Segment Seven. The “Unique and Decisive” Role of Women in Building a Culture of Life
Overview: John Paul devotes a part of the Gospel of Life to the role of women in building a culture of life (99). In it he argues that women have a “unique and decisive” role to play and calls on them to promote a “new feminism” that is based on loving acceptance of each human person.
When Pope John Paul issued his encyclical the Gospel of Life, many were surprised to read his call for women to promote a “new feminism” which he said, was “unique and decisive” in the task of building a culture of life. He went so far as to urge women to reject “the temptation of imitating model of ‘male domination’ in order to acknowledge and affirm the true genius of women in every aspect of the life of society” (99). Many Catholic women have responded enthusiastically to this call and have greatly enriched our culture and church as a result.
What exactly did John Paul mean by this “new feminism” or “the feminine genius”? What does it have to do with building a culture of life, and why does John Paul II give it such a significance?
To answer that question, we need to begin by explaining what it does not mean. The “new feminism” is not an extension of the ongoing culture wars between men and women. In another part of the Gospel of Life, John Paul makes clear that the task of building a culture of life requires a “general mobilization of consciences and a united ethical effort” of all – men and women, Catholics and non-Catholics – to confront society with the “full truth about the human person” (95).
The “new feminism” is a call to give witness to the meaning of self-giving love. It is based on the unique role of women as bearers and nurturers of new life. The experience of motherhood, he writes, “ involves a special communion with the mystery of life, as it develops in the womb” (Mulieris Dignitatem, 18). “Women first learn and then teach others that human relations are authentic if they are open to accepting the other person: a person who is recognized and loved because of the dignity which comes from being a person and not from other considerations, such as usefulness, strength, intelligence, beauty or health”. This, John Paul II writes, it “the indispensable prerequisite for an authentic culture change” (99). It’s important to note here that this nurturing role of women is not limited to women who give birth. There is also a very special kind of “spiritual motherhood” by which women of all ages, whether single, married or consecrated religious, understand, respond, and care for the human person.
A few months after publication of the Gospel of Life, the Holy Father expanded on the importance of the “genius of women” in bringing about true social justice in his Letter to Women” (June 29, 1995) that was written just before the Untied Nations Conference of the Status of Women in Beijing, China. The Beijing conference was a first in many respects, not the least of which was the fact that it marked the first time in the history of the Church that an international Vatican delegation was headed by a woman. That woman was Professor Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard Law School.
Professor Glendon is a well-known role model for Catholic women. She is a world-renowned expert in the fields of constitutional and comparative law, and is also a wife, mother, grandmother and devoted daughter of the Church. Her life exemplifies what John Paul II means by the work of “the feminine genius” in building a culture of life.
Professor Glendon came of age in the great social upheaval of the 1960s and 70s when feminism and the sexual revolution gained cultural acceptance. She related with women who were drawn to the ideals of equality and self-expression espoused by the feminist movement. But, as time evolved, she saw the human cost to marriage and family life that occurred when feminism became inexorably linked with abortion, divorce, population control and sexual promiscuity. Young women of today have largely rejected the hard-line feminist ideology. There is an increased desire among both men and women to balance work and careers so that marriage and family life can thrive.
At a symposium in Boston on the 30th anniversary of Roe v Wade, Professor Glendon was one of a panel of experts who offered reflections on the impact of legalized abortion on women. At that time she shared many signs of how “new forms of feminism are emerging to tackle the challenge of renewing the culture.” Professor Glendon, like Pope John Paul predicted, hears with hope “the voices of women who regard men and women as partners rather than antagonists in the eternal quest for better ways to love and work” (“From Culture Wars to Building a Culture of Life” in The Cost of “Choice”: Women Evaluate the Impact of Abortion, Erika Bachiochi, ed. (Encounter Books, 2004, p. 13).
Professor Glendon adds an American voice to John Paul’s call to women. She sees women in the forefront of an effort to advance a “moral ecology”… “in keeping with American traditions of welcoming the stranger, caring for the weak and vulnerable, lending a helping hand to the needy, and giving a fresh start to some one who got off the wrong track” (ibid, p. 13). That’s an agenda where church and state should heartily agree.
Gospel of Life (99)
Bachiochi, Erika, ed. The Cost of “Choice”: Women Evaluate the Impact of Abortion, (San Francisco, Encounter Books, 2004).
John Paul II, Apostolic Letter On the Dignity and Vocation of Women (Mulieris Dignitatem). August 15, 1988.
John Paul II, Letter to Women, (June 29, 1995) in John Paul II on The Genius of Women. United States Catholic Conference, 1997, pp. 45 –48.
Questions to Consider:
- Do you believe that women have particular insights and talents to bring to the cultural debate on the life issues?
- How does the work/family divide impact young people’s attitudes on abortion?
- Much of the contemporary culture views Church teaching on marriage, family and the life issues as “anti-woman”. How can we communicate the connection between being “pro-life” and “pro-woman”?