“Sometimes we’re too machista and don’t allow room for the woman” was Pope Francis’ heartfelt response in January to a young Filipino girl who shared with him her harrowing tale of life on the street and questioned the meaning of suffering. “But the woman is able to see things with a different eye than men. Women are able to pose questions that we men are not able to understand,” the Pope continued.

The role of women in the Church is one of Pope Francis’ top concerns. In his April 15 general audience, the Pope said, “There is no doubt that we must do far more to advance women, if we want to give more strength to the reciprocity between man and woman. In fact, it is necessary that woman not only be listened to more, but that her voice carry real weight, a recognized authority in society and in the Church.” He continued, “We have not yet understood in depth what the feminine genius can give us, what woman can give to society and also to us. Maybe women see things in a way that complements the thoughts of men. It is a path to follow with greater creativity and courage.”

In the same vein, on International Women’s Day on March 8, Pope Francis said, “I greet all women: all women who seek every day to build a more human and welcoming society. And a fraternal thank-you also to those who bear witness to the Gospel in a thousand ways and work in the Church. For us, this is an occasion to underline the importance and need for their presence in our lives. A world where women are marginalized is a barren world because women not only give life but they also transmit the ability to see beyond, to see beyond themselves. They transmit the ability to see the world with different eyes, to feel things with a more creative, patient and tender heart.”

Like his predecessors Pope Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II, Pope Francis has put a spotlight on the importance of society and the Church to listen to the voices of women.

For example, Pope Benedict XVI, in 2006, stated in a German radio interview: “I believe in the intellect of women.” For Easter 2012, he said, “Women have experienced a special bond with the Lord, which is crucial for the practical life of the Christian community, and this always, in every age, not only at the beginning of the Church’s pilgrim journey.”

Pope St. John Paul II paved the foundations for the theology of the body, which is replete with explanations of the role of women vis-à-vis men and the Church. In his 1988 apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem (The Dignity and Vocation of Women), he said, “The Church gives thanks for all the manifestations of the feminine ‘genius’ which have appeared in the course of history, in the midst of all peoples and nations; she gives thanks for all the charisms which the Holy Spirit distributes to women in the history of the people of God, for all the victories which she owes to their faith, hope and charity. She gives thanks for all the fruits of feminine holiness.”

St. John Paul II repeated this theme in his 1995 “Letter to Women”:

“In this vast domain of service, the Church’s 2,000-year history, for all its historical conditioning, has truly experienced the ‘genius of woman’; from the heart of the Church there have emerged women of the highest caliber who have left an impressive and beneficial mark in history. ... The life of the Church in the third millennium will certainly not be lacking in new and surprising manifestations of ‘the feminine genius.’”  

The popes remind us that acknowledging the dignity of women goes hand in hand with an acute understanding of and appreciation for sexual difference. Femininity, as such, cannot be understood unless in the context of the complementarity of man and woman. The two need each other. They are different but equal expressions of what it is to be human.

That is why, in the same April 15 general audience where he spoke of the advancement of women, Pope Francis also spoke about the importance of the recognition of sexual difference:

“The difference between man and woman is not meant to stand in opposition, or to subordinate, but is for the sake of communion and generation always in the image and likeness of God. … For example, I ask myself if the so-called gender theory is not at the same time an expression of frustration and resignation, which seeks to cancel out sexual difference because it no longer knows how to confront it. Yes, we risk taking a step backwards. The removal of difference in fact creates a problem, not a solution.”

In his January homily in the Philippines, the Pope called this distortion an ideological colonization “that tries to destroy the family. … The family is also threatened by growing efforts on the part of some to redefine the very institution of marriage.”

His thoughts echo those St. John Paul II expressed in his “Letter to Women”:

“Woman complements man, just as man complements woman: Men and women are complementary. Womanhood expresses the ‘human’ as much as manhood does, but in a different and complementary way.”

A few weeks ago, I attended the Catholic Women’s Symposium co-sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the Catholic Information Center in Washington. Being with some of America’s leading Catholic women was a joy, as well as intellectually rewarding. And the work of the conference is desperately needed to further the thoughts of our recent popes on the role of men and women in society.

Last year’s symposium culminated in a newly published book, Promise and Challenge: Catholic Women Reflect on Feminism, Complementarity and the Church (Our Sunday Visitor, 2015), which directly answers to the exhortations of our past few popes for greater influence and involvement of women in the Church and in society. This year’s symposium aims to produce a similarly thoughtful work.

When we lose sight of the sexual difference and appreciation for the unique but separate gifts of each sex, we are doing society a disservice. Pope St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis are responding to the need for women’s voices and perspectives to be given the attention and weight they deserve — perspectives that matter to the Church and to society as a whole. These perspectives are half of the account of what it means to be human and must be joined to the male account, which has enjoyed much greater representation.

However, we must reject an unbridled feminism that is antagonistic to the genius of man even as we seek to elevate the genius of woman. The perspective of neither sex can be obliterated in the process, as each provides irreplaceable components in understanding the fullness of our shared human experience.

The answer is not in a dangerous gender ideology that seeks to destroy not only the family but also our identity as men and women. Rather, the answer is in embracing our sexual difference while we learn from and collaborate with one another. Both men’s and women’s voices must be heard for the full realization of our mutual humanity, even as the two must remain interdependent as God intended when he made us male and female in his image and likeness.

Arina O. Grossu, M.A., is the director for the Center for Human Dignity

at the Family Research Council, where she focuses on

sanctity-of-human-life issues, ranging from conception to natural death.