A Renaissance for Catholic Women

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Men and women were not created to compete with each other, but to complete one another. They were not meant for separation, but for union. True liberation is not found in imitating what a man can do, but in doing what only a woman can do.

In the midst of the man-eating feminism of the 1980s, this message should have been a tough sell. However, the uplifting and affirming ideas contained in Pope John Paul II’s Mulieris Dignitatem (On the Dignity and Vocation of Women), issued Aug. 15, 1988, have caught on almost in spite of themselves.

In essence, the document launched a new version of the feminine mystique — one that amounts to a perfectly constructed antithesis to modern feminism. The woman is imbued by her Creator with gifts all her own, wrote the pope, and they lie in the very femininity that radical feminists want to discard. This femininity informs everything she does: the way she loves, works and thinks, whether at home or in the public square. Far from being a weakness, John Paul II said, this is woman’s “genius.”

Twenty years after the release of Mulieris Dignitatem, the world is still trying to unpack the full meaning of the “feminine genius,” but its impact on women — and the world — has been profound.

Mulieris Dignitatem, like so many of John Paul II’s writings, is a prophetic voice in the world,” said Johnnette S. Benkovic, president and founder of Living His Life Abundantly, a Catholic media apostolate (www.lhla.org). “It came at a time when women were beginning to discover that the radical feminist agenda left them wanting, spiritually, emotionally, psychologically and, in many cases, physiologically.”

The document had a strong impact on Benkovic’s decision to launch Women of Grace, an apostolate dedicated to encouraging and affirming women in their dignity as daughters of God. In its five-year existence, thousands of women have taken the eight-week study course and become members of this “sisterhood” of grace. Participants then take this message out into the world “to infuse the temporal order with a right understanding of who woman is and her great gift of authentic femininity,” Benkovic said.

“Through the work of Women of Grace, we have seen women transformed by John Paul II’s teachings about the dignity and vocation of woman, and by the great gift of our Catholic faith,” she added. “Their excitement and enthusiasm has led to a contagious zeal. They begin to shed the shackles that were placed upon them by the cultural misrepresentation of woman offered in our relativistic and secular society.”

Addressing Real Women Back to Top

Indeed, women imbued with the message of Mulieris Dignitatem are already changing the world.

The old and “new” feminisms collided head-on at two United Nations conferences on women that took place in Cairo and Beijing in 1994 and 1995, respectively. Those who defined a woman’s dignity in terms of the “right” to abortion and contraception were forced to engage those who believed a woman’s dignity lies in the right to be who God created her to be.

“The Vatican was the most prominent voice there,” said Helen Alvare, 47, a professor at The Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law. She served as U.S. press representative for the Holy See delegation at both conferences. Mulieris Dignitatem, said Alvare, was the blueprint for the Holy See’s intervention at those conferences.

But even on a lesser scale, the document has had a large impact. Some areas, such as greater Washington, D.C., have begun to see “a renaissance of female Catholicism,” Alvare observed.

“It’s a movement. As director of communications for the U.S. bishops’ pro-life office for 10 years, I saw an enormous number of interested and motivated women.”

Mulieris Dignitatem has been influential not only because it reiterated Church teaching, but because it addresses the dilemmas of today’s women in a realistic way.

“Young women really ‘get’ this message,” said Colleen Carroll Campbell, 33, a TV and radio host for the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), author of The New Faithful and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. “What I see is a real hunger among young women for a new feminism that addresses their concerns, that takes seriously their desire for marriage and motherhood, and their attraction to the faith, but that also recognizes their equal dignity.”

Young women don’t want to see marriage and involvement in the public square as an “either/or” scenario, Campbell said. “They don’t think they have to renounce all involvement in the public square …nor do they want to renounce marriage and motherhood and work 90-hour weeks.”

A Truly Liberating Message Back to Top

Pope John Paul is not telling women to “get back in the kitchen.” “He never gives into the temptation that secular feminists have, which is to pit a woman’s irreplaceable role in the family against the witness she can give in the broader picture,” Campbell said.

A February 2008 conference in Rome marking the 20th anniversary of Mulieris Dignitatem gave American women like Campbell an opportunity the gauge the document’s impact on the rest of the world.

Women from 49 countries were represented, each bringing their unique concerns. While women from North America talked about the various challenges posed by secular feminists, African women discussed the challenges of educating their daughters, and women from the Middle East talked about being unable to worship freely.

“You got a real sense of the universality of the Church, but also how this liberating message — which is the Gospel of Jesus Christ — applies across cultures,” said Campbell. “We could see how the Catholic Church, contrary to secular conventional wisdom, is actually right at the heart of those battles and standing on the side of the dignity of women.”

Dependence on God Back to Top

For women in the West, the message of Mulieris Dignitatem boldly defies the prevailing militant feminism leftover from the last century. The difference between the sexes is meant to bring men and women into deeper communion, not continual warfare, John Paul II explained.

“From the very beginning, for feminists it was all about taking women out of the network of social and family relationships and isolating her as an independent person,” said Dawn Eden, 39, author of The Thrill of the Chaste and a former music industry journalist. “Belonging to a husband, a father, a brother,” she said, were mistakenly believed to be about “submitting to another’s power.”

To the contrary, Eden said, “The pope is all about celebrating our dependence upon others as being a representation of our dependence upon God. It’s in showing the world how we receive the love of God that we become truly feminine.”

It is a message that applies to every woman, single or married, young or old.

“As a young single woman in the Church, one is given these various messages as to how to be feminine,” explained Eden. “What the pope showed me in Mulieris Dignitatem is how to be authentically myself in social situations and that I don’t need to try to fit anyone’s ideal. I just need to live out the graces that God has given me in a unique way as a woman. And that by living virtuously I will become feminine without effort.”

Carrying the Torch Back to Top

John Paul II’s message applies to women in all states and stages of life. Married women and mothers are also responding to the call.

“What Mulieris Dignitatem did was provide women with a tremendous confirmation of their gut feeling that what they are doing in the home is essential,” said Genevieve Kineke, author of The Authentic Catholic Woman and the mother of five. “Mulieris Dignitatem gives women a deeper insight into what their mothers and grandmothers were doing,” said Kineke. Women of previous generations understood the dignity of motherhood intuitively, without any “theological underpinnings,” she explained. Yet, as modern culture has seen the deconstruction of family life, “women need a deeper explanation of why they have to continue with this essential work.”

Through it all, God provides, said Kineke. “Although we don’t have the cultural supports anymore, he gave us these theological and philosophical supports so women can continue to carry their torch in the darkness, until the world comes back to its senses.”

Susan Brinkmann is a staff writer for Women of Grace and writes from her home in Horsham, Pa.