LEADING ARTICLE:What the Pope thinks about women

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The Independent Online
Why should anyone care very much what the Pope thinks about the place of women in modern society? Yesterday he issued a 19-page letter on the subject addressed to each and every woman "throughout the world" which stoutly defended their right to equality in the run-up to the United Nations Conference on Women in Peking in September. The contributions of women had been undervalued throughout history, he pronounced, and although the modern feminist movement had made its share of mistakes, its overall impact has been "a substantially positive one".

But hang on. Is John Paul II not the staunchest defender of the Roman Catholic doctrine which outlaws contraception and which is perhaps the single greatest burden to the world's poorest women, who constitute a majority of his flock? And did he not recently pronounce that women can never be Catholic priests? So who, in the highly politically correct world of the UN, might be disposed to take lessons on sexual equality from the Holy Father?

It would be easy for the lay reader of the papal epistle to be confirmed in such an opinion. The theology of the document takes as its starting point the verse in Genesis which insists that woman was created as a helper to man and extrapolates all male/female relationships from that premise. There is much talk of mothers, wives, sisters and daughters. There is repeated the insistence that Jesus "entrusted only to men the task of being an icon of his countenance", which is why women can be excluded from the priesthood without in any way detracting from their dignity.

But amid all the doctrinal absolutism, and the romanticism of "the genius of women" as mothers and virgins, and the questionable assertion that men and women are ontologically distinct, there are to be found some statements which, for Pope John Paul II, are fairly remarkable.

For a start there is a bald acknowledgement that history has put up many obstacles to the progress of women for which "not just a few members of the Church" had to accept blame. "For this," the Pope says with devastating simplicity, "I am truly sorry." And although his opposition to abortion is unnegotiable he declares, for the first time, that the primary guilt for the sin of abortion after a rape must be squarely attributed to men and to a society "corrupted by a culture of hedonistic permissiveness which aggravates tendencies to aggressive male behaviour". Further laws are needed, he declares, to curtail sexual violence against women and the "systematic exploitation" of female sexuality for advertising and prostitution.

Given that the Pope is defending a fundamentally patriarchal view of the world, such pronouncements constitute significant concessions. It is difficult to see how he could go further without compromising in areas which such a theologically conservative pontiff would find unthinkable. But the chairman of the Austrian bishop's conference responded by suggesting that it was only a matter of time before the teaching on contraception is reversed. Not under this pope, of course. But in Rome this is the pace at which change proceeds.