MAXWELL:  Pope’s view of women knocks him off pedestal

11/27/1994 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


I went off to college in 1963 believing that knowledge nearly always produces wisdom _ the ability to choose the soundest course of action. Then I took a poetry course featuring the works of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Nothing was the same after that. At first, few things intrigued me more than the symbols and allusions Eliot uses to capture J. Alfred Prufrock’s spiritual trauma. Nothing was more intellectually challenging than trying to decipher one of Pound’s dense, Latinate cantos. Imagine my astonishment when the professor revealed that these two great poets hated blacks and Jews. Pound had even supported Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. How could these brilliant men hate their fellow humans so passionately? I thought. Later, in a journalism course, I was shocked to learn that H.L. Mencken, the Baltimore Sun essayist whose work we were studying, also despised blacks and Jews.

By the junior year, I had been disabused of my blind faith in the power of knowledge to lead us from the cave. And now, at age 49, I am still obsessed with the overriding question: What causes so many learned people, especially the icons of civilization past and present, to succumb to the base sentiments and emotions we routinely attribute to the uneducated and the ignorant?

On a lesser scale, why do so many influential thinkers, like Charles Murray of The Bell Curve fame, use their knowledge to perpetuate harmful myths and stereotypes? Why do other smart people, like House Speaker-to-be Newt Gingrich, a former university professor with a doctorate in history, use their knowledge to diminish innocent people and warp the truth? Why would Gingrich, for example, offer mandatory prayer in public schools as the enlightened solution to the complex problem of America’s deficit of values? Such simple-minded thinking is deeply flawed and often dangerous.

But no contemporary intellectual disappoints me more than Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II.

I have just finished his most recent book of essays, Crossing the Threshold of Hope. From the first page, the pope, a trained philosopher and a former university professor, reveals a brilliant mind. And his facility in highlighting the philosophies of Decartes, Feuerbach, Kant, Wittgenstein and others places him among the world’s first-rate scholars. His vast knowledge of the documents of the Second Vatican Council gives even non-Catholics a better sense of the Roman Catholic Church’s mission to reinvigorate its spirituality and establish its proper place in our chaotic, modern world.

One of the most striking features of the book is the pope’s objective discussions of other religions and beliefs. His views affirm his ecumenical quest, portraying him as a progressive leader determined to bring humankind and the divine into an intimate relationship, one that will dignify our earthly existence. I am impressed with his respect for the “religiosity” of Muslims and his assessment of Jews “as (Catholics’) elder brothers in faith.” He even compares ancestor worship with the Christian concept of the Communion of Saints. And I was surprised when he did not denounce Cardinal Hans Urs Von Baltassar’s position on universal salvation.

But nothing in the book prepared me for John Paul II’s flawed thinking on the family, on married sexuality in general and on women in particular. If I had remembered the Holy See’s positions at the recent International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, however, I would have been ready for the pope’s gruff dismissal of women, his rejection of them as serious participants in the church’s hierarchy. Even worse, he does not see women as the keepers of their own bodies. He does not see them as adults with authority to make decisions on sexuality and reproduction. To John Paul II, women who use birth control are as guilty as abortionists.

The pope insists on what he calls “responsible parenthood,” an unconvincing concept that requires women to conceive for as long as their bodies can hold out. And, yet, John Paul II offers no substantive way for the Roman Catholic Church itself to resolve the economic crises his concept of parenthood causes. If the pope makes “responsible parenthood” infallible, as many are certain he will, he has the moral obligation to provide an infallible, church-centered solution.

The Rev. Diarmuid Martin, who headed the Holy See’s delegation in Cairo, expressed the pope’s laudable but unrealistic solution: “Wealthy states must realize that it is only by helping poor countries raise their living standards that they will solve the population problem, not by forcing them to adopt Western attitudes toward abortion and contraception.”

Obviously, I still expect too much of intellectuals. I do not understand what makes this brilliant man not see that the best answer to population lies with individual women who must be empowered to make practical choices. No, I am not talking about abortion. Like the pope, I believe that economic development, education and health care must anchor all efforts to control population. But the pope’s concept of “responsible parenthood,” if it is to become viable in the real world, also must include responsible birth control.

I do not understand what blinds the pope to women’s equal status in civilization nor what makes him think that feminism is grounded “in the absence of true respect for women.”

Why is his essay on women only a page and a half _ the shortest one in the book? Is the otherwise brilliant pontiff a contemporary victim of the inerrancy of ancient Scriptures and church dogma? Can the pope reunite humankind with what he calls “the Last Things,” the innocence, the respect for life and the love for others that make daily existence worthwhile?

I do not think so because, to him, women do not merit the right to cross the threshold of hope he envisions. Such intellectual rigor mortis is compromising the legitimacy of his leadership and debasing his claim to moral authority. In short, Karol Wojtyla’s view of women is pernicious _ proving that knowledge does not necessarily produce wisdom.

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.

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