What Mulieris Dignitatem Revealed to Us?
by Josephine Robinson
In 1989, a group of Catholic women in England was distressed and disheartened by the apparent acceptance of a brand of militant feminism, notable even in some Catholic circles. Many Catholics had adopted the fashionable ideas about women that divorce was better than the difficulties of enduring marriage, that contraception was necessary to give women freedom to pursue careers, and that abortion, though regrettable, had to be allowed, otherwise contraceptive failure would hinder women in their chosen lifestyle. In the affluent Western world, Christianity was seen increasingly as an enemy of the good life. The Catholic Church was a special object of derision among feminists because women could not be ordained to the priesthood.
We told our friends about our plan to set up an association of Catholic women who would seek to uphold the truth that women, like men, are the most free when they strive to live in the love of Christ Jesus, mediated by His Church. The Church had always taught this, of course. But we wanted an association within which we said, we could “give our glad assent to the teachings of the Church” (as our purposes state), especially in those matters that were particularly close to us as Catholics and women. If we were able to share the joy our faith gave us with others, then we would receive a great grace.
We wanted, really, to ask other women to pray with us and encourage us in what was (and is) often a hostile social climate. My parish priest at the time, a lovely retired bishop, Bishop Patrick Joseph Casey, gave us permission to meet in the crypt room of our church in London and came in to greet us at our first formal meeting. It was midday and he said, “Let’s pray the Angelus”, so we did and adopted it as the particular prayer of what became the Association of Catholic Women (of England and Wales).
The Apostolic Letter
Unknown to most of us (certainly to me) at that time, Pope John Paul II had, the year before, published a remarkable document, his Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem, “On the Dignity and Vocation of Women”. (On WFF web site: www.wf-f.org/MulierDig.html).
As we studied it later in its English translation, it became a foundation document for us in ACW. It reveals God’s love for women as women and how he “entrusts the human race” to women. It explained to us why our faithful, but untutored, feelings about women and the Church were basically right. We have continued ever since to discover and to understand better what it is to be a woman and how God wants us to strive to live our lives. Mulieris Dignitatem is still not as well-known as it should be. When I spoke recently to a group of women in a parish, one of them, a catechist, said, “You say this letter is twenty years old. How come I’ve never heard of it?”
Women and “The Woman”
There is no doubt that advances in the availability of education for women in the twentieth century gave them the possibilities of an “influence, an effect and a power never hitherto achieved” (Paul VI, Message to Women after the Second Vatican Council 13-14). Education enabled women to enter a wider sphere than before. But at the same time, women needed to preserve their existential being, their feminine essence, so that the world could benefit even more from their motherliness in relating to people, and their ability to see beyond circumstances and to evaluate situations and their effects on others.
The richness of the Apostolic Letter lies in Pope John Paul II’s perception of the beauty of the whole event of salvation, and the centrality of ‘the Woman’ to it: Mary, the second Eve, is above all the woman who loves without holding back. “Mary attains a union with God that exceeds all the expectations of the human spirit.” (MD II 3) But she is a human woman, like us, given to us all on Calvary in the person of Saint John, as mother. Indeed, she is the “archetype of the human race” (MD II 4) and she is a woman!
The implications of this are startling. Recognized achievements are not the only thing. Receptivity is as important, sub specie aeternitatis [from the viewpoint of eternity], as action. The humblest works can be as valid and important as the most notable. We can hold our heads high, not in pride, but in an understanding that we have worth, because God loves us and we can use our energies and talents, in whatever sphere, known or unknown, for the common good.
Pope John Paul II also understands that the Book of Genesis narrates the original human love story, a story of the man and the woman, both made in the image and likeness of God. The man is lonely, in spite of the animals to whom he has given names (and naming something starts a relationship between the giver of the name and the named); he sleeps and awakens to find the beautiful, amazing creature, his equal, whom he recognizes as “flesh of my flesh and bone of my bones”, his love, the one who brings him from “original solitude” to “the unity of the two”, to delight in another. (MD III 6) Eve also delights in the joy of being loved and of loving in return. John Paul II points out too, that it is here that the Bible speaks of the institution of marriage, for the mutual love, commitment and fruitfulness of husband and wife. He emphasizes the goodness, the communion of sexual love in the sanctuary of marriage, the fruit of which is the child.
The man and the woman are equal in the sight of God and complementary to each other, each bringing to the union special gifts that enable their marriage to be more than the sum of its parts. They are called to exist mutually “one for the other”. (MD III 7) They are willed for their own sake, as John Paul II notes, quoting Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes, “The Church in the Modern World”, 24.
Pope John Paul II describes Genesis as a “symbolic narrative”, which nonetheless reveals the truth about the creation of man and woman in the image and likeness of God.
What shatters this joyful, open love, the gift of God to His first people in which nothing is held back, no barrier divides the two? Alas! We all know the value and the danger of free will. It was their selfish choice, the taking of the fruit of the tree that they had been forbidden to eat, that shattered the innocent love that they had shared and, with that openness gone, they covered themselves up, physically and emotionally.
They were made in the image and likeness of God, but sin, the negation of God, diminished and obscured that likeness. The male tendency to dominate the woman comes, the Holy Father wrote, from this disturbance and loss of “that fundamental equality” of man and woman.
This is revealed even today in different ways in different societies, with even the most sophisticated often treating women as sexual objects, denying them respect for themselves and support for their children. But in the coming of Christ, human beings have had restored to them the gift of hope. Within that hope, we can work and pray that women are respected.
Virginity and Motherhood
While Eve alongside her husband fell away from God, Mary is the woman of limitless human love, the woman who lived as God wished women to live not in her virginal motherhood; that was a unique circumstance, because her Son was the Son of God but in her generosity and openness to God’s will. She fulfilled the two “dimensions of women’s vocation” virginity and motherhood revealing each in its goodness and beauty. (MD VI 17)
Motherhood is always related to the covenant that God established with the human race. (cf. MD VI 19) Virginity, chosen “for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven” (Mt 19:12), is a direct gift of self to God, but women who have not, perhaps, directly chosen this way of life, often live in a spirit of generosity that greatly enriches the Church and the many people who encounter them and are enriched in their turn.
Many a modern woman has scoffed at Saint Paul’s statement that the “husband is the head of the wife”. (Eph 5:21) Mulieris Dignitatem explains that this is an analogy with Christ who is the head of the Church, so that He gives Himself up in love for her. Similarly, in marriage, husband and wife are to be mutually subject to each other. As Pope John Paul II says this is “an innovation of the Gospel … out of reverence for Christ”. (MD VI 24) We all know the open, loving way in which Christ engaged with and related to women.
How could we fail to be encouraged, when Pope John Paul ended his Apostolic Letter giving thanks “to the Most Holy Trinity for the ‘mystery of woman’ and for every woman for that which constitutes the eternal measure of her feminine dignity, for the ‘great works of God’, which throughout human history have been accomplished in and through her. After all, was it not in and through her that the greatest event in human history the incarnation of God Himself was accomplished?” (MD IX 31)
Mulieris Dignitatem is a great teaching document. For me, and for many others, this document illuminates in jeweled colors the things that I believed but had seen only in monochrome that women and men are equal in God’s love; that we, as women, have qualities that can be sanctified in whatever state of life we live; that the gifts and responsibilities of motherhood, physical or spiritual, are the universal privilege of all women, whatever their status.
Our Association of Catholic Women cannot boast that we have transformed the secular society in which we live, of course. But all of us have been able to encourage each other and, by the prayers of our patrons, Our Lady and Saint Joseph, and through the grace of God, our faith has become deeper. We thank God for the graces He has bestowed on us.
Josephine Robinson, chairman of the Association of Catholic Women, is married with three grown children. She obtained an MA from Oxford University and another from the Maryvale Institute. She is the author of The Inner Goddess: Feminist Theology in the Light of Catholic Teaching (Gracewing 1998), Marriage and Gift (UK: St. Paul's Publishing, 2004; US: Pauline Books, 2007) and John XXIII; The Universal Parish Priest (Catholic Truth Society, 2007).
Association of Catholic Women web site: http://www.associationofcatholicwomen.co.uk/index.html.
**Women for Faith & Family operates solely on your generous donations!
WFF is a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. Donations are tax deductible.
Voices copyright © 1999-Present Women for Faith & Family. All rights reserved.
All material on this web site is copyrighted and may not be copied or reproduced without prior written permission from Women for Faith & Family,except as specified below.
Permission is granted to download and/or print out articles for personal use only.
Brief quotations (ca 500 words) may be made from the material on this site, in accordance with the “fair use” provisions of copyright law, without prior permission. For these quotations proper attribution must be made of author and WFF + URL (i.e., “Women for Faith & Family www.wf-f.org.)
Generally, all signed articles or graphics must also have the permission of the author. If a text does not have an author byline, Women for Faith & Family should be listed as the author. For example: Women for Faith & Family (St Louis: Women for Faith & Family, 2005 + URL)
Link to Women for Faith & Family web site.
Other web sites are welcome to establish links to www.wf-f.org or to individual pages within our site.