While there have been abundant references to Vatican II in recent decades, few have actually read the Council documents. Many referred to its “spirit” and assumed that the mantle of Church tradition was to be completely thrown off, igniting innovation for the sake of modern sensibilities. Since the lives of women were changed radically by events and inventions of the 20th century, then surely the vocation of woman would be one of the elements most changed by the Council. This is true, but in a surprising way.
Change is all around us, but the way the Church has interpreted it, it’s the family that has been rocked by developments, and the family that is in greatest danger from assault. John Paul II noted in his earlier work, Familieris Consortio (“The Church in the Modern World”), that “the family is the object of numerous forces that seek to destroy it or in some way to deform it” (FC, 3).
We can see that both the nature of marital love and the very definition of “family” are contested. Since the well-being of each generation is “intimately tied to the good of the family,” it becomes evident that, without this key institution to nurture and safeguard them, many persons are more vulnerable to lies, alienated from authentic love, and unable to benefit from lasting relationships.
It is for that reason that Mulieris Dignitatem begins with a reference to the closing documents of the Second Vatican Council, putting the vocation of woman in context: “The hour is coming, in fact has come, when the vocation of women is being acknowledged in its fullness, the hour in which women acquire in the world an influence, an effect and a power never hitherto achieved. That is why, at this moment when the human race is undergoing so deep a transformation, women imbued with a spirit of the Gospel can do so much to aid humanity in not falling.”
Far from belittling women, the Church knows that they are key to saving the family – which is essential to saving civilization itself. Mulieris Dignitatem is John Paul’s manifesto with three goals: to show esteem to women, to consider the excellence of the feminine genius, and to address modern feminism.
From the outset, the Pope acknowledged the inherent injustices that some women (and men) sought to address through feminism. Various parts of the world discouraged education for girls, and legitimate professions were often closed to women. Laws often excluded women from voting, from managing their affairs or even making legal claims in their own right. Subtle double standards often inhibited the options of women compared to men, and the worst of cultures blatantly held that women were inferior to men. The Church cannot countenance any of these ideologies.
Truly, Jesus came to bring justice and dignity to men and women, both of whom are in God’s likeness. Indeed, all of John Paul II’s writings began with the human person as a bearer of that divine image, as capable of tremendous virtue, and deserving of integral respect simply for being human.
Mulieris Dignitatem posits that before we can understand, appreciate and implement women’s appropriate and active presence in the Church and society, we must first understand her fundamental dignity and vocation. Thus, John Paul returns to the very beginning and the original unity between man and woman, and between God and His creatures. He knew that the key to joy is there – and in finding their own fulfillment, women “can do so much to aid humanity in not falling.” That’s a win-win, if ever there were one!