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Women in Magisterial Documents

Women in Magisterial Documents

Magisterial Documents on Women


The concern about women has emerged with exigency in the last century. As a matter of fact we can say that from the latter part of the nineteenth century on, significant changes within Western society influenced the Church’s teaching on women. In particular the feminist movements, social science research on the nature of sex and gender, the pressure from women to fully participate in Church ministry and theological formation, prompted a response from the Magisterium.

An evaluation of these teachings shows a progression from an initial defensive view towards a positive appreciation of womanhood in all spheres of life.

Leo XIII – Pius XII (1878 – 1958)

With the growing tendency of women to be committed to jobs outside the home for various reasons including personal fulfillment, the popes generally warned that this novelty would have detrimental repercussions on family life.

For example in Rerum novarum(1891) Pope Leo XIII stressed:

Women, again, are not suited to certain trades; for a woman is by nature fitting for home work, and it is that which is best adapted at once to preserve her modesty, and to promote the good bringing up of children and the well-being of the family. (33)

As for the marriage relationship Leo XIII insists that

The husband is the chief of the family and the head of the wife. The woman, because she is flesh of his flesh, and bone of his bone, must be subject to her husband and obey him; not, indeed, as a servant, but as a companion, so that her obedience shall be wanting in neither honor nor dignity. Since the husband represents Christ, and since the wife represents the Church, let there always be, both in him who commands and in her who obeys, a heaven-born love guiding both in their respective duties. For "the husband is the head of the wife; as Christ is the head of the Church. . . Therefore, as the Church is subject to Christ, so also let wives be to their husbands in all things." (Encyclical Letter Arcanum divinae2 of February 10,1880, 18)

Forty years later Pius XI speaks out on the issue of ‘family wages’, which would

support him and his family. … Mothers, concentrating on household duties, should work primarily in the home or in its immediate vicinity. It is an intolerable abuse, and to be abolished at all cost, for mothers on account of the father's low wage to be forced to engage in gainful occupations outside the home to the neglect of their proper cares and duties, especially the training of children. Every effort must therefore be made that fathers of families receive a wage large enough to meet ordinary family needs adequately. (Quadragesimo Anno3 May 15, 1931, 71)

Pius XI considered it to be women’s priority to engage in social work agreeable with church concerns. Issues to be striven for were among others: fostering the catholic education of girls, stressing modesty and restoring healthy family life. At the same time women who engaged in this noble task were seriously reminded not to neglect their own responsibilities at home, above all, the raising of their own children.

In his encyclical letter Casti connubii of December 31, 1930 he distinguishes between equality of man and woman and polarity between the two sexes.

This, however, is not the true emancipation of woman, nor that rational and exalted liberty which belongs to the noble office of a Christian woman and wife; it is rather the debasing of the womanly character and the dignity of motherhood, and indeed of the whole family, as a result of which the husband suffers the loss of his wife, the children of their mother, and the home and the whole family of an ever watchful guardian. More than this, this false liberty and unnatural equality with the husband is to the detriment of the woman herself, for if the woman descends from her truly regal throne to which she has been raised within the walls of the home by means of the Gospel, she will soon be reduced to the old state of slavery (if not in appearance, certainly in reality) and become as amongst the pagans the mere instrument of man.

This equality of rights which is so much exaggerated and distorted, must indeed be recognized in those rights which belong to the dignity of the human soul and which are proper to the marriage contract and inseparably bound up with wedlock. In such things undoubtedly both parties enjoy the same rights and are bound by the same obligations; in other things there must be a certain inequality and due accommodation, which is demanded by the good of the family and the right ordering and unity and stability of home life.4 (75f)

And in his encyclical letter Divini Redemptoris5 (March 19, 1937) on atheistic communism the pontiff describes the consequences of a wrongly understood women’s emancipation:

Communism is particularly characterized by the rejection of any link that binds woman to the family and the home, and her emancipation is proclaimed as a basic principle. She is withdrawn from the family and the care of her children, to be thrust instead into public life and collective production under the same conditions as man. The care of home and children then devolves upon the collectivity. Finally, the right of education is denied to parents, for it is conceived as the exclusive prerogative of the community, in whose name and by whose mandate alone parents may exercise this right.

12. What would be the condition of a human society based on such materialistic tenets? It would be a collectivity with no other hierarchy than that of the economic system. It would have only one mission: the production of material things by means of collective labor, so that the goods of this world might be enjoyed in a paradise where each would "give according to his powers" and would "receive according to his needs." Communism recognizes in the collectivity the right, or rather, unlimited discretion, to draft individuals for the labor of the collectivity with no regard for their personal welfare; so that even violence could be legitimately exercised to dragoon the recalcitrant against their wills. In the Communistic commonwealth morality and law would be nothing but a derivation of the existing economic order, purely earthly in origin and unstable in character. In a word. the Communists claim to inaugurate a new era and a new civilization which is the result of blind evolutionary forces culminating in a humanity without God.

Most importantly, all pontiffs of this era stress that the image of woman can only be correctly understood in view of God’s design for humanity. For example, Pius XII exhorts:

So we have an absolute equality in personal and fundamental values, but different functions which are complementary and superbly equivalent, and from them arise the various rights and duties of the one and the other.6

When Western democracies adopted the suffrage of women into law, the magisterium eventually accepted women’s political involvement always stressing that normally women’s vocation will be best fulfilled in marriage and motherhood. However:

Regardless of her state in life, every woman is meant to be a mother: a mother in the physical meaning of the word or in the more spiritual and exalted but no less real sense.7

Pius XII also vehemently reminded all faithful of the call to consecrated virginity of vowed women religious – it was he who published Provida Mater Ecclesia8 (February 2, 1947) providing for the state of consecrated life within the world. He also validated the status of single women and encouraged these women to choose careers, which would enhance their feminine and motherly qualities.

The Popes of Vatican II and Post Conciliar Teachings (1958 – 1978)


With the pontificate of John XXIII the church entered into a phase of ‘reading the signs of the times’. This impacted also the magisterial view of women. In Pacem in terris9 of April 11, 1963, John XXIII states:

the part that women are now playing in political life is everywhere evident. This is a development that is perhaps of swifter growth among Christian nations, but it is also happening extensively, if more slowly, among nations that are heirs to different traditions and imbued with different cultures. Women are gaining an increasing awareness of their natural dignity. Far from being content with a purely passive role or allowing themselves to be regarded as a kind of instrument, they are demanding ,both in domestic and in public life, the rights and duties which belong to them as human persons.(41)

Two years later in the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes10 the Council Fathers affirm:

Women claim for themselves an equity with men before the law and in fact.(9).

Still, papal teachings warned that women’s participation in the world must be cohesive to her calling and should not detract her from her indispensable role at home. At the closing of the Council, Paul VI encouraged women

To use her growing influence to help restrain the hand of man, who might destroy civilization through technology.

Six years later Paul VI in Octogesima adveniens11 on May 14, 1971 reminds women not to pursue

false equality which would deny the distinction with woman's proper role, which is of such capital importance, at the heart of the family as well as within society. Developments in legislation should on the contrary be directed to protecting her proper vocation and at the same time recognizing her independence as a person, and her equal rights to participate in cultural, economic, social and political life. (Octogesima adveniens, 13)

In 1976 the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith published Inter insignores12 which stresses the equal dignity of men and women but at the same time it insists that the church does not have the authority to permit women to holy orders. (cf. 24-28)

John Paul II (1978 - 2005)

The pontificate of John Paul II is marked by a strong personalist view, which includes much concern for the correct understanding of the vocation and mission of women in the present world.

In Laborem exercens13 (September 14, 1981) John Paul II writes in support of women’s legitimate aspirations and calls for a ‘social re-evaluation’ of how their irreplaceable role in child rearing can be brought into harmony with work outside the home.

Having to abandon these tasks in order to take up paid work outside the home is wrong from the point of view of the good of society and of the family when it contradicts or hinders these primary goals of the mission of a mother.14

With the publication of the Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem15 of August 15, 1988, we have for the first time in history a papal teaching on women. Written for the closing of the Marian Year 1987/88 the pontiff meditates on the fact that the role of women can only be comprehensively evaluated in terms of their essential dignity and vocation. This in turn must be discussed in terms of their anthropological and theological foundation for which the Blessed Virgin Mary is the norm-giving model. In particular, the Holy Father reflects on

  • The dignity and vocation of women
  • Woman--Mother of God (Theotokos)
  • The Image and Likeness of God
  • Eve--Mary
  • Jesus and Christ and his relationship to the women in the Gospels
  • Motherhood--Virginity
  • The Church--The Bride of Christ.

Reiterating the authoritative teaching of Inter insignores, John Paul II in his Apostolic Letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis16 of May 22, 1994 concludes the debate of women’s ordination:

Although the teaching that priestly ordination is to be reserved to men alone has been preserved by the constant and universal Tradition of the Church and firmly taught by the Magisterium in its more recent documents, at the present time in some places it is nonetheless considered still open to debate, or the Church's judgment that women are not to be admitted to ordination is considered to have a merely disciplinary force.

Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church's divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32), I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful.(4)






[6] The dignity of woman – Address given by Pius XII on October 14, 1956. In: The Pope Speaks 3, no.4 (Spring 1957).

[7] Pius XII. Woman’s duties in social and political life – October 21, 1945. In: The Catholic Mind 43, no. 43, 996.





[12] Declaration on the Question of Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood October 15, 1976 by Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith -


[14] Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, 67: AAS 58 (1966), p. 1089.



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