This is about as authoritative as a Pope can get without claiming infallibility. The curious phrase 'confirming the brethren' is a reference to Luke 22:32, where Jesus tells Peter that he has prayed that his faith may not fail; and that he in turn is to strengthen the faith of his brothers. Since the root of the papacy's power is the claim that the Pope today is the linear successor of Peter, the use of this phrase entails a claim that John Paul II is faithfully transmitting the will of Jesus in this matter.
'The question is one of discerning the mind of the Lord. In his treatment of women, Our Lord emphasised their dignity without conforming to the prevailing customs of the time, yet he still did not choose them as apostles,' explained Monsignor Philip Carroll, the General Secretary to the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales.
This is the letter that some Catholic feminists have been dreading, since they think it makes it a great deal more difficult for any subsequent Pope to change his mind on the issue. Others are more upbeat. One, who did not want to be named, said: 'The more feminist people are, the less distressed they are, because it's so ridiculous; there's nothing new.'
In fact, the latest papal letter ties in with the signals that have been coming from the Catholic Church in recent years. The English translation of the new catechism, which has just been published, was delayed for nearly two years by the successful attempts of American anti-feminists and their allies in the Vatican to remove 'inclusive' language from it. The inclusive language in the original draft was never about God, but about men and women, or 'men' as the Vatican calls them. Even this was too much of a concession for the Vatican, which found an elderly archbishop in Tasmania to rewrite the whole thing without reference to modern usage. The rewriting reaches an exquisite climax on page 500, where the devout reader learns that 'everyone, man and woman, should acknowledge and accept his sexual identity'.
The pattern is one of almost pathological hostility to feminism. It was especially clear in reactions to the one concession the Vatican has made in recent years to any sort of feminist sentiment: the decision announced last month that women could serve as altar girls. This only regularised what had been the practice in many dioceses, yet it was greeted with hysterical outrage by the anti-feminist political right in America.
Any weakening of the laws that exclude women from the priestly domain of the altar threaten, it seems, all order in the church.
Otherwise, the line has been clear ever since Humanae Vitae, the encyclical banning artificial birth control that was produced in 1968. Humanae Vitae, too, was only reaffirming the teaching of the church throughout previous ages. It marked a watershed, though, for two reasons: first, it followed a really intense period of consultation and research by a specially appointed commission, whose members had decided, rather to their own surprise, in favour of contraception within marriage, before the Pope overruled them; second, after he had overruled them, most Catholics in the developed world carried on using contraception exactly as if nothing had happened.
Humanae Vitae has had almost no effect on the birth-rate in countries where Catholics have access to some form of contraception. But it has had a shattering effect on papal authority.
It has vastly weakened the church's ability to resist abortion by tangling two very different issues together. For many intelligent self-reliant women who grew up as Catholics, it was simply too much to be told the meaning of sex by celibate old men. They have left the church, concluding that since it is obviously wrong about this, it must be wrong about everything else. Similarly, the choice of bishops has been drastically diminished, since any suspicion that a man doubts the teaching is a bar to promotion in the church.
However strange this attitude of passionate resistance to plain justice and common sense may seem, it is not new. There is almost an exact parallel in the attitude that the Catholic Church adopted in the last century. Then, the object of its scorn and hatred was democracy rather than feminism.
For most of the latter half of the past century and the first half of this, successive popes did all they could to stamp out the idea that discussion had any place in the discovery of truth. Free Thought, in the sense of atheism, was confused with free thought in the sense of unsupervised, or grown- up thought (a conclusion that suited the atheists as much as anyone else).
In 1861 Pope Pius IX solemnly denounced the theory that a Pope 'ought to reconcile and adjust himself with progress, liberalism and modern civilisation'. Papal infallibility was defined (infallibly) in 1870. The papacy gloried in being chief among the forces of reaction. In 1961, however, at the Second Vatican Council, all this came tumbling down, or seemed to. The church had been full of progressives all along, we discovered; and only a tiny minority under Archbishop Lefebvre left in protest against the great renewal.
Humanae Vitae represents the hinge at which the Vatican, without perhaps even realising it, stopped struggling against democracy, and started to struggle against feminism instead. There are, of course, anti-democratic elements involved in the struggle against artificial contraception. But it is primarily a struggle against feminism; against the dignity and moral sense of women. The same attitude lies behind the Pope's repeated defence of a celibate priesthood. If this parallel is correct, then it should be most heartening for women who want their granddaughters to have the option of becoming priests. After all, the resistance to democracy did crumble when it was safe for the church to drop its guard: no one, it could be argued, has done more to spread democracy than the present Pope, who played such a large part in the fall of Communism. In 2094, perhaps, onlookers may be arguing that no one has done more for women's rights than the Pope. But not before.
Andrew Marr's column returns on Thursday
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