Chicago. -- Pope John Paul II has just issued a statement praising women. They are equal to men after all, though very unlike them. Their special role is nurturing and caring. They humanize the modern world, not submitting to its pressures for "efficiency and productivity."
I am reminded of the efforts of Southern politicians like Strom Thurmond to say why they have always believed in the equality of blacks and whites. It is just that blacks and whites are different. Blacks, too, are not driven to efficiency and productivity. That is why it was better to let them enjoy their prior happy indolence. These Southern politicians were not trying to keep blacks down when they voted to uphold segregation; they were just recognizing blacks' "separate genius."
Senator Thurmond made his late protestations of belief in equality (as he defined it) only after he saw that he would depend on some black votes.
The pope is in a similar position. Women make up a church constituency whose demands will not go away.
He tries to soften those demands by buttering up women in their nurturing role, while rejecting all such nurturing claims when it comes to ordination as priests.
The pope continues to give his absurd reason for this exclusion -- that the first Christian disciples were male.
They were also married, according to the custom of the times, but the pope has no trouble recognizing that such social norms do not go to the essence of the priesthood.
The real reason for the exclusion of women from ordination used to be stated openly. The pope cannot get away with saying, any longer, what St. Thomas Aquinas said in his "Theological Summary" (Supplement, Question 39), that the priesthood is a ruling and eminent position, and women are by nature dependent and to be ruled.
"Therefore it is impossible that any exalted position can be exemplified by the female sex, since woman holds a position of subordination. That is why she cannot receive ordination."
St. Thomas accepted the arguments Aristotle had made for considering women to be "imperfect men." Man's active principle was blunted during woman's formation, and now she is passive. That is why in generation she just receives the seed, like earth being sown. This idea lies behind all the sweet talk about women's nurturing and preserving quality, their opposition to efficiency and productivity.
The biology of Aristotle has been discredited, but the deep sense that woman is inferior perdures. It comes out when the pope deals with things he truly reveres, like the priesthood.
I am reminded of my grandmother, a tough and loving person I learned a great deal from, but a Southerner, born in the last century, whose views on race were in the grain, not to be altered. She left church once without going to communion. I asked why. The priest was black. I said that she had taken food from black cooks and maids all her life. But it was not that. She could not accept a black in any position she deeply respected.
The pope would understand that. Those are just his feelings about women when they come forward as priests.
Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.