The 'New' Feminism?


This year marks the twentieth anniversary of Mulieris dignitatem, Pope John Paul II’s apostolic letter on the dignity of women and a lynchpin of his effort to formulate a “new feminism.” Reaction to the pope’s proposals has been mixed. Among lay women, his reflections seem to be received more enthusiastically by a minority that dedicate themselves to traditional full-time motherhood—which increasingly includes home schooling—than it is by the majority of Catholic women who are called, by vocation or necessity, to work outside the home. And yet John Paul II never explicitly condemns working women, or even working mothers. In fact, both he and Pope Benedict XVI have made statements calling for social support of women with dual vocations, including flexible, family-friendly employment policies.

Why the wariness about the new papal “feminism”? Can it be dismissed as anti-Catholic prejudice or the fruits of so-called radical feminism? I don’t think so. That wariness is rooted in the history of ideas and arguments, not in bigotry or ideology. In his apostolic letter, John Paul 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, including denying women the right to vote. While the pope does not endorse such subjugation himself, he also fails to explain why the premises of his argument do not compel him to do so. So his “new feminism” doesn’t raise red flags only for radical feminists.

The easiest way to see the problem is to compare Mulieris dignitatem with the article “Woman” from the 1912 Catholic Encyclopedia (available online at The similarities are striking—and troubling. On the positive side, both documents emphasize the equal dignity of women and men. Both underscore the importance of Christianity in bringing new insight and commitment to the transcendent value of women’s lives. Both present the Virgin Mary as the ideal woman. Both emphasize the importance of maternal virtues for all women, not merely physical mothers. Both strongly defend a divinely ordained difference and complementarity between men and women. Consequently, both are worried about the baleful effects of blurred gender roles. The encyclopedia admonishes: “Just as it is not permissible to take one sex as the standard of the other, so from the social point of view it is not allowable to confuse the vocational activities of both.” John Paul sounds the same theme: “In the name of liberation from male ‘domination,’ women must not appropriate to themselves male characteristics contrary to their own feminine originality.”

But what exactly constitutes the wrongful appropriation of male characteristics? John Paul doesn’t say. The 1912 encyclopedia, however, is not nearly as reticent. Any systematic acceptance of women as political or social leaders is unacceptable, because “man is called by the Creator to this position of leader, as is shown by his entire bodily and intellectual make-up.” The encyclopedia maintains that society must first recognize that the primary vocation of women is to be wives and mothers—and therefore refuse to admit women to jobs that interfere with their primary vocation.

Second, societies should direct the education of women toward their roles as wives and mothers. The encyclopedia hastens to observe that “the Catholic Church places here no barriers that have not already been established by nature.” While a few women might go on to earn higher degrees, “the sexes can never be on an equality as regards studies pursued at a university.”

Third, the best hope for the multitudes of immigrant women exploited by ruthless capitalists is not the promotion of an individualistic conception of human rights that applies to men and women alike, but a return to a more organic conception of society organized in accordance with Catholic teaching. In such a society, women ought to influence political life indirectly, not directly, because “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.” Consequently, “the opposition expressed by many women to the introduction of women’s suffrage...should be regarded by Catholics as, at least, the voice of common sense.”

So, in 1912, the Catholic Encyclopedia proclaimed that in seeking the right to vote, women were not rightly promoting their own dignity, but wrongly interfering with God’s plan for sexual complementarity. We know that Pope John Paul didn’t endorse such a view. We just don’t know why he didn’t. We know only that the premises of his anthropological argument are virtually identical to those in the encyclopedia. In other words, the pope’s position can easily be used again to promote a worldview that undermines the ability of women and men to work together in the political, economic, and social spheres.

Does it matter? I believe it does. A proper anthropology takes into account both the differences and the commonalities between the sexes. For years, the Vatican has been worried primarily about the erosion of difference. With the rise of religious fundamentalism, especially fundamentalist Islam in Europe, however, it will be equally important to emphasize the common gifts and abilities of men and women—including a common right and duty to participate in the political life of the nation.

Published in the 2008-03-28 issue: 

Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor in the Theology Department and Law School at Boston College.

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