While St. John Paul II wasn’t the first pope to condone feminism and attempt to reconcile it with Church teaching, he is the pope who made “Catholic feminism” possible. He became known as the “feminist pope” after he referred to himself as such during an audience with a group of women at a conference on women’s health and human rights at the Vatican. While St. John XXIII and Paul VI had already begun to condone feminism and reconcile it with Church teaching, St. John Paul II was the architect of the “new feminism” or “Catholic feminism.” “Catholic feminism,” to all who understand feminist ideology and have knowledge of its effects, is a contradictory term. St. John Paul II didn’t use this term—his call was for a “new feminism.” For some Catholic women however, this new feminism was in effect Catholic feminism, and, the license to live their lives as both a Catholic and a feminist. I wrote extensively on Why Catholics Can’t be Feminists in a previous post so I won’t repeat myself here.
First, it must be pointed out that no pope has ever embraced feminism in its totality. While the post-conciliar popes went a long way to reconcile Catholicism and feminism, the close association of feminism and the crusade for abortion rights (most feminists would say that “reproductive rights” are essential to women’s rights) precludes their full acceptance of feminist ideology. However, as I’ve discussed in other posts about feminism, feminism is a) a rotten ideology at its core and b) one can’t pick and choose the good and bad of feminism because there is nothing good in it (see posts The Total Anti-Feminist and The Many Faces of Feminism and Why Catholics Can’t be Feminists for full discussions on this).
St. John Paul II’s most well-known document about women is the apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem, released in 1988; however, he discussed his views on women and feminism in numerous other documents and speeches.
In 1981 St. John Paul II released the encyclical Laborem Exercens (on Human Work) on the 90th anniversary of Rerum Novarum. Under the section titled, “Wages and Other Social Benefits,” he reiterates what previous popes had said about fathers receiving a just wage, one that will allow mothers to stay home and care for the children, and he goes as far as saying it is wrong for a mother to have to work outside the home out of necessity. However, he then elaborates on what St. John XXIII began in Pacem in Terris (“Women must be accorded such conditions of work as are consistent with their needs and responsibilities as wives and mothers”) and Paul VI in Octogesima Adveniens (“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”):
Experience confirms that there must be a social re-evaluation of the mother’s role, of the toil connected with it, and of the need that children have for care, love and affection in order that they may develop into responsible, morally and religiously mature and psychologically stable persons. It will redound to the credit of society to make it possible for a mother—without inhibiting her freedom, without psychological or practical discrimination, and without penalizing her as compared with other women—to devote herself to taking care of her children and educating them in accordance with their needs, which vary with age. Having to abandon these tasks in order to take up paid work outside the home is wrong from the point of view of the good of society and of the family when it contradicts or hinders these primary goals of the mission of a mother.
In this context it should be emphasized that, on a more general level, the whole labour process must be organized and adapted in such a way as to respect the requirements of the person and his or her forms of life, above all life in the home, taking into account the individual’s age and sex. It is a fact that in many societies women work in nearly every sector of life. But it is fitting that they should be able to fulfil their tasks in accordance with their own nature, without being discriminated against and without being excluded from jobs for which they are capable, but also without lack of respect for their family aspirations and for their specific role in contributing, together with men, to the good of society. The true advancement of women requires that labour should be structured in such a way that women do not have to pay for their advancement by abandoning what is specific to them and at the expense of the family, in which women as mothers have an irreplaceable role.
Essentially what the pope is saying is that a mother should not have to work outside of the home, but if she wants to, the “labour process” should be organized in such a way as to accommodate her. This idea is a hallmark of the “new feminism” and is full of problems. It also diverges dramatically from what the earlier popes said.
For example, in Rerum Novarum Leo XIII wrote: “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.”
St. Pius X in his address to the Union of Italian Catholic Ladies in 1909 said: “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.”
Benedict XV in a letter on the occasion of the 300th anniversary of the Ursuline Sisters in 1917 said: “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.”
Pius XI in his encyclical Casti Cannubi, wrote: “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.”
Pius XII in his 1945 address, Women’s Duties in Social and Political Life: “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.”
It is also interesting to compare St. John Paul II’s words with the words of Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique, because she has a similar vision of how the workplace needs to accommodate women workers:
When enough women make life plans geared to their real abilities, and speak out for maternity leaves or even maternity sabbaticals, professionally run nurseries, and other changes in the rules that may be necessary, they will not have to sacrifice the right to honorable competition and contribution any more than they will have to sacrifice marriage and motherhood. It is wrong to keep spelling out unnecessary choices that make women unconsciously resist either commitment or motherhood – and that hold back recognition of the needed social changes. It is not a question of women having their cake and eating it, too. A woman is handicapped by her sex, and handicaps society, either by slavishly copying the pattern of man’s advance in the professions, or by refusing to compete with man at all. But with the vision to make a new life plan of her own, she can fulfill a commitment to profession and politics, and to marriage and motherhood with equal seriousness.
In this passage the leader of liberal feminism was actually talking about the “new feminism” though the term would not be coined by St. John Paul II for years.
The problems with the “new feminism” are well discussed by F. Carolyn Graglia in her critique of feminism, Domestic Tranquility, published in 1998:
But some feminists have appeared to modify the feminist message; voices—supposedly of moderation—have argued that women really are different from men. In this they are surely right: there are fundamental differences between the average man and woman, and it is appropriate to take account of these differences when making decisions both in our individual lives and with respect to social issues. Yet the new feminist voices have not conceded that acknowledged differences between the sexes are ground for reexamining women’s flight from home into workplace. Instead, these new voices have argued only that these differences require modification of the terms under which women undertake to reconstruct their lives in accordance with the blueprint designed by so-called early radicals. The edifice erected by radical feminists is to remain intact, subject only to some redecorating. The foundation of this edifice is still the destruction of the traditional family.
St. John Paul II appears to be one such voice of “moderation.”
Further, encouraging women to do both, be mothers and workers, is dangerous territory because it sets up a situation that is rife with problems. Very few if any women can do both well—raise a family and have a career. The women who find it easier are usually women in positions of some power at work who have more control over their schedules and can hire people to clean their house and watch their children. Other women are left to struggle with juggling career and family responsibilities. The answer the “new feminism” provides is that employers and society need to change to accommodate working mothers. It is unrealistic though, to expect the entire work world to restructure and reorganize itself so that working moms can relax enough to attend to their children well. There would have to be a seismic shift in the way the work world is run, and that shift is simply unrealistic.
There are other complications. The Church has always stressed the importance of women as mothers. However, for women to achieve their career goals they often have to attend post-secondary education for many years, putting off marriage and children until the years when their fertility is declining. This is far from practical and seems to contradict the Church’s emphasis on the importance of motherhood. In post-conciliar times, the popes seem to ignore the connection between women’s aspirations as guided by feminism and the use of birth control and abortion. Women do use birth control and do have abortions because having a child would interfere with educational and career goals. Is it really that the world needs to change to accommodate women, as St. John Paul II asks, or that the modern woman needs to change to accommodate the fact that she is a mother?
The bottom line is that a woman must leave the home to take part in the public sphere, and subsequently she does neglect her duties as wife and mother. The real question to be asked is, is it possible for a woman to take part in the public sphere without neglecting her duties as wife and mother? Even the most dedicated women to the cause of feminism admit this is an ongoing issue for women. The pope does not wade that far into the issue—into the question that no one wants to answer with the truth: it is not possible.
Part 5 of this essay will be posted next week.