The Vatican has published a document designed to address "distortions" generated by radical feminism.
The Pope approved publication of the document
The document, approved by the Pope, says feminism has "inspired ideologies" that view men and women as enemies, and question family and marriage.
But the Pope has also called for more respect for working women, and taken a first step towards breaking the male hold on the Vatican bureaucracy.
Feminists have condemned the document as a step backwards.
The new document is a letter to Roman Catholic bishops entitled On the collaboration of men and women in the Church and the World.
It was signed by German cardinal Joseph Ratzinger - seen by some as a possible future Pope - and approved by John Paul II.
The BBC's David Willey in Rome says the document is an attempt by the Vatican to define the place of women in the Church and in the modern world.
It reaffirms the Church's opposition to gay marriage and trends in gender studies that obscure the difference between the sexes.
The letter says there is now a tendency to see women as opposed to men, and sex relegated to no more than a physical difference.
It says feminism's view of equality has inspired ideologies which "call into question the family, in its natural two-parent structure of mother and father, and to make homosexuality and heterosexuality virtually equivalent".
Women should not be stigmatised if they do not have a job, the document says.
But it adds that those who choose to work outside the home should not be forced to "choose between relinquishing family life or enduring continual stress".
The Vatican document supports a greater role for women in the governance of the Church - but without giving an inch on a relaxation of the ban on women priests.
As a token of this, an Italian nun has just been given a job for the first time at a senior level inside the Vatican's own foreign ministry.
Our correspondent says that like most Vatican documents, this letter is open to varying interpretations - although its basic theme uncompromisingly states what the Church views as basic differences between men and women.
Angela Phillips, a lecturer at London's Goldsmiths College says the condemnation of feminism "seems to be a worrying step back to a religious fundamentalism."
"Social changes are uncomfortable for people who are part of structures of a previous society, and so they try to maintain the status quo that women have fought against," she says.
Erin Pizzey, founder of the international women's refuge movement, told BBC News Online: "I don't think the Catholic Church - whose own priests and bishops cannot marry - is in a position to make such statements.
"It is one of the most emotionally illiterate organisations I know, and they need to put their own house in order first."