Women in the papal vision

Published : May 06, 2005 00:00 IST

Pope John Paul II at the Marian shrine in Fatima. - DERRICK CEYRAC/AFP

Pope John Paul II at the Marian shrine in Fatima. - DERRICK CEYRAC/AFP

WHEN his wife died in 1929, Karol Wojtyla senior took nine-year-old Karol junior and his brother Edmund to the Marian shrine of Kalwaria, close to their native Wadowice in Poland. Before the altar, in a moment loaded with emotion and pain, Karol senior told his children: "Your mother has died. Mary is your mother now." The future Pope took it to heart. And that was the beginning of a life-long intense devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, whom the fifth century ecumenical council of Ephesus called theotokos (Bearer of God). In giving birth to God, she epitomised faith and humility. John Paul II's pontificate's motto was Totus Tuus (All yours), taken from an 18th century French work on the Virgin. He believed that the Virgin had saved him from an assassination attempt on May 13, 1981, the anniversary of the day she "appeared" to three children at Fatima in Portugal. She had personally intervened to direct the bullet away from his vital organs, the Pope said.

In 1997, John Paul II excommunicated the Sri Lankan Fr. Tissa Balasuriya, primarily for his observations on Mary put forth in the book Mary and Human Liberation. Balasuriya had made bold to make Mary socially relevant for the day in the Asian context, where faith in the "sacred feminine" runs deep. In fact, Balasuriya said nothing new. Since the early 1980s, studies in Mariology (the branch of theology that studies Mary), inspired by feminist and liberation theologies, have tended to interpret Mary and her witness to faith in the socio-political context of the contemporary world.

Tina Beattie, Senior Lecturer in Christian Studies at the Roehampton University in the United Kingdom, says Balasuriya argued that "traditional Mariology needs to undergo a transformation in order to align Mary with the struggles of the poor and the oppressed" (The Tablet, March 8, 1997). Alas, the Pope would not agree. He believed in a different Mary, with the "dispositions of listening, welcoming, humility, faithfulness, praise and waiting" ("Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Woman in the Church and the World", 2004, #16). In 1998, following protests, Balasuriya was "reconciled" to the Church.

John Paul II made some noteworthy moves to include women in the administration of the Church but declared them unfit for ordination. In 2004, the Italian Salesian Sr. Enrica Rosanna was appointed Under-Secretary of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, a powerful Vatican department in charge of overseeing the work of the religious orders of the Church. She was the first woman in about three decades to occupy such a senior and important position in the traditionally all-male Roman Curia (the Vatican bureaucracy).

The year 2004 had a few more "firsts" for women. The Pope nominated the American Sr. Sara Butler and the German lay woman Barbara Hallensleben to the International Theological Commission, a body comprising theologians who advice the CDF. Harvard University Professor Mary Ann Glendon was made president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences.

The Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (1994) sealed the question of women's ordination. The document, which summarised the long and convoluted arguments of the 1976 CDF declaration Inter Insigniores, said the "Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the faithful". In 1995, the Pope put in one word the reason for his opposition to women's ordination to the then Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey: "Anthropology." Carey thought John Paul II meant that women could not ordained precisely because they were women (The Pontiff in Winter, page 133). A note of clarification from the CDF, issued after Ordinatio Sacerdotalis was published, took another unprecedented step. It claimed that the Pope's teaching on the subject "pertained to the deposit of faith" and that it was "infallibly taught in the ordinary and universal teaching authority". In other words, it meant that Rome did not want have any more discussion on the subject. Roma locuta, causa finite.

The Pope's other pronouncements on women, especially the Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem (1988), "Letter to Women" (1995) and "Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Woman in the Church and the World" (2004), were more controversial. They spelt out his theological model of "gender complementarity" against the "lethal effects" of certain trends of feminism that were detrimental to the "authentic advancement of women" (Frontline, September 24, 2004). In a nutshell, the papal vision suggested that at the time of "creation", the sexuality of a person was inscribed and encoded in his or her very being (ontological dimension) and not just in his or her body and psyche. Hence man, being the first to be "created" by God, is essentially active and dynamic like his "Creator"; and woman, "created" to be a "helper fit for him [man]", is essentially passive and receptive. "... [I]n her deepest and original being, [she] exists `for the other'..." ("Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Woman in the Church and the World", #7).

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