The Mulieris Dignitatem

The Mulieris Dignitatem was written by Pope John Paul II in 1988.  In it the Pope set out the current Roman Catholic attitude towards women.  He considers issues like Mary, the story of Genesis, language uses about God, Jesus' attitude towards women and the role of women in the Christian community today.

The document reflects the Catholic view that men and women are created 'equal but different', that is, equally valuable, but with a different role.

You need to be able to explain the key ideas in the Mulieris Dignitatem and be able to consider how these teachings relate to the feminist ideas that you will explore as part of the OCR DCT course. 

I Introduction:

II Theotokos (God-bearer):

Pope John Paul II explained that by accepting the role of theotokos (God-bearer) Mary played a central part in salvation.  The incarnation (and thus salvation) are dependent upon Jesus being born of a human mother.  

'A woman is to be found at the centre of this salvific event. The self-revelation of God...'

Mary's role was significant rather than incidental.  She became united with God and involved in his divine plan in a way that was unique.  No other human has been unite with God in such an intimate way.  Moreover, to be mother of God is a role which is only possible for a woman.

'Mary attains a union with God that exceeds all the expectations of the human spirit. It even exceeds the expectations of all Israel, in particular the daughters of this Chosen People, who, on the basis of the promise, could hope that one of their number would one day become the mother of the Messiah. Who among them, however, could have imagined that the promised Messiah would be "the Son of the Most High"?'

Thus Mary attained the 'supernatural elevation to union with God' that all humans eventually hope to achieve in the afterlife.  To this extent she is an 'archetype', a representation of what humanity can become.  However, her role is also distinctive.  Only she has the mother/son relationship with God.

'...the event at Nazareth highlights a form of union with the living God which can only belong to the "woman", Mary: the union between mother and son. The Virgin of Nazareth truly becomes the Mother of God.'

Pope John Paul II was careful to stress that Mary truly was 'mother' of God.  She was more than just a surrogate womb (not the term he uses!).  He says 

'Therefore she is truly the Mother of God, because motherhood concerns the whole person, not just the body.'

We can elaborate on this theme.  Mary did not just give birth to Jesus, she presumably looked after him in his infancy as any mother would do.  Motherhood is more than just a bodily action it is something that involves the whole person.

Pope John Paul II considered the implications of Mary's response to the annunciation.  According to Luke she said  "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord, let it be to me according to your word." (Lk 1:38).  The Pope explained that this phrase must be put into its context.  Mary was aware of being 'a creature of God'.  Therefore, her humility was a reflection of that fact.  However, the Pope denied that this takes away from Mary's status.  He pointed out that Jesus taught that he had come to serve not to be served and concluded that in the context of the gospel message 'to serve means to Reign'.

Finally, the Pope said that Mary is a role model for both men and women because she symbolises the ultimate human relationship with God.

'The dignity of every human being and the vocation corresponding to that dignity find their definitive measure in union with God. Mary, the woman of the Bible, is the most complete expression of this dignity and vocation. For no human being, male or female, created in the image and likeness of God, can in any way attain fulfilment apart from this image and likeness.'

Yet in addition to this, Mary is an archetype for women in particular.  She

'..signifies the fullness of the perfection of" what is characteristic of woman", of "what is feminine"... [she is] the archetype, of the personal dignity of women.'

III The image and likeness of God:


In this section of the Mulieris Dignitatem Pope John Paul II explained his interpretation of the Genesis story.  He took as his starting point the reference to the creation of humans in Genesis 1.  "God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them" (Gen 1:27).  This, he explained meant that

'...both man and woman are human beings to an equal degree, both are created in God's image.'

He went on to explain that Genesis 2-3 (the language of which is 'less precise, and, one might say, more descriptive and metaphorical') adds to our understanding of mankind as a creature of God.  Despite the differences between the Genesis 1&2 accounts Pope John Paul II said that there was 'no essential contradiction' between the two.

John Paul II interpreted Eve's creation out of Adam as emphasising her suitability to be a companion to man.  None of the animals were a fit companion, the only companion that can be fit for man is one made out of man himself.  There is no indication in Pope John Paul II's analysis that woman is in any sense dependent on or subordinate to man.  He said

'The biblical text provides sufficient bases for recognizing the essential equality of man and woman from the point of view of their humanity. From the very beginning, both are persons, unlike the other living beings in the world about them. The woman is another "I" in a common humanity. From the very beginning they appear as a "unity of the two", and this signifies that the original solitude is overcome, the solitude in which man does not find "a helper fit for him" (Gen 2:20).'

Next John Paul II elaborated on the term 'helper'.  Whilst Augustine had concluded that 'helper' must mean primarily procreation the Pope began with the idea that Eve was created as a helper in the task of stewardship and only afterwards mentioned marriage and procreation.

'Is it only a question here of a "helper" in activity, in "subduing the earth" (cf. Gen 1: 28)? Certainly it is a matter of a life's companion, with whom, as a wife, the man can unite himself, becoming with her "one flesh" and for this reason leaving "his father and his mother" (cf. Gen 2: 24). Thus in the same context as the creation of man and woman, the biblical account speaks of God's instituting marriage as an indispensable condition for the transmission of life to new generations, the transmission of life to which marriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordered: "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it" (Gen 1:28).'

Men and women are, according to John Paul II created 'as a unity of the two', intended to belong together.  Eve's status as 'helper' is part of a reciprocal relationship in which Eve helps Adam but he in turn helps her.  The unity of humanity in men and woman mirrors the unity of God in the Trinitarian Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Just as God is three in one humanity is two in one.  They are

'called to exist mutually "one for the other".'

Anthropomorphic language:

Feminists such as Mary Daly believe that viewing God in male terms shapes our view of society. Daly said 'when God is male, the male is God.'

Christianity tends to talk about God in male terms. However, God is immaterial, spiritual, non-physical and therefore has no biological gender.  Jesus, the incarnate form of God does have gender but non-incarnate God does not. Consequently, gendered language about God is allegorical and metaphorical. We anthropomorphize God in order to stress the personal nature of God.  

Pope John Paul II said that although Christianity tends to use male language of God there are also some instances in which the Bible describes women in female terms and imagery.

'"As one whom his mother comforts, so will I comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem" (66: 13). In the Psalms too God is compared to a caring mother: "Like a child quieted at its mother's breast; like a child that is quieted is my soul. O Israel, hope in the Lord". (Ps 131:2-3). '

(Notice that the examples of female imagery that are listed here are all to do with motherhood.)

IV Eve Mary:

Pope John Paul II began this section by reiterating that the story of the Fall is 'a symbolic narrative'.  Nevertheless, it contains important spiritual truths about sin. He stressed that the sin is performed by both man and woman and thus both are punished.  He affirmed Augustine's doctrine of original sin, saying that the sin is passed on and the image of God in humanity is 'diminished' (though not removed entirely) as a result of it.

Like Augustine, Pope John Paul II thought that sin had spoiled and damaged the relationship between men and women.  The punishment levelled at woman ("Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you" (Gen 3:16)) damages 'the unity of the two' that God intended.  This is damaging to both man and woman but is more damaging for the woman.  

'This "domination" indicates the disturbance and loss of the stability of that fundamental equality which the man and the woman possess in the "unity of the two": and this is especially to the disadvantage of the woman, whereas only the equality resulting from their dignity as persons can give to their mutual relationship the character of an authentic "communio personarum". '

The Pope went on to explain that misogyny and sexism in the world results from sin.  

'These words of Genesis refer directly to marriage, but indirectly they concern the different spheres of social life: the situations in which the woman remains disadvantaged or discriminated against by the fact of being a woman.' 

It follows then that the primary reason for opposing misogyny and sexism is that God creates man and women to be unite together in harmony with each other. However, it becomes clear that Pope John Paul II did not necessarily envisage equality in quite the same way as many feminists do.  Whilst he maintains that man and women are equally valuable he also thought that they are created to be different with a separate male and female essence.  


The passage that follows is important and you should be able to discuss it in relative detail.

Hence equality should not involve the 'emasculization' of men.  John Paul II explained that if women try to gain equality by trying to be like men then they will miss out on fulfilment because they will deny their own female essence.

'... the rightful opposition of women to what is expressed in the biblical words "He shall rule over you" (Gen 3:16) must not under any condition lead to the "masculinization" of women. In the name of liberation from male "domination", women must not appropriate to themselves male characteristics contrary to their own feminine "originality". There is a well-founded fear that if they take this path, women will not "reach fulfilment", but instead will deform and lose what constitutes their essential richness. 

'The personal resources of femininity are certainly no less than the resources of masculinity: they are merely different. Hence a woman, as well as a man, must understand her "fulfilment" as a person, her dignity and vocation, on the basis of these resources, according to the richness of the femininity which she received on the day of creation and which she inherits as an expression of the "image and likeness of God" that is specifically hers.' 

The Proto-evangelium

Mary is presented as second Eve who undoes Eve's action.  Eve brought death into the world by her disobedience, Mary brought salvation through her obedience. Both Mary and Eve are archetypes, representing humanity rather than just themselves.  Hence they are both sometimes called by the designation 'woman' rather than by their names.  (Christ is likewise described as the new Adam by Paul).


This section of the Mulieris Dignitatem details Jesus' treatment of women.

'It is universally admitted - even by people with a critical attitude towards the Christian message - that in the eyes of his contemporaries Christ became a promotor of women's true dignity and of the vocation corresponding to this dignity.

At times this caused wonder, surprise, often to the point of scandal: "They marvelled that he was talking with a woman" (Jn 4:27), because this behaviour differed from that of his contemporaries. Even Christ's own disciples "marvelled". The Pharisee to whose house the sinful woman went to anoint Jesus' feet with perfumed oil "said to himself, 'If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner'" (Lk 7:39).'

Many women are mentioned in the gospels

  • those who he healed e.g. 'Simon's mother-in-law, who "lay sick with a fever" (Mk 1:30)'
  • those who journeyed with him 'they "provided for them out of their means". The Gospel names Joanna, who was the wife of Herod's steward, Susanna and "many others" (cf. Lk 8:1-3)'
  • those who he used as positive examples in parables e.g. 'Particularly eloquent is the story of the widow's mite. While "the rich were putting their gifts into the treasury... a poor widow put in two copper coins". Then Jesus said: "This poor widow has put in more than all of them... she out of her poverty put in all the living that she had" (Lk 21:1-4). In this way Jesus presents her as a model for everyone.'

'In all of Jesus' teaching, as well as in his behaviour, one can find nothing which reflects the discrimination against women prevalent in his day. On the contrary, his words and works always express the respect and honour due to women.'

Pope John Paul II commented specifically about Jesus' treatment of the women caught in adultery, Jesus' reinterpretation of the law on adultery (to look lustfully is as bad as committing adultery) and his friendship with Mary and Martha.  He discussed the significance of the women at the foot of the cross, present 'at the decisive moment in Jesus of Nazareth's whole messianic mission...As we see, in this most arduous test of faith and fidelity the women proved stronger than the Apostles.' He pointed out that women were the first witnesses of the resurrection.

Finally, the Pope referred to the Galatians 3:28 teaching.  This has sometimes been used to argue that there is no difference in the essence of men and women.  John Paul II interpreted it differently.  In his view it means that salvation is open to both men and women.  However, it does not deny that differences exist.

'The fact of being a man or a woman involves no limitation here, just as the salvific and sanctifying action of the Spirit in man is in no way limited by the fact that one is a Jew or a Greek, slave or free, according to the well-known words of Saint Paul: "For you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal 3:28). This unity does not cancel out diversity.'

In the course of discussing Jesus' attitude towards women Pope John Paul II said several things that feminists might take issue with.  For example, in the passage on the adulterous woman he explained that women who commit adultery often end up bearing the whole burden of the adulterous act even though the men they commit adultery with have also sinned.  The 'burden' in this instance is pregnancy, and the Pope observed that in some instances women abandoned pregnant 'get rid of' the foetus.

'How often is she abandoned with her pregnancy, when the man, the child's father, is unwilling to accept responsibility for it? And besides the many "unwed mothers" in our society, we also must consider all those who, as a result of various pressures, even on the part of the guilty man, very often "get rid of" the child before it is born. "They get rid of it": but at what price? Public opinion today tries in various ways to "abolish" the evil of this sin. Normally a woman's conscience does not let her forget that she has taken the life of her own child, for she cannot destroy that readiness to accept life which marks her "ethos" from the "beginning".'

The Pope argued that women who end up having abortions act against their whole purpose of being (her 'ethos').  Feminists like Simone de Beauvoir would consider the availability of abortion to be a central feminist issue to prevent what she calls 'enforced maternity'.

There are other things that the Pope said that are less controversial but might be regarded as patronising and stereotypical.  

'From the beginning of Christ's mission, women show to him and to his mystery a special sensitivity which is characteristic of their femininity.'

In other words, women were particularly intuitive and good at understanding who Jesus was.  The idea that women are especially sensitive to others obviously reflects the idea that men and women are created with different abilities and talents suited to their own particular vocation in life.  

VI Motherhood - Virginity

Pope John Paul II suggested that motherhood and virginity are two possible vocations for women.  A vocation is a calling, a special task given to people. Motherhood and virginity are, Pope John Paul II suggested, two different ways that women can fulfil their purpose.  Mary fulfilled both these vocations at once, but most women have to chose between the two!


Pope John Paul II said that although the creation of a child obviously involves both parents, women play a more decisive role in the process.

'The woman's motherhood constitutes a special "part" in this shared parenthood, and the more demanding part. Parenthood - even though it belongs to both - is realise much more fully in the woman, especially in the prenatal period.  It is the woman who "pays" directly for his shared generation, which literally absorbs the energies of her body and soul.  It is necessary that the man be fully aware that in their shared parenthood he owes a special debt to the woman.  No programme of "equal rights" between women and men is valid unless it takes this fact fully into account.'

His argument was that women are involved in the creation of a child in a much more physical and intimate way than men are.  Motherhood comes naturally to women and women are suited to that role both physically and psychologically. Pope John Paul II wrote

'Scientific analysis fully confirms that the very physical constitution of women is naturally disposed to motherhood.' 

Obviously, from a Christian perspective being physically suited to child-bearing is the same as saying that they are designed by God to suit that purpose. Consequently, it is not just that women happen to have evolved to suit that role (which would lead to a 'their best suited to it so they might as well do it' back-handed type of argument), rather it is a special task entrusted to them by God. Pope John Paul II went on to provide an example of the way women are psychologically suited to child-rearing.

'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.  The man - even with all his sharing in parenthood - always remains "outside" the process of pregnancy and the baby's birth; in many ways he has to learn his own "fatherhood" from the mother.'

This claim (at which some men might understandably take exception) places women in a position of authority with regard to child-rearing.  Their own female skills compliment the male skills of their husbands enabling men and women to work together in a productive partnership.

In Pope John Paul II's view, it was not 'limiting' or derogatory to identify the female essence with motherhood (though many feminists would disagree) because being a mother is a noble task.  In parenthood 'The spouses share in the creative power of God!' and woman is privileged to be the one more intimately involved in the process.

Furthermore, according to Pope John Paul II's exegesis of Genesis, people are created for the purpose of entering into interpersonal relationship and to give themselves to one another.  Motherhood offers women an opportunity to gain human fulfilment through self-giving.

'Motherhood implies from the beginning a special openness to the new person: and this is precisely the woman's "part". In this openness, in conceiving and giving birth to a child, the woman "discovers herself through a sincere gift of self".'

It is worth noting that he did not believe that women should bear the whole responsibility for parenting.  He wrote

'The child's upbringing, taken as a whole, should include the contribution of both parents.'

Thus the task of procreation is give to both man and woman.

Finally, Pope John Paul II stressed the central role of motherhood in the history of salvation.  Not only did Mary give birth to God incarnate (a necessary precondition of salvation without which Jesus' death and resurrection would not have been possible) rather, every human being 'passes through the threshold of a woman's motherhood'.  Without the opportunity of human birth people cannot become God's children and attain salvation.  Therefore, women do not only share in God's creative powers, they also take part in his salvific action.


The other aspect of female vocation is virginity.  Pope John Paul II linked this with Jesus call to both male and female to dedicate themselves to God through celibacy.  

'From the very beginning of Christianity men and women have set out on this path, since the evangelical ideal is addressed to human beings without any distinctions of sex.'

To become a dedicated virgin for God reaffirms the idea that each person is valuable to God for who they are themselves.  Although God creates people to be together each individual is valuable to God as they already are.

'By freely choosing virginity, women confirm themselves as persons, as being whom the Creator from the beginning has willed for their own sake.  At the same time they realise the personal value of their own femininity by becoming "a sincere gift" for cannot correctly understand virginity - a woman's consecration in virginity - without referring to spousal love.  It is through this kind of love that a person becomes a gift for the other.'

The Pope explained that becoming a dedicated virgin is a way of responding fully and totally to Jesus' call.

' "Leave everything and follow Christ" (cf. Mt 19:27). This cannot be compared to remaining simply unmarried or single, because virginity is not restricted to a mere "no", but contains a profound "yes" in the spousal order: the gift of self for love in a total and undivided manner.'

Those who have embraced virginity for Christ have the option to become spiritual mothers to the Christian community.  The Pope described motherhood as a woman's 'prerogative' (her right) and being a dedicated virgin (which in practice probably means becoming a nun) does not deprive her of the chance to fulfil her maternal inclinations.

'... it can express itself as concern for people, especially the most needy: the sick, the handicapped, the abandoned, orphans, the elderly, children, young people, the imprisoned and, in general, people on the edges of society.'

Note that for men, the priesthood is an option for those wishing to dedicate their lives fully to God.  For women it isn't.  Their role as 'spiritual mothers' seems to be subordinate in the hierarchy (though not lesser in value) than the priest who is the spiritual father of his parishioners.

VII The Church - the Bride of Christ:

Further Reading:

The full text of the Mulieris Dignitatem is online and can be found here.