John Paul II’s Definitive Answer to Secular Feminism

St. Paul wrote in his Letter to the Galatians (4:4): “When the time had fully come, God sent forth his son, born of woman”; “Only by the power of the Holy Spirit,” added Pope John Paul II in the apostolic letter Mulieris dignitatem, (one of his very greatest teaching documents, the twenty-fifth anniversary of which Pope Francis marked on Saturday, October 12) … was Mary able to accept what is “impossible with men, but not with God.” Thus the “fullness of time” manifests the extraordinary dignity of the “woman.”

Mary, he wrote, “is the representative and the archetype of the whole human race: she represents the humanity which belongs to all human beings, both men and women … the event at Nazareth highlights a form of union with the living God which can only belong to the “woman,” Mary: the union between mother and son. The Virgin of Nazareth truly becomes the Mother of God.” (Mulieris dignitatem §§ 3 – 4)

Reading that again reminded me that when, a long time ago, I published my book on feminist theology— What Will Happen to God?—I chose as its official publication date the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. Thus, I shall be marking the thirtieth anniversary of my book on New Year’s day, 2014. So I hope my readers will forgive me if, for two reasons, I remember that book here before returning finally to Mulieris dignitatem: firstly because in it I attempted an examination of questions on which Pope John Paul was to speak with such definitive authority a year or two later.

Secondly, because my book (which turned out to be at the time, so Fr. Fessio told me later, the only one by an Anglican ever published by Ignatius Press) was also of all my books the one which had the most effect on the course of my own life: in the short term, it led over the next year or so to speaking engagements in which I spoke in many cities in more than half the states of the American Union, from Boston, New York, Washington and Detroit in the East to Los Angeles and San Francisco in the West, from Huston on the Bay of Mexico to Anchorage, Alaska in the far, far North. More importantly for me, the process of writing the book led me in the end to one of the most important days of my life—the day on which I was received into the Catholic Church.

Finding out about feminist theology—a theology which was and still is intended, as one of its most famous book titles, Mary Daly’s Beyond God the Father, indicates, to change the message of Christianity itself—was for me at the time all part of an Anglican struggle, of the great battle between those like we Anglo-Catholics who wanted to prevent, and those who wanted to bring about, the ordination of women to that Church’s “priesthood” (I put the word in quotes because one of the things I discovered was that the Anglican and Catholic understandings of its meaning are simply not the same, though I had always assumed they were). My book led me to ask questions to which, I found, only the Catholic Church had the answers.

C. S. Lewis had already asked part of the book’s fundamental question, in an essay entitled “Priestesses in the Church” explaining why the Church of England would never ordain women (he was right about many things, but not about that). “Suppose,” he asked, “the reformer … begins saying that we might just as well pray to ‘Our Mother which art in heaven’ as to ‘Our Father.’ Suppose he suggests that the Incarnation might just as well have taken a female as a male form, and the second person of the Trinity be as well called the Daughter as the Son…. Now it is surely the case that if all these supposals were ever carried into effect we should be embarked on a different religion. Goddesses have, of course, been worshipped; many religions have had priestesses. But they are religions quite different in character from Christianity.”

But why? That is one fundamental question I asked, which so far as I could see had never really been asked before. Why, for Christians, was God “Father” RATHER THAN “Mother”? It was clear to me that this was no mere metaphor as in “God is LIKE a Father.” “Father” was Jesus’s NAME for God: only once (in the words of dereliction from the cross—a quotation, of course—is he ever recorded as calling him anything else (he uses it in the gospels over 170 times: it only occurs 11 times in the whole of the Old Testament). If I may quote from myself, “we can almost go so far as to say that if we only understand the Fatherhood of God metaphorically, our understanding is less than a fully Christian one: the new element, of course, is Jesus’s own use of the term. For at no point does Jesus imply that God is merely like a father to him: his message is that in very truth God actually is his father.” He is begotten not made.” And He becomes Son rather than daughter, briefly, because the relationship of father and son was seen as fundamentally different from that of father and daughter: the son could represent and continue the identity of the father in a way no daughter could.

The essential thing to note is that from the very earliest days of the Church, despite what the feminists say, calling God “Father” was understood to include women as his children in the same way that it included men: the word “Father” was, to employ a loaded word, literally “inclusive.” Mulieris dignitatem (with which I end) goes out of its way, both to emphasize the representative nature of sacraments mediated by a uniquely male priesthood (representative precisely because God was Son and not daughter), and to insist at the same time on the role of the greatest of all women as the archetypal representative of the whole of the human race. (It’s worth interjecting here that religions based on the worship of Goddesses are all reflected by a much lower social status for women than Christianity, and particularly than Catholicism; that’s in my book too). Here’s Pope John Paul:

§2 Since “the Church is in Christ as a sacrament … of intimate union with God and of the unity of the whole human race,” the special presence of the Mother of God in the mystery of the Church makes us think of the exceptional link between this “woman” and the whole human family. It is a question here of every man and woman, all the sons and daughters of the human race, in whom from generation to generation a fundamental inheritance is realized, the inheritance that belongs to all humanity and that is linked with the mystery of the biblical “beginning”: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen 1: 27).

§26 In calling only men as his Apostles, Christ acted in a completely free and sovereign manner. In doing so, he exercised the same freedom with which, in all his behavior, he emphasized the dignity and the vocation of women, without conforming to the prevailing customs and to the traditions sanctioned by the legislation of the time.… Here one also finds an explanation for the calling of the “Twelve.” They are with Christ at the Last Supper. They alone receive the sacramental charge, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Lk 22:19; 1 Cor 11:24), which is joined to the institution of the Eucharist. On Easter Sunday night they receive the Holy Spirit for the forgiveness of sins: “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (Jn 20:23).

§4 The particular union of the “Theotókos” with God—which fulfills in the most eminent manner the supernatural predestination to union with the Father which is granted to every human being (filii in Filio)—is a pure grace and, as such, a gift of the Spirit.… With her “fiat,” Mary becomes the authentic subject of that union with God which was realized in the mystery of the Incarnation of the Word, who is of one substance with the Father.

What Pope John Paul showed in Mulieris Dignitatem was that we have nothing to learn from the feminism of our own day; we’ve always had an authentic feminism at the heart of the Catholic faith. It’s when you take Mary out of the equation—as first Protestantism and then modern secularism did—that the debased secular feminism of our own day inevitably arose. John Paul didn’t say that of course. He didn’t need to.

Editor’s note: This column was first published October 16, 2013 in the Catholic Herald of London and is reprinted with permission.

Dr. William Oddie


Dr. William Oddie is a leading English Catholic writer and broadcaster. He edited The Catholic Herald from 1998 to 2004 and is the author of The Roman Option and Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy.

  • Dick Prudlo

    It astonishes me how often we have to reconstruct the message, and sooth those who just can’t seem to get it because of their SEX. These frustrated women who are anything but proud of what they are, need to grasp who they are. Today’s view of feminism places it on its head and flips it over and over and over again until they are totally dizzy with nonsense.

    • JasperBuck

      “It [feminism] is mixed up with a muddled idea that women are free when they serve their employers but slaves when they help their husbands.” – G.K. Chesterton

      • Dick Prudlo

        I think GK said it better, but is that not what I also said?

        • JasperBuck

          Yep. What you wrote reminded me of the quote and also of the fact that sadly this has been going on a long time. And going on to the detriment of women everywhere… JP II and GKC (and DP) have it right.

      • The Truth

        I’m giving thumbs up and it’s SUBTRACTING the total instead of raising them.

    • MarcAlcan


  • hombre111

    In talking about God the Father, we don’t use the word “father” metaphorically? Holy crow. I might as well be a Mormon, who believes that God is his literal father. God talk is God talk. Every word we use about God succeeds, and fails. In other words, it is a metaphor. It’s just that some metaphors are better than others.

    • ColdStanding

      Er, no. Jesus Christ says repeatedly says “My Father in heaven.” It is at the beginning of the Pater Noster for goodness sake! Are you going to start gainsaying Our Lord and Savior now, too? Et tu, Bruti?

      Father = Father.

      Metaphor, scmetaphor. What’s so difficult to understand?

      The game is up for la nouvelle theologie.

      • hombre111

        If we start to believe our human words capture the mystery of God, then we are back to burning heretics. If father = father, then you have something in common with the nearest Mormon.

        • ColdStanding

          Do we not become, in baptism, adopted sons and daughters of God the Father and thereby brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ through the gratuitous gift of the Holy Spirit? It means what it means. Our relationship to God is described in this way for our benefit and in no way limits God’s perfections. I mean really! You chide me as if the rest of the theology that enables one’s reason to grasp the necessary things for salvation did not exist.

          And for your information, Jesus Christ became man, fully and completely man, and used human words which we must trust, believe, and hold as sufficient for eternal life. There is no way to gainsay that w/o falling into grievous error. Human words, with specific meaning, spoken for our salvation. Jesus Christ taught us to pray by saying “Our Father…”, therefore God the Father means a) he is a father and b) he is our father, and c) all other instances of fatherhood, in a significant way, derive from God’s fatherhood.

          Step away from the Pierre Teilhard de Chardan, Padre.

          • hombre111

            Doesn’t sound like you have read Chardin. Couldn’t disagree with anything you said above. But you are still using analogy, as a good theologian would. A non-believer would ask you to continue on with your final thought. a) “A father?” You mean as, a father who has children by sexual union with a spouse? A yes answer would make you a Mormon. A no answer would require??? b) “He is our father.” You mean we have a mother in heaven somewhere? That is the Mormon answer. You would have to say???? c) “fatherhood… derives from God’s fatherhood?” That could make you a perfect Mormon. You would have to explain yourself saying????

            • ColdStanding

              But here is the difference: I don’t take analogy as licence; as opportunity to gainsay; as grounds for doubt. That truth is understood by analogy does not mean that truth really isn’t understood. Foreseeing this problem, God the Father sent His only begotten Son to definitively state that His Father in heaven had sent Him to redeem us from sin. Therefore, the well known results of the phenomenological program of investigation that reveal the analogical nature of human knowledge are defeated by the authority of our maker. By which I mean the inherent ambiguity of analogy is, by Divine Revelation, made gainsay-proof. Well, in the reason, if not the will.

              The Ressourcement, or La Nouvelle Theologie is an elaborate beating around the bush to step out from under Scholastic theology. It is a spurning of discipline. Ruefully, it is also a rejection of Divine Revelation. And why? Loss of faith. Those big beautiful brains just wouldn’t be bound by discipline because it pricked their pride. There is a good deal of fear of death, too. The entire lot needs to be put on a shelf for a very, very long time.

              As for the Mormons, well, their crafter was a well known plunderer. God is not understood in terms of human fatherhood. Human fatherhood is understood in terms of God.

              • hombre111

                Good job. Many Protestants reject the possible use of analogy, and so we end up with a God beyond reach of human thought or language. In a Catholic approach, analogy is a valid way of talking about God, the creature speaking about the creator. And God is understood in terms of human fatherhood, which leads us to appreciation and love. But you are also correct: human fatherhood is understood in terms of love. Of course it can be overdone.

                I have stepped out from under much of Scholastic theology because it leads, as does most European theology, to dualism. Reducing reality to unchangeable substance and accidents cannot account for evolution, and tempts one to the essence fallacy, where something I can imagine in my mind becomes real, which was a flaw in Plato, who saw a world of ideas out there.

                • ColdStanding

                  What is the name for the philosophical system that is not dualism? Who are it’s exponents? What is it’s history; it’s pedigree? What is the opposite of dualism? Doesn’t logic dictate that it be called either monism or pluralism? Now you stuck with having to make either of these options work. If you rubbish something useful, something that good use is made of/with, aught you not have something better to replace it with? What is so all fire good about the alternatives to Christian dualism, which acknowledges the utter separation between the Creator and the created? (Remember the crèche! He reaches down to save us, stripping Himself of all His dignity, making Himself like us, you know, without dignity. He spans the divide.)

                  I am well aware that there are numerous either fake or degraded species of dualism waiting to muck up the unsuspecting, but how that forces me to abandon the (taxonomic) domain-level assumption of the dual nature of creation, I have no idea.

                  Turnabout is fair play. If you introduce the precedent of throwing out one set of assumptions in favour of another, as happened when la N. T. turfed St. Thomas’s opus, with the justification used being “it is not to our taste”, then there is very little to stop the same thing happening to la N. T. Recourse to claims that la N. T. is the evolution of Christian thought won’t cut it either, because la N. T. had to trash authority to make any sort of sense at all.

                  • hombre111

                    Good, thoughtful questions. A dualist system sets up contradictions, with no convincing logical way to bring them together: Matter- spirit, universal-individual, etc.. This has been the dilemma of European philosophy forever, and has led some philosophers like Marx, to become pure materialists, and others, like Hegel, to turn everything into thought. It has led to the denial of metaphysics, and the turgid linguistic analysis deadend we are in today.
                    I am a long-time follower of Don Gelpi, S.J., who distinguishes between a dyadic and a triadic way of coming to reality. He bases his thinking on the thinking of Charles Sanders Peirce and other American philosophers, who are often ignored by philosophy classes taught in American universities.

                    • ColdStanding
                    • hombre111

                      That’s the man. I have read his books for thirty years, beginning with his unintentially difficult “Experiencing God, and ending with his three volume Christological masterpiece, “The Firstborn of Many.” He has created what many consider the best explanation of the process of conversion. I watched him develop and explain a new philosophical perspective which builds on North American thinkers. Unlike the increasingly rational and abstract philosophy of Europe, his triadic philosophy follows a convincing right brain/left brain path moving from sensation to abstract inference. Because he creates a new approach outside the European philosophical tradition, he is not an easy read, but it is worth the effort.

                    • ColdStanding

                      Ecclesiastes comes to mind.

                    • ColdStanding

                      I have had some time to review the article that I found on written by Fr. Gelpi. I do not know if you have read that article or not, but shall I assume that, if you have not read it, you would likely be well disposed to agree with the author, given you have espoused a following of the Fr. Gelpi. Fair statement?

                      I won’t pretend I am a capable of doing a fair and balanced critical review of the article in question in a combox, so please forgive me that provide only this brief summation of my reaction as consisting largely of a) shock b) scandal and c) sorrow at seeing a man go so horribly wrong in his vocation. I realize that item c leaves me open to a charge of hyperbole, but I would assert that he, himself, albeit subconsciously, recognizes the fact in several preparatory statements he make(s) before commencing with his autobiographical account.

                      Fr. Gelpi thesis fails because of two fundamental errors. Number one: social-political institutions do not have souls to convert, so it is impossible to talk about the conversion experience of an institution. Therefore, conversion can ONLY be personal and not ever institutional. Number two: in his effort to discuss, in a “broader” and “more nuanced” way, the spectrum of conversion experiences, he groups religious conversion with moral, ethical and intellectual conversion. This is a first rate failure of categorical distinction. Religious conversion is supernatural, the others are natural. I assert that what he is doing is either the anthropology or the psychology of conversion, not the theology of conversion. The theology of conversion can only have as it’s subject the turning of the individual to God. His believing that he is talking about the theology of conversion as opposed to an anthropology of conversion is either subterfuge or incompetence.

                      However, I will extend my warm gratitude to you for alerting me to Fr. Gelpi, may he rest in peace. Looking at his article with the eyes of a historian of Holy Mother Church, dilettante that I am, I can’t help but express my fascination at reading so unguarded an expression of thought as is found there in, fearful for my soul as I am whilst reading it.

                    • hombre111

                      No, you are not capable of doing a fair and balanced review simply by reading an article, especially if you are trying to make your criticism from a conservative point of view that does not grasp how broad the notion of conversion really is. To limit conversion to religious conversion really misses the spiritual and psychological dynamics.. He needs a longer and more thoughtful read, where you can see why he says what he says. Read Donald L. Gelpi’s the Conversion Experience, and then make up your mind.

                    • ColdStanding

                      How broad the notion of conversion – not really is, but instead – can be made. So broad, in fact, that it is emptied of it’s meaning. Conveniently, the deft author can then go about filling it with what every should please him to include in the new, more nuanced, and broader meaning.

                      I’m very happy for you that you so enjoyed reading Fr. Gelpi’s work. Clearly, in those pages you have found a great deal of confirmation for and of your thoughts. Thank you for recommending the book. I’m sure he had lots of fun writing it. Perhaps as much as he did over all in living out his self-redefined Jesuit vocation.

                      However, that he and his generation saw fit to chuck the tradition that they were supposed to be handing on to me and my generation into the trash can, I hope you can forgive me for not being to well disposed to further entertain what they have to say.

    • Q

      Are you serious?

      • thebigdog

        Sadly, he is.

    • slainte

      What do you believe about the Trinity?

      • hombre111

        Whew. Right now, my favorite books about the Trinity are O’Donnell’s “Mystery of the Triune God,” Kasper’s “The God of Jesus Christ,” and Johnson’s soaring, poetic “She who is.” But my discovery of three galaxies with my giant binoculars blew the door of much of my traditional understanding of God. With an awareness of the immensity of the Universe, “God the Father” is metaphor indeed. What truly stuns me is how this unimaginable God of the Cosmos has spoken a word of love to us in his Son made flesh. Within that framework, the mystery of the Incarnation brings me to my knees. The thought of God’s Holy Spirit, carried on the mystery of dark energy, yet at work bringing love and peace to my soul, also leaves me gasping.

        • slainte

          The Catechism tells us:

          253 The Trinity is One. We do not confess three Gods, but one
          God in three persons, the “consubstantial Trinity”. The divine persons do not share the one divinity among themselves but each of them is God whole and entire: “The Father is that which the Son is, the Son that which the Father is, the Father and the Son that which the Holy Spirit is, i.e. by nature one God.” In the words of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), “Each of the persons is that supreme reality, viz., the divine substance, essence or nature.”

          Holy Scripture, through revelation, provides numerous instances where Jesus, as a Son acknowledges and cals upon His Father, as father…

          Luke 22:42
          “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”

          Luke 23:43
          “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”

          Luke 23:46
          “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit”

          Jesus distinguishes between His Father and His Mother by his loving reference to Mary and commending her to John’s care in HIs absence..

          John 19:26–27
          “Woman, behold your son. Behold your mother”

          The Angel Gabriel also acknowledges Our Lord’s intention to father His own Son through the Holy Spirit’s impregnation of the Virgin Mary and ordains that the child to be born of the union shall be male.

          Luke 1:35
          The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.

          Thus given the numerous biblical revelations, I am a loss to understand how Our Lord Adonai could be understood to be anything other than an actual Father, albeit divine in substance, or how the three persons of the Trinity could be anything other than male, as Jesus who was incarnated God was male.

          Indeed, God the Father publicly acknowledged His paternity of Jesus:

          Luke 3:22
          22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son;[a] with you I am well pleased.”[b]
          Your use of the term metaphor to describe the Father is just not accurate in light of Revelation..

          • Bob

            Excellent response, slainte.

            Also, in the Lord’s Prayer, we are instructed by Christ to pray: “Our FATHER….HALLOWED be THY NAME.”

    • redfish

      Its analogy if you believe the only literal meaning of father is someone who has children by sexual union. But if you were to examine the meaning of the word “father”, strip out all incidental characteristics, and only examine the essential characteristics of a father — in Platonic manner — you might come to a different conclusion.

      That’s how the early Church fathers would have understood it, and similar to how language is used in alchemical writing; that is to say, beyond the common meaning of a word stands a more abstract principle. “Salt” refers to the principle of salt, not a specific substance, &c. The only choices to interpret language isn’t as analogy or as the common meaning.

  • hombre111

    Sigh. Means I will have to get a copy of the encyclical and struggled through Pope John Paul’s tortured, convoluted writing style. If you want to read a great teaching encyclical, read something by Pope Benedict.

    • musicacre

      I guess everyone has their favorites. If you stay away from poetry, you will not like JPII’s writing. He is a unique person, which comes into his writing. Why should it resemble someones else’s? Everyone has their own writing style.

      • hombre111

        You are probably right. It’s not that Pope John Paul’s writing should have resembled anybody else. It’s just that he could have used a course in discursive writing.

  • tamsin

    why can’t God be a woman = why can’t Mary be a man.

    • Ruth Rocker

      Men can’t have babies would be the first problem with that scenario, I think.

    • newenglandsun

      Not exactly–God is beyond gender. Mary is a human and has a gender. So Mary can’t be a man is acknowledging that she is a woman and not a man. God can’t be a woman is acknowledging that God is beyond gender.

  • hombre111

    Currently, the best article on this subject is over at America Magazine, in an article called “Paradise Lost,” where the article discusses the sad plight of young women involved in the “hook-up” culture. Far, far superior to Dr. Oddie’s effort.

    • The “hookup culture” would not exist were it not for women’s own (stupid) choices.

      • WSquared

        Right, and men– and their “booty calls”– are completely innocent in the hookup culture. Horsefeathers. Men are also responsible for their own bad choices, and it takes two to tango.

        Women don’t exist to stop men from sinning. Women are also sinners whom God gives room to fail. Women also embrace modesty primarily for Christ– so as to remain receptive to Him, whereby we can truly be ourselves– and not primarily to stop men from staring at us. Women need to be called the sinners they are, and people should stop expecting women to be perfect, as if everything that goes wrong in society is somehow their fault.

        • Bucky Inky

          “Women need to be called the sinners they are, and people should stop
          expecting women to be perfect, as if everything that goes wrong in
          society is somehow their fault.”

          Who is expecting women to be perfect? Could you give some examples that demonstrate it to be the societal trend that you assert it to be?

          • Adam__Baum

            Somehow I think the author of evil loves fratricidal warfare on this matter. It isn’t useful, and is actually largely counterproductive to attempt to assign primary blame to either sex.

            Of course the whole exercise sounds like the dialog in Genesis. “Not my fault”.

            • Bucky Inky

              I agree Adam, but I’m straining to see what your comment has to do with what I said (it shows that you were replying to me).

              • Adam__Baum

                Not directed at you, just that your comment was chronologiically the last.

      • hombre111

        Last I checked, a hookup is a two person deal.

        • Adam__Baum

          Uh well, in this day and age it would be more accurate to say “two or more”.

  • Radagast The Purple

    Exactly why is it that “the son could represent and continue the identity of the father in a way no daughter could”? In what “way” a man is so inclusive while a woman is somehow alienating?

    • ColdStanding

      Simple. Through one MAN sin came into the world and with it, death. Therefore, for our salvation, through one MAN came redemption from our sins and with it, eternal life.

      • Ruth Rocker

        Just as through one woman (Eve) sin entered the world, our salvation entered the world through another woman (Mary). Those who deny the role Mary plays in our salvation do so at their own peril. It was His mother that Jesus looks after from the cross, not the men who were his disciples. His last thought was to have His mother taken care of. Mary should be a shining example of humility before God and human beings for everyone, man and woman alike!

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  • James

    I think some of the problem is linguistic. (JPII muses about how man/woman are connected in Hebrew, but not in modern languages. He does NOT note that English is just like Hebrew.) In English, “man” is used for both the generic human (Latin homo) and the male (Latin vir), leading to the assumption that the generic human is male and the female is an exception or less important.

    Plus any English translation of JPII is a double-translation of his Polish mind into Latin words into the English translation. I’m sure a lot can be lost in translation.