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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Yet in addition to this, Mary is an archetype for women in particular. She
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
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
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.
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
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.
(Notice that the examples of female imagery that are listed here are all to do with motherhood.)
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.
The Pope went on to explain that misogyny and sexism in the world results from sin.
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.
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.
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.
Many women are mentioned in the gospels
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
It is worth noting that he did not believe that women should bear the whole responsibility for parenting. He wrote
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.
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.
The Pope explained that becoming a dedicated virgin is a way of responding fully and totally to Jesus' call.
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.
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.
The full text of the Mulieris Dignitatem is online and can be found here.