The role of women in the magisterium of John Paul II

Most of the many books that have touched upon the subject of the role of women in the Catholic Church present a somewhat negative view of the Church. This is more so especially when women’s issues are involved. The Church is generally presented as a retrogrative patriarchal institution with a male dominated hierarchy and theology.

Being a practising Catholic, and additionally very much interested in gender issues for a very long time, such views intrigue me. I became ever more curious to delve into the subject in order to unravel the perplexities such literature presented to my mind and to my religious sensibilities.

It seemed natural, alas, to concentrate on the teachings of Pope John Paul II. At the time of writing this paper, John Paul II (now Saint John Paul II) was the Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church and I considered him to be representative of the official magisterium. I must say that reading through his encyclicals, apostolic letters, homilies, exhortations, and other speeches was most illuminating.

The role of women in relation to God

A sound feminist theology cannot but be rooted in Holy Scripture. Apart from the general views and perspectives found in the Bible, concerning all man in any conceivable circumstance, some texts seem to be more directly related to our theme. In Mulieris dignitatem John Paul concentrates mainly on the second chapter of the Book of Genesis, particularly the creation of Eve. But obviously other texts, maybe less portentous, have been likewise important to embellish the general impression which the Bible gives of women. Some of them, like references to women in St. Paul’s epistles, for example, are certainly controversial. On the other hand, however, Jesus’ relation to women, as John Paul does not fail to emphasise, crowns the whole tradition of feminist theology as found in the Bible.

The basic and most fundamental impression on women is certainly the second chapter of Genesis. Some have seen the texts that narrate the creation of Eve, and the fall of man, as disdainful to women, and this, so they contend, set the stage for the rest of the whole of the biblical writings. The serpent that tempted Eve, for instance, is considered to be a Middle East symbol of the feminine sex, and so man’s fall from grace is seen as if caused by women’s sexuality.[1] It is well known that some Fathers of the Church surely read the narrative with this attitude.

John Paul, reflecting more recent biblical studies, considers Genesis as portraying a more positive view, especially regarding women. His starting point is that both man and woman were created in God’s image. This fundamental truth must be taken as the founding stone of any subsequent reflection. In Mulieris dignitatem, he states:[1]

This concise passage [concerning the creation of man and woman] contains the fundamental anthropological truths: man is the highpoint of the whole order of creation in the visible world; the human race, which takes its origin from the calling into existence of man and woman, crowns the whole work of creation; both man and woman are human beings to an equal degree, both are created in God’s image.

Here the whole weight is clearly laid on the truth of woman’s (and man’s) likeness of God as the corner stone of Christian anthropology. This truth, incidentally, preceeding as it does the narrative of the fall from grace, undoubtedly embraces in the most general terms any other subsequent reflection as may be found in the Scriptures. All other texts, than, which have some bearing on the nature and role of women, and all Christian feminist theology, cannot be understood outside the extraordinary implications of the central truth of woman being an image and likeness of God. Speaking to American bishops during their ad limina visit on September 2, 1988, John Paul stated:[2]

In dealing with the specific rights of women as women, it is necessary to return again and again to the immutable basis of Christian anthropology as it is foreshadowed in the Scriptural account of the creation of man ¾ as male and female ¾ in the image and likeness of God.

It is undeniable that the Bible provides the ‘immutable basis of Christian anthropology’, however it must be said that Catholic theology, throughout its rich tradition, has gravely overlooked, or rather failed to emphasis enough, the respect due to women that the Holy Scriptures instruct. The Bible is in fact teeming with references that providevaluable light for feminist theology. But most theologians, unfortunately, seem not to have considered it important to dwell on them and understand them better. John Paul, consequently, saw it most fit to remind Catholics of these references, and thus guide their attention to the “feminity”, so to say, of God. In Mulieris dignitatem he states:[3]

We may quote here some characteristic passages from the prophet Isaiah: “But Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me’.‘Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget; yet I will not forget you'”. (49:14-15). And elsewhere: “As one whom his mother comforts, so will I comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem” (66:13). In the Psalms too God is compared to a caring mother: “Like a child quieted at its mother’s breast; like a child that is quieted is my soul. O Israel, hope in the Lord”. (Ps 131:2-3). In various passages the love of God who cares for his people is shown to be like that of a mother: thus, like a mother God “has carried” humanity, and in particular, his Chosen People, within his own womb; he has given birth to it in travail, has nourished and comforted it (cf. Is42:14; 46:3-4).

Neglect of a “feminist” theology has been quite detrimental to the modern Church, for it gave the wrong impression that the Bible, or the Church itself for that matter, had nothing worth saying to women or about their role as persons. It seemed, unfortunately, that women had no place in the Church, that their role was extraneous to the life of the Church, and that they actually were on the fringe of any serious Catholic consideration. This is obviously untrue, but it had to be said so. In the Catholic Church, we must admit, there was a most serious need to develop a feminist theology on the sure basis of the divine revelation. 

Speaking at Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome, before the tomb of St Catherine of Siena, in November 1978, John Paul stated that:[4]

La Chiesa di Gesù Cristo e degli Apostoli è nello stesso tempo Chiesa-madre e Chiesa-sposa.  Tali espressioni bibliche rivelano in modo chairo quando profondamente la missione della donna sia inscritt*o nel mistero della Chiesa.  Potessimo insieme scoprire il multi forme significato di questa missione, andando, mano nella mano, con il mondo femminile di oggi, basandoci sulle ricchezze che sin dall’inizio il Creatore ha messo nel cuore della donna e sulla sapienza mirabile di questo cuore che Dio ha volute rivelare, tanti secoli fa, in Santa Caterina da Siena.

Most clearly, not only on this occasion, but also throughout his whole pontificate, John Paul was anxious to drive home the Catholic doctrine of feminism. “Anxious” because there was much catching up to make. From the late 19thcentury onwards theology had been improved most wonderfully in some fields which needed “modernization”, such as regards the workers’ movement, ecology, and economic development, but remained grossly limited and hampered when it came to gender issues. This was needed, at least, on the institutional and official level, and John Paul admirable filled in the wide gap.

In Evangelium vitae, published on March 25, 1995, John Paul stresses the Catholic perspective of woman’s role vis-a-vis the modern world:[5]

In transforming culture so that it supports life, women occupy a place in thought and action that is unique and decisive. It depends on 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.


Combating philosophical dualism

John Paul’s endeavour in rechannelling Catholic theology towards a sound interpretation of feminism was managed also on a philosophical level. That is he seemed to sense the need to combat new philosophical tendencies on their ground. To do this it was necessary, so it seems, to re-examine the philosophical reasoning of major theologians of the past, especially the Fathers of the Church and certain mediaeval Doctors of the Church, in order to explain away their seemingly pessimistic and worrisome view of women. Most lay feminist crusaders, in fact, have unfailingly attacked Catholics precisely on the ground of the chauvinist attitude of patristic and mediaeval theology. 

In part they were right, of course. The philosophical principles of the Fathers of the Church and certain Mediaevalists, rather than denied out rightly, had to be explained better in the light of new biblical studies and the experience of the Church. What seems to have been the main point of contention was the understanding of the very nature of the human person. Before any consideration of the feminist point of view it was necessary, evidently, to return to the positive and agreeable perspective that the Holy Scriptures give of the human person.

This is to what John Paul sought to return to in order to present most coherently the Catholic position. Again, in Mulieris dignitatem he states:[6]

In our times the question of “women’s rights” has taken on new significance in the broad context of the rights of the human person. The biblical and evangelical message sheds light on this cause, which is the object of much attention today, by safeguarding the truth about the “unity” of the “two”, that is to say the truth about that dignity and vocation that result from the specific diversity and personal originality of man and woman.

What John Paul insists upon is, quite rightly, the formal unity of the human person. In so doing he relaunches his theological reflection away from the damaging principle of duality. For it was on the basis of the philosophical separation of body from soul, and vice versa, and hence of the qualities of the human soul, that most patristic and mediaeval theology was drawn astray. Certain qualities of the soul, it was thought, suited more male persons than females, and so it was generally concluded, unhappily, that males were “more human”, so to speak, than females.

Plato, for instance, the arch philosopher for the Fathers of Church, though not unfavourable towards women as such, instilled in most of the patristic theologians a very pronounced repulsion of matter and sexual activity. This led to an unjust aversion towards women in general by the Fathers of the Church, since they were considered to be instruments of seduction. Women’s role was almost exclusiveably believed to be that of bearing and rearing children.

Such a narrow and pessimistic perspective was taken up by the Mediaevalists, and enhanced by the decidedly offensive view provided by Aristotle, the philosopher for the major mediaevalist Doctors of the Church, like Aquinas and Bonaventure.  Aristotle, for instance, repugnantly maintained that women are a mutilated or incomplete man, and also brought “philosophical” arguments to support his claim ¾ such as women’s “missing” sex organ, and an incomplete number of teeth![7] Aristotle considered the ideal to be male, as opposed to female. According to his view women simply lacked perfection.

Catholic theologians, understandably, could not accept such arguments, even if in the process they had to differ from masters of the rank of Albertus Magnus, Aquinas and Bonaventure. Significantly, John Paul draws a distinction between body and life, rather than between body and soul. In such manner he distances himself from the incapacitating alleys of the Fathers of the Church and the Mediaevalists, and dwells on the completeness of every human person, be it male or female, as willed by God. As Mary Shivanandan says, in her book Crossing the threshold of love:[8]

John Paul II [lays] the groundwork for an adequate anthropology which well meet the contemporary challenge of the equality of man and woman as persons as well as stewards of creation.

By combating philosophical dualism, and also the humiliating perspective of women as found in certain great masters of the theological tradition, John Paul could face the ethical aspect of feminism with confidence. The old “school” of theology, it was frequently noted, associated certain qualities to those virtues that were thought to make a good Christian. These qualities ¾ mostly connected to the cardinal virtues (justice, fortitude, temperance, and prudence) ¾ relied upon, and advocate attributes traditionally analogous to the “stronger sex”, such as courage, perseverance, bravery, steadfastness, and the like. Implicitly, though never overtly, the “weaker sex” ¾ females ¾ were included into the concept of virtue only obliquely and indirectly. Consequently they were discursively considered, or rather projected, as incapable or inept of establishing a saintly, or perfect, grade of holiness and relation to God. A courteous view to the list of canonized persons will quickly and clearly show that men outnumber women by far and large. Until, that is, John Paul came along.

According to Plato and Aristotle, and subsequently to all the Fathers and mediaeval Doctors of the Church, not to mention more recent moral authorities, valance is the foremost constituent quality of perfection, and hence of sainthood. Aristotle, for instance, held the view that:[9]

the slave is entirely without the faculty of deliberation; the female indeed possesses it, but in a form that remains inconclusive: and if children also possess it, it is only in an immature form.

Females, being “caring orientated”, unlike man who are “justice orientated”, appeared to be ostracized from the concepts of virtue and Christian ethics.[10] Carol Gilligan believed that women scored lower than men on Kohlberg’s moral reasoning test since women prefer the care-based stages while men tend to the justice-based stages.[11] When dealing with ethical behaviour in relation to punishments and incentives, for example, Gilligan concluded that women concentrated less on what rules had, or had not, to be observed and more more on the affective/caring aspect of norms.[12] Even such an authority as Freud believed that “women had less sense of justice than men and are more influenced in their judgements by feelings of affection or hostility”.[13] Such thinking was not uncommon to Christian ethics until very recent times.


Did God create women unequal?

John Paul not only had to combat certain archaic views concerning women that stretched out their influence from patristic and mediaeval times, but had also to inculcate his vision in the contemporary age, taking into consideration new notions associated with gender issues. One of these major notions concerned the question of the equality between the sexes. Particularly, a significant contribution to this question from a Christian point of view had to take into account divine revelation. Gender equality is directly connected to God’s creation of man and woman, and God’s will. For in former times it was not infrequent to assume that God created woman to hold an inferior position in relation to man. Woman, it was supposed, are “naturally” inferior, and this by divine will. 

Most clearly, such an idea had to be revised. John Paul, during a public audience given in 1996, sanctioned the quest for woman’s equality:[14]

The legitimate quest for equality between men and women in such important areas as education, the workplace and parental responsibility has led research to the question of the equality of rights. In principle at least, this has enabled many discriminatory practices to be abolished, although it has yet to be universally implemented and further action will be necessary.

As regards women, the modern media is contradictory. Issues promoting the equal treatment of women are given great importance while women themselves are promoted as objects of pleasure and desire. The media, furthermore, criticises most harshly women’s exclusion from Holy Orders, as also the Church’s insistence on motherhood and virginity. What John Paul attempts to promote, however, is a more consistent perspective of women’s proper treatment in all fields. This consistency is based on the fundamental equality between man and woman as willed from the very beginning by God. That is, before sin intervened to ruin the relationship between man and woman.

The terrible divine injunction “He shall rule over you” (men shall rule over women), found in Genesis 3:16, in no way indicates what God originally willed man and woman’s relationship to be. The divine word is more of a statement of fact (after sin) than a command. John Paul is clear on this point, as he explains in Mulieris dignitatem:[15]

These words of Genesis  concern the different spheres of social life: the situations in which the woman remains disadvantaged or discriminated against by the fact of being a woman.

Man’s rule over women is significantly deemed as a situation of sin by John Paul. In other words it is a distortion of the original divine plan of salvation. And this distortion shows in those many situations of the world where women are sinfully and immorally exploited, taken advantage of, and capitalized on. John Paul denies man’s dominion over woman in whatever mien that may be presented. In thus doing he declares most clearly God’s original will that woman and man are each other’s interdependent companions, as he stated during a general audience in 1990:[16]

In questa prospettiva la donna deve riscoprire che il suo compito non è solo quello di complimentarità, in quanto l’uomo e la donna sono fatti l’uno per l’altra; ma anche di reciprocità in quanto l’uomo e la donna sono chiesti a prendere coscienza del  dono scambievoli di se stessi.

Equality is not achieved by merit or competence, but it is a fundamental right. John Paul belies the presumed freedom granted to women in the modern world. For it is a freedom which has only an appearance of equality. It in fact denies women the respect and esteem that is due to them. 

Only by rediscovering the “original” plan of God, as untainted by sin, can women ¾ and men ¾ come to appreciate the full nature of womanhood and also of feminism.


Women in the true image of God

Another pressing question, together with that of equality, is the use of the woman image in pornography or obscene advertisements. Pornography, together with the exposed image of women in popular advertisements, are examples of hegemonic discourses that reproduce and diffuse sexual ideologies. In their own forceful way such discourses presume to define, not only woman’s ideal image, but also her ideal mode of existence and well-being. Women are predominantly presented as sensual, given to carnal pleasures, intent on gratification of her appetites, self-indulgent, voluptuous and licentious.

Such a projected well-being is deeply unfavourable, to say the least, to any intellectual or spiritual being of woman. John Paul considers this to be a continuous and direct attempt to undermine the divine dimension of women’s life and personality. Speaking on the occasion of Women’s day in 1998 he stated that: [17]

Quante donne sono state e sono tuttore valutate più per l’aspetto fisico che per la loro qualità personali, la competenza professionale, le opere dell’intelligenza, la richezza della loro sensibilità e in definitive, per la dignità stessa del loro essere!  

Pornography and obscene advertisements pretend to define female sexuality. They condition the way woman ¾and man, for that matter ¾ look at their own sexuality. In their own way pornography and obscene advertisements distance themselves from responsible love. This separation maintains and develops the idealist dichotomy between body and soul, between the physical and the spiritual, into a political dogma. Addressing women religious in 1988 John Paul stated that:[18]

In the course of history so many ideological proposals that regard progress and personal fulfilment as sexual licence, elimination of: moral laws, emancipation from religion, have not been verified. The identity crisis of persons and institutions is a sad sign of this and is a pressing cry for help. Christian Revelation offers the salvific response that is born of the truth about humanity, from an anthropology that is linked to the divine. 

The insistent severing of the woman image from the divine dimension of life continually presents women as the sexual objects of men. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, with increasing intensity and unconcealment, the woman image has been projected within the context of “normative masculinity”, that is in terms of what it takes to satisfy men. Such male satisfaction is frequently presented as also satisfying and self-fulfilling women themselves. In this context women are expected to develop a relationship to their bodies (rather than to their spiritual powers), in a self-objectifying manner, conscious of how they must satisfy men. The sexual act itself is discursively constructed as solely phallic and penetrative, and not necessarily as a profound act of love. 

John Paul considers this to be an abusive relationship of women and men. Its exploitative nature is shown in women’s domination and eventually exploitation by men. In other words, it is another form of slavery. Erotism becomes a means of power. During an audience given during the world day of women in 1984 John Paul stated that:[19]

Le donne Cristiane vogliono portare l’originale contributo di un messaggio di speranza in una società che spesso sembra aver smarrito la fiducia; di un messaggio di solidarietà umana, anzi di comunione in un mondo, nel quale agiscono i veleni della violenza e dell’egoismo.

Never in the Holy Scriptures are women presented in the light of domination or exploitation. On the contrary women ¾ on an equal par with men ¾ are inheritors of the family patrimony as much as man (Nu 27:1-8); examples of persistence (Jdg 16:16; 2Ki 4:30; Mk 7:26; Lk 18:5); beautifying the tabernacle (Ex 35:25); judges (Jdg 4:4; 5:7); dutiful mothers (1Sa 2:19; 2Ki 4:20); saviours of the people (1Sa 25:10); servers of Jesus (Mt 27:55, 56) and of the Church (Ro 16:1, 6; Phy 4:3); missionaries (Ro 16:3, 6, 12); and prophets (Ex 15:20; Jdg 4:14; 2Ki 22:14; Ne 6:14; Lk 2:36; Ac 21:9). This is a far cry from the demeaning image of women diffused by modern mass communication.

Furthermore, women are presented as the last at Jesus’ cross (Mk 15:47); the first at his tomb (Jn 20:1); the first to proclaim the resurrection (Mt 28:8); the first to witness to the Jews (Lk 2:37, 38); the first to greet Christian missionaries (Paul and Silas) in Europe (Ac 16:13); the first to attend the earliest Christian prayer meeting (Ac 1:14); and the first amongst European converts (Ac 16:14). This primacy expresses most eloquently the immense significance and remarkable prestige of women in the early life of the Church. It is surely a wonderful example to follow. John Paul states that:

La donna è chamata ad essere soggetto attivo nei processi che interessano anzitutto lei stessa, quail il rispetto della sua dignità personale, l’effettiva ugualianza di lavoratrice, la valorizzazione degli apporti culturali e politici che essa è in grado di offrire alla vita civile, il suo ruole nell’ annuncio del Vangelo, la promozione della ricchezza della femminilità negli ambiti sociale ed ecclesiale.

Women’s role, than, comes out clearer when viewed in relation to God on the basis of Holy Scripture. John Paul unceasingly draws from the richness of the Scriptures and the tradition of the Church to bring to the foreground the profound meaning of the image of God present in every woman. He presents his view in relation to an anthropology that is intensely respectful towards women and their role in modern society. Such a “feminist” spirituality, so to say, provides a solid and cohesive basis for further reflections regarding the role of women in relation to the Church. 


When reading through John Paul’s encyclicals, apostolic letters, homilies, exhortations, and other speeches, one takes the immediate impression of the Pontiff’s committed attitude towards the cause of women in the world. It is actually impressive, and even refreshing, to live in an age when the magisterium is so engaged indefending the role and dignity of women. Other christians in other ages, even only fifty or sixty years ago, were not so fortunate. John Paul is a visible and clear sign of the tremendous growth that has occured, at least on this score, during the last twenty or thirty years or so.

Gender issues have their own history, but in the Church they have created considerable ripples. It was not easy, understandably, that the magisterium embraces such a field of thought and action which had, until recently, and maybe still has, so many thorns. A pleasant aspect of today’s Catholic committment towards the emancipation of women is that the Church does not consider feminism to be a manace or a threat anymore. The Church has matured a positive attitude towards gender and feminist issues. 

Any criticism to any part of the Church’s doctrine or teachings as regards women has to be gauged in the light of such an achievement. The road has not been smooth, and so much has been achieved during the pontificate of John Paul II. Catholic feminists today may want more and more, and that is quite comprehensible, but maybe they must appreciate a bit more the many that has been done in such short time. Other achievements will surely come along, and the Church will continue to mature its positions and attitudes, but for this there must be patience and courage.

Maybe John Paul’s authoritative contribution on the matter of feminist issues was, first and foremost, that he clearly showed that women’s emancipation is not against the Holy Sciptures. This may seem quite obvious, but the contrary was obvious up till only a few decades ago. The fact that the magisterium spoke out so forcibly and so clearly on the matter was in itself an feat.

His second contribution is to show that women’s emancipation and equality is not against the natural social order willed by God. On the contrary, John Paul distinctly showed that it is precisely God’s will that women should be emancipated and that equality status is achieved in order that society will come closer to the ideal of God’s kingdom in the world.

Thirdly, John Paul has been very instrumental in balancing his endorsement of feminist ideals with his insistence on the value of virginity, motherhood and the family. This may be taken to mean that the Church, though visibly more candid on gender issues, nonetheless kept some of its old reticence. However, seen from another perspective, it would seem rather remarkable that John Paul, while proposing such novelties to Catholics brought up in the old school of thought, did not, so to say, loose his balance. Bring on the new perspective of the Church, he retained and enriched those values which Catholics hold dear to heart.

Finally, John Paul’s vision is most engulfing. When speaking about gender issues he never ignores or overlooks the grave situation of some women in countries which are still developing or are underdeveloped. His vision, in other words, is truly universal. And so are his pronouncements on feminist issues. At no point does John Paul speak so general as to fail to be global. His discernment is as profound as much as rooted in the experience of the people.  

Unfortunately, John Paul’s contribution to feminist issues has been marred by his outright and unconditional refusal to allow discussion in the Church on the priestly ordination of women. It is woeful that John Paul even attempts any possibility of future pontiffs to relax his resolve on this issue. This, we may say, will have to be seen.

All in all, however, John Paul has enhanced the Church image with feminists. So much can be said with certainty. In this regard, to say the least, he has amended so many of the Church’s past misdeeds which had been creating so much animosity towards the Church and so much lack of confidence in the Church’s magisterium. Undeniably, John Paul’s understanding of the role of women in contemporary times has given more credence to the long tradition of the Church and the teachings of  Jesus Christ, our light and Saviour.

[1] Chap. III, n. 6.

[2] Insegnamenti, vol. XI, pt. iii, 1988, 510.

[3] Chap. III, n.8.

[4] Insegnamenti, vol. I, 1978, 103.

[5] N.99

[6] Chap. IV, n.10.

[7] Agonito 1977, 41.

[8] Shivanandan 1999, 100. 

[9] Aristotle, Politics, 1260A.

[10] Nelson 1997,

[11] Ibid

[12] Chuck Huff,

[13] Griffith and Whitford, 1988, 44.

[14] Http://

[15] Chap. III, n.10.

[16] Insegnamenti, vol. XIII, pt. ii, 1990, 783.

[17] Ibid., vol. XXI, pt. 1, 1998, 497.

[18] Osservatore Romano, English edition, 17 October 1988, 3.

[19] Insegnamenti, vol. VII, pt. i, 1984, 621.

[1] Mc Kenzie 1957, 97.