The Catholic Church and Feminisim. Part 3

Pacem in Terris, St. John XXIII’s encyclical on universal peace, was issued two months after Betty Friedan’s feminist manifesto The Feminine Mystique was first published in 1963. Friedan’s book helped launch the second wave of feminism with its call to housewives to leave their homes and find their identity (it is feminism’s view that housewife is not a legitimate identity). St. John XXIII’s encyclical set a new tone for the Catholic Church’s stance on the woman question.

Under the section titled, “Economic Rights,” the pope states that “Women must be accorded such conditions of work as are consistent with their needs and responsibilities as wives and mothers.” He references Rerum Novaram, but this is what Leo XIII said in Rerum Novarum regarding women and work: “Finally, work which is quite suitable for a strong man cannot rightly be required from a woman or a child,” and, “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.”

While St. John XXIII’s statement echoes what Leo XIII said, it does so without context and with little clarity, opening it up to interpretation. While Leo XIII viewed women working outside of the home as a sign of disorder in society, St. John XXIII and subsequent popes saw it as right and just if it was done properly, that is, done in a way that does not harm family life.

St. John XXIII also makes this statement in his discussion about rights:

“15. Human beings have also the right to choose for themselves the kind of life which appeals to them: whether it is to found a family—in the founding of which both the man and the woman enjoy equal rights and duties—or to embrace the priesthood or the religious life.”

He references Pius XII’s 1942 Christmas Message, The Internal Order of States and People. This is what Pius XII said (emphasis is added):

He should favor, by every lawful means, in every sphere of life, social institutions in which a full personal responsibility is assured and guaranteed both in the early and the eternal order of things. He should uphold respect for and the practical realization of the following fundamental personal rights; the right to maintain and develop one’s corporal, intellectual and moral life and especially the right to religious formation and education; the right to worship God in private and public and to carry on religious works of charity; the right to marry and to achieve the aim of married life; the right to conjugal and domestic society; the right to work, as the indispensable means towards the maintenance of family life; the right to free choice of state of life, and hence, too, of the priesthood or religious life; the right to the use of material goods; in keeping with his duties and social limitations.

There is no mention of man and woman enjoying “equal rights and duties” in the “founding of family life.” In fact, he makes this clear distinction between man’s and woman’s role: “But if legislation is to play its part in the pacification of the community, it must prevent the worker, who is or will be a father of a family, from being condemned to an economic dependence and slavery which is irreconcilable with his rights as a person.” The worker is not a woman—a mother—except in extraordinary cases.

Further, St. John XXIII’s view of husband and wife enjoying “equal rights and duties” is once again given without context and therefore lacks clarity, leaving it open to interpretation. Contrast his statement with Pius XI’s clear teachings in Casti Cannubi (emphasis is added):

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.

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 does not shy away from direct criticism of the feminist views present in secular society and is clear and direct about what the Church teaches. Leo XIII and St. Pius X did the same when they took up the topic (as quoted in Part 1 and Part 2 of this essay) of marriage and the relationship of husband and wife.

Under the section titled, “Characteristics of the Present Day,” St. John XXIII includes “the part that women are now playing in political life” as one of “three things which characterize our modern age”: “Women are gaining an increasing awareness of their natural dignity. Far from being content with a purely passive role or allowing themselves to be regarded as a kind of instrument, they are demanding both in domestic and in public life the rights and duties which belong to them as human persons.”

Unfortunately, St. John XXIII has, seemingly without reservation, integrated feminist ideology into his thinking about the woman question. Does the pope think women in previous times were not aware of their natural dignity? Was St. Thérèse of Lisieux or St. Maria Goretti not aware? Were women, before feminism, in purely passive roles? The evidence is to the contrary—especially in the life of the Church. That women have always been oppressed and unhappy is feminist propaganda that is easily disproved; this will be discussed later in this essay in the discussion of St. John Paul II’s teaching on women.

Here also we see for the first time in a pope’s treatment of the woman question domestic and public life placed on equal footing in terms of choices women may make regarding their time and activities. While Pius XII allowed for a small number of women—single women or widows or those that had the leisure—to take part in public affairs, and previous popes simply stated that women are not suited to do the same work as men, St. John XXIII makes none of these distinctions, throwing open the Church’s doors to feminism.

St. John XXIII condones women “demanding” their rights in both domestic and public life—a far cry from these words of St. Pius X from his 1909 address to the Union of Italian Catholic Women:

“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.”

According to Betty Friedan, when she met Paul VI in 1974 he said to her, “We want to express our gratitude and appreciation for all you have done for the women of the world.” If these were indeed the words the pope spoke to Friedan they are strange words for the head of the Catholic Church to say to a prominent women’s rights advocate who placed abortion rights at the centre of her advocacy. Abortion had been made legal just the year before in the U.S. thanks in part to the work of Freidan and her colleagues in the feminist movement.

According to Friedan, the pope told her the Church would not take a radical approach to the woman question and said that the Church had always upheld the dignity of women. He did say the Church was now studying the situation of women, not only in the family but at work and in all fields of society, so that women could develop according to their aspirations and play their proper role. In 1973, Paul VI had instituted the “Study Commission on Women in Society and in the Church,” predisposing Friedan to hope for more radical changes in the Church—for example, acceptance of a woman’s “right to choose” an abortion or allowing women to be ordained.

Friedan recognized the influence the Church had in the world and was eager to work with Catholics who wanted to foster the changes she hoped for. At the beginning of the chapter, “A Visit with Pope Paul,” in her book It Changed My Life: Writings on the Women’s Movement (1976), Friedan states that the most radical change she foresees in the women’s movement is theological. The leader of feminism in the western world had set her sights on radical change in the Catholic Church, and knew that at the very least, that feminism was having reverberations in the Church.

In his address to women at the closing of the Second Vatican Council in 1965, Paul VI called “Women living alone” a “dedicated vocation”—a marked progression from Pius XII’s “mysterious vocation.” While Paul VI still emphasized the role of women as mothers, his address included the unsettling message that feminism is good because it is only now, in the age of feminism, that “the vocation of woman is being achieved in its fullness, the hour in which woman acquires in the world an influence, an effect and a power never hitherto achieved.” This is nothing short of condoning the influence of feminism on women and on the world, because it was not through the Church’s influence nor through mere accident or circumstance that women were leaving the home to enter the workforce—it was due to feminism. The pope speaks in an admiring tone of the effects of a secular—even anti-Catholic—ideology. In this speech, he doesn’t even bother to use the “take-the-good-and-leave-the-bad” strategy that would become the hallmark of the Church’s approach to feminism after Vatican II.

Further, given the role women saints have played in the life of the Church, these are unusual words coming from the head of the Church: that it is only now that “the vocation of woman is being achieved in its fullness, the hour in which woman acquires in the world an influence, an effect and a power never hitherto achieved.” St. Joan of Arc, St. Catherine of Siena and St. Teresa of Avila, famous saints of the Middle Ages, influenced the life of the Church to no small degree. The Middle Ages though, were dominated by the guidance of the Church and feminism did not exist. Is that not then a good recipe for woman’s vocation to be fulfilled? These were exceptional cases—what about the rest of women who were either housewives or religious? How can we say that these women had not reached the heights of womanhood? Paul VI says that it is only in modern times that this is happening. The myth that women before feminism were oppressed and unfulfilled will be discussed at length later in this essay.

With the second wave of feminism well under way and abortion rights at the forefront of feminist demands, Paul VI included a section titled, “The Role of Women,” in his social encyclical Octogesima Adveniens, published in 1971 on the 80th anniversary of Rerum Novarum. This brief paragraph constitutes the new thinking of the Catholic Church about the woman question.

Similarly, in many countries a charter for women which would put an end to an actual discrimination and would establish relationships of equality in rights and of respect for their dignity is the object of study and at times of lively demands. We do not have in mind that false equality which would deny the distinction with woman’s proper role, which is of such capital importance, at the heart of the family as well as within society. Developments in legislation should on the contrary be directed to protecting her proper vocation and at the same time recognizing her independence as a person, and her equal rights to participate in cultural, economic, social and political life.

Gone is any distinction about the differences between men and women and their inequality. Gone is any discussion about the proper subjection of woman to man. Gone is the condemnation of feminism and a uniquely Catholic answer to the woman question. Gone is the bemoaning of woman shedding her role as wife and mother and joining the public sphere in whatever way she would like. Gone is clear teaching about the role of women in the world. In its place is the nascent Catholic form of feminism that will come to life during the pontificate of Paul VI’s successor, St. John Paul II.

Paul VI still warns against a “false equality” but this warning itself rings false, because it is followed with a statement about “woman’s proper role” which he says is “at the heart of the family” and “within society.” Again, we are presented with the mixed message that began to show itself with Pius XII and then more so with St. John XXIII—that women should be in the home, never neglecting their duties as wife and mother, but she should also be in the world, making it better according to the teachings of the Church. How can one woman do both, properly? Or, is it as Pius XII suggested that public life is only realistic for a handful of women who don’t have the responsibilities of wife and mother? The message is not clear—in fact, it is very, very vague. Also, Paul VI begins to sound like he wants women to “have it all”—legislation should protect her “proper vocation” (motherhood, we assume) and at the same time give her “equal rights” to participate in cultural, economic, social and political life.” When women try to “have it all” children are put in daycare or handed over to nannies, and husbands are asked to share equally in household duties. The life of the family begins to revolve around the woman’s career in a way it never does for a man’s career. This is because the woman is the mother and no matter how much the father takes over her traditional duties, the strength of her maternal ties to the children can’t be lessened. Because of the importance of the bond between mother and child and that bond’s clash with what she must give to her career, everything in family life becomes dependent on her career—how much time and energy she gives to her career and what is left over for the family. Previous popes, for example, Pius XI in Casti Cannubi, warned of this problem. This prudent warning from the pens of popes is now lost.

Part 4 of this essay will be posted next week.