The Catholic Church and Feminism. Part 5

St. John Paul II’s apostolic letter on the dignity and vocation of women, Mulieris Dignitatem, was released in 1988. It is interesting to note John Paul II’s comments in Mulieris Dignitatem on Ephesians 5:22-23 as compared to previous popes.

In the section of Mulieris Dignitatem about St. Paul’s instructions for husbands and wives, John Paul II seems to diverge from what previous popes taught on the subject. His analysis suggests equality rather than hierarchy in the marriage relationship.

The author of the Letter to the Ephesians sees no contradiction between an exhortation formulated in this way and the words: “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife” (5:22-23). The author knows that this way of speaking, so profoundly rooted in the customs and religious tradition of the time, is to be understood and carried out in a new way: as a “mutual subjection out of reverence for Christ” (cf. Eph 5:21). This is especially true because the husband is called the “head” of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church; he is so in order to give “himself up for her” (Eph 5:25), and giving himself up for her means giving up even his own life. However, whereas in the relationship between Christ and the Church the subjection is only on the part of the Church, in the relationship between husband and wife the “subjection” is not one-sided but mutual.

To suggest the equality of husband and wife St. John Paul II proposes the author of the Letter to Ephesians meant that his instruction that wives should be subject to their husbands should be carried out in a “new way” where there is mutual subjection of husband and wife. St. John Paul II refers to St. Paul’s statement preceding Ephesians 5:22-23, “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ,” to make his point about the mutual subjection of husband and wife. This way of reading Ephesians 5:22-23 poses some questions. For example, the statement “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” is meant as a general instruction for a household, and is followed by a specific instruction for husbands and wives. Why did the pope choose to apply the general instruction for a household to the relationship of husband and wife rather than keep to the specific instruction clearly marked out for husbands and wives? Also, nowhere does St. Paul say that there is mutual subjection of husband and wife within the marriage relationship. In fact, his specific instructions are the opposite—he clearly spells out that wives are subject to their husbands. Why would St. Paul single out wives as being subject to their husbands if there was a mutual subjection in the marriage relationship? Why would he follow this statement with one saying that the husband is head of the wife if he did not mean to emphasize that there is a hierarchy rather than equality in marriage?

This is what previous popes taught about Ephesians 5:22-23:

Leo XII in Arcanum Divinae:

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.”

St. Pius X in his address to the Union of Italian Catholic Ladies in 1909: “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.”

Pius XI in Casti Cannubi, 1930:

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.”


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.

 In a 1995 address to women on World Day of Peace, titled Women, Teachers of Peace, John Paul II states that “In women, man finds a partner with whom he can dialogue in complete equality.” Contrast John Paul II’s idea of “complete equality” with Pius XI’s “a certain inequality” in Casti Cannubi:

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.

In his World Day of Peace speech, St. John Paul II applauds the “strides” women have recently made. He is tacitly applauding feminism because it is feminism that encouraged women to change their role of wife and mother to worker or educated professional with a career. The Church had nothing to do with it—in fact, up until the mid-20th century the Church insisted woman’s special dignity was found in her role of wife and mother in the home. So, he is applauding the results of a secular socio-political movement.

In our day women have made great strides in this direction, attaining a remarkable degree of self-expression in cultural, social, economic and political life, as well as, of course, in family life. The journey has been a difficult and complicated one and, at times, not without its share of mistakes. But it has been substantially a positive one, even if it is still unfinished, due to the many obstacles which, in various parts of the world, still prevent women from being acknowledged, respected, and appreciated in their own special dignity.


The growing presence of women in social, economic and political life at the local, national and international levels is thus a very positive development. Women have a full right to become actively involved in all areas of public life, and this right must be affirmed and guaranteed, also, where necessary, through appropriate legislation.

The pope is careful to add: “This acknowledgment of the public role of women should not however detract from their unique role within the family.” This is a common theme for St. John Paul II—encouraging women to “have it all,” the problems of which I discussed earlier.

St. John Paul II claims that there have been some “mistakes” in the “journey” of woman attaining the “full expression to their womanhood and their dignity.” Again, when women stayed at home serving their husbands and nurturing their children, not voting, not working outside of the home, did they not have the “full expression to their womanhood and their dignity?” Earlier popes thought so.

I don’t know what “mistakes” St. John Paul II is referring to here; however, modern feminism is largely responsible for legal abortion on demand, rampant divorce, and women spending more time at work than with their own children. These are catastrophic “mistakes.”

Several months after St. John Paul II’s World Day of Peace speech, the pope released his well-known encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life). This is the document in which he calls for a “new feminism.”

99. In transforming culture so that it supports life, women occupy a place, in thought and action, which is unique and decisive. It depends on them to promote a “new feminism” which rejects the temptation of imitating models of “male domination”, in order to acknowledge and affirm the true genius of women in every aspect of the life of society, and overcome all discrimination, violence and exploitation.

In addition to the already-discussed problems with the “new feminism,” the problem with the St. John Paul II’s feminism is that it is a reaction to a reaction. Feminism was a reaction to real or perceived injustices against women. John Paul II then provided a Catholic reaction to the feminist reaction. However, the Church, as previous popes have shown, already had the secret to woman’s dignity—which has no connection whatsoever to feminism’s idea of women’s “fulfillment.” A “new feminism” does not destroy an old feminism and replace it with something altogether different; rather, it builds on it, incorporating some elements and honing it to suit one’s own views and beliefs. However, feminism is rotten to the core (see posts The Total Anti-Feminist and The Many Faces of Feminism and Why Catholics Can’t Be Feminists for full discussions on this) and one cannot build something true and good on a rotten foundation.

Also in 1995, John Paul II released his Letter to Women, in which he builds on what he spoke of in his World Day of Peace speech.

John Paul II states that the particular purpose of the letter is “to consider the essential issue of the dignity and rights of women, as seen in the light of the word of God.”

After thanking women for their contributions to the world (mothers, wives, daughters, sisters, women who work and consecrated women), he states the following:

Unfortunately, we are heirs to a history which has conditioned us to a remarkable extent. In every time and place, this conditioning has been an obstacle to the progress of women. Women’s dignity has often been unacknowledged and their prerogatives misrepresented; they have often been relegated to the margins of society and even reduced to servitude. This has prevented women from truly being themselves and it has resulted in a spiritual impoverishment of humanity.

To say that this “conditioning” (he is vague about what kind of conditioning he is referring to—does he mean we are conditioned to think women are weak and stupid, or that they belong in the home, or something else?) has been an obstacle to the progress of women in every time and place is a sweeping generalization and simply untrue. Feminist propaganda encouraged the idea that women were always unhappy, oppressed, unfulfilled, wanted more out of life, etc. before feminism came along. There is no concrete evidence for this, and generally speaking, accounts of women’s unhappiness and oppression prior to feminism’s takeover were written by women who were or would become feminists. There is however, an account of working class women’s lives in Victorian England (the time period during which feminism took shape)—Elizabeth Roberts’ A Woman’s Place: An Oral History of Working Class Women 1890-1940—which provides valuable information about what women’s lives were like before they were “liberated” by feminism. Roberts interviewed 160 people from three towns in Lancashire asking them to recall their memories of family life as children, youths and as adults. Roberts, a feminist herself, found that the women she interviewed showed a sense of satisfaction with their roles as wives and mothers. There were very few cases of wives being mistreated by their husbands, and the women did not report feeling exploited or oppressed. Their lives were made hard by poverty, not because they were oppressed by men, and if they worked outside of the home it was out of necessity. These women “knew their place, were secure in it, and gained much satisfaction from their achievements.”

Roberts’ study further showed that women of that time and place had influence that went beyond the four walls of their houses—they were responsible for the management of the family budget, the education and socialization of large families, and the upholding of the family and neighbourhood mores.

Feminists would have us believe that before feminism “liberated” women, they were shackled to the home. This is not true. Women in the 19th century simply understood themselves to be wives and mothers first and took the duties associated with these roles seriously. Without the aid of feminism, women in the 19th century who had the time and energy participated in philanthropic and civic reform work to their hearts content. In fact, some of the greatest female reformers of that period wanted nothing to do with woman suffrage which was hotly debated at the time.

In Gertrude Himmelfarb’s study of the Victorian era in England in The De-Moralization of Society (1995), the author says of such women:

These were not Lady Bountifuls carrying bread baskets to the poor. They were women who prided themselves on being highly professional in the way they conducted themselves and discharged their duties—this in spite of their being unpaid volunteers. Florence Nightingale, Emily Davies, Octavia Hill, Helen Bosanquet, Josephine Butler, and scores of others were among those…who presided over important enterprises, lectured and wrote about social issues, conducted campaigns for one or another reform, served on local boards, and testified before government commissions.

Some of these women were anti-suffragists while others placed little importance on woman suffrage. They believed that in their work they were not hindered by their sex—some actually saw their sex as beneficial to their work—and that they didn’t need political power to accomplish their goals.

Yes, there are accounts of women who wanted to break into men’s professions and met with resistance and sometimes discrimination. However, there are also accounts of women who met with no resistance or discrimination, but were encouraged in their goals and ambitions. F. Carolyn Graglia in Domestic Tranquility gives an account of her entering the field of law in the 1950s which defies feminist propaganda:

Contrary to the received opinion that society consistently discouraged women’s market activity, I found social acquaintances were extremely supportive, while employers and many colleagues generously encouraged my pursuit of a career. At the same time, those of my female friends in the 1950s who were traditional housewives little resembled the stereotype, so effectively popularized by Betty Friedan, of intellectually shallow, bored, underachieving child-wives. Nor do I believe the stereotype accurately applied to me when I, too, became a homemaker.

Attending law school and practicing law during a period when feminists would have us believe women were systematically discriminated against, I was treated as well as, and I sometimes thought even better than, the men with whom I was competing.

Graglia goes on to detail how several prominent feminists spread the myth of systematic discrimination by incorporating it into their own life stories. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, for example, claims she was discriminated against when she was entering the field of law in the 50s. Graglia shows that this was likely because she was Jewish, not because she was a woman.

And what about the masses of unambitious women who fulfilled the traditional role of wife and mother? Graglia speaks of them and the Roberts’ study gives us an idea of how they felt. Were these women, fulfilling the very role the Church has always set out as woman’s primary vocation “relegated to the margins of society” because they stayed mainly within the four walls of their houses? Were these housewives prevented from “truly being themselves?”

Women who came of age in the 1950s and became housewives and then later complained of being unfulfilled or oppressed were viewing their lives through a feminist lens. Were these women really unhappy and unfulfilled, or did feminism devalue the role of wife and mother so that wives and mothers began to devalue themselves? As the Roberts’ study shows with regard to poverty, and the example of Justice Ginsburg shows with regard to one’s background, being a woman is usually not the source of woman’s unhappiness or problems. Real problems such as poverty or an unhappy marriage are far more likely to cause feelings of being trapped, oppressed and unhappy in a woman. (It’s no surprise that many of the leaders of feminism were in unhappy marriages or irregular, unstable, insecure relationships with men.)

During the woman suffrage movement in the U.S. in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the anti-suffragists or “antis” campaigned against enfranchising women and stated emphatically that they were happy with their status as is. The many women who were against woman suffrage and against feminism explained that they already had influence and were already active in both the home with their families, and in the community when time permitted. They didn’t want to be cast into the same role as men, politically or economically. The following statement was written by an “anti,” Mrs. Horace David, and was included in one of the many anti-suffrage booklets being published at the time:

…So, in claiming for women the right to take a part in the man’s half of life, the suffragists, I think, lose sight of what the woman’s half is. In urging that they must have a hand in law-making and government and public life generally, they do not see that woman’s peculiar work is pretty independent of laws and of government, is rather in private life. For it is just where the law cannot reach that woman is supreme. It is just in the finer, more personal and intimate relationships of life, which government cannot include, that woman finds her work waiting for her, which she alone can do—what Octavia Hill calls “the out-of-sight, silent work.”

On many occasions St. John Paul II stressed the importance of woman’s role as wife and mother, and previous popes taught that this was her central role. Hence, shouldn’t it be concluded that it was in previous times that woman was most truly herself—when she was typically a housewife—than now in these times of “progress” for women that John Paul II so eagerly applauds?

Unfortunately, the statements in the above paragraph from St. John Paul II’s 1995 letter to women seem to take their cue from feminism and further propagate the lies of feminism, founded on the lie that, “The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her.” This sentence was written by early American feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the document she presented at the infamous Seneca Falls Woman’s Rights Convention in 1848.

Further, the pope was wont to say that women have a unique role in society. Well, so do men. Women’s role is no more unique or special or important than is men’s role. And no, it is not a given that we already know how important men are. It’s the opposite: feminism belittled the role of men or ignored it altogether (unless it was to castigate it), while constantly singing the praises of women. Feminism led to a devaluing of masculinity to the point that many men simply allowed themselves to become emasculated in order to get along and not be branded by the dreaded “male chauvinist” label. They were forced to adapt to the new feminist regime (the message was “be sensitive and nurturing or get out”). John Paul II also stressed that because of women’s special “genius,” they have an important role outside of the home and that they are needed to take part in politics and the professional world because they will lend their special, feminine attributes to the world. But women have faults! In Alice Von Hildebrand’s excellent little book The Privilege of Being a Woman (2002) the author discusses some of women’s weaknesses—for example:

Women have much less control over their emotions; they usually have greater sensitivity, they are more intuitive…This innate trait—when not properly guided—may lead them to yield to seduction and to some serious moral weaknesses, for example, partisanship, subjectivism in judging situations and persons.

Von Hildebrand also mentions St. Teresa of Avila who in her autobiography “repeatedly refers to the dangers menacing the spiritual life of “the weak sex”; emotionalism, dreaming, illusions, self-centeredness. She repeatedly stresses how much they are in need of guidance.”

Yes, women have faults, and men are capable of great acts of love and self-sacrifice. Are they now given the chance though, in this feminist-oriented world, to show us how wonderful they are? No, woman’s greatness is constantly trumpeted in our culture, and also by Church leaders. While Church leaders do not denigrate men the way secular culture does, by taking the side of feminism Church authorities tacitly show support for the feminist world view: women good, men bad.

It is interesting to note that the demise of the Church’s authority in the world parallels the rise of feminism, and the rejection of the idea of woman’s subjection to her husband in both secular and Catholic circles.

Near the end of St. John Paul II’s pontificate, then-Cardinal Ratzinger released a Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World. This letter mainly builds on the thoughts of St. John Paul II as expressed in Mulieris Dignitatem and his Letter to Women. Also, despite its title, this letter is about the role of women, not the roles of both men and women, with two sections on the importance of “feminine values” in society and in the Church—but no mention of the importance of masculine values.

In this perspective, one understands the irreplaceable role of women in all aspects of family and social life involving human relationships and caring for others…It means also that women should be present in the world of work and in the organization of society, and that women should have access to positions of responsibility which allow them to inspire the policies of nations and to promote innovative solutions to economic and social problems.

In this regard, it cannot be forgotten that the interrelationship between these two activities – family and work – has, for women, characteristics different from those in the case of men. The harmonization of the organization of work and laws governing work with the demands stemming from the mission of women within the family is a challenge. The question is not only legal, economic and organizational; it is above all a question of mentality, culture, and respect. Indeed, a just valuing of the work of women within the family is required. In this way, women who freely desire will be able to devote the totality of their time to the work of the household without being stigmatized by society or penalized financially, while those who wish also to engage in other work may be able to do so with an appropriate work-schedule, and not have to choose between relinquishing their family life or enduring continual stress, with negative consequences for one’s own equilibrium and the harmony of the family.

While for St. Pius X, “women in war or parliament are outside their proper sphere” and would mean “the desperation and ruin of society” (1909 address to the Union of Italian Catholic Women), Cardinal Ratzinger states that “women should have access to positions of responsibility which allow them to inspire the policies of nations…” The contrast between the views of these two Church leaders on women in politics is stark indeed.

Cardinal Ratzinger here admits that, “The harmonization of the organization of work and laws governing work with the demands stemming from the mission of women within the family is a challenge.” However, his answer is not adequate. First, because, as discussed earlier in this essay, women cannot “have it all” despite feminist propaganda showing us otherwise. Second, and more importantly, because what Cardinal Ratzinger is saying is that women should be able to do whatever they’d like—be a working mom or be a stay-at-home-mom—without being penalized. The message is that women should be able to do whatever they choose and society should accommodate them. What this constitutes however, is simply liberalism applied to the woman question: I should get to do what I want, what makes me happy—not what tradition tells me works best or what God has taught as true.

The final part of this essay will be posted next week.