John Paul, the United Nations and the Death of Feminism

Mary Ann Glendon has held four prominent Vatican positions.

A law professor at Harvard University, Glendon is a member of the Pontifical Council for the Laity and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. She headed the Holy See delegation to the 1995 U.N. Conference on Women in Beijing. And in February 2004, Pope John Paul II named her president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences.

Glendon spoke to Register correspondent Joan Lewis, who was also a delegate to Beijing, during the recent plenary session of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, held in the Academy’s headquarters in the beautiful and historic Casina Pio IV in the Vatican Gardens.

If we may start with your work as head of the delegation to the Beijing conference on women, what was the most challenging aspect of that job?

It seems to me, with the benefit of hindsight, that we were witnessing in Beijing, as in the previous year in Cairo, the “flaming out” of two phenomena that became especially intense as they reached their end point. The first is old-style feminism, and the second is aggressive, full-bore population control. Cairo and Beijing were the efforts of these movements to capture the prestige and legitimacy of the post-World War II human rights project for their agenda.

I say “flaming out” because I think everybody is beginning to understand now that the population problem that the world faces today is an aging population, even in the developing countries but especially in Europe and North America. So the premises on which the population control movements were operating just turned out to be extremely wrong. And, of course in Beijing, you had the same forces, basically population controllers, who were not interested in women but just in controlling women’s reproductive capacity. They were very anti-poor, basically the very same forces combined with the last gasp of the old feminism of the 1970s.

One of the striking things at the Beijing conference was the age of the participants. Young women were not represented there. The Holy See delegation was perhaps the most diverse delegation at the Beijing conference. This was one of the few delegations who really spoke up for the majority of the women in the world, women whose idea of feminism includes supporting the role of motherhood. The 22 members of the Holy See delegation were conversant in nine languages. Unlike any other delegation, we could thus reach out to — talk to and listen to — a great percentage of the other delegations present.

That is so true. We had an incredible set of resources. Of course it was frustrating for us that many of the delegations from developing countries were using position papers drafted in London and New York. They were allowing themselves to be used by population-control forces that did not have the interests of women in those countries at heart.

There is one other thing about Beijing and Cairo we now understand. They not only marked a turning point for feminism and population control, they also marked a turning point in the history of the United Nations. The era of the big international conferences is over. Even within the United Nations, it was understood that these conferences were not helpful. It is clear those problems of great complexity — equality, development, peace, women’s rights — cannot be addressed in any effective way in a huge international conference.

You are the first woman to head the Academy of Social Sciences. You were appointed by Pope John Paul II, who often wrote about what he called “the feminine genius.” How would you summarize his view on this?

I can answer that very briefly because he threw the ball back into our court. I think this is so interesting about John Paul II, who was viewed by many of his critics as authoritarian and as being unenlightened about women. In fact, he was so honest in what he’d say: There still is a lot we don’t know about what is innate, about what is cultural in the relationships between men and women. He spoke of his view about the denial of dignity of women in the past. But when it came to feminine genius, he said — and I think this is in his Apostolic Letter to Women — “It is up to you, women.”

In fact, a collection of John Paul’s wonderful writings to, for and about women can be found in a booklet issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called The Genius of Women.

Not only did Pope John Paul name you academy president, he founded the academy in 1994. In your view, what were his greatest contributions to the area of social sciences? What difference has this made to the world?

As you know, John Paul II was a great philosopher. He wasn’t a social scientist but what he did for the social sciences was to counter tendencies throughout the 20th century that made the social sciences carriers, maybe even the principal carriers, of what Pope Benedict is now calling “the dictatorship of relativism.” I have to say that the social sciences have contributed more than their share to the idea that one point of view is as good as another, that there is no such thing as absolute truth, that nobody can be really objective. All these attitudes can paralyze projects in these very promising fields — economics, sociology, law and political theory.

So John Paul II’s contribution to the social sciences came through philosophy, through his two great encyclicals, Fides et Ratio and Veritatis Splendor. Fides et Ratio surprised the world, which had gotten used to thinking of religion as something different from reason and of the Catholic Church as perhaps not as friendly to reason as she actually is. He reaffirmed what has been our position from the very beginning, that reason is a gift of God and it is given to us to enable us to pursue knowledge of the world, the wonders of creation, in every possible way. He always said to us: “Be not afraid to pursue the truth.”

With Veritatis Splendor we have the idea that there is truth. Of course, we see truth as “through a glass darkly” — St. Paul — but, to the extent that we possess some fragment of the truth, whatever it is that we see, we have an obligation to explain that truth to others. And because we have only a part of the truth, we have an obligation to listen to what the other person says. So it is a wonderful view of creative collaboration among the social sciences and between the social sciences and philosophy.

On a very practical level, by founding this academy, Pope John Paul committed himself to a sustained, formalized collaboration between the Magisterium and the state and the arts and various disciplines.

Nov. 21 was an important day for academy members: Pope Benedict paid a visit and spoke to you. Later that afternoon, Hans Zacher, head of the academy’s Democracy Project, and you presented a book entitled Democracy in Debate: The Contribution of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. What most struck you about Pope Benedict’s visit and his address?

We academicians were enormously honored that Pope Benedict chose the Casina Pio IV for his first official visit to a department of the Vatican. It is my impression that the fact of the visit, plus his generous words of approval and encouragement concerning our work, have filled the members with new enthusiasm for what he termed “a fruitful interchange between the Church’s teaching on the human person and the [natural] and social sciences.”

What is the theme of the book? Is the very idea of democracy being debated? Can we ask if democracy today is all that it is cracked up to be? Can democracy work in countries like Iraq?

The democracy volume is the academy’s final report on several years of studies in that area, conducted under the direction of a brilliant scholar, Hans Zacher, former president of Germany’s famed Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science. It approaches democracy as a complex, ongoing experiment, and begins with a focus on the tension between the tendency to see intellectual relativism as a corollary to democracy and the conviction as expressed in Centesimus Annus that, “if there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power.” The report then turns to the much-debated relationship between democracy and values, providing much support for the Church’s view that “a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism,” but suggesting that democracy may well offer the greatest possible opportunity for Christians and others to live their values in freedom.

One of the book’s significant contributions, I believe, is in strengthening the case for the proposition that successful democratic institutions depend upon what George Weigel has called “a public moral culture that celebrates freedom for excellence rather than freedom as license.” Nor have we failed to touch upon one of the most delicate questions for Catholics: the issue of democracy within the Church. One of the great merits of our democracy project, in my view, is its reminder that democracy is a political principle, not a guide for all social behavior. The democratic model does not afford a blueprint for all social institutions. Nevertheless, many values inherent in that model do have broad applicability, as emphasized by Pope John Paul II when he reminded a group of U.S. bishops in 2004 that, “[A] commitment to creating better structures of participation, consultation and shared responsibility should not be misunderstood as a concession to a secular ‘democratic’ model of governance, but an intrinsic requirement of the exercise of episcopal authority and a necessary means of strengthening that authority.”

Joan Lewis

writes from Rome.