VATICAN CITY--If John Paul II had been a conventional politician, political advisers and campaign managers would have tagged educated Western women as his most difficult constituency. The sense of alienation among women with respect to his pontificate was as strong as it was frustrating to defenders of the pope, who say he had a unique appreciation for the "feminine genius."

Flash points included the U.N. Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994 and the World Women's Conference in Beijing in 1995, where the Holy See battled women's groups on abortion.

The sense of alienation grew during the 1990s from debates over "inclusive language"--non-gender specific terminology in Scriptural translations and liturgical texts--as well as repeated Vatican interventions that blocked an effort by the U.S. bishops to produce a pastoral letter on women.

Finally, the 1995 apostolic letter "Ordinatio Sacerdotalis" affirmed that the ban on women's ordination is a matter of divine revelation. While John Paul has argued this teaching is about fidelity and not about power, and that women have separate rather than inferior roles to play in the Church, that line of argument has been unconvincing to many Catholics who think the real concern is maintenance of male domination.

John Paul did move women into positions that don't require ordination. He appointed the first woman as a superior in a Vatican congregation, the first woman to head a papal academy, and the first women to serve on the International Theological Commission (an advisory body for the Vatican's doctrinal agency).

Some Catholic woman believe the pope, with his doctrine of male/female complementarity, his defense of life and of the family, coupled with his fierce devotion to the Virgin Mary, has pointed the way to a more authentic "new feminism."

In 1988, John Paul published an encyclical letter on the dignity of women entitled "Mulieres Dignitatem," which affirms the contemporary women's movement as a positive "sign of the times," though it also warns against the "masculinization" of women.

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