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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XVIII: No. 3 - Michaelmas 2003

The Dignity of Women:
Is it based on Choice or Charity?

by Margaret M. Whitehead

Margaret M. Whitehead is a Director of Religious Education at Holy Spirit parish in Annandale, Virginia. This article was originally delivered as a talk to the Mothers/Womens' Group at St. James parish in Falls Church, Virginia, on October 10, 2002. Mrs. Whitehead is a member of the Voices editorial board.

The message that we get about women today assumes that the true role of women, like the true dignity of women, is based on power, money, and control -- especially control of her own body. In fact, this is not just assumed; it is insisted upon: in education, in the media, in the workplace, in the courts, and even, sometimes, in the home. "A woman's right to choose" is the dominant message today, and this supposed "choice" is generally defined as "reproductive freedom". This, in turn, means the right and duty to make use of contraceptives and abortion. (In some countries, such as China, however, this "choice/reproductive freedom right" actually means forced abortions and sterilizations!)

The only problem with this constant drumbeat -- which affects all of us to some extent -- is that it is not true. It is actually destructive of the nature, dignity, and freedom of women, in fact (not to mention everyone else).

This understanding of "dignity" and of "choice" is certainly not what Pope John Paul II and the Catholic Church mean when they talk about freedom and about the dignity of women. This is the case, of course, because John Paul II and the Catholic Church believe very much in the dignity of women and in the necessity of an authentic freedom. In the eyes of the Church, authentic freedom, or choice, and charity, are both supports for the dignity of women and of persons.

In his 1988 apostolic letter on the Dignity and Vocation of Women, Mulieris Dignitatem, John Paul II says: "The human being -- both male and female -- is the only being in the world which God willed for its own sake. The human being is a person, a subject who decides for himself. At the same time, man cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of self" (MD 18).

The Holy Father teaches that the truth about the dignity and value of women can only be found in the context of "the order of love" (MD 29). And this "order of love" goes back to the beginning of creation as it flowed from the "intimate life of God Himself, the life of the Trinity" (ibid). The "order of love" is an order of "justice and charity".

Justice and charity: both of these concepts include the idea of reciprocity -- something being given, and something being received; giving what is due to the other person in justice, and giving what is needed by the other person in charity. But the reverse applies as well -- receiving what is due and needed. We are not talking about a closed-in, subjective reality here. It is a two-way street; it is "relational"; it is giving and receiving.

Notice that we have moved away from the current cultural concepts of power, money, and control -- and comfort! -- that are based on the "autonomous individual". We have moved away from the attitude of "it's my body and I am free to do whatever I want with it".

Genesis and "Genius"
To explain further the dignity of the human person along with the special originality and genius (or unique qualities) of women, John Paul II delves into the first chapters of Genesis, which describe the creation of man and woman: both are equally human, both are created in the image and likeness of God, both are rational beings with free will, and both are given the charge to "be fruitful and multiply" -- that is, to pass on the gifts given to them (Gen 1:27-28).

Chapter 2 of Genesis adds something else to the picture -- another aspect of the truth about woman and about man. The man is created first and he has almost everything, but he is lonely. So God creates another person -- a woman. The woman is taken from the rib of the man while he sleeps; this shows that God is doing it, not man. The woman is immediately recognized by Adam as another person; she is someone to whom he can relate, someone with whom he can form a communion, a unity, a two-in-one. She is a companion in his work, and yet she is also someone who is different and who can join with him to carry on the work of creation -- the work of marriage: the man and woman become two in one flesh in order to be fruitful and multiply. Through this marriage relationship, Adam and Eve image the divine communion found in the Trinity: they form a creative community of love.

Adam marvels at the creation of Eve: "This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh" (Gen 2:23). From the very beginning, we see that man and woman are called to exist for each other -- as gifts to each other; as helpers for each other; in interpersonal communion -- but then to exist for others as well. This communion is a marriage relationship that is meant to be fruitful and that requires both the masculine and feminine aspects of personhood.

Original Gift
In this biblical narrative, the distinctive feminine originality comes out in the way the woman is recognized as a gift by Adam as well as in the way this helps him to discover who he is and what his own potential is. In this beginning, Adam and Eve also both recognize and trust in God's many gifts to them; in their own giftedness, they image the divine generosity.

Let me summarize what this biblical narrative, according to John Paul II, tells us about the special role of woman (it is further developed throughout the Old and New Testaments): women have a special openness to relationships; when a woman makes a gift of herself in all her originality, she helps others to discover their wholeness; a woman's role as a mother "gives her a special openness to the new person" and to other persons. In this openness, she "discovers herself through a sincere gift of self" (MD 18).

Because of the way her body is made, a woman has "an interior readiness to accept the child", which is linked to marriage. She has a "joy in sharing the creative power of God". Although the father certainly shares in this creativity and joy in his children, his role does not require the depth of involvement in the pre-natal and other early stages of the child's growth. It is the woman who makes a more complete and personal gift of self to the unborn child, and who has a deeper sense of the reality of the developing person.

The Holy Father says: "The moral and spiritual strength of a woman is joined to her awareness that God entrusts the human being to her in a special way. Of course, God entrusts every human being to each and every other human being. But this entrusting concerns women in a special way -- precisely by reason of their femininity -- and this in a particular way determines their vocation.... A woman is strong because of her awareness of this entrusting, strong because of the fact that God entrusts the human being to her" (MD 30).

At the heart of all of John Paul II's thinking and teaching about persons is the concept of "gift", a nuptial gift, in fact: the person freely chooses to give himself to the other for the good of the other and discovers himself in the process. This is the good news about persons.

Original Sin

However, there is some bad news about persons, too: Original Sin. That original joy and loving care for each other, which were the hallmark of Adam and Eve's relationship, were disrupted when they disrupted their relationship with God through their disobedience and lack of trust in God. Sin always causes separations and ruptures. Original Sin ruptured the relationship between God and man; between man and woman; and between man and nature. Domination, exploitation, manipulation, and the use of other persons as objects became the hallmarks of human relationships.

Many modern women, in resisting domineering and exploitative relationships (which they should resist), have often chosen to adopt masculine characteristics; to neglect their own feminine resources; to fight fire with fire, in other words. John Paul II sees a great danger for women in this approach. He says that women cannot reach "fulfillment" in this way, "but instead will deform and lose what constitutes their essential richness ... an enormous richness ... the words of the first man at the sight of woman who had been created are words of admiration and enchantment" (MD #10).

So what is to be done?

God's Promise -- New Covenant

In Genesis, Chapter 3, God announces His saving plan to do something about the evil that has come into the world through sin. He says to the serpent: "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed" (Gen 3:15). This is called the Protoevangelium, and although it is mysterious, it clearly involves a woman and her son.

Throughout the Old Testament, God promises to send a Messiah, a Redeemer, to His struggling people. He renews His Covenant with His people as they move through time: with Abraham, with Noah, with Moses, and with David -- always looking to a time of fulfillment, and of blessing.

"At the beginning of the New Covenant, which is to be eternal and irrevocable again, there is a woman: the Virgin of Nazareth" (MD 11). There is also a Son -- harkening back to the Protoevangelium. The New Covenant "consists in the fact that the Son of God ... becomes man: He takes humanity into the unity of the divine Person of the Word. The one who accomplishes the Redemption is also a true man" (MD 11), who not only ransoms mankind, but also further reveals man to himself. This Redeemer lives out the deep truth of the meaning of the gift of self through the Paschal mystery: namely, that to serve and to sacrifice is the way to fulfillment. This is what Christ teaches us.

Although the focus here is on the significance and value of femininity, it's important not to forget -- as some of our modern feminists do -- the intrinsic value and significance of masculinity as well.

"Mary is the witness to the new beginning and the new creation since she herself, as the first of the redeemed in salvation history, is 'a new creation'; she is 'full of grace' ... in her the new and definitive Covenant of God with humanity has its beginning, the Covenant in the redeeming blood of Christ" (MD 11). Mary also heralds a new beginning for the "dignity and vocation of women, of each and every woman". This is brought out in the powerful words of the Magnificat: "He who is mighty has done great things for me". "God wanted her to be a person for her own sake, who discovers herself by a sincere gift of self" (MD 11). Mary grasps this; she teaches us this, just as she recognizes the greatness of God's gifts and of His generosity.

Our Lord Jesus Christ, in the New Covenant, through grace, brings about an essential restoration of the goodness of the original creation; and in so doing, He makes it possible to overcome the sinful opposition between male and female. He makes possible a recovery of the authentic sense of the dignity of the vocation of both male and female.

Motherhood -- Virginity

What does the Redemption mean for the dignity and vocation of women? Jesus goes against the customs of His time and deals with women with special respect and honor; He involves them in the His work, and re-teaches the message of the creation of mutual trust between man and woman. However, Jesus is certainly aware of the sinfulness of women -- like that of men -- for He never hesitates to call women to repentance and new life.

He calls both man and woman back to the mystery of the beginning "when man was created male and female, and the woman was entrusted to the man with her feminine distinctiveness, and with her potential for motherhood.... The man was also entrusted by the Creator to the woman -- they were entrusted to each other as persons made in the image and likeness of God Himself. This entrusting is the test of love, spousal love. In order to become a sincere gift to one another, each of them has to feel responsible for the gift" (MD 14).

Jesus is calling women back to recognition of their own value as persons and dignity as women -- to their vocation. A woman's vocation is both personal -- she chooses how she is to make a gift of herself -- and prophetic -- she recognizes the "mighty works of God" in her life and she witnesses to the "mighty works of God to others" (Magnificat).

The Church recognizes two "dimensions of the fulfillment of the female personality": in motherhood, and in virginity or spiritual motherhood. These two dimensions of femininity were united in Mary, who helps us to understand how they complement and explain each other. Once again, Mary is at the center of our understanding of ourselves.
To understand our vocation, we must remember several truths about the human person. A human being is

- the only being that God willed for its own sake;
­ a subject or person is one who decides for himself;
­ a being who can only find himself through a gift of self.

This is because the human person is made in the image and likeness of God.

Woman's Gift

Motherhood is the fruit of the marriage union of a man and a woman -- the fruit of the mutual gift of self of each to the other in a complete way. It requires a special gift of self on the part of the woman because of her physical and personal structure and involvement. It results in the gift of a new human being, who is also a person in the likeness of his parents. It results in a person willed for his own sake and it is a result of being open to the gift of that new person. "The Creator grants the parents the gift of a child. On the woman's part, this fact is linked in a special way to 'a sincere gift of self'. Mary's words at the Annunciation -- 'Let it be done to me according to your word' -- signify the woman's readiness for the gift of self and her readiness to accept a new life" (MD 18).

Motherhood is related to the New Covenant through the Fiat of Mary, which begins the new Covenant. It is also related to the suffering and death that Jesus underwent while His mother was at the foot of the cross; and it is related to the joy of the resurrection.

Virginity is connected to motherhood, but is also distinct from it. In Matthew 19:12, Jesus explains the meaning of virginity chosen for the "sake of the Kingdom": it is a vocation chosen in view of man's ultimate goal of union with God. It requires grace and choice on the part of the individual. It is an innovation in the New Testament connected with the incarnation of God. Before the coming of Jesus, the hopes and expectations of the chosen people were all directed toward the coming of the Messiah. After the coming of Jesus, the hopes and expectations of the new Israel are directed toward the "eschatological Kingdom", that is, toward heaven.

Consecrated virginity represents a special dedication to God; a special imitation of Jesus; and a special witness to supernatural goals. For women, consecrated virginity is a gift of self, a spousal love for the Bridegroom, for Christ. It is through this special gift of self to Christ that the person becomes a gift for others. It is a profound gift of self in an undivided way to Christ.

Virginity means giving up marriage and physical motherhood, but it allows for a spiritual motherhood. In marriage, the mother has a special openness to children; in spiritual motherhood, the woman has a special openness to all people in the love of Christ.

In both physical and spiritual motherhood, in both marriage and virginity, we are dealing with the sincere gift of the person - we are dealing, in other words, with love. "Only a person can love and only a person can be loved.... The person must be loved because love corresponds to what a person is" (MD 29).

Motherhood and consecrated virginity are two aspects of Vocation with a capital V. But John Paul II also makes clear that everybody has the vocation to love; all are called to holiness. As members of the Church (which is the Body of Christ), all are called to respond to Christ the Bridegroom; and women are called to respond as women with their feminine originality.

One Flesh; mutual self-giving

Christ as the Bridegroom and the Church as the Bride and the relationship between husband and wife in marriage...

John Paul II also uses Saint Paul's letter to the Ephesians to further explain the spousal relationship between man and woman and between the Church and Christ: "In Saint Paul's text, the analogy of the spousal relationship moves simultaneously in two directions which make up the whole of the great mystery.... The covenant proper to spouses 'explains' the spousal character of the union of Christ with the Church and in its turn this union, as 'great sacrament', determines the sacramentality of marriage as a holy covenant between the two spouses, man and woman" (MD 23).

In Ephesians 5:25, Saint Paul says: "Husbands love your wives as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her". "In this love", the Holy Father says, "there is a fundamental affirmation of the woman as person. This affirmation makes it possible for the female personality to develop fully and be enriched" (MD 24). This is analogous to the way Christ acts with His Church. He loves her and makes it possible for her to be fully herself.

John Paul II believes that previous understandings of the headship of the man over the woman have leaned too much toward the domineering, and that the Gospel calls for "mutual subjection out of reverence for Christ" (cf. Eph 5:21; MD 24). The headship of the man should be for the good of woman and of the family.

The distinctiveness of masculinity and femininity are brought out in the Church and especially in the Eucharist. Because the Eucharist is the redemptive act of Christ, the Bridegroom, for His Church, the Bride, it is important that the "sacramental ministry of the Eucharist in which the priest acts 'in persona Christi' is performed by a man" (MD 26).

Our Choices Matter

Some of the special temptations of modern women that harm their dignity, along with some suggestions on how to avoid these sins and temptations are these:

1. Inferiority: Women are often uncomfortable with their bodies and their femininity. They are too fat, too thin, too tall, too short - you name it. They are unhappy with the womanly aspects of their bodies. This is quite common and is probably one of the clear signs of the effects of original sin. Because of this, women sometimes want to imitate men.

Solution: Meditate on the truth that God made you and how you are made, and thank God for the gift of femininity: "Thou didst form my inward parts, thou didst knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise thee for thou art fearful and wonderful" (Ps 139: 13-14). Trust God; don't be afraid of who you are.

2. Counterfeit Union: Women are made for union and intimacy, and because of this, they can get involved in false unions, false intimacy outside of Marriage. This will usually require willed sterility and involve the use of contraception. Remember that sin always involves separation of goods. In this case, the couples do not make a complete gift of self; there is no permanence, no fertility, no real love - no nuptial meaning, in other words. This is a great temptation for modern women, however, and it is the ideal most commonly pushed by our society.

Solution: Learn the difference between true love, infatuation, and false intimacy. Learn the true meaning of the nuptial gift and of the dignity of the human person. Don't get involved in abusive and compromising relationships.

3. Reductionist Syndrome: This involves reducing women to their bodies and then using the body as a means of pleasure. This approach is commonly found today in movies, TV ads, and TV programs. No spiritual values connected with person emerge from these things. There is a false sense of beauty and of the value of a person. This approach also has implications for biology; it is possible today to use technology to control and manufacture bodies; there is no respect for God's plan nor for human personhood.

Solution: Re-enforce the basic idea that human persons cannot be used as objects. Remember the dignity, value, and destiny of the human person in God's plan.

4. "Freedom from" Syndrome: This is a popular media message today. Those who convey this message are always pushing for freedom from something: housework, pregnancy, being fat, responsibilities, Church rules - you name it. Up to a point this attitude can be legitimate. But what is never mentioned is that there is a freedom to such things as to love, to give, to forgive, and so on. We should not always be comparing ourselves to others; we should be following Christ, in order to find God and make a gift of ourselves.

Solution: Remind yourself that true happiness comes from self-giving and union with God.

5. "Overspiritualization": Sometimes we overspiritualize -downplay meaning of the body in God's plan for us.

Solution: Remember that Jesus came to save a whole person: body and soul, not just soul. Live out your feminine nature and originality; reconfirm your call to self-giving and to motherhood.

(The temptations listed here are taken from a talk by Katrina Zenol: "The Genius of Women" by Katina Zeno. Our Father's Will Communications, PO Box 27 Bulverde, TX 78163. 866-333-6392,

Our choices matter. We have a Redeemer and we have been given the means to understand human dignity and to live in accordance with human dignity, but we are still affected by original sin and thus we still can make sinful choices. It is our duty to make the right ones.

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