views updated


The "woman question" has emerged with urgency in the contemporary world. From the late 1800s through the twentieth century, momentous changes in Western society shaped the context for church teaching on women. Rapid industrialization, advancement of political rights, especially the drive for women's suffrage, two world wars with an intervening economic depression, scientific advances affecting everything from life expectancy to reproduction, efforts toward universal education, the rise of communism, feminist movements, social science research on the nature of sex and gender, new participation by women in church ministry and theological educationall of these affected what women did, how they were viewed, and how they viewed themselves. Thus this period saw an unprecedented attention to women in papal and other official teachings. These teachings evidenced the church's desire to speak to the needs of women in modern society in light of Christian faith, and its call to Catholics to address social issues in new and creative ways.

A review of these teachings on women shows an uneven but noticeable progression from initial reservations

and resistance toward increasingly active promotion for the equal involvement of women with men in all dimensions of society: access to opportunities for work, protection from violence and other exploitation, political participation, and the shaping of culture. Simultaneously, the church insisted that women fulfill what it presents as their distinctive and vital role in the home, especially in the rearing of children, with an analogous form of participation in society. This vocation has been continually presented in terms of "complementarity": the anthropological and theological conviction that women and men, while equal in dignity before God, have qualities and functions rooted in their nature that complement one another.

Leo XIII through Pius XII (18781958). Women increasingly took jobs outside the home during this period due to personal and family economic necessity, the need to keep national economies functioning as men went off to war, and for personal fulfillment. Popes both decried this phenomenon and sought to place limits on it in accord with their understanding of women's primary role in the home. leo xiii (18781903), while speaking strongly for workers' rights in the 1891 encyclical Rerum novarum, argued against women's presence in unsuitable jobs and for their domestic vocation: "Women, again, are not suited to certain trades; for 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"(33). pius xi (19221939), echoed by several later popes, supported the concept of a "family wage," i.e., a wage sufficient for supporting a family. Paying this for the labor of husbands would eliminate the need for wives to take jobs outside the home (Quadragesimo anno [1931],71).

While Church teaching in this era reflected a concern for women's safety and purity of character were they to engage too deeply in worldly affairs, over time the popes often affirmed the participation of women in social movements congenial with church concerns. Women's efforts were lauded in the twentieth-century expansion of church-related social apostolates, especially Catholic Action, a priority for pius xi. They were seen as particularly suited to revitalize religious values through, for example, fostering the Christian education of girls and women, encouraging modesty and restoring the family. Such work, however, should not detract from fulfillment of their own domestic responsibilities, and in fact is best pursued by women who are not responsible for rearing children. pius xii (193958) also pointed to the long history of women's religious congregations as a constant and church-sanctioned opportunity for women to work for the betterment of society ("Women's Duties" [1945], 707).

As countries in the West adopted female suffrage into law, papal teaching eventually accepted political participation by women. The first explicit endorsement of women's right to vote came with Pius XII, in the context of church concern over the spread of communism in Europe. He repeatedly spoke to Catholic women regarding the use of their franchise to uphold the family against forces seeking to destroy it. Church teachings repeatedly affirmed the sacredness of marriage and the unique relationship of husband and wife. Leo XIII charged socialists with seeking to break the indissoluble bond of marriage (Quod apostolici muneris [1878], 8) and thus to undermine the family. In the marriage relationship, Leo XIII stated that "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" (Arcanum divinae [1880], 11). Ephesians 5:2133 was regularly cited in discussions of this subjection, with the corresponding reminder that the ruling function of the man is always to be exercised in love rather than domination (see Casti connubii [1930], 2628). Subsequent popes echoed this focus on the domestic sphere as the setting for the woman's fulfillment of her distinctive vocation as wife, mother, and companion.

Most significantly, the popes insisted that the dignity of women would only be fully understood in relation to God, not through the arguments of liberalism, feminism, Marxism, and other secular movements. In casti connubii, Pius XI denounced feminist demands for equality in the ordering of family affairs and in child rearing as those of "false teachers" and the "false liberty and unnatural equality" they advocated as detrimental to woman, who would then descend "from her truly regal throne to which she has been raised within the walls of the home by means of the Gospel" to "become as amongst the pagans the mere instrument of man" (75). Instead, as articulated by Pius XII (193958), the dignity of women is apparent in the church's teaching that women are equal to men as created by God, redeemed in Christ, and sharing the same eternal destiny.

Pius XII is notable for a sustained discussion of the prominent themes raised by previous popes, and in arguing forcefully for women's full participation in society in accord with their distinctive qualities. Women are differentiated from men in possessing particular physical and psychological characteristics that fit them to be mothers: for example, women are characterized by warm self-giving to God and neighbor, while men's giving may be more impersonal. "So we have an absolute equality in personal and fundamental values, but different functions which are complementary and superbly equivalent, and from them arise the various rights and duties of the one and the other" ("The Dignity of Woman" [1957]: 370).

While women's vocation normally will be fulfilled in marriage and motherhood, Pius XII also strongly supported the call to consecrated virginity of vowed women religious. Likewise, he affirmed the status of single women as a de facto state (rather than choosing to be single to pursue a career), and encouraged these women to enter professions that would draw on their motherly qualities, such as education, child care, social service, and political activity on behalf of families. Regardless of her state in life, "Every woman is made to be a mother: a mother in the physical meaning of the word or in the more spiritual and exalted but no less real sense" ("Woman's Duties," 708).

The Popes of the Second Vatican Council, Conciliar and Post-Conciliar Teachings (19581978). The teachings of the church on women during the pontificates of John XXIII and Paul VI occurred in the context of the Vatican II determination to read the "signs of the times" (Gaudium et spes 4). In Pacem in terris (1963), John XXIII cited the fact that "women are now taking part in public life" as one of the "distinctive characteristics" of the present day, and "they will not tolerate being treated as mere material instruments, but demand rights befitting a human person both in domestic and in public life" (41). Gaudium et spes notes that as part of the "broader desires" of humanity in the present time, women are claiming "an equity with men before the law and in fact" (9). Such developments are supported by the church as part of its overall concern for full human development in social, political, economic, and cultural dimensions.

The tone and direction of church teachings further sought to promote the apostolate of the laity in the secular realm. Already an important concern of the twentieth century church, it gained ecclesiological depth through the characterization of the laity, women and men alike, as participating in the "universal call to holiness" (Lumen gentium, especially 3042) and the mission of the church through their efforts in the world.

At the same time, the papal teachings continued to caution that woman's participation in these realms must be distinctive to her special calling, and should not detract from the fulfillment of her indispensable role in the home. Thus, John XXIII, in addressing a congress on the theme of woman in the family and at work, warned that the irreplaceable role of the mother in the family was threatened by a woman's outside employment, both because she would have less time and energy to provide a warm and nurturing home for her family and because her constant exposure to the corruptions of the world placed her "open and delicate spirit" in jeopardy ("The Woman of Today" [1961]: 172).

While such discussion of women's "frailty" and "delicacy" began to disappear from church teaching, the sense of a distinctive nature was continually reaffirmed in these years. Thus Gaudium et spes states, in regard to cultural life, that "It is appropriate that [women] should be able to assume their full proper role in accordance with their own nature" (60). And in the closing address to the Second Vatican Council (1965), Paul VI exhorted woman to use her growing influence to help restrain the hand of man, who might destroy civilization through technology ("Closing Address," 733). Women who are mothers should raise up generations of children able to meet the enormous demands of the future; unmarried women should assist families; consecrated virgins should be "guardians of purity, unselfishness, and piety"; and women suffering trials should do so patiently while encouraging men in their vital undertakings (ibid.). Despite the arguments of secular feminism, women should not seek a "false equality which would deny the distinctions laid down by the Creator himself and which would be in contradiction with women's proper role, which is of such capital importance, at the heart of the family as well as within society" (Paul VI, Octogesima adveniens [1971],13).

The 1976 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith instruction Inter insignores addressed the question of the reservation of priestly ordination to men, increasingly raised within the church in this period. The document, along with subsequent explanations, stressed women's equal dignity with men as created by God and in the "objective order of grace" (Paul VI, "Women in the Plan of God" [1977]: 125), but at the same time insisted that the church is not authorized to ordain women due to Christ's having limited the role to men in the calling of his twelve apostles, and to women's inability to image Christ fully (see Inter insignores, 2428). "[W]hen Christ's role in the Eucharist is to be expressed sacramentally, there would not be this 'natural resemblance' which must exist between Christ and his minister if the role of Christ were not taken by a man: in such a case it would be difficult to see in the minister the image of Christ. For Christ himself was and remains a man" (Inter insignores, 27).

John Paul II (1978). John Paul II addressed specific concerns regarding women in his 1981 encyclical on the nature and dignity of human work, Laborem exercens. Cognizant and supportive of women's legitimate aspirations for advancement in many occupations, he called for a "social re-evaluation" of how their irreplaceable role in the rearing of children may be exercised without loss of opportunities for gainful and fulfilling work. "Having to abandon these [child-rearing] 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" (19). Thus society, and not only individual mothers, bears a responsibility to address this problem. The "family wage" is one possibility.

In Christifideles laici (1988), John Paul II affirmed that the family continues to be the fundamental context for nurturing a community committed to mission in church and the world, the "domestic church" (62; see Familiaris consortio [1981], 21). Through women's intervention, men can be more fully involved in parenting as a mutual endeavor, and can better understand and practice the interpersonal communion of family life (Christifideles laici, 49).

The 1988 apostolic letter Mulieris dignitatem, Pope John Paul II's major contribution to the Church teachings on women and the most extensive treatment by any modern pope warrants extended review. In this lengthy work, which he characterizes as a "meditation" written to close the Marian Year, John Paul maintains that the role of women can only be understood in terms of their essential dignity and vocation, which in turn must be explicated through a discussion of their anthropological and theological bases, with particular reference to Mary. The result is a thoroughgoing presentation of complementarity.

The Role of Mary, Mother of God. As theotokos, Mary is the essential "horizon" for reflection on women (5). At the Annunciation we see her as the biblical "woman" who represents all people's humanity, yet has a unique dignity (34). In her acceptance of God's will she acts as a free human subject, makes possible God's new covenant with humanity (the only occasion in Scripture where a covenant begins with a woman), and returns "woman" to her original state of goodness in creation. As both virgin and mother she shows the full meaning of each of these "two particular dimensions of the fulfillment of the female personality," which "explain and complete each other" (17). Women, through physical motherhood in marriage or the "spiritual motherhood" of consecrated virginity and marriage to Christ, find fulfillment of the "naturally spousal predisposition of the feminine personality" (20).

Women and Men Created in the Image and Likeness of God. The pope develops the first account of the creation of humans as male and female in Genesis 1:2627 as the basis of all christian anthropology. Created in the image of God, "Man is a person, man and woman equally so " (6), from the beginning. The second creation account in Genesis 2:1825 reinforces this truth, as man cannot live alone and may only exist in unity with another human person. The mutuality of man and woman mirrors that of the Trinity, "the communion of love that is in God, through which the Three Persons love each other in the intimate mystery of the one divine life" (7). The dignity and vocation of women and men "result from [their] specific diversity and personal originality"; women must not appropriate characteristics opposed to their feminine originality, or they may lose their "essential richness" (10). "The personal resources of femininity are certainly no less than the resources of masculinity: they are merely different" (10). Patriarchal domination of women by men does not reflect God's will, but is rather a consequence of original sin, disturbing their fundamental equality (10).

Jesus' Treatment of Women and Their Redemption in Christ. John Paul II points to the gospel accounts to show how Christ consistently promoted the dignity and vocation of women in ways that countered the usual discrimination toward them in his culture and times. Jesus heals women; he speaks with them publicly; they appear in parables to help reveal the nature of the kingdom of God; they accompany and provide for him and his disciples; they themselves become disciples; they are the first witnesses of the resurrection (see 1216). In honoring women he reflects the divine plan of redemption that he will fulfill: "Jesus of Nazareth confirms this dignity [of women], recalls it, renews it, and makes it a part of the Gospel and of the Redemption for which he is sent into the world. Every word and gesture of Christ about women must therefore be brought into the dimension of the Paschal Mystery. In this way everything is completely explained" (13).

The Church as Bride of Christ and Women's Particular Role in This Reality. As taught in Lumen gentium (10), all the faithful participate in the universal priesthood of Christ and are united as his Body. This full participation of Christian men and women in Christ's spiritual sacrifice is also expressed through the Bride and Bridegroom images of Ephesians. This symbolism receives a sustained treatment by John Paul II as another foundation for complementarity. The church is the Bride, called to respond to the full, self-giving and redeeming love of Christ the Bridegroom. In this understanding, "'being the bride,' and thus the 'feminine' element, becomes a symbol of all that is 'human"' (25). While the Bride role applies to both men and women as the church, Christ became incarnate as a human male, and the Bridegroom symbol is masculine. "This masculine symbol represents the human aspect of the divine love which God has for Israel, for the Church, and for all people. Precisely because Christ's divine love is the love of a Bridegroom, it is the model and pattern of all human love, men's love in particular" (25). Thus the pope concludes that the "feminine" role of the Bride in returning the love given by the Bridegroom is the universal role of women, whether married or not: "woman can only find herself by giving love to others" (30).

In this context the pope also reconfirms the authoritative teaching of Inter insignores (and again reiterates it in his 1994 apostolic letter, Ordinatio sacerdotalis ) that priestly ordination is reserved to men alone. Christ's calling of twelve male apostles is a "free and sovereign" act and should not be seen as conformity to prevailing customs; his freedom here is consistent with his treatment of women with dignity despite the norms of his society. The Eucharist, instituted by Christ in explicit connection to the priestly service of the Twelve, "expresses the redemptive act of Christ the Bridegroom towards the Church the Bride. This is clear and unambiguous when the sacramental ministry of the Eucharist, in which the priest acts 'in persona Christi,' is performed by a man"(26).

Special note should also be taken of John Paul II's use of Ephesians 5. Rather than enjoining a wife's subjection to a loving husband, he stresses verse 21 and "mutual subjection out of reverence for Christ" (24) as the basis for the relationship of husband and wife. The Catechism of the Catholic Church echoes this in naming each partner as the "helpmate" of the other, "for they are equal as persons and complementary as masculine and feminine" (372).

Toward the Future. The teachings of John Paul II on women will undoubtedly be a continuing point of focus as church teaching and theological reflection continue into the twenty-first century. In particular, as women's role in church and society continues to evolve and as scholarship in various theological disciplines engages with the "signs of the times" and Christian tradition, alternative models to a male-female complementarity are being proposed. Concurrently, the Jubilee Year reconciliation efforts by John Paul II have included repentance for past sins against the dignity of women by members of the church. While lamenting the prior failings of Christians and the ongoing domination of women in many aspects of human relationships, the church upholds a vision of the future in which inequality and discrimination will be no more, and the dignity and vocation of women, as well as men, may be fully realized.

Bibliography: r. camp, "From Passive Subordination to Complementary Partnership: The Papal Conception of a Woman's Place in Church and Society Since 1878," Catholic Historical Review 76, no. 3 (1990): 506525. a. carr and e. schÜssler fiorenza, eds. The Special Nature of Women? Concilium 6 (London 1991). w. faherty, The Destiny of Modern Woman in the Light of Papal Teaching (Westminster, Md. 1950). john xxiii, "The Woman of Today: At Home and at Work," address to the Italian Center for Women, 7 December 1960, The Pope Speaks 7, no. 2 (1961): 169174. john paul ii, "Service at St. Peter's Basilica Requesting Pardon." Origins 29, no. 40 (23 March 2000). paul vi, "Women in the Plan of God," remarks of Pope Paul VI before the Sunday Angelus, 30 January 1977, The Pope Speaks 22, no. 2 (1977): 124125. l. porter, "Gender in Theology: The Example of John Paul II's Mulieris Dignitatem," Gregorianum 77, no. 1 (1996): 97131. r. leonard, Beloved Daughters: 100 Years of Papal Teaching on Women (Ottawa 1995). pius xii, "The Dignity of Woman," address of Pope Pius XII to a pilgrimage sponsored by the Federation of Italian Women, 14 October 1956, The Pope Speaks 3, no. 4 (Spring 1957): 367375. pius xii, "Woman's Duties in Social and Political Life," delivered by Pope Pius XII to Italian women, 21 October 1945, The Catholic Mind 43, no. 996 (December 1945): 705716. g. tavard, Woman in Christian Tradition (Notre Dame 1973).

[m. r. o'brien]

Women and Papal Teaching

Updated About content Print Article Share Article


Women and Papal Teaching