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April 04, 2008

John Paul II and Women

Cathy Kaveny has an interesting essay in the new Commonweal marking the 20th anniversary of John Paul II's Mulieris dignitatem, the apostolic letter on the dignity of women.  Kaveny explains that many (most?) Catholic women greeted the letter with wariness because the pope "makes claims about the nature of women that were in fact used in the last century to argue for what most of us would consider to be unjust political, economic, and social subjugation."  For example, the 1912 Catholic Encyclopedia asserts that:

[T]he political activity of man is and remains different from that of woman, as has been shown above. It is difficult to unite the direct participation of woman in the political and parliamentary life of the present time with her predominate duty as a mother. If it should be desired to exclude married women or to grant women only the actual vote, the equality sought for would not be attained. On the other hand, the indirect influence of women, which in a well-ordered state makes for the stability of the moral order, would suffer severe injury by political equality.

Both the Encyclopedia and John Paul II, according to Kaveny, "strongly defend a divinely ordained difference and complementarity between men and women," and both "are worried about the baleful effects of blurred gender lines."  John Paul II cautions that "women must not appropriate male characteristics contrary to their own femine originality."  But what, Kaveny asks, are those characteristics?  Are they the same as those that were identified in 1912 -- impacting women's claims to equality in the educational, employment, and political spheres?  If they're not the same, on what basis does John Paul II accept the traditional anthropological claims regarding gender, yet resist the traditionally espoused implications of those claims?  As Kaveny puts it, "We know that Pope John Paul didn't endorse [the Encyclopedia's] view.  We just don't know why he didn't."

I realize that there will be an entire conference dedicated to Mulieris dignitatem this fall, but I'm wondering if anyone has initial thoughts on Kaveny's important questions.

Posted by Rob Vischer on April 4, 2008 at 11:03 AM in Vischer, Rob | Permalink

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