The Debilitating Feminism of John Paul II


I have observed the misery of my people . . . ;
I have heard their cry. . . .
Indeed, I know their sufferings,
and I have come down to deliver them (Exod 3:7f).


4. A Catholic Father Advises his Daughters Against the Debilitating Feminism of John Paul II

Dr. Aaron Milavec

John Paul II prepared his apostolic letter, On the Dignity and Vocation of Women (Mulieris Dignitatem), in response to the request of the 1987 World Synod of Bishops that the theological and anthropological bases of being a “woman” needed further clarification by way of resolving current issues in the Church.  The pope’s text had the character of a meditation.  He began by citing the message of Vatican II addressed to women:

femaledoctorThe hour is coming, in fact has come, when the vocation of woman is being acknowledged in its fullness, the hour in which women acquire in the world an influence, an effect and a power never hitherto achieved.  That is why, at this moment when the human race is undergoing so deep a transformation, women imbued with a spirit of the gospel can do so much to aid humanity in not falling (MD: 1 = Mulieris Dignitatem, sec. 1)

Near the end of his meditation, however, John Paul II had defined the dignity and vocation of women in such a way as to come to the conclusion that women are equal in human dignity but that they have distinct gifts and callings from those of men.  What this means for the issue of the vocation of women within the Church finally becomes clear:

In calling only men as his apostles, Christ acted in a completely free and sovereign manner.  In doing so, he exercised the same freedom with which, in all his behavior, he emphasized the dignity and the vocation of women without conforming to the prevailing customs and to the traditions sanctioned by the legislation of the time (MD: 26).

Thus, John Paul II reads the Gospels in such a way as to enforce the fact that Jesus himself endorsed a separate but equal vocation which God fundamentally assigned to men and women in the order of creation (Genesis).

mother1John Paul II defined motherhood as the calling guaranteed to offer “fulfillment of the female personality” (MD: 17).  At no point does John Paul II envision any woman as finding fulfillment in her calling to be an astronaut, lawyer, physicist, head-of-state, or peace-maker.  Sad but true, men can find fulfillment in these professions, but not women.  Based upon his reading of the theology of Genesis, John Paul II concludes that motherhood and consecrated virginity (“spiritual motherhood”) remain the essential vocations of all women in all times and in all places.

The purpose of my own reflections is to examine for my daughters and granddaughters some of the soft spots within Mulieris Dignitatem.  I shall do this in three parts: (a) the vocation of every woman to be a mother; (b) how cultural transitions have altered how a man clings to his wife; (c) the implications for women of the fall in the Garden of Eden.  My reflections shall cite some sources but, for the most part, they remain the meditations of a father and grandfather (who happens to be a theologian) bent upon giving his daughters and granddaughters the best advice available on these matters—even when it necessarily rubs against and challenges the grandfatherly advice that Pope John Paul II had offered them.  As such, I dedicate these reflections to my daughters and granddaughters and to all those other daughters of Eve who still find themselves constrained in their own lives, dignity and vocation because of the antiquated script for women spelled out in Mulieris Dignitatem.

The Vocation of Every Woman to be a Mother

Every child appreciates a mother’s love.  This is all the more the case when such love is given abundantly and then, due to death or some similar tragedy, love is silently withdrawn.  In this regard, both Karol Wojtyla (the future John Paul II) and I share a loss which binds us together in an uncommon attachment to and grief spilled out for an absent mother.  As it happened, Karol and I were the same age, eight years old, when tragedy struck.

boygrievesdeath2After my mother’s death, everything was transformed.  I returned from school to an empty house.  There was no one there to hug me and to elicit from me the simple stories of the successes and tragedies that mark a young boy’s daily existence.  In the evenings, it was now up to me to finish preparing the supper which my father had begun that morning.  It was now up to me to do the dishes.  No longer would my mother sit me on a stool so that I could read to her for a half-hour while she did the dishes.  No longer would there be picnics which I loved, the birthday parties which she organized, and the joyful walks in a local park.  My dad, sad to say, was depressed and withdrawn–barely able to function as a caring “father” and entirely unable to function like a tender “mother.”

For Karol as well, the loss of a mother was not just the moment of her death, but the long, empty spaces which lingered on for years upon years thereafter.  As a university student, Karol poured out this sense of absence in the following poem:

Over Your white grave
White flowers of life bloom–
Oh, how many years have gone by
Without You–how many years . . . ?

After Karol’s mother died, the parlor in their home was shut down: “the rugs were rolled up and the furniture covered with cloth” (Szulz: 67).  As in my case, this was symbolic of the large place in the heart which goes dead, atrophies, and finally decays following the death of a mother.

Within this horizon, it is not unusual for a boy to begin inadvertently to adopt “mothers” so as to fill some of the dry rot within the heart.  Thus, for Karol and for me, devotion to the Mother of God was not only a religious pastime but a life-sustaining energy which kept alive what is was to be cared for and loved for oneself by one’s mother.  But, on the practical level, there were also other “mothers.”  I used to unconsciously decide upon what boys in the neighborhood would become my special friends on the basis of the degree to which the mothering within their homes was able to pour out upon me as well.  At the time, I was entirely unaware of this.  In my thirties, however, when the grief of loss first struck deep and violently in my life, I realized what I had been doing in selecting my playmates for those long, lonely years after my mother’s death.  While I have no evidence of this, I can, nonetheless, presume that something of the same thing happened to Karol while he was growing up in Kraków, Poland.

Against this background, it is no mystery to me that John Paul II would identity “motherhood” and “virginity” as the principal “dimensions of the fulfillment of the female personality” (MD: 17).  Nor is it any mystery that John Paul II would first and foremost identify Mary as the one in whom “virginity and motherhood coexist” (MD: 17) whereas they are two paths for most women.  The first is lived out by those women religious whose virginity “contains a profound yes in the spousal order: the gift of self Bride_and_Groom-Pakistanfor love in a total and undivided manner” (MD: 20).  The second is lived out through that “gift of self” which “in marriage [which] opens to the gift of a new life, a new human being” (MD: 18).  Thus, in both cases, women find their fulfillment in the gift of self to a spouse (whether human or divine) and in the nurturing of new life (physically, for some, spiritually, for both).

Had I read Mulieris Dignitatem in my early thirties, I would have been entirely satisfied with John Paul’s portrayal of women’s vocation.  But, then, quite unexpectedly I fell in love with a flesh and blood woman and was transformed.  My youth had been lived under the vision of what mothering and nurturing a woman could bring to me.  My twenties had been lived under the spell of how woman could be lured into forwarding my plans, my ambitions, and my sense of self.  Now, however, I was overcome by the inner mystery of woman.  All my life I had been shown models of how men, in order to be real men, tame women and bend them to their wills.  Now, however, it was I who was being taken in and reshaped by the women who, for the first time, was revealing a new self to myself.  The world of human relations was no longer How to Make Friends and to Influence People but was now a mystery which only the other could unfold and reveal and become.

The curious thing is that nothing of the grace or the promise of this kind of love appears in Mulieris Dignitatem.  John Paul II never mentions “romance” or “romantic love.”  Possibly Karol Wojtyla had never known this kind of mutual surrender of self or that, have tasted its power, he may have drawn back and decided not to speak of such things.  Thus, at this point, my experience and that of vast numbers of men and women in our society moves beyond what John Paul II is able or willing to address.  In so doing, however, Mulieris Dignitatem circumscribes women’s vocation within the narrow corridors of self-donation to a husband and the calling to  motherhood.

How Cultural Transitions Have Altered How a Man Clings to His Wife

Thomas Aquinas raised the question as to whether the grace of the word of wisdom and knowledge was becoming to women.  His response is telling:

Speech may be employed in two ways: (a) in one way privately, to one or a few, in familiar conversation, and in this respect the grace of the word may be becoming to women; (b) in another way, publicly, addressing oneself to the whole church, and this is not permitted to women.  [Why not?]

[1] First and chiefly, on account of the condition attaching [sic] to the female sex, whereby women should be subject to man, as appears from Gen 3:16. . . .

[2] Second, lest men’s minds be enticed to lust, for it is written: “Her conversation burneth with fire” (Sir 9:11). [The logic here is that women teaching would incite men to lustful thoughts.  It does not occur to Thomas that this rule might apply equally to men teaching women.]

[3] Thirdly, because as a rule women are not perfected in wisdom, so as to be fit to be entrusted with public teaching (Summa Theologica [The logic here is that every women must be distrusted because most women are not educated and are incapable of being effective teachers.  It does not occur to Thomas that this rule might equally apply to men?]

To the credit of John Paul II, the second and third reason have no role whatsoever within his exposition.  However, it would appear that his appeal to Gen 3:16 remains the principal reason why women cannot have the same public vocation as men (at least not in the church).  Thus, it is to the fall and its consequences that our attention must turn.

Relative to the two accounts of creation (Gen 1-3), John Paul II had many things to say which are exemplary at the same time that they are troubling:

In the description found in Genesis 2:18‑25, the woman is created by God “from the rib” of the man and is placed at his side as another “I”‑‑ as the companion of the man, who is alone in the surrounding world of living creatures and who finds in none of them a “helper” suitable for himself.  Called into existence in this way, the woman is immediately recognized by the man as “flesh of his flesh and bone of his bones” (cf. Gen 2:23) and for this very reason she is called “woman.”  In biblical language this name indicates her essential identity with regard to man‑‑’is‑’issah‑‑something which unfortunately modern languages in general are unable to express: “She shall be called woman (‘issah) because she was taken out of man (‘is)” (Gen 2:23).

The biblical text provides sufficient bases for recognizing the essential equality of man and woman from the point of view of their humanity.[24] From the very beginning, both are persons, unlike the other living beings in the world about them.  The woman is another “I” in a common humanity.  From the very beginning they appear as a “unity of the two,” and this signifies that the original solitude is overcome, the solitude in which man does not need to find “a helper fit for him” (Gen 2:20) (MD: 6).

Anyone reading this account will be struck with the “essential equality” which is recognized for both man and woman.  John Paul II, to his credit, entirely avoids giving any superiority to the “man” in so far as he was formed first (as in 1 Tim 2:13).  Almost immediately, however, this equality is tarnished by the fact that the entire narrative is cast within a patriarchal point of view.  Thus, it is the man who is coming to discover himself in terms of what “he needs.”  The Lord, in this case, appears to be quite uncertain what it is that “man needs” since, in the first instance, the creator endeavors to “make him a helpmate . . . from the soil” and produces “wild beasts” and “birds” (Gen 2:18f).  Each of these is paraded before the man “to see what he would call them” (Gen 2:19).  Thus, even here, the notion is that the beasts and birds are defined by the man in function of how he regards them for his own private purposes.  Thus, the man is clearly lord, and the Lord serves this lord by helping him to discover what “he needs” for himself as “a helpmate.”

When it comes to the creation of the woman, therefore, the needs of the man are still central.  Clearly his agenda is dominating the scene, and the Lord is searching for how to satisfy him.  Then, despairing of fashioning still more creatures “out of the ground” (Gen 2:18), the Lord brings a deep sleep upon Adam and forms “a woman” from the rib taken from his side.  According to the rabbis, the ancient text fails to have the woman taken from a bone in his foot such that he would step all over her or from a bone in his head such that she would dominate him.  Moreover, in modern terms, one can say that Adam has to give of himself in order to ever have a “helpmate.”  Here again, the rabbis, spoke of the creation of the first woman, Lillith, as having been fashioned “out of the ground” but since she had received nothing essential from Adam, she went her separate way and failed to bond with Adam.

The text which stands out for me (one which John Paul II entirely overlooks) as specifying the nature of the union according to the divinely inspired author is the following: “Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen 2:24).  Now, in the society of the day, a man did not leave his father and mother but simply brought his wife to live within his family circle where she worked with and remained subordinate to his mother.  Here, therefore, the text speaks metaphorically just as when the removal of the rib is not a physical fact (leaving men with one less rib) but a metaphorical reality.  The man “clings to his wife” because he has given himself over to her.  The man, consequently, is transformed by his recognition of his beloved and, as a direct result, comes to know himself in a new way, i.e., bound to his Helpmate more than he has ever been to his father and mother.  “And they become one flesh” suggests sexual union, this is true.  First and foremost, however, it suggests that Adam recognizes something of his lost self (“his rib”) in his Beloved and that this recognition leads him to bond with his Helpmate more than he has been bonded by the flesh and blood ties with his parents.

When read from a modern vantage point, therefore, the dignity and vocation of woman being presented here is not that woman is defined by her man or by his needs.  This is the way the quest begins but, as seen earlier, it utterly fails.  Only when a man surrenders some essential part of himself does the “woman” appear who is able to rip him out of his self-absorption and to render secondary the paternal and maternal ties which, up to this point, have defined his being.  The “woman,” therefore, becomes the agent of the man’s self-transcendence and self-transformation within the very process wherein she is becoming a new being, namely, his Helpmate.  She belongs to him because she had given herself over to him.  But he belongs to her in so far as she has reshaped his relational and interior reality.

John Paul II got closest to this mutuality of transformation when he spoke as follows:

This also explains the meaning of the “help” spoken of in Genesis 2:18‑25: “I will make him a helper fit for him.” The biblical context enables us to understand this in the sense that the woman must “help” the man‑‑and in his turn he must help her‑‑first of all by the very fact of their “being human persons.” In a certain sense this enables man and woman to discover their humanity ever anew and to confirm its whole meaning. We can easily understand that‑‑on this fundamental level‑‑it is a question of a “help” on the part of both, and at the same time a mutual “help.” To be human means to be called to interpersonal communion. The text of Genesis 2:18‑25 shows that marriage is the first and, in a sense, the fundamental dimension of this call. But it is not the only one. The whole of human history unfolds within the context of this call. In this history, on the basis of the principle of mutually being “for” the other, in interpersonal “communion,” there develops in humanity itself, in accordance with God’s will, the integration of what is “masculine” and what is “feminine” (MD: 7).

One can perhaps read into this that men, due to their initial socialization, are prone to give themselves over to the task of transforming their world and even of transforming people in their environment in order to serve their ends.  The “man,” therefore, is taught to harden himself against his feelings, his sympathy for others, in order that he might win fame, fortune, and women who abound to his glory.  Then the “woman” appears who invites him to fall in love, to surrender his deepest self to be transformed by another who holds out to him his lost soul, his mysterious selfhood, his forgotten dignity which reaches far beyond the achievements which, up to this point, he has habitually used to reinforce his ego and to define his identity.  Here, at this point, one cannot fail to notice that John Paul II emphasizes that Adam and Eve enter into a mutual surrender.

Many men never know this experience of surrendering.  They are frozen in the male mystique and, at their worst, women become one of their projects or playthings, and, at their best, women are patronized and pampered.  Under no circumstances, however, does such a man let a woman get under his skin.  Nor is he capable of abandoning himself to the woman save in a superficial and rehearsed way.  The well-known psychologist, Karl Stern, describes these hyper-active and hyper-controlled men as follows:

On getting to know these persons [frozen in the male mystique] more intimately, one notices an extraordinary denial of feeling, a shying away from tenderness, and a fear of dependence and passivity.  Not to want to be dependent or passive is in itself healthy.  In fact, it is well now that psychiatrists have to deal a lot with people who crave too much dependence and passivity.  Nevertheless in a normal person one must allow for a need of dependence, passivity, and protectedness.  The kind of individual I am talking about here is really in terror of dependence.  The very possibility of being in the least dependent or protected, or even being loved, amounts to noting less than a phantasy of mutilation or destruction. . . .

The denial of feeling is at times accompanied not only by undue activism but by undue intellectualism. . . .   In fact, hyper-activist and hyper-rationalist attitudes often go together.  The man in power, the executive who manages not only things but also people; the man who approaches human relationships as if they were matters of engineering; the man who acts as though he were on guard against his own heart–these types are only too well known.  It goes without saying that such people may be successful in life, if we take “success” to mean material [or social] advancement.  But one can frequently observe that they allow their technical or scientific or business [or theological] acumen to extend into areas of human life in which these techniques have no place.  In other words, they shy away from all interior means of communion, and tend to be great believers in the mechanics and manageability of human relations (The Flight From Woman, p. 2-4).

Going beyond Stern, I would even say that such men can act the part of a Lover.  When they do so, however, they are indeed “acting the part” by managing the encounter such that the deception is so complete that they themselves cannot imagine that there is any more to love or being in love.  True “love can neither be planned nor managed, it can only be sown and nurtured” (Stern: 191).  Thus they can never know how it is that a man in love can leave his father and mother and cling to his wife (Gen 2:24).

When I read Mulieris Dignitatem, I discover in Pope John Paul II a man who moves in a world in which he regarded the vocation of all women to be that of motherhood and of consecrated virginity (which he regards as a spiritual motherhood).  When it comes to the Genesis accounts, he focused upon the dignity and the equality of the woman whose “gift of self” provides the man with his true “helpmate.”  What John Paul II missed, however, are the intimations of how utterly and irrevocably the man is transformed in the process.  Adam comes to the encounter seeking something for himself, something to advance his world of achievement.  Even God is bent to serving his self-centered purposes.  What surprises and astonishes the man, however, is how the “woman” transforms him and his social world–how he clings to her as bone of his bones because he loses himself in the mystery of her “otherness” which he cherishes and loves “for its own sake.”  She, in turn, reveals to him that “self” which has been lost to him.  Now his inner world of feelings and “letting go” and vulnerability become lovable because the man realizes that this is loved and cherished by his significant Other.

These latter things are muted in the meditations of John Paul II.  One suspects that he could not envision or imagine what such an encounter might entail.  Hence, like the man who is driven by achievement and who has learned to guard himself within carefully constructed “thoughts” about life, John Paul II appears to have been blind to those things which, in the life of most of my contemporaries, are the most precious when it comes to knowing a “woman.”

David Yallop, the recent biographer of John Paul II, confirmed this assessment when he noted that “apart from Mother Theresa and the Virgin Mary, his [adult] understanding of women was severely limited” (The Power and the Glory, p. 404).  For these reasons, Mulieris Dignitatem suffers from  a truncated understanding of women.  As a father and grandfather, therefore, I would be wary of directing my daughters or granddaughters to John Paul II when it came to forming their character as women.  Why this is so will become clear as I reflect upon the changing experience of marriage over the last three generations.

The Changing Experience of Marriage

grandparentsThe traditional marriage of my grandparents had little to do with “falling in love” or with vulnerability.  To begin with, there were distinct spheres of influence and division of labor.  My grandfather knew nothing about cooking, cleaning, or caring for children.  He left these things up to his wife just as his own father had left all these things to his mother.  My grandmother, meanwhile, knew nothing about running a business, making a living, fixing things (plumbing, electricity, automechanics)–she left all these things in the hands of her husband who acted much like his own father before him.  Both of my grandparents came from the same social class (middle-class), the same culture (Slovenian), the same religion (Catholic); hence, when entering into marriage, there were very insignificant disruptions from the habits of thought and practices which both had been used to in their respective homes.

Where there was disruption, the tacit surmise was that the role of the wife was to accommodate to the wishes of her husband.  Thus, when my grandfather (who took pride in making his own wine) insisted that he always serve wine to guests and, when there were no guests, that his wife serve him his wine, my grandmother accommodated.  So, too, when my grandfather made it known that he preferred this perfume, this dress, my grandmother gracefully accommodated just as she had seen her mother do.  In some things, however, my grandmother refused to accommodate.  For example, she always fed her children first (from infancy onward) even if it meant that her husband had to wait for his supper.  At first, there were angry outbursts.  And later my grandfather fumed about this; yet, in the face of his wife’s stubborn insistence that “the children come first,” she finally won the day and got her husband to tolerate her “deviance” from what had been the practice during his own upbringing.

womanwishingwellDivision of labor and mutual need provided much of the bonding within traditional marriages.  My grandfather, for instance, needed to eat.  Since he regarded cooking as a “women’s work” and never took the least interest in watching, much less learning, the rudiments of the art, he was always dependent upon a woman.  First, it was his mother.  Then, it was his wife.  As was the tradition, they postponed their marriage until he could afford to buy a house.  Thus, marriage marked the transition from his mother cooking, cleaning, ironing for him and his wife doing all these very same things.  The same thing could be said for my grandmother.  She regarded learning a trade and making a living as a “man’s work.”  Thus, with her marriage, she moved from being dependent upon the income of her father to becoming dependent upon the income of her husband.

At one point, my grandmother, who was superb at crocheting, was lured into selling some of her doilies to her friends.  My grandfather was furious.  He insisted that she give the money back.  He felt ashamed that his wife was earning income as if to imply that he was not providing for her sufficiently.  My grandmother, who didn’t want to resort to giving her work away, developed the strategy of trading jams and other preserves.  Later, she returned to the practice of accepting money and insisted that her buyers must not breathe a word of it to anybody.  Thus, in a world wherein “the man was king of his castle,” my grandmother had to make do, by giving in on insignificant issues, by mulishly holding her ground on important ones, and by surreptitiously avoiding my grandfather’s supervision in things where he ought not to have been meddling.

How different this was from my own marriage.  From the very beginning, it was clear that I could cook, clean, and iron with pride and proficiency, as well as carry on my professional career.  My wife would work professionally outside our home as well as in our home and she would not be forever dependent upon a weekly allowance that I would give to her out of my paycheck.  Yet, it was evident that we had great need to influence each other, to decide things together, to work cooperatively. Moreover, I was intent upon being in on all the delights and headaches of raising children. I learned from my wife who was extraordinarily adept at relating to our children and I also had ideas and experiences of my own which entered into our long discussions about how to raise our children.

Under my grandparents system, mutual need and spheres of influence provided the effective glue for marriage. For my wife and I, we entered into marriage when we had discovered we were soul-mates.  Sympathetic listening with the intent of entering into each other’s heart and soul was the primary model for marriage.  It is for this reason that the mutual surrender, the falling in love, the mutual influencing is the sine qua none for entering into such a marriage. Hence, romantic attraction ushering into mutual surrender fashioned the glue of our union.  In this, settled instincts were being transformed quietly and quickly under the guise of the mutual love which was binding us. I wanted to see the world through her eyes, to taste it as she tasted it, to touch it as she was touching it. For her it was the same. Once the period of romantic surrender wore off, both of us had arrived at a blending of our souls, our loves, our hates, our instincts, our habits for engaging in the world.

The trouble that I have with Mulieris Dignitatem is that I never catch any real glimpse of how marriages have changed within the short span of three generations.  More often than not, I have had the feeling that John Paul II either had not noticed these changes or, having noticed them, had not considered them worth mentioning.  If this is the case, however, I doubt whether he had understood or taken into account the stuff of my marriage.  For all I know, he may well have been thinking of marriage as he knew it in his formative years in Kraków–a marriage very much like that of my grandparents.  The fact that he assigned the role and vocation of woman as directed towards the “gift of self” and towards motherhood gives the feeling that he was talking about my grandparents generation.  This wisdom would have admirable fit them.

Today, however, I presume that my wife has a calling and a vocation within the public sphere which stands alongside her being wife and mother.  Might this not have a significant bearing upon how John Paul II envisions women’s role relative to the church.  Like in the case of my own father, he might, under restricted circumstances, allow my wife to continue to work outside the home until the birth of her first child.  But this “work” was not a true vocation; “motherhood” was and will always remain her true vocation.  There is little chance, therefore, that someone fashioned within this era would be receptive to women as ordained ministers or high level leaders within the Catholic Church.  The struggle for women in the Church, accordingly, may indeed be much more a question of enculturation rather than an issue of theology.

The Implications for Women of the Fall in the Garden

Within the Fathers and Doctors of the church, one finds a steady and repeated theme: the “woman” in the Garden showed herself to be weak and unreliable.  Thus, she was chosen by the demon-serpent as the easier prey and, having fallen into disobedience, she deliberately used her influence to bring her “man” down with her.  Thus, in the mind of the Fathers and Doctors, one has the paradigmatic case of how women must not to be trusted or given undue influence over men in general and their husbands in particular.

Eve4The whole of the Hebrew Scriptures (even while it frequently partakes in an ambivalent attitude toward women) never falls into the trap of categorically blaming women for misleading men on the basis of the Genesis account.  The first time that Genesis is used to specifically expose the weakness and unreliability of women is in 1 Timothy:

I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man. . . .   For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived [first], but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor (1 Tim 2:12-14).

The writer of 1 Timothy wanted to use the cloak of Paul to overturn the equality of discipleship which Paul extended to Jews and Greeks, to slave and to free, to female and to male.  Finding no rule given by Paul or by Jesus to stop the practice whereby some women apparently were teaching and were exercising guidance over men, the writer of 1 Timothy fell back upon scapegoating all women because of what he regarded as the permanent character of Eve in relation to Adam.  The argument has two prongs: (a) Adam was formed first; hence, not only Adam but all men have a superior dignity and honor which requires that all teachers much be chosen from among them; (b) In the one case where Adam allowed Eve to “teach” him, she deceived him; hence, all men, in all places and all times, should resist the teaching and the influence of women.  Despite the faulty logic of this argument, nearly all of the Fathers of the Church felt that they had a certain divine warrant to blame women and to warn men against listening to women.

John Paul II thus becomes a true father and brother to women in the Church by refusing to use 1 Tim 2:12-14 to enforce the notion that all women are to be named as gullible and unreliable due to the supposed fact that Eve fell first.  In contrast, John Paul II insists that, despite the different roles played by each, both were equally culpable:

The biblical description of original sin in the third chapter of Genesis in a certain way “distinguishes the roles” which the woman and the man had in it. This is also referred to later in certain passages of the Bible, for example, Paul’s Letter to Timothy: “For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor” (1 Tim 2:13-14). But there is no doubt that, independent of this “distinction of roles” in the biblical description, that first sin is the sin of man, created by God as male and female. It is also the sin of the “first parents,” to which is connected its hereditary character. In this sense we call it “original sin” (MD: 9).

John Paul II, however, was not able to be consistent in maintaining this sense of equal participation, for, when it came to considering the consequence, the “dominion” of Adam over Eve sadly replaces their original “equality.”  Thus, in the end, John Paul II fell into the logical fallacy of the Fathers by assuming that Adam’s dominion over the Eve after the fall represented the situation which ought to prevail in every marriage (regardless of whether the husband happens to be wise and self-giving or gullible and selfish).  The logic runs as follows:

The biblical description in the Book of Genesis outlines the truth about the consequences of man’s sin, as it is shown by the disturbance of that original relationship between man and woman which corresponds to their individual dignity as persons. . . .   Therefore when we read in the biblical description the words addressed to the woman: “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Gen 3:16), we discover a break and a constant threat precisely in regard to this “unity of the two” which corresponds to the dignity of the image and likeness of God in both of them.  But this threat is more serious for the woman, since domination takes the place of “being a sincere gift” and therefore living “for” the other: “he shall rule over you.”  This “domination” indicates the disturbance and loss of the stability of that fundamental equality which the man and the woman possess in the “unity of the two”: and this is especially to the disadvantage of the woman, whereas only the equality resulting from their dignity as persons can give to their mutual relationship the character of an authentic “communio personarum.”  While the violation of this equality, which is both a gift and a right deriving from God the Creator, involves an element to the disadvantage of the woman, at the same time it also diminishes the true dignity of the man.  Here we touch upon an extremely sensitive point in the dimension of that “ethos” which was originally inscribed by the Creator in the very creation of both of them in his own image and likeness (MD: 10).

John Paul II, instead of arguing that Jesus, in his teaching and in his preferential option in favor of women, wished to return to that fundamental equality which was intended by the Divine Creator at the beginning of creation, now uses Gen 3:16 to correct both Jesus and Paul and to relegate, not only Eve, but all women to the permanent and divinely ordained condition of being subject to the authority of their husbands.

That all women at all times are “disadvantaged” and “discriminated against” thus appears to be, more or less, the natural consequence of Gen 3:16:

These words of Genesis refer directly to marriage, but indirectly they concern the different spheres of social life: the situations in which the woman remains disadvantaged or discriminated against by the fact of being a woman (MD: 10).

Eve1Immediately after this point, John Paul II makes an obscure reference to “the books of Sacred Scripture confirm . . . the actual existence of such situations and at the same time proclaim the need for conversion . . . from what offends neighbor, what ‘diminishes’ man . . .” (MD: 10).  At this point, one would have hoped that John Paul II might have been more precise in noting that the Gospels proclaim the need for conversion from what offends and “diminishes” women–but he does not.  Can it be assumed that the generic terms “neighbor” and “man” were intended to apply to “women”?  One would think so.  One might hope so.

Yet, while John Paul II is unclear here, he does, nonetheless, make it abundantly clear later that the domination of women by men is both necessary due to the fall and yet transitory due to the effects of salvation:

The personal resources of femininity are certainly no less than the resources of masculinity: they are merely different.  Hence a woman, as well as a man, must understand her “fulfillment” as a person, her dignity and vocation, on the basis of these resources, according to the richness of the femininity which she received on the day of creation and which she inherits as an expression of the “image and likeness of God” that is specifically hers.  The inheritance of sin suggested by the words of the Bible‑‑”Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you”‑‑can be conquered only by following this path.  The overcoming of this evil inheritance is, generation after generation, the task of every human being, whether woman or man.  For whenever man is responsible for offending a woman’s personal dignity and vocation, he acts contrary to his own personal dignity and his own vocation (MD: 10).

From reading this, it would seem like the domination of women in Gen 3:16 is an “evil inheritance” which can and must be progressively overcome by the original equality affirmed by Gen 1:27.  Yet, this same text can be understood to mean that the “path” to overcome “the inheritance of sin” is precisely for women to embrace their “femininity” and to submit to Gen 3:16.

In the face of John Paul’s seeming fixation upon Gen 3:16b, he passes over in silence the text which comes immediately before and immediately after.   The text immediately before reads as follows:  “I [the Lord] will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing” (Gen 3:16a).  Given the unclear lessons which John Paul II had distilled from Gen 3:16b, it remains uncertain whether he would promote natural childbirthing which does nothing to diminish the “pangs of childbirth” which fall upon Eve or, on the contrary, whether he would encourage women giving birth to use relaxation breathing and spinal blocks by way of overcoming “the inheritance of sin.”

The same ambiguity greets the silence of John Paul II regarding the text immediately following which registers the consequence of the fall for the man: “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife . . . cursed is the ground because of you: in toil shall you eat of it [i.e., its fruits] all the days of your life” (Gen 3:17).  Here again, it remains unclear whether John Paul II would prefer that the vocation of some men or of all men is to become farmers as was Adam.  Since these words are addressed to “the man” alone, it also remains unclear whether women are permitted to assist their men in the toil of the fields.  Furthermore, since Adam and Eve were vegetarians and the Lord gave only them “seed-bearing” and “green” plants for food (Gen 1:29f), a condition which would be changed only after the flood (Gen 9:2-6), one wonders whether John Paul II would advocate that humans should return to being vegetarians.  Finally, since Gen 3:17 clearly places its emphasis upon “toil” and “sweat,” one wonders whether subsistence farming using primitive tools appropriate to primitive men is to be advocated or whether, on the contrary, tractors, pesticides, and herbicides are to be greeted as envisioned by the Gospel as overcoming the curses of the fall.  Finally, since John Paul II is so keen to define women on the basis of the biology of the womb and his reading of the theology of Genesis, it remains puzzling why he is not equally zealous to define “man” on the basis of the biology of the penis and his reading of Genesis as essentially called to fatherhood and farming.

My purpose for imagining these problems posed by the texts which are silently passed over by John Paul II is to demonstrate the fallacy of supposing that the situations described after the fall were somehow meant to have universal application to all men and to all women down to the end of time.  Nowhere in the book of Genesis does even the inspired writer(s) suppose that all times and all peoples are somehow cursed or stricken by the details specified in Gen 3:16-19.  For example, in the next narrative, “Able was a keeper of sheep” (Gen 4:2)–not as a source of food but for their wool which could be sheared, combed, spun, and woven into cloth.  The sacred narrator clearly does not regard Abel as having deviated from the trades assigned to his father.  What is even more curious is that Cain, who is “a tiller of the ground” (Gen 4:2) like his father, finds no favor with God (Gen 4:5).  In the next generation, Cain’s son, Enoch, “built a city” (Gen 4:17)–a situation which demands hundreds of arts and crafts which go beyond farming.  Where did all these people and crafts come from?  Clearly, Genesis is not to be read literally here.  One has, in three generations, the sort of progress which took more than three hundred generations but which, the divine author wants to encapsulate within the dynamics of a few representative generations the advances and the further woes which the progress of civilization advanced.  Remember, for instance, that Adam and Eve had not introduced “murder” into the world but that it was Cain.  Hence, when Genesis is read within the context of Genesis, the sacred author himself clearly does not want to assign every evil and every woe to Adam or Eve.  At best, therefore, the reflections of John Paul II are curiously antiquated.  At worst, they are selective and self-serving.  Hence, if I am aware of these things, would I be a worthy father and trustworthy guide for my daughters if I did not alert them to the severe limitations within the pope’s commentary on these very same things?


womenhousechurchJohn Paul II grew up within my grandparents era.  He knows their life values, their hopes, their dreams.  For this generation, John Paul II is an able father and guide.  When it come to my generation and my marriage, I fear that John Paul II understands little or else he values little what we have tried to achieve.  The vague dream of equality which John Paul II holds out to women is the central tenet of my marriage and those in my generation who share our values.  Within this world, many women have the vocation of motherhood, a few have the vocation of virginity, but all have the deep stirring of the Spirit which calls them to be engineers, physicians, mail carriers, deacons, scientists, child psychologists, priests, cab drivers, theologians, social reformers, bishops.  This world has overtaken the world of my grandparents, just as it had overtaken the world of John Paul II.  My grandfather would have vigorously resisted the modern expansion of women’s vocations; hence, it is no surprise that John Paul II, with his grandfatherly understanding of the world would do the same.

In the end, the sad truth is that I would not entrust my daughters (or granddaughters) to the guidance of this “grandfather” when it came to matters of women’s vocation, of women’s femininity, or women’s sexuality.  I would have them love him dearly and to listen to his stories and to become familiar, through him, of where their forebears once stood but, urged on by the call to progress which is mixed in with the leading Spirit of God, have left behind.  Thus my daughters (and granddaughters) would come to understand the love in their grandfather’s eyes as the real token of his love and affection.  As for his practical guidance and wisdom, however, they would know that he failed to address their world and their dreams since everything he knew had been fashioned within the settled instincts and sources of wisdom which were passing away.  Thus, my daughters and granddaughters must discover that the wisdom of John Paul II almost certainly will not be able to nourish and guide their souls.  Jesus, keenly aware of how his wisdom hungered for God’s future and how this wisdom clashed with the religious norms of the past, had this to say:

And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins (Mark 2:22).

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by Michael H. Crosby, OFMCap.

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6 thoughts on “The Debilitating Feminism of John Paul II”

  1. An eyeopener and a challenge to go on reflecting on the dignity of women and the calling to contribute to make this world more truly sensitive to gender equality.
    Thank you.

  2. As you said, Pope John Paul II was speaking during the times of his grandfather.

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