Eve of Deconstruction: Feminism and John Paul II

Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter on the Dignity and Vocation of Women, Mulieris Dignitatem, turns 20 this year, and in honor of its August 15 anniversary, Catholic women’s conferences around the world are celebrating the single instance in all John Paul II’s writings when he advocated “feminism” — or, as he qualified it, a “new feminism.”

“New feminism” in fact does not appear in the celebrated papal letter at all; its sole appearance in John Paul II’s writings occurred seven years later, in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae. But that doesn’t stop many women’s groups from tagging it onto discussions of Mulieris Dignitatem. The fact that he framed “new feminism” in self-conscious scare quotes seems to escape them, but in the context of Evangelium Vitae, as well as his other writings on women, his intent was unmistakable. While theologians may argue about the finer points of his meaning, he was clearly not referring to anything associated with Gloria Steinem.

During the ten years of his reign after Evangelium Vitae, although he did again encourage “new feminism” in a 2000 public address, never again did John Paul II write in favor of feminism of any kind. One wonders if perhaps an adviser did an Inigo Montoya on him — saying, like Mandy Patinkin’s character in The Princess Bride, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

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I believe the Holy Father’s use of that word sprang from his characteristic gentlemanliness: wanting to think the best of women who held an emotional attachment to the term. As G. K. Chesterton wrote a century ago, “Feminism will always oppose chivalry, but chivalry is rather in favor of feminism.” One can also see this in the similarly arm’s-length approach John Paul took with liberation theology: condemning what the term stood for, yet approving a document by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that acknowledged the goodness within its’ adherents’ ideals (“the powerful and almost irresistible aspiration that people have for ‘liberation’”).

John Paul II wished to believe that the same idealism that attracted women to traditional feminism would spur 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.”

To a large degree, his faith in “the true genius of women” has been validated by the steadily escalating interest in Mulieris Dignitatem. The question of what it means for a woman to live out her femininity is, if anything, more challenging in today’s sex-saturated society than it was during the Reagan and Thatcher era when John Paul II penned the apostolic letter. His vision of feminine dignity and his elegant encapsulation of “the true order of love which constitutes woman’s own vocation” resonates with a generation of women chafing at a consumer culture that treats them as commodities and urges them to treat others the same way.

Yet, the end result of the Holy Father’s reference to “new feminism” is surely unintended, as it gave those who retain a sentimental attachment to the old feminism the opportunity to claim a papal blessing on a word the vast majority of people associate with “evening the score” between the sexes.

The word “feminism” has a breathless quality. For many women, even its opponents, the mention of it — containing, as it does, the sound of the unquestionably beautiful “feminine” — inspires a spontaneous surge in the chest. It claims a desire for equality, yet it exudes competitiveness and empowerment. Indeed, the earliest feminists were quite candid about their desire not only to end male domination but usurp it. Susan B. Anthony’s weekly journal The Revolution, launched January 1, 1868 (then the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ), claimed as its motto, “The true republic — men, their rights and nothing more; women, their rights and nothing less.”

Heresies gain their power from a grain of truth, and, likewise, feminism emerged as a response to a real evil. The Industrial Revolution put great strain on families. More husbands worked away from home, while wives lost much of their power, as family financial decisions, formerly within their sphere of control, became reserved to their husbands and the husbands’ employers.

The sense of belonging that women had felt within the family turned, for some, into alienation, while reliance upon the security of their husbands’ or fathers’ love became instead an uncomfortable feeling of dependence upon his protection.

Such an unbalanced environment does cry for correction. From the 19th century to the present day, feminism and the Church have both articulated the need for equality. But where feminism’s ideal of equality is based on economic power, that of the Church is based on love.

In Evangelium Vitae, immediately after articulating how the new feminism should aim to “overcome all discrimination, violence and exploitation,” John Paul II urges emphatically that this quest for equality and justice be placed at love’s service:

Making my own the words of the concluding message of the Second Vatican Council, I address to women this urgent appeal: “Reconcile people with life.” You are called to bear witness to the meaning of genuine love, of that gift of self and of that acceptance of others which are present in a special way in the relationship of husband and wife, but which ought also to be at the heart of every other interpersonal relationship.

With that, the Holy Father states definitively that his vision of a new feminism is inextricably bound with “the relationship of husband and wife.” It is precisely there, as he defines the term, that the difference between his understanding of “feminism” and its actual meaning — from the dawn of the movement’s history to the present day — becomes inexpressively vast.

Thanks to the efforts of secular advocacy organizations such as Feminists for Life and the Susan B. Anthony List, many Catholic women in the pro-life movement are aware that leading 19th-century feminists were vocally opposed to abortion. Well-meaning Catholic writers, drawing upon those nonprofits’ publicity materials, often uphold Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton as “foremothers” of the new feminism.

Yet even the most cursory examination of Anthony’s and Stanton’s writings shows that feminism, at its very root, sought to remove women from not only the “relationship of husband and wife,” to use John Paul II’s words, but even “every other interpersonal relationship,” where such relationships might carry the risk of what the activists most dreaded: dependence.

Anthony asserted, in what became one of her most popular sayings: “There is not the woman born who desires to eat the bread of dependence, no matter whether it be from the hand of father, husband, or brother; for any one who does so eat her bread places herself in the power of the person from whom she takes it.”

Family relationships, in Anthony’s and her comrades’ eyes, were meaningless in the face of unbalanced economic power. It was economics, not love, that made the world go ’round. Not for nothing did her profile grace the Carter-era dollar coin.

Recognizing that the strongest argument in favor of traditional sex roles was that woman, being the weaker sex, needed man’s protection, she developed a nuanced counterattack: She admitted that men did look out for women in their own family, but asserted vehemently that they could not be relied upon to protect women at large.

“I declare to you,” Anthony told a San Francisco audience in 1871, “that woman must not depend upon the protection of man, but must be taught to protect herself, and there I take my stand.”

With those words, the activist now hailed as feminism’s first lady encapsulated the philosophy that continues to characterize her movement: pragmatism masquerading as idealism. Rather than calling upon men to follow their highest standard of behavior, the feminism of the foremothers urges women to follow men’s lowest standard of behavior: Every man for himself.

Anthony and her allies were right about women’s power to change the world. Their low expectations became a self-fulfilling prophecy, as growing numbers of men, no longer expected to sacrifice themselves for women, turned their natural gift for protectiveness towards self-protection — choosing pornography over intimacy, and cohabitation over marriage.

The early feminists’ genius, if it can be called that, lay in their convincing women to remove their faith from men and place it in the government. Justice would be established by changing laws, not hearts. Such new laws would necessarily be detached from the natural law delineated in the Bible, which Anthony, Stanton, and their allies deemed oppressive. It was a philosophy that would take America all the way to Roe v. Wade.

Anthony’s close friend and soul sister Stanton used code words like “bondage,” “dependence,” and “superstition” to deride marriage, family, and religious faith. In her 1892 address to the Congressional Judiciary Committee, aptly titled “The Solitude of Self,” she argued for “complete emancipation from all forms of bondage, of custom, dependence, superstition; from all the crippling influences of fear,” adding:

The strongest reason why we ask for woman a voice in the government under which she lives; in the religion she is asked to believe; equality in social life . . . is because of her birthright to self-sovereignty; because, as an individual, she must rely on herself.

As Stanton aged, she abandoned all efforts to mask her visceral animus toward organized religion, particularly Christianity. In 1901, a year before her death, the activist, then 85, wrote a statement that Anthony read to the 33rd annual convention of the National Women’s Suffrage Association, asserting “the American woman [was held] as a subordinate everywhere” due to “the doctrine of original sin and woman as medium for the machinations of Satan, its author.”

She would demand, she said, that an expurgated Bible be read in churches, removing references she deemed insulting — such as its calling woman the “weaker vessel.”

“The greatest block today in the way of woman’s emancipation,” Stanton asserted, “is the church, the canon law, the Bible and the priesthood.”

She ended her broadside, read aloud to conventioneers by Anthony, with a statement she attributed to Canon Charles Kingsley (the Anglican clergyman whose accusing John Henry Newman of lying prompted the future cardinal to write his Apologia Pro Vita Sua): “This will never be a good world for women ’til the last remnant of canon law is stricken from the face of the Earth.”

Today, Christians have grown used to such hate-filled rhetoric from radical feminists, particularly from those closely associated with what John Paul II called the “culture of death.” Planned Parenthood spews similar statements on a regular basis and continues to receive some $300 million a year from taxpayers. But in light of the stated views of Stanton and, by extension, Anthony (who chose to publicly recite her friend’s words), upholding either woman as a prototype of the Holy Father’s “new feminism” seems, at the very least, terribly naïve. That otherwise cogent Catholic writers would do so reflects the overwhelming difficulties they and many other Catholics have in overcoming their attachment to an ideology they associate with justice and empowerment.

In Mulieris Dignitatem, John Paul II outlined a vision of returning man and woman to the “one flesh” union they shared in the Garden of Eden. This original unity is radical precisely because it restores true equality, in which there is no division between the sexes in the only area where it matters: human dignity. It was a point so important to the Holy Father that, within the apostolic letter, he repeated several times the words of St. Paul in Galatians 3:28: In Christ Jesus, “there is neither male nor female.”

“Man and woman,” he wrote, “are called from the beginning not only to exist ‘side by side’ or ‘together,’ but they are also called to exist mutually ‘one for the other.’”

With that sentence, John Paul II struck a blow to the core of feminist ideology — the “solitude of self” so prized by Stanton, in which women are “freed” from institutionalized forms of belonging. Woman is “called from the beginning” to exist not only alongside man, but for man — and man for woman. “[T]he dignity of women,” the Holy Father wrote with emphasis,”is measured by the order of love.”

Pope John Paul II’s writings onsexuality are notoriously difficult to unpack. As Mary Shivanandan has noted, they require learning “a new language,” with expressions like “unity of the two” and “nuptial meaning of the body.” Mulieris Dignitatem is typical in this respect, which is perhaps why, in May 2004, John Paul II authorized the CDF, under the direction of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, to publish a letter explaining many of its points in simpler, more direct terms.

“On the Collaboration of Men and Womenin the Church and in the World” declared that the feminine values prized by the Church “are above all human values: the human condition of man and woman created in the image of God is one and indivisible”:

It is only because women are more immediately attuned to these values that they are the reminder and the privileged sign of such values. But, in the final analysis, every human being, man or woman, is destined to be “for the other.” In this perspective, that which is called “femininity” is more than simply an attribute of the female sex. The word designates indeed the fundamental human capacity to live for the other and because of the other.

Therefore, the promotion of women within society must be understood and desired as a humanization accomplished through those values, rediscovered thanks to women. Every outlook which presents itself as a conflict between the sexes is only an illusion and a danger: it would end in segregation and competition between men and women, and would promote a solipsism nourished by a false conception of freedom.

Without prejudice to the advancement of women’s rights in society and the family, these observations seek to correct the perspective which views men as enemies to be overcome. The proper condition of the male-female relationship cannot be a kind of mistrustful and defensive opposition. Their relationship needs to be lived in peace and in the happiness of shared love.

The then-ailing John Paul II likely realized the CDF’s letter would be his papacy’s last major statement on the relationship between the sexes. In that light, it is notable that, while the letter quotes his oft-stated praise for “the genius of women,” it omits his call for a “new feminism.”

Still, many Catholic women’s groups continue to set their sights on “Redefining Feminism,” to use the example of the title of last month’s Edith Stein Project conference at Notre Dame, which invites the question: Redefining for whom? Why is it necessary to fight so hard for that word?

Granted, such Catholics are not the only Christians so tempted. Their efforts, existing within the wider, longstanding Christian feminism movement, strike me not so much as an attempt to redeem feminism as to redeem Christianity — making the Cross “safe” by attaching it to an ideology acceptable to pagans. The same is true of any Christian “ism,” from Christian Marxism even to Christian conservatism.

It reminds me of a statement by Chesterton, who was not a fan of “isms” (save for his self-coined Distributism). Although he is a hero to many conservatives, he acknowledged in Orthodoxy that there was a single argument against conservatism, one well worth pondering: the tendency of things to corrupt.

The conservative theory would really be quite sweeping and unanswerable if it were not for this one fact. But all conservatism is based upon the idea that if you leave things alone, you leave them as they are. But this isn’t what actually occurs: If you leave a thing alone, you leave it to a torrent of change. If you leave a white post alone, it will soon be a black post. If you particularly want it to be white, you must be always painting it again — that is, you must be always having a revolution. Briefly, if you want the old white post, you must have a new white post.

That, in a nutshell, is the spirit of Christian regeneration. It means starting with a good thing and fighting for it — not starting with a bad thing and “redefining” it. Attaching Christianity to it is an attempt to join the perfect to the imperfect.

The Word who saves us was, like the woman who brought Him forth, immaculately conceived. Not so with the word feminism — which is why it cannot save, and should not be saved.


► Click here to read Marjorie Campbell’s critique, and Dawn’s response.



  • Dawn Eden

    Dawn Eden is author of “The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding Fulfillment While Keeping Your Clothes On” (Thomas Nelson, 2006) and has been featured on NBC’s Today show and EWTN’s Life on the Rock. Visit her online at thrillofthechaste.com or her blog, The Dawn Patrol.

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