John Paul II as a Pioneer of Woman's Human Rights

Interview With German Theologian Jutta Burggraf

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PAMPLONA, Spain, APRIL 6, 2005 ( Jutta Burggraf, professor of theology at the University of Navarre and specialist on woman and the Church, analyzes in this ZENIT interview the «feminine genius» that John Paul II so admired.

Burggraf is co-author of the book «Il Ruolo della Donna nella Chiesa e nel Mondo» (The Role of Woman in the Church and in the World), published by L’Osservatore Romano, as well as other books.

Q: The Pope coined the expression «feminine genius.» What did he mean?

Burggraf: John Paul II spoke willingly of the feminine «genius,» of the «charism» or «vocation» of woman, and he did so not only in official texts. In a private interview, he assured an Italian woman politician: «I believe in the genius of women. Even in the darkest periods that genius is found, which is the leaven of human progress and history.»

The feminine genius at times was of help to John Paul II and at others a stimulus and incentive. For example, it was not a high ecclesiastical dignitary or a top state official who suggested to him to establish a home for disabled elderly people in one of the Vatican gardens. It was a woman: Teresa of Calcutta, and he listened to her.

In spite of his great admiration for mothers worldwide, when speaking of woman’s «genius» Pope Wojtyla was not referring to physical maternity. The fact that a woman can be a mother does not mean that all women must be mothers, or that they will find their happiness in maternity.

The feminine «genius» is found rather in a spiritual dimension, and it is a specific basic attitude, which corresponds to woman’s physical structure and is fomented by it. Just as during pregnancy, woman experiences a unique closeness to the new being, so also her nature favors spontaneous contacts with those around her.

God has entrusted the human being in a special way to woman. In this sense, all women are called, in some way, to be «mothers.» What does it mean if not to break anonymity, to listen to others, to take to heart their concerns, to be in solidarity with them?

Normally, for a simple woman it is not difficult to transmit security and to create an atmosphere in which those around her can feel well.

Q: Despite the Pope’s efforts to promote woman, this pontificate has been accused of not fully recognizing the rights of women in the Church. What are these criticisms about and why do you think they are not correct?

Burggraf: The criticisms refer to priestly ordination, to which women do not have access by an ineffable divine will. But this is not a feminine question that can be posed in the realm of natural rights. It is a strictly theological question that I can only consider in the light of faith.

John Paul II undoubtedly did not consider women «unfit» for the priesthood. But even though he was Pope, he could not change the essence of this sacrament. The Lord could have called women to the priesthood, but he did not, though in his treatment of women he often acted against the customs of Israel.

He chose a woman, Mary, among all men; but he did not confer the ministerial priesthood on women, but only on men.

The Apostles followed his example, and the Church must preserve, also today, this way of proceeding. This is not stagnation, but a manifestation of fidelity.

Q: Would you say that John Paul II was the pope who paid most attention to woman?

Burggraf: John Paul II has been recognized, with good reason, as a «pioneer» of woman’s human rights. He acknowledged openly that the Church began very late to unveil her treasures.

Far from any romantic enthusiasm, John Paul II was on the side of those who «rely» on social justice and politics. He stressed the need to be free from prejudices and clichés, from shackling traditions and ways of living that had become excessively strict.

At the same time he warned against a liberation that would be detached from ethical values and interpersonal bonds. Woman’s «liberation» must not become a cheap equalization with man.

Something much more valuable and effective, but also more difficult, must be pursued: woman’s acceptance of her difference, of her singularity as woman. The objective of emancipation is to be removed from manipulation, from being regarded as a product, and to be an original. It is precisely this resistance against erroneous tendencies that is the touchstone of one’s freedom.

A genuine promotion is not about woman’s liberation from her own way of being, but about helping her to be herself. Therefore, it also includes a reappraisal of maternity, marriage and the family.

If today the social pressure of the past is being combated which excluded women from many professions, why then is there so much fear to go against the present pressure, far more subtle, that deceives women, attempting to convince them that it is only outside the family that they can find fulfillment?

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