John Paul II, Women, and the Catholic Contemplative Tradition

Brooke Williams Deely’s comprehensive collection John Paul II Speaks on Women documents the revolutionary contribution of Karol Wojtyla’s pontificate to understanding the role of women in the Church and in the world.

Pope John Paul II walks down a gravel path in an undated photo by Vatican photographer Arturo Mari. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano)

Brooke Williams Deely of the Women, Culture, and Society Program at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas is the editor of John Paul II Speaks on Women, which was recently published by Catholic University of America Press. In her introductory essay for the book, Deely assesses the significance of Pope Saint John Paul II’s teaching on women:

John Paul II offers a deepened understanding of the contemplative tradition, an understanding which clarifies that both woman and man are fully human subjects in their own right, as well as in co-equal relation to each other. This equality in relation likewise clarifies the nature of the collaborative stewardship of our whole environment of earth, wherein the nature/culture dualism that had devalued woman as signifying nature to be dominated gives way to a non-domination paradigm. John Paul II deepens Scriptural understanding of women’s vital contribution in this raised consciousness of co-equal stewardship in relation to woman’s unique vocation in all spheres of influence. John Paul II thereby moves beyond the dualisms problematic (since Aristotle) for personalism, at least inasmuch as these dualisms have been appropriated traditionally to privilege the male side. … This pope’s writings thus demonstrate a heightened consciousness of the dynamic, interactive, and ongoing relation between nature and culture. His writings move us beyond an exclusively linguistic or cultural model that would reduce human experience to the dimension of socially constructed ‘gender,’ as well as beyond a model that reduces to the formula: ‘biology is destiny.’”

This new book comes with some impressive endorsements. Archbishop Miller of the Archdiocese of Vancouver writes: “Pope John Paul II Speaks on Women offers an insightful overview of his profound respect for fundamental human values, including those specific to women, as well as his perceptive grasp of their historical and present-day denigration and cultural disenfranchisement. Rooted in the contemplative tradition, he is indebted to both Mary, Mother of God, and St. John of the Cross for the development of his thought on women. Brooke Williams Deely lovingly presents the Saint’s affirmation of the irreplaceable role of women in the Church and society. With freshness and originality she opens the reader to the radical body of work that comprises Pope St. John Paul II’s theology of women.”

Father Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD, writes: “In an enlightening summary of the feminist movement, Brooke Williams Deely points out how Pope John Paul II took a transcendental turn to mystical contemplation — the highest level of knowledge irreducible merely to being a human male or a human female.”

Also, Curtis Hancock of Rockhurst University says Pope John Paul II Speaks on Women is “a significant contribution to scholarship about John Paul II and about the study of women” and that it “makes a cumulative-case argument for John Paul II’s Christian personalist philosophy of women.”

Intrigued by all this, I decided to interview Brooke Williams Deely for Catholic World Report about her new book.

Christopher S. Morrissey: Brooke, in this volume, you have compiled a chronological collection of the “most representative texts” of Pope Saint John Paul II’s teaching on the subject of women. Presumably the Internet could make all these resources available, even if scattered all over and not conveniently collected together. But surely that wasn’t your main reason for doing this book? How did you come up with the idea?

Brooke Williams Deely: My idea for this book originated in my correspondence in 2004 with the theologian Rev. Richard Schaefer, Censor Deputatus for the Archbishop of Dubuque, Iowa. He sent me some key documents of Pope John Paul II’s on women that astounded me, as a historian of women’s studies since 1973.

Although I had been steeped in Catholic thought, especially as a recognized scholar of Jacques Maritain, I had become Catholic in 1994 not because of Catholic intellectual tradition but because of its contemplative tradition, which transcends both patriarchy and feminism.

I well understood, as a historian, how medieval texts on women had inherited from Aristotle a mistaken biology wherein woman, per se, was deemed less rational, in general, than man, who was the measure, in embodiment, of a perfect human being and therefore more in control of his sense appetites. Hence man need rule over woman.

Morrissey: Fair enough, but someone like Saint Thomas Aquinas is remarkable for his opposition to the false view of Aristotelian biology that “woman is a defective male.” Does Aquinas say that woman is misbegotten? On the contrary, Aquinas denies it no fewer than six times. I like to point out to my students that Aquinas was an intelligent and critical reader of Aristotle, by no means a slave to Aristotelian presuppositions. Still, while he was better than most in his day, on this question, he was still not quite good enough.

Deely: I point out in my introduction that according to Aquinas the highest degree of knowledge is the supra-rational mode of knowing through love, which does indeed transcend gender. Yet, according to so great a Thomist as Maritain, Aquinas himself thought he had to incorporate some presuppositions, traceable to Aristotle, as so deeply ingrained in his day. These presuppositions became challenged in modern times. I found that in the 1990s some Thomists in the Catholic world defended any sex-polarity texts in Aquinas with all their might or dismissed them as non-problematic, rather than admit any error, traceable to Aristotle, in defining the nature of woman.

I had many disputations on this question with my great friend Benedict Ashley, OP, who had taught at the John Paul II Institute on Marriage and the Family. He defended the medieval texts in question no matter what my objection. I kept pursuing the question, even though I am no Latin scholar.

Morrissey: Like your husband, John, my colleague, I too count Father Ashley, of happy memory, as one of my great mentors. I think Ashley’s book, Justice in the Church: Gender and Participation, is still a great resource, along with his article “Gender and the Priesthood of Christ: A Theological Reflection” in The Thomist. But I am no specialist in these matters, and I can appreciate the historical critiques of those who are, like Sister Prudence Allen with her famous multi-volume study, The Concept of Woman. Where did your own studies eventually lead you?

Deely: First of all I closely studied Sister Prudence’s opus. Then, in 2004, our university was in the midst of considering establishing a women’s studies program when Father Schaefer sent me, as I said, some key writings on women by Pope John Paul II.

I had expected more of the same [defense of medieval texts]. I could hardly believe my eyes. Nowhere did the Pope defend these presuppositions. He simply took a new point of departure, steeped in the Catholic contemplative tradition, which overcame this impasse.

I wrote to Father Ashley of my new discovery! Father Ashley would not budge, with many exchanges of messages, until one day I guess he gave up on me. He said, lovingly (as always with his disputations), that I was right—that the Pope did take an original stance on this question. So he advised me to “just listen to the Pope.”

Morrissey: You refer to the University of St. Thomas. The president of your university from 1997 to 2003 was J. Michael Miller, who is now the archbishop here in Vancouver, British Columbia. I notice your new book has an endorsement from him. Did John Paul II’s reflections on women play any sort of role in the effort to establish a women’s studies program at your university?

Deely: Yes indeed: the key role. It became apparent to me, and to our university, that founding a women’s studies program at the University of St. Thomas, with the teaching of John Paul II on women as our inspiration for advancing discourse, was moving in a forward direction.

When I later became director of the new program, I saw the need for a spiral-bound copy of this pope’s teachings on women, for our own use. That need, in turn, pointed to the pressing need at large for a comprehensive book on this pope’s historic teachings on women.

Morrissey: Is John Paul II’s contribution really that revolutionary? Or are you exaggerating simply because you find his writings especially useful for your purposes?

Deely: Did he really say “this” or “that” that is new? And in what context? Read the book! [laughs]

I remember, for example, that at one point Father Schaefer had said to me I’d better not claim the Pope himself had used a certain expression, which I had remembered reading five years earlier—but where?

Now, as editor of this book, with his full writings in one file, I pushed “search” and in several seconds confirmed that I had remembered correctly. Father Schaefer replied, “I hadn’t realized the Pope had gone that far—you can claim that.”

Morrissey: Did Archbishop Miller play any role in this book project?

Deely: From the beginning I had informed Archbishop Michael Miller about my undertaking to do this book, as the director of the Women, Culture, and Society Program at this university. I had asked him whom to contact for Vatican permission to publish, since John Paul II had called this theologian [Miller] to the Vatican and made him an archbishop in order that he address Catholic education worldwide.

Morrissey: I believe [Archbishop Miller] served as secretary of the Congregation for Catholic Education, as a senior official of the Roman Curia, from 2003 to 2007.

Deely: I first knew Archbishop Miller before he was called to the Vatican for this purpose, since he was then our university president. He was familiar with my work as a Maritain scholar and as a professor who taught in the Honors Program and also women’s studies for the Philosophy Department. 

He himself had no direct involvement in the production of this book. In the recent marketing stage, CUA requested a blurb from him and provided an electronic copy of the book for this purpose. So he had access to the book as a whole, which includes, of course, my introduction contextualizing the historical significance of John Paul II’s teaching on women in the future shaping of culture at large, both within and beyond the Catholic world. 

Morrissey: Your book has received some great endorsements. It seems the significance of this book is that it finally presents in a unified way the teaching of a figure of central historical importance on a key question of our age. Why did it take so long for this book to finally come about? I imagine because it is hard to appreciate and comprehend in the short-term John Paul II’s long-term historical significance on this question. Does the book contain any materials written uniquely by you that that will help the reader come to see this significance?

Deely: I hope my introduction does just that, as well as two shorter introductions to two key readings, one co-authored by Rev. Edward Baenziger, CSB, a former director of our Women, Culture, and Society Program. The endnotes include [references to] my published essays on a developing new paradigm that transcends patriarchy and feminism as sign systems. Such a development is now coming to the fore in the philosophical tradition of semiotics, which is grounded historically in the Latin age.

Since John Paul II himself encouraged women and men to expand what he has adumbrated, this book facilitates ongoing dialogue across disciplines and cultures in developing feminist tradition, Catholic tradition, and global culture.

Besides the handy assembling of encyclicals, apostolic letters, and public remarks, this book includes a preface, a general introduction, and specific introductions to key texts. Intrinsically interdisciplinary, this collection is ideal for classroom use. The collection is also suitable for the general public, and for anyone who wants to deepen appreciation of John Paul II as a person, saint, thinker, cultural critic, and world leader.

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About Christopher S. Morrissey 34 Articles
Christopher S. Morrissey teaches Greek and Latin on the Faculty of Philosophy at the Seminary of Christ the King located at Westminster Abbey in Mission, BC. He also lectures in logic and philosophy at Trinity Western University. He studied Ancient Greek and Latin at the University of British Columbia and has taught classical mythology, history, and ancient languages at Simon Fraser University, where he wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on René Girard. He is a managing editor of The American Journal of Semiotics. His poetry book, Hesiod: Theogony / Works and Days, is published by Talonbooks.