Before diving into the papal letter Mulieris Dignitatem (“On the Dignity and Vocation of Woman”), it is only fair to assess what the reader brings to the study of this important Church document. Pope John Paul II wrote it in 1998, and today the text can be purchased, borrowed or downloaded from the internet, but before reading the first line, let’s take stock of the some of the premises that may be in place.
John Paul II, born Karol Wojtyla in 1920, was ordained a priest in 1946 for the diocese of Kraków, Poland. Even knowing the barest minimum about this highly visible pope, women might wonder about his views on femininity, marriage and the struggles between the sexes. Often, lay Catholics throw up defenses against priestly advice, thinking that celibates don’t understand the call to marriage or that men don’t understand how difficult life can be for women.
This overlooks two key facts that are important to the openness with which a woman of the twenty-first century should consider Catholic teachings. Primarily, we were assured that the Holy Spirit would always be with the Church to guide her (yes, her) in her teaching. Born from the side of Christ on Calvary, the Catholic Church has from her inception been referred to as the “Bride of Christ” and Sacred Tradition holds that the teaching office (as offered by the Pope and bishops in union with him) will never err in the realm of faith and morals.
The second fact is that all priests are committed to shepherding souls, which immerses them in counseling, consoling, and hearing confessions. The vast hours spent this way, combined with their own prayer and study, give them tremendous insights into the challenges and consequences of a wide range of persons. One must give them credit for their genuine concern that men and women find peace through God’s loving plan for them.
Now, any woman seeking to understand her vocation must ponder how much credibility she is willing to give to the Church as teacher. Beyond her thoughts about the authority of the Church, she should also consider how she views fatherhood, motherhood and marriage. It is only fair to say that her reception of this document will be very much prejudiced by her own struggles in each of these realms.
We each bring years of experience to every endeavor, and reams of memories color the way we interpret the world. That is a valuable part of our human existence. The difficulty arises when painful experiences or troubling memories stand in the way of receiving God’s gift of wholeness that is predicated on forgiveness, trust and communion between men and women. How can the Church be trusted to guide when the very institutions it promotes have often caused suffering because of the sins of its members? How can priests effectively lead souls when so many view fatherhood itself through clouds of suspicion?