July 11, 1995 in Nation/World

Pope Surprises Feminists, Urges Women’s Rights

Los Angeles Times

In a ringing defense of women’s equality that surprised even Catholic feminists, Pope John Paul II on Monday condemned injustices and called for a universal recognition of the dignity of women.

The unprecedented letter to the world’s women called for equal pay for equal work, protection for working mothers, fairness in career advancement, equality for spouses when it comes to family rights, and laws to protect women from sexual violence and exploitation.

But, at the same time, the pope restated the church’s opposition to abortion - even in the case of rape - and to the admission of women to the Roman Catholic priesthood.

Even so, Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice - which opposes the pope’s view on abortion and the ban on women priests - called the letter the pope’s strongest statement ever of solidarity with women and support for their rights.

“That is new to me,” Kissling said in an interview. “I haven’t heard this before.”

The letter also represented the pope’s clearest acceptance of the church’s responsibility for institutional discrimination against women, she said.

The letter, released in Rome on Monday, is being widely viewed as part of a larger diplomatic initiative by the Vatican to influence the agenda at the upcoming United Nations World Conference on Women in Beijing in September.

Contentious policy differences have already marked talks leading up to the conference. Last March, for example, the Vatican and the Chinese government moved separately to silence their critics by asking the United Nations to deny credentials to some groups seeking to attend the meeting. Among the groups the Vatican tried unsuccessfully to keep out was Kissling’s Catholics for a Free Choice, based in Washington.

Decrying the Beijing agenda as “ideologically unbalanced,” the Vatican earlier complained that the word “gender” appears almost 300 times in a conference draft document and that the words “sex,” “sexuality” and “sexual” appear 100 times.

In his letter, the pope called for an effective worldwide campaign “concentrating on all areas of women’s life and beginning with a universal recognition of the dignity of women.”

John Paul apologized for the church’s role in furthering cultural norms that have held women down. “If objective blame, especially in particular historical contexts, has belonged to not just a few members of the church, for this I am truly sorry.”

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