, Pius XI does not seek to reconcile the Church with feminism in any way; rather, he sets the Church above and apart from any man-made ideology. As Pius XI states, the Church has its own teachings and instructions for women that predate the debate about woman’s nature and role, but which continue to provide the most adequate answer to the woman question. Setting the Church apart from versus reconciling the Church with feminist ideology marks the difference between the approach of the popes to the woman question in the late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries compared to the popes of the second half of the 20th and early 21st centuries.
Part 2 of this essay will be posted next week.