Pope John Paul II on Friday ruled out the priesthood for women but condemned sexual discrimination in a major teaching that will shape the debate on women in the Roman Catholic Church.
“Mulieris Dignitatem,” Latin for “On the Dignity of Women,” attempts to define women’s nature and role in the church and society.
The document concludes that men and women are equal but fundamentally different and thus play different roles. Women, it says, are formed by maternal qualities.
John Paul says women who choose celibacy as a vocation, such as nuns, accept a “spiritual motherhood.”
While highly theoretical, the document provides a framework for specific issues the church is expected to tackle in coming years, such as the positions and influence women can have in the church structure.
The ban on women priests and deacons has been a source of considerable tension between the Vatican and Catholics in the United States and Western Europe.
The 120-page document is an apostolic letter, which means that it will be presented to Roman Catholics as church teaching but is not an infallible pronouncement.
“Here the Holy Father . . . is offering us the essential and inescapable facts and principles that you need to sensibly debate the role and mission of women,” Archbishop Jan Schotte said at a news conference where the document was presented.
“It’s not new in terms of content, but it’s new in bringing together the teaching of Scriptures and the whole tradition of the church in a document that speaks to the theme of women now,” he said.
Schotte was secretary-general of last year’s worldwide synod of bishops on the role of the laity. The question of women played a major role at the synod.
Vatican officials said the document expresses the Pope’s beliefs shaped by years of reflection on the subject of women, but did not involve scientists or other outside experts.
Much of the document consists of a strong defense of women’s equality with men and praise for their contributions. The Pope equates sexual discrimination and domination over women with sin and condemns men who fail to take responsibility for their sexual acts.
He advises fathers:
“It is the woman who ‘pays’ directly for this shared generation (of a child). . . . It is therefore necessary that the man be fully aware that in their shared parenthood he owes a special debt to the woman. No program of ‘equal rights’ between women and men is valid unless it takes this fact fully into account.”
But the Pope stated that women and men have fundamentally different characters.
“The personal resources of femininity are certainly no less than the resources of masculinity; they are merely different,” the document said.
“Hence a woman, as well as a man, must understand her ‘fulfillment’ as a person, her dignity and vocation, on the basis of these resources.”
The Pope links femininity to “maternal” characteristics such as sensitivity to human beings and a sense of responsibility for others.
A woman’s vocation, he said, lies in devoting herself to other people--either through motherhood or “spiritual motherhood,” in which a woman chooses long-term virginity to focus on a mission of service.
The document emphasizes Jesus Christ’s respect for women and says his behavior showed that he did not follow the norms of his times. Thus, the Pope argues, Christ was not affected by the traditions of his day when he chose men as his top Apostles, but intended that only they should fill that role.
He added that Christ celebrated the Eucharist with men and that the sacrament symbolizes the sacrifice men should make in marriage. In the Catholic faith, the consecration of the Eucharist commemorates Christ’s giving of himself for the church.
Women Deacons May Be Barred
“Christ, in instituting the Eucharist . . . wished to express the relationship between man and woman, between what is ‘feminine’ and what is ‘masculine,’ ” the Pope wrote.
Schotte said the arguments against women priests also appeared to rule out women deacons--a subject of intense interest in the U.S. Catholic Church.
In a draft pastoral letter issued last spring, the U.S. bishops called for a study of making women deacons. Deacons are ordained ministers who rank below priests.
The Vatican is facing increasing pressure from women for a greater role in the church, an issue that has been fueled by the recent elevation of a female bishop in the Episcopal Church.
Vatican officials said the Pope issued his document now to provide theological underpinning for church decisions on women in the coming months.