Women in the Church offered praise for the works of newly-canonized Saints John XXIII and John Paul II, saying that they set a foundation for an expanding theology of women.
Both Popes taught that “we're only going to have peace in the world, we're only going to have true human progress, when the dignity of every human person is recognized,” said Sr. Mary Madeline Todd, O.P., a member of the Dominican Sisters of Saint Cecelia and a doctoral student the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas in Rome.
Speaking to CNA, Sr. Todd explained that in the teachings of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II, “we see a clear contextualization of the question of woman in the broader context of the question of human dignity.”
Both Sr. Todd and Melissa Moschella, assistant professor of philosophy at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., said that the two pontiffs helped to explain the Church's respect for the dignity of women in a way that could be understood by a modern and changing world.
St. John XXIII served as Pope from October 1958 to his death in June 1963, and called the Second Vatican Council in 1962. St. John Paul II, who participated in the Second Vatican Council, was elected Pope in October 1978 and served until his death in April 2005. The two Popes were canonized together on Divine Mercy Sunday, April 27, 2014.
Moschella argued that the two saints’ positions are important to consider in a world that defines women's rights and ability to participate in society by their access to products and procedures such as contraception and abortion.
“It's an illusion to think that's an issue of women's liberation,” she said, criticizing modern culture's tendency to use technology to render women infertile in order to conform to men's roles in the workplace.
In contrast, she said, both Popes championed a more flexible workplace that respects women's role as caretakers for children or family members, as well as recognizing the important work that women do both in the home and outside of it.
Moschella also noted that while many people today think of the Church's beliefs as “anti-woman” and oppressive, women in the Early Church recognized that Catholic teaching on sexuality, dignity and womanhood was “in accordance with their dignity,” and in fact, “it was those teachings that made women flock to the Church.”
Pope John XXIII
Sr. Todd noted that Pope John XXIII wrote a letter to women religious right before the opening of the Second Vatican Council.
Pointing to the letter's commendation of both active and contemplative religious sisters, she said the document demonstrates that before the council even began, “the Church is already recognizing that women, and in a special way contemplative women, have a huge contribution to the Church.”
Entitled “Il Tempio Massimo,” the letter praised the “spiritual contribution” of women religious, as well as their academic and active gifts. It pointed out that the “spiritual presence” of contemplative religious women “is absolutely essential throughout the Church and the world,” helping to make possible “real human progress and human peace.”
Furthermore, Sr. Todd said, the 1962 letter “spoke specifically to the need for women to obtain degrees.”
“I think it's really interesting that the Pope spoke directly to the need for women to have these educational opportunities to be both of service and recognized in the Church,” she said.
Pope John XXIII continued this work of promoting the role of women in the Church in his papal encyclical “Pacem in Terris,” which noted the positive contributions of women in society at large as part of the grand aim of promoting human dignity in the world.
The letter stressed men and women's equal rights and duties, as well as women's rights as a worker, both in the home and in the workplace. In doing so, the encyclical was “recognizing that women have multiple roles” and a number of vocational callings, and “there has to be a real understanding, a flexibility, a creative way of approaching” this reality in order to respect their dignity, Sr. Todd said.
Moschella commented that Pope John XXIII also revived the Church's emphasis on the inherent dignity and equality of women in calling the Second Vatican Council. The council's purpose, she noted, “wasn't to define new doctrine,” but to re-present the “perennial light of faith,” including the Church's teachings on human persons, in such a way “that will resonate today.”
The emphasis which the council placed on “the universal call to holiness” was significant, she said, because it was a reminder that “we're all called to holiness.”
The council highlighted that despite the critical and essential role of priests, the laity's role is “no less important – that's the front line of the Church.” Most importantly, this call to holiness was most perfectly achieved by “a woman, Mary,” she added.
Pope John Paul II
The work of St. John XXIII was continued and deepened by St. John Paul II, Moschella continued, particularly through his Theology of the Body, Letter to Women, and Mullieris Dignitatem.
In these works, the Pope particularly focused on “the equal dignity of man and woman as equally in the image and likeness of God,” Moschella explained. His teachings illuminate that “there's a richness of that equal dignity that isn't a sameness,” and that men and women have a “complementarity of gifts,” rather than the same roles.
In addition, Pope John Paul II placed an “emphasis on the Church as Marian”- as being characterized by faith and service, like Mary, she said. This “servant leadership” defines the Church, and places all Church leaders “at the service of mission.”
Misunderstanding this Marian nature of the Church leads to a misunderstanding of the priesthood, Moschella continued, such as a distorted view of the all-male priesthood “as a position of power and privilege instead of just one more way to serve, which is really what it's all about.”
Sr. Todd described Pope John Paul II's view as “very holistic,” emphasizing that “both the role of woman in the family and the role of woman in the broader society is to be valued and cherished, because woman herself needs to be valued.”
The saint saw “what the feminine genius contributes to the Church and the world,” and “saw that there was a particular way in which women, attentive to the human person, could awaken in our society, in the Church and in the world, the centrality of the human person,” Sr. Todd explained.
This emphasis on the dignity of women, she noted, did not come from the opposition of woman and man, but from his “profound vision of the unity of man and woman” and emphasis on the “collaboration” of the sexes “both in the family and in society- it's not one or the other.”
“I think Pope John Paul II will be known in all of history for his personalism, his championing of every aspect of humanity,” she said, “and he really had a call in the Church to renew our understanding of what is the dignity, what is the dignity of human life.”
This dignity, she explained, was rooted in his deep understanding “that roles are tasks, not the primary ways which we define a person,” but instead that “we have a foundational dignity and equality,” given from God, that exists outside and prior to anything that we do.
Looking toward the future, Sr. Todd said, “we need to continue to build on that foundation” laid by Popes John XXIII and John Paul II in order to further develop what Pope Francis has called a “profound Theology of Womanhood.”
Both John XXIII and John Paul II understood the need for women in roles of both decision-making and service, she said, “and there needs to be a more profound understanding of the fact that all of the laity are called to share in the priestly, prophetic and kingly mission of Jesus Christ.”
The next step, Sr. Todd suggested, is growing in an understanding of “how does that actually play out in society and in the Church and the world?”