Pope John Paul and Women

Article excerpt

It is a regret of mine that I was not able to go to Rome for the funeral of Pope John Paul II: but several of my friends did so, just to pay homage to the man who had made such an impact on their lives. A valued account of being there came from a younger friend, Melanie McDonagh, a journalist for the London Evening Standard (and a wife and mother), who wrote that "being here is the only way I can say thank you.... Like hundreds of thousands of other pilgrims, I stood for hours in the biggest queue Rome has ever seen, to view the Pope's body as it lay in state. Around me there was a remarkable cross-section of the Church. There were Filipina nuns, the Italian old ladies with brollies to keep off the sun, the Milanese soldiers in feathered hats, the ubiquitous, impoverished blonde Poles, the chatty Brazilians, the dignified young African sisters, the young Englishmen in tweeds. . . ." They were there to honour John Paul's legacy, Melanie wrote. "He made a change in the way people think about things, the way I think about things, which will long survive him."

During Karol Wojtyla's papacy, there was much hostile material written about the alleged papal misogyny. From the usual suspects came the charges that this Pope was against women because he ruled out the ordination of women, and because the female saints he chose to elevate were humble little creatures, not affirmative Hillary-Clinton-like role models. And of course the abortion wars reached a high crescendo during his papacy. I remember attending a London briefing, just before the 1995 United Nations conference on women at Beijing, held under UN auspices for Non-Government Organisations. The dark force held up as the implied enemy (rather as Mr. Bush is nowadays in liberal European theatres) was The Holy see. Under John Paul II, the Holy see was characterised as the enemy of women: the regressive force standing between us and all progress.

Yet anyone who cared to examine the other side of the story needed only to visit their local Catholic church. Any local Catholic church, anywhere: the research is, literally, on the ground. My own roaming area is Ireland, England, and the north of France, and in any Catholic church in any of these countries women predominate among the faithful, and were among the most sincerely moved at the death of the Holy Father. As Melanie McDonagh testified, they were to the forefront of those mourning his death in Rome. Most ordinary women understand the situation very well: Yes, John Paul II was a traditional theologian from a country with a strong mooring in history. He was indeed orthodox on sexual matters. But many ordinary women hold the same views and understand very well indeed what he stood for: honour, fidelity and the natural law. Indeed, most opinion polls in most countries show that on sexual matters women in general are more conservative: are less inclined to promiscuity: value the ideals of marriage. If, in divorce, women are now more frequently inclined to sue for divorce than men, that-interestingly-is a reflection of the high value that women place on marriage (according to a British think-tank expert, Penny Mansfield of One to One, who has archived over 3,000 studies of marriage).

In his writings on love, sex and marriage-particularly his poetic writings, and his work for the theatre-Karol Wojtyla had what one might call a romantic view of the relations between the sexes. He believed that men and women were different-a view that is increasingly endorsed now by biological science-but that this difference is brought to an almost poetic fusion in the union of marriage. …