The following is an essay by Shelia Garcia, Associate Director of the Secretariat of Laity, Marriage, Family Life, and Youth at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops:
In the late 1990’s, the Vatican convened a conference on “Women’s Health and Human Rights.” During an audience with conference attendees Pope John Paul II proclaimed, to the surprise of his listeners, “Io son il Papa feminista,” “I am the feminist pope.”
Throughout his papacy, the Pope backed up his words with concrete deeds. Probably his most significant accomplishment as “the feminist pope” was to lay out the theological and anthropological foundation regarding women's dignity and equality. His 1988 document, Mulieris Dignitatem (On the Dignity and Vocation of Women), became the basis for the Pope’s reflections on women’s role in society and in the Church. It was also the first papal letter devoted entirely to women.
Mulieris Dignitatem offered several foundational principles:
• Man and woman, because they are created in God’s image and likeness, are equal in dignity.
• They are relational beings, who come to know who they are through the gift of self.
• The differences between man and woman are complementary, and these differences go beyond the physical.
The Pope also spoke about the “feminine genius,” by which he means an openness to and for others, an openness to receive God’s love and to give it to others.
These principles have ramifications in the Church and in society. The Pope’s insistence on women’s dignity and equality is good news for all women, but especially those in societies that restrict their access to education, employment and full participation in civic life. It is also a clear call to oppose all that denies women’s dignity, including pornography, human trafficking, exploitation in the workplace and a culture that accepts sexuality without moral restraint or accountability.
Pope John Paul II himself applied some of these foundational principles in preparation for the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995. With the global focus on women, he took the opportunity to speak out on women’s behalf in a series of remarkable addresses and statements. For example, the Pope:
--Applauded the growing participation of women in political life;
--Called on church institutions to pay special attention to the needs of girls, guaranteeing them equal educational access, improving basic health care and giving them priority in the allocation of resources and personnel.
--Acknowledged that history has often overlooked the contributions of women and urged that it be rewritten “in a less one-sided way.”
The Pope also affirmed women’s growing role in the Church. The revised Code of Canon Law in 1983 opened up church positions to lay people that had formerly been held only by the clergy. The Pope asked women “to assume new forms of leadership in service.” He urged their inclusion in consultations and decision-making. It was, he said, a question of making full use of the lay and feminine presence as allowed by church law. As a result, during the papacy of “the feminist Pope” an unprecedented number of women moved into leadership positions at all levels of the Church—parish, diocesan and even the Vatican itself.