From "Sign of the Times" to the "Feminine Genius"

The Articulation of Women's Vocation in John XXIII and John Paul II

Joyce Martin
Joyce Martin -- Philippines


While, for chronological reasons, we are more familiar with John Paul II and his work on the woman, one can perhaps observe that the Polish Pope’s coining of the “feminine genius” could represent a maturity in thought that has been brought down from John XXIII and his predecessors. Besides, did he not choose to call himself as “John” and “Paul” in order to situate his policies in the prolongation of John XXIII and Paul VI, the former being the unexpected instigator of the revolution known as Vatican II? Indeed, in his “espresso” term – a short but strong five years of service (1958-1963) – Angelo Roncalli’s innovative disposition has led some to fondly call him “Giovanni fuori le mure” (John Outside the Walls) or “Johnny Walker”[1]. John XXIII’s novel mindset also spilled onto his ideas on the woman.

In his writings and speeches, the “Good Pope John,” as people lovingly called him, highlighted, in the context of the 1960s, the importance of the woman’s involvement in the public sphere. While reaffirming the woman’s vocation to motherhood and declaring that “family and work [are] two centres of attraction, two nuclei, on which a woman’s life is focused on[2]”, John XXIII urged the need for the society to adapt its systems in order for the woman to “realise the fullness of her personality”[3]. Such ideas, which were pronounced in 1960 and ‘61, at the early stage of his Pontificate, were only elaborated further in later statements.

For example, in a speech to the University of Sacro Cuore in September 1961, the Pope lamented the state of modern social structures which were far from helping the woman in fully exercising her profession:

Hence, it is urgent to seek new solutions in order to achieve an order and a balance which would be better suited to the human and Christian dignity of women. Therefore, Catholic women need to become aware of the duties that are expected from them. Such duties are no longer confined, as in other eras, to the narrow sphere of family life. The gradual rise of women in all the responsibilities in society requires her active intervention in the social and political context. The woman, in the same way as the man, is no less necessary for the progress of society, especially in all those fields that require tact, delicacy and maternal intuition[4].

These imperatives – the call to recognise the dignity of women and the need to acknowledge their wider participation in the public arena – prepare his later statements in Pacem in Terris. Moreover, as one can infer from the last sentence of the aforementioned quote, instead of viewing maternity as a hindrance to professional and public activity, he poses it as an important element in society. Without degrading the man at the expense of the woman, nor suggesting the woman to measure herself according to patriarchally-inclined professional criteria, John XXIII acknowledged the significance of some possible qualities of motherhood, albeit not the only ones, as fundamental to society. Such a view would prevent women from a certain double-consciousness, which might imply, in this case, seeing their own motherhood through the eyes of a system which measures productivity at the expense of the womb: this professional dilemma.

Perhaps his most succinct expression of the woman’s emerging role was formulated in the Pacem in Terris: the growing public participation of the woman as a “sign of the times.” In this 1963 Encyclical on human dignity and freedom as essential elements to world peace, John XXIII noted three signs of the times, namely, (1) “a progressive improvement in the economic and social condition of working men”; (2) “a form of society which is evolving on entirely new social and political lines”; and (3) the incorporation of woman in the public realm:

Women are gaining an increasing awareness of their natural dignity. Far from being content with a purely passive role or allowing themselves to be regarded as a kind of instrument, they are demanding both in domestic and in public life the rights and duties which belong to them as human persons (# 41).

Thus, even after his death in 1963, his message on the woman was reiterated in Paul VI’s Apostolicam actuositatem (1965, # 9), as well as in the closing words of the Second Vatican Council which John XXII was not even able to witness. This emphasis on the woman would be continued by conferring on the title Doctor of the Church to two women, Teresa of Jesus and Catherine of Sienna. Further, in view of the UN Conference of 1975 in Mexico, Paul VI would constitute a special Commission on the study of the woman[5].

John Paul II, elected on October 6, 1978, would not only inherit and continue the reflection on the woman, but would articulate it in a manner that no other Pope had done before. The Polish Pope, who proposed Mary as a model in the Encyclical Redemptoris Mater (1987), would publish, a year later in 1988, the major document on the woman, Mulieris Dignitatem. For the first time, a Pontifical document entirely dedicates itself on the subject of the woman[6]. The letter opens recalling the Council’s closing message:

The hour is coming, in fact has come, when the vocation of women is being acknowledged in its fullness, the hour in which women acquire in the world an influence, an effect and a power never hitherto achieved. That is why, at his moment when the human race is undergoing so deep a transformation, women imbued with a spirit of the Gospel can do so much to aid humanity in not falling. 

Later, on 30 December 1988, Christifidelis Laici would draw from Mulieris Dignitatem in saying how “the Synod Fathers, when confronted with the various forms of discrimination and marginalization to which women are subjected simply because they are women, time and time again strongly affirmed the urgency to defend and to promote the personal dignity of woman, and consequently, her equality with man” (#49).

In 1995, four months before the Beijing Conference, John Paul II met with Mrs. Gertrude Mongella, UN Secretary General of this Fourth World Conference on Women. Among others, Pope Karol assured that, “without detracting from their role in relation to the family, the Church recognizes that women’s contribution to the welfare and progress of society is incalculable, and the Church looks to women to do even more to save society from the deadly virus of degradation and violence” (# 5) and that “[g]reater efforts are needed to eliminate discrimination against women in areas that include education, health care and employment” (# 6). The Pope also pointed out how “[h]istory is written almost exclusively as the narrative of men’s achievements, when in fact its better part is most often moulded by women’s determined and persevering action for good” (# 6). After such a meeting, Mongella reportedly commented the following: "If everyone thought as he does, perhaps we wouldn't need a women's conference.[7]"

Perhaps, as far as an articulation of the mystery of the woman is concerned, John Paul II’s two most famous ideas, which still beg thorough reflection, would be “new feminism” and the “feminine genius”. Evangelium Vitae mentions the former, while the Letter to the Women alludes to the latter:

In transforming culture so that it supports life, women occupy a place, in thought and action, which is unique and decisive. It depends on them to promote a "new feminism" which rejects the temptation of imitating models of "male domination", in order to acknowledge and affirm the true genius of women in every aspect of the life of society, and overcome all discrimination, violence and exploitation (# 99)

Necessary emphasis should be placed on the "genius of women", not only by considering great and famous women of the past or present, but also those ordinary women who reveal the gift of their womanhood by placing themselves at the service of others in their everyday lives (# 12).

In the last decades where the situation and understandable wounds of women have undergone considerable attention – how can one deny the contribution of the different feminisms? – both Popes have constantly spoken about the dignity of the woman without resorting to simplistic “either/ or” binary oppositions of (either man or woman, maternity or society); but of “and/and/ and” (woman in society and in the family and with the man; women with rights and in relation). In other words, rather than putting women in a “clan by themselves”, both have sought for “women in (a restored) relation”, a relation as gift, collaboration, reciprocity, complementarity and difference.

The comprehensible wound that some women incurred from certain types of patriarchy could have and might find, at least, an alternative figure in the persons of John XXIII, “il Papa Buono”, and John Paul II, the “new feminist”. Perhaps, one could suggest a supplementary reading to such a “double canonization”: could this event underscore, by virtue of raising to the altars two “Papas”, alternative father figures? Fathers who see to it that their daughters and sisters are cared for? Fathers who offer humanity an image of mercy and goodness? And how can one not mention their successor, Pope Francis, whose humility and mercy have led him to wash the feet of women and dialogue with ex-victims of prostitution? Can one not see, in this act, free from the noise of discourse, a simple but powerful gesture of fatherhood as service?

Joyce Martin

Emmanuel Community


[1] Poupard, Paul. Lenten  conference in Notre Dame de Paris. 15 April 2003. « Cardinal Poupard à Notre Dame de Paris : Portrait du pape Jean XXIII ». www.zenit.org/fr/articles/card-poupard-a-notre-dame-de-paris-portrait-du-pape-jean-xxiii.

[2] “Famiglia e lavoro: due centri di attrazione, due nuclei, sui quali è imperniata la vita della donna » (Udienza generale. Centro Italiano Femminile. 7 dic. 1960).

[3] Translation mine from “Discorso sulla «Donna e la professione » »,  6 Sept. 1961.

[4] Translation mine of the following : « Diletti figli e figlie, le moderne strutture sociali sono ancora lontane dal far sì che la donna, nell'esercizio della sua professione, possa realizzare la pienezza della sua personalità e offrire quel contributo che la società e la Chiesa attendono da essa. Di qui l'urgenza di ricercare nuove soluzioni al fine di raggiungere un ordine e un equilibrio più confacenti alla dignità umana e cristiana della donna. Di qui dunque la necessità che le forze cattoliche femminili prendano coscienza dei doveri che loro incombono. Questi non si esauriscono più, come un tempo, nel ristretto ambito della vita familiare. Il progressivo salire della donna a tutte le responsabilità della vita associata richiede il suo attivo intervento sul piano sociale e politico. La donna non meno che l'uomo è necessaria per il progresso della società, specialmente in tutti quei campi che esigono tatto, delicatezza ed intuito materno" (Discorso sulla «Donna e la professione »,  6 sett. 1961).

[5] Other UN conferences on women: Copenhagen (1980); Nairobi (1985) and Beijing (1995). See # 6.4 of vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/laity/documents/rc_pc_laity_doc_25021999_pclaity_en.html

[6] Vatican Radio. “Pontifical Council for the Laity: Women’s Seminar Examines Mulieris Dignitatem”. 11  October. 2013. http://www.news.va/en/news/pontifical-council-for-laity-womens-seminar-examin

[7] Zaborska, Anna. “Thank you, John Paul II”. New Europe Online. 10 April 2005. neurope.eu/article/thank-you-john-paul-ii

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