Voices Online Edition
Vol. XVII: No. 1
The Pope and Women
by Rita Joseph
May the Lord preserve him and give him life and make him blessed upon the earth and deliver him not up to the will of his enemies...
The Holy Father has a great many enemies. Not so many personal enemies perhaps but a great many enemies of his office, of all that he stands for. He has spoken out fearlessly against the Culture of Death. He hasn't pulled his punches in condemning all the most popular kinds of immorality in "a widely de-Christianized culture". He's weighed in on the side of the poor against the abuses inherent in both communist and capitalist economies. He has warned that democracies are moving towards a totalitarianism in which a tyrant state "arrogates to itself the right to dispose of the life of the weakest and most defenseless members, from the unborn child to the elderly, in the name of a public interest which", he points out, "is really nothing but the interest of one part".
The Pope is right to warn against allowing sectional interests to dictate laws and policies that violate the family's right and duty to be "the sanctuary of life". He is right to condemn a "superficial feminism which fears motherhood". He is right to warn against "a practical materialism" that considers life worthwhile only to the extent that it is productive and enjoyable and in which suffering is considered "useless" and sacrifice for the sake of others "unjustified". As more mothers conscripted into the work force suffer separation from their babies, the Pope is right to alert us to the powerful cultural, economic and political currents that are actively fostering "an idea of society excessively concerned with efficiency". "What", he asks, "would society truly gain - even at an economic level - if a short-sighted labor policy were to prejudice the family's endurance and functions?" "Above all", he says, "it is necessary to respect the right and duty of woman as mother to carry out her specific tasks in the family without being forced by need to take on an additional job".
The Holy Father warns of "a war of the powerful against the weak. A person, who, because of illness, handicap or, more simply, just by existing, compromises the well-being or lifestyle of those who are more favored, tends to be looked on as an enemy to be resisted or eliminated. In this way", he says, "a kind of conspiracy against life is unleashed".
With quiet heroism and steady hope, the Holy Father faces this conspiracy against life. Virtually alone among all the world's leaders, he stood his ground as the population control juggernaut gathered speed for the UN Population Conference in Cairo in 1994. Before the Conference, he began to alert the world to the dangers. In an amazing turn of events, the Islamic countries, bridging the centuries-old chasm, approached the Holy Father for clarification and assistance. He called all the ambassadors in, he spoke in his homilies about the imminent attempt to make abortion into a human right and he informed the Secretary General of his concerns. And he sent his finest team of diplomats to represent the Holy See at the Cairo Conference.
Whenever I remember Cairo, I think of those words from Isaiah, "He set his face like flint". Those wonderful priests representing the Holy See had to set their faces like flint, while women spat at them and hurled abuse after them as they walked down the long halls of the Nefertiti Center. I remember one country after another, delegation after delegation were maneuvered into dropping their objections to abortion until the Holy See appeared to be standing entirely isolated. The Holy See refused to cave in. I have never been so proud as at that Conference, proud to belong to a Church that can take a stand on principles and hold the line against overwhelming odds; a Church that does not cave into expediency, a Church founded truly on the great rock of Saint Peter.
Again in Beijing, at the UN's Fourth Conference on Women in 1995, I saw that great rock battered by waves of fury, as, shored up by the immense courage and clarity of the Holy Father's campaign for "the whole truth about women", the Holy See did battle with what I can only describe as the forces of evil. I do not use the phrase "forces of evil" lightly here. I can find no other description for the powerful, well-organized, extremely well-funded battalion of radical feminists that gathered in Beijing and tried to force onto all governments and all women so much that is directly contrary to the tenets of our Catholic Faith.
Neither do I use the word fury lightly. I can tell you that hell hath no fury like a revolutionary army of radical feminists being thwarted of total victory by the Holy See. Why, you may ask, this fury against the Holy Father and the Holy See? Well, it seems to me that it's the same murderous fury that drove Cain to attack Abel, the same fury that motivated Herodias to demand Saint John the Baptist's head on a plate, the same sort of fury that possessed Henry VIII to execute Saint Thomas More. It is the fury of the wicked in the presence of goodness. This is why these women are furious with the Holy Father. They want him to say that their evil is good. They want to force him to say that abortion is good, contraception is good, adultery is good, fornication is good, homosexual acts are good, divorce is compassionate, IVF is compassionate, etc., etc. They have forced governments and judiciaries around the world to say these are good. They have forced almost the whole world to believe and affirm that these evils are good. Why not the Holy Father?
The radical feminist movement cannot understand this. They cannot understand because they cannot see the Holy Spirit who remains with the Pope, with the Church exactly as Jesus promised.
The rise of radical feminism has been phenomenally rapid. In quick succession, it has infiltrated and taken over the media, education systems including the universities, health systems and key government bureaucracies. Radical feminists have worked their way into the highest levels of political office. They have even come to impose their feminism on the judiciary, which is no longer independent (e.g. Australia's current re-education programs for judges). Really, the radical feminists have had a dream run - they reached the highest echelons of the United Nations where they put their revolutionary blueprint for the next millennium in a major series of UN Conferences where all the governments of the world have signed declarations and conventions designed to establish this feminism as official government ideology. Amidst this enormous success, the feminists have come up against just one single failure - a frail old man name John Paul - the Petrine Rock, the Rock that won't crumble, the Rock that won't budge.
Catholic Women: the Soft Target
So what have the radical feminists done? They have been exceedingly clever. Coming up against the unmovable Rock, they have gone for a soft target - for us Catholic women.
They have waged an intensive propaganda campaign to win us over to their cause, and this campaign to divide the Church, to divide Catholic women, continues to enjoy considerable success. They have deliberately fostered a spirit of rebellion in many Catholic women - calling us to battle with that most ancient of all battle cries, Lucifer's non serviam "I will not serve". Lucifer, remember, is "the father of all lies" we know that on Jesus' own authority. So the radical feminists' lies are of a particularly fine and effective vintage. Let's take a look at some of them.
Attack on the Priesthood
There's the lie about the male priesthood. They have misrepresented this as "discrimination against women", and have infiltrated the World Union of Catholic Women's Organizations (WUCWO).
At the 1996 international WUCWO Conference held in Canberra, Australia, they tried to pass a resolution (No. 11) demanding that the priesthood be opened to women. The general impression received and disseminated by the secular media was that the issue of women's ordination was still considered a hot topic for discussion by all the Catholic women's groups of the world. This was seized upon with such zest because the media understood much more clearly than the WUCWO leadership did that continuing the debate over women's ordination in direct defiance of infallible Church teaching could create a very serious rift between 30 million Catholic women and the Catholic Church.
Given the Holy Father's 1994 Declaration, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, and the even clearer warning in the 1995 clarification, Responsum ad Dubiam, by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, there was absolutely no excuse or justification for the WUCWO leadership to bring this resolution to the Conference. It should not have appeared on the official agenda at all.
(Ordinatio Sacerdotalis stated that the Church is bound to "a choice bound by the Lord Himself" and called for an end to discussions about priestly ordinations, saying that the Church simply has no authority to break with essential tradition that belongs to the deposit of faith. Precisely in order that there could be no excuse for doubting or underestimating the authoritative status of the Church's teaching on the impossibility of women's ordination, the CDF subsequently explained that the Pope's Declaration is "a matter of full definitive assent, that is to say irrevocable, to a doctrine taught infallibly by the Church".)
"Gender Discrimination" and Defiance
Two other resolutions showed the disturbing extent to which this Catholic Women's Conference in Canberra was infected by the same radical feminist ideas and language that dominated the Beijing Conference. As at Beijing, there appeared to be a preoccupation with "gender discrimination". Alleged grievances against male priests were aired copiously.
Very, very cleverly, the radical feminists have sown the lie of the Church as oppressor, that women must revolt and defy the Church, not only demanding admittance to the priesthood but calling on the governments of the world (in Resolution No. 9) to force religion to give women the right to "reproductive health care" (official UN definition includes pregnancy termination) and the right to "self-determination", which was the Beijing code-word for access to abortion, sterilization and contraception.
Selective Vocabulary Manipulates Ideas
There were other radical feminist concepts established at the Beijing Conference that infiltrated the language of the WUCWO conference. A good example is in the wording of resolution No. 6, which called on governments to counteract the practice of killing girl fetuses.
When I tried to point out that this resolution should include a call to end all abortions, male and female, I was slow-clapped.
Nowhere in the resolution was there any use of the words "abortion" and "feticide" or any acknowledgment that all abortion is wrong, not just the killing of female fetuses. I tried to point out that this plays into the hands of the radical feminist New York-based Women's Caucus (major authors of the Beijing Conference documents), whose official strategy document distributed to all heads of delegations present at Beijing emphasizes that the "wrong involved is not abortion per se, but abortion for the purposes of limiting the birth of girls.
"Feticide is defined as the killing of a fetus. Feticide should be deleted because it does not address the gender discrimination problem but rather introduces anti-abortion language through the back-door", the document said.
So Catholic women were being duped into viewing abortion as a "gender discrimination" problem.
The unfortunate fact was that most of the Catholic women at the WUCWO Conference did not understand the danger of using Beijing feminist terminology and its ideological baggage. Catholic women need to be alerted to this very real danger. They get us to use their language so that their concepts can creep in.
I am telling you all this because you need to understand the massive pressure on the Holy Father and the immense need he has for our prayers.
A Global Noose
There are huge problems looming. A global noose is tightening around all the Church's schools and hospitals. A crucial "freedom of conscience" clause was deleted in the health chapter of the Beijing Document. The right to conscientious objection was summarily removed. In effect, the United Nations refused to guarantee for Catholic health professionals, Catholic hospitals and health centers the right to refuse on conscience grounds to provide abortion, sterilization and contraceptive facilities to women who demand those reproductive "rights".
Because of this, Catholic health facilities can be forced to close down - or to provide abortions, sterilizations and contraceptives. The Catholic Church has 98,000 hospitals and health facilities caring for women and children all over the world , yet the radical feminists continue to attack the Church as the "oppressor" of women, because it does not provide the brutally destructive services they demand.
Unfortunately, in Beijing, access to abortion and contraception were defined as "reproductive rights" and moved from the health section to the human rights section of the document. A specific proviso ruled: "While the significance of various religious backgrounds must be borne in mind, it is the duty of the States, regardless to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms".
That little word "regardless" is very, very important, for it means that religious "scruples" are no longer to be "tolerated" by the State as "excuses" for denying women their "human rights" to abortion, sterilization, contraception, etc.
There was so much else at the Beijing Conference that was hostile to Catholic beliefs and Catholic teaching. The rights of Catholic parents to raise their children in their own faith and morals was seriously eroded.
If it is deemed "in the best interests of the children", the State may now impose on our children what we parents may consider to be ethically and morally dubious "health" and "human rights" education programs. The best interests of the children will now be decided by the State, no longer by the parents; while girls are to be allowed "privacy" and "confidentiality" to access abortion or contraceptives without parental knowledge. This has serious implications for the Catholic Church's 173,000 educational institutions, which are slowly but inexorably being manipulated towards a showdown with governments that are insisting that sinful lifestyles be taught as legitimate under the guise of promoting tolerance.
So our Holy Father continues to cop a heap of criticism from feminist leaders around the world. He has been branded as "intransigent" on sexual issues and "intolerant" in his stance against homosexuality and lesbianism. And to all this, the Holy Father replies, humbly, reasonably, that he has no power to give in on these things, for they are God's law. What we must never forget is that Pope John Paul II is the Vicar of Christ, the same Christ who said: "I have come not to abolish the law but to fulfill it", and insisted that "not one jot of the law" would pass away.
This pope has been accused of discrimination against women because, they say, he won't allow them to be priests. Not so, says the Holy Father. He cannot make them priests, for Christ himself in instituting the Eucharist linked it explicitly to the priestly service of the Apostles so as to express the relationship between man and woman -- a relationship willed by God both in the mystery of creation and the mystery of redemption. It is the Eucharist above all that expresses the redemptive act of Christ the Bridegroom toward the Church the Bride. It is a man who acts "in persona Christi".
"This is no way detracts from the role of women role distinctions should not be viewed in accordance with the criteria of functionality typical in human societies. Rather, they must be understood according to the economy of 'signs' which God freely chooses in order to become present in the midst of humanity".
What does that mean? It means God himself arranged things that way - that God's order is neither trivial nor superficial, but marvelously integral. It means acceptance of God's order as it is. It means obedience. It means we put that disruptive, destructive idea of women's ordination out of our minds.
Yet the Holy Father's embargo on dissent on women's ordination has not been greeted with acceptance. I remember one woman demanding angrily: "Now he wants to tell us what to think! Who does he think he is"? Well, he knows who he is - Jesus himself told him: "You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. And I will give to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and what you bind upon earth shall be bound also in heaven" (Matthew 16:18, 19). Peter has spoken.
The Holy Father understands better than anyone the widespread conditioning that the secular world exerts on us all. He says that it is this conditioning that has darkened each conscience, so that we find it increasingly difficult to distinguish between good and evil.
Freedom and submission
Central to this conditioning, it seems to me, are two extremely powerful contemporary ideas: 1) the idea that morality can be democratically determined, and 2) the idea that obedience is mindless, miserable and servile.
This is the modern misconception, the straw man, the radical feminists' caricature: that the Church demands of Catholic women a blind submission to non-democratic rules and regulations. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Church imposes nothing, she only proposes. She teaches, as she has always taught, that women, no less than men, are creatures of intellect and free will, and that it is human intellect, human reason, that must discern the universal moral law that God has written in every heart. It is human reason, not "male chauvinism", that ordains that we must use God's other great gift, our free will, to choose to follow the laws of our Creator.
I cannot help thinking here of G. K.. Chesterton's quip: "If you become King of England", he warned, "you must give up the post of Beadle in Brompton". Well, women are being offered today something better than the tawdry kingship of England, for we are called, the Holy Father says, to share in a royal priesthood, to be truly daughters of the Kingdom of Heaven. And what is our response? Incredibly, some of us respond with an irrational, willful "no". Stubbornly, we go on wanting to be Beadle in Brompton.
It's a funny thing, this perversity in feminine nature - it's a perversity as old as Eve. Of all the fruits in Paradise, she wanted only the forbidden fruit. It seems we still haven't lost our taste for forbidden fruit. We still hanker after the fruit of the tree of knowledge - the spurious "right to decide for ourselves" what is good and what is evil, independently of our Creator. Once more, we are being tempted to be our own legislators, to defy the natural law.
"If you knew the gift of God..."
In the heady excitement of a feminist revolution, of unprecedented experimentation with new laws, we have foolishly come to undervalue just who we are and all that we have been given.
"If you knew the gift of God", our Blessed Lord said to the Samaritan woman. If we knew, if we could just glimpse the greatness of God among us; if we could grasp even a tiny fraction of the truth of the glory and the honor and the dignity with which He has empowered us through the redemption of Christ his Son; if we knew who it is that speaks to us through this Pope, Christ's Vicar on earth, we would not be criticizing the Holy Father for not "allowing" contraception and female ordination. We would not be whining for empowerment to be Beadles in Brompton.
"If you knew the gift of God" Jesus says to the Samaritan woman. If we, as women created by God, could only glimpse what He meant us to be. The genius of the Holy Father is that he holds up the mirror to us - and we see not our ugly, sin-ridden selves, ourselves as we really are, but ourselves beautiful beyond recognition, ourselves as we should be, as we could be, as we were from all eternity meant to be.
When the Holy Father speaks to women, his voice is gentle, forgiving and tender - like the voice of Jesus himself: "Neither will I condemn you - go and sin no more". And thereupon he show us ourselves as courageous creatures, standing at the foot of the Cross, having overcome fear with the strength of our love.
He sees us as discerning creatures with immense insights, searching with Martha for answers and finding the complete answer, the only answer that matters: "Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God".
He sees us as splendidly generous creatures pouring out in love everything we have of value - like the woman whose extravagance Judas deplores but Jesus defends: "Why do you trouble this woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me In pouring this ointment on my body she has done it to prepare me for burial. Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her" (Mark 14:6, 9).
The pope sees us as superb messengers of the Gospel, grasping immediately the incredible truth, the supreme significance of the Resurrection and hurrying with Mary Magdalene to tell the others, to convince them in the face of doubt and fear and incredulity that the Savior has indeed risen. But above all this pope sees women in the borrowed light and beauty and perfection of our Blessed Mother.
Mary, the new beginning
"Mary is 'the new beginning' of the dignity and vocation of each and every woman".
In Mary's Magnificat - "He has done great things for me" - the pope shows us "the discovery of all the richness and personal resources of femininity, all the eternal originality of the 'woman', just as God wanted her to be, a person for her own sake, who discovers herself "by means of a sincere gift of self". The Holy Father calls each woman to make this discovery, this connection, this "clear awareness of God's gift", of his astounding generosity. Each of us, he says, must make this discovery in Mary - it must continually reach our hearts to shape our vocation and our lives.
In Mulieris Dignitatum [The Dignity of Women], the recurring theme is the dignity of women, a deep appreciation of the role of women in the Divine Plan. The destiny of mankind is shaped by women, by Eve first, and then by Mary, and now by us.
The Holy Father's purpose is clearly to raise an "awareness of our mission", of women's vital role in the struggle with evil. "It is also a struggle for man, for his true good, for his salvation. Is not the Bible trying to tell us that it is precisely in the 'woman' - Eve-Mary - that history witnesses a dramatic struggle for every human being, the struggle for each person's fundamental 'yes' or 'no' to God and God's eternal plan for humanity?"
The pope shows us here what God really wants of us. Through baptism, we belong to the Royal Priesthood of Christ.
The Royal Priesthood: the Gift of Self
But how do we share this priesthood? How do we take up this royal role? It is through a unique gift, the sincere gift of self, that the Bridegroom's love calls forth from the Bride.
This is "the great mystery of Christ and of the Church - men and women are called to respond - as a Bride - with the gift of their lives to the inexpressible gift of the love of Christ, who, alone, as the Redeemer of the World, is the Church's Bridegroom". This, says the Holy Father, is "of fundamental importance for understanding the Church", if we are to avoid the mistake of applying the wrong criteria to the Church. The whole structure of the Church is to make us holy. He reminds us that "in the hierarchy of holiness it is precisely the 'woman' Mary of Nazareth" who "'precedes' everyone on the path to holiness, including Peter and the Apostles". The Holy Father quotes the theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar here: "Mary our mother is Queen of the Apostles without any pretensions to apostolic powers: she has other and greater powers".
So what does this mean? Well, it means that we shouldn't be hankering after the ordained priesthood. We should be seeing in our own vocation as daughters, sisters, mothers and wives, in each our own personal call to the Royal Priesthood that requires only that we love and serve God, that we serve our Holy Mother Church, serve our neighbors, serve husbands, fathers, children and each other with the same sort of extravagant love the Bridegroom has poured out on us.
This is our road to the Royal Priesthood. This is how we become truly the daughters of the Kingdom. Through what this pope calls "the genius of woman", our genius for loving, through loving the Father so much that we align our will with His will, we may come to reign - to reign through serving. The Queen of the Apostles, the Queen of Heaven said: "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord".
Mary takes her place within Christ's service which, says the Holy Father, constitutes the very foundation of the Kingdom in which "to serve means to reign".
Understanding Authority and Service
In the Pope's 1995 Letter to Women, he says: "This is the way in which all authority needs to be understood, both in the family and in society and in the Church. Each person's fundamental vocation is revealed in this 'reigning' in this perspective of 'service' - which when it is carried out with freedom, reciprocity and love, expresses the truly 'royal' nature of mankind ..."
So, when radical feminists set up their rebellious chant of non serviam and tell us we are doormats, that serving husbands and children is demeaning, we must reply that we follow a different drummer the One who said: "I have come as servant among you", the One who knelt and washed his companions' feet, the royal One who was crowned with thorns, derided and nailed to a cross yet showed "the royal dignity of service" to the last drop of His precious blood, to the final "It is finished".
Service given freely has remarkable potential for turning disasters into victories. Jesus taught us this winning move: when someone wants your shirt lend him your coat as well; "should anyone press you into service for one mile, go with him two". This is the tremendous power of the will to turn all things to the good. Indeed, free will is at the heart of the whole drama of Salvation, from Lucifer's "I will not serve" to his triumph in getting Eve to say "I too will not serve"; then came Mary's "Let it be done unto me according to thy word" and finally Our Lord's "Not my will but Thine be done".
It's ironic that the pope has been criticized for his stark vision of life, his black and white choices between the culture of life and the culture of death, for he derives this vision from the Gospel itself.
Jesus said: "He who is not with me is against me" and "he who does not gather with me scatters". There are just the wise virgins and the foolish ones. What distinguished the wise from the foolish? Wisdom lies in understanding, in grasping, in knowing the true situation. In knowing the field, with the treasure; in knowing the pearl without price; in knowing the absolutely crucial importance of planning and living for the Bridegroom's coming, and not to be caught out in tragic frivolity like the foolish virgins. Real wisdom knows and chooses the narrow path, not the broad one.
In the end as in the beginning, there are only the two choices - Lucifer's or Mary's. If women are to choose wisely, we can do no better than to listen to this pope.
Rita Joseph has represented family concerns at UN conferences, and writes and lectures on social issues especially concerning women and families, and has made a special study of the Holy Father's writings on family and on women. She has previously lectured at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family Studies in Melbourne. Rita and her husband live in Canberra, Australia.
United Nations Commission on the Status of Women Beijing Platform for Action, March 2,2005
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