On the woman question, Pius XII was the bridge between the thinking of the popes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the popes of the latter half of the 20th and early 21st centuries. Unlike subsequent popes who attempted to reconcile feminism with Catholicism, Pius XII kept the two separate and denounced feminism. Pius XII, like his predecessors, called on women to fulfill their duties as wives and mothers first and lamented the loss of women from the home. However, unlike his predecessors, he treated women’s entry into “public life” as a fait accompli, and began to accept a larger role for women than that of wife and mother or religious.
In October 1945 Pius XII gave an address to various Catholic women’s associations, titled, Women’s Duties in Social and Political Life, which received widespread attention.
At the beginning of the speech he comes out swinging against feminism and the systems that promote it, and does not attempt to reconcile it with what the Church teaches:
Therefore systems which banish God and His law from social relations, and allow to the precepts of religion at best a humble place in a man’s private life, are in no position to consider the problem of woman from the right standpoint. And this is why you have refused to have anything to do with the high-sounding slogans with which certain people love to advance the claims of feminism, deciding rightly, to band yourselves together as Catholic women and girls, and so respond in a proper manner to the natural demands of your sex and promote its true interests.
However, he then begins to make statements that while perhaps aren’t contradictory, are vague and confusing.
While he states that “both sexes have the right and duty to work together for the good of society…” he points out that, “it is clear that while man is by temperament more suited to deal with external affairs and public business, generally speaking the woman has a deeper insight for understanding the delicate problems of domestic and family life, and a surer touch in solving them…” But he is quick to follow this statement with, “…which, of course, is not to deny that some women can show great ability in every sphere of public life…”
He also states that, “It is not so much that each sex is called to a different task; the difference is rather in their manner of judging and arriving at concrete and practical applications.” This statement seems to reverse or alter his statement about men generally belonging to “external affairs and public business” and women belonging to “domestic and family life.”
He then discusses how a “certain totalitarian regime” tempts women with promises such as equality of rights with men and state-run services that assist working mothers such as public crèches. He says that these services exempt her from her maternal obligations. He then mentions that these “social measures” may have some advantages “provided they are administered in a proper manner.” The vagueness of this statement is unsettling. No matter how well run a daycare is, there should never be support for a system, communist or capitalist or other, that encourages mothers to leave their children with strangers each day while they pursue work outside of the home. Also, this cautious approval for social measures which encourage women to work outside of the home seems to contradict what he says next—that feminism has led women to abandon the home.
Has all this improved woman’s condition? Equality of rights with men has led her to abandon the home, in which she used to reign as queen, and subjected her to the same burden and the same hours of work. No heed is paid any longer to her true dignity, to that which is the firm foundation of all her rights: her distinctive quality of womanhood and the essential co-ordination of the sexes. The Creator’s purpose for the welfare of human society, and especially of the family, has now been forgotten. In the concessions that are being made to woman it is easy to see, not so much the respect which is due to her dignity and her vocation, as rather a desire to build up the economic and military power of the totalitarian State, to which everything must be inexorably subordinated.
The pope laments women abandoning the home to work, yet, at other points in his address, as we shall see, he encourages her to enter public life. Further, in this passage it is unclear whether or not he is referring only to the feminism of a totalitarian regime or feminism in general.
The pope discusses at length the problem of women abandoning the home to enter the workforce:
Here is the wife who, to augment her husband’s income, also goes out to work in a factory, leaving the home neglected during her absence. Already squalid and confined enough, perhaps, the house becomes even more desolate for lack of care. And here are the members of the family, working separately at different hours in different parts of the city and hardly ever meeting one another, not even for the principal meal or for the rest at the end of the day’s work, much less for family prayers. What remains of family life? And what attractions has it to offer the children?
In addition to these unhappy consequences, the mother’s absence from the home has another and more lamentable result: it affects the children’s education, especially the girl’s training and preparation for real life. Accustomed to her mother being always absent from home and to seeing the home itself so dismal in its neglected condition, she will not be able to find anything attractive in it; nor will she feel the slightest inclination for the austerities of housework, any appreciation of its dignity and beauty, any desire to devote herself to it one day as wife and mother.
He exhorts: “Restore woman as soon as possible to her place of honor in the home as housewife and mother!”
However, he also encourages her to enter public life.
Are we therefore to conclude, Catholic women and Catholic girls, that you must resist the current which, whether you like it or not, is drawing you into the stream of social and political life? Certainly not. Various theories and systems, we have seen, are in various ways detaching woman from her true mission and, whether with the flattering promise of emancipation or with the hard realities of a hopeless poverty, depriving her of her true dignity, her dignity as a woman; and we have heard the cry of alarm, calling her back as soon as possible to take her active place in the home.
It is unclear how woman is to be restored to the home while she becomes entrenched in working outside the home.
In this next section of his address, the pope lumps together feminist emancipation from the home with poverty which forces both men and women to work. These are two different things. There will always be poverty or periods of poverty for a family in which the mother may have to work outside of the home. However, this doesn’t mean it is useless to preach that women, regardless, belong in the home caring for their family.
The fact is that woman is kept away from the home, not only by her declared emancipation, but often also by vital necessity, by the need to earn her daily bread. It is therefore useless to preach her return to the home so long as conditions continue which in many cases force her to remain absent from it. And here is the first aspect of the mission in social and political life which now presents itself to you. Into this public life you have entered all of a sudden, forced into it by the social changes we have witnessed. No matter—you are called upon to take part in it. Would you leave to other women, to those who are actively engineering the ruin of the home or at least conniving at it, the monopoly of organizing the social structure, in which the family forms the principal element of its economic, juridical, spiritual, and moral unity? The fortunes of the family, the fortunes of human society, are at stake; and they are in your hands: ‘Tua res agitur!’
Therefore every woman without exception is under an obligation—a strict obligation of conscience, mind you!—not to remain aloof; every woman must go into action, each in her own way, and join in stemming the tides which threaten to engulf the home, in fighting the doctrines which undermine its foundations, in preparing, organizing, and completing its restoration.
Who will look after the children of these women who under “strict obligation of conscience” are to “go into action?” By necessity a woman must abandon part or all of her duties in the home to “go into action.” The pope does not provide an answer for this problem, although he stated his approval of public crèches if they are “administered in a proper manner.”
The pope does single out “women who will have more leisure at their disposal” and single women (“those upon whom the force of circumstances has imposed a mysterious vocation…”) to take up this mission which single women “can more readily undertake than many of their sisters, occupied as they are with family cares and the education of their children, or else subject to the yoke of religious rule.” The creation of war widows at a time when there were new opportunities for women in social and political life he calls “Divine Providence.” However, many war widows were also single mothers. They needed support from their families, communities and the government more than opportunities to take part in social and political life. They needed new husbands not new jobs. Pius XII was also the first pope to call singlehood a vocation. One can argue that remaining single is not a vocation, but is an unfortunate reality for some which must be taken up as one’s cross, like widowhood, and is not a vocation in the sense that marriage or the religious life are.
The pope sees the family as under attack. However, there are two flawed ideas incorporated into his solution, which unfortunately, are amenable to feminism. First, that women must leave the home to save the home. The opposite seems like a more sensible approach: they must return to the home to save the home. This is what previous popes taught. Since feminism seeks to destroy the right ordering of society through women—specifically, by removing them from the home—it follows that the antidote to feminism is for women to return to the home. Second, that women, due to their “maternal instinct” and “delicacy,” are somehow more suited than men to fixing problems in society related to women, children and the family. However, men have always been the traditional protectors of women, children and the family, so it would seem that they are more qualified than women to fix such problems. Further, this kind of thinking is akin to the thoroughly feminist idea that women are somehow morally superior to men, which has never been part of the teaching and tradition of the Catholic Church. Are men not capable of administering institutions and introducing policies and legislation that benefit the family? Yes, they are, if they are allowed to do so—not silenced and emasculated by feminism, their traditional roles as protectors of women and children taken from them.
In 1947 Pius XII gave an address to the Congress of the International Union of Catholic Women’s Leagues, titled, Papal Directives for the Woman of Today. In this address he states:
Your own role is, in general, to work toward making woman always more conscious of her sacred rights, of her duties, and of her power to help mold public opinion, through her daily contacts, and to influence legislation and administration by the proper use of her prerogatives as citizen. Such is your common role. It does not mean that you are all to have political careers as members of public assemblies. Most of you must continue to give the greater part of your time and of your loving attention to the care of your homes and families. We must not forget that the making of a home in which all feel at ease and happy, and the bringing up of children are very special contributions to the common welfare…
…Those among you who have more leisure and are suitably prepared, will take up the burden of public life and be, as it were, your delegated representatives. Give them your confidence, understand their difficulties, the hard work and sacrifices their devotion entails; give them your help and support.
At the time of this speech woman suffrage has been enacted in many European countries and had been present in countries like the U.S., Canada and Britain for some time. Here, Pius XII shows realism in his approach to the woman question—most women will continue on in their traditional role, but, given certain changes in society, some will enter into public life.
Pope Pius XII taught both that woman’s place was in the home caring for her family and that there was nothing wrong with her entering the public sphere, provided she did not neglect her duties as wife and mother. The world would be a very tidy place indeed if only women without children and non-cloistered religious were the “delegates” for women in the public sphere. However, the ideology of feminism eventually became a dominant influence in every woman’s life in the world, and the idea of only those women with no family duties taking part in the public sphere was never part of this ideology. In fact, feminism sought to remove all women from the home in order to destroy the traditional ordering of society.
While Pius XII still had one foot firmly planted in the Church’s traditional view of woman’s role, he also opened the Church’s door a crack to feminism. This crack would get bigger or smaller depending on subsequent popes.
As it turned out, Pius XII was the last pope to pit the Church against feminism; subsequent popes, while not embracing feminism in its entirety (how could they?) attempted to reconcile feminist ideology with Catholic teaching.
Part 3 of this essay will be posted next week.