JP2 on the New Feminism: Be Not Afraid.

JP2 on the New Feminism: Be Not Afraid. April 24, 2014

The picture below was taken early in the morning on November 9, 2001, the day after I received The Pontifical Academies Award for my dissertation on women, gender, and the Church. In many ways, this picture was years in the making.


Most of my family and several of my friends came with me to Rome for the award. Unfortunately, they were not presented to the Holy Father when I received my award.

Later that day, due to the persistence of one of my friends, I waited on hold with the Vatican operator [worst musack ever, it alone would make one want to hang up] until a deep voice came on the line. It was Bishop Dziwisz, the Pope’s private secretary. He explained that there was no way that my family and friends could be added to the already large group of people attending the private Mass the next day, but that we could attend the private audience immediately following. In this picture, I was the first of our group to be introduced to the Holy Father. I then had the honor of introducing my family and friends to the Holy Father. As a result, I’m in most of their pictures… Instead of feeling like a formal, distant affair, the whole experience actually seemed quite intimate.  I think this has to do with how he lived his priesthood. He truly lived his priestly fatherhood and many who encountered him had that same experience of intimacy. It wasn’t just what he did, it was who he was.

As I reflect upon it, I can see how he was the perfect person to start a new wave of feminism, one focused on being rather than simply doing.

When I decided to study in Rome, I was not experiencing any sort of vocational crisis; it made perfect sense that I should pursue graduate work in theology, given my interests and the opportunity. However, after a few years of studying with clerics and religious, I did start to wonder what I was doing in that group. I wasn’t a woman who struggled with the Church’s teaching on the all-male priesthood (even if I could be tempted to mentally edit some homilies that I heard…) and yet there I was, not infrequently the only woman in a class of collars and religious garb.

At the same time, John Paul II had been talking about a “new feminism.” Yet, it was not clear exactly what he meant by it. I came to realize that his first words as Pope, “Do not be afraid,” applied to the vocation of women, as well. In many ways, he was encouraging us to challenge our cultural notions about women so that we could be open to a broader understanding of the role of women, one based on the history and teaching of the Church, even if it has been forgotten at times.

"Do not be afraid." (Blessed John Paul's handwriting.)

A wise man, he gave some guidelines on the new feminism in his various documents, but I believe that he knew it was not his alone to develop.

In his Apostolic Exhortation on the Family, John Paul II noted that the differences between women and men existed before the fall, therefore they had to be constructive differences intended by God. In other words women and men were meant to live together in some semblance of harmony. The tensions between women and men (what I would call battle of the sexes), he noted were a result of original sin.

Later, John Paul II set forth quite a challenge when he formally proposed his new feminism in the 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, n. 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. [Emphasis mine.]

The whole point of my dissertation was to attempt to answer his call for a new feminism, one that I would call a feminism of complementarity (women and men are created to live happily together in marriage and in society at large) or an integral feminism (one which sees a woman in her entirety rather than simply in a role of some type, even as important of a role as mother.)

Throughout his pontificate, the Pope frequently recognized the situations of women who were abused or disadvantaged. In no way did he support an idea of patriarchy which required the domination of women. Rumor has it that when he saw a draft document of the UN Beijing Women’s Conference in 1995, he dryly noted that a document that concerned itself so much with women’s fertility should at least concern itself as much with women’s literacy.

Rather than hash out a really tired anything-you-can-do-I-can-do debate that had been heard for decades, John Paul II shifted the conversation from doing to being. In particular he did this when discussing Mary. Perhaps one of the most striking examples of this can be found at the end of the 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio, n. 108. Instead of his customary pious invocation of Mary at the end of any document or event, he actively sets her forth as an example to philosophers (typically a male realm):

I turn in the end to the woman whom the prayer of the Church invokes as Seat of Wisdom, and whose life itself is a true parable illuminating the reflection contained in these pages. For between the vocation of the Blessed Virgin and the vocation of true philosophy there is a deep harmony. Just as the Virgin was called to offer herself entirely as human being and as woman that God’s Word might take flesh and come among us, so too philosophy is called to offer its rational and critical resources that theology, as the understanding of faith, may be fruitful and creative. And just as in giving her assent to Gabriel’s word, Mary lost nothing of her true humanity and freedom, so too when philosophy heeds the summons of the Gospel’s truth its autonomy is in no way impaired. Indeed, it is then that philosophy sees all its enquiries rise to their highest expression. This was a truth which the holy monks of Christian antiquity understood well when they called Mary “the table at which faith sits in thought”. (132) In her they saw a lucid image of true philosophy and they were convinced of the need to philosophari in Maria. [Emphasis mine.]

For me, this pointed to a discussion of Mary’s being: who she was, who she is. As a woman who was willing to take on the reality of becoming the mother of God, John Paul II identified a capacity that true philosophers would do well to follow, a way of being open to the truth. The first words of the angel Gabriel to Mary (and to Zechariah) were the same as those first words of John Paul II. He was also saying, “Do not be afraid of the truth.”

Admittedly, the question of being v. doing is complex, especially when talking about women and the priesthood. Face it, women do a lot to keep parishes going. Sometimes they’re braver, smarter, etc., than the pastor. (And sometimes they’re not…) But let’s keep it simple. Men are not ordained priests on the basis of what they can or can not do, but on the basis of who they are: baptized adult males who have a bishop that will confer the sacrament of ordination on them. As one of my priest friends has pointed out, the canonical requirements are pretty basic, even though a bishop hopefully has higher standards. And yet it can be difficult to understand if we simply look at the priesthood, indeed any vocation, simply in terms of what women and men do. It has to be considered in terms of who they are.

As a man, the priest stands in the person of Christ and relates to the Church in a specifically male role, that of groom and father. The relationship between Christ and the Church is the most profound spousal relationship in existence, from which the human notion of marriage borrows, and the sex of each party matters a great deal – it is part of the reality. But like any relationship, it takes work. It’s not simply enough for a parent to be a parent to a particular child, the parent also has to be for the child, making decisions that not infrequently involve sacrifice to provide for the child so that the child can grow in health. Similarly, it’s not enough to simply be married. Both spouses must work at being groom or bride. And that plays out differently in each marriage. In some marriages, the wives will manage finances. In others, the husband. In yet others, it will be both spouses together. The division of labor probably won’t pass muster for every other observer of that marriage, but the important thing is that it works for that family. [Aside – So, too, with questions of family size – neither John Paul II nor the Catholic Church ever said that a family has to have a particular number of children, as many children as possible, or indeed any children at all.]

As you see, I digress a bit. The topic is broad and unwieldy, needing to be directed by principles rather than social constructs and societal rubrics. At World Youth Day this past August, Pope Francis noted that we need a theology of women. I couldn’t agree more. Fortunately, John Paul II left us with some guidance that will require input from many women and men before we have a body of work that we can call a theology of women. Ideally, we would be looking at a theology of women and men…

But back to the picture above. In my left hand, I’m holding a copy of the dissertation which the Pope had signed the day before during the presentation of the award. I had no idea that it was a breach of protocol to ask the Pope for his signature. Ignorance is bliss. Had I known, I probably would not have asked for his signature which, as you can see, he graciously gave me…


For the record, I know the title is sleep inducing. And, yes, the cover was vastly improved for the second publication.


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