The Indispensable Gifts of Women
Blessed John Paul II’s apostolic letter on the dignity of women, after 25 years, continues to inspire a new feminism
It is not unusual today for women to feel ensnared in a never-ending cycle of second-guessing themselves, their priorities and their value. Whereas career women frequently wonder whether their time away from home and children is worth their family’s second income, homemakers often long for the public recognition of professional careers. Meanwhile, the pervasive poison of pornography deadens society’s reverence for human dignity and beauty; women are urged to turn to contraception and abortion in the name of protection and “choice”; and the voices of radical feminism rise together with the outcries for same-sex “marriage” in a denial of what is uniquely feminine. Through it all, however, millions of women’s hearts whisper as one in the opposite direction: “There must be some particular gift that only I, precisely as woman, can offer the world.”
Amid such personal and societal confusion, the teachings of Blessed John Paul II remain a shining beacon to which an authentic feminism can turn for powerful insight and inspiration. The late pope’s apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem (On The Dignity and Vocation of Women) celebrated its 25th anniversary of publication this year, and with the ongoing expansion of women’s contributions to almost all spheres of society, the document continues to be a groundbreaking source of wisdom.
The Pontifical Council for the Laity invited a renewed, in-depth study of Mulieris Dignitatem and the particular light it has shed on women’s gifts at its recent conference held in Rome Oct. 10-11. Titled “God Entrusts the Human Being to the Woman,” the K of C-supported conference was guided by John Paul II’s affirmation that “the moral and spiritual strength of the woman is joined to her awareness that God entrusts the human being to her in a special way” (MD, 30). According to John Paul II, if women’s gifts are misunderstood, humanity as a whole loses its moorings.
An international assembly of 105 speakers and guests from 24 countries, with representatives from a wide array of professions and positions within the Church, gathered to reflect upon Mulieris Dignitatem in the context of the contemporary challenges facing women. Cardinal Stanislaw Ryłko, president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, exhorted participants in his opening homily to “rediscover and proclaim the beauty of the original plan of God the Creator in creating man male and female” (Gen 1:27).
UNITY AND DIFFERENCE
Msgr. Livio Melina, president of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, delivered the opening keynote address and stated that “the question of woman is … the central question for the destiny of humanity, for it affects the totality of humanity’s relationship with the world, with other human beings, and ultimately with God.” A society without women who know, live and share what John Paul II called their “feminine genius” — their ability to protect and nurture authentic human values — becomes less human, Melina said. It becomes a society in which power, utility and unbridled technology are of preeminent value, rather than the dignity of the human person.
Unfortunately, we are currently living in just such a culture, Melina observed. The distinction between man and woman is often viewed as a mere social construct, and the body itself is treated as mere matter to be manipulated at will. Biotechnology routinely enables abuse of human life during its most vulnerable stages; sexuality is trivialized and reduced to recreation, personal gain or power; and the loss of the sacred sense of the body distorts our understanding of creation itself. The only way to address these crises is to recover a sense of what is properly feminine and masculine.
Vicki Thorn, a U.S. representative at the conference and the founder of Project Rachel, emphasized the importance of a “science-based approach” in teaching the truth about men and women and sexuality to young people. With biology-based facts, Thorn explained, young people are prepared to enter into dialogue with a world prone to reject anything offered from religious sources. She said, in conclusion, “We must be willing to be informed and courageous enough to speak the truth with love, modeling a life where our sexuality is seen as gift from God and our fertility is seen as a blessing.”
Another American presenter, Helen Alvaré, a professor of law at George Mason University and a former advisor to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, highlighted the revolutionary nature of John Paul II’s letter: “Mulieris Dignitatem’s meditations ... have the effect of a tunnel dug underneath the entire edifice composed of the historical rankings of claimed differences between men and women.” The purpose of acknowledging men and women’s differences, explained Alvaré, should not be to stake them against one another, but rather for the purpose of mutual enrichment.
Alvaré’s reflections drew upon one of John Paul II’s key insights: “The fact that man ‘created as man and woman’ is the image of God means not only that each of them individually is like God, as a rational and free being. It also means that man and woman, created as a ‘unity of the two’ in their common humanity, are called to live in a communion of love, and in this way to mirror to the world the communion of love that is in God …” (MD, 7).
In other words, the mutual self-giving between man and woman — which, in the spousal relationship, bears fruit in the child — is an echo and an image of the self-giving that is eternally present between the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. This relationship of man and woman, from the beginning, was not intended to be a contractual relationship of two independent and autonomous creatures. Rather, it is called to be an embodied gift of one to the other.
SAYING “YES” TO GOD
In reflecting on the vocation of women, John Paul II did not fail to recognize that women have suffered throughout history from a lack of respect and sacrificial love from men, often falling victim to domination and discrimination. Highlighting the seriousness of such masculine transgressions, he noted that “whenever man is responsible for offending a woman’s personal dignity and vocation, he acts contrary to his own personal dignity and his own vocation” (MD, 10).
Late 20th-century feminists often reacted to male dominance in society with a call for women to discard traditional feminine social roles and become more like men. In contrast, John Paul II pointed out that an effort to “masculinize” women — hyper-focusing on man’s power, rather than his call to servant leadership — devalued the richness of women’s vocation.
Dr. Jocelyne Khoueiry of the John Paul II Centre of Social and Cultural Services in Jounieh, Lebanon, spoke to conference participants about women’s gift for attending to the most vulnerable in society: “Woman, in her particular way of imaging God, is she who does not forget her child, whether he is big or small, strong or weak, in good health or handicapped, intelligent or not, beautiful or ugly.”
In his opening address, Msgr. Melina had observed, “Feminine receptivity expresses the proper character of the creature as such before our Creator: accepting the love bestowed upon us by God, we become a witness and guardian, in an attitude of gratitude and praise.”
Similarly, Dr. Khoueiry stressed that women are in a privileged position to remind all humanity of its essential relationship to God. She noted that the figure of Mary, virgin and mother, stands at the center of salvation history. Only a fundamentally Marian attitude “which says ‘yes’ to God and to his plan for humanity [and which] recognizes with humility that we are created beings” can serve as a proper point of departure not only for self-understanding but for living a life of gratitude and praise before God.
Even when the vocation of women is clarified in the light of Mulieris Dignitatem, questions, challenges and struggles remain. For this reason, continuing engagement, reflection and dialogue are essential. In her remarks, Alvaré noted that Popes Benedict XVI and Francis, like John Paul II, have signaled the need for a new Christian feminism, void of “domination” or “machismo.” She further suggested, “A successful new feminism … would cause the world to take seriously the notion that progress and freedom and dignity are achieved when persons and institutions operate according to the rule of losing oneself in the service of God and one another.” Women, with their particular gift of openness and care toward others, are in a key position to draw cultures closer to this vision.
CARLA GALDO, a wife and mother of four, holds a master’s of theological studies degree from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Washington, D.C. She writes from her home in Lovettsville, Va.