Introduction Reflection on the Dignity of Women


I am often asked by people critical of the Catholic Church “why does the Church hate women?” While I understand people looking from the outside may think the Church sees women as second class citizens, after all only men can be priests, I want to scream back “She doesn’t.” Did you know Blessed Pope John Paul II wrote an entire apostolic letter in 1988 on the great dignity of women entitled Mulieries Dignitatem?

In his letter Pope John Paul II points out the historical truth that “within Christianity more than any other religion and since its very beginning women have had a special dignity.”[1] To show this special dignity of women, a dignity equal to that of men, Pope John Paul II goes back to the beginning, to the creation account of man and women in the book of Genesis. God created man in his image, “in the divine image he created him; male and female.”[2] Recalling the creation story of man and women it becomes clear that “both man and women are human beings to an equal degree, both are created in God’s image.”[3] What makes man and women in the image and likeness of God is mankind, unlike all other created things is willed for his own sake by God and is rational; he has the power to choose right from wrong.

Continuing to reflect on the creation of man and women  with the understanding that men and women are equal in dignity we see “in the ‘unity of the two’, man and women are called from the beginning not only to exists ‘side by side’ or ‘together’ but they are also called to exist mutually ‘one for another’.”[4] I think our culture often fails to see this complementarity between men and women. We fail to see that men and women are called to exist side by side, for men to assist women and women to assist men.

Underlying this papal letter is the belief that men and women are different. “This applies to every human being whether woman or man, who lives it out in accordance with the special qualities proper to each.”[5] I think our culture tells us that men and women are that same that 1=1 but the Book of Genesis and Pope John Paul II invite us to realize it is not as much 1=1 as 1+1=2. The worldly belief that 1=1 puts too much of an emphasis on the sameness of men and women. The 1=1 models causes much suffering because it leads to a misunderstanding of who we are, who God created us to be; we fail to see the beauty of God’s creation and fail to live out the complementarity between sexes that He designed and wills. The 1+1=2 model grants the equal dignity of men and women while recognizing there is differences between the sexes and highlights the complementarity that exists which demonstrates the beauty of God’s creation and the human fulfillment that comes from living out that complementarity in a Christian manner.

I think some people in our culture believe that to be truly a man or truly a woman makes them less of a person because they are different than the other sex. Nothing could be further from the truth. “The personal resources of feminity are certainly no less that the resources of masculinity: they are merely different.”[6] We need only to honestly look at true men and women to see their differences. Women have a special ability to nurture and love in a way men cannot; this is what makes a mother irreplaceable. Men likewise have certain traits which are not expressed in women. “Hence a woman, as well as a man, must understand her ‘fulfillment’ 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.”[7]

When we stop to realize each of us as male and female is such by God’s design we realize “what is personally feminine reaches a new dimension: the dimension of the ‘mighty work of God’, of which the women becomes the living subject and an irreplaceable witness.”[8] The Church needs women to be women and men to be men.

If we look at the Gospels we see the irreplaceable role women play. Jesus himself was a revolutionary of feminine rights. Women traveled with him, Jesus ate with Martha and Mary and even had a conversation with a Samaritan woman at the well. In Jesus’s time this was simply not acceptable, yet Jesus not only realized the equal dignity of women but also saw their importance for the Church. At the center of our faith is the mystery of the Incarnation, God becoming man. God become man through a woman, the Blessed Virgin. If we read the account of the annunciation we see God did not force Himself on Mary, rather he accepted her yes. At the center of our faith is our great model, a woman, the Blessed Virgin who shows us how living out our masculinity of feminity can change the course of history. If we look at the culmination of Jesus’s life on earth we again see women again standing in the forefront. At the Passion only one man is present, the apostle John. While all the men ran away it was women who met Jesus on the way to Calvary and consoled him by giving him a towel to wipe his face. At the cross we find Mary his mother and other women and who but a woman first notices Jesus resurrection and announces it to the disciples.

An understanding of the dignity and the unique role of women and the demonstration of the life of Christ’s makes it abundantly clear that the Church needs women and men to work together to build up the body of Christ. Women are not second class citizens in the Church, rather they are equal in dignity and essential to the life of the Church. We need to show the world by the example of our lives the true beauty that exists when women live out their Christian feminity and masculinity in the complementarity God designed.

[1] Mulieries Dignitatem paragraph 1.

[2] Genesis 1:27

[3] Mulieries Dignitatem paragraph 6.

[4] Mulieries Dignitatem paragraph 7.

[5] Mulieries Dignitatem paragraph 7.

[6] Mulieries Dignitatem paragraph 10.

[7] Mulieries Dignitatem paragraph 10.

[8] Mulieries Dignitatem paragraph 16.

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