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Voices Online Edition
Spring 1997: Volume XII, No. 1

Vatican Conference on Women:
International assembly confers on challenges to women, Church


By Helen Hull Hitchcock

WHAT DOES IT MEAN to be a Catholic woman at the dawn of the Third Millennium? How can Catholic women throughout the world respond to the challenges to "care for humanity" within a "culture of death"? Can women of the Church working together find ways of advancing the true dignity of women? What are the dynamics of "empowerment''? Is there a "feminine spirituality" distinct from any other kind? Can there be a "Catholic feminism''? What is the "genius of women"? Can we meet the challenges to the faith that Catholics must face today?

These are some of the questions raised by those of us who attended an international gathering of 120 Catholic women, convened by the Pontifical Council for the Laity, December 6-8, 1996. The meeting, titled "A Renewed Commitment of All for the Good of the World's Women", was held in a conference center on the outskirts of Rome.

The Laity Council brought together Catholic women leaders of movements, representatives of Catholic organizations and national churches, scholars, writers and pro-life activists to observe the anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women of the United Nations in Beijing in 1995, and to explore issues affecting women. The principle of selecting those invited to this meeting was not altogether clear, but many had attended the Beijing conference, as well as a pre-Beijing conference also convened by the Laity Council in June 1995.

The intense three-day meeting included lectures, "working group" sessions, public interventions, and liturgical celebrations. 

On Saturday, December 7, 1996 there was an unscheduled audience with Pope John Paul II in the Clementine audience hall at the Vatican. After reading his message, the Holy Father greeted each of the women individually.

"New Feminism"?

The group listened to addresses based on the teachings of Pope John Paul II in his apostolic exhortations and encyclicals of the 1980s and the cluster of pre- Beijing letters and addresses in 1995. These pre-Beijing letters, like his earlier works, stressed the Church's affirmation of the dignity of women, but they also urged action to overcome the "terrible exploitation of women and girls," praised women who have devoted their lives to fight for social, economic and political rights for women, referred to the "great process of women's liberation" as "substantially positive," called for a "campaign for the promotion of women," and called for a "new feminism" initiated by the "genius of women."

Working group sessions grappled with interpreting terms used in the pope's letters, such as "feminism," "empowerment" and "genius of women," and attempted to understand and formulate ways of implementing the Holy Father's call to women in his pre-Beijing messages.

Some participants seemed confused about the objective of "new feminism": is it solely to advance women's rights in the world? Is it related to the Church's call for women's active witness in the "New Evangelization"? Does it intend to encourage Catholic women to respond to contemporary challenges to the faith, especially in matters concerning women and families?

One of the concerns that surfaced during the conference is that it is possible to use the Holy Father's words in a way be clearly did not intend and would not approve. In his pre-Beijing letters, the Pope means to affirm and encourage women; but he has also consistently stressed that the dignity and equality of women must be understood within the context of the truth about the human person as reflected in authoritative Catholic teaching. In these papal letters a certain ambiguity of expression concerning "feminism," undoubtedly intended to facilitate dialogue with non-Catholics and non-Christians at the UN meetings, has been cited by Catholics who reject Church teaching -- especially on the issues of abortion, family, ordination and Church authority -- to support their claim that Catholic doctrine can and should be changed.

Misinterpretation of the Pope's words and intentions can present very serious difficulties in the effort to respond to these challenges to Catholic beliefs, and impedes, rather than facilitates, the "New Evangelization" the Pope has called for so often.

Converting the Culture

In his opening address, Archbishop J. Francis Stafford, the new Prefect of the Pontifical Council for the Laity who had only recently arrived in Rome, made it clear that the task of all Christians is to transform the world, not to conform to it.

He spoke eloquently of the way in which our "postmodern" culture, dominated by knowledge, science and technology, dehumanizes and leads to a "world without women, without love...where power and profit are the sole criteria" for human achievement. Developing this theme of the late Swiss theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar, the archbishop drew out the implications of this skewed emphasis which leads to a devaluation of women and dissolution of the culture.

Modem liberalism, Archbishop Stafford said, insists on social construction through social edicts. The fractures between creation and redemption, nature and grace, faith and reason has led to a loss of the sense of unity of man and woman, and has led to a coercive fear, not to peace and freedom.

"Our ears," he said, must be "paschal ears... with the early women disciples we await the dawn revealed in the Risen One."

Mary's acceptance of God's will is our pattern for recovery of "creative receptivity." Her example enables us to "make room for the other" -- calling us to self-giving love, as an exercise of creative freedom.

Converting our culture will require a "paradigm shift," a Christian formation of public ethics, Archbishop Stafford said. "Love is constitutive of all created being, as it should be-and love is not external to us."

Archbishop Stafford was also principal celebrant and homilist at conference Masses and devotions, and gave summary remarks at the close of the meeting.

The former archbishop of Denver was appointed in August to succeed Eduardo Cardinal Pironio, who had presided over the pre-Beijing conference sponsored by the Laity Council last June.

Fundamental Choices

Lucienne Salle, of the PCL secretariat and moderator of the conference, introduced Mary Ann Glendon, the dynamic Harvard law professor who led the Vatican delegation to Beijing and is a member of the Pontifical Academy for Social Science. Her address was called "Women Faced with Fundamental Choices: difficulties, challenges and prospects in the contemporary culture."

Women are faced with fundamental choices today, Professor Glendon said. "We have no choice but to be active. We are called to sanctify time. Choices will help shape society... we either build a 'civilization of life and love', or we participate in a 'culture of death'."

Aspects of our current situation are unprecedented, said Professor Glendon, and we are presented with novel challenges. We should reevaluate how "organized feminism" responded to these challenges, which include care-taking, motherhood and a crisis in values and beliefs. Christian social thought presents a better approach, she said. She pointed, in particular, to the growing problem of euthanasia and "assisted suicide," whose victims are often women. She mentioned the dilemma posed to families by the contradictions between human values and the values of the marketplace-intensified if women workers are mothers of young children.

Professor Glendon referred to the Pope's pre-Beijing letters on women, noting his approach was to find what is good in feminism and build on it.

She noted the "scotoma" of "organized feminism's" view that marriage and motherhood are an obstacle to freedom of women; that this view has lead to "no-fault" divorce and the sexual revolution.

Although "organized feminism offers ideological stones for bread," she believes it is a mistake to "let disenchantment with the fruits" of feminism sour us on the longings which are genuine. She made a distinction between what she termed "organized feminism" and a "new feminism" grounded on authentic understanding of the nature of the human person -- though "not, perhaps, to be called 'feminism'."

A "new feminism" she said, is grounded in the truth about the human person found in Pope John Paul II's writing. She noted that before Beijing, his tone was dialogical, modest. But the challenge of Beijing led him to adopt "feminist language" in his letters re-affirming the dignity of women, according to Professor Glendon, seeming to imply that this language was meant to facilitate communication at the feminist-dominated Beijing meeting. 

She mentioned as examples of the Pope's commitment to "welcome the contribution of women at all levels," the unprecedented number of appointments of women to curial staffs.

Perhaps referring to the outraged response of feminists to the Pope's reaffirmation of the Church's teaching on the male priesthood, Professor Glendon noted that some women say this participation of women in the "decision-making process" is not enough.

Her response? "Well, the Holy Father says 'it's not enough'!" However, she did not explain what would be "enough" to satisfy feminist demands.

Although never in the history of Christianity have women faced more complicated problems, the Pope's teachings offer more solutions, she observed, and said the ideas of theologian Bernard Lonergan had impressed her deeply.

In times of cultural upheaval the "solid right is determined to live in a world that no longer exists," the "left" errs on the other side -- but we must be at home in the old as well as the new, recognizing possibilities in the current situation, Professor Glendon said. Women should "meet the challenges of our time with boldness, patience and imagination."


A different analysis was advanced by Kathryn Hoomkwap, a forceful speaker who wore the costume of her native Nigeria. In her address, "Women Protect Life and Take Care of Humanity," she drew heavily on African culture.

Mrs. Hoomkwap, who has a degree in political science, was a speaker at the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops in 1994, and attended UN conferences in Beijing and Istanbul. She is a consultant to the Pontifical Council on Culture.

"I told journalists at Beijing I was happy with motherhood," she told the assembly. This was apparently effective in diminishing the power of pro-abortion rhetoric by focusing on the exploitation of "developing" countries by the industrialized west -- a view widely held among feminist leaders at Beijing.

In her address to this symposium she gave several examples unfavorably comparing cultural attitudes of the industrialized west with those of Africa.

"Celibacy of priests," she said emphatically, "is not recognized in African culture. It is thought of as sacrificing his God-given procreative power on the altar of false religiosity." (Her comment seemed to parallel the demand that the Church must allow priests to marry given by an African bishop during the Synod on Religious Life.) Chastity, on the other hand, especially in young girls, is prized.

She complained of the bad effects and exploitation of western industrialization on African people. Not only are the cultural attitudes imposed by the west alien to African culture, but "creation is exploited, and water is polluted" by industrialized nations. Mrs. Hoomkwap did not say whether she believes economic advancement of "developing" nations can proceed without modern industry or technology.

She believes the hidden agenda of the industrialized countries is to force population control on her people, and to "decimate as much African population as possible" through abortion, birth control, etc. She said she is "pro-peace because in war women get raped." She also urged promotion of Natural Family Planning, and said the Church should mount a media campaign against abortion. She hopes women's groups and pro-life groups will work with the Vatican to promote rights for women.

Although Mrs. Hoomkwap is convinced that the problems of women in developing countries are caused by coercive cultural pollution from the west, she is evidently not as convinced of the destructive potential of western feminism.

The Struggle to Define "Feminism"

Later, in the working group session I attended, Mrs. Hoomkwap insisted use of the word "feminism" and feminist vocabulary such as "empowerment" is necessary in order to secure women's rights.

I pointed out that the term "feminism" has become indelibly tainted because of its intrinsic connection with demands for abortion "rights" and other issues fundamentally opposed to Catholic teaching about human life and the family. This was evident in the intense debates over "women's rights" in Beijing. I said that the errors of feminism need to be explained; that there must be no confusion about how the principles of feminist ideology conflict with the Church's essential doctrines. I also mentioned that the spiritual poverty of feminism is evident in the quasi-pagan "spiritualities" promoted by feminist groups in America -- including especially some Catholic women religious. Several other members of the working group (from Germany, Poland, Hungary, Australia) agreed that this is a problem. But apparently these destructive elements of western feminism are unknown in Nigeria.

To a suggestion that the concept of feminism, as it is known in the west, cannot be separated from its basic agenda which includes the "right" to abortion, Mrs. Hoomkwap responded, "We must wash the word clean! Christ has already washed it!" Just as Christ emptied himself on the Cross, she said, we must empty the word "feminism" of any of its negative connotations.

She pointed to the Pope's use of this word in his pre-Beijing letters; but she did not say how she thought this linguistic cleansing could be accomplished.

When members of the working group began to discuss the possibility of finding an alternative to the word "feminism", Mrs. Hoomkwap exclaimed, "It is not an occupied term! [Feminism] is an old Christian term and we want to reclaim it!" She said that she had told her bishops that she was coming to this meeting to promote feminism.

Although Mrs. Hoomkwap did not participate in writing this working-group' s report, her views were influential.

The final report listed several things that "undermine the dignity of women": lack of clean water, poverty, violence, lack of health services, and lack of participation in decision-making-processes. These are standard items which appear on most secular feminist lists. 

Conspicuous by their absence from this list compiled by Catholic women attending a Vatican conference were coercive birth-control and abortion policies, destruction of families through divorce or abandonment, euthanasia, aberrant sexual practices, negative moral influence of the media, moral relativism, weakening or abandonment of religious belief, lack of support by social institutions, churches and schools for traditional moral and ethical principles. Arguably all these missing items undermine the dignity of women (and men and children) at least as much as those listed.

The report did note the disagreement within the group over using "feminism" and "empowerment". Although a consensus was not reached, the report said,

"We decided we would use them but use them in light of the teachings of the Catholic Church. Empowerment is not only radical autonomy, it can also mean support and the building up of others.

"The majority of the group agreed with Mary Ann Glendon when she stated that it is a risk to use these terms and then asked why the Holy Father uses them. We thought that he uses these words as an instrument to reach out to everyone of good will by including those outside of the Church.

"Our definition of 'feminism' is not to restrict it only to women, but to integrate the partnership between men and women, taking from Evangelium Vitae, 'the flourishing of men and women and children in the culture of love. '

"We had a very strong discussion on the complexity and diversity of feminism in the various traditions, cultures and historical backgrounds. Feminism began with a sincere effort to work for the rights of women -- raising awareness of the injustices and inequalities. We are aware that it was Christianity that brought about the fundamental change to the dignity of women.

"Recognizing and acknowledging the words expressed by the Holy Father in his Letter to Women, there is still room for more dialogue and space for decision  -- making roles for women within the Church. It' s a case of theory and practice.

"We are very much afraid of the contemporary feminism which takes into consideration only the radical autonomy of women. This can be the cause of heavy struggle between the sexes which in turn interferes with the building up of community in society.

"At the same time, it is true that responsibilities are not divided equally in society and all over the world generally, women and children carry more burdens and responsibilities in society through family and social life, [but] this is not always recognized or appreciated.

“The teachings of the Holy Father, especially from Evangelium Vitae, taking into consideration the situation in diversity all over the world, we can consider that the 'new feminism' should be the responsible use of the creative talents of women to build up a partnership between both men and women to make together a better world for the next generation."

The conflict over feminist language that surfaced in this conference is ironic, especially in the context of the Cairo, Beijing and Istanbul conferences. UN proposals consistently used loaded terms not well understood by many of the participating countries, and this was protested by the Vatican.

One example is the term "reproductive health," a well-known euphemism for abortion and birth-control, often imposed by government aid programs. The Vatican and pro-life delegates from English-speaking countries had great difficulty convincing other delegates that "reproductive health" meant anything more than its positive surface meaning, and that it would be disastrous if this term were used in the UN document.

Another example of feminist language manipulation is the attempt to redefine "family" to include virtually any group of people who chose to call themselves a family, especially homosexual living arrangements. The Holy See and other pro-family delegations strenuously protested this.

Still another instance of feminist abuse of language is the demand to substitute the word "gender" for "sex." The intention is to extend the concept of sex beyond male and female the term "gender" would include "trans-gendered" and homosexuals. This was also resisted by the Vatican and other pro-life delegations.

Challenges, Warnings, Teachings

Other addresses at this meeting merit a more detailed account than we can include here. Two of these contained warnings for the world, and especially for women, by women from former Communist countries.

Hanna Suchoka, the former Prime Minister of Poland, told of her country's current clash over values in the context of severe economic problems. "Are women less interested in power than men,?" she asked. "Are women more likely than men to make sacrifices for their families or for the good of society?" Assuming they are willing to make these sacrifices, how can they be encouraged to do this without also denying them an opportunity to develop their full potential which would benefit society?

Irina IIovaiski Alberti, editor of Russia Cristiana now living in Paris, spoke on the "feminine genius" in the cultural and religious tradition of peoples. "What I say may seem outdated," she began, "but creativity is a true gift that has been given to women," and this special "creativity" of women is always linked with motherhood. She spoke of the way Russian women throughout history actively (and sometimes almost fiercely) tried to protect the Christian faith.

But Russia, after 70 years of Communism and suppression of Christianity is still deeply damaged, despite the heroic work of the "babushkas" or "grandmothers" who kept the faith alive in every way they knew how. The task for Catholic women today, no less than at any other age, is to become truly "educators in love," and to transform suffering into courageous action. She believes that the prophecy at Fatima is still current, and that until the spiritual health of Russia is restored, the rest of the world is endangered.

The two final addresses explored the biblical and theological basis for Catholic teaching, not only concerning the inate dignity of the human person, but the particular design of the Creator for women.

The first, by Professor Bruna Costacurta, who teaches scripture at the Gregorian University in Rome, focused on the creation account in Genesis and its significance for Christians of our time, drawing on the Pope's "catechesis on the book of Genesis." Father Angelo Scola, rector of the Lateran University and a theologian, gave a cogent overview of Pope John Paul's teaching on the human person and the nuptial meaning of the body.

Differences More than Cultural

Distinctly different perspectives were evident within this international group of Catholic women. These differences came not primarily from the various cultures and languages, but from divergent beliefs about essential matters. This was made palpably clear in both public interventions and in informal conversations.

Some women seemed primarily interested in advancing the social position of the world's women today. Others seemed more deeply concerned about the unique responsibilities of women qua women, and how women are called to serve the mission of the Church in our time. There were also differences over Church teachings.

A particularly lively debate took place during lunch one day, when a French leader of a charitable organization expressed her belief that the Church's position on abortion lacks "compassion," and that the definition of "family" should be broadened to include other models. Vigorous objections were raised by a writer and mother of three from England, and a teacher and mother of five from Hungary, who argued that this position was precisely the view of the UN feminists and in direct contradiction to Catholic teaching.

In another conversation at dinner, a Vatican curial official from France expressed surprise at the relative youth of an American writer. "You defend tradition. I thought you would be very old," she said. The American responded that in her experience, young Catholic women are more likely to be active in support of Church teachings and tradition than older women.

A participant from Argentina was articulate in disputing the claim that "feminism" could be rehabilitated. How can they not realize the devastation caused by feminism and liberationism, she wondered.

A Syrian woman described how she literally risked her life to establish chapters of Girl Guides in Syria where such activity is forbidden, in order to establish programs that would encourage Muslim girls to improve their lives. She complained bitterly that Syrian Catholic clergy will do nothing to aid this work, are content with the "status quo," and ignore women.

Although somewhat more subdued, the interventions during the discussion periods also revealed strong divergence of opinion.

An English woman noted the paradox in women's relationship to violence, observing that women are very often perpetrators of violence, not merely victims, and this fact should be acknowledged and addressed by Church leaders.

A young Belgian journalist and pro-life activist, questioning the term "new feminism," observed that one of the great challenges to the Church today is that the language of the Church is being given a new interpretation which changes the meaning.

A representative of a Christian workers' association worried that although the Holy Father adopts feminist language, a new generation of women wants to distance themselves from this ideology, and the word "feminism" detracts from what the Pope has done to advance the understanding of women.

A German woman associated with a scholarly organization pleaded with considerable emotion that Archbishop Stafford respond to the Spirit speaking through "signs of the time" and to listen to the women who are not interested in "power," but want to serve the Church -- as deacons.

A nun from India spoke of the dangers of "fundamentalism" and asked that the problem of Muslim and Hindu women who have no rights be taken up by the Holy See.

A Spanish woman representing the "Neo-Catechumenate" urgently warned that the Serpent is attacking the Woman, and called for prayer and reparation.

A historian from Argentina, commenting on the "new feminism" compared our time with the 4th century, the end of an empire. They sensed a similar tension, she said, between those who rejected pagan culture, and those who looked to the pagan culture in order to prepare a "New Synthesis."

Challenges to the Church: A New Synthesis?

Can a "new synthesis" be achieved? Can the Catholic Church create a "new feminism" which will truly advance the "New Evangelization"? This will be difficult, considering the almost impenetrable complexity of the challenge.

There appear to be four basic categories that need serious analysis and action, although they are much intertwined. On each of these there is wide range of opinion among Catholics -- and there is no unanimity among Catholic women on these issues, as this conference revealed.

1. How Christians should approach social and moral problems (e.g. poverty, ignorance, violence, disease, exploitation, homosexuality, family breakdown, abortion, etc.) both in the secular world and within the Church;

2. The position of the laity within the Catholic Church as an institution (e.g. official positions, liturgical roles, etc.);

3. How to engage in active witness in the Church's mission of Evangelization, which includes transmitting the essential teachings of the Catholic faith -- doctrinal as well as social -- to family, the community, the world;

4. The theological and anthropological basis for both diversity and equality between men and women. These are ordinarily presented as "women's concerns," but in reality, they affect everyone. And only the last category has been thoroughly addressed, notably in the works of Pope John Paul II. But the application of this teaching about the distinction between and complementarity of the sexes, what this means, and how (or whether) our sex influences (or determines) a person's response or action to the "universal call to holiness," requires further attention.

It seems obvious that social action "for the advancement of women"  -- even when such action is consistent with Church teaching -- is at best only one aspect of the responsibility of Catholic women. If it is true, as more than one Pope has said, that the world is now "entrusted to women" in a special way, this entrustment certainly means something other than promoting "women's rights." Essential to this entrustment, as John Paul II has strongly emphasized. is self-giving love -- and self-giving is the exact opposite of self-empowerment.

This distinction between the fundamentally self-centered goals of feminism and the goal of imitating the self-giving love of Christ to which everyone of his followers-male and female-is equally called, needs to be made more emphatic.

This is especially important in the wake of the past several years of UN conferences on women. The very recent revival in the US of the Equal Rights Amendment, long thought a dead issue, is indicative of the urgent need for the Catholic Church's unambiguous witness.

That this Vatican conference sought to examine key and controversial issues facing Catholic women today, and to provide Church teaching on these issues in a positive light, was a hopeful sign. But the conference also made clear that genuine consensus on some essential matters cannot yet be reached. So long as this situation of confusion and disunity persists about the meaning of Catholicism, any "new synthesis" of Catholicism with feminism will remain elusive.

More Challenges for Catholics

One reason for this confusion is that so far there seems to be a deep reluctance to engage in the kind of critical analysis of feminism which would be necessary if, indeed, any feminist movement truly faithful to Catholic teaching can be established. Leaving aside for the moment whether it is really possible to create a counter-movement which would supplant the old, serious problems must be faced squarely before they can be resolved.

Resolving problems will be difficult, of course-as this conference showed quite plainly. Since all the women were Catholic leaders chosen by the Vatican, it was very disappointing that it could not be assumed that they accept Catholic doctrine without exception. 

The divisions among these women mirror the situation within the Church and merely underscores the need to come to grips with the problems which are dividing Christians, dividing the Church, dividing women from men and women from women. To neglect this necessary if unpleasant task, to skip over this step in our rush to find a workable solution will be like putting a coat of white paint over a termite-ridden house. It will not work. You simply must get rid of the termites first, or you'll lose the house.

The "Genius of Men"

Another factor, although it seems taboo to allude to this, is the fact that many men who are very capable analysts, wise and insightful critics, are simply not addressing feminism as forthrightly and critically as they should. Some men seem to feel that they have to pull their punches when they are in a battle of ideas with a woman (or women), and downplay or ignore errors that they would not otherwise tolerate. 

There may also be an element of fear operative here -- about being labeled by feminists a "patriarchal oppressor," and having their work thus discredited. This apparent inhibition of men to speak critically about feminism may intend to be gentlemanly, protective of (some) women's feelings. Sometimes it can be charming. But it may also (unintentionally, surely) be condescending to women. If they truly regarded women as "equal" wouldn't this imply that women are equally capable of being objective and reasonable, of receiving criticism without becoming hysterical? (Without question, some members of our sex take unfair advantage of the uneasiness of their male peers to engage in any sort of combat with women!) Whatever their reasons for avoiding conflict over feminism, failure of men to deal with the issues head-on dilutes the effectiveness of their critique.

Partly because of this reluctance of men to deal honestly and justly with feminist errors, it is important that articulate Catholic women who are able to do so, be willing to serve the Church by picking up our share of the burden on this difficult issue. (It is true, of course, that any woman who dares to criticize feminism will hardly be welcomed or "affirmed" by women wedded to this ideology, either; nor should she expect much visible support even from those she defends, including priests and bishops. But that is the nature of the conflict.)

It is not yet apparent precisely in what way the particular gifts and insights of women, as distinct from men, may be made most useful to the Church's mission today, given the extraordinary cultural upheaval we are now experiencing, and considering great divergence of opinion among Catholic women.

It is clear that these differences are not merely matters of strategy or method, but involve critical issues involving the very essence of the Catholic faith and the meaning of human life itself.

Radical differences among women over fundamental issues makes the idea that applying "feminine genius" might be the answer to many of the world's problems seem overly optimistic.

But if the "genius of women," linked to motherhood, selfless nurturing qualities and receptivity to God's plan, is needed by the Church and the world today, equally so is the "genius of men", linked to fatherhood, sacrifice for and protection of others, wise leadership and decisive action. Their two kinds of "geniuses" are complementary, a "unity of the two" that cannot be separated without endangering both -- thus all humanity, beginning with the family.

The Church's call is universal and applies equally to all Christians -- men and women alike -- to respond with wisdom and renewed energy to a world in need of every gift and talent of every person, to give their best efforts to the Church and to the world.

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