The Dignity of Women and Pope John Paul II



The following is a piece contributed by Fr. Michael Paris.  The complications that feminism brought about in recent times for both men and women will not be solved by embracing the modern gratifications from it, nor by turning back the clocks. Rather, John Paul II writes that the world needs a clarification on the dignity of womanhood and how her changing role is changing society in a positive manner. Fr. Mike draws heavily from Mulieris Dignitatem.

In the last one hundred years, the position of women and the collective consciousness of their role in western society have developed rapidly. Many alive today cannot even begin to imagine living in a place where women could not vote or were regarded by law as property of either husband or father.  Yet this was a common reality up until the middle of the twentieth century. Novels like H.G. Wells’ Anne Veronica show the emergence of a new woman, one who will break the codes of the society and break out into a new path of emancipation. Unfortunately along with this quite legitimate desire for a greater freedom and appreciation in society, other not so benevolent strains of thought have emerged that have wreaked havoc on the status of women and their inherent dignity.

While professing to help women, thinkers like Margaret Sanger, the founder of the American birth control movement, which later became Planned Parenthood, and Simone de Bouvier, great proponent of legalized abortion and the abolishment of the traditional family, have actually brought untold pain upon women. Now, far from being “liberated,” women are even more enslaved by men who can use them for sexual gratification without having any respect for their life giving role and the consequences of children. No more must a man feel responsible when his partner conceives a child. He can simply refuse to support her and emotionally constrain her to kill her own son or daughter. No longer is a man supposed to take the responsibility that acknowledges sex can and does lead to a new life. He merely leaves it up to a woman to “take care of the problem” and use dangerous, carcinogenic birth control pills that can cause spontaneous abortions and wreak havoc on her body.

Is the answer to this current problem to turn back the clock, put women in constraining gowns to play tennis in, take away their status and put them under the law of husband or father to protect them? No, says the late Pope John Paul II. Women have made great progress and this should be applauded. What is needed now is a clarification on just where the dignity of women arises from and what her nature can tell us about her status and vocation in this world.

John Paul II has always had a deep admiration and love for women, starting with his close female friends with whom he collaborated to the many women he had met and counseled as a Pastor and Bishop in his native land. Apart from all these, he had one woman in his life that colored every action that he took. This woman was his constant companion in life, and he turned to her in everything and sought her help for all his needs. She was with him night and day. This woman in his life was the Mother of God, Mary of Nazareth. It is from his profound meditation on her that the dignity of women became such a focal point and concern of his pontificate.

In his great teaching work of 1988, “Mulieris Dignitatem, On the Dignity and Vocation of Women,” John Paul presents some of his insights on the subject of women. Beginning with a quote from the closing message of the second Vatican Council, it states:

“The hour is coming, in fact has come, when the vocation of women is being acknowledged in its fullness, the hour in which women acquire in the world an influence, an effect and a power never hitherto achieved. That is why at this moment when the human race is undergoing so deep a transformation, women imbued with a spirit of the Gospel can do so much to aid humanity in not falling (Mulieris Dignitatem)."

This is precisely why the need is so urgent to understand the proper role and dignity of humanity, and women in particular. We need to explore the mystery of why the Creator has assigned each human being to always and only exist as either man or woman.

John Paul starts his meditation on women by looking at the Mother of God. Mary of Nazareth is a central player in the greatest event in the history of the universe; namely God revealing Himself completely in Jesus Christ. All the desires of the human race, all the questions that people have of their origin and their destiny, is fulfilled when God chose to come down to earth and take on our human nature. The revelation of God in Jesus Christ came about through a woman. This unique and singular event raises the dignity of woman to heights that could never be reached naturally. In all her femininity, a woman bore the Redeemer. Through her free will Mary said yes to become the Mother of the Savior.

Mary represents the entire human race in her acceptance of this divine grace. She attains in the most eminent manner possible “supernatural elevation to union with God in Jesus Christ (M.D 4).”  When told by the Angel that she was chosen to be the mother of the Son of God, Mary said “Behold I am the handmaiden of the Lord, be it done unto me according to your word (Luke 1:38).” This role as “handmaiden” is not in any way a lesser or condescending role. In God’s eyes, to serve is to reign. Christ himself said that he came to serve, not to be served. He is the servant of the Lord and manifests the supreme royal dignity of service that all of humanity is called to. Our human dignity lies in the fulfillment of our nature, which is found solely in union with God. Mary is the height and expression of human dignity as she truly attains the highest imaginable union with God in whose image she is made.

John Paul II sees in Mary another example of two vocations of women, that of virginity and motherhood. In Mary both of these come together and do not exclude one another (M.D 17). His insight into motherhood shows the mother as the unique person who has a greater part in the mystery of the regeneration of new life. The new life truly absorbs her own body’s energy, and woman has the particular privilege of carrying this child in its prenatal stages. The man owes a special debt to the woman in their shared parenthood. The motherhood of the woman extends beyond her relationship with her child, as the pope explains:

This unique contact with the new human being developing within her gives rise to an attitude towards human beings - not only towards her own child, but every human being - which profoundly marks the woman's personality. It is commonly thought that women are more capable than men of paying attention to another person, and that motherhood develops this predisposition even more (M.D 18)

For women who feel drawn to radically live the gospel message, virginity for the sake of the Kingdom is an ideal way of following Christ unreservedly. This is the love of those who desire to give their whole selves to God in true spousal love. The woman who embarks on this path recognizes Christ the bridegroom and makes the sincere gift of herself. Her femininity, motherhood and energies are completely consecrated to Christ (M.D 20). Motherhood is not excluded by the life of celibate chastity. Spousal love manifests itself in the readiness to be poured out for the sake of others. In marriage this is generally with one’s children, while in the consecrated state it is to all people who are “embraced by the love of Christ the Spouse (M.D 21).”

John Paul II refuses to judge the issue of man and woman against the backdrop of a struggle for dominance. Simply to make women into men, and to idealize the ambition, pride and aggressiveness of men will not in the least way help humanity on the journey to reestablish themselves as true images and likenesses of God.

Love is the true vocation of woman and man.

Women bear in their persons a great sign value for love. A woman’s very being shows the capacity and need for love. To women are entrusted human beings in a unique and preeminent way. Because of this the woman has a special concern for persons, and in this age of increasing industrialization and marginalization of the poor, the world is in sore need of the feminine genius to transform it into being more just and humane. As the pope concludes the letter:

"In the Spirit of Christ, in fact, women can discover the entire meaning of their femininity and thus be disposed to making a "sincere gift of self" to others, thereby finding themselves (M.D 31).”

In Mary, Eve discovers the nature of the true dignity of woman, of feminine humanity. This discovery must continually reach the heart of every woman and shape her vocation and her life (M.D 11).