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Rome conference offers ‘new’ feminism

NCR Staff

At a Legionaries of Christ conference in Rome designed to promote a “new feminism,” the content of the new feminism seemed less clear than the diagnosis of what went wrong with the old.

A roster of high-profile speakers, including two princesses, a former Norwegian secretary of state, and a Polish psychiatrist who is among the pope’s closest female friends, blamed feminism and the modern women’s rights movement for a host of alleged ills:

  • An insistence that sexual identity is a matter of choice rather than nature, leading, among other things, to demands for homosexual marriage and adoption rights for homosexuals;
  • An abandonment of the idea that there are essentially female qualities, producing a devaluation of motherhood;
  • A focus on “women’s rights” at the expense of human rights, leading not only to abortion but also to artificial reproduction outside the traditional family structure. The latter was described as a violation of human rights because, some speakers asserted, every human being has a right to be born from heterosexual intercourse within marriage.

Among the more startling claims were that some strains of feminist thought could lead to the extinction of the male half of the species, and that scientific research demonstrates that many of “the worst figures in history” came from single parent families.

The May 22 and 23 conference took place at Regina Apostolorum college on the outskirts of Rome. Founded in 1993, the college is run by the Legionaries of Christ, an international religious community that forms part of a conservative resurgence inside Catholicism under John Paul II.

As such, the gathering aired views that both reflect and help to shape papal thinking on issues of family, gender and sexuality.

The goal was to propose a “new feminism” reflecting traditional Catholic teaching on marriage and the family. Along the way, speakers also dished out harsh criticism of “classic feminism” as it took shape after the sexual revolution of the 1960s.

“I have never been interested in feminism, which I think of as a left-wing project of militant women,” said Janne Haaland Matlary, professor at the University of Oslo in Norway and a former secretary of state.

Matlary is also a consultor of the Pontifical Council for the Family.

Some critiques warned of dire consequences from extreme versions of feminism. Laura Pallazzani, who teaches at a Roman university, said there is a “narcissistic fantasy” at the heart of some feminist thinking on artificial reproduction.

“The dream is an ability to reproduce one’s self without the need of any masculine material, using the genetic patrimony of the woman herself and her own ovular cells,” she said.

Though stressing that this is not now realistic, Pallazzani warned that “it could lead to the total extinction of the masculine part of the species.”

A claim repeatedly made was that Christian teaching about a two-parent heterosexual family is not just a social convention but a truth of human nature. The most sweeping form of the argument came from Venezuelan pro-family activist Alberto Vollmer.

“We know that fatherless children are more violent, that their grades in school are worse, that they suffer more illness and have a greater inclination to homosexuality,” he said.

Vollmer referred to a Swiss study that he said proves the “worst figures in history” lacked a strong male role model. He cited Stalin as an example.

Several speakers stressed motherhood as the key to female identity. “For a woman, psychological maturity does not mean just responsibility, but also a motherly attitude toward one’s neighbor and toward the world,” said Wanda Poltawska, a Polish psychiatrist and close friend of John Paul II.

It was Poltawska for whom a young Bishop Karol Wojtyla asked Italian mystic Padre Pio to pray in 1962. Poltawska was then suffering from what was diagnosed as terminal cancer. It was believed that Pope John Paul II returned the favor for Padre Pio’s intervention when in May 1999 he beatified him.

Poltawska said that Western culture makes it difficult for a mothering attitude to emerge. “The girl starts life in the midst of sin, adultery and infanticide,” she said, “and cynicism grows.”

Poltawska lauded John Paul’s teaching on the sanctity of women, confiding that he “suffers” from the prevalence of pornography in the world. Speaking of the pope’s concept of “decency,” she said the pope regards nudity as a “great gift,” but only in the context of total love, explaining that “only true love has the capacity to absorb the shame of human nature.”

Several speakers insisted on the existence of specifically feminine virtues. Italian Bishop Alessandro Maggiolini, who frequently appears in the media and was a member of the editorial commission for the universal Catholic catechism, offered one description of the “female genius.”

“The logic of giving, of disinterest, and of grace,” is part of that genius, he said. “The woman has a singular predisposition to the taste for beauty in its various forms.”

Maggiolini also said the “care of persons” is “above all the proper function of woman.”

The lone American to speak was Enola Aird, a Protestant who runs an organization called “the Motherhood Project” in New York. She is the author of Militant Mothering.

Aird thanked the conference for proposing a “new feminism” that places “emphasis on the dignity inherent in giving one’s self to others, and its commitment to supporting the work of mothering.”

The two princesses were Ketevane Orsini-Aragona of Georgia and Francesca von Hapsburg from Austria. Orsini-Aragona told NCR that despite her regal status, she is a “normal person … very aware of what’s going on.”

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, June 1, 2001